From Byzantine castles and historic harbours to epic hiking trails and delectable cuisine; here are the best things to do in Kyrenia (Girne), in Northern Cyprus.
With its ancient harbour, formidable castles and a backdrop of craggy mountains, Kyrenia (or Girne) is the Mediterranean port city you’ve probably never heard of. Located on the disputed northern coast of Cyprus (within the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus), Kyrenia has a history stretching back millennia.
According to legend, the origins of Kyrenia, known as Girne in Turkish, can be traced to the end of the Trojan War. During the Roman era, the city thrived as a trading post, its proximity to Anatolia (in modern-day Turkey) making it a vitally strategic harbour. The Byzantines later fortified Kyrenia, constructing a castle to safeguard against Arab raids, a castle that would, over time, come to bear the imprints of the many empires that coveted Cyprus.
When Richard the Lionheart conquered Cyprus in 1191, Kyrenia Castle took on a new role as a stronghold for the Crusaders. This would be short-lived, however, as the Venetians took over in the late 15th century, adding their own architectural flourishes to fortify the castle further. The Ottoman Empire’s arrival in 1571 heralded a new phase for Kyrenia, while British colonial rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries left an administrative and cultural imprint that remains to this day.
Kyrenia’s calm was shattered in 1974, when Cyprus was divided along ethnic lines, leading to Turkish control of the city. Today, Kyrenia stands as a symbol of Cyprus’ complex history, where a confluence of empires, cultures and narratives are all etched into its landscape, from its enduring castle to its ever-welcoming harbour. To help you plan your trip, here are the best things to do in Kyrenia.
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Things to do in Kyrenia, Northern Cyprus
As the primary entry and exit point by sea into the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, I spent several days in Kyrenia exploring the sights while I waited for ferries across the Mediterranean Sea to Turkey. I quickly began to realise that Kyrenia’s disputed status ensures that visitors need to be quite neutral when it comes to politics!
For starters, both ‘Kyrenia’ and ‘Girne’ refer to the same city, but the name used often depends on the language and political context. ‘Kyrenia’ is the name traditionally used in English and is derived from the Greek name ‘Keryneia’. On the other hand, ‘Girne’ is the Turkish name for the city and is commonly used in Northern Cyprus, which is predominantly Turkish-speaking and administered by the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
It’s all because the island of Cyprus has a complex history involving conflicts between its Greek and Turkish communities, and it remains politically divided today. The naming conventions for places on the island, including this city, can be sensitive topics tied to broader issues of identity and territorial control. Either way, it shouldn’t stop you from having a fun time in this unrecognised country, and Kyrenia is certainly one of the best places to visit.
1. Step back in time at Kyrenia Castle
Overlooking the harbour, Kyrenia Castle is an enduring symbol of Kyrenia’s layered past. Originally built by the Byzantines in the 7th century to fend off Arab raids, the fortress underwent multiple renovations and expansions under successive rulers. During the Lusignan period in the 13th century, the castle was fortified to become a residence for nobility, displaying architectural features indicative of French Gothic influences. The Venetians, recognising the castle’s strategic value, further modified it in the late 15th century, adding round towers to boost its defensive capabilities.
The castle’s purpose evolved over time, serving variously as a garrison, a prison and a warehouse for storing goods. Today, it is a museum open to the public, housing several exhibitions that delve into different facets of Cypriot history. One of the most notable attractions within the castle is the Shipwreck Museum, showcasing the remnants of a 4th-century BC merchant vessel found off the coast. A visit to Kyrenia Castle offers a fascinating journey through time, each stone and chamber narrating tales of conquest, defence and survival.
2. See 4th-century BC relics at the Shipwreck Museum
Located within the walls of Kyrenia Castle, the Shipwreck Museum houses one of the most significant nautical discoveries in the Mediterranean: a shipwreck dating back to the 4th century BC. Unearthed in 1967 by a team of marine archaeologists, the vessel offers a rare glimpse into ancient maritime trade and seafaring. The ship was found to be carrying a cargo of almonds, millstones and amphorae filled with wine, suggesting that it was a merchant vessel.
The museum exhibits not only the ship’s well-preserved wooden hull but also its cargo and personal items belonging to the crew, such as cooking utensils and oil lamps. The artefacts are meticulously arranged to recreate the ship’s cargo hold, offering an authentic look at ancient naval logistics.
The shipwreck provides a tangible link to a bygone era, shedding light on the commercial activities that once flourished in the Mediterranean. Visiting the Shipwreck Museum is akin to stepping into a time capsule, one that takes you on a 2,300-year journey into the past, illuminating Kyrenia’s longstanding relationship with the sea.
Read more: 12 Things To Do In Northern Cyprus
3. Take a stroll around Kyrenia Harbour
Walk along the old harbour to get a feel for the city’s maritime culture. Historically a bustling trade centre, the harbour has transformed over the years but remains a pivotal location. Today, it is largely filled with recreational boats and yachts, while traditional fishing boats also make their presence felt, maintaining a connection to the city’s maritime heritage.
Flanking the harbour is a promenade lined with cafes, shops and restaurants where visitors can indulge in local cuisine, particularly fresh seafood. The atmosphere is relaxed, with both locals and tourists mingling, taking leisurely strolls, and soaking up the view. The harbour’s location, adjacent to Kyrenia Castle, lends it an air of historical significance, making it more than just a scenic spot.
4. Admire ancient history at the Chain Tower
The Chain Tower, locally known as Zincirli Kule, stands as a prominent feature of Kyrenia Castle and has an interesting backstory.
Historically, the tower played a crucial role in the defence of the castle and the harbour. A heavy chain, attached to the tower, was extended across the harbour entrance to prevent enemy ships from entering. This clever mechanism was instrumental in providing an extra layer of security during times of siege or naval attacks.
Today, the Chain Tower serves as an integral part of Kyrenia Castle’s allure. Visitors can explore the tower along with other castle features, gaining insights into the medieval defences that helped shape Kyrenia’s history.
5. Explore Byzantine history at St. Hilarion Castle
St Hilarion Castle, perched atop the Kyrenia Mountain Range, is not just a historical monument but also a vantage point offering sweeping views of the surrounding landscape and the Mediterranean Sea. Initially built as a monastery in the 10th century, the site was later fortified to serve as a military stronghold. The castle features various sections, each built during different eras, including a Byzantine chapel, living quarters, and defensive walls fitted with watchtowers.
As you ascend the steep, winding pathways, you’ll encounter distinct architectural elements from Byzantine, Lusignan and Venetian periods. The castle is segmented into three primary levels: the lower ward, which housed the soldiers and stables; the middle ward, which contains a church; and the upper ward, traditionally the living space for royalty.
While the climb may be challenging for some, the effort is well rewarded with breathtaking vistas and a tangible sense of history. Within its crumbling walls and overgrown courtyards lies a palpable sense of the past, making St Hilarion Castle an essential visit for anyone intrigued by history, architecture, or simply the allure of a lofty viewpoint.
6. Hike the Kyrenia Mountains on the Besparmak Trail
The Besparmak Trail offers outdoor enthusiasts an invigorating way to explore the Kyrenia Mountains and their surrounding landscapes. Spanning approximately 260 kilometres, this long-distance hiking path meanders through a variety of terrains – rocky outcrops, dense forests and olive groves. Along the way, it passes through several historical landmarks, such as castles and ruins, allowing hikers to engage with the area’s rich past.
The trail is divided into various sections to cater to different fitness levels, from moderate walks to challenging ascents. Whether you opt for a short, half-day hike or a more ambitious multi-day trek, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the island’s interior. Throughout the journey, the Besparmak Trail offers numerous opportunities for birdwatching and flora identification, adding an educational component to the adventure.
The Besparmak Trail offers a balanced mix of physical challenge, historical exploration, and natural beauty. It provides a different lens through which to appreciate Kyrenia and its environs, giving visitors a fuller understanding of the region’s appeal.
7. Dig into the local cuisine
The culinary landscape of Kyrenia is a delightful blend of Turkish and Greek Cypriot influences, often enhanced with spices and techniques from further afield. One of the must-try dishes is ‘Meze’, a platter of small appetisers ranging from hummus and tzatziki to more unique offerings like grilled octopus. ‘Şeftali Kebab,’ a local version of kebab featuring minced meat wrapped in caul fat, is another speciality you shouldn’t miss. For cheese aficionados, ‘Hellim,’ known internationally as Halloumi, is a semi-hard cheese often grilled and enjoyed as a side dish or even a main.
Seafood is abundantly available, given Kyrenia’s proximity to the sea. Fresh catches like sea bream and grouper often feature on restaurant menus, usually grilled or served in a stew. For dessert, ‘Baklava’ and ‘Soutzoukos,’ a unique sweet made of almonds and grape juice, are popular choices.
Bread is a staple, often served with ‘Zeytin,’ the local olives, and ‘Molohiya,’ a mucilaginous leafy green cooked into a sort of stew, shows the influence of Middle Eastern cooking. Whether you’re sitting down to a full-course meal or grabbing a quick ‘Pide’ (Turkish pizza) from a local eatery, Kyrenia offers a gastronomic experience that mirrors its diverse cultural influences.
8. See remarkable 13th-century architecture at Bellapais Abbey
Bellapais Abbey, also known as the Abbey of Peace, is a stunning example of Gothic architecture in Northern Cyprus, located in the village of Bellapais near Kyrenia. Built in the 13th century by Augustinian monks who had fled Palestine, the abbey stands as a testament to the artistic and architectural advancements of its time. The complex is comprised of a church, a cloister, and living quarters for the monks, among other facilities.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable features is the refectory, where the monks took their meals. Its elaborate arches and large windows provide a sense of grandeur that transports visitors back to the medieval period. The abbey’s cloister garden is another highlight, offering a quiet, contemplative space surrounded by the beauty of the architecture.
Today, Bellapais Abbey is not only a historic site but also a venue for cultural events, including concerts and art exhibitions. The serene atmosphere, combined with its historical significance and architectural beauty, makes Bellapais Abbey a compelling destination for history buffs, architecture enthusiasts, and those seeking tranquillity alike.
9. Hit the Beaches
When it comes to beaches, Kyrenia offers a variety of options, from secluded spots for those seeking tranquillity to more developed beaches featuring a range of amenities.
Here are some of the best beaches in Kyrenia:
- Escape Beach: One of the most popular beaches, it boasts a good mix of locals and tourists. There’s a bar and a restaurant, and water sports are readily available.
- Denizkizi Beach: Located in Alsancak, this beach is quieter than some of the more popular spots, offering a more relaxed atmosphere. The water is calm, making it good for swimming.
- Kervansaray Beach: A public beach that is less commercialised than others, Kervansaray offers a more natural setting. The water is clean but can get a bit choppy, making it more suitable for those who like a bit of wave action.
- Turtle Beach (Alagadi): Known for its loggerhead and green turtles, this beach is more for nature enthusiasts. It’s a protected area, so facilities are minimal, but the experience of seeing turtles in their natural habitat can be rewarding.
- Lara Beach: This is a less frequented beach, offering peace and solitude. It’s a bit of a trek to get there, but if you’re looking for an escape from the crowds, this is a good option.
10. Dive into Kyrenia’s underwater world
For those keen on underwater exploration, Kyrenia offers an enticing array of scuba diving opportunities. The coastal waters are a playground for divers of all skill levels, with a variety of dive sites featuring caves, reefs, and even sunken ships. The water temperatures are generally pleasant, ranging from 16°C in winter to 27°C in summer, making diving a year-round activity here.
Among the most notable dive sites is the Fred, a shipwreck lying at a depth of around 30 metres. The site is a paradise for marine life, attracting schools of fish, sea anemones, and occasionally, sea turtles. There’s also the Zephyros Reef, known for its colourful coral formations and abundant fish life, providing ample photography opportunities.
For the more adventurous, the caves and tunnels near the Antiphonitis Church offer a challenging but rewarding dive, involving some technical navigation skills. The visibility in these waters often exceeds 30 metres, adding to the enjoyment of the experience.
Whether you’re a beginner keen to take your first plunge or an experienced diver looking to explore new terrains, Kyrenia’s underwater world provides both adventure and wonder, making it a must-visit destination for diving aficionados.
11. Explore more history at the Buffavento Castle
Buffavento Castle, perched high on the Kyrenia Mountain Range, serves as a relic of the past with strategic importance dating back to Byzantine times. Believed to have been initially built as a watchtower, the castle was later expanded and fortified to protect against Arab raids. The castle’s name, Buffavento, is often thought to mean ‘Defier of the Winds’, an apt description given its elevated location.
Access to the castle is via a challenging but rewarding hike. Once at the summit, you’re treated to panoramic vistas of the coastline and the interior of Cyprus, making the trek worthwhile. Within the castle walls, visitors can explore chambers that once served as living quarters, storage areas, and even prisons. It’s a journey back in time and a testament to medieval engineering.
Buffavento Castle is less frequented compared to other fortresses like Kyrenia Castle and St. Hilarion Castle, which means you can often enjoy a more solitary experience. This site attracts those with an adventurous spirit, keen to combine historical exploration with a little bit of physical exertion in the Cypriot heat!
Map of the best things to do in Kyrenia
Here’s a map of the best things to do in Kyrenia:
How to travel to Kyrenia
Travelling to Kyrenia involves a few different steps, particularly as it is situated in the northern part of Cyprus, an area administered by the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Here’s a guide on how to reach this interesting destination:
The primary international gateway to Northern Cyprus is Ercan International Airport, which is located near Nicosia, roughly a 40-minute drive to Kyrenia. Note that flights to Ercan usually have a layover in Turkey due to international regulations. Upon landing, you can opt for a taxi, hire a car, or use shared shuttle services to reach Kyrenia.
Another option is flying into Larnaca or Paphos airports in the Republic of Cyprus, the internationally-recognised southern part of the island. From either airport, it’s possible to cross into Northern Cyprus at specific checkpoints. Bear in mind that you will need to show your passport and may need a separate visa, depending on your nationality. Once you’ve crossed the border, taxis and car hire services are readily available.
If you’re coming from mainland Turkey, you can also opt for a ferry service. Several companies operate sea links between Kyrenia and cities such as Mersin, Antalya and Alanya. The journey time varies from 3 to 8 hours, depending on the departure point.
Lastly, if you’re already in Cyprus, domestic travel to Kyrenia is straightforward. Public buses, known locally as ‘dolmuş,’ frequently run between major cities and towns. Alternatively, car hire is widely available and offers the most flexibility to explore at your own pace.
The best time to visit Kyrenia
The optimal time to visit Kyrenia largely depends on your interests and how you’d like to experience the region. Here’s a quick rundown of the seasons:
Spring (March to May):
Spring is a lovely season for those interested in natural beauty. The landscape is lush, almond blossoms are in bloom, and temperatures are moderate, generally ranging from 17 to 25°C. Outdoor activities such as hiking in the Kyrenia Mountains or exploring archaeological sites are particularly enjoyable during this time. The Almond Blossom Festival in early spring can also be a highlight.
Summer (June to September):
This season is best for beach-goers, with temperatures soaring up to 35°C. The sea is warm, and the sun is generally shining brightly. However, it’s also the peak tourist season, which means higher prices and crowded beaches. Nightlife is vibrant during these months, and water sports like scuba diving and snorkelling are popular.
Autumn (October to November):
Similar to spring, autumn offers a more relaxed atmosphere with mild weather. The temperatures range between 20 and 30°C, making it a pleasant time for sightseeing and outdoor activities. The sea remains warm enough for swimming, and the beaches are less crowded. Various olive festivals occur in autumn, offering a glimpse into the local culture.
Winter (December to February):
Winter is quiet in Kyrenia, with fewer tourists and a more laid-back vibe. If you prefer a peaceful holiday and don’t mind cooler temperatures (10-17°C), this could be the time for you. However, swimming may be off the table, and some seasonal businesses will be closed. Winter is ideal for those interested in Cypriot culture and history without the distraction of crowds.
FAQ: The best things to do in Kyrenia
Here’s an FAQ on the best things to do in Kyrenia, Northern Cyprus:
Q1: What are some of the notable historical sites in Kyrenia?
Kyrenia is rich in history, with sites like Kyrenia Castle, St Hilarion Castle, and Bellapais Abbey offering glimpses into the area’s past. These sites feature varied architectural styles, from Byzantine to Gothic, and house museums or exhibits.
Q2: Is Kyrenia a good place for outdoor activities?
Yes, Kyrenia offers numerous opportunities for outdoor activities. The Besparmak Trail is a notable hiking path in the Kyrenia Mountains, while the region’s beaches offer a range of water sports, including scuba diving.
Q3: Are there any gardens or parks?
Alevkayasi Botanic Garden is a peaceful retreat featuring a variety of native and exotic plant species. It’s ideal for a leisurely stroll and some birdwatching.
Q4: What’s the dining scene like?
Kyrenia offers an array of dining options, focusing heavily on Cypriot and Mediterranean cuisines. Fresh seafood is commonly served at the harbour-side restaurants, while traditional taverns provide local dishes like meze and halloumi.
Q5: What beaches should I visit?
Popular beaches include Acapulco Beach and Escape Beach, both offering amenities like sunbeds and water sports. For a quieter experience, you might consider Kervansaray Beach or Turtle Beach.
Q6: Are there any opportunities for shopping?
While Kyrenia may not be a shopping metropolis, it offers various small boutiques, local markets, and shops where you can purchase handmade crafts, textiles, and local produce.
Q7: Is it easy to get around Kyrenia?
While the town itself is walkable, some attractions are located further afield. Public transport is available, but for more flexibility, consider renting a car.
Q8: What cultural activities are available?
Apart from historical sites, Kyrenia hosts various festivals and events throughout the year. Bellapais Abbey often serves as a venue for concerts and art exhibitions.
Q9: Can I go scuba diving in Kyrenia?
Absolutely. The waters around Kyrenia offer a range of diving experiences, from coral reefs to shipwrecks. Several dive centres offer courses and guided dives for all skill levels.
Q10: Are there family-friendly activities?
Yes, many beaches are suitable for families and offer amenities like loungers and parasols. Additionally, the Shipwreck Museum in Kyrenia Castle provides an educational experience that can be enjoyed by visitors of all ages.
There you are, the best things to do in Kyrenia! Will you be visiting Northern Cyprus? Let us know in the comments below!