From climbing Othello’s Castle to visiting the abandoned ghost resorts of Varosha; here are the best things to do in Famagusta, Northern Cyprus.
Located on the northeastern coast of Cyprus, Famagusta stands as a striking reminder of the Mediterranean island’s complex history and ongoing political narratives. With roots dating back to antiquity, the city flourished under Lusignan rule in the 13th century, was fortified by the Venetians in the 15th century, conquered by the Ottomans in the 16th century and handed over to the British in the 19th century.
From the towering ramparts of Othello’s Castle to the intricate Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, Famagusta’s architectural sights tell stories of conquest from the Byzantines to the British. However, the legacy of Famagusta is also closely intertwined with Cyprus’s tumultuous modern history. Following the Turkish invasion in 1974, a significant portion of the city, known as Varosha, became an uninhabited ghost district, frozen in time, and remains one of the world’s most poignant symbols of conflict.
The city’s layered history is even reflected in its nomenclature: in Greek, it’s called ‘Ammochostos’, meaning ‘hidden in the sand’. The name ‘Famagusta’, on the other hand, is believed to have evolved from its French appellation ‘Famagouste’, introduced during the Lusignan period. The Turkish rendition, ‘Gazimağusa’, echoes the name but carries its own distinction (the Turkish word Gazi is derived from Arabic, meaning one who fights a holy war).
These multiple names not only signify the city’s multi-faceted identity but also mirror Cyprus’s own complex socio-political landscape, making Famagusta a fascinating place to visit when you’re exploring Northern Cyprus. If you’re planning a trip here, then keep reading, as I detail the best things to do in Famagusta.
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The best things to do in Famagusta
Famagusta is located on the northeastern coast of Cyprus, and in the context of modern-day geopolitics, Famagusta is situated in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a state proclaimed in the northern part of Cyprus and recognised only by Turkey.
This confusing state of affairs is a result of the 1974 Turkish invasion that followed a coup by Greek Cypriot nationalists. After the invasion, Cyprus was divided in two, and the district of Varosha in Famagusta became a ghost town. With its original inhabitants unable to return and the area fenced off, the status of Famagusta, like the broader Cyprus dispute, remains a contentious issue on the international stage. However, from a geographical standpoint, Famagusta is undeniably a part of the island of Cyprus.
I visited Famagusta as part of a two-week road trip across Northern Cyprus. I travelled overland from the Republic of Cyprus (the southern side) and had no trouble doing so. Much of Famagusta, including its Old Town where you’ll find Othello’s Castle, is largely inhabited by Turkish Cypriots.
However, at the time of my visit, the Varosha area of Famagusta was still closed off to tourists. The buffer zone (including military guard posts and barbed wire) goes right through the city’s main beach, too, making this a rather unique holiday destination. Things are slowly changing however, and since my visit in 2016, it’s now possible to explore the abandoned hotels and resorts in Varosha, as well as all the major sights in Famagusta.
1. Climb the ramparts of Othello’s Castle
Othello’s Castle, also known as Othello Tower, is a formidable fortress located at the entrance to the old harbour of Famagusta. Built by the Lusignans in the 14th century and later modified by the Venetians in the 15th century, the castle stands as a testament to the city’s strategic importance in the medieval era.
Its name is intriguingly linked to William Shakespeare’s tragedy, ‘Othello’. It’s believed that the play’s setting, a fortress in Cyprus, was inspired by this very structure, though there’s no concrete evidence to confirm this.
The tower itself offers panoramic views of the surrounding city and coastline. As you ascend the battlements, you’ll see the remnants of Gothic architecture and inscriptions offering glimpses into the castle’s storied past. Today, Othello’s Castle stands not just as a military fortress, but as an iconic symbol of Famagusta’s medieval history.
Read more: 12 Things To Do In Northern Cyprus
2. See Famagusta’s divided history at the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque
The Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, located in the heart of Famagusta, is a remarkable emblem of the city’s multifaceted history. Originally constructed as the Cathedral of St. Nicholas between 1298 and 1400 during the Lusignan reign, this Gothic-style edifice was the largest medieval building in Famagusta.
Its architecture, reminiscent of French cathedrals, reveals pointed arches, ribbed vaults and intricate sculptures, exemplifying the grandeur of European Gothic artistry. The cathedral’s transformation into a mosque came in 1571, following the Ottoman conquest of Famagusta. With this conversion, the cathedral’s frescoes and statues were removed or covered in line with Islamic practices, and a minaret was added to the northern tower, altering its skyline forever more.
Today, the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque serves not only as a place of worship but also as a mark of the cultural and historical complexities of Famagusta. The edifice speaks of a city where East meets West, where intricate Gothic designs can coexist with Islamic architectural elements, but where conflict has raged for centuries.
3. Walk the Venetian Walls
Famagusta’s medieval past is encapsulated in its Venetian walls, a series of fortifications that once stood as the city’s primary defence against invaders. Constructed in the 15th and 16th centuries by the Venetians, these walls replaced earlier ramparts, fortifying Famagusta against the looming Ottoman threat. Designed in an irregular star shape, they span approximately 4.5 kilometres, offering travellers a tangible journey through history.
Central to these fortifications is the Martinengo Bastion, an architectural marvel of its time. Named after Gian Girolamo Sanmicheli Martinengo, a renowned military engineer, the bastion was strategically designed to withstand cannon fire, a revolutionary concept in that era. Its gentle, sloping walls and robust construction make it a prime example of Renaissance military architecture.
Read more: The Desolation Along the Cyprus Buffer Zone
4. Spot the lion on the Sea Gate
Famagusta’s Sea Gate, also known as the ‘Porta del Mare’, tells of the city’s strategic importance during the medieval era. Located within the formidable Venetian walls that encircle the historic town, the Sea Gate once served as the primary maritime entrance to Famagusta.
Constructed by the Venetians in the 16th century, this grand gateway showcases architectural prowess with its robust battlements and intricately carved stone reliefs. A prominent feature is the lion of St. Mark, a symbol of Venetian power, which stands guard above the entrance.
For mariners and traders of bygone eras, the Sea Gate was both a welcoming portal and a formidable barrier, representing the city’s thriving mercantile activities and its preparedness against potential sieges.
5. Explore Varosha, Famagusta’s ghost town
Varosha, once the jewel of Famagusta’s tourist crown, now stands as a haunting reminder of the turbulent history of Cyprus. In its heyday during the 1960s and early 1970s, Varosha’s sun-kissed beaches and luxury hotels attracted international glitterati, from Hollywood stars to wealthy entrepreneurs, and its reputation as a Mediterranean paradise was unparalleled.
However, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 brought an abrupt halt to its tourist narrative. The inhabitants, fearing the advancing Turkish forces, fled in haste, expecting to return once the situation stabilised. Instead, Varosha was fenced off by the Turkish military, transforming almost overnight from a glamorous tourist hub into an eerie ghost town. Buildings that once hosted the rich and famous now stand silent and dilapidated, trapped in a 1970s time capsule.
For decades, entry to Varosha was strictly prohibited, with the untouched remnants of life serving as a poignant reminder of its displaced community. Recent developments have initiated a partial reopening, and while tourists can now explore its ruins, the district’s future remains uncertain. Today, Varosha stands as a symbol of the complex political challenges faced by Cyprus, as well as the impermanence of human endeavours against the backdrop of geopolitical strife.
6. Soak up the sun on Palm Beach
Palm Beach embodies both the serene beauty and complex history of Cyprus. Lined with golden sands, the beach presents a picturesque setting for sunbathers and swimmers alike. The turquoise waters of the Mediterranean invite visitors for a refreshing dip, making it a popular spot for both locals and tourists.
However, the beach’s proximity to the abandoned district of Varosha adds a layer of poignant juxtaposition. From the shoreline, you can view the empty high-rises of Varosha, standing as silent witnesses to the area’s turbulent past. This unique combination of natural beauty and historical significance lends Palm Beach an atmosphere unlike any other, especially given the barbed wire and guard posts that watch out over the Green Line.
Over the years, efforts have been made to rejuvenate the beach area, adding amenities and facilities to enhance the visitor experience. Yet, the echoes of history remain, making Palm Beach not just a destination for relaxation but also for reflection.
7. Visit the Namik Kemal Dungeon and Museum
Namik Kemal Dungeon and Museum is a significant historical site in Famagusta. It’s named after the prominent Turkish poet, journalist and nationalist Namik Kemal, who was imprisoned in the dungeon during the late 19th century by the Ottoman authorities for his political ideas.
The dungeon, originally part of the Venetian Palace, has been preserved to depict the harsh conditions in which Kemal was confined. His writings on nationalism, democracy and constitutional reform made him an influential figure, and his confinement in Famagusta has added a layer of historical importance to the site.
Converted into a museum, the site today showcases various artefacts, writings, and personal belongings of Namik Kemal, allowing visitors to delve into the life and ideology of this important cultural figure. A visit to Namik Kemal Dungeon and Museum offers a glimpse into a time of political unrest and reform, as well as the enduring power of literary expression.
8. Delve into the past at the Sinan Pasha Mosque
The Sinan Pasha Mosque is an intriguing fusion of architectural styles and religious history. Originally constructed as the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in the 14th century, this Gothic edifice was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Famagusta in 1571.
The mosque retains many of its original Gothic features, including pointed arches and ribbed vaulting, but with the addition of Islamic elements such as the simple minaret. The blend of these architectural styles is a physical manifestation of the region’s complex cultural history.
Sinan Pasha Mosque is a symbol of Famagusta’s layered history, where various empires and faiths have left their mark. Its conversion from a church to a mosque reflects the shifting religious dynamics of the time. Today, visitors to Sinan Pasha Mosque can experience this blend of cultures, making it a must-visit site in Famagusta.
9. Stroll through the Old Town
Famagusta’s Old Town is an exciting blend of history, culture and architecture. Enclosed by the well-preserved Venetian walls, the maze-like streets are lined with a rich infusion of fading structures reflecting different epochs. From medieval churches and Ottoman mosques to Venetian palaces, the Old Town showcases Famagusta’s multifaceted heritage.
You can walk along the ancient ramparts, explore the curious beauty of structures like the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, and delve into the intrigues of Othello Castle. Cafes and local shops offer opportunities to savour Cypriot flavours and crafts when you need a break from sightseeing
10. Try the local cuisine
Famagusta is a culinary delight for anyone interested in Cypriot cuisine, offering a blend of Mediterranean flavours, traditional recipes and fresh local ingredients. From mouthwatering mezes to succulent grilled meats like souvlaki, the city’s eateries offer a gastronomic journey that embodies the mixed local culture.
Among the must-visit places for food lovers is Petek Pastanesi, a renowned patisserie and café in Famagusta. Established in 1976, Petek is famous for its Turkish-inspired pastries, delicious baklava and wide selection of sweets that cater to various tastes. Their Turkish delight, made using traditional methods, is particularly sought after.
11. See the ruins of The Royal Palace
The Venetian Royal Palace, also known as the Palazzo del Proveditore is one of Famagusta’s most prominent historical sites. Constructed during the Venetian rule in the 16th century, the palace served as the residence and administrative centre for the Venetian governors of the city.
Today, what remains of the palace are largely ruins, showcasing the elegant and sturdy architecture of the Venetian era. With its arched windows, ornate facades and imposing stone walls, the structure offers a glimpse into the grandeur that once defined the Venetian presence in Famagusta.
The palace’s location near the main city gate highlights its importance in the governance and control of the city during that period. For history enthusiasts and admirers of architecture, a visit to the Venetian Royal Palace provides an opportunity to explore and imagine the lavish lifestyle and power dynamics of a bygone era.
12. Dig into the Roman past at the Salamis Ruins
Just a short drive from Famagusta, the Salamis ruins provide a fascinating glimpse into ancient Cyprus. Dating back to the 11th century BC, Salamis was once a vibrant city-state and its extensive ruins reflect its historical significance.
Visitors to Salamis can explore the remnants of grand collonaded courtyards, public baths, a large amphitheatre and various temples dedicated to different deities. The site is spread out, allowing for a leisurely exploration among the time-worn stones and beautiful coastal scenery.
The accessibility of Salamis from Famagusta makes it an ideal day trip for history enthusiasts and those interested in archaeology. Guided tours are available, providing insights into the rich history of the site, or you can explore the ruins at your own pace.
Map of the best things to do in Famagusta
Here’s a map of the best things to do in Famagusta:
How to visit Famagusta
If you’re planning to visit Famagusta, here’s a comprehensive guide, including the nuances of crossing the Cyprus border:
- By Air: Fly into Larnaca or Paphos airports in the Republic of Cyprus (south) and then cross into the north. Direct flights to Ercan Airport in the north are also available, but entering via this route is only recognised by Turkey.
- By Sea: Some ferries operate from Turkish ports to Kyrenia, from where you can catch a bus to Famagusta. Make sure to check schedules and book in advance.
Crossing the Border:
- Where to Cross: There are several crossing points, but for Famagusta, the most convenient is probably the Ayios Dhometios checkpoint in Nicosia or the Strovilia checkpoint near Agios Nikolaos British Base.
- Documents Needed: A valid passport. At the northern checkpoints, you’ll receive a visa slip which you need to keep till you exit the north. It’s often recommended not to get a stamp directly in your passport as it might cause complications if you visit certain countries later.
- By Vehicle: If you’re renting a car in the south and plan to drive across, check with the rental agency first. Additionally, insurance from the south doesn’t cover the north, so you’ll need to purchase additional insurance at the border.
Tips and Additional Information:
- Currency: While the South uses the Euro, the North operates with the Turkish Lira. Some places might accept both, but it’s useful to have some Lira on hand.
- Language: Turkish is the official language in the north, but English is widely spoken, especially in tourist areas.
- Mobile Connectivity: Mobile roaming from the Republic of Cyprus might not cover the north. Consider getting a local SIM card or check with your service provider for roaming packages.
- Cultural Etiquette: While exploring, respect local customs and etiquette, especially in religious places. Dress modestly when visiting mosques.
- Stay Updated: The political climate regarding Varosha and other areas in Famagusta can change. It’s a good practice to check for the latest travel advisories and local news.
Best time to visit Famagusta
The best time to visit Famagusta largely depends on your preferences in terms of weather, crowd sizes and what you’d like to see and do. Here’s a breakdown:
Spring (April to June):
- Weather: Mild and pleasant temperatures, making it comfortable for sightseeing and other outdoor activities.
- Crowds: Fewer tourists compared to the peak summer months, allowing for a more relaxed exploration of the city.
- Activities: Ideal for exploring historical sites, taking walking tours, and enjoying beach activities without the scorching sun.
Summer (July to September):
- Weather: Hot and sunny. Temperatures can soar, especially in July and August.
- Crowds: This is the peak tourist season, especially in beach areas.
- Activities: Best for beach activities, swimming, and water sports. However, midday sightseeing can get uncomfortable due to the heat.
Autumn (October to November):
- Weather: Warm in the early part of October, gradually cooling as November approaches.
- Crowds: Tourist numbers start to decrease, providing a more peaceful environment.
- Activities: Suitable for all outdoor activities, with the added advantage of witnessing the beautiful autumn hues.
Winter (December to March):
- Weather: Mild to cool, with occasional rain. It’s the wettest season, but still relatively mild compared to many European destinations.
- Crowds: Fewest tourists, providing a serene atmosphere.
- Activities: While it might be too cold for swimming, it’s a good time for sightseeing without the crowds and for experiencing the local way of life.
FAQ: The best things to do in Famagusta
Here’s an FAQ on the best things to do in Famagusta:
1. What are the top historical attractions in Famagusta?
The Othello Castle and Tower and the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque (formerly the Cathedral of St. Nicholas) are must-visit historical landmarks that capture Famagusta’s rich heritage.
2. Are there any unique districts in the city?
Varosha, an abandoned district since the 1974 Turkish invasion, offers a haunting yet intriguing exploration opportunity. Recent developments have opened parts of Varosha to the public.
3. What beaches are recommended in and around Famagusta?
Palm Beach is popular for its golden sands and clear waters. Glapsides Beach and Silver Beach are other top picks for sunbathing and water sports.
4. Can I tour the city walls?
Yes, Famagusta’s well-preserved city walls are a prominent feature. Walking along these fortifications provides great views and a sense of the city’s historical significance.
5. Are there cultural or art centres to explore?
The Salamis Ruins, a vast archaeological site, provides insight into ancient Cypriot civilizations, showcasing remnants of Roman and Byzantine eras.
6. Are there local markets or shopping areas?
The old town of Famagusta offers various local shops and markets where you can purchase Cypriot crafts, food, and souvenirs.
7. Can I experience local cuisine?
Absolutely! Famagusta boasts numerous traditional taverns and restaurants where you can try Cypriot delicacies such as halloumi, souvla, and moussaka.
8. Are there any festivals or events in Famagusta?
Famagusta hosts several events throughout the year, including cultural festivals, music performances, and art exhibitions. It’s a good idea to check local event calendars during your visit.
9. Is there any nightlife in Famagusta?
The city has several bars, pubs, and clubs, particularly in areas catering to students and tourists, offering vibrant nightlife options.
10. Can I take boat tours or engage in water activities?
The old harbour is a starting point for various boat tours, and the beaches around Famagusta offer opportunities for water sports like jet skiing, windsurfing and diving.
There we have it, the best things to do in Famagusta! What’s going to be on your Northern Cyprus bucket list?