Amber Johansen writes for The Odessa Journal a charming column, a blog about the city and people. She is passionate about vintage fashion, vegan food and wine.
She has lived in Odessa since autumn 2019
Amidst the Coronavirus crisis, international travel has become somewhat of a complicated affair. With many borders still closed, staycations are the zeitgeist and a perfect opportunity to explore our own backyards. Therefore, I decided to spend a weekend with some friends in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv or “the little Paris of the East” as it is often dubbed. Lviv is steeped in history, romance and awe-inspiring architecture that would satisfy even the most demanding tourist. The candle of Ukrainian national identity burns bright in Lviv, so you can forget practising your Russian skills, unlike in Odessa or the Eastern regions of Ukraine. It is best to brush up on a few phrases in Ukrainian before you go, but I found English to be understood in many tourism-dependent attractions, bars and eateries.
Here is my guide to spending 48 hours in this UNESCO-listed city.
Begin your busy day in the historic centre at Baczewski Restaurant on Shevska Street. As reservations aren’t taken for breakfast, you may queue for an hour as we did, but it is definitely worth the wait. The morning buffet costs a mere ₴160 (less than US$6) and entitles you to an all-you-can-eat feast, including a hot drink and a glass of champagne or vodka. In fact, the restaurant is named after the vodka-producing Baczewski family, who opened their first distillery near Lviv in 1782. Despite a full house of customers, I found the atmosphere of this restaurant to be relaxing and ethereal with a calming indoor garden, a skylight delicately spilling in the morning sun and soft piano music. There is also a gift shop in which you can pick up some hand-luggage-friendly bottles of flavoured vodka and other trinkets.
A few steps from Baczewski restaurant is the heart of Lviv – Rynok Square. Here you will find a collection of cafes, conceptual restaurants, museums and the Tourist Information Centre. In each corner of the square there are Neo-Classical monuments depicting four Greek Mythological figures; Neptune, Amphitrite, Adonis and Diana. The most prominent feature of the square is the Town Hall, where you can climb 408 steps to enjoy panoramic views of the city. Sadly the Town Hall was shut for maintenance the weekend we visited, but there are other rooftops dotted around Lviv that also offer you a birds-eye perspective. Rynok Square serves as a meeting point for guided tours, so from here we took a tour for ₴100 in the Ukrainian language (not including museum entry fees). Fortunately my friends helped with translations, but you can also take tours conducted in English. Our tour guide took us around the historical centre, the Pharmacy Museum, the Underground of Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church and the rooftop of Lviv Mall for the panorama we had earlier missed out on earlier. It was well worth the money.
After the indulgence of breakfast, you may wish to take a light lunch or snack. We visited Tsukor on Brativ Rohatyntsiv, where I munched on an affordable and flavourful avocado salad. A convenient 2 minute walk from Tsukor is Lviv Coffee Mine (Lvivska Kopalnya Kavy), which should be your next stop. Descending the stairs into the ‘mine’ presented us with a coffee-perfumed maze of cellars dotted with tables and chairs. Guests were wearing hard hats, whilst waiters waving blowtorches ostentatiously caramelised their cappuccinos. Upstairs is a souvenir store where I purchased some deliciously moreish dark chocolate-coated coffee beans. Omnom.
To conclude your afternoon, walk only 75 metres from the Coffee Mine to find Korniakt Palace, a branch of Lviv Historical Museum. Constructed in 1580, here you can see an exhibition of Rococo furniture and clocks, porcelain, medallions and precious silverware. I found the Italian Courtyard to be especially photogenic, epitomising 16th century Renaissance architecture in Ukraine.
Time is of the essence, so the best way to experience as much of the nightlife as possible and Lviv it up (sorry..) is to do a self-guided bar crawl. For a more family-friendly activity, you can take the Chudo Train for a sightseeing tour. The last train leaves at 8pm in summer or 4pm in winter, meeting at City Hall.
With no kids in tow, we took the bar crawl option. The first watering hole we visited, which is also a highly rated eatery, was a secret Masonic restaurant. Luckily, with the privilege of Ukrainian company, I was able to easily discover this illusive hideaway. The entrance to this restaurant is on the 2nd floor of a building on Rynok Square and looks deceptively like an apartment. We knocked on door number 8 and were met with a dishevelled white-haired bachelor and his fluffy pet rabbit. Greetings were exchanged before he allowed us in to his living room, where he opened yet another door to reveal a network of swanky candle-lit dining rooms. Truly strange. I won’t disclose too much here because the beauty is in the discovery, but I will advise you not to fret at the menu prices – it really is a joke and you can claim a tidy 90% discount.
Next up, make your way back across the Square to check out Pravda, which is world-renowned for its unique craft beers. Pravda is extremely popular and has daily live music starting from 7pm, so it can get a little noisy for holding conversation. Nevertheless, it has a friendly atmosphere and an excellent reputation among travellers and locals alike. I couldn’t truly appreciate this place myself as I’m not a beer drinker, but my friends gave it a big thumbs up.
Fast-forward a couple of bars to our noteworthy last stop – Masoch Cafe. This intriguing cafe is dedicated to nobleman, writer and eponymous masochist Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, who was born in Lviv in 1836. Before you’ve even placed your order, prepare for the cheeky waiters and waitresses to whip you unprovoked! The menu is loaded with unusual dishes, such as bull’s testicles, which we declined without regret and instead opted for some drinks. We saw shirtless boyfriends being whipped by their dates, who were both in fits of laughter at the ridiculousness of the situation. It’s all just a bit of cabaret-style fun, but certainly not a place for under-18s. On your way out the door, you’ll see a statue of Leopold – don’t forget to reach into his pocket.
Returning for the last time to Rynok Square, have a chilled-out breakfast at Centaur Cafe for al fresco dining and a spot of people watching. I recommend ordering a lavender cappuccino for your morning pick-me-up.
Post-refreshment, dabble in dark tourism by taking a short tram ride from the city centre to Lychakiv Cemetary. Situated on a forested hill, it was officially established in 1786 by Austro-Hungarian authorities, however burials first took place during the 16th century. Since then, more than 400,000 inhabitants have been laid to rest beneath these mysterious grounds. Epitaphs represent Lviv’s diverse and turbulent past, with inscriptions in Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, German, Latin and Armenian. I advise taking a guided tour in order to get the most out of your visit, which you can arrange at the ticket booth.
Refuel with a leisurely lunch (we devoured the generous portions at Tiki Ramen on Staroievreiska Street), then traverse Lviv’s rich collection of opulent churches and cathedrals. You will find St. George’s, Bernardine, Latin and Dominican Cathedrals tightly packed and within walking distance of each other. The Armenian Cathedral of Lviv, the oldest historical monument in the city, particularly deserves your attention. The walls are decorated with stunning 600-year-old ornaments and mosaics, illuminated by ribbons of light filtered through stained-glass.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure as the saying goes, so spend the remainder of your afternoon perusing the quirky Rare Books Flea Market on Pidvalna Street, which operates daily. Not only for bibliophiles, there is also an eclectic array of vinyls, trinkets and memorabilia. The market is centred around a statue of Ivan Fedorov, famous for having published “The Apostle“, the first book printed in Ukraine.
I spent my last evening travelling back to Odessa, but if you have some time to spare then Lviv National Opera is highly-rated. Whether you admire its Neo-Renaissance grandeur from Freedom Avenue, or buy an entrance ticket (starting at a very budget-friendly ₴100) to watch interpretations of world classics and unique Ukrainian folklore performances, it is the cherry to top off your trip.
Of course, in 2 days only the surface of the city can be scratched and you may feel paralysed with possibilities, but you can make the most out of every hour by planning your time wisely and choosing central accommodation (I used the Booking.com App to find a cosy 2-bed apartment for peanuts). I also saved time by taking the direct hour-long flight from Odessa to Lviv with SkyUp, which operates 3 times a week. There is also the cheaper and more frequent option of Ukrainian Railways, which operates a train to Lviv 3 times daily, however the journey will take you more than 10 hours.
Good luck and enjoy your trip!
To be continued…