The town was founded in antiquity by Achaeans who named it after Kyrenia in the Peloponnese. It was an important kingdom in antiquity and was fortified by the Byzantines in the Middle Ages. The fortifications were extended by the Franks and the Venetian conquerors between the 12th and 16th Century. In 1570, Kyrenia surrendered to the Turks not long after the siege of Nicosia.
Kyrenia was largely neglected and undeveloped until the independence of Cyprus in 1960. At that time it developed into a tourist centre on account of its scenic view which combines both sea and mountain. This development was abruptly halted on July 22, 1974 when Kyrenia became the first city that was captured during the invasion of the island by Turkey. Its Greek Cypriot inhabitants fled to the south of the island, where the internationally-recognized government of Cyprus was still in power. Since then it has been under occupation by the Turkish army. Kyrenia at present is populated by Turkish Cypriots and Turkish settlers.
The castle at the east end of the old harbour is a very spectacular site and within its walls there is a twelfth century chapel showing reused late Roman capitals. The inner courtyard is vast and in one of the rooms leading off it is the Shipwreck Museum, exhibiting the remains of a 4th century Greek ship, discovered by a Greek-Cypriot diver in 1967, salvaged not far from Kyrenia together with its cargo. The Kyrenia ship as it is called, was extensively covered by the National Geographic Society.
The town has an icon museum housed in a church which was dedicated to the Archangel Michael, not far from it there are some tombs cut into the rock dating from about the 4th century, there is a ruined small Christian church behind the harbour and in the harbour is a small tower from which a chain could be slung to close the harbour to any enemies.