Although the economic ebb and flow has taken its toll in recent years, Girne is still the prettiest town on the entire island by virtue of an imposing Crusader castle and a picturesque, atmospheric harbour flanked by alfresco restaurants and bars. Hotels and villa developments have sprouted up in frenzied fashion on the outskirts to the east and west, but Girne’s old town and harbour nevertheless stand largely resolute against modernisation, while still managing to offer their many visitors all the pleasures of a well-equipped resort. To the south, the jagged Kyrenia Mountains provide the town with a spectacular backdrop and an irresistible invitation to visit both the towering hilltop castle of St Hilarion and the tranquillity of nearby Bellapais Abbey.

A compact and attractive resort, and the preferred base for most visitors to North Cyprus, Girne continually ups its act to try to ensure that it remains a premier tourist destination. A loyal band of visitors who return year after year provides evidence that it is continuing to achieve that objective.

What to see and do in Girne

Girne harbour

Besides providing a fine setting for a range of eating places, alfresco or indoors according to season, the picturesque harbour also incorporates a number of curious relics of its ancient predecessor. The harbour is beautiful at all times of day, but is at its most bewitching at night. Many of the restaurants here are open for food all day long in high season.

The graceful horseshoe curve of Girne’s harbour has become even more tranquil since being closed to traffic by a barrier at the west end (except for a few hours in the morning to allow deliveries). A fair proportion of the buildings enclosing the harbour are Venetian, tastefully restored to shops and restaurants on their ground levels, with apartments or the owners’ accommodation above. The tourist office is itself such a restored house, with a stone vaulted interior.

Sticking out of the water among the moored fishing boats and yachts stands a semi-collapsed squat stone tower, approached by a crumbling causeway. On top is a smaller tower the size of a Roman column. This was the old chain tower, from which an iron chain was suspended across the harbour entrance to block hostile shipping. The chain, though huge, was but a tiny version of that used in Istanbul to control shipping in the Bosphorus. In the old wall that rises up behind the terrace of Café Chimera, careful observation will reveal the outline of a large Gothic archway, now blocked up. Before 1400, when the moat was still full, ships used to be dragged through this archway from the harbour into the castle moat for safety or simply for repair.

Carob Store and Cyprus House

Located right in the centre of the old harbour, next to the Set Fish restaurant, this is a museum of modest proportions but well worth a visit to see the interior of a Venetian-period warehouse. Most of its adjacent 15th-century contemporaries are now restaurants or cafés. The information signs accompanying the exhibits are of good quality and bilingual (Turkish/English).

On the ground floor there is a giant olive press and some simply enormous storage jars, most of which came from the village of Fini. So large were the jars that the potter would take the clay by donkey from the Troodos Mountains to the customer’s premises and make and bake them there. Elsewhere in the museum there is naturally plenty of information about the importance of the carob, some excellent old photos of the harbour and exhibits on regional pottery, carpentry, weaving, traditional clothing and Lefkara embroidery. There is also a film about life in 1930s Cyprus. A visit should take no more than 45 minutes.

Inland Girne

The outskirts of Girne will be familiar to most visitors simply as an area to pass through en route to somewhere else. There are few sights to detain the average tourist, but the increasing urbanisation provides a few more eating options.

From the roundabout at the southern end of Ecevit Caddesi, you can stroll in a westerly direction towards Karaoğlanoğlu. Immediately on the left is the old British cemetery, sandwiched between new commercial properties and now somewhat overgrown. Easily missed from the road, the graveyard is of little interest to anyone other than relatives and friends of those who are commemorated there. It contains a memorial to the 371 British servicemen who died in the 1955–59 conflict that preceded independence.

Continuing in the same direction, the retail outlets to both sides indicate that the consumer economy here is alive and well. You can pick up most things along here, from household appliances to ultra-stylish furniture. Should you fancy a house to go with them, you’ll be spoilt for choice among all the estate agents who have made this road their home.

At the down-at-heel Jasmine Court Hotel, you can choose to cut back towards the sea. On reaching the shore, it appears that this is an excellent shortcut back to the harbour, but don’t be tempted to walk this way. The road leads only to the military base, and although it seems that locals come and go through the barriers at will, any tourist attempting so to do will very quickly be intercepted by rifle-toting soldiers. The best way back to the harbour is to head across to Atatürk Caddesi and then bear north. In doing so, those who are self-catering should take the opportunity to visit the Karkot Organik Shop, just opposite the primary school on Inonu Caddesi. It stocks delicious pasta, dried foods, nuts, cosmetics and hygiene products, plus a huge range of organic baby foods. Note that not all the wine is organic. Vegan and gluten-free products are available, too. You will also find some of their products on sale in the larger supermarkets.

Kyrenia Castle

As you approach the castle from the harbour, the sheer power of the walls impresses. Here’s a castle that looks like a castle should. The huge round tower that confronts you is the work of the Venetians. Such fortifications were their major legacy to Cyprus, for they always regarded the island as a military outpost to protect and service their lust for trade.

Housed within the castle walls is the Girne Department of Antiquities, which took over custodianship of the castle in 1959. In some of the castle’s locked rooms the Antiquities Department is keeping icons that were collected from churches in the Girne area pre-1974 and stored here for safe keeping.

Under British rule, the castle was also used as a police barracks and training school, and as a prison for members of EOKA, the Greek Cypriot resistance movement or the Nationalist Organisation of Cypriot Fighters (Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston). EOKA formed in 1954, and from secret headquarters somewhere in the Troodos Mountains they organised a series of terrorist and sabotage attacks against British administration, to further their aim of union with Greece, or Enosis as this union was known. Pro-Enosis propaganda was concentrated in schools, where it was easy to sway feelings.

The Shipwreck Museum

Built into a couple of the great halls along the eastern wall of the castle is the much-praised Shipwreck Museum, where a 2,300-year-old Greek trading vessel is on display, together with its complete cargo. It is the oldest ship yet recovered from the seabed anywhere.

The ship was first discovered in 1965 by a Girne sponge diver some 1.5km off the coast from the castle, at a depth of 30m. Over the course of 1968 and 1969, a team of underwater archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania Museum raised the vessel systematically from the seabed. It then took a further six years to reconstruct. Its cargo consisted of nearly 400 amphorae, mostly containing wine, from Rhodes and other places, 29 millstones, lead weights and around 10,000 almonds as food for the crew. It was these that enabled the carbon-dating of the ship. The reconstructed vessel is now in a separate temperature-controlled room.

Getting to Girne

Public transport

Most package tour operators provide customers with airport transfers between Girne and Ercan Airport, or indeed Larnaca if you fly in to the south of the island. If you do have to take your own taxi from Ercan, expect to pay a fixed price of €50 each way, slightly more at night. All taxi prices are given on the Ercan Airport website.

A cheaper alternative for the independent solo traveller is the bus service run by Kibhas Limited. The company has a kiosk outside the airport terminal and a Girne office two doors north of the Arkin Colony Hotel. The journey costs TL50 and takes 1 hour 15 minutes. The bus departs a dozen times per day and tickets must be bought in advance from the office, but a bit of pre- planning could save you some lira compared with a taxi. The times of buses from Ercan to Girne (and other destinations) can be found on either the bus-company or airport website.

By sea

Girne’s ferry terminal lies 1km east of the old harbour, reachable by taxi. There are two ferry companies: Akgünler has a town-centre office on the north side of the Belediye roundabout and also an office at the terminal. You can also book through many travel agencies as well as online: Akgünler has an English-language option on its ticket-reservation website. The fast ferry to Taşucu on the Turkish mainland runs in summer only and takes a little over 2 hours. A single fare on this high-speed, passenger-only ferry costs TL450, with the passenger fare on the slower car ferry being cheaper at TL350–380, vehicles extra. There are discounts for students and children. The other operator is called Filo: they also run a car ferry to and from Taşucu for around the same price. It has an office at the ferry terminal.