The Cypriot holiday resort of Famagusta, abandoned when the Turkish army invaded the island in 1974, is a war-torn ghost town on the golden sands of Northern Cyprus. Here’s how to explore the Varosha ruins.
I set foot on the beach and was instantly dazzled by the bright sunshine reflecting off of the colourful waters. The beach here was almost deserted. At one end, near the rocks that begin to form Famagusta’s large and natural harbour, there is a solitary holiday resort. If it wasn’t for the dark history and looming presence of the Turkish military, this would be the perfect place to escape the throttled-up and over-run beaches of the Republic of Cyprus.
Indeed, Famagusta was once the island’s largest holiday resort. Before the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the city was the place to be. The rich and the celebrities of the day used Famagusta as their holiday stomping ground, and visitors would descend upon the hotels and restaurants, lounging on the golden beaches and in the turquoise waters. It was a Mediterranean holiday resort that would soon turn into an abandoned war zone.
Famagusta, though, is one of the best places to visit in Northern Cyprus if you want to even begin to understand the divides that still rock this island to its core today. If you’re planning a trip, then keep reading, as I delve into Famagussta’s history and explain how you can explore its ruins.
Table of Contents
Where is Famagusta?
Famagusta is a contentious place to visit. Even simply attempting to describe, or explain, where Famagusta is will likely result in backlash from both sides of the Cypriot divide, but sometimes you’ve got to think practically, rather than politically.
Famagusta (or Gazimağusa, as it’s known in Turkish) is located on the eastern coast of the island of Cyprus. Specifically, it is situated in the Turkish-controlled northern part of the island. After the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the northern region declared itself as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in 1983, which is only recognised by Turkey.
Famagusta and particularly its district of Varosha, which is where the abandoned holiday resorts are, have been significant points of contention in the ongoing Cyprus dispute. Parts of Famagusta are completely off limits to visitors, while large parts of the historic city are still lived in by Northern Cyprus’ Turkish population, and can be visited with no problems at all.
Read more: 12 Things to Do in Northern Cyprus
A brief history of Famagusta
To better understand the place you’ll be visiting, here’s a brief history of Famagusta stretching back to antiquity.
Ancient and Medieval Periods
Ancient Era: Famagusta’s history traces back to ancient times. It was originally a small fishing village, but its potential as a port was evident. As the nearby city of Salamis fell into ruin, Famagusta began to gain more prominence.
Medieval Era: The city became more significant during the Byzantine period. However, it was during the Lusignan rule in the 13th and 14th centuries that Famagusta witnessed an era of prosperity. During this period, the city became one of the world’s richest cities and an important trading hub.
Venetian Rule (1489-1571)
Famagusta came under Venetian control in the late 15th century. Recognising the city’s strategic importance, the Venetians fortified it with massive walls, which can still be seen today. These walls were crucial in the subsequent Ottoman siege.
Siege of Famagusta (1570-1571): In the context of the larger Ottoman-Venetian wars, the Ottoman Empire laid siege to Famagusta. After a protracted and bloody resistance, the city eventually surrendered in 1571. Its fall signalled the end of Venetian Cyprus.
Under Ottoman Rule: During the Ottoman period, many churches were converted into mosques, and Famagusta lost its status as an important trade centre.
British Colonial Period
The British Empire took control of Cyprus in 1878, and Famagusta became an important port under British rule. The city experienced modernisation and growth during this period.
Post-independence and Conflict
Independence (1960): Cyprus gained its independence from Britain in 1960. Inter-communal tensions between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots escalated in the subsequent years.
Turkish Invasion (1974): Following a coup by Greek Cypriots aiming for union with Greece, Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974. As a result, Famagusta’s Varosha district, a modern tourist area, was fenced off by the Turkish military and has since remained a ghost town.
Aftermath: The northern part of Cyprus, including Famagusta, was declared the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in 1983, a state recognised only by Turkey.
21st Century: Efforts for reunification or resolution of the Cyprus issue have continued into the 21st century. Famagusta remains a point of contention, particularly the fenced-off area of Varosha. The future of the city is tied to larger negotiations and the Cyprus problem.
Is Famagusta abandoned?
Not all of Famagusta is abandoned. There’s still a large section of the city itself which is still very much inhabited and very much active. However, a specific section of Famagusta, known as Varosha, is essentially abandoned.
Before 1974, Varosha was among the most sought-after tourist destinations in the world, flaunting its luxurious hotels and golden beaches to Hollywood A-listers. But the landscape changed dramatically with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. As the Turkish troops advanced, Varosha’s residents fled their homes, hoping to return once the dust of conflict settled. But that return never materialised. The Turkish military took control of Varosha, fencing it off from the outside world and prohibiting any entry.
This former tourist haven has since transformed into a ghost town. Over time, the hotels and homes began to crumble, and nature started weaving its way back through the abandoned urban spaces. The eeriness of empty beaches juxtaposed with decaying high-rises has made Varosha a haunting emblem of the Cyprus conflict.
In the subsequent years, the fate of Varosha became a topic of intense debate and speculation. There have been discussions about potentially reopening the district, and indeed, in recent years, some parts of it have been made accessible to the public again. However, the broader political sensitivities associated with the Cyprus issue mean that Varosha’s future remains uncertain and deeply intertwined with the island’s complex history.
In summary, while Famagusta as a whole is not abandoned, the district of Varosha within Famagusta remains largely uninhabited and stands as a silent reminder of the island’s turbulent history.
Read more: The Desolation Along The Cyprus Buffer Zone
My experience visiting Famagusta
Only a few people were lounging around on the deck chairs or splashing in the open-air swimming pool at the Palm Beach Hotel. No one was in the water, and a few tourists wearing blotchy sun cream and sunglasses were strolling across the smooth sand- sand barely untouched by feet or flip-flops.
Along the beach, stretching into the distance far beyond the horizon, were line after line of hotels and small skyscrapers. They were built far along the coastline, but it was eerily quiet. There was no life further ahead, and that’s because I could only walk so far up the beach.
I was soon stopped in my tracks by a barbed wire barricade which jutted out across the beach and into the water. There were imposing Turkish military signs warning me to stay away, to not photograph anything, and looking out across the coast were armed guard posts, casting their shadows across the once lively holiday resort of Famagusta.
Famagusta now falls under the de facto control of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, the unrecognised government which runs the north side of Cyprus. Ever since the Turkish invasion of 1974 which divided the island, the holiday resorts have been cordoned off and left to decay by the Turkish military and the northern government.
Before the invasion, the holiday resort area, or Varosha as it was known, was mostly populated and run by the Greek Cypriot community. When the invading Turks closed on the city, they fled along the coast, towards what is now the territory of the Republic of Cyprus. They have never been allowed to return.
It was only in 2003 that the border restrictions between the Greek and Turkish areas were lifted. The tourists didn’t exactly flock back, however. They’ve relocated to the beaches of southern Cyprus. Famugusta’s holiday resorts have mostly remained derelict and empty. The military, for years, wouldn’t even let anyone in to explore the ruins. They are a sensitive area. Heavily secured and guarded (although this situation has changed since my visit in 2016, and there are now tours available that take you into the ruins themselves, which is fascinating).
From the beach though, I can see through the barricades and screens. I can see the old hotels crumbling. Some of the ruins lie disturbingly derelict only a few metres from the few tourists sunning themselves by the new resort.
I can see the scars of war, patterned across the concrete buildings and I can see the weeds growing over old homes and businesses.
The Turkish Cypriots live in the Old Quarter of Famagusta now, and ringing the city are the ruins of the Greek areas, a strange reminder of the division that still manages to separate these two communities to this day, over 30 years on.
You can see the Republic of Cyprus from the beach in Northern Cyprus.
The future of Famagusta
There are rumours that the old resorts might be turned back over to the Greek Cypriots, possibly to entice Cyprus to stop blocking Turkey’s entrance to the European Union. But for years, the Turkish side kept the once busiest part of the island in a state of terrible neglect, keeping the beaches empty and the holidaymakers away, to remind all Cypriots and visitors that there was a once terrible war waged across these golden beaches, a war that irreversibly changed Cyprus forever.
Since my last visit to Cyprus, in 2016, however, things have begun to change in a more positive manner. In 2020, for example, there was a controversial partial reopening of the area, which drew both international attention and condemnation.
After the partial reopening, it was possible for visitors to access some of the beaches and areas of Varosha under specific conditions and regulations. Organised tours within the district are still not prevalent, mainly due to their sensitive and politically charged nature, but they are now possible. Even the Original Red Bus company offers a tour, presumably in their open-topped buses!
How to visit Famagusta
If you’re not on an organised tour into Varosha itself, then the abandoned holiday resorts are best seen from one point, the part of the beach by the city that is still open. It’s a small stretch of sand, on the map below, by the Palm Beach Hotel. The city itself can only be reached from Northern Cyprus, not directly from the South. Be careful when taking pictures here as it is illegal. Be careful when swimming too, because the border runs across the beach, and the water, so there’s a very real possibility you would be fired upon by the Turkish Military if you strayed over the dividing line!
You can stay in Famagusta if you’re exploring Northern Cyprus (which I highly recommend), or you can visit on a day trip. There’s a border crossing from North to South nearby, which should be relatively easy to cross, or you can cross the Ledra Street border point in Nicosia and make your way south.
Visiting Famagusta, including the intriguing district of Varosha, does require understanding and navigating the division between the Republic of Cyprus (south) and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC, north). Here’s a detailed description of how to visit:
1. Entering Cyprus:
From Outside Cyprus:
- If you’re flying directly into the north (Ercan Airport, for instance), you will technically be entering Cyprus via an entry point not recognised internationally except by Turkey. This can cause complications if you later try to exit Cyprus from the Republic of Cyprus side.
- It’s more straightforward to fly into an airport in the Republic of Cyprus (e.g., Larnaca or Paphos) and then cross overland into the north.
From the Republic of Cyprus (south) to TRNC (north):
- There are several crossing points. For Famagusta, the most convenient would likely be the Ayios Dhometios checkpoint in Nicosia or the Strovilia checkpoint near Agios Nikolaos British Base.
- Ensure you have a valid passport. The border officials in the north might ask where you’re staying in the north, so have your accommodation details ready.
- They may stamp a separate piece of paper rather than your passport (which can be beneficial since some countries may not recognize the TRNC stamp).
Read more: The Ledra Street Border Crossing in Cyprus
2. Getting to Famagusta:
- Once you’ve crossed the border, you can drive (check if your car insurance covers the north or if you need to buy additional coverage at the border), take a taxi, or use intercity buses to get to Famagusta.
- Parts of Varosha were controversially reopened to the public. Before heading there, check the latest status, as political situations can change.
- If open, you can visit some parts of its beaches and areas. However, always respect any cordoned-off zones and adhere to any rules or guidelines provided by local authorities.
4. Returning to the South:
- When crossing back to the Republic of Cyprus, present your passport. In most cases, as long as you initially entered Cyprus from a recognized entry point (like Larnaca Airport), there shouldn’t be issues re-entering the south.
5. Additional Tips:
- Currency: While the Euro is the currency in the south, the Turkish Lira is used in the north. It’s advisable to have some Lira if you’re spending time in the north.
- Mobile Roaming: Mobile roaming agreements for the Republic of Cyprus may not cover the north. Check with your provider and consider getting a local SIM card if needed.
- Cultural Awareness: Famagusta, and especially Varosha, has a complex history. Approach your visit with respect and sensitivity, especially when discussing political issues.
- Accommodations: Famagusta offers a range of accommodations from hotels to guest houses. Booking in advance is recommended, especially in peak seasons.
Things to do in Famagusta
Of course, visiting the ghost resorts of Varosha isn’t the only thing to do in Famagusta. Indeed, my article might even seem to suggest that all of Famagusta is abandoned, but here’s a reminder that that isn’t the case.
In fact, there are quite a few things to do in Famagusta, including:
- Othello Castle: Named after the Shakespearean play, this Venetian fortress provides panoramic views of the city and the sea. It’s also known as Othello’s Tower and is an iconic part of Famagusta’s old city walls.
- Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque: Originally built as the St. Nicholas Cathedral in the Gothic architectural style, it was converted into a mosque in the 16th century. It remains one of the most impressive Gothic buildings in Cyprus.
- Venetian Walls: Famagusta’s old town is surrounded by these historic walls that once served as formidable defences against invaders. You can walk along parts of these walls and see the various bastions and gates.
- Sea Gate: One of the main entrances to the walled city, this historic gate leads to the old town’s heart. There’s a lion sculpture above the gate, a typical symbol of Venice.
- Palm Beach: Located close to Varosha, this is a lovely sandy beach where you can relax and enjoy the waters of the eastern Mediterranean.
- Namik Kemal Dungeon and Museum: Namik Kemal was an Ottoman Turkish nationalist poet and playwright. He was exiled to Famagusta for his ideas, and the dungeon where he was imprisoned has been turned into a museum.
- Sinan Pasha Mosque: Once the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, this structure was converted into a mosque in the 16th century. Its Gothic architecture is still very much evident.
- Stroll the Old Town: Wander the streets of the old town and soak in its charm. Explore the various shops, cafes, and eateries, experiencing the blend of Cypriot and Turkish cultures.
- Try Local Cuisine: Famagusta offers a variety of local dishes, both from Cypriot and Turkish cuisines. Enjoy traditional dishes such as kebabs, halloumi, baklava, and Turkish delights.
- Visit Salamis Ruins: Just north of Famagusta, the ancient city of Salamis offers extensive ruins that date back to the Roman and Byzantine periods. The site includes a theatre, gymnasium, and Roman baths.
Why is Cyprus still divided?
If you’re fascinated by geopolitics, just like me, then you might be wondering why Cyprus is still divided. Here’s a brief overview of the situation:
- Ethnic Differences: Cyprus has two main ethnic groups: Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. While they coexisted for many centuries, nationalistic sentiments and desires for unification with their respective “motherlands” (Greece for Greek Cypriots and Turkey for Turkish Cypriots) became prominent in the 20th century.
- Colonial Background: Cyprus was a British colony from 1878 to 1960. During the late colonial period, anti-British sentiments and desires for self-determination grew. Greek Cypriots primarily wanted “Enosis” (unification with Greece), while Turkish Cypriots feared this would leave them marginalised and thus leaned towards “Taksim” (partition between Greece and Turkey).
- Independence and Constitution Issues: Cyprus gained independence from Britain in 1960, with a constitution that sought to balance the interests of both communities. However, it was complicated and led to tensions, particularly as it gave Turkish Cypriots disproportionate political power given their minority status.
- Inter-communal Violence: By the mid-1960s, tensions escalated into violence between the two communities, leading to displacement and creating zones that were either predominantly Greek or Turkish Cypriot.
- 1974 Coup and Invasion: In 1974, a coup backed by the Greek military junta aimed to annex Cyprus to Greece. In response, Turkey invaded Cyprus, purportedly to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority. This resulted in the occupation of the northern third of the island by Turkey.
- Proclamation of the TRNC: In 1983, the northern part of Cyprus declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). It’s only recognised by Turkey and remains isolated from the international community.
- UN Peacekeeping Force: The United Nations has maintained a peacekeeping force in Cyprus since 1964, and there’s a buffer zone (“Green Line”) separating the two parts. Despite numerous attempts at reunification, the two sides remain divided.
- Failed Reunification Attempts: Over the decades, there have been multiple attempts to reunify the island, including referendums and UN-mediated talks. However, disagreements over governance, property rights, and security issues, as well as the presence of Turkish troops in the north, have impeded a solution.
- International Involvement: The strategic location of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean means that other nations, including Greece, Turkey, the UK, and even the US, have vested interests. This involvement often complicates domestic negotiations.
- Economic and Social Divergence: Over the years, the two parts of Cyprus have developed different economic, political, and social structures, making potential reunification more complicated.
In essence, the division of Cyprus persists because of deep-rooted historical tensions, the involvement of external powers, failed negotiations and the different trajectories the two regions have taken since the division.
FAQ: How to visit Famagusta
Here’s an FAQ on visiting Famagusta, in Northern Cyprus:
1. Where is Famagusta located?
Famagusta is situated on the eastern coast of Cyprus, in the Turkish-controlled northern part of the island.
2. Can I visit Famagusta?
Yes, you can visit Famagusta. While the city is in the northern part of Cyprus, which is controlled by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), it is accessible to tourists. However, entry procedures might be different than for other parts of Cyprus.
3. How do I get to Famagusta?
If you’re already in Cyprus, you can drive or take a bus to Famagusta from major cities. If entering from the southern part of Cyprus, you’ll need to pass through a checkpoint. Ensure you have your passport and necessary documents.
4. Can I visit the abandoned district of Varosha?
Parts of Varosha have been opened to the public in recent years. However, since the situation can change based on political dynamics, it’s advisable to check the latest updates before planning a visit.
5. Is it safe to visit Famagusta?
Famagusta is generally safe for tourists. However, like any other travel destination, it’s essential to be aware of your surroundings, avoid deserted areas at night, and keep your belongings secure.
6. What are some must-see attractions in Famagusta?
Historical attractions include the Othello Castle, Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque (formerly St. Nicholas Cathedral), and the Venetian walls. The city’s beaches are also popular destinations.
7. Are there any entry requirements or permits needed to visit Famagusta?
If you’re entering Famagusta from the southern part of Cyprus, you’ll pass through a checkpoint. It’s necessary to carry your passport. Some nationalities might require additional documentation or visas, so it’s a good idea to check in advance.
8. What currency is used in Famagusta?
The official currency in the TRNC (including Famagusta) is the Turkish lira.
9. Can I use my European Union mobile roaming in Famagusta?
Mobile roaming regulations that apply to EU countries may not be applicable in the TRNC. It’s advisable to check with your service provider about roaming charges in northern Cyprus.
10. Are there any cultural or behavioural norms I should be aware of?
Famagusta, like much of Cyprus, is a blend of cultures. While it’s generally liberal, it’s respectful to dress modestly when visiting religious sites. As with many places, it’s also good practice to ask for permission before taking photos of people.
11. Is English widely spoken?
While Turkish is the official language, English is widely understood, especially in tourist areas, due to the city’s historical ties with Britain and its status as a popular tourist destination.
12. Where can I get more information or assistance while in Famagusta?
There are tourist information centres in Famagusta where you can get maps, brochures, and other helpful resources for your visit.
Remember that political situations can change, and it’s always a good idea to check for the most recent travel advisories or updates when planning a trip to Northern Cyprus.