Birthplace of Aphrodite and crossroads between three continents, Cyprus has seduced and inspired generations of travellers for hundreds of years. And it continues to do so today. The promise of Cyprus is one of dazzling beaches, shimmering blue seas, endless summers and tables groaning under heaped platters of mezé and bottles of sweet chilled wine.
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On the cusp between West and East, between Christian and Muslim, and with towns and cities that are vibrantly modern yet bear witness to the island’s long and culturally diverse history, Cyprus is blessed with a balmy climate and a rugged landscape of coast and mountains dotted with vineyards, villages and monasteries. Cyprus has earned its place as one of Europe’s tourist hotspots. From quaint, rustic cottages to luxury hotel complexes, from welcoming village tavernas to burgeoning fine-dining restaurants, from coastal resorts with all the tourist bells and whistles to empty wilderness peninsulas and forested mountains, Cyprus can cater for all tastes. And native Cypriots, whether Greek or Turkish, are famous for the warmth of their hospitality.
Venture beyond the resorts, with their karaoke bars and restaurants knocking out fish and chips, pizza and, more recently, Russian stroganoff, and it’s not hard to find another Cyprus. Traces of the exotic and Levantine are never far away, from ruined Lusignan and Venetian castles and elegant Islamic minarets to cool mountain villages hiding sacred icons from the very first days of Christianity.
No stranger to turbulence and strife, Cyprus has suffered waves of foreign invaders, from Mycenaean Greeks and Persians to sunburnt Crusaders, Ottoman pashas, and British Empire-builders. More recently, it has attracted numerous Russian expats. Internal division, too, has left its mark on the island. First, in the 1950s and 60s, came the struggle by Greek Cypriots for independence and union with Greece, then intercommunal violence prompted by fears among the minority Turkish Cypriots regarding what union with Greece might mean for them, and finally the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974 which resulted in its de facto partition between a Turkish Cypriot north and a Greek Cypriot south. Bitterness caused by the split lives on today. However, in recent years the easing of tensions and the gradual opening up of the Green Line has made it easier for travellers to explore the island as a whole. It is now possible to experience both sides of the divide in one day, and in the capital you can immerse yourself in two distinct cultures – Greek and Turkish, Christian and Muslim – simply by walking down a street and crossing between the two halves of the city.
Cyprus, then, offers the traveller not only a welcome whose warmth is legendary, but both hedonistic pleasure and cultural diversity out of all proportion to its size.
One of the great advantages of Cyprus as a holiday destination is that it’s a relatively small island offering a huge variety of attractions, scenery and activities linked together by an excellent road system. Wherever you stay, you can get to pretty much anywhere else in a day.
The vast majority of tourists begin their trip on the narrow coastal strip in the south, which hosts the main towns of Larnaka, Lemesos and Pafos, each with a historic old town, promenade and popular beaches. Beyond them, to the north, foothills rise to the island’s main mountain range, the Troodos Massif, dotted with villages, churches and monasteries. To the west of the island is a plateau covered in vineyards, the great wilderness forest of Tilliria and the stark empty beauty of the Akamas Peninsula. North of the Troodos (and lying within Turkish-occupied north Cyprus), lie the more impressive but less lofty mountains of the Kyrenia Range. Beyond here is the even narrower northern coastal strip on which Girne/Kyrenia is by far the most important and most beautiful town. To the east is the broad and largely flat Mesaorian Plain on which stands the island’s divided capital, Nicosia, known today as Lefkosia (south) or Lefkoşa (north); further east is the crumbling port city of Gazimağusa/Famagusta, with its range of pretty and not-so-pretty ruins, and the long, tapering Karpaz Peninsula, home to wild donkeys and far-flung villages.
For traditional sun, sea and sand holidays, you have an extensive choice – in the south, Protaras and Agia Napa, east of Larnaka, the beaches either side of Lemesos, Pafos and its satellite Coral Bay – which are packed with resorts offering a range of activities; in the north, the coast either side of Girne and north of Gazimağusa offers more of the same. For smaller hotels with a more individual character, try the north coast around Polis and the Akamas Peninsula, or the hill villages of the Troodos Mountains, which offer traditional homes converted into guest houses.
For a taste of Cyprus’s newly developed restaurant scene head to Lemesos, the island’s gastronomic capital. Lefkosia also boasts several cool cafés and Cyprus’s best shopping, while the northern towns of Girne and Gazimağusa provide a relaxed harbour-side ambience. Wine lovers are particularly well-catered for by the wine museum and wine festival in Lemesos, and by six well-signposted wine routes in Pafos and Lemesos districts.
Cyprus has a rich history, and virtually every region has its Roman (or earlier) ruin, its Byzantine church, a Crusader castle or Ottoman mosque, plus some grand British colonial architecture. Standout sights include the prehistoric villages at Tenta and Choirokoitia, the ancient cities of Kourion and Salamis, crusader castles such as those at Kolossi and Lemesos in the south and St Hilarion, Buffavento and Kantara in the north, monasteries like Kykkos and Machairas, and the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage painted churches of the Troodos Mountains. Ottoman architecture can be admired in Lefkoşa’s Büyük Han, and Muslim mosques in Hala Sultan Tekke in Larnaka or Hazret Omer Tekke east of Girne.
For nature and the great outdoors, the Troodos and Kyrenia mountains offer superb climbing, hiking and cycling, the seas around the island provide stimulating dive sites, and the beaches at Lara Bay in the west and Algadi in the northeast are great for turtle-watching. Golfers will enjoy the fine courses in Pafos and Girne. Across the island look out for the colourful religious and village festivals that take place in spring, summer and autumn.
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In terms of what to avoid, be aware that certain southern resorts (especially parts of Lemesos) can be quite sleazy (dominated, it’s said, by the Russian mafia), with dubious “gentlemen’s clubs” and sex workers operating openly in the streets. North Cyprus has also developed a reputation for vice and more obviously gambling; driven by Turkish organized crime, its dozens of casinos attract not only Turks from the mainland but also, perhaps surprisingly, hedonists from the south.