Why North Cyprus is a secluded but beautiful Mediterranean island
North Cyprus is located in the northeastern part of the island of Cyprus. Although the island’s history and connections with the Republic of Cyprus are complicated, tourists are very welcome to visit the northern part of the island. Visitors to Northern Cyprus will find a magnificent coastline with sandy beaches, a stunning mountain area, historical cities, scenic mountain villages, and ancient ruins.
The border crossing to North Cyprus is simple and quick; it takes as easy as displaying your passports in the border zone and going across to the northern side of Nicosia’s walled old town. You can drive north via the Kyrenia highlands after visiting some historic sites in the capital. Your first stop could be in Kyrenia (Girne), a small town on the island’s north coast around 30 kilometers from Nicosia.
You can board a bus, or rather a minivan, to Kyrenia from a bus station just outside Nicosia’s old town and Kyrenia Gate. You will notice that the view changes considerably as soon as you leave the city behind. The mountains rise to the north, and the plain between them and Nicosia is sparsely inhabited, giving the impression that it is almost deserted. A large North Cyprus flag painted on the slope of the Kyrenia Mountains attracts immediate attention. Depending on who you ask, the flag, which can also be seen from parts of the southern side, was either painted by the Turkish occupation force to irritate the Greek Cypriots, or it is a monument painted by survivors of one of the violent clashes between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots in 1974.
On the way to Kyrenia, you will see the fenced areas occupied by Turkish military forces. The total number of troops on the island is unknown (estimates range from 15 000 to 35 000), but the military presence is unmistakable in North Cyprus, and you will frequently come across military gates and warning signs while wandering around Kyrenia. Do not get it wrong; although the past was traumatic and the political situation is problematic, to say the least, North Cyprus is not a war zone, and visiting there feels really secure, and everyone you will encounter would be nice and welcoming.
North Cyprus, on the other hand, has a distinct atmosphere. It is a mix of liberty and control, part of the EU in principle but more or less under Turkish influence; in fact, a casino paradise with no American chains. Tensions between Turkish and Greek Cypriots are visible, but they are also hidden beneath the surface. All of this is fascinating, but out of reach for the random visitor seeking sun and tan.
While in the city, you can opt to use Kyrenia as a base for seeing the neighboring attractions and hiking trails. You will discover two pretty wonderful Airbnb places; one near the city center and the other a few kilometers out of town, right next to Girne American University. The latter is no longer available for rent, although it was in spectacular surroundings, essentially within a brand new and fancy hotel area. You can spend some days in Kyrenia and have enough time to see the city and make some day hikes up in the mountains and to the charming, small mountain villages. You can spend a considerable period during your visit to go across North Cyprus and explore the more distant locations, archaeological sites, and beaches that it has to offer, and you can consider returning the following year in case you could not explore enough of the stunning beauties of North Cyprus during your initial visit.
Kyrenia (Girne) – A lively coastal city and tourism hub
The historical city of Kyrenia is North Cyprus’ most popular tourist attraction. The town (or at least the tourist area) is small enough to walk about in. A lovely horseshoe-shaped ancient port with busy cafés and restaurants, a castle on the seaside, and a medieval old town with narrow cobblestone streets and old apartment buildings are all worth visiting. The port area is a bit too busy, but it is a great starting point for exploring North Cyprus or an accessible destination for a short holiday in the island’s northern half. In Kyrenia, English is widely spoken, and all services are provided in the English language.
Kyrenia has a sizable expat community, with many British expats establishing roots in the region. There are also a significant number of international university students in the city, which locals estimate to be more than double the number of “normal” residents. Several new universities have opened in recent years, and a large number of new housing projects have been completed or are now being developed. It is unclear why this is happening, but North Cyprus’ attractiveness as a study destination appears to be based on a straightforward immigration and visa procedure and a low cost of living. There are some downsides to this development as well; the increasing population appears to be outstripping the city’s infrastructure, and rapid growth raises overall prices. In addition, students rarely have the opportunity to stay in North Cyprus after graduation, which can be devastating in some situations because not all students are able to return to their home country and have limited travel opportunities.
Because public transit in North Cyprus is limited, the majority of visitors opt to rent a car or hire a cab to access the mountain castles and monasteries. As such, visitors often combine hiking and sightseeing. Hiking up to both Saint Hilarion Castle and Bellapais Abbey can give a fascinating experience. If you want to walk, it is strongly advised you do so, but stay on the main roads because military areas sometimes block the dirt roads and walkways.
The enormous, square-shaped Kyrenia Castle, which has stood there for over a thousand years, is located directly close to the Old Harbor. According to research, there may have been an ancient Roman fort in the same site before the Byzantines erected the castle. The castle was built to defend Kyrenia against invasions, and despite the fact that its rulers changed multiple times throughout the centuries, it was successful in warding off a number of attacks. The shape and style of the castle naturally changed as the administration changed, and the current form is an intriguing combination of many eras and architectural styles. The entrance fee is 12 Turkish lira (about 2,5 Euro), however, there is the possibility of an increase based on current exchange rates.
Saint Hilarion Castle
The spectacular remains of St. Hilarion Castle loom above Kyrenia in the mountains. This castle, which has inspired both fairy tale artists and moviemakers, is partially carved into solid rock and climbs up the mountain wall. The castle was named after a Cypriot monk called Hilarion, who lived and died in the Kyrenia Mountains and in this castle, according to legends. Over and around his tomb, a Byzantine church, monastery, and fort were later erected.
The castle is divided into three main sections. Gardens, armories, and stabling area are located on the “ground level,” within the outer walls and towers. The second part, which is accessible by ascending routes, is largely made up of living quarters with a chapel therein. Reaching up towards the summit to reach the third portion, which was previously enclosed by a massive Byzantine wall, requires climbing up quite steep stairs. The views from Prince John’s Tower and Royal Apartments are spectacular, and there is a viewing platform as well. This is a popular spot for snapping photos and simply watching the countryside. The entrance price is 9 Turkish lira (approximately 2 euros, although there may be a significant increase due to current exchange rates) and the castle is well worth it. It is best to set aside at least a couple of hours to explore across the rather large setting. Remember to wear comfortable shoes because the castle has many steps and uneven ground.
View from the Bellapais village
Bellapais village and monastery is another popular holiday destination from Kyrenia. The name means “beautiful peace,” and the environment is indeed lovely. The small village is located approximately 5 kilometers outside of Kyrenia, at a height of 220 meters above sea level. The monastery was built in the 12th century by Aimery de Lusignan, but it is said that the site was used as a residence for the bishops of Kyrenia and as a refuge from Arab attacks as early as the 7th and 8th centuries. The main structure, which is in the Gothic style, was completed between 1267 and 1284. The Bellapais Abbey entrance fee is around 2 euros (there is a possible increase based on current exchange rates), but seeing the abbey from the outside and wandering around the charming hamlet is also rewarding. Bellapais is also an excellent starting point for longer mountain hikes.
Hiking and Trail Running
The views up the mountains around Kyrenia are excellent day trek destinations as well as starting places for longer hiking routes. You can choose not to take the main road up to Saint Hilarion Castle, preferring instead to take a more direct route up from Kyrenia. There are mostly dirt roads (presumably power line servicing routes) up to a small power station, where you can discover a designated, rocky trail leading up to the castle. You can also try to take dirt roads on our trip to Bellapais but would end up circulating the fenced military sites, which are (naturally) not marked on any maps, but suddenly blocking your way. Although the gates were open in certain situations, it is still not permitted to wander across these areas. It is unclear how many of these blocked military areas there are in North Cyprus, but they certainly make self-guided hiking more complicated, therefore it is best to use the defined hiking trails in the highlands.
Karmi Village (Karaman), located just a few kilometers from Kyrenia, is a great place to start hiking. You will be enchanted by its beauty.
There is a small church and a few services such as a restaurant and a grocery store in the small town, which is made up of neatly maintained cottages and tight lanes. Near the church’s parking area is a hiking trail signpost. Karmi’s history is intriguing, and it is far too long to tell here, but to summarize, the majority of its residents are British and German, and it is somewhat impossible for Cypriots to purchase property there.
The Kyrenia mountains include a number of marked hiking paths. The trail network, which totals roughly 600 kilometers, is largely made up of dirt roads and some narrow walkways. Mountain biking paths are also ideal for hiking, however, the route marks are sometimes hard to spot.
The Kyrenia mountain track, which runs from Cape Korucam (Cape Kormakitis) in the northwest to Cape Zafer (Cape Apostolos Andreas) in the northeast, is North Cyprus’ most well-known hiking trail. The path is approximately 220 kilometers long and runs along the main ridge of the Kyrenia mountains. The most beautiful scenery is found around the Five Finger mountain ridge, which includes several castles, monasteries, and mountain villages. This path can be trekked independently, although various tour companies provide guided excursions that include transportation, lodging, and food. The ideal time to hike in North Cyprus is probably in the spring when the sun is shining but not too hot, and wild flowers are blooming on the mountains. In addition to hiking, the Kyrenia mountain range offers trail jogging, mountain biking, horse riding, paragliding, and bird watching.
The narrow Karpaz Peninsula, also known as the “tail of Cyprus,” is another excellent hiking destination in the northeast. There is a national park in North Cyprus that is known for its unspoiled scenery and wild donkeys.
Before you go on your planned vacation, it is important to have basic knowledge about North Cyprus as summarized below.
- The Turkish lira is the local currency of North Cyprus. When entering from the south of Cyprus, there are exchange offices adjacent to the border zone. Euro is widely accepted in cities as well.
- EET (UTC +2) is the time zone of North Cyprus.
- Turkish is the official language of North Cyprus, however, English is commonly spoken.
- Driving is on the left side of the road.
- Winters are cold and rainy, spring and fall are mild and pleasant, and summers are hot and dry. There are almost 300 sunny days every year.
- British 3-pin rectangle plugs adapters to Europe-style plugs are wıdely available, but it is still a good idea to carry your own.
- There are public transportation operating between bigger cities, with minivans/shared taxis known as dolmus serving smaller towns. Tickets can be purchased on board for a modest price. It is preferable to travel during the day because service is less frequent after dark, and some routes are only serviced in the morning and afternoon.
- North Cyprus is a relatively low-cost destination for visitors.