Many visitors stay in Nicosia and fail to explore the large and uninviting Messaoria plain which is a barren waste in the summer but very green and pleasant in winter. But it is worth taking a look. There are a few ancient sites worth visiting and some attractive churches and monasteries to visit. The villages in the Troodos foothills are a step back in time.
The best archaeological site is Ancient Tamasos, the remains of the ancient kingdom found about 17km south west of Nicosia near the village of Politico. Its wealth was founded on copper which was extensively mined from 600BC.
The main attraction is the tombs of two kings with walls carved to imitate wood. The treasure that was here has long since vanished and a hole in the roof of the larger tomb shows where the grave robbers got in. Six limestone sculptures — four lions and two sphinxes -were recently discovered during work on one of two 6th-century BC royal tombs. Two of the lions were life-size and complete.
About 2km south is the postcard pretty village of Pera with its winding cobbled back streets and bougainvillea-bedecked walls. The village is one of several often included in 'safari' tours of Messaoria and the Troodos mountains.
Photogenic opportunities can also be found at Orounda and Peristerona where there is a very fine church. Heading into the Troodos mountains is the area of Agia Marina with several well marked shady picnic spots. Another favourite is the pretty village of Fikardou is one of a clutch of well-preserved villages. Houses date from the Ottoman period and have splendid balconies. There is a small cafe.
South Nicosia holiday sights
The walled ramparts that surround the city of Nicosia were originaly built by the Venetians and are now a major tourist attraction. The walls were erected to keep out the Ottoman Turks and took four years to build from 1567-1570. They weren't a fat lot of good as the Ottoman army landed at Larnaka just as they were being finished and stormed Nicosia only three months later.
The ramparts completely encircle the city and make for fine walks along several sections. They were built with 11 fortified bastions which have remained pretty well unchanged. Today the Green Line through the middle of the old city leaves five bastions in the south, another five in the north. The remaining Flatro Bastion in the east is occupied by Greek, Turk and UN forces in equal measure — such are the niceties in carving up an island.
The southern ramparts and moat are generally in very good condition. Car parks have been built below them and there are gardens and town parks which also serve as venues for concerts. The bastions in the north have, unfortunately, been left to pretty much fall apart and many are now overgrown and crumbling.
The walls used to have just three gates into the Old City but there is now access in several more places and traffic enters from all directions.
The Famagusta Gate is the best preserved and most photographed of the old gates that once led into the city and is found in the Caraffa Bastion in the east, off Leoforos Athinas. The impressive sloping facade leads through the wall and an imposing wooden doorway.
It was renovated in 1981 and the area is now used for exhibitions and concerts. These in turn have attracted several trendy restaurants and cafes to the area. This is also the main city bar and clubbing strip and the place lights up with neon after 10pm.
Near the D'Avila Bastion is the Laiki Yitonia district in the revamped part of the old city. The Government expropriated a square kilometre in 1977 to preserve the old city character and support local crafts and culture. the result is a prettified traffic-free area, crossed by cobbled lanes are full of shops and restaurants designed to catch the upmarket tourist trade.
There is a wide variety of bougainvillea-bedecked restaurants and an even wider variety of colourful but irritating touts trying to tempt you into them. Despite this, there are not that many bars or cafes where you can sit outside in the sunshine. Nevertheless it's a very pleasant area with lots of shade and you can always stock up on free maps and guides from the nearby Cyprus Tourist Office.
The Cyprus Museum has the best collection of archaeological finds on the island. The building dates from around 1880 and is frankly past its best but the collections are very impressive. The highlight is the terra cotta figures dating from the 6th and 7th centuries. There are also some very fine statues, including Aphrodite of Soli, ubiquitous on travel brochures and posters.
The Ledra Museum & Observatory sits incongruously on top of the Woolworth's department store and is the best place for panoramas of the city both north and south through powerful telescopes sited there.
House of Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios
The House of Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios is a remarkably restored mansion of a wealthy citizen around 1800. Lavish excess triggered a peasant revolt that threw him out and when he returned five years later he was beheaded for treason. One room has been restored as a living museum while the rest is given over to Ottoman antiques and memorabilia.
Makarios Cultural Foundation
The Makarios Cultural Foundation houses three exhibition areas. One is the European Art Gallery with painting by Van Dyke, Rubens and Tintoretto in its collection. Nearby is the rather dull Greek Independence War Gallery with maps, documents and paintings and also the Byzantine Art Museum which has a huge collection of icons from the 5th to the 19th centuries. Also nearby is the Ethnographic Museum which has many fine examples of folk art and crafts including embroidery, clothes, pottery, paintings, leatherwork and wood carving.
Ledra Palace Checkpoint
Well, hardly a holiday destination but still a favourite spot for gawking tourists. The Ledra Palace Hotel crossing, the only legitimate entry point from south to north. It's not a place to dwell for long. Graffiti-daubed cement walls and posters of Greek Cypriots killed by border guards front the crossing which is about 300-metres long and lined with razor wire.
To the west is the bullet-pocked Ledra Palace Hotel now occupied by the UN, while east is a string of bombed out buildings. Crossing into the north is legal, though papers are inspected vigorously and south Cypriot officials will register your departure with disapproval.
The Turkish checkpoint is more informal and the guards more friendly, although passports are still rigorously studied as visitors are warned against buying alcohol or tobacco. There are many signs to warn against taking pictures but guards don't seem to mind, though it's as well to ask first unless you want your camera confiscated.
You cannot go north to south unless you are a returning visitor and you must return on the same day unless you want real problems. The Green Line divides the city east — west and there are many places where the dividing wall blocks streets and alleyways.
North Nicosia Holiday Sights
North Nicosia's most prominent landmark is the Selimiye Mosque, a strange cross between mosque and Gothic church that betrays its checkered history at the hands of religious conquerors. Work started on it in 1209 but it wasn't finished until 1326 when it was known as the Church of Agia Sofia.
It was formerly the cathedral of St. Sophia, built over the ruins of a previous building. It's architectural style in parts resembles the mediaeval cathedrals of France.
It suffered a couple of earthquakes before the Ottoman's arrived in 1570, stripped it of its treasures and built two minarets. The Gothic structure is still visible despite Islamic overlays of whitewashed walls and the ornate west front, with its three decorated doorways, is very impressive.
On the south side is a Greek church that was once used as a covered market but is now preserved as an ancient monument. The interior marble and granite columns and a vaulted room full of mediaeval tombstones, with the coats of arms of Crusader knights.
To the east is the Hatdarpasha Mosque and the former 14th century Church of St. Catherine and now an art gallery. Especially good are the ornate carvings of gargoyles, dragons and shields on display.
To the south of Selimiye Mosque the famous Buyuk Hammam Turkish bath house. This is a favourite with male and female tourists. Entry is through a very ornate door which was once part of a 14th century church. The bath house has been sunk below street level and you descend stone steps to get a get a refreshing steam bath and a very invigorating massage for next to nothing.
Nearby is the Derva Pasha Museum, a former mansion house built in 1807 which is now an ethnographic museum featuring household items, glassware and ceramics on the ground floor and a fine display of Turkish costumes in the rooms above. Most impressive is the splendid selamlik, or rest room, complete with squishy sofas and giant hookah.
Buyuk Khan Great Inn
To the west of the city is an example of a Great Inn or Buyuk Han. This is a place similar to those found in Turkey where travellers could find rooms, trade goods and socialise. This one was built in 1572 around a courtyard with nearly 70 rooms around it on two floors.
Room the upper floor were for lodging and each is fitted with a fireplace and an octagonal chimney. In the middle of the courtyard a domed octagonal miniature mosque sitting on on eight columns with a fountain beneath.
During the British rule, the Han served as a prison and later it became a builder's yard. It was extensively restored in the ten years to 2002 and is now a thriving arts centre, with upper guest rooms and artists' studios below.