Very few (manmade) places deserve the accolade “perfect”.
However, Ioannina ( Ιωάννινα) might be one of them.
This vibrant student town in Greece’s Epirus region, completely captivates me and has quickly become one of my favourite cities to date!
Whether it is the rich Turkish past best visible in the architecture of the old town, the cultural diversity wonderfully displayed in the many museums and stores, the lively bar scene, the culinary excellence (best food in Greece in my opinion), or the natural beauty of Pamvotida Lake and the sublime Pindos mountains, together they form a magical potpourri of smells, sounds, images, and experiences that will mesmerise and let you fall in love with this extraordinary city (that’s what happened to me at least!).
History buffs, outdoor enthusiasts, art lovers, foodies, and party animals alike, will find a multitude of reasons to celebrate this very special Greek travel destination.
So, without further ado, here are 10 beautiful sights and activities you should absolutely consider checking out during your time in Ioannina!
- Visit Its Kale
- Revel in the splendour of silver and gold
- Learn about Ioannina’s religious groups
- Take an island break
- Dive deeper into Ioannina’s Turkish past
- Come face to face with martyrs and biblical figures
- Descend into the depths of Perama Cave
- Discover world-class hiking in Vikos
- Search for dragons in the Pindos Mountains
- Speak to a prophetic tree in Dodona
VISIT ITS KALE (THE INNER CITADEL)
Guarding the south-eastern corner of Ioannina’s old town, Its Kale might be one of my favourite spots in the city. Built on the foundations of earlier Frankish and Byzantine fortifications, the “Inner Citadel” was completely reconstructed during Ali Pasha’s reign, and subsequently became the main residence of the Turkish despot.
Elevated above the old town, Ali Pasha’s former abode, which included his majestic seraglio (palace), a mosque, and private baths, is the perfect place to unwind and enjoy the things that make Ioannina such a marvellous destination. Whether you want to taste the delicious local cuisine in the erstwhile castle kitchen, broaden your knowledge on Ioannina’s storied past, gaze at the fantastically preserved Islamic architecture, or simply enjoy the beautiful views of Pamvotida Lake and the Pindos mountains occupying the horizon, I guarantee you will find something to make your stay worthwhile.
In addition, a trio of museums is situated in the upper part of the citadel. Accessible with a combined ticket, the Fethiye Mosque, the Treasury, and the Byzantine Museum will paint a more complete picture of a city steeped in history and culture. Stunning Orthodox ecclesiastical art, lustrous silverware, delicate wood carvings, and wonderful Islamic murals show the richness and diversity of a region often overlooked by those travelling to Greece.
Entrance Fee | General admission: 3€; Students (under 26): free
Opening Hours | 8:00-17:00
Closed | every Tuesday | 25 March | 1 May | Easter Sunday/Monday | 25/26 December
Free admission | 6 March | 18 April | 18 May | last weekend of September | 28 October
Entrance fee and opening hours do only apply for the Fethiye Mosque, Treasury, and Byzantine Museum. Its Kale itself is free of charge and open until late in the evening.
Check the official website of the Byzantine Museum for up-to-date prices and opening hours.
Born in 1741 in Tepelen, Albania, Ali Pasha became the ruler of Ioannina in 1788. From his power base in Epirus, he expanded his influence over much of the Southern Balkans, until his realm included much of Albania, Macedonia, the Peloponnese (except Mani), Thessaly, and huge parts of mainland Greece.
Operating highly independentely from the Sublime Porte, he invested heavily in the city and the region's infrastructure, thereby establishing Ioannina as an international commercial, political, economic, and cultural hub. In his endeavours he relied mainly on the local Greek population, even marrying a Greek woman and conducting a Christian wedding. He regularly welcomed foreign visitors and several European monarchs vied for his attention. His growing power proved to be his downfall, however, and in 1822 he was finally assassinated by troops of the Sultan, followig a year-long siege of Ioannina.
REVEL IN THE SPLENDOUR OF SILVER AND GOLD
Walking through Ioannina one of the first things a visitor will notice is the abundance of silverware being sold. Beautifully adorned plates and bowls, intricate jewellery garnished with gems, lavishly decorated belt buckles, and many other luxury, as well as every-day objects can be spotted in the numerous shops that line the city’s streets.
Going back to the 17th century, the light of Epirote silver and gold smithing tradition was first sparked when Saxon and Bohemian miners journeyed through Europe and imparted their expertise, introducing new techniques and mining methods that revolutionized the process and made it easier to extract the ore from the bowels of the earth. The craft flourished and reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries during Ali Pasha’s reign, with Ioannina and Kalarrytes establishing themselves as the regional hubs of this delicate artform.
“Janina is the centre both of art and fashion, and fits all the beaux of Roumeli (…). The savat, or the blackening of silver, their mode of ornamenting guns, drinking cups (…) is an art almost exclusively exercised by a settlement of Vlachi at Calarites”
D. Urquhart, London 1838
Today, the most stunning of these artifacts are displayed in the recently opened (2018) Silversmithing Museum, located in the lower part of Its Kale. Not only will you bare witness to the mesmerising beauty of these items, but the exhibition takes a very thorough look at the different ornamentation techniques used by Ioannina’s master smiths, as well.
Parts of the second floor are used for temporary expositions (the 200-year anniversary of the Greek War of Independence, in my case), so always keep an eye out for that, should you be in town.
Opening Hours | 1 March – 15 October 10:00-18:00 | 16 October – 28 February 10:00-17:00
Entrance Fee | General Admission: 4€; Students: free
Closed | every Tuesday | 1 January | 17 January | Good Friday (until 12:00) | Orthodox Easter Sunday | 1 May | 15 August | 25-26 December
For up-to-date opening hours and prices check the official website of the Silversmithing Museum.
LEARN ABOUT IOANNINA'S RELIGIOUS GROUPS
Behind the walls of Ioannina’s north-western citadel rises the minaret of Aslan Pasha’s Mosque. Erected in 1618 after a failed attempt to overthrow Turkish rule, the mosque formed part of a scheme to assert dominance and reaffirm Ottoman (and Islamic) rule in the city. Together with the nearby library, madrassas (Islamic school), kitchen, and Aslan Pasha’s mausoleum, it constitutes a quite rare Muslim complex that survived the revolution of 1821.
Nowadays, this house of God accommodates the city’s Municipal Museum, highlighting the different religious groups that call (or called) Ioannina their home. The vestibule is dedicated to the Jewish and Christian faith, whereas the inner sanctum of the mosque houses Islam.
Stepping into the silence of the mosque’s main room feels surreal. In a country that has such a difficult relationship with its Turkish neighbour (and therefore Islam), the mosques of Ioannina are a unique sight on their own, however entering the inner part will take you right out of Greece.
Bronze candelabras hang from the dome that boasts a circular pattern complemented by Arabic verses from the Quran, while the mihrab (altar) and the adjacent mimbar (pulpit) are even more wonderful in their appearance, richly decorated and colourfully painted, letting you easily forget that you currently reside in a Christian nation.
Although the museum is quite small, I spent way longer there than necessary, extensively soaking in the peaceful quietness, and beauty of the Islamic architecture.
All in all, Aslan Pasha’s Mosque and the surrounding buildings present themselves as a somewhat forgotten part of the old town, so even if you don’t visit the museum, consider bringing a book and enjoy the welcomed tranquillity of the north-eastern citadel.
Entrance Fee | General admission: 2€; Students (under 26): 1€
Opening Hours | Monday-Friday 8:30-16:30; Saturday-Sunday 9:00-15:00
TAKE AN ISLAND BREAK
Near the north-eastern shore of Pamvotida Lake, just a short ferry ride away from Ioannina’s historic centre, lies a nameless island. Simply called nisaki (islet) by the locals, this idyllic destination is the perfect getaway for those seeking a quick break from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Despite its manageable size, the island has a lot to offer, and visitors might easily spend the better half of a day wandering and exploring around the island.
Beside a quaint, little village, whose stone houses are covered with black slate-tiled roofs typical for the region, no less than seven Byzantine monasteries can be found across the island, as well as, the Ali Pasha and Revolutionary Period Museum, located on the eastern outskirts of the settlement.
Moreover, a lovely footpath circles the entirety of the island, inviting travellers for a relaxed stroll along the lake shore, while offering great views of the majestic mountain panorama and the slender minarets that rise above Ioannina’s old town.
For those curious in culinary peculiarities, the islanders have a very princely delicacy on offer. In addition to a variety of fish dishes, these folks have specialized in the art of frog breeding. Therefore, if your tastebuds are already starting to jump around in excitement, quickly hop over to one of the many tavernas and get your hands on a crispy pair of frog legs!
Ferries run multiple times a day (every 30 minutes), starting early in the morning until 9pm. The roundtrip will cost 4€ (2€ per ride).
DIVE DEEPER INTO IOANNINA'S TURKISH PAST
In October of 1820, shortly before the Greek heartlands would erupt into open rebellion against the waning Ottoman Empire, a Turkish army reached the shores of lake Pamvotida. The Sultan, feeling threatened by the growing power of Ali Pasha, had dispatched his troops towards Ioannina to deal with the possible adversary once and for all.
After withstanding the siege for well over a year, Ali Pasha retreated to a small island on the lake, seeking refuge in the monastery of St. Panteleimon. His fate was sealed, however, and he succumbed to his wounds, having been shot through the wooden floor of his hideout, ending the inner-political conflict. Following his posthumous beheading, Ali Pasha was buried right next to Fethiye mosque in Its Kale, marking the end of his reign.
Today, the site of his assassination has been turned into the Ali Pasha and Revolutionary Period Museum, commemorating this influential figure. The museum covers the time of Ali Pasha’s tenure as governor of Ioannina and the wider Epirus region, as well as the Greek War of Independence, providing a closer look at the country’s Ottoman past.
Richly embroidered costumes, ornated weaponry (both traditional arms and guns), Ali Pasha’s personal waterpipe and rifle, intricate paintings, beautifully adorned curtains, and mesmerizing jewellery, created by the renowned Epirote silver and goldsmiths, are just some of the relics that allow a glimpse into this turbulent moment in Greek history.
Entrance Fee | General admission: 3€; Students (under 26): 2€
Opening Hours | 9:00-18:00
COME FACE TO FACE WITH MARTYRS AND BIBLICAL FIGURES
As mentioned before, a total of seven Orthodox monasteries grace the city’s no-name island. Constructed between the 13th and 15th century, these places of worship, dating back to the late Byzantine period, are truly a sight to behold and should not be missed when visiting Ioannina.
Their unadorned outside appearance might strike you as modest, however, do not be fooled!
Once you step inside the inner sanctum you will be rewarded with a heavenly feast for the eyes. Impeccably well-preserved wall paintings comlpetely cover the entire interior and depict biblical scenes, as well as the manifold (and quite graphic) death of Christian martyrs.
Another curious detail is the portraying of ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle inside the monasteries. Given the oftentimes difficult relationship between the church and the classical sciences, I was surprised to stand face to face with these masters of old. Interestingly, there seems to be a lot of respect and admiration for these influential thinkers within the Greek church, a stark contrast to its Catholic counterpart.
The monastery of Philanthropenon has the best-preserved murals on the island, however, be aware that it is not allowed to take photos there. Like a hawk, a fierce nun will have her eyes on you at all times (I tried to sneak one in and was kicked out kindly asked to leave immediately). A good alternative to get some pictures is the monastery of Panagia Elousa a few minutes down the road.
Also keep in mind that the opening hours differ and that the monasteries might be closed for a couple of hours during the day.
DESCEND INTO THE DEPTHS OF PERAMA CAVE
Beside the incredible scenery presenting itself to Ioannina’s visitors above the ground, there is a wonderous world waiting below the surface, as well.
Hidden inside the darkness of Goritsa Hill, underneath the small village of Perama, lies a subterranean network of winding tunnels, narrow corridors, steep staircases, and grand halls formed over the course of 1,5 million years.
Only discovered in 1940 by locals, those who venture into the depths of the mountain will find a plethora of dripstone decorations covering the floor and ceiling of these caverns. Famous for its wide variety of stalactite and stalagmite formations, speleologists have already given adequate names to quite a few of them, however I urge you to let your imagination run rampant to see how many new shapes and forms you are able to discover and name accordingly!
Situated merely five kilometres outside the city centre and easily reachable by public bus (or even foot) Perama Cave lends itself to be a perfect alternative for those looking for something a bit out of the ordinary when visiting Ioannina.
Entrance Fee | General admission: 7€; Students: 3,5€
Opening Hours | 9:00-17:00 (every day)
DISCOVER WORLD-CLASS HIKING IN VIKOS
Just a short ride north of Ioannina waits one of nature’s most stunning creations. An enormous rift cuts right through the Pindos mountain range, splitting the landscape in half and forming the world’s deepest canyon relative to its width (according to the Guinness Book of World Records).
Numbers regarding its maximum depth vary greatly (from 600 to 1000 metres), however, whatever the case, the grandeur of Vikos is unquestionable.
Its massive cliffs will dwarf any doubts, its moss-covered forests will charm you (and transport you right into Middle Earth!), and the cobblestone alleyways of its century-old villages will ultimately let you fall in love with this criminally underrated corner of Greece.
Furthermore, due to its remote location, the canyon has become a haven for several species of both flora and fauna, who call this pristine speck of nature their home. Majestic eagles soar high above the ground, while bears, wolves, and wild cats lurk on the valley floor, and even vultures nest on the hazardous cliffsides. Although very unlikely, it is not unheard-of that hikers spot these beautiful creatures!
In any way, make sure to visit in fall when the trees change their dress, adding a multitude of red, orange, and yellow to the palette, and transform Vikos Gorge into a flamboyant composition of fiery colours dancing in the autumn winds.
SEARCH FOR DRAGONS IN THE PINDOS MOUNTAINS
Tugged away in the shadow of the Tymfi massif, Drakolimni is a truly enchanted destination.
Believed to be the lair of two dragons battling for supremacy (hence the name “Dragon Lake”), the sight of this picture-perfect place will leave you speechless and in search for the right words to grasp its beauty. Utterly still, this alpine pearl appears as a portal to another world, perfectly reflecting the heavens above.
Flanked by monumental peaks, the terrain to the east steeply rises and creates a hollow (where the lake is located), before it abruptly ends, giving way to sheer cliffs falling off into the abyss below. Standing on the edge, encompassed by an azure blue jewel on one side and an epic mountain panorama on the other, will remind you why you endured all the hardship to reach this magical place to beginn with.
If there is one thing you should witness during your time in Ioannina, without a doubt, it ought to be Drakolimni!
SPEAK TO A PROPHETIC TREE IN DODONA
In times of peril, ancient Greeks would undergo an arduous journey in search for answers. Their quest would lead them to the steep slopes of Mount Parnassus in Phocis to acquire guidance, only to be left more confused than before given the oftentimes cryptical nature of the presented response. Revered to throughout the Hellenic World, the Oracle of Delphi might have been the most famous oracle, however, the origins of cult lie further to the north in a far lesser-known corner of Greece.
Beginning in the 3rd millennium BCE, long before the coming of Zeus, people started to venerate the nature goddess Gaia, Mother Earth, in the forested valleys of the Pindos mountains. Associated with tree-worship and prophecy, excavations have confirmed that the oldest known oracle-shrine operated in Dodona, in what is now the Epirus region of Greece.
With the introduction of Zeus in the 2nd millennium BCE, Gaia lived on under the name Dione, which derives from Dias, the Greek form of the name of Zeus. The goddess also transferred her prophetic powers to the Greek Allfather, and together the divine couple resided at Dodona.
After a turbulent history that saw the sight being razed and rebuilt multiple times, the sanctuary ceased to function with the advent of Christendom in the 4th century CE and was completely abandoned two centuries later.
Even though, Dodona never reached the fame of Delphi it is still considered the second most important oracle of ancient Greece and its remnants can easily be visited as a daytrip from Ioannina. To be fair, besides the theatre not much remains, however, what Dodona lacks in crumbling ruins it more than compensates with tranquillity and peace.
After taking a nap in the shade of the prophetic oak tree and offering up a sacrifice, we posed a critical question. When we asked for the season, a single leave dispatched from its branch and slowly fell to the ground.
It was fall.
If that doesn’t convince you that the divinatory powers of the oracle are real, I don’t know what will!
Entrance Fee | General admission: 4€; Students (under 26): free
Opening Hours | 8:30-15:30 (every day)