Ioannina is found in the north-west part of Greece and about 70km away from the beach. It has to be one of the most amazing cities in Greece, being built on the shores of Pamvotida Lake.
There is nothing nicer than being out early on a crisp Winter morning and seeing the lake covered in an eerie blanket of fog.
If you’re looking for lovely hot weather for your visit to Ioannina, the hottest months are June, July and August, but because this area is so naturally beautiful with mountains and valleys, some holidaymakers might appreciate the cooler weather for walking and hiking.
Something Totally Different from the Iconic Beaches
Beautiful Ioannina is the capital of the prefecture of Epirus and people who have visited Ioannina are spellbound by the exquisite beauty of the place – they love that it offers such another side to Greece than the beaches.
During the Greek Carnival season, Ioannina lights up as there are bonfires all over the town, and people in different costumes dance around the fires during party-season, a time which leads up to Easter.
Reminders of a Colorful Past
Most people associate the beautiful lake with its island as the very heart of Ioannina. The mysterious lake has an illustrious history that goes back centuries and it is famous even outside of Greece. The waters are mostly calm but are known to freeze.
A top attraction too is the island in the lake. It is small with about 350 people living there. A small boat can take you to the islet (2 Euro each way) which has its own set of attractions. One of these is the Museum of Ali Pasha, found in the cells of the monastery of Ag. Panteleimonas. This is where Ali Pasha was murdered.
He and his wife fled to the small island in 1822, but he was tracked down and killed. A fascinating aspect with the museum is the fact that you can still see the holes from the bullets on the floor of the museum.
The island of Ioannina is also known for its culinary delicacies which include pasta with crayfish – karavides served in the several tavernas found in the heart of the island, and frogs’ legs. You will be surprised how affordable the prices of these dishes are.
The island is also home to five notable monasteries and is in fact the third largest monastic community in Greece. The first inhabitants of the island where monks who came here in the 13th century and were the ones to establish the monasteries which are found here till this day.
One of the most impressive monasteries is the Monastery of St. Nicholas Filanthropinon or Spanos which was founded in 1291 – 1292. It depicts the most impressive post-Byzantine frescoes of Epirus.
Ioánnina is also well known for its traditional bakeries and once you’ve sampled the decadently sweet Baklava, you’ll want to join a cookery class during your visit and find out just how to make this sweet finger-licking Mediterranean pastry.
Things to do and see in Ioannina
Ioannina although compact in size offers its visitors an exquisite selection of experiences, attractions and cultural monuments. Here’s a list of the top things to do in Ioannina.
The Castle of Ioannina
The Castle of Ioannina is the oldest Byzantine castle with its construction being recorded dating back to as early as the Hellenistic period (4th -3rd centuries BC) followed by several reconstruction during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, largely done under the rule of Ali Pasha.
The area inside the castle spans across 200 acres, its perimeter covers 2.000 meters and its width is 10 meters. The castle is divided into four sections, the North west citadel that houses the Aslan Pasha Mosque, the South west citadel with Its Cale and Kastropolitia and the old city of Ioannina.
The Fethiye Mosque and the Tomb of Ali Pascha
The mosque is found in the city’s inner castle (Its Kale) and was constructed in 1430 close to the ruins of a Byzantine Church. Ali Pasha reconstructed the mosque in 1795 making it the main mosque of his palace. His tomb where his body lies is found right next to the mosque, his head was sent back to Constantinople following his assassination.
The Mosque of Aslan Pasha
The mosque of Aslan Pasha was constructed on the site of the Orthodox church of St. John the Baptist in 1618, seven years after its destruction. Today it is the sight of the Municipal Ethnographic Museum.
Other buildings surrounding the mosque include the Turkish baths, and on the left the Soufari Sarai, a two-storey building which ones housed the horse riding school of Ali Pasha.
Inside the museum visitors can admire three collections of local costumes, silverware and wood-carved items representative of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim families.
The Byzantine Museum
The Byzantine Museum is located in the southeast acropolis across from the Fethiye Mosque. The museum’s collection is displayed in seven halls where visitors can admire important finds of excavations, dated from Early Christian to the post-Byzantine period. Here you can learn all about the development of the city of Ioannina throughout the centuries.
This stunning museum is fairly new on Ioannina’s cultural scene. The museum opened in 2016 and showcase the glorious history of the region’s heritage of silversmithing. This interactive museum walks visitors through all the stages of history depicting and detailing the process of the craft.
On the upper floor you can admire an inspiring collection of opulent objects. You must add this museum on top of your list of things to do in Ioannina.
Archaeological Museum of Ioannina
The Archeological Museum of Ioannina covers a total area of 1,200 sqm with seven halls that display the first findings of the first appearance of man in Epirus (Palaeolithic age 250,000 years ago) to the late antiquity, and more specifically the Roman period (3rd century AD).
The large part of the collection is dedicated to the findings from the nearby sanctuary of Dodoni where you can see inscriptions of messages left to one of the most important oracles of the Greek world.
If you read the little planks carefully you will see that the ancient Greeks had similar concerns to the ones we face today, related to health, career and matters of the heart.
Situated only four kilometres from Ioannina, this impressive cave was created 1.500.000 years ago. Considered to be one of the most important caves in the world, this natural wonder is home to 19 different types of stalactites and stalagmites. It takes approximately 45 minutes to complete the tour of the cave. The last part consists of going up 164 steps.
The cave is open daily from 09:00am – 17:00pm
Ticket price: 7€ | Groups: 5,5€/person | Students: 3,5€
Where to Eat in Ioannina
A resort complex Frontzu Politia is perched on a hill overlooking the city of Ioannina, a project which was started by the late Mr. Frontzos (Mayor of Ioannina) on the same spot where Ali Pasha had once built his summer palace.
Offering sweeping views of Ioannina, today the complex consists of a hotel, conference centre, restaurant and cafe-bar. The restaurant area is adorned with beautifully carved wooden ceiling, fireplace and exudes a warm and grand ambience. The dishes are prepared with great love for the region of Epirus using locally sourced ingredients.
Here we savoured a selection of fine dishes such as rooster with hilopetes, a local egg-pasta cooked in a delicious tomato sauce, slow cooked veal, Zagori pies, local smoke saganaki Metsovone cheese toped with quince chutney and other sensational dishes prepared by Chef Papayiannis and his team.
Lively Pubs and Bars
Ioannina is a traditional city with a good number of elderly folk living in it. However, it’s university breathes young blood into the city and there are plenty of ‘hang-out’ places for the younger set, from restaurants and bars to clubs.
For night owls there is a vibrant nightlife, and particularly over the weekends. There are plenty of parties happening and these rock into the wee hours. A vibey bar to try is Denoar (Anexartisias 40/42 Str., Stoa Mramenou) which is housed in a historical stone building with remarkable arches. The building was once used as a store selling crystal good and fine tableware.
Where to Stay in Ioannina
Luxury accommodation – if it’s 5-star luxury you’re after with every kind of comfort you can imagine, Kamares Boutique Hotel & Spa located in a beautifully restored 19th century mansion is your ultimate choice. This 9 rooms and suites boutique hotel exudes an elegant and homey vibe, created with utmost love, care and attention to detail.
The city’s historical past has been tastefully incorporated into the hotel’s philosophy. Breakfast is a feast for all the senses, served in the small but cozy dining room and consists of a great selection of local cheeses and cold cuts as well as freshly prepared eggs of your choice. For a relaxing afternoon, book yourself a soothing massage or unwind in the hotel Jacuzzi and hammam.
Getting to Ioannina
The distance from Athens to Ioannina is 445km. There are buses that leave from Athens and that take about 7 hours to reach Ioannina. If this seems like too long for you, there are 2 to 4 flights which leave every day from Athens, check the schedule depending on the season. The flight takes about 45 minutes. Olympic air and Sky Express operate their flights here. If you want to travel around the city, hiring a car can give you quite a bit of independence but it can be frustrating tying to find parking in the city. It is why people opt to use the dark green taxis which are round and about the city night and day.
Things to know about Ioannina
- By car, the city is about 410km from Athens.
- Airport – Ioannina International Airport – 5km outside the city.
- The city has a number of ATMs in the middle of the city.
- The currency is Euro.
- The big banks handle all money exchanges.
- For medical emergencies there is a medical school and hospital at Dourouti which is about 7km or 4 miles south of Ioannina. Ambulance no. is 26510 54330 / 166.
- Hire a car from Avis, Hertz, Europcar. If you think that driving your own rental car will prevent you taking in the scenery properly, there are buses that run from Ioannina to just about all the villages of Zagoria.
- Exciting events throughout the year – sports, cultural events, theater, music festivals. Ioannina Lake Run and the Mountain Zagori Marathon are two such popular events. Apokries is Greece’s Carnival season. It precedes the 40 days of fasting leading up to Easter. It’s a time of partying and making merry.
Some Must-See Attractions nearby Ioannina
Dodoni Archaeological Site
The extraordinary archaeological site of Dodoni is one of the most ancient of oracles in Greece. It is dedicated to Zeus, king of the Greek Gods. The site in Epirus is about 22km southwest from Ioannina.
The sanctuary of Zeus and Dione at Dodona was a renown oracle, giving prophecies about the concerns people had. The priests consulted with Zeus and delivered his divinations. This was done by interpreting the rustling of the leaves of the sacred oak tree.
Important ruins at the archaeological site include the Hellenistic Theatre as well as traces of the ancient stadium. There were a host of metal artifacts unearthed during excavations, and many of these are exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Ioannina.
Greece is so beautiful and offers so much to see and do, it’s surprising it’s not known as one of the 7 wonders of the world.
The Zagori area, a region of Epirus north of Ioannina, is a massively impressive area filled with mountain villages, monasteries and churches. It is so full of beauty and sights to behold, you’ll need a week at least to see it, and then you’ll only be touching the surface.
For those who love nature, who relish the thought of escaping the crowds, the Zagori area is your ticket to bliss. Each season has its own unique beauty and there are many trekking opportunities and the chance to cool off in crystal clear rivers. Autumn is also splendid because of the sheer variety of colors in nature. To experience the best of the region, I highly recommend doing a tour with George of Epirus Adventures. I have done a tour with him in autumn and during our visit in winter, he is very knowledgeable and passionate about the Epirus region.
The stone bridges of Zagori
Of course, a top attraction is the stone arch bridges, all dating back to the Ottoman era.
Explore the traditional stone-built villages and arch stone bridges. In fact, the villages are connected by a network of stone footpaths, some of which take you over these arched bridges.
There are many of these bridges believed to have been built in the 18th and 19th century by local master craftsmen. The bridges have between 2 or 3 arches which are known as Kamares in Greek.
Plakidas, near the village of Kipoi is one of the most well known, it is a three stringer bridge which was constructed in 1814. There is also a village at the cliff of Vikos Gorge, Vitsa Village, and there are 3 arched bridges in the area – Misiou Bridge, Kokkoris Bridge, and Lazaridis Bridge that connects the villages of Koukouli and Kipi.
One of the must-sees in the Zagori area is the Vikos–Aoos National Park, a UNESCO Geopark where you can see unique flora and fauna. Zagori is also home to Vikos Gorge, found in the Northern Pindos Park, and just 30km from Ioannina.
It is one of the deepest gorges in the world, and the most spectacular according to the Guinness Book of Records. What is awesome is that you don’t have to be intimidated by it because there are walks for all fitness levels – 1 hour hikes to 5 hours and longer. In fact, the village of Monodentri is a popular starting point for visiting the Vikos Gorge.
The main hike takes you about 13km along the bottom of the gorge to Vikos. You’ll find some metal- or wooden ladders along the route which make it particularly exciting for kids taking part.
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‘Cause baby there ain’t no mountain high enough Ain’t no valley low enough Ain’t no river wide enough …. And here I am standing over the Vikos Gorge, one of the deepest relative to its width in the world! We got to witness this stunning landscape thanks to our friends from @epirus.travel together with @travelbloggersgreece Are you an outdoors person? #travelbloggersgreece #MyEpirus #tbgturns5
Such beauty demands view spots and there are viewpoints. Highlights include a walk to the Beloi viewpoint which is a look-out stone balcony with breathtaking views over the gorge. Here Mr Kostas Ioannidis runs his small store where you can buy locally made souvenirs, mountainous herbs and honey.
In the village of Monodentri, we recommend staying at the Archontiko Zarkada Mountain Hotel which features traditional accommodation, with garden and mountain views. Selected rooms also have a fireplace, making it an ideal retreat for any time of year.
Be Blown-Away by Papigos
Not only is Papigo an area of exceptional beauty, but its population is also less than 200 people. It’s a place where the legendary Greek hospitality comes into its own.
It’s about 59 km away from Ioannina which is roughly an hour’s drive. The stone houses in the small village located right in the mountains are what postcards are made of. Certainly, you’re going to be turning left and right clicking away at your camera. You know however, that the photos can never do justice to what all you see with the naked eye.
The road leading to the small Greek village is wonderfully picturesque, but unless you stop to look at the views you can’t take your eyes off the road ahead as they are twisting and turning and also narrow.
Enjoy a delightful meal at the village of Aspraggeli
This small village is commonly referred to as the gate of Zagori, as it is the first village you will encounter once you reach the region. We came here one delightful afternoon to try the local specialties prepared at a bar-restaurant called Montaza.
This cozy place is run by Giannis Tsaparis, who turned the small family store into a restaurant. To honor his late grandfather he named it Montaza, the same name as his grandfather’s cafe which he successfully managed in Cairo from 1920 till 1950s.
After our morning of being out in the crisp mountainous air we greatly enjoyed freshly grilled chops, accompanied by traditional pies, salad and full-bodied red wine.
River Rafting on the Voidomatis River
When you get to Papigo, you’ll know that you should definitely have packed in hiking boots and clothes which can take a bashing. This is because apart from walks and hiking, there is river rafting on the Voidomatis River.
There are tours that include rafting on this kid-friendly river which presents no particular difficulties for people who want to try it out for the first time. Check out Trekking Hellas Ioannina for all the tours they offer in the region.
You’ll be amazed at the sheer cleanliness of the water which is perfect for swimming in even though it can sometimes be a bit chilly. Your river rafting trip will also take you under one of the arched bridges we’ve mentioned previously and the one you’ll go under is the Kato Kleidonia, a single arch bridge.
In Papigo there are a number of shops where you can buy some interesting knick-knacks as gifts for friends and family back home. Just wondering around this village is therapeutic as it’s your chance to breathe in the fresh mountain air and absorb the slow pace of life.
At the Koukounari which is a cafe and pantopoleio (a store selling daily necessities) you can enjoy freshly baked cakes, pies and gluten free bites.
Started by two lovely young people, Katerina and George who decided to leave the city life and move to the mountains — in order to enjoy a more quality life.
Lots of excellent Accommodation Options
If you’re looking for accommodation in the gorgeous village, there are some wonderful hotels and stone guesthouses offering spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.
The impressive Tzoumerka mountain range is particularly attractive because it’s pretty much untouched by modern civilization. Of course its a nature lover’s paradise with amazing wild beauty. People who have spent a few days and just listened to the silence wait for the evening, giving one a kind of holy feeling as the darkness falls and the stars light up above you.
The Monastery of Kipinas
A must-see in Tzoumerka is the Monastery of Kipinas. Before you reach it, you’ll come to an old café where you get the key to the monastery. It’s the monastery’s location in the rocks which adds to the fascination of this attraction. You follow a path, crossing a wooden bridge to reach the entrance.
Visitors to the monastery are fascinated with the way the rooms have literally been built into the surrounding rock. The monastery was built in 1212. There is also an entrance to a cave within its walls and visitors can go in.
The monastery offers the most amazing views. There are also a number of villages in this area which are regarded as architectural pieces of art. Kalarrytes village has just a few inhabitants and is built on the edge of a steep ravine with its characteristic stone houses and slate roofs. It is here that the owner of the famous jewellery brand Bulgari was born.
The greatest stories are always told by those who have a passion for what they do. The fire that burns in their eyes as they recall the little details of their journey. On our afternoon visit to Kalarytes we met Napoleon, who is the 5th generation in his family that runs this family owned taverna which has been around since 1840.
The taverna Akanthos which is also a small store where you can buy everyday necessities. After a hearty lunch in the small cozy dining room which consisted of a selection of local pies, meats and vegetables, Napoleon invited us to sit in his wine cellar, or a fancy storage room so to say. He told us about Kalarytes, a small village in the North of Tzoumerka which is the birthplace of many great men.
Napoleon then sang a beautiful song in Vlachs, a tale of a lover who went against all odds to be with the one he loves. They say where there is a will, there is a way – and a heart that loves cannot be stopped.
The plane that brought you to Ioannina International Airport may well be the same one that will carry you away from this most spectacular city and surrounds. How many visitors to Ioannina don’t leave reluctantly, looking back for a last glimpse at the beautiful mountains?
For someone just ending a holiday to Ioannina, you’ll feel terrible leaving it and you may even need to see a doctor who diagnoses ‘Ioannina Fever’ – a longing to return. For those who fall under the spell of this place, there is really only one course open to you – to return! That’s what I did, I have been to this region, three times in the past six months.
*The trip was organized by Epirus.Travel, where members of Travel Bloggers Greece were invited to explore the region of Epirus and to share their impressions. All opinions expressed are always my own.