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Cyprus is a country divided — culturally between Eastern and Western ideals, as well as literally divided. Across the middle of the country is the Green Line, a UN Buffer Zone, dividing the Greek and Turkish portions of Cyprus. The physical divide also splits the island’s capital Nicosia (called Lefkosia locally), making it the only officially divided capital city in the world. While this division does cause tension, it also creates a unique blend of cultures that makes Nicosia a fascinating place to visit. And while an island in the Mediterranean seems like an unlikely budget destination, Cyprus, and specifically Nicosia, is a viable spot to save a buck. Check out our favorite things to do in Nicosia Cyprus.
Walk the Venetian Walls
Nicosia’s past is far from being restricted to recent history. The Venetian Walls, which surround the old city, are defensive fortifications built in the mid 16th century. The walls were originally built by the governing force of the time, the Venetian Empire. They decided to fortify the city in response to the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, and the walls helped protect the city from Ottoman occupation during the Ottoman-Venetian War; although the city eventually fell. Nowadays, the walls are considered the most well-preserved walls from the Renaissance period in Eastern Europe. While some walls are crumbling and the old moat is dry, the three main gates are still standing. Famagusta, Kyrenia, and Paphos Gate are all among the most popular spots to visit on the wall.
Visit the Cyprus Museum
Just outside of the Old City walls, the Cyprus Museum is packed with the most interesting archaeological discoveries from the island’s history. Perhaps the most famous statue here is the armless Aphrodite of Soli. This depiction of Aphrodite is included on many of the brochures and posters that Cyprus uses to attract visitors. Another draw is the huge bronze statue of Emperor Septimus Severus, one of the few African Roman Emperors, discovered in Cyprus. Other highlights include large mosaics and an extensive display of terracotta figures. Plus the entrance fee is less than five euros.
History Lesson at the Leventis Municipal Museum
While the Cyprus Museum focuses on Cyprus’s ancient history, the Leventis Municipal Museum of Nicosia fills in the gaps from the 16th century onward. The most interesting piece of the museum is the portion that covers modern history. 1900s Cyprus saw the country gain independence, be invaded, and then subsequently get divided. Leventis spares no detail and their explanations of artifacts and photos are very in depth and educational. While most visitors to Cyprus quickly flee Nicosia for coastal resorts, the city’s museums remind tourists why the capital is worth the stay.
Cultural Collision at Selimiye Camii
Selimiye Camii is one of the best metaphorical representations of Cyprus’s dichotomous culture. Although it is the country’s largest mosque, it’s actually housed in a cathedral originally built for the Catholic faith. Historically known as the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, it broke ground in 1209 and later became a mosque in 1570. The mosque/cathedral served as the main focal point and center of the city during the years when Nicosia only existed inside of the historical walls. It is also the oldest surviving example of large Gothic architecture in Cyprus.
Browse the Büyük Han
Translating to ‘Great Inn’, Büyük Han was built as a caravanserai by the Ottomans in 1572. This means it was used as a roadside inn where travelers could recover from long journeys — notably along the Silk Road where Caravanserais were very common. Büyük Han is no longer an inn but is one of the most celebrated buildings in Cyprus. The rooms have since been converted into art workshops, art galleries, and souvenir shops. There are also a couple of cafes inside the courtyard. So Büyük Han is an awesome place to grab a coffee or tea and people watch or catch a couple of local artists at work.
Cross the Green Line
The Green Line is the UN-sanctioned border that divides Cyprus and Nicosia. While there have been numerous unification talks for the last 15 years or so, the clashes of faith between the Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots have made things difficult. The situation has not turned violent since 1974 when the barricades were built, but the deep-rooted disagreements of faith and residual resentment from past hostilities have perpetuated the division and mistrust. To encourage freedom of movement across the island, the Green Line has five checkpoints to allow locals and foreigners to cross. Two of these are in Nicosia.
The Green Line in Nicosia is a shocking disruption. People go from wandering beautiful, historical streets of the Old City to a sudden policed blockade covered in sandbags, barbed wire, and guns. Crossing the line is a powerful experience. Religious ideals may change but the similarities between the two sides, in architecture, Cypriot pride, and warm attitudes towards tourists, are the most striking.
Vintage Inspiration at the Classic Motorcycle Museum
The Classic Motorcycle Museum is a paradise for gear heads or just a good stop for an hour or two for everyone else. There is an entrance fee of five euros but that goes towards the maintenance of the museum and includes a coffee. The collection is now over 350 motorcycles, some of which are over 100 years old. Many visitors to the museum say the best part is an encounter with the founder of the museum, Andreas Nicolaou. Nicolaou curates and maintains the museum largely on his own and loves to share his passion and knowledge with anyone passing through.
Stroll Ledra Street
Near to the Green Line, Motorcycle Museum, and Fairy Tale Museum, Ledras is a walk street in Nicosia. Interestingly, while there are five checkpoints on the Green Line, Ledra is the sixth opening. The barricades on Ledra were removed and people can walk from the Greek South to the Turkish North without having their ID checked. Ledra is a great place to explore, as there are tons of shops and restaurants. The area is also very pretty, as most of the buildings are hundreds of years old and it is mandatory for each shop to have flowers outside.
Once Upon a Time in the Fairy Tale Museum
Costing the obligatory five euros, the Fairy Tale Museum is still one of the more unique and unusual places to go in Nicosia. A fully interactive museum, visitors are encouraged to open random drawers, push on every door, and pick up every strange gadget. There are even a few secret rooms that focus on specific tales like Aladdin, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland. The library includes books that stand close to 10 feet tall and has plenty of age-appropriate stories for kids and adults. Its location very near to the DMZ is said to be a purposeful contrast and a hopeful statement for Cyprus’s chances to live happily ever after.