I first learned of the Vikos Gorge long before working in Greece. It was through one of my photographer and blogger role models, Erin Outdoors, that I became familiar with this stunning place. She posted a photo of incredibly impressive, jagged, granite-looking mountains sprouting tall from the earth and I instantly fell in love.
This gorge is located in Vikos–Aoös National Park in Northwestern Greece. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Vikos is the world’s “deepest relative to its width” gorge.
A few years after virtually falling in love with this place, I found myself working in Greece. I had a wonderful colleague, Hillevi, who possibly loved roadtrips more than life itself, and we made a plan. I knew from my Greek coworkers and the internet that this region of Greece was beautiful, but after driving along the winding roads and visiting some of the quaintest villages – all along while not running into any other American tourists – I came to feel like this was Greece’s best kept secret. While Greece is known for its stunning islands, which you do also simply have to see, its mountains somehow seem to fall under the radar.
From my Northwestern Greece roadtrip, I felt that I had a better understanding of Greece’s topography, I became familiar with a lesser-traveled parts of Greece, and had the pleasure of visiting tiny villages – home to a mere 3,000 people and on Oxi Day nonetheless – where the traditions are as strong as the people are kind.
This is our three day itinerary through northwestern Greece:
Day 1: Thessaloniki → Zagori → Ioannina
Day 2: Ioannina → Papingo → Konitsa
Day 3: Konitsa → Thessaloniki
Drive to Ioannina
For day one of our roadtrip, Hillevi and I decided to drive from Thessaloniki to Ioannina, grab a quick lunch and familiarize ourselves with the city, and continue on to Zagori before returning to our Air B and B in Ioannina that night.
The largest reason for this was the lack of accommodation available near Zagori on a holiday weekend along with our desire to explore Ioannina – a small city situated on a beautiful lake. Little did we know that the food scene was as spirited as it was (although we should have guessed!) or that there was so much to explore. Check out @visit_ioannina’s IG for more Ioannina inspo.
The drive from Thessaloniki to Zagori Gorge is approximately three hours. Within an hour, the drive begins to become more scenic as you pass Mt. Olympus.
Tip: As you enter Ioannina and begin to look for parking, be patient. In booking accommodation, look for rentals that include parking.
Back on the road and fueled with fresh baked goods and fruit, our next destination was the Beloi Lookout. (There are two viewpoints of the Vikos gorge – if you must choose, Beloi is the way to go.) The drive was just over an hour from Ioannina, although you may wish to spend longer and pull off every kilometer to stop and take in the view. Upon reaching the parking lot for the viewpoint, it’s a short 15 minute walk to the overlook. Despite the magesticness of the view, Hillevi and I saw a mere three people.
Tip: Wear decent footwear as the path is rocky and uneven although it is majority paved.
After taking in the views, we stopped at a local hotel that served beverages, fresh spinach pies, and more and had lovely outdoor seating. There are plenty of these types of places to choose from along the way.
Back in Ioannina, we settled in to our Air B and B which was convenient to the pedestrian streets where things were most lively. Make sure you walk along Lord Byron street to enjoy the plethora of cafes and shops that are accessible by foot. Ioannina has plenty to offer in terms of night life!
Our day 2 itinerary included visiting Ioannina Island, exploring the many bridges of the greater Zagori area, and visiting the Papingo Rock Pools before arriving in Konitsa that evening.
To visit Ioannina Island, you simply need to walk towards the waterfront and wait at the water’s edge. On the map, you will see this place named “Boats Island.” Once the ferry arrives, you board and give the attendant your cash. The roundtrip fare was under 5 euros. A short 10 minutes later, you arrive at Ioannina Island – a small island without vehicles that was inhabited back in the 13th century. Enjoy a 2.5 km walk around the island, or enjoy a Greek coffee and visit the quaint waterfront shops.
Zagori’s Stone Bridges
Following our visit to Ioannina Island, Hillevi and I hit the road to explore Zagori’s stone bridges. We put Zagori’s Beloi Lookout in our GPS once again, as many of the bridges were along the same route that we had taken the day prior. (Due to timing and daylight, we chose to to save this for Day 2, but visiting many of the bridges could be done on Day 1, time permitting.) You can find more specifics about Zagori’s bridges here.
After exploring the stunning rock bridges, we visited the other famed Zagori lookout point, Oxya. This viewpoint was also stunning, but had significantly more tourists than our visit to Beloi the day previous. We did get to taste the region’s honey and purchase this local delicacy to bring to our friends and family at home.
Drive to Papingo
From the Oxya Lookout, it is a one hour drive to Papingo. This part of our drive was astonishing. The drive to Papingo and Mikro Papingo requires you to navigate narrow winding roads on a precipice. Hillevi and I were both in awe, and for this stretch, driving was the main event itself. At one point, we came upon a herd of goats in the middle of the road and it was the greatest reminder that we were somewhere foreign and beautiful.
Papingo Rock Pools
The Papingo Rock Pools awaited us, although driving along the tiny village roads to access them was no easy feat. As this stop was rather crowded, it is the first item I would exclude from an itinerary if you’re short on time. Nonetheless, the pools were beautiful and it was nice to stretch our legs.
Drive to Konitsa
From Papingo Rock Pools, Konitsa is a short 45 minutes away. We weren’t sure what to expect from this small village, but it ended up being the highlight of our trip. We stayed in a fabulous Air B and B that was decorated traditionally and authentically. We enjoyed dinner at one of the local tavernas where we chatted with the local staff and enjoyed a hearty meal.
The third day of our trip just so happened to Greece’s Oxi Day, and Konitsa was a fabulous place to be! We spent about an hour witnessing the lead-up to the parade and the parade itself, followed by an amazing lunch at a local gyros shop. But don’t worry – if you’re visiting Konitsa and it isn’t a national holiday, there is still plenty to do.
Konitsa’s Stone Bridge & the Epirus Trail
Just about a kilometer down the road from the city center is Konitsa’s famous stone bridge. This is also the starting point of Greece’s longest single trail, stretching 370 kilometers. There’s plenty of hiking to be done!
Drive to Thessaloniki
From Konitsa, it is a 3.5 hour drive back to Thessaloniki. This route was especially interesting as it was more arid than our previous legs, at a moments we were driving very close to the Albanian border.
Other activities and points of interest
- Hike to the Dragon Lake starting in Papingo. Book your stay at the mountain hut in advance as it was surely booked by the time Hillevi and I began planning!
- Hike from Monodendri to Vikos on the floor of Vikos Gorge
- Stop through Kozani on your way back to Thessaloniki from Konitsa
- Whitewater raft in Papingo on the Voidomatis river
Renting a car in Greece
International Driving Permit
I came to Greece prepared with my international driver’s license. It was a quick and painless process for me as I used my AAA membership, went to the nearest office, and paid them a small fee for the permit itself and a slightly larger fee to take a passport-grade photo. All in all it was about $30. This is important to have in Greece as many companies will not rent to you without it.
Manual v Automatic
You will be able to find both types of cars in Greece, but you will save significant money on a rental car if you are comfortable driving a stick shift. (Hillevi repeatedly called me a boss at driving our stick shift, and I am very proud!)
Driving in Greece
The roads winding through the mountainous roads of Greece are no joke. Much to Hillevi’s dismay, the lanes seemed more like guidelines than absolutes at moments. Be defensive and don’t be afraid to use your horn when you need to. Safety is the priority!
For more Zagorohoria roadtrip inspiration, check out the region’s official Instagram account!