Many visitors to Cyprus only go to the beach destinations of Ayia Napa and Paphos. By not exploring the interior of the island, they are missing out on amazing scenery, UNESCO-listed towns, and interesting city, and fantastic wine. Don’t be one of those people! If you’re wondering what to do in Cyprus, other than the beaches, we recommend visiting Nicosia (or Lefkosia as it’s confusingly referred to on local signs), to explore the Greek and Turkish sides. Then head into the Troodos Mountains for some hiking and wine tasting.
Also see our post on the beach destinations of Paphos and Ayia Napa.
Nicosia is the capital of Cyprus, and the last divided capital in the world. Thanks Berlin for making Nicosia look bad!
The south side of Nicosia 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. Unfortunately there is also a Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC – chains we rarely, if ever, saw earlier on our trip.
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).
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. Unfortunately, since you can’t take rental cars across the border we were dependent on an organized tour. Since it was off-season, our tour to visit Kyrenia and Famagusta got canceled. 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. 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.
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. Commandaria is 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 it 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.