- darkometer rating: 4 -
The capital of the Republic of Cyprus
and the country’s largest city, seat of government and economic hub. It has a few dark-tourism attractions itself and makes a good base for exploring the southern Cypriot surroundings and also serves as the ideal springboard for touring North Cyprus
The location of present-day Nicosia has been inhabited since ancient times. It once was the city-state of Ledra, a name still found today, e.g. in that of Nicosia Old Town’s main shopping street of the present day, Ledra Street. The settlement remained relatively insignificant for a long time, as its inland location was bypassed by all the trade that the coastal port cities experienced and that allowed Cyprus to flourish. That changed in Byzantine times when repeated Arab raids made the coastal towns unsafe. By the 9th or 10th century, Nicosia had become the island’s capital.
In the 16th century, when Cyprus
was incorporated into the Republic of Venice
, the massive fortifications around the city were built. They are still known as the “Venetian Walls
”. The wall system has roughly the shape of a snowflake with eleven bastions jutting out from the main wall, and there were just three heavily fortified gates in the walls (today there are more openings). Still, all this wasn’t enough to keep out the Turks, who took the city in 1570, ravaged it and killed about 20,000 of its inhabitants.
After the beginning of the British colonial era in the late 19th century the city began expanding beyond its mediaeval walls. During the Greek nationalist organization EOKA’s “struggle” against colonialism from 1955 to 1959, Nicosia became the scene of much violence. Allegedly Ledra Street acquired the nickname “Murder Mile” during that time.
in 1960 ethnic tensions between Greek and Turkish Cypriots intensified, culminating in a string of atrocities in 1963-64. It was also the beginning of the division
of the city (and the country) into a Turkish north and Greek Cypriot south. This was cemented when the United Nations
sent a peacekeeping force and the Green Line
“buffer zone” between the two sides was established, which was later extended to cut through the whole country.
This partition was further sealed with the Turkish invasion of 1974, after which the Turkish north and the Greek Cypriot south became entirely segregated. For the next almost three decades there were no border crossings possible for civilians. That only changed with the establishment of the Ledra Palace border crossing checkpoint in 2003, followed by the pedestrian-only Ledra Street crossing in 2008.
While north-south border traffic has since then become perfectly normalized, Nicosia still remains the last divided capital in the world
. It has hence sometimes been likened to Berlin
before the Fall of the Berlin Wall
. However, other than the fact that it’s a divided city, the comparison is rather lame as there are really more differences than commonalities between the two borders/divisions – see under Green Line
Note that in Greek the name of the city internationally known as Nicosia is Lefkosa, and that is also used on most signs along the motorways etc., otherwise the two names are pretty much interchangeable.
What there is to see: The main attractions in Nicosia from a dark-tourism perspective, which are hence given their own separate chapters, are these:
In addition there are several monuments related to Cyprus’s dark past, in particular the over-the-top Liberty Monument
on the Podocattaro Bastion to the south-east of the Old Town. Erected in 1973 and dedicated to EOKA freedom fighters in 1987, this is a kitschy affair in white marble centred around a group of life-size bronze sculptures of enchanted-looking civilians emerging from what looks like a dungeon thanks to two figures at the top having lifted the barred gate for them, all overseen by a kind of oversized goddess statue on a tall plinth. Here both the Greek and the Cypriot flags fly (unlike at other Greek-flag-only EOKA memorials – see Polemi
Not far away, on the corner of Stasinou Avenue and Archbishop Makarios II Street stands a monument dedicated to the 286 Motorized Infantry Regiment
that was more or less eliminated when they attempted to mount a counter-attack near Kyrenia where the Turkish invasion of 1974 established its first foothold on Cypriot territory (see Cypriot history
). Since their bodies were mostly never found they are still regarded as ‘missing in action’ rather than ‘fallen’.
Also of some interest to the dark tourist may be the CVAR
(Centre of Visual Arts & Research) in the east of the Old Town. This is an art-gallery-cum-museum with a focus on how Cyprus has been represented by non-Cypriots, including especially the British colonialists. Amongst the artefacts on display is the last British colonial Cyprus flag ever flown in the country. And there’s also a section about the dark chapter of colonial history when the British established Jewish Detention Centres
between 1946 and 1949, nominally to control the influx of Jewish refugees into Palestine after WWII
before the founding of the state of Israel
. Over 50,000 Jews, mostly Holocaust
survivors, thus found themselves held behind barbed-wire fences – incarcerated by the British, who had just played such a role in liberating Europe from the Nazis
! Going by the images on display at the CVAR these camps looked very similar to the concentration camps
later set up by the British for imprisoning captured EOKA fighters between 1955 and 1959 (see Kokkinotrimithia
), especially in the use of inadequate corrugated-iron Nissen huts for barracks – except the twelve Jewish camps of the 1940s were much larger.
The Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre
(housed in a former power station) was also on my list of places to visit when I was in Cyprus
in January 2023. That’s because it was said that its exhibitions often focus on “edgy political and cultural themes” (Lonely Planet Cyprus guide, 7th ed., p151). But unfortunately it remained closed the entire time I was in Nicosia.
The Shacolas Tower
just off Ledra Street in the heart of the Old Town also touches upon dark aspects, even though its key attraction is the views to be had from the “observatory” on the 12th floor. But the panels and screens that complement the views also point out the Green Line
and the narrative refers to the north in no uncertain terms as the “Turkish occupied part of the city”. There’s a historical timeline too.
By the Archbishop’s Palace
there are two black limousines
on display behind glass, which were used by Archbishop Makarios in the 1970s, when he played an important political role in the turbulent times of conflict (see Cypriot history
Not especially dark but a curiosity is the Gagarin bust on a plinth in the Municipal Park west of the Old Town. I found this quite unexpected to behold and wondered why the first Soviet cosmonaut would be celebrated by a monument here in Cyprus … (The original inscription on the plinth is in Russian and an additional one in Greek.)
slightly off the centre of the island, a bit to its north-east, right on the dividing line that is the Green Line
between the Republic of Cyprus
and the Turkish North
. The nearest other larger places are Larnaca to the south-east, ca. 22 miles (35 km) away, and Kyrenia (Girne) some 12 miles (20 km) to the north in the Turkish part.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: not too complicated, can be a bit expensive.
Most people would get to
Nicosia from the international airport at Larnaca (see Cyprus
), which is ca. 30 miles (50 km) to the south, by road. There are buses and taxis and some hotels also offer transfers. Car hire is another option but then you have the problem of parking within Nicosia (which can be tricky and/or costly).
Getting around the city is easy enough on foot, provided you’re staying not too far from the Old Town. Because Nicosia isn’t particularly touristy, accommodation options are notably more limited than in other capital cities. And many that do exist are a bit far from the Old Town.
I rarely make specific recommendations as far as hotels are concerned, but in this case I’d like to make an exception: I picked the MAP Boutique hotel on Stasinou Avenue opposite the D’Avila Bastion south of the Old Town for its excellent location (both for access to the Old Town and to the best parts of the New Town as well), but it turned out to be top-notch all round. The staff, from reception to waiters, were amongst the friendliest I’ve ever encountered in any hotel, the rooms are superbly appointed (though “digital non-natives” may struggle a bit with all the modern technology), and the gourmet breakfasts (à la carte) were outstanding. Not the cheapest option, but highly recommended.
If you want to save money you may want to consider staying on the Turkish side in North Nicosia
, where there are some good reasonably priced options, and given that the border crossing at Ledra Street is so easy these days, it’s a real alternative.
As for food and drink
, there is no shortage of places for eating out, from fast-food joints and simple, canteen-like tavernas serving Greek Cypriot staples to modern gourmet interpretations of Cypriot cuisine (such as at Mayiopoula – though the very best dinner I had in Cyprus
was at the SCALE restaurant at the MAP hotel!); and there are also various other ethnic cuisines to be found (Syrian, Indian, Lebanese, Filipino and African even, and of course plenty of Italian and Greek restaurants). Note that there are more noteworthy restaurants outside the Old Town than in it.
On the drinks front, there are cafés as well as wine and cocktail bars aplenty, and for those who want to go beyond the ubiquitous lager beers there are now also a few outlets of high-quality craft beer, including the excellent output of the charming microbrewery “Golem” located right by the Green Line in a quiet corner of the Old Town. Prices tend to be rather high almost everywhere, though (unlike in North Nicosia
Time required: Three days may just about be enough to cover only the places listed above, but if you want a more leisurely pace and also do some non-dark things, consider a couple of days more. I had a total of seven days in the city (one used for an out-of-town excursion, though), which ultimately was more than necessary, as I ran out of things to do in the end and just kept wandering the streets.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Nicosia also makes a good base for excursions out of town – like I undertook to get to the Mitsero mines
and to Kokkinotrimithia
. Moreover, Nicosia is also the ideal springboard for getting to North Cyprus as a tourist, thanks to the Ledra Street pedestrian border crossing point, so you can simply walk across and get a hire car for exploring the Turkish part of Cyprus. And of course you can also use that same border crossing to explore North Nicosia
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Being far from the beaches that most people who visit Cyprus
flock to, Nicosia is indeed not very touristy. It is not unwelcoming, far from it, but there are just far fewer tourists than in, say, Paphos. That said, though, the city features some eminent museums, archaeological sites and plenty of galleries as well as good shopping opportunities. The most touristy part is Ledra Street and the little alleyways branching off it. It is here that you find the densest accumulation of souvenir shops and branches of international fast-food joints. Step further away from Ledra Street and the Old Town and it can get very quiet, almost provincial in atmosphere, as if you are no longer in a city, let alone a capital.
South Nicosia has in recent times seen a lot of modernization, not least with the completion of the reconstruction of the central Eleftherias Square, which had taken more than a decade. Several new high-rises in the New Town south of the centre have sprung up in recent years too, drastically altering the South Nicosia skyline. Amongst those new buildings are some rather stunning modernist structures, though.
The walled Old Town has also seen some revitalization, but there are still some very quiet and “shabby-chic” quarters, especially in the north-eastern parts and along the Green Line
. Here you can find small carpentry workshops, quaint old antiques (and junk) shops and it sometimes feels like time has stood still here for the past five decades.
Other than several Greek Orthodox churches (old and new) there are also many vestiges of the Ottoman era to be seen, such as mosques and hammams (Turkish bathhouses). And the mosques’ regular calls to prayer, especially coming from North Nicosia
, but in part also in the south, give the city a particular soundscape.
- Nicosia 01 - refurbished Eleftherias Square
- Nicosia 02 - Venetian Wall
- Nicosia 03 - historic building in the Old Town
- Nicosia 04 - shabbier part of the Old Town
- Nicosia 05 - more touristy part of the Old Town
- Nicosia 06 - Shacolas Tower
- Nicosia 07 - birds-eye view down
- Nicosia 08 - view towards the north
- Nicosia 09 - mini-mosque
- Nicosia 10 - shiny new Orthodox church
- Nicosia 11 - another church
- Nicosia 12 - archbishop palace
- Nicosia 13 - archbishop cars
- Nicosia 14 - peaceful little square
- Nicosia 15 - hamam
- Nicosia 16 - library
- Nicosia 17 - junk yard
- Nicosia 18 - small carpenter workshop right by the Green Line
- Nicosia 19 - craft-beer microbrewery opposite
- Nicosia 20 - Municipal Park
- Nicosia 21 - Gagarin bust in the park
- Nicosia 22 - municipal arts centre
- Nicosia 23 - Brittish colonial heritage at the CVAR
- Nicosia 24 - the last Brittish colonial flag to fly in Cyprus
- Nicosia 25 - Liberation Monument
- Nicosia 26 - released into liberty
- Nicosia 27 - monument to a Greek Cypriot military regiment lost in the 1974 Turkish invasion
- Nicosia 28 - by night
- Nicosia 29 - ultra-modern