12 Things to Do in Nicosia: The Last Divided Capital
The best things to do in Nicosia touch on Cyprus’ rich culture, gastronomy and history. It’s a unique Mediterranean city break to add to your bucket list. Here’s why.
Things to Do in Nicosia
I only breezed through Nicosia when I first visited Cyprus in 2012, staying for a coffee with a friend before heading to other parts of the country. This time around I had three days to explore the capital of Cyprus and I learned a lot.
Lefkosia: The Last Divided Capital in the World
The official name for the city is Lefkosia but no matter what you call it is almost always referred to as the “last divided capital in the world.” A heavy title to bear after the country and city was forced to split following a Turkish invasion in 1974. There’s a border between the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. Talks are going on again as I write this to figure out how both sides may move forward.
Historic, Peaceful and Unique
If you are thinking Nicosia could be unsafe due to the political situation, think again. Much of Nicosia has the feel of a quiet town rather than a metropolis. The Old Town (Old City) which is within the historic walls, and the New Town (New City), which is just outside of the walls, are both dotted with the main sights. Everything is within easy 10-minute walks of each other.
From what I understood – and from what all the locals tell me – life in Nicosia is very peaceful and life has continued to go on as usual.
With that in mind, Nicosia is ideal to explore by foot. There’s no need to take a bus or taxi to get to point A or B. Your days can be spent happily exploring the city’s deep history, gritty charms and unique spaces without worrying about commuting or getting lost. I think that makes for a wonderful city break.
Greek Cypriots speak Greek, of course. Also note that they speak fantastic English. Many learn at an early age, plus Cyprus was once part of the British empire.
Things to Do in Nicosia, Cyprus
Here’s a rundown of my top things to do in Nicosia, the last divided capital in the world.
1) Walk the Venetian Walls
Thick defensive walls stretch around Nicosia. First built in the Mid Ages, they completely rebuilt by the Venetians in the 16th century. It’s really a sight to see.
The walls of Nicosia are among the best-preserved Renaissance fortifications in the Eastern Mediterranean. Along with Valletta in Malta, Nicosia was considered to be an ideal Renaissance city.
Also note that Nicosia has three gates: Paphos, Famagusta and Kyrenia. I had the pleasure of attending a beautiful concert by the Commanderia Orchestra at the Famagusta Gate – right inside the walls! It was part of the annual Medieval Festival, a great local event to plan for.
2) Take a Free City Tour
You can take a really eye-opening city tour that takes you beyond the gates into some traditional neighborhoods. My local tour guide, Evie, was fantastic. We took a small city bus to get to various neighborhoods then went on foot to explore Kaimakli together. I loved her insight which I felt helped me understand more about Nicosia’s architecture, culture and how politics has affected its people.
For more information, visit the Visit Nicosia tours page.
3) Walk the Old Town
Walk anywhere in the old town of Nicosia and you’ll understand it is a diverse place. Some streets are home to workers from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Lots of second-hand clothes shops and grocery stalls and small business to cater to these ethnic communities.
Then, the streets morph in to the old charming vine swathed neighborhoods like Palia Getonia, bustling shopping districts like Ledra Street and then hipster kind of hoods like Ermou and Chrysaliniotissa. Some narrow streets are lined with worn down but proud traditional homes.
Meanwhile, heavy modern construction takes place on a new structure nearby. In a short span of space, Nicosia is full of different kinds of faces both in architecture and the people.
What I really enjoyed was the smell of spring flowers. There are little makeshift gardens everywhere and on random corners, fruit trees with blooming fragrant flowers.
4) Relax at Hammam Omerye
One of the unique things you can do for yourself while on holidays in this part of the world is experience hammam. It is a Middle Eastern variant for a steam bath and sauna but the treatments are unique.
In Nicosia, you get the traditional experience in a very traditional building that dates back to the 16th century, a gift to the city of Nicosia by the Ottoman general named Lala Moustafa Pasa. The Hamam Omerye is so atmospheric, beautifully refurbished and keeps its historic character. I experienced the Kesse Borek hour-long treatment which is a divine foam massage and exfoliation right on traditional marble slab.
For more about what to expect during a traditional hammam treatment, visit my earlier post: Turkish Bath Relaxation: Al Hammam in Athens.
5) Admire the View
A view from Ledras Museum Observatory on the 11th floor of the Shacolas Tower offers a complete, unique experience of the entire city. The tower is located on the corner of Ledra and Arsinoe.
6) Learn at the City Museums
I highly recommend taking the free city tour at the Cyprus Museum which is the city’s fantastic archaeological museum. The guide really helped me to understand the significance of it all of artefacts on display. Did you know Cyprus has its own terracotta army? The statuettes from Neolithic Age fertility cults were fascinating too. Check the Visit Nicosia website for more about the tour.
The Museum of George and Nefeli Giabra (Faneromenis 86 – 90) presents an amazing private collections of Greek Mycenaean pottery from the island. This museum is free and really worth it if you love ancient artworks.
The Ethnological Museum offers insight into Ottoman Cyprus and the Center of Visual Arts and Research is also highly recommended. Check out this link for a full list of the museums in Nicosia.
7) Leventis Gallery
The acclaimed Leventis Gallery (5 Leonidou Street) opened three years ago in 2014. The sleek modern gallery houses a collection of over 800 paintings from Cypriot, Greek and European artists.
8) Historic Places of Worship
You’ll no doubt pass many historic places of worship here. The Cathedral Church of St. Ioannis is where the Archbishops of Cyprus have received the Holy Sacrament since the 18th century. Panagia Chrysaliniotissa is the oldest Byzantine church built in the 15th century. Phaneromeni was built in 19th century and is the largest inside of the old town walls.
You’ll notice mosques on your walks through the old town too. The Missirikos Church was converted into the Araplar Mosque in the 16th century. The Omerye Mosque was originally an Augustinian church, built in the 16th century.
9) Experience Cypriot Food
I say it is a food experience you should have during your travels in Europe and definitely one of the top things to do in Nicosia. We have mezes (savory small appetizer like plates) in Greece, but not like this! Imagine 20 tasty little delicious – and filling – dishes raining down on your table.
My Cypriot friend led me to O Zannetos, a traditional tavern in the old town. Great food and yes – 20 plates of goodness. I was happily shocked to first learn of this gastronomy tradition when I first visited Cyprus.
Then, there are the homecooked dishes called magirefta. Again, locals pointed me to Mageireo Vasilikis (Digeni Akrita 28A) where the comfort dishes of Cyprus are served in a casual easy lunch time atmosphere.
Stay tuned for a post on the foods of Cyprus to try and more restaurants to go to.
10) Head into the New Town
Another 10-minute walk outside of the walls you’ll hit some streets that locals love to gather for shopping, drinks and eating out. Themistokli Dervis Street has little cafes and restaurants like Silver Pot, The Boys and Zest. Makarios Avenue and Stasikratous Street are good to stroll for shopping and for a coffee at a chic little café.
11) Go Shopping
Another one of best things to do in Nicosia is go shopping. In the old city, head to the Palia Getonia for those I LOVE CYPRUS goods you know you want. Ledra Street has many European and international clothing chains with a few mom-and-pop shops squeezed between. Onasagorou is also full of souvenir shops and stores with traditional Cypriot goods.
In the New City, Makarios Avenue and Stasikratous Street in the new city feature name-brand, high end shopping.
For a shopping market experience head to the covered Μunicipal Market Agios Antonios (Evgenias and Thodotou) in the New City.
To shop for traditional Cypriot products, including sundries and traditional sweets, head to Karpos (5 Evgenias and Theodotou).
12) Nightlife of Nicosia
There are several nightlife options. You can try out a hookah or shisha (flavored tobacco pipe) on Hippocrates Street in the Old City. There are some hip bars like The Gym. In the New City, check out the local hot spots including Lost and Found, Skinny Fox and Potopolio.
Things to Do in Nicosia
That sums up my top 12 things to do in Nicosia, a charming old world capital that remains the last divided city in the entire world.
How to Get to Nicosia, Cyprus
You can easily get to Nicosia from most mainland European cities. The nearest airport to Nicosia is Larnaca which is less than a two-hour flight from Athens, Greece. I highly recommend Vayama to find out the best airfare deals from abroad.
Getting Around Cyprus
In general, renting a car in Cyprus would be an excellent way to save time and see all the island has to offer outside of Nicosia. Note that a car isn’t necessary to explore the Old or New City.
Also note that in Cypus, people drive British style. Traffic drives on the left side of the road. This might be strange for my fellow Americans. In any case, if you want to rent a car, check out the deals from Avis Europe.
Where to Stay in Nicosia
I enjoyed my stay at the three-star Classic Hotel in the old town of Nicosia. It was a convenient location and within walking distance to the sights I mentioned above. Professional service and refurbished rooms. A pleasant and convenient stay. Doubles from 80 euro a night.
Have you been to Cyprus and visited Nicosia? Would you add anything to my things to do in Nicosia list?