East meets west in the ancient district of Larnaka (Larnaca), where hundreds of years of contrasting civilizations, architecture and culture have left their mark on an authentic and diverse region.
Both Christianity and Islam have important religious sites in Larnaka. The Church of Saint Lazarus, who lived in Larnaka after his resurrection, and the Mosque of Hala Sultan – built in honour of the Prophet’s Mohammed’s aunt – are two of the main attractions of the city. Other popular sights are the Medieval Castle, the palm tree-lined promenade of ‘Finikoudes’, and Larnaka Salt Lake, which fills with flocks of vibrant pink flamingos during the winter months.
Further out, the mountainous areas of Larnaka trail up the Troodos range, which is dotted with charming villages of narrow streets, where traditions and skilled handicrafts are still practiced. Of the most famous is the handmade lace embroidery of Lefkara and its delicate filigree silver, whilst villages like Kato Drys, Vavla and Odou are also pretty and tranquil.
The region is also rich in significant archaeological sites, including ‘Choirokoitia’ – one of the best-preserved sites of a prehistoric settlement in the Eastern Mediterranean – and ‘Kalavasos Tenta’, located in the rural areas.
One of the finest examples of Byzantine art of the Justinian period – a rare 6th century mosaic of the Virgin and Child between two archangels – can be found in the region at Angeloktisti Church in Kiti village, whilst the solitary monastery of Stavrovouni, one of the oldest on the island, sits perched on a rocky peak with panoramic hillside views. In Pyrga village, the Royal Chapel – built in 1421 by the Lusignan King Janus – is decorated with an interesting wall painting of the king and his wife, Charlotte de Bourbon.
Enjoy a melting pot of diversity and history, combined with coast and mountains in the captivating region of Larnaka!
Running north from Larnaca Castle is Finikoudes Beach, the main city beach of Larnaca.
Backed by a promenade and palm trees, this flat wide beach is quite the classic Mediterranean sight. With only a day here you probably won’t have much time for the beach. Stay longer though and you can spend more time bouncing between the beach and the bars and cafes on the promenade. At any rate, make sure to return later in the day for some drinks, and maybe dinner at one of the many bars and restaurants that sit along the promenade.
Another of the popular Larnaca day trips is to visit the quaint hinterland village of Pano Lefkara.
While Lefkara is best known as the heart of Cyprus’ lace trade, a visit there is about so much more than just visiting lace shops. The village is full of grand mansions and traditional homes lining its narrow cobblestone streets, offering a very different atmosphere to that of Larnaca.
You could simply spend your time just wandering around aimlessly and it would be a day well spent. You should though find your way through the meandering lanes and alleys to the Lefkara Local Museum. There you’ll learn about the village’s detailed history and what local life was like there. Another important local sight to see is the Church of Archangelos Michael just outside the village, which features icon paintings from the 12th century.
Old Turkish Quarter
From there you can explore the surrounding neighborhood of Skala, aka. the Old Turkish Quarter.
While considerably smaller than the more modern downtown area, Skala will show you what Cyprus traditionally looked like. This part of the city has been quite rundown for the last few decades, but the old-fashioned, white-washed houses are starting to see some restoration.
While you’ll find many ceramic shops in the backstreets of Skala, one of the main attractions is the Djami Kebir Mosque, at the quarter’s northern end. This pretty mosque surrounded by palm trees is possibly the first Ottoman mosque in Cyprus and was converted from a Catholic church in the 16th century.
Just across the road from the Djami Kebir Mosque and sitting right on the city’s waterfront, Larnaca Castle is a sight that’s hard to miss. This seaside fortress has defended the harbor of Larnaca since 1625 when it was built by the Ottomans. During the British rule of Cyprus, it was transformed into a prison, but today acts as the city’s Medieval Museum. The museum displays of black-and-white photos and artifacts is quite modest, but the views from the castle fortifications definitely make a visit worthwhile.
Church of Saint Lazarus
Located in its own square in the town centre, the magnificent stone church of Agios Lazaros is one of the most remarkable examples of Byzantine architecture in Cyprus and lies over the tomb of the saint.
Built by Byzantine Emperor Leo VI in the 9th century, the church was restored in the 17th century. Although the three domes and original bell tower of the church were destroyed in the first years during Ottoman rule, the gold-covered iconostasis has survived today and is a superb example of baroque woodcarving.
Saint Lazarus came to Cyprus after being resurrected by Jesus. He was ordained as Bishop of Kition by the Apostles Barnabas and Paul and lived in the town for 30 years. His tomb can be seen under the sanctuary. The saint is so revered that a procession is held in his honour eight days before Easter. During the procession, the icon of Saint Lazarus is carried through the streets of Larnaka.
Next to the church is the Byzantine Museum, which exhibits important religious icons, artefacts and relics.
The church is included in the Larnaka Storytelling Statues project with Leo the Wise recounting his tale of how he was a devout admirer of Saint Lazarus and had the church constructed in his honour.
Flamingos - Larnaka's frequent feathered visitors
Most famous for the flocks of thousands of vivid Greater Flamingos that frequent the lake during the winter season, Larnaka Salt Lake is actually a complex of four salt lakes, covering a surface area of 2.2 sq km. The main lake with its winding nature path and bird watch tower is known as ‘Aliki‘. This larger lake is then followed by lakes Orphani, Soros and Spiro, stretching all the way to Pervolia, Meneou and Dromolaxia villages.
Located near the old airport and the Hala Sultan Tekke mosque, the lake has huge ecological value and is considered to be one of the most important wetlands of Cyprus. As such, it has been declared a Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance site, an EU Natura 2000 site, a Special Protected Area under the Barcelona Convention, and a Bird Life International Important Bird Area (IBA).
The dark red algae which grows in the Salt Lake is the basis of the food chain, as the small shrimp in the lake feed on it. In turn, this shrimp is food not only for the flamingos, but also other migratory birds, which total more than 85 species. The inflow of fresh water in the Salt Lake is necessary as it maintains the ecological balance of the wetland. All aquatic birds that visit the Salt Lake reproduce in the area.
The flamingos stop off at the lake as part of their migratory route, arriving with the first rainy weather (typically in November), and stay at the lake until around March. When there are higher water levels, their numbers can reach tens of thousands, with their distinctive honking noise enjoyed by walkers along Aliki’s path. The honking is actually the flamingo’s way of communicating that they need to stay together, and they shy away from humans coming too close to their habitat.
Whilst we understand that visitors like to view and photograph these majestic birds, it is important to note that wading out into the salt lake to get closer to the flamingos is prohibited as this is highly damaging for the very sensitive birds.
Larnaka Salt Lake Nature Trail
The 4km trail at the Salt Lake has two main starting points; the first at the Kamares Aqueduct, and the second at the salt collection plateau (on Artemis Avenue towards the old airport, 150 metres after the District Judicial Court).
Aside from the majestic migratory birds and the interesting plant life of the area, the Goddesses Artemis-Diana and Aphrodite-Astarte were worshiped at the site. A sanctuary, which no longer survives, existed in this area, and an elegant sculpture of Artemis – Diana was discovered here, with a copy now adorning the roundabout on Artemis Avenue. The close connection of the area with these Greek, Semetic and Roman Goddesses is mirrored in the ultra-red sunsets that can be enjoyed on the trail. This trail is also part of the European Walking Route E4.
The beautiful area of mountainous Larnaka as a whole is included amongst the European Destinations of Excellence; with a particular emphasis on 18 of its unique, traditional communities that are part of the EU programme ‘Eden – Cultural Tourism’.
Offering a change of pace and character away from the coastline, Larnaka’s rural areas - which pass through countryside then climb up into the Troodos mountain range – are a popular destination all-year-round. This part of the region is distinguished by authentic architecture, rich history, and retained local pastimes, with each community famous for its own sights, crafts and traditions.
Larnaka District Development Agency and the Women’s Association of Rural Larnaka work hard to promote agrotourism and alternative experiences within the communities and were integral to securing the hallmark of excellence for Larnaka region. The initiative itself promotes sustainable tourism development models across the EU, based on national competitions that take place every other year and result in the selection of a tourist ‘destination of excellence’ for each participating country.
Daytrips to the villages are also highly recommended to experience a range of activities; from seeing Neolithic settlements and other archaeological findings, to savouring wine tasting and local delicacies, or watching crafts such as lace or pottery being made in the heart of their original homes.
The 18 destinations highlighted in the European Destination of Excellence label are:
Agioi Vavatsinia, Agios Theodoros, Choirokoitia, Delikipos, Kalavasos, Kato Drys, Kato Lefkara, Kofinou, Kornos, Layia, Melini, Odou, Ora, Pano Lefkara, Skarinou, Tochni, Vavatsinia, and Vavla.