The first things that come to mind when one plans a trip to Greece are Athens and the Islands. Perhaps Meteora, too. However, Greece is so much more than just these super popular destinations. Mainland Greece is so diverse and it boasts an impressively large number of hidden gems waiting to be discovered. One of these gems is Ioannina, a vibrant university city which is packed with history and charms. Although pleasant all year round, it is in winter that Ioannina city becomes utterly seductive. Wondering why? Here’s our complete guide on what to do in Ioannina in winter that will definitely make you dream of this quaint laid-back city in mainland Greece.
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What to do in Ioannina in winter
We’re not saying that Ioannina isn’t worth visiting at any other time of year but winter. On the contrary, if you can’t visit in winter, by all means do visit whenever you can. Also, you know we’re not at all fond of cold weather. We avoid it like the plague. That said, we loved Ioannina in winter and that’s why we recommend it as the ultimate winter destination in Greece. This is the ideal time to enjoy Ioannina without the crowds of summer holiday-goers. Cold weather is also the best excuse to spend endless lazy hours at the city’s cosy cafés and warm bars for cups of hot chocolate or shots of local tsipouro. Last but not least, Ioannina is the perfect city to spend New Year’s Eve in Greece.
Where is Ioannina & how to get there
Ioannina is the largest city of the gorgeous Epirus region in northwestern Greece. The city of Ioannina (or Yannena/Giannena as Greeks prefer to call it) is located 410km northwest of Athens or 260km southwest of Thessaloniki. Ioannina city connects to both Athens and Thessaloniki as well as many other destinations within Greece by frequent bus service. There are also direct flights between Ioannina and the Greek capital.
Ioannina is also the perfect gateway to neighbouring Albania, Italy and Turkey:
Ioannina to Italy by public transport: Bus from Ioannina to Igoumenitsa Port, then ferry to Italy.
Ioannina to Albania by public transport: Bus from Ioannina to Kakavia, a town on the Albanian-Greek border.
Road trip from Italy to Turkey via Ioannina: Ioannina enjoys a superb position near the modern Egnatia Motorway which connects Igoumenitsa Port to the Greek-Turkish border.
Where to stay in Ioannina
We would strongly advise you to book a room at one of the hotels right in the heart of Ioannina. The city centre is quite compact and staying at a central hotel means that you can easily get anywhere you want on foot. Which is priceless. Try to find a hotel inside the Castle of Ioannina or near the old city walls.
If travelling on a rather tight budget, perhaps you would be better off staying in Perama. This district lies just 4km from the centre of Ioannina and is home to many value-for-money accommodation options. Keep in mind though that, if not driving, you will have to rely on public transport or taxis to get from your hotel to Ioannina city. For that alone, Perama is a big no-no for us.
Top 10 things to do in Ioannina Greece
1. Take long lakeside walks
The indisputable highlight of Ioannina is the breathtakingly beautiful Lake Pamvotida around which the city is built. Also known as Lake of Ioannina, Pamvotida is a sight for sore eyes especially when thick mist hovers over its tranquil waters. The best way to enjoy the lake is by walking along its shore. Only then can one grasp the full scale of the beauty that is Ioannina. Walking along the Old Town walls on one hand and the lake with its tiny island on the other is a mesmerising experience not to be missed.
2. Spend an afternoon on the tiny Ioannina Island
So, yes, the lake is home to a tiny island as well. The most interesting fact about this island is that it has no official name. It is simply known as Ioannina Island. Actually, it is the only inhabited lake island in the world that doesn’t have a proper name of its own. However, what the island lacks in terms of identification, it makes up for in charm. What’s in a name, after all?
It’s super easy to get to the lake island from Ioannina city by ferry. Service runs every 1h in winter (more frequently during holidays) and every 30′ in summer. A one-way ticket costs 2€. The journey takes about 10′, during which the views to the lake, the island and the city of Ioannina are simply stunning.
The ferry stops at the island’s unique settlement which is utterly quaint with its cobblestone streets and traditional stone buildings. There is a picturesque square in the heart of the settlement home to cafés and restaurants.
This is the best place to enjoy traditional dishes from Ioannina, especially the famous fried frog legs. Just writing these words one next to the other gives me the creeps but Katerina who tried them (yikes) says they taste really good but you should be careful not to choke on their super tiny bones (this description gets worse and worse, thank God I’m done writing it).
One of the best things to do while still at the settlement is to visit the Museum of Ali Pasha which sheds light on the history of Ioannina under Ottoman rule. Ioannina was a very important city in Greece during the Ottoman period. What’s really impressive about it is that it managed to flourish during the darkest of times. Ottoman rulers themselves considered Ioannina a very important cultural and trade center within the Ottoman Empire. This is why the city abounds in buildings of Ottoman architecture which have remained almost intact to this day.
By far the most enchanting thing we did on Ioannina Island, though, was walking around its entire perimetre. Yes, you can actually do that and what a story to tell friends and family back home, right? Hey, I went to Greece and I walked around an entire island! It does sound very bad a**, doesn’t it? Yet, it takes just about 1 hour to do so, even less if you don’t stop at every 100m to take photos.
It’s no secret that we love a scenic walking route and we’re happy to say that this is among our all-time favourite ones. It’s such a peaceful stroll and the views are out of this world. Make time to sit at a bench once or twice along the route to take in the beauty. Also, keep in mind that sunset is one of the best times to enjoy this walk. The colours are just incredible.
3. Stroll around the quaint streets of Ioannina Old Town
The Old Town of Ioannina is one of the prettiest in Greece. Apart from the fascinating fact that the tranquil and gorgeous old fortified town remains inhabited to this day, the part of the city that lies just outside the old city walls is equally enchanting. The heart of Ioannina beats at Anexartisias Street and all nearby pedestrianised alleys. All this area used to be an important marketplace during the Ottoman period. Nowadays, it is the most vibrant part of the city with many shops, restaurants, bars and the occassional stunning graffiti to function as the perfect bond between past and present.
While walking around the historic centre of Ioannina, you will inevitably come across a beautiful arcade or two. These arcades are of great historical significance. Initially, they served as inns for people from nearby villages who needed a place to stay when visiting the city. Later on, the arcades became commercial centres. Nowadays, most, if not all, of them have been restored and house restaurants, bars and cafés. The most popular arcades are Stoa Liampei and Stoa Louli (stoa is the Greek word for arcade).
Last but not least, the Old Town of Ioannina is home to an absolutely amazing café scene. Pretty much all of the city’s coffee shops are utterly charming, cosy and smartly decorated. Our personal favourite is Ludost Café right on the lakefront. Its interior is beyond words warm and cosy and it will forever stay in our hearts for good reason. It was at one of its warm attic tables that we sat down and planned some of our best 2019 travels!
4. Wander around the Castle of Ioannina
The Castle of Ioannina is one of the most impressive samples of defensive architecture in Greece. It comprises the old fortified town and two citadels. The Aslan Pasha Mosque complex dominates the Northeastern Citadel which boasts spectacular views to Lake Pamvotida and the island.
However, it looks somehow shabby and neglected compared to the magnificent Southeastern Citadel which is also called Its Kale. Taking a stroll around Its Kale is utterly pleasant, especially on a sunny day. Furthermore, there are a couple of interesting things to do in this part of Ioannina Castle, such as visiting the Byzantine Museum or marvelling at the charming Fethiye Mosque.
5. Visit the Silversmithing Museum
The Silversmithing Museum of Ioannina is also in Its Kale and it is very well worth a visit. Ioannina and the region of Epirus in general have a very long tradition in silverware production. This museum introduces visitors to the art of silversmithing. At the same time, visitors learn how important this art and trade were for the city’s growth and prosperity in the past. There are also many fine objects made of silver on display both old and new ones. The latter are samples of the work of contemporary silversmiths who carry on the tradition of this impressive craft.
(Ticket price: 3€/adult)
6. Discover the secrets of Ancient Dodoni
Greece has no shortage of archaeological sites. Everywhere you travel in the country, there is definitely an ancient site worth checking out nearby. Ioannina couldn’t possibly be an exception to this rule. Just a 30′ drive from the centre of Ioannina, Dodoni is one of the major archaelogical sites in Greece. The oldest oracle in Ancient Greece, second only to the almighty Delphi oracle in importance, used to be in Dodoni. Nowadays, though, nothing is left of the oracle. Yet the archaeological site is home to many other monuments of great historical significance, such as the beautiful Ancient Theatre of Dodoni. The latter is one of the biggest and most well-preserved ancient theatres in Greece. If you don’t drive, Dodoni is easily accessible from Ioannina by public bus.
(Ticket price: 3€/adult in winter 2018-19)
7. Learn history at the Vrellis Museum of Greek History
This museum houses Pavlos Vrellis’ wax collection that narrates a huge part of Greek history in the most eloquent manner. Pavlos Vrellis was an artist who dedicated his life to building and growing this museum solely out of the love he had for his country. He even constructed the museum building himself keeping in mind to respect both the natural environment and the traditional architecture of the Epirus region. The Vrellis Museum of Greek History is situated at Bizani, a village which lies about 12km from Ioannina.
(Ticket price: 6€/adult)
8. Explore Perama Cave
I love caves. Katerina doesn’t share my enthusiasm 100%. Who wins? I do. Therefore, we never miss a chance to visit one of these wonders of nature when the opportunity presents itself. One of the most impressive caves in Greece lies less than 5km from Ioannina at the Perama district. The cave is home to some spectacular formations while it also offers breathtaking views to the surrounding area from its exit point. Keep in mind that there is a considerably large number of steps to climb as part of the guided tour inside Perama Cave.
(Ticket price: 7€/adult)
9. Indulge in divine sweet treats
Ioannina is very well-known for its traditional sweets. By traditional, we mean sweets in the baklava family. The city abounds in pastry shops selling freshly made traditional sweets with crunchy texture and divine aromas of top-quality butter. During our trip to Ioannina, we tasted traditional sweets from Kolionasios Baklava Gold and we liked them a lot.
If you get easily tired of the baklava family desserts and your sweet tooth craves something creamier and more European/American-like (mine does all the time), then Motley Coffeesweet is the place to be. I can’t even begin to describe the huge variety and mouthwatering taste of their cakes. At Motley you will literally be spoilt for choice so brace yourselves. You can enjoy a slice of cake there or take 3-4 slices of different cakes (no one’s judging) to try at the peace and quiet of your hotel room.
10. Celebrate a unique New Year’s Eve
We saved the best for last. The top reason why anyone should visit Ioannina in winter is the unique way in which the city celebrates New Year’s Eve. Unlike other European countries, Greece is not that famous for its Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. Traditionally, Greeks celebrate at home with friends and family or go for a night out at clubs and bars after midnight on December 31st. However, Ioannina is a city that knows how to party on New Year’s Eve and this is reason enough to spend the holidays there at least once.
Now that you’re done reading our guide on what to do in Ioannina in winter, we expect that you are ready to bravely defy the cold and experience one of the most special cities in Greece. With the help of a cup of hot chocolate here and three shots of tsipouro there, we promise that you will love wintery Ioannina as much as we do. So, if you do plan a trip there soon, let us know how you liked it in the comments!