A legendary ghost town
south of Famagusta
now in Northern Cyprus
. Formerly the No. 1 tourism hub of Cyprus
, it was abandoned during the Turkish invasion of the north in 1974 (see Cyprus history
) as the Greek Cypriot inhabitants fled south, leaving property and livelihoods behind. The empty city has since been under the control of the Turkish military.
More background info:
Famagusta was once the leading city in Cyprus
, its most important port and thriving trade centre. It too was surrounded by Venetian Walls (cf. Nicosia
). In the Ottoman era it lost its foremost status and became dilapidated. At the same time its St Nicholas Cathedral was converted into a mosque (now Lala Mustafa Paşa Camii).
Under British rule the harbour regained its significance and Famagusta was spruced up again. After independence, Famagusta expanded along the beachfront to the south-west, where the tourism district of Varosha was developed. From the late 1960s, Varosha was THE tourism hub in Cyprus, sporting a whopping 45% of the island’s hotel bed capacity. By the first half of the 1970s the ca. 3 miles (5 km of beach) were lined with countless hotel high-rises, at their densest in the northern part.
It’s often been noted that Varosha at the time was indeed one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world – and that it attracted the rich and famous. Names usually dropped include Brigitte Bardot, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.
The political and inter-ethnic conflicts in Cyprus
did not spare Famagusta/Varosha, and by 1964 the Turkish population had mainly gathered in and around the Old Town of Famagusta, while Varosha to the south was left predominately Greek Cypriot. As such it was a bit of an oddity, given its location north of the UN-controlled Green Line
Then in June 1974 came the Turkish invasion of the north of Cyprus (see history
) and everything changed for Varosha. Tourists departed in panic and the Greek Cypriot population hastily fled south as the Turkish military quickly advanced on the city. There was some fighting in the streets between the Turks and Greek Cypriot defenders – and you can still see some war scars from shelling from that time in Varosha today (see photo gallery
) – and allegedly there were also civilian casualties as a result of Turkish attacks from the air. Soon the Turkish military had taken the whole of Varosha and fenced it off, guarded by soldiers. It was to remain like that for decades to come – an empty, slowly crumbling ex-resort town, marooned within North Cyprus
And so thousands of Greek Cypriots lost their property in Varosha – and their previous livelihood in the once prospering tourism industry of the city. A UN Security Council resolution decreed that Varosha could only ever be repopulated by the original owners of the abandoned properties. But the Turkish side kept control over Varosha, if only as a ghost town
frozen in time.
Until very recently (see below
) nobody was allowed in, with armed guards ensuring this. Other than the Turkish military it was only some UN inspectors who were allowed in – as well as the odd journalist with special permits. Thanks to the latter, stories of dusty tables still laid for dinner, shops full of 1970s clothes and car showrooms with rusting 1970s models with flat tyres made the rounds.
Thus “fabled”, but strictly out of bounds to tourists and civilians in general, Varosha attained a kind of unreachable “holy grail” status amongst fans of abandoned places and urbexing
– and dark tourists.
Those who have seen the unfortunate 2018 Netflix series “Dark Tourist”
may remember the episode about Cyprus and how the main presenter/protagonist David Farrier made an attempt to sneak into Varosha by swimming around the security fence, hell-bent on secretly filming inside the ghost town. He didn’t get very far. The Turkish military guards quickly apprehended him and he nearly got himself arrested. In the end he was just thrown out … But given how staged other episodes in that series were (especially the one about Fukushima
) you have to wonder how genuine the whole “escapade” really was. Whatever …
Not all of Varosha was fenced off and out of bounds: a small part of the northern-most beach, called Palm Beach, remained open to holidaymakers and one hotel, at that beach, named Palm Beach Hotel, still hosted tourists (and still does – see below).
The Lonely Planet guidebook for Cyprus (7th ed., 2018) called Palm Beach “the weirdest beach you’ll ever visit” (p214) – given the backdrop of ruined and empty hotel high-rises and a barrier running from a watchtower (with an armed guard stationed there at all times) into the water with warning signs that access beyond was forbidden and that no photography was allowed.
Then in 2019 it was announced by the government of North Cyprus
that it planned to reopen Varosha, causing an outcry in the Republic of Cyprus
and condemnation by the UN. The latter made it clear that any resettlement of Varosha by anybody other than the original rightful owners of the properties there would be illegal. In October 2020 it was made clear by the Turkish side that only a stretch of beach and some streets would be opened to civilian visitors. This soon happened and one early high-profile visitor the following month was none other than Turkey
’s controversial president Erdoğan, with considerable media attention.
The opening of Varosha was condemned by the European Parliament too, but Turkey and the TRNC
remained steadfast. A second phase of reopening took place in mid-2021, including the reopening of a small mosque in Varosha that was to welcome worshippers once again. In May 2022, a second stretch of beach was opened to tourists and some beach holiday infrastructure was installed. There’s also some sort of resort hotel that is used by the military (off limits to tourists). But as far as I can determine, no proper resettlement within Varosha has yet taken place.
While the opening of Varosha to visitors is politically controversial, to say the least, from a dark-tourism perspective it provides a welcome opportunity to go and see this fabled ghost town quite legally. And so I did in January 2023 – see below.
It’s not quite clear what happened with a UN
Security Council resolution from 1992 that demanded that Varosha be incorporated into the Green Line buffer zone and controlled by UN blue berets. When I was there I did see several UN observation posts staffed by UN soldiers (always no photography allowed at those spots), but there seemed to be a Turkish military presence too. Maybe some control-sharing agreement has been reached? I have been unable to unearth any other evidence for this, though, nor reports of such a development (including on the otherwise quite informative UNFICYP website
– external link, opens in a new window). So that remains a bit of a conundrum.
What there is to see:
I visited Varosha and Famagusta in early January 2023, so well off season. I made sure I stayed at the Palm Beach Hotel – with a view of the Varosha ghost town’
s high-rises. But there were only a few other guests and Palm Beach
was largely deserted, except for the occasional dog walker. The low tourist density was very much to my liking. Those who know me are aware that a beach packed with sun-lounging holidaymakers is close to hell on Earth for me, so I was glad that at this time of year I had it almost to myself.
It was made quite clear by the staff at the hotel reception that they are fully aware that the prime attraction in their area is indeed now the ghost town
of Varosha. I was offered directions as to how to get to the tourist entrance before I had even asked.
And indeed, visiting Varosha has become an instant tourist attraction since the reopening of the place. Even off season, when I visited, there were lots of other visitors about, many apparently locals, but it was never really crowded. For some stretches of the route I even had it all to myself for some time. In season, though, it can get quite full (as you can see from online footage). I wouldn’t want to come here in the summer – when it’s also very hot; and there’s precious little shade.
A large panel by the entrance lays out the rules for visiting rather verbosely in Turkish and English. In short: stay on the prescribed road, don’t enter any buildings, stay off the bicycle paths, don’t take anything out with you. Photography is allowed, except at military and UN installations (where signs make the no-photography rule explicit again). There is a guard by the barrier but I was just waved through, no showing of ID was required.
Just behind the barrier you see a vast area with parked bicycles and a few of those electric golf buggies. These are for hire, but I decided to better stay on foot, as that’s so much better for photography – if you swoosh past on a bike or cart you easily miss details worth photographing. Be prepared for quite some distances to cover, though, I measured about 4.5 miles (7 km).
As soon as you start walking past some abandoned ruins you spot the warning signs that are in fact ubiquitous. These say that approaching or entering any of these buildings would be too dangerous as they could collapse. And indeed many are in such dilapidated states after nearly five decades of neglect that they have become very unstable. Some indeed partially collapsed structures underscore this.
The tourist route is along a newly paved street with a strip reserved as a cycle path. Flanking this thickly tarmacked road are ropes on poles mark the line beyond which you are not supposed to walk. It would be easy to just step over the ropes but be aware that there is CCTV and some plain-clothes guards are also about (as well as uniformed ones at some points). So assume that you are being watched and better stick to the rules.
After some 300 metres you come to a first crossroads. I decided to turn left first. This route leads past a modern Orthodox church building, which looks uncannily like a nuclear power station, an unfinished building with a rusty crane and eventually to the first abandoned beachfront hotel. A short stretch of beach has been opened up for the public here, almost directly adjoining the southern parts of Palm Beach. There’s a kind of taverna here too where you can purchase refreshments.
The route then loops back to the crossroads. By now taking the other direction, this soon leads to another crossroads. And here I decided to turn left and head south first. After a while it makes a left and then a right bend but otherwise it is pretty much straight on.
Here and there you see UN observation points, usually atop some high-rise, but there are also some at street level. Here photography is not allowed. And that is policed. I witnessed a UN soldier angrily barking at some dumb tourist pointing his camera (or more likely phone) in the soldier’s direction. Just don’t do that …
Eventually you come to a closed road and have to take a road that’s parallel to the west. No-photography signs make it clear that this must be a military zone. Indeed there was some activity and lots of contemporary cars parked behind the barriers. This, so I found out later, is a beach resort for the military – and you can tell that some of the tall hotel buildings have in fact been renovated and are clearly in use. Behind this section, the tourist route rejoins the main road. You can proceed for another half kilometre or so then a military guard makes sure you turn around.
En route you come to another point where access to yet another stretch of beach has been allowed for. Again there is some beach infrastructure (parasols, sunbeds and a kiosk selling refreshments).
From there you have to retrace your steps along the same route. So it’s repetition, but along the way I found plenty of things to photograph that I hadn’t spotted when I’d come down in the other direction.
Eventually you reach that second crossroads again, and now I turned down that other street going west (or south-west, to be precise). This has been renamed “demokrasi caddesi” or ‘Democracy Road’, which I found somewhat ironic given developments in Turkey in recent years.
This road, though shorter and narrower, is by far the most interesting accessible part of Varosha, as this was the main shopping street. How time has been frozen here was made clear e.g. by a sign advertising the quick processing of photo films – as was common before the advent of the digital camera age. One sign invited customers to place orders for hand-made suits (but you would never be able to collect your order), yet others promised nightly dancing. But all doors are blocked. And it’s all silent inside. Where you can peek in you see that the place has been largely picked clean, only the odd piece of furniture remains.
I must say I found it all immensely atmospheric
. So I will not attempt to describe everything I saw in words here but instead refer you to the large photo gallery below
. For a place like Varosha, images do indeed say more than words ever could.
The tourist route west ends abruptly, namely by a small building that you can in fact enter. This turns out to be a reactivated mosque. A tall Greek Orthodox church just one block in from the tourist route, on the other hand, remains off limits.
Other than at those two stretches of beach, the only tourism infrastructure you encounter is at a medium-sized park. Here a couple of stalls also sell refreshments and people sit around on park benches. There was also a water feature, but that was not operational when I was there. Behind the park is a large palatial building, perhaps once a government building. And from the central facade hang giant flags – the ubiquitous pair of the Turkish national flag and the flag of the TRNC, but these were the largest I ever encountered anywhere in the country.
So on balance
, I found Varosha a very photogenic, and vast, ghost town
, even though only parts are accessible. Of course it would have been exciting to be allowed to roam all of Varosha freely and explore all those streets not cleared of plants and bushes and re-tarmacked – and perhaps even enter some stable-enough-looking buildings for some proper interior urbexing. But the rules are strict, so good enough has to be accepted as good enough. What you do get to see is definitely a lot better than nothing!
One of the most dramatic-looking parts of Varosha is best viewed from outside the fenced-off “forbidden zone”, namely from Palm Beach at the northern end of Varosha, and publicly accessible at all times. Here, just behind the public beach and some beachside restaurants (closed off-season when I was there) stand three of the tallest of the abandoned hotel high-rises of Varosha. On the rear of the very first one you can see some dramatic war damage from shelling.
Since I was staying at the adjacent Palm Beach Hotel (see above
) I was also able to get some views of Varosha by night
. And while most of it is indeed as dark as you would expect of a ghost town, there were also some lights, in particular at that military resort further south. This was brightly illuminated and you could see disco lights moving. So there is an area of party life in Varosha – but ordinary civilians cannot partake …
in the south-eastern corner of North Cyprus
, ca. an hour’s drive (40 miles/60 km) from North Nicosia
. The entrance to Varosha is about a mile (1.6 km) south-east of the centre of Famagusta’s Old Town.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: now easy and free – if only for those parts opened up to visitors. The rest of Varosha remains strictly out of bounds.
You might be able to get to Famagusta from North Nicosia
by public overland bus, but going by car is ideal. It’s a good dual-carriage motorway-like road from North Nicosia – Famagusta is signposted as such, together with its Turkish name Gazimağusa.
At the end of the overland route as you enter Famagusta is a roundabout where you take the second exit to turn right into Gazi Mustafa Kemal Boulevard. At the next roundabout take the second exit to carry on straight. This takes you to a T-junction where you turn right and immediately left again. Stay on this until another roundabout where you take the second exit to go straight across.
To the left there’s a large car park opposite the Dr. Fazil Küçük stadium, near the tourist entrance to Varosha. Since I was staying at the Palm Beach Hotel, which is just up the road, I left my car in the hotel car park and walked from there.
The tourist entrance has the following opening times: from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter, longer in summer (up to 8 p.m., I believe).
Admission is free.
You are not allowed to enter any buildings for safety reasons, and have to stay on the prescribed tourist route. Photography is allowed, except at military areas and UN-staffed points.
Time required: I spent over four hours in Varosha, plus extra time at Palm Beach, where I stayed for two nights. Those of you who want just a quick glance in a hurry can speed up a visit to Varosha by hiring a bike or even one of those electric golf buggies at the entrance. But I would recommend taking your time and exploring on foot.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Varosha is hard to top, and indeed nothing of its calibre is located anywhere near Famagusta. But the grandiose “Victory Monument
” by the ring road around the Old Town may be worth pointing out. It is indeed quite oversized and all-round over-the-top in its celebration of the Turkish military invasion/“liberation” of 1974 (see Cypriot history
). South Cypriots must hate it.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Most obviously: the historic Old Town of Famagusta (“Gazimağusa” in Turkish) with its own Venetian Walls. The latter are partially accessible, but in other places not as well kept as their equivalents in South Nicosia. The largest single structure along these walls is the Othello Tower fortress.
In the centre of the Old Town, the architectural crown jewel of the place is the former St Nicholas Cathedral, which the Ottomans turned into a mosque (now Lala Mustafa Paşa Camii
), outwardly by simply sticking a little minaret atop one of the twin-tower stumps. That is indeed the only indication it’s no longer a church that you can see from the outside; although inside the typical mosque features will all be there (see also the Selimiye Mosque in North Nicosia
There are plenty more architectural relics
from before the Ottoman rule as well as some from it (old hammans, say). It’s worth wandering the quiet narrow alleyways for a bit. There are also bars and restaurants catering for tourists – and in one wine bar I had some white wine from North Cyprus that was absolutely stunning. I had not expected that, especially in such a predominantly Muslim country (though the TRNC
is comparatively secular, really).
A major tourist attraction north of Famagusta is Old Salamis, nothing to do with sausages but an ancient place of great archaeological importance, with old Roman-style amphitheatres and other grand ruins.