During the war in Cyprus between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots, the Varosha district in Famagusta was abandoned by all its residents within a few days. Subsequently, this part of the city was looted, and it was occupied by the troops of the Northern Cyprus army and UN peacekeepers. As a result, Varosha remained frozen in 1974 — the architecture, urban design, and signage are combined with abandonment and destruction, although not directly from military action.
Varosha is a district in the city of Famagusta, located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in Northern Cyprus. Just 50 years ago, it was a popular resort in the independent and newly-formed island state of Cyprus. In 1974, a war began between the southern part of Cyprus, mainly inhabited by Greeks, and the northern part, where Turks lived. With the onset of the war, the Turkish army occupied Varosha, and the Greeks were forcibly relocated to the southern part of the island. The same happened to the Turkish population, but they moved to the north.
After the evacuation of the residents, the district was gradually looted and became a buffer zone between Northern and Southern Cyprus. It was controlled by Turkish Cypriots and UN troops. Tourists were strictly prohibited from approaching the fence surrounding the district or even photographing the abandoned hotels from a distance. On some fences separating the residential part of Famagusta from the abandoned Varosha, signs prohibiting photography still hang. However, inside Varosha itself, one can take as many photos as desired.
In 1977, the Swedish journalist Jan Olof Bengtsson visited a Swedish battalion of the UN peacekeeping forces and saw the closed-off area. Olof called it a “ghost town”: “The asphalt on the streets has cracked from the heat of the sun, and bushes grow in the middle of the roads. Now, in September 1977, dining tables are still set, clothes still hang in laundries, and lamps are still burning. Famagusta is a ghost town.
In the fall of 2020, after nearly half a century of abandonment, Varosha was opened to tourists. Tripsteer editor Misha Mityukov visited Varosha and tells about the city that froze in the mid-1970s.
From the author: When visiting this place, it is important to remember the reasons why the Varosha quarter became abandoned. The reason is war. Although no combat took place in this specific location, thousands of people lost their homes and businesses in an instant, which most likely significantly changed their lives. Currently, the authorities of Northern Cyprus invest in visiting Varosha more for entertainment purposes. They position it as a “unique experience” of walking through an abandoned city and swimming on the pristine beaches behind which lie destroyed hotels. But to me, visiting Varosha feels more like a visit to a memorial, a place of mourning, and another reminder of the consequences of war.
The History of the Conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots
Until 1960, the island of Cyprus belonged to Britain, which colonized it in 1878. It was inhabited by Greeks (80%) and Turks (18%), and the settlements were ethnically mixed. After Cyprus declared independence, Britain left the island but retained two military bases – on the Akrotiri Peninsula and near the village of Dhekelia. The new constitution was complicated, and the Turkish community could effectively block decisions of the central government. Both communities refused to abide by laws passed by the opposing side. Ethnic conflicts started in 1963, and a year later, UN peacekeepers were deployed on the island.
In 1974, the peacekeepers left the island, and on July 15 of that year, the Greek Cypriot terrorist group EOKA-B overthrew the president and insisted on the island’s annexation to Greece. During the coup, civilians – ethnic Turks – were killed. In response, Turkey landed 30,000 of its troops on Cyprus, occupying just over a third of the island’s territory. The Greek Cypriots accused the Americans of allowing this to happen. The President of Cyprus added that the strongest feeling he had at that moment was “disgust towards the countries that could have prevented the Turkish invasion <…>.” He even speculated that the Turks might take over the entire island.
During the resettlement process organized by the Turkish military, Greek Cypriots, the main inhabitants of Varosha, were given one day to leave the area. 16,000 people gathered only the most important things and left their homes, thinking they would soon return. On the day the Greek Cypriots had to flee Famagusta, British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby asked about ten people if they were willing to return to their homes and live under Turkish Cypriot control. The residents refused, calling the Turks “barbarians” and “bad people” with whom it was impossible to coexist. “I left my combine, tractor, grain,” a man in his fifties sadly says. In response to the journalist’s question about what he plans to do, he adds: “I will kill myself.” People left their homes literally into the unknown. About 200,000 people became refugees — every third inhabitant of the island. And about five thousand died in the fighting.
“[Turkish] tanks entered our village around four o’clock [in the morning]. We heard the noise, and all the people tried to leave the village. We were very scared of these tanks. We didn’t take anything with us and ran out of the village as quickly as possible. Our homes, property were left there,” a young girl tells journalist Dimbleby. Within the first few hours, many Greek Cypriot homes were looted, often even before the owners left the settlements.
The camp of Turkish Cypriot refugees from the Greek part of the island numbered seven thousand people. Their homes were also looted, and they fled from their villages often with only a small bag. But, like the Greek Cypriots, the Turks respond with a refusal to the question: “Are you ready to return and live under Greek administration?” “I lost everything in my home. I was very unhappy. But then I saw [the Turkish] tanks. And I forgot about my misery. Because my life was saved, the lives of my children and my people – the Turks.”
The Turkish military began the forcible resettlement of Greeks to the south, while Turks from the southern territories fled to the north. Thus, Cyprus was effectively divided into two mono-ethnic territories, with the “Green Line” – a UN buffer zone – in between. The British bases remained on the island.
In 1983, the Turkish community declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. However, to this day, only Turkey has recognized the new state. And Northern Cyprus is under international sanctions, so its economy is almost entirely dependent on Turkey. The currency of the unrecognized republic is the Turkish lira. You can only fly or sail here from Turkey.
How They Tried to Resolve the Conflict
Over 39 years, five presidents have come and gone in Northern Cyprus, and there has been no unity among them regarding the republic’s self-determination. Some, like the current president Ersin Tatar, adhere to the policy of “two states for two peoples.” The previous president, Mustafa Akıncı, wanted the island’s reunification and even openly clashed with Turkey’s President Erdogan on this issue.
The reason Varosha remains an abandoned territory is due to UN Security Council Resolution 550, adopted in May 1984. It states: “Attempts to settle any part of Varosha by anyone other than its inhabitants are inadmissible.” Although in the 1990s, the Turks proposed settling Kosovar refugees in Varosha and later threatened with the resettlement of Turks from the mainland.
Kofi Annan‘s plan (then UN Secretary-General) in 2004 proposed the return of Varosha to the Greeks, but this did not happen because about 75% of Greek Cypriots voted against it. In contrast, 65% of Turkish Cypriots supported the Annan Plan.
On March 21, 2008, President of the Republic of Cyprus Dimitris Christofias held reunification talks with Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat. And from June 1, they planned to implement a single citizenship, and in September, discussions began on the demilitarization of Nicosia (the capital of both Cyprus). In the autumn and winter, they began coordinating unified governing bodies.
However, in 2011, everything stalled. The Turks insisted on decentralization of power after unification and could not agree on the return of property to Greek Cypriots displaced from territories now controlled by Northern Cyprus. Another reason was Turkey’s refusal to recognize Cyprus’s right to develop gas and oil fields in its part of the Mediterranean Sea without considering the opinions of the Turkish Cypriots.
In 2020, a conference was supposed to take place to resolve the Cyprus issue, involving Turkey, Greece, and the United Kingdom. However, before the negotiations began, Turkey announced the creation of a naval base in Northern Cyprus, and Turkish military drones began landing at the Famagusta airport.
On the eve of the presidential elections in Northern Cyprus in 2020, the Prime Minister of the unrecognized state, Ersin Tatar, announced the opening of the Varosha beach area. This decision was supported by Turkey, while the UN Secretary-General and EU representatives expressed dissatisfaction with these actions.
Why to visit: 1970s modernism, old signage, and beaches against a backdrop of ruins
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Famagusta was the most popular resort in Cyprus. The Varosha resort area began construction in the 1960s. By 1974, there were over 100 hotels that could accommodate 11,000 people. Nearly 40,000 people lived in Varosha, most of them Greek Cypriots. Before the war, celebrities such as actresses Elizabeth Taylor and Brigitte Bardot loved to visit Famagusta.
In 2017, citizens of Turkey and Northern Cyprus were allowed to visit the beach in the Varosha territory. This was the first step towards opening a larger area in 2020. And in July 2017, two significant events occurred. A mosque from 1821 was reopened after restoration. And the President of Northern Cyprus announced that Greek Cypriots could apply to the immovable property commission to reclaim their property if they had the right to do so.
Some hotels in Varosha are still owned by citizens from 20 countries around the world, not just Greek Cypriots. According to Cypriot economist Costas Apostolides, the real estate in Varosha (hotels, villas, land plots) can be valued at two billion British pounds.
On October 8, 2020, part of the Varosha district was indeed opened as promised. In the following month, the city was visited by the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Since then, Varosha has been visited by 750,000 people, according to the President of Northern Cyprus. The first tourists from the international travel club, which includes Russian designer Artemy Lebedev, were personally welcomed by the President of Northern Cyprus, Ersin Tatar.
The Varosha quarter stretches along the sea for four to five kilometers and one to one and a half kilometers inland. Only a small part of it has been opened to tourists, and it is possible to walk along a few streets — two kilometers along the coast on John F. Kennedy Avenue and one kilometer inland on Dimokratias Avenue.
In places, Varosha looks like a set for a movie about an abandoned city. The area is frozen in the 1970s, and a walk through it feels like teleporting back half a century. Old neon signs, fonts, and logos of major companies like American Express, Polaroid, Agfa, and 7Up that are no longer in use, defunct brands, and outdated design examples. Along with the modernist architecture overgrown with greenery, this is the main reason to visit.
Along Kennedy Street, buildings of famous hotels such as King George, The Asterias, The Grecian, The Florida, and Elizabeth Taylor’s favorite hotel, The Argo, have been preserved. Another important street in the city is Leonidas (Livadion), where the best shops, bars, restaurants, and the Toyota dealership were concentrated, whose sign is still preserved today.
The territory is still controlled by the military of Northern Cyprus and UN peacekeepers. However, the atmosphere is quite calm — people with automatic weapons are not standing at every turn.
Points of interest
The Holy Trinity Church (Ayia Triada), built in the modernist style as part of the Aspelia hotel in the mid-1960s. The construction of the hotel involved demolishing an old temple, which did not sit well with the local residents. They were even more displeased after seeing the new church building in a completely uncharacteristic style. However, the architect of the project claimed that he was inspired by the Byzantine churches of Cyprus, and the Holy Trinity Church is somewhat an allusion to them.
Bilal Ağa Mosque, constructed in 1821, which was reopened after restoration in 2020. It stood abandoned for 46 years, like the other buildings in Varosha, but now it can be used for prayers. Inscriptions from the Ottoman period have been preserved in the building.
The Church of Saint Nicholas (Agios Nikolaos) in Neo-Byzantine style from the 19th century.
Glossa Beach / Maraş Plajı is the furthest point from the checkpoint (more about the checkpoint in the “Practical Information” section). A couple of hundred meters of clean sand, sun loungers, and a small café are surrounded by ruined hotels and signs warning “The Building May Collapse”.
- YouTube videos show several buildings from the inside, as well as areas where civilians are officially not allowed to enter.
- Blogger John Harris’s film about Varosha and the overall situation in Cyprus.
How to get there. Northern Cyprus has one airport – Ercan, which receives dozens of flights a day from various Turkish cities – Istanbul, Ankara, Antalya, Izmir, Kayseri, Adana, Antakya, Gaziantep, and Diyarbakır. There are also ferries from the Turkish ports of Alanya and Taşucu to Kyrenia in Cyprus.
You can also enter Northern Cyprus from the Republic of Cyprus through land border crossings. Visa-free entry for up to 30 days is available to citizens of all countries except Armenia and Nigeria.
Be attentive – the Pergamos checkpoint passes through British territory. After the UK’s exit from the EU, it is prohibited to pass through with a Schengen visa.
Where to stay. It is most convenient to stay in Famagusta, where a hotel or Airbnb can be rented for 25–35 euros per night.
Visit rules. Varosha is open from 8:00 to 17:00, entry is free. The coordinates of the checkpoint are 35.117535, 33.954533.
It is forbidden to stray from the streets and approach the houses closely. Primarily because the area has not been demined and there are many open wells, as all the covers have been stolen and sold as scrap metal. Also, something could fall on your head from a partially destroyed building. You can photograph everything except the military and their posts. However, the use of drones is prohibited.
Infrastructure. Near the checkpoint, there is a bicycle rental service, where two hours cost 30 lira (0.87 euros), but this time will likely not be enough to leisurely cycle around the entire district. An electric scooter costs 300 lira (8.75 euros) for two hours. A three-hour tour on a golf cart costs 300 lira (8.75 euros), and a five-hour tour costs 500 lira (14.58 euros). Plan at least four hours for a walking tour.
Near the checkpoint, before entering Varosha, there is Tost Kralı café, known for its sandwiches and always crowded. It’s a great option for a quick bite or to take something on the go. Although there are also several cafés in Varosha where you can buy coffee, water, and snacks. A hamburger costs 130 lira (3.79 euros), a toast 70 lira (2.04 euros), coffee 20 lira (0.58 euros), and a bottle of beer 50 lira (1.46 euros). Full menu available.