Ioannina has two skies: One high up above, embroidered with wisps of cloud, and one down below, sunken in the misty liquid embrace of the lake. The surrounding mountains form an imposing earthy frame for this beautiful and melancholy tableau, with Mount Mitsikeli playing the dominant role of the friendly giant rising above the lakeshore.
Autumn and spring are the best times to enjoy the largest city in Epirus. Copper-red in autumn and abloom with color in spring, the city shines in these two seasons with a beauty that has been lauded by many who have been enchanted by the sight of the Aslan Camii Mosque, with its minaret mirrored on the surface of the lake.
Lake Pamvotis lends Ioannina much of its unique charm. It is magical in the purple light of dawn and alive when seagulls swoop down to catch a fish, sending ripples across its foggy mantle. The castle walls beside it — stately and enduring — hide within them another world filled with echoes of the city?s Byzantine and Ottoman past.
Narrow cobbled alleyways, elegant homes painted in bright colors, and the aromas of Epirote cuisine lead visitors deeper into the city?s old quarter, up to the citadel of the castle, or Its Kale, and the tomb of Ali Pasha. The view from the Byzantine Museum — rebuilt on the ruins of the seraglios of Ali Pasha after being completely destroyed by fire in 1870 — is stunning, as it takes in the entire city, the lake and the surrounding mountains.
A good locally produced tsipouro (a potent white spirit) accompanied by a few plates of mezedes at the traditional Its Kale cafe is a great way to combine the visual with the olfactory experience of Ioannina, with a beautiful sunset to boot.
Later, leaving through the central gate of the castle and walking up Kalari Street, visitors can enjoy the city?s vibrant nightlife at one of the many tsipouro joints, cafes and bars that line the cobbled streets of the old city, with its stately mansions, narrow alleyways and cul-de-sacs just waiting to be explored, not to mention arcades teeming with students and a medley of European-style bars.
Closer to the lake, new stores and restaurants have redefined Garivaldi Street as a bustling boulevard, while on the outskirts of the city, the old slaughterhouses have been transformed into an impressive cultural complex that hosts a variety of events and exhibitions.
The modern city should not be ignored, as it is home to a good archaeological museum that contains important finds from the broader region, including the Sanctuary of Dodoni, said to have been home to one of Greece?s oldest oracles.
Ioannina has an abundance of shopping and eating options: Try a bougatsa cream or cheese pie and make a stop at Diethnes, Epirus?s most famous sweet shop, to pick up some syrupy, nutty treats. Look out for the impressive imposing edifices that house the National Bank, City Hall and the prefectural offices.
Also don?t miss the Folk Art Museum, which is one of the few — perhaps only — Turkish stately homes that survives in Ioannina today and dates to the late 19th century.