“We’re one but we’re not the same” – Paul Hewson.
Divided cities, barbed wire fences, debated flags, burnt out cars and people getting on with their lives on clever cultured streets with the odd game of football. Welcome to Northern Ireland you say? Wrong. Welcome to Northern Cyprus. A political, economic, cultural and social puzzle for the ardent hardcore European backpacker amongst us. Nicosia is not Belfast in disguise. Rather than two different sides in one city in one country; this is two different sides with two different cultures, religions, currencies, governments, flags, ways of life living in two different sides of two different countries still within the same city. Nicosia is the capital of both Cyprus and Northern Cyprus, the countries separated by a border within a city so frightfully delightful on both sides of the divide.
It might sound like Cyprus is a complicated island, more complicated than you first thought. It is clearly not one country. That much is clear. There is a hugely obvious divide here and anyone who has visited Nicosia can tell you that. The contrast between the Greek and Cypriot side to the Turkish side is quite staggering. However, as a long term tourist, I expected that and it was a Radiohead case of “no alarms and no surprises, please”. But did you know that there are potentially FOUR countries here on Cyprus island?!
1.Cyprus (Cypriot/Greek part)
2.Northern Cyprus (Turkish part)
3.Akrotiri (British base)
4.Dhekelia (British base)
And yes the final two can certainly stake a claim for “independent country” based on the fact they have their own borders, staff, currency, stamps and they are recognised by one global country choosing body – Travellers’ Century Club. All that aside, I decided to spend a full day discovering the sights of the Turkish part of Nicosia, sometimes known as Northern Nicosia. Berlin was once a Nicosia wannabe. Checkpoint Charlie grew jealous in envy of a border control that still exists for official purposes rather than the geek tourist photo. My first job in Nicosia was to cross the border.
Crossing the border from Cyprus into Northern Cyprus
The first thing to note is that you can’t just “jump over the wall”. There are soldiers manning it, high walls and barbed wire. The border is clear and obvious. Also unfortunately, I don’t have many photos from my border crossing as photos are banned and indeed a soldier spotted me taking one and watched me from there on in. It is not hostile at all, but it is quite important to bear in mind their authority and the still tension in the air. You show your passport on both sides of the border. For some reason that day, I forgot to ask for passport stamps. So I have no proof on my passport that I ever visited Cyprus or Northern Cyprus. The photos below show some of the rundown areas, fenced off parts and sealed borders. Many buildings on both sides of the border are derelict. There is no doubt this reminded me of the Peace Wall in Belfast and the Palestine to Israel wall.
What’s more is that on the Cyprus side of the border, when you get a map or see any map, it doesn’t even show the border, it doesn’t name the streets on the Turkish side and it doesn’t call the northern part Northern Cyprus! This, to me is ridiculous, as the border is clear as mud to anyone backpacking it as the walls are high and closed off and you cannot simply get through. So, below, on my map, I had to draw the border myself!! I crossed the open border at Ledra Street into Turkish Nicosia, Northern Cyprus.
Top 21 Sights in Turkish Nicosia
So here is a number of twenty one things that I managed to see or do in one day just within the small area on the north side of the border. So this was JUST in Turkish Nicosia, I didn’t go deeper into the country of Northern Cyprus, and in fact I stayed in the Cyprus side at Costas Hostel Action in Tseri.
1.Cross the border at Lokmaci Gate
I crossed the border on Ledra Street / Lidras which is one of the main pedestrian streets in central Nicosia. Please note this border is always manned with soldiers and is for pedestrians and cyclists only. Cars must pass outside the walled area at one of the other border crossings, of which I don’t know, sorry.
Once you are on the Turkish side, all the writing is Turkish, you pay in Turkish Lira and it totally feels Turkish and like a different country. There are money changers if you don’t have Turkish Lira. The buildings are all different, the atmosphere is more welcoming and relaxed and things are cheaper. You’ll see the Turkish and Northern Cyprus flags flying once you are across the border. The border is just a quick check and not much of a queue on either side.
I still managed to get a few photos of the walls and divide, away from the actual controlled border point itself, though you can see it in the background of some of these images…
2.Walk along Ledra Street
Visit Ledra Street which is a main street through both countries. I started off in the Cyprus side which is all very modern and European looking with its shops and stores with windows and cafes with new furniture. Contrast this with the classic Turkish style cafes on the other side and the market shops which don’t have or want windows and are more cosy and traditional in the style of Turkish bazaars/markets.
3.Enter a Mosque
There are lots of Mosques on the Turkish side so you can for sure visit more than one. I have just included one on this list, which is the famous Haydar Pasha Mosque, formerly St. Catherine’s Church. Yes the building has been used for different religions down the years, a trend I also noted whilst in Turkey, Israel and Palestine.
4.Browse at The Open Air Bazaar / Market
Traipse at your leisure around a typical Turkish style bazaar, this one on the other side of the border as soon as you arrive on foot is full of welcoming little cafes and shops. It reminded me a lot of Skopje in Northern Macedonia (the Turkish part), a little moreso than Turkish and Middle Eastern bazaars. I guess the European influence and location on tropical Cyprus are responsible for this. Things are cheap and you can bargain down a lot. Another difference from the Cypriot Nicosia where prices seem set and bargaining is less of a thing!
5.Admire the Main Square
There is a main square here which is part of the market area and this is a good place to get your bearings and read the map and tourist information, with arrows pointing everywhere to keep you on track.
6.Sip a Turkish Coffee in a Cafe
I do like a good Turkish coffee, having first sampled it in Istanbul, Goreme and Ankara in 2013. Here I popped into a local cafe which also had Wi-Fi. It was Tezgah Cafe and that was in 2017.
7.Kumarcilar Inn / Kumarcilar Han
Head to the Kumarcilar Inn (Kumarcilar Han) to admire its fine architecture of a traditional Turkish Inn or place to sleep the night. There were once 56 rooms here and the outer wall looks nice. However, once inside you will see that it is in major need or repair. Collapsing is a possibility until the funding to restore it comes through, you can still eat and drink here in the restaurant though.
8.Buyuk Han Courtyard
Of course, as tourism boomed, this once typical Turkish style courtyard / Caravansaray (also similar to such places in Sheki Azerbaijan) is now mostly restaurants and bars. But it is a very typical and cosy place to relax.
9.Arasta Street for a 0% Beer
As well as the famous Ledra Street, Arasta Street is probably the central focus as it mixes good food restaurants with bars, kebab joints and shops. Here I was on an abstention from alcohol so I popped into a bar for a 0% beer. It felt right as I often did that in Islamic countries, including 10 nights off the rip in Saudi Arabia. However, of course the bars here also sell alcohol, but don’t expect wild parties. Cyprus is for that shit in Ayia Napa and Limassol. Northern Cyprus is the calm.
10.Side by Side Flags
While this is possibly included in other sights, such as the border crossing, the walls and Ledra Street, the flags are worth noting. They flag often both the Turkey and Northern Cyprus flags together. I really wish that Northern Cyprus had more recognition as a country, including an international football team. I compare it to Gibraltar’s link to England. Both flags are together often in Turkish Nicosia.
11.Read a book in the quaint Rüstem Kitabevi Bookshop
Could this little gem be the world’s best bookshop? Quite possibly! I loved the Rüstem Kitabevi Bookshop with its packed walls, its ladders, globes, places to read and cheap prices.
As I mentioned you will see the main bazaar easily on your entrance in and around Ledra Street. But the Old Bazaar seems more Iranian in style and is much less crowded, very open plan and inddors with a high roof.
13.Eat on Food Street
There is Turkish and Middle Eastern Food aplenty in Turkish Nicosia, leaving you spoilt for choice. What I loved it that it is basically half the price of the food on the other side of the border! Plus Turkish food is generally better than Cypriot food. I chose Heybe Doner Number One Shop for lunch and loved it. I had Iskender with all the trimmings and salad, plus a fresh Ayran! Heaven for a backpacker’s lunch!
14.St. Sophia’s Cathedral
Sharing the same name as its Istanbul equivalent, St. Sophia’s Cathedral is also known as Hagia Sophia and is actually a Mosque. Take your shoes off, head in to pray and observe the call to prayer out of its minarets. Again another building that has been Islamic and Christian in its lifespan.
15.Bedestan / Bedesten
As a tourist who has backpacked through 9 Stan countries (Podjistan, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), then NO this is not one to add. It is not a country per say, but a fascinating “part” of Turkish Nicosia. It is the oldest part, with a building, main courtyard and some ruins (some are open, others behind glass).
16.Shop for Northern Cyprus Specific Souvenirs
Postcards, fridge magnets and the like from Cyprus are oh so common. There are loads of them. However, for Northern Cyprus they are much harder to find. The main airports in Cyprus will not allow souvenirs with the words “Northern Cyprus” on them, neither will any shops in the Cypriot side of the border. To find these, I searched a lot of shops in the Old Bazaar and finally found what I wanted – local postcards and fridge magnets specific to Northern Cyprus.
What is also fascinating is that they ignore Cypriot football here and sell only Turkish football scarves and shirts! Mostly from Istanbul sides Galatasaray, Besiktas and Fenerbahce.
Sarayönü, officially Atatürk Square is a place where locals mingle. There is the Venetian Column here also.
18.Buyak Hamam (Grand Turkish Bath)
I already had a Turkish bath in mainland Turkey when I backpacked in Trabzon in 2013, so I decided not to hit up another one. But you can do one here – at the Buyak Hamam. Please note that it is gender divided, so guys – a man will be rubbing you down and girls, get ready for a semi naked scrub from a Northern Cypriot lady.
19.Murals and Grafitti
There is art, graffitii and murals aplenty on the Turkish side of the border. However, not all of it is political or religious. I just walked around at my leisure capturing some of these. There is an abundance of such images.
20.Sip Turkish tea
As well as the Turkish coffee experience, head for a good sweet glass of Turkish tea. Again, easy to find in and around the bazaar.
21.Wander the streets, a wee bit “Off the wheaten craic”
Obviously in this article I am writing only about Nicosia the city, so I don’t mean wandering outside the immediate city, but as the city is safe and friendly, head “off the wheaten craic” (the real meaning of “off the beaten craic”) and wander the streets to see what you find. I found this capital city of Northern Cyprus totally fascinating and in fact, I would want to explore Cyprus again, both north and south. Here are a few final memories from my wanders. This is a fabulous city.
Here are some videos from my time backpacking in Turkish Nicosia, Northern Cyprus: