Crossing the Line: North and South Nicosia

South Nicosia
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As you approach Nicosia from the south, you catch sight of a gigantic Turkish flag in the hillside ahead. It is a reminder that Cyprus is an island of two halves, the so-called Green Line dividing it into the “Greek” south and the “Turkish” north. Nicosia, the capital city, is also divided, but a crossing point allows visitors to explore both halves of the old town in a single day.

Selimiye Camii Mosque, Nicosia
The Selimiye Camii Mosque, built into an old Gothic cathedral

A Divided City

Nicosia is in the middle of the island, and was historically the main commercial and civic centre. However, the border between north and south Cyprus, which divides Nicosia in two, was closed to all traffic between 1974 and 2003. Many Greek Cypriots had fled to the south, and Turkish Cypriots to the north, losing their homes (and often farms and other businesses) in the process. While the border was closed they had no contact with the family and friends they had left behind.

Border sign, Nicosia
A sign reminds you that Nicosia is the “last divided capital”.

Although the border reopened in 2003, crossings are only possible at certain points. Border formalities remain, and there is a buffer zone administered by the United Nations. You can walk into north Nicosia from the south at the foot crossing point at the end of Lidras Street, but you will need to show your passport. Interestingly, it is also a customs border, and as soon as you enter the Turkish side you encounter lots of shops selling low-duty goods.

Nicosia North and South
Pinnable image of North and South Nicosia

Exploring South Nicosia

At the heart of south Nicosia is Lidras Street, which leads right up to the border checkpoint. This is the main commercial street, lined with shops and cafés. But, if you wander down the back streets, you will find old houses and varied architecture, giving you an idea of what Nicosia must have looked like in the past.

Lidras Street, Nicosia
Lidras Street is the main shopping street of Nicosia

There is far more in the old town of Nicosia than you could see in a day. I could have spent more time in the south, exploring the numerous churches, mosques and museums. In particular, the Cyprus Musuem looks interesting for anyone who wants to find out more about the island’s long and varied history.

South Nicosia
A back street in South Nicosia

Exploring North Nicosia

But I wanted to explore the north. As soon as I crossed the border I was struck by the contrast between the two halves of the city. You are greeted by the sound of a muezzin, and the streets are full of shops and market stalls selling a dazzling array of goods, ranging from gold to spices and brightly coloured clothes. I suspected this part of the city of being aimed at tourists, as it is full of restaurants and cafés selling kebabs, pastries and other Turkish specialities.

Back street in North Nicosia
Getting off the beaten track in North Nicosia

Walk a little way and you will come to the Selimiye Mosque, housed in a building which was once a gothic cathedral. Close by is a small Turkish-style bazaar, restored and reopened in 2012. Beyond that is a maze of tiny streets full of traditional houses. As you walk, look out for the street art that is dotted around the city.

Nicosia street art
Look out for the street art

I ran out of time for further exploring, but there was much more I could have seen, including the Büyük Han, a 16th century Ottoman caravanserai, and the old Turkish baths.

The Walls of Nicosia

The old town of Nicosia is surrounded by a wall, built by the Venetians in the 16th century. Unusually for me, I didn’t try to walk around the whole of the wall: there was lots to explore, and it was a very hot day! But I did follow it for a while on both sides of the city, and I stopped at the Famagusta Gate, where you can see the original wooden gate. Here you can walk through a tunnel beneath the bastion, and get a sense of the scale of the defences.

City wall, Nicosia
The Venetian city walls – looking from the outside

In fact, although the wall is mostly intact, you can’t walk around it all in one go. You reach a point where you have to come into the centre of the city to pass across the checkpoint before you can continue your walk. It seems like a metaphor for Nicosia itself: one wall, in two halves.

Venetian bastion, Nicosia
One of the original bastions in the city’s defences

Looking for accommodation in the Nicosia region? Check out the recommendations on Booking.com.

This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.

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10 thoughts on “Crossing the Line: North and South Nicosia”

  1. Hi Karen, you just popped up in Thorn Tree and thought it was a great read. I just went there myself actually, totally amazed at the city literally torn in half. Love that you explored the north a bit more and Nicosia in general, very jealous. I’m about to release a blog of the entire island that I put together today. All the best!

    Sam.

  2. Nicosia seems so charming and definitely worth a visit, Karen! You have portrayed this place wonderfully. How many days would be enough to explore both north and south Nicosia?

    1. Hi Lydia, you can get a flavour of both sides of the city in a single day, but I’d say you need about three days if you want to visit all the churches, mosques and museums etc. That’s just the old town, but as far as I can see the new town is mostly shops and suburbs. (According to my guidebook lots of places in Nicosia are closed during August, but I think it would be too hot during the summer anyway!)

  3. Very interesting to find out there is still a city that’s divided. It is even more interesting that Cyprus, as an independent country, has a capital that has a Turkish and a Greek section!

  4. We visited Nicosia (Lefkosia) in July of 2005. Our hotel was not too far from the “Green Line” that was patrolled by UN Peacekeepers. One morning, we were awakened at 5:30 AM by what sounded like air raid sirens. It turned out it was the Greek side, commemorating the date and time that the south was invaded by the Turks. We visited friends there and our host took us up a mountain from which we could look down and see the valley where his family’s home had been in the now Turkish side from which they were forced to flee. They are still bitter.

  5. Kristin Henning

    What a fascinating place to visit. Glad to know there’s a gradual erosion of the divide in Nicosia…and maybe, eventually, in Cyprus as a whole.

  6. Such an interesting article. You did an excellent job of explaining this recent history of Cyprus. Thank you for this eye opening report and the tour of a city divided.

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About Karen

WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren. I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 60 countries at the last count). I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica (I still hope to get there one day…), and my current favourite destinations are Italy, Spain and North America. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way.

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