Myths surround the city of Ioannina. They hover in the mist that often hangs over its lake and the island in its centre. This time, the myths don’t revolve around gods and heroes, but rather historical personalities. Chief among them is Ali Pasha, the maverick 19th-century Turko-Albanian ruler and his court. Intertwined with Ioannina’s history, other myths haunt the old, walled district, the Kastro, the citadel of Its Kale, the Byzantine monasteries on the Island and the rich museums.
They are an inseparable part of the city’s life and you will feel their presence even in its green parks, in the little shops on Independence Street, in the groups of lively university students and their hangouts, and in the lakeside restaurants, bars and cafes. You’ll catch glimpses of them in the peerless work of Ioannina’s famed silversmiths. And they may even follow you up to the cave at Perama, the theatre at Dodoni and the Zagorohoria mountain villages. You’ll be captivated by the legends surrounding this beautiful city in Epirus.
What to do in Ioannina
Lake Pamvotis: A 20,000-year-old attraction!
City life revolves around this romantic, silver-grey lake. Get to know it by strolling along its banks, taking a boat ride, fishing, rowing, or having a drink or a bite on the lakefront. According to geologists at Cambridge University, it was formed between 20,000 and 26,000 years ago.
Nisi: The island in the lake
It’s only a short boat ride to the island (Nisi), but once there, you’ll have to walk. Make sure you visit the Byzantine monasteries, which all have wonderful frescoes. And then take some time to learn about Ali Pasha, the Lion of Epirus. Regarded by Napoleon as an equal, he was erratic, a heady brew of fierce, fearsome, cultured and charismatic, hosting a great number of foreign dignitaries in his palace, including Lord Byron.
He ruled over greater Epirus for 30 years in defiance of the Sultan. In the Ali Pasha Museum, arranged to resemble a traditional Ioannina home of the period, you’ll learn the whole story, which ended with his assassination in the monastery of Agios Panteleimon. Finish your visit on a lighter note with a feast of local specialties, such as grilled trout and eel, at one of the island’s tavernas.
A lakeside walk with the mist for company
In early morning, a curtain of mist invariably hangs over the lake. When it lifts, the figures of cyclists, fishermen and strollers emerge on the lakeshore path, like paintings amidst the scattered sculptures by Epirot artists – an open-air gallery. You’ll walk in the shadow cast by the Kastro’s two mosques – Aslan and Fetihe – taking in the view of the Island in the distance and beyond it the often snow-capped peaks of Mt Peristeri and the Tzoumerka range. The loveliest lakeside walk ends at the Naftakia district, the old Fishing Wharf and Tambakika.
The Kastro, a melting pot of religions and cultures
For centuries, Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted in the alleys of this oldest, walled part of Ioannina. And their children played amongst Muslim monuments and synagogues. Today, many of their pastel-coloured Macedonian-style houses are still lived in or have become boutique hotels. As you wander these atmospheric streets in the shadow of its sturdy walls, fascinating attractions will catch your eye: the Old Synagogue, the House of Pasha Kalou, the 18th-century Soufari Serai, where Ali Pasha’s horses were exercised, the Turkish baths (hammams) and lots, lots more.
Its Kale, the Kastro’s inner citadel in Ioannina
Just sitting in a cafe, encircled by the impressive buildings and walls of Its Kale with the lake beyond them, you’ll feel transported to another era. Then go explore the citadel in depth, for here are the Fetihe Mosque (which Ali Pasha built for his seraglio’s worship), the tomb (where his headless corpse was interred), the exceptional Byzantine Museum, the resplendent Treasury, the Arcades and Bohemond’s Tower.
Back to modern Ioannina
If you feel like buying a few things, or just window shopping, busy Michail Angelou Street is where to go for expensive brands and stylish cafes, while boutiques are clustered on 28 Oktovriou Street. Anexartisias (or Independence) Street is the old High Street that took on its current form after a big fire in 1869. It still has dozens of quaint little shops clustered there and the workshops, ironmongers and the old arcades branching off it are also well worth a look. Some, like the Louli arcade, have been restored.
Ancient Dodoni: oracle and theatre
A spectacular narrow valley, just 22km south of Ioannina, is the site of Dodoni, one of Greece’s most important archaeological sites. A centre of worship for the father of gods and men, it was renowned for its oracle, thought to be among the oldest in the Hellenic world. The priests interpreted the will of Zeus through the rustling of the leaves from his sacred oak tree and the flight patterns of the birds that nested in it. The site’s most impressive attraction is the celebrated theatre from the 3rd century BC. With a capacity of about 18,000 spectators, it is one of the country’s largest.
The Perama Cave
A mere 4km from Ioannina, this cave ranks among the most extraordinary in the whole of the Balkan peninsula. Geologists date its age at 1.5 million years. See if you can discover all 19 different types of stalactites. Noteworthy are the large ‘hall’ of the ‘mythical palaces’, the Statue of Liberty and Santa Claus and a chamber with subterranean pools.
Hidden gems of Ioannina
The fine art of Ioannina’s silversmiths
Handmade jewellery, flatware, trays and ecclesiastical objects all display a standard that comes from generations of experience crafting silver. Silversmiths were among the traditional occupations in Epirus from the 18th century. Ateliers in the Tzoumerka villages of Kalarrytes and Syrrako, as well as Ioannina, produced noted craftsmen whose artistry was prized throughout southern Europe and the Balkans. You’ll find shops on Averoff Street and ateliers and exhibitions at the Centre for Traditional Crafts of Ioannina.
Modern architectural landmarks
The Palace of Justice, the Archaeological Museum (designed by noted Greek architect Aris Konstantinidis) in Litharitsia park, the Military Headquarters of 1879, the Town Hall of 1938, the National Bank of Greece – all are key monuments of latter-day Ioannina. Behind the Military Headquarters is the Cultural Centre Square, where the Veli Mosque stands.
The wonderful museums of Ioannina
These include the Byzantine Museum in Its Kale, the Municipal Folk Art Museum, the Archaeological Museum and the Athanasios Vrellis Wax Museum, Ioannina’s answer to London’s Madame Tussauds. It is housed in an imposing building at Bizani, not far from Ioannina.