The easternmost island in the Mediterranean Sea, Cyprus is an independent nation with a long and colorful past. Legend has it that Cyprus was the birthplace of Aphrodite, and it’s easy to understand why the ancients chose this appealing island to worship the Greek goddess of love. With its mild climate, beautiful beaches, forested mountains and lush green valleys, Cyprus is the ideal destination for a romantic holiday.
Lovers of history will be enchanted by the ancient attractions in Cyprus as well. The isle is peppered with archeological sites, ruins and remnants of past empires, conquerors and civilizations. Mouth-watering cuisine, a modern infrastructure and a welcoming populace make a vacation in Cyprus a pleasurable experience for any traveler.
Scholars believe that the ancient city of Kourion was founded around the 13th century B.C., but it’s the 5th-century Greco-Roman ruins that most attract visitors to the archeological site near the city of Limassol. Perched on a hill overlooking Episkopi Bay, the tumbled homes, temples and public buildings of the Kourion complex make it easy to imagine what life was like on Cyprus two thousand years ago. Standout sites include the remains of Roman baths, an open Agoura, a temple to Apollo and an amphitheater where classical plays are still performed today.
Situated near the southern tip of Cyprus, Kolossi Castle is a three-story keep built as a military fortress for the Crusaders of the High Middle Ages. From the 13th to 15th century, the fortress was controlled by the Hospitallers known as the Knights of St. John and was later taken by their rivals, the Knights Templar. While not much remains of the original complex beyond the sturdy stone walls of the keep, a spiral staircase leads visitors to the roof-top battlements for breathtaking views of the vineyard-covered peninsula and blue Mediterranean Sea.
Located in the Troodos Mountains near the city of Nicosia, Omodos Village is the premier destination for wine aficionados in Cyprus. Wine-tasting stalls offer samples of local varietals like Mavro and Xynisteri, and restaurants and bars serve traditional fare. With its cobbled streets, stone houses and lush gardens, Omodos is well worth visiting for its beauty and charm as well. The town’s 17th-century monastery is home to several museums, including an icon museum that features extraordinary wood carvings as well as an extensive collection of icons.
In 1980, the Swedish ferry Zenobia began listing to port during her maiden voyage off the coast of Cyprus, eventually capsizing outside Larnaca Harbor. The ship sank slowly, coming to rest on her port side in one piece. Today, the wreck of the Zenobia is ranked as one of the world’s best diving sites. Easy accessibility, mild currents and temperate water temperatures bring around 45,000 divers to the wreck each year. Although the ship’s many intact rooms are open for exploration, inexperienced divers are encouraged to confine their dive to the outside of the ship where they can view sea life from groupers to barracudas.
The Tombs of the Kings near Paphos is a large necropolis dating back to the 4th century BC. The tombs are carved out of the solid rock and decorated with Doric columns. Despite the name there is no evidence of any royalty buried here. Instead the site was the final resting place of Ptolemaic aristocrats and high officials. The tombs are unique in Cyprus, being heavily influenced by ancient Egyptian tradition, when it was believed that tombs for the dead should resemble houses for the living. The 7 excavated tombs are scattered over a wide area. The most impressive is No 3, which has an open atrium below ground level, surrounded by columns.
The most popular of the many beaches that grace the shores of the resort city of Ayia Napa, Nissi is best known for its lively beach party scene. Young people flock to its powder-white sands to sip libations at the famous Nissi Bay Beach bar where DJs play music day and night. Like all the beaches in Ayia Napa, there’s a water sports center in Nissi where visitors can enjoy everything from paragliding and windsurfing to water-skiing and pedal boating. Shallow crystal-clear water makes Nissi Beach perfect for wading and swimming as well. The beach takes its name from the small islet located close to the coast. The uninhabited island can be easily reached on foot through the shallow waters and provides good shelter.
Spread over the top of a rocky crag near the city of Girne off the northern coast of Cyprus, St. Hilarion Castle is the best preserved of the island’s 11th-century fortifications. Originally a monastery, the fortress gets its name from a local ascetic and hermit known as Hilarion, who attracted a group of devout followers during the 4th century. A 20-minute hike from Girne takes visitors up past the castle’s stables and soldiers’ quarters to the royal residence and church. A restored staircase leads to a hilltop guard tower where visitors can enjoy a panoramic vista of the mountains, valleys and shoreline.
Situated in the town center of the southern city of Larnaca, the Church of Saint Lazarus is a 9th-century monument to the man that Christians believe Jesus raised from the dead. According to tradition, Lazarus fled to Cyprus to escape persecution and served as the city’s first bishop for thirty years. Built over Lazarus’ second tomb, the Byzantine church was refurbished in the Baroque style during the 1800s with Greek Orthodox ornamentation. Although the tomb now stands empty, renovations made after a fire occurred in 1970 found relics of the saint in a marble sarcophagus located under the altar.
Nestled in the hills west of the inland city of Pedoulas stands the Kykkos Monastery, a gorgeous Byzantine complex founded in the late 11th century. While all of the original structures were destroyed by fire, a no-expense-spared renovation begun in 1831 restoring the monastery to its original glory. Each building, particularly the chapel, is heavily ornamented in the Greek Orthodox style with murals lining the walls, indoors and out. The most prized artifact in the wealthiest monastery in Cyprus is a portrait of the Virgin Mary believed to have been painted by St. Luke.
With artifacts dating back to the Prehistoric Era, the Kato Paphos Archaeological Park located in the southwestern city of Paphos is an archeological treasure trove of ancient monuments, villas and underground tombs. The most impressive sites include Roman villas built around the 3rd century A.D. The ancient homes are named after their preserved mosaic floors, which feature pictorial narratives of Greek and Roman mythology. Nearby in the Agora is the Odeion, a recently restored 2nd-century theater. With its granite columns, thick walls and corner towers, the Saranta Kolones fortress constructed in the 7th century is worth a visit as well.