Date of Trip: October 2016
It’s late October, and we are desperately trying to stay warm. As Europe progresses into autumn (or fall for you fellow North Americans), temperatures are starting to drop (we found SNOW in Montenegro and Bosnia!). So what are intrepid but fair-weather travelers to do? Head south! Unfortunately, by this time of year even the Greek islands have started closing down. So we went a bit further – to Cyprus.
When you hear of Cyprus, it’s usually in the context of cheap sun getaways for Brits to the beach towns of Ayia Napa in the east and Paphos in the west. We were initially worried it would be similar to Albufeira (see our posts here), an extremely tacky destination filled with drunken Brits. But there’s so much more to this island than beaches and themed bars. The center of the island is mountainous, with great hiking and surprisingly good wineries. Then the island itself is still divided between the southern Greek side, which includes the beach towns mentioned above, and the northern Turkish side. Many people assume that’s just a formality, but we can assure you it isn’t.
So after our 2 weeks in Cyprus, here’s our take on this amazing island.
The Beach Destinations of Cyprus
After landing at the Larnaca airport, we rented a car and drove 45 minutes to Ayia Napa. We rented an apartment, which was only a 5-minute walk from the town center and 10 minutes from the water.
The archaeological attractions alone should draw visitors to Ayia Napa. We saw an entire building built into a bedrock cave, and a wheeled buggy dating back to ancient times. Oh wait, that was just the Bedrock Inn Flinstone’s themed bar in the city center! Yabba-Dabba-Doo!
Admittedly, and gladly, we were visiting in the shoulder season. During the day, the entire city center was a ghost town of shut fast food restaurants and large, tacky themed bars. With October temperatures in the mid to high 20s (Celsius, in case there are Americans reading this), any visitors in town were understandably at the beaches. At night things livened up, if only slightly. During high season, Ayia Napa looks like it would have a pretty wild clubbing scene.
The main street is lined with restaurants, many offering similar if not identical menus (underwhelming and overpriced food options in our opinion), running all the way down to the waterfront. Our tip is to shop around for some sort of deal – at this time of year there are WAY more tables available than there are tourists to fill them. As you would expect, the restaurants are only interrupted by “Supermarkets”, which are really combination souvenirs shops / corner stores. Luckily, these tend to be fairly large so are great if you’re looking to pick up a few self-catering items (there are very few decent grocery stores in the area).
Beaches in the Ayia Napa area are plentiful and beautiful. Powdery white sand, crystal clear water, plenty of loungers and umbrellas for rent (€2.50 each), and lots of facilities so you barely need to leave the oceanfront. We’d briefly considered checking out the huge waterpark nearby, but entrance was €38 each, which seemed a bit ridiculous.
By walking along the waterfront in either direction, there are numerous beaches each with their own pros and cons. We found that even this late in the season, the better beaches were very full as most resorts don’t have a private area so everyone crowds onto the public beaches. But it’s hard to be too upset considering how beautiful it is, so we would just find an empty patch, lay down our towels, and hang out. The further you walk or drive from the city center, the less crowded. Our favorite was Makronissos Beach, which is just past the famous Nissi Beach.
For all the Brits missing Blackpool, there is also an amusement park right on the waterfront with rides and games. We had fun wandering around in the evening, once it opened after the beaches empty out.
Around Ayia Napa
Having a car was ideal, as many of the nicer beaches and other sights are accessible only by car. There are a few buses running between towns, but they seemed to always be packed. We were surprised by one thing though – many people rented ATVs/4x4s and dune buggies to drive around the area. There are a ton of places renting anything from electric powered tricycles to full 2-seater buggies, and that seemed to be the preferred method of transport for many people. However, they get annoying after a while as they’re very loud and can’t reach highway-appropriate speeds once you get out of town. But it’d be a great option for getting around Ayia Napa.
With a car, we were able to explore the nearby town of Protaras and Cape Greco National Park, which offered some walking trails and more beach options.
Roughly 90 minutes in the other direction from Larnaca is the other big touristic area of Cyprus, Paphos. Compared to Ayia Napa, Paphos is bigger, but with more of a pub culture vs Ayia Napa’s themed bars and rave scene.
The Brit influence is even more obvious here, with every pub advertising what Premiership matches they will televise each night and restaurants with names like “Tea for Two” and “The Brittania”. The city center has less of a theme park feel as well.
The waterfront is beautiful, but the beaches are not nearly as nice as those in Ayia Napa or Protaras. Rocky, pebbly, gritty sand – none of the beautiful white sandy beaches of the east coast. Coral Bay, a 20 minute drive north along the coast, is much nicer than the beaches in town and is one of the better beaches we visited in Cyprus.
We even went scuba diving in Paphos. Trevor is certified but hadn’t done a dive in a few years. This was a new experience for Christine. We’re going on a dive and snorkel cruise on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia this New Years Eve, so Christine wanted to give it a try before we get there.
The Archaeological Sites
What Paphos does offer is history. Just on the edge of town is the huge archaeological site that can be explored for the €4.50 admission fee. About 2km away is another site, the Tombs of the Kings, which is a series of elaborate tombs for the upper class of Hellenistic and Roman society (€2.50).
Which is better?
So if we were to come back, where would we go? Ayia Napa or Paphos? Hmm…even though it’s more tacky in its development and geared more towards a younger crowd, we’d say Ayia Napa. And not because we’ve always wanted to party with Fred Flintstone. Ayia Napa has much better beaches, plus opportunities to find a secluded spot away from the crowds. The city center is more compact as well, making it a bit more pedestrian friendly. And the location is pretty great, being less than an hour drive from both the capital, Nicosia, and the Larnaca airport.
The Interior of Cyprus
Nicosia is the capital of Cyprus, and the last divided capital in the world. Thanks Berlin for making Nicosia look bad!
The Greek Side
The south side of Nicosia (or Lefkosia as its confusingly referred to on local signs) is part of Greek Cyprus. It has all the makings of a modern city: multi-cultural dining options, brand name stores, high rises. Within the Venetian walls of the old town, there are several pedestrian-only streets filled with cafes and patios (and unfortunately a Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC – chains we rarely, if ever, saw in the Balkans).
But walk to the end of the main pedestrian street and you will find a border crossing. It’s not just a formality as some people imagine – there are armed guards and full passport control before you can cross into the north, Turkish, side of the city (referred to as Northern Nicosia).
The Turkish Side
Once you cross over the border, it feels like an entirely different city. Out goes the Euro, in comes the Turkish Lira. Out goes the Greek kebab as your standard fast food, replaced by Turkish shawarma. It felt a bit like stepping into Istanbul. On the Greek side, there were brand-name stores…on the Turkish side, an indoor bazaar and lots of shops selling knock-off brand name clothing and shoes. There were stern warning signs at the border telling you not to bring any knock-off items over to the Greek side, not even one! On the Greek side, there is a mixture of orthodox churches and mosques…on the Turkish side, the minarets dominate. The Turkish side definitely has a more run-down feel to it compared to the Greek side, which makes sense given the millions of dollars spent in recent years to restore the old town of Nicosia.
Even though we only spent a short amount of time wandering around Northern Nicosia, it really is a “must-do” when visiting Nicosia, or even Cyprus in general. We had hoped to explore a few of the towns in the North from Ayia Napa, but since you can’t take rental cars across the border we were dependent on an organized tour. Unfortunately, since it was off-season, our tour to visit Kyrenia and Famagusta got canceled, so Nicosia was our only chance to cross the border. If we come back to Cyprus, we’ll make it a priority to see more of the North side.
Although much less touristy than the coast, Nicosia is an interesting place to visit in addition to the Greek/Turkish issue. We were there for Trevor’s birthday, so booked an appointment at a traditional hamam spa, called Omerye, for a sauna and massage. The restaurants are also noticeably cheaper (and of higher quality) than the tourist hotspots. For Trevor’s birthday dinner, we went to Zanettos, a traditional Cypriot tavern that only serves fixed-price mezes. It was delicious, and way more food than any two people could (or should!) eat in one sitting. Get there early (Cypriot early – so, like 7-8pm), as service slows down noticeably as it fills up.
After a week of 25C+ temps and glorious sunshine, we needed a break. It’s a tough life, this world traveler gig. So off into the mountains we went for some hiking and wine tasting. There are several small towns in the Troodos Mountains, but we picked Kakopetria, mainly because Christine found a really cool place for us to stay (an old traditional wooden house) and also because the village was slightly bigger than the others. Less than an hour drive from Nicosia, the mountain villages felt worlds apart.
As we gained altitude, the weather stayed great but the temp dropped that all-important few degrees. In Kakopetria, we stayed in the heart of the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old town had several narrow, medieval streets where locals set up tables selling local treats like Cyprus Delight (not to be confused with Turkish Delight, although they are exactly the same).
From Kakopetria, we took day trips further into the mountains for some hiking around Mt Olympus and into the wine region around Omodos. Again, having a car was a necessity here as public transit would have made many of the places we wanted to see impossible.
Hiking in the Troodos Mountains
From Troodos town (we use the term “town” loosely), we did both the 7km Persephone hike, which took us to a great viewpoint over the neighbouring valley, and the longer 14km Atalante route circling Mt Olympus itself. Both were easy hikes, but at up to 1800m altitude, were still good exercise.
Another popular attraction around the area is visiting Byzantine churches and monasteries, known for their painted murals. 10 are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites themselves (is it only us, or do there seem to be A LOT of sites with UNESCO designations?).
Heading south from the highest mountains, we arrived in the wine region to reward ourselves after our hiking. After the Balkans, where wine tasting was not always straight forward and wineries not always welcoming of visitors, it was refreshing to be able to show up at a winery unannounced and be welcomed in by friendly Cypriots. We ultimately visited Ayia Mavri, Lambouri, and Kyperounda. All were excellent!
Omodos, in the center of the wine region, has a main square filled with shops and restaurants and is a great stop to space out tastings. We had lunch at Stou Kir Yianni, but beware – portions are huge – as in bigger than American portions – and are easily shared between two people (thankfully Christine knew this).
Cyprus is known for its sweet wines, in particular a wine called commandaria made by laying grapes out in the sun so that some of the water evaporates, concentrating the sugars. It’s a very different process from the port and sherry we tasted in Portugal and Spain, and doesn’t result in the syrupy sweetness of the ice wines back in Canada. If you get a chance to try some of Kyperounda’s commandaria, do it! Similar to the Balkans, we both preferred the red wine over the white wine – makes sense given the hot, sunny climate. In Cyprus, the main local red grape is Mavro, while the primary local white grape is Xynisteri.
Between Paphos and Limassol (or Lemesos – another city in Cyprus with two names), a couple of other sights are worth a stop along the coast.
Just 20 mins outside of Paphos is Aphrodite’s Rock. Legend has it that this rock was the birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite. It is also called Petra tou Romiou (Rock of the Greek) after another legend that a Greek hero hurled the rock from the Troodos Mountains to fend off an invasion. While the narrow, rocky beach and the rough-looking sea weren’t very inviting for a swim, this beautiful section of the coastline is a great place to visit for some photos.
Closer to Limassol/Lemesos is the Archaeological Site of Ancient Kourion, probably the best preserved site from the Hellenistic/Roman periods (about 325BC to the 4th century AD) in southern Cyprus. Entrance is €4.50, and from there you can wander around the ruins independently. We found this site, an ancient city destroyed by an earthquake in the 4th century, is definitely worth an hour or two of your time.
Was 2 weeks too long?
No! We loved Cyprus. The weather was amazing, especially considering we visited in late October. The diversity of the country is something we think most people don’t appreciate. When many people think of Cyprus, they think of cheap package vacations to Ayia Napa or Paphos. We love beach time as much as the next person, but to really appreciate the country we’re glad we spent time in Nicosia and the Troodos Mountains. Oh yeah, and at the wineries!
Practical tips for visiting Cyprus
- While there are a number of resorts and large hotels, there are also plenty of self-catering options. We found restaurants in both Ayia Napa and Paphos were overpriced and underwhelming, so we were happy to cook some of our own meals and save our money for other things
- Renting a car is the best way to see the island. Public transit exists, but isn’t practical if you want to really explore. Just be warned, if you rent a car on the Greek side, you will more than likely not be allowed to drive it to the Turkish side
- Make sure you get out of the beach towns and into the interior. Food is better and less expensive in Nicosia than in either resort town. And the small villages and cooler temperatures of the mountains will give you an entirely different perspective on Cyprus
- For accommodation, we highly recommend Chanteclair Apartment in Nicosia and Zangoulos Villa in Kakopetria