10 great things to do in Northern Cyprus

Giddy heights, calming walks and divine art

10 great things to do in Northern Cyprus Kyrenia harbour
By Michael Hodges

You could argue that the pace of life north of the border in Cyprus stems from a prolonged sense of limbo. Internationally, Turkey is still the only country that recognises the areas it occupies here as a legitimate state - the Greek and Turkish Cypriot parts of the island having been closed to each other following the Turkish army's invasion of 1974. But since the Republic of Cyprus's EU accession, the north has been considered EU territory with a disputed foreign military presence, resulting in a distinctive atmosphere. It may take a few days to adjust to the relaxed pace, but it will be well worth it.

1 Kick ass

Or rather don't, as one of the few things to bring Turkish and Greek Cypriots together is the campaign to save the population of wild donkeys on Cyprus's panhandle peninsula of Karpas. Home to a national park packed with rare flora and fauna, it also features miles of lonely beach and sand dune. It's not all wild, if you want to watch the super rich at play then Karpas Gate Marina was built primarily for their super yachts. But more fun, perhaps, to spend time with donkeys.

2 Scare yourself to death

The Kyrenia mountain range is a sharp and jagged outcrop that dominates the north of the island and has been used as natural defensive position by Byzantines, Crusaders, Venetian and Ottomans. The highest of the surviving fortifications, the castle of Buffo Vento (Venetian Italian for 'defier of the winds'), is reached by a tortuous track that lacks such innovations as a safety fence or even tarmac. The views are utterly sensational, but take your eyes off the road to look at them there's a good chance you'll find yourself hurtling down 1,000 feet of rock face.

3 Get idle

Few trees exert the same spell as the Tree of Idleness, the carob by the café the centre of the village of Bellapais which features in Lawrence Durrell's famous Cyprus travelogue 'Bitter Lemons'. The English novelist stayed here in the mid-1950s before the island was divided at the beginning of the Greek Cypriot revolt against British rule and renovated a farm at the top of the hill. You are more likely to be passed by a motor scooter than the heard of cattle that regular thundered through the village when Durrell was in Bellapais, but come for the near idyllic ruins of the medieval abbey and the views over the coast and out across the water to the hulking ridge of Anatolia's Taurus Mountains.

4 See a dummy

Few Turkish towns can long resist the urge to open an ethnographic museum and fill it with waxwork dummies in traditional Anatolian peasant dress. But Turkish Cyprus offers the fan of historical display through the medium of shop mannequins something different, in particular the gruesome display at Kyrenia (Girne) Castle showing the torture and imprisonment of a 12th century nobleman. There are waxwork prisoners with beards and loincloths, reproduction torture devices, wax work torturers with amusing hats, waxwork guards and, in one of the original pits, a particularly miserable waxwork victim of solitary confinement. On top of all that you can get an ice cream in the courtyard and there is a shipwreck museum in a separate part of the museum.

5 Eat fish

If the wax work torture scenes give you an appetite then you are only minutes away from the fish restaurants of Kyrenia harbour, which line the quayside underneath the Venetian warehouse at the spot where the fishing boats unload their catch. Stick to the castle end of the harbour if you like very fresh fish and chilled white wine, and the opposite end if you like bars where Russians smoke and listen to bangin' techno.

6 Follow St Paul

Not much of the eastern Med escaped the attention of Christianity's master propagandist but much of the ancient city of Salamis looks as it would have done when St Paul came here circa 45 AD. A port that silted up and then simply faded, it must be one of best-preserved ancient cities in the region. If not quite Leptis Magna, then certainly a match for Caesarea 150 miles away over the Mediterranean.

7 Take a promenade

Dusk in Northern Cyprus can be spectacular and you don't get a better view of the sun sliding into the sea than from the quayside in Girne (Kyrenia). In a Cypriot passarela, families comes out to stroll and enjoy the small playgrounds doted along the shore, the best of which, if you a parent nearing the end of his or her tether is at Kordonboyu Park, on the foreshore to the east of the harbour, where small bar overlook the swings and, over an ice cold gin and tonic - this did used to be a British island after all - you can catch one of the best sunsets in the Mediterranean.

8 Check out the front line

Head for Nicosia and the Ledra crossing point in the Green Line that, since the 1974 war, marks the UN patrolled no man's land between the Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots in Europe's last divided capital. Look out for the bullet pocked Ledra Palace as you go through no man's land. But if bullet holes aren't your thing stay on the Turkish side of the line and enjoy the sensationally surreal Nicosia mosque, actually a gothic cathedral, which the Ottomans attached a minaret to when they took the city in 1570. 

9 See truly iconic art

Ironically given its situation on the Turkish side of the line, the Monastery of St Barnabas Icon museum, near Famagusta, contains one of the island's most impressive collections of Greek Orthodox and Byzantine Art. The deconsecrated main chapel is no longer home to religious services but serves instead to illustrate the genius of the icon painter. On a hot day escape into the cool dark church disturbed only by the rustle of bats above, find a treasure trove of orthodox religious art; saints and biblical scenes, some darkened by centuries of dirt and dust, others apparently as fresh and bright as the day they were painted.

10 Take it easy

No need to run around looking for boutique hotels - though they do exist - keep a lid on prices and book with a superior package provider like Green Island and stay at one of many hotels on the strip between the mountains and the island's northern coast. Although a Turkish 'Dolmus' taxi system operates in the island, car hire is the best option if you really want to make the most of the occasionally astounding scenery. Everything is pretty near, it's only half an hour to drive over the mountain to Nicosia and another hour east from there to Salamis and Famagusta and you'll appreciate cold drink by the hotel pool if things get a little too hot on the road - temperatures can reach 27 Celsius in August.

Similar features

Turkish escapes
World's weirdest museums