With central European hotspots such as Krakow and Prague becoming overloaded with tourists, I recently visited Lviv, in Western Ukraine, for a short city break in December.
Formerly known as Lemberg, the city of Lviv was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War, when it became Polish Lwów during the interwar period.
The city endured a tug-of-war status between Germans and Soviets in WW2, before the Soviets took control and it became part of the USSR. This all ended in 1991 when Ukraine became independent, and since then Lviv has become accessible and welcoming to visitors – with more speaking English than ever before. This is only going to increase, now that Ryanair fly direct from London.
Where to stay
I stayed in the Aparthotel Horowitz, which is very close to the main square. This location was great as it’s within walking distance to most sites and tons of dining options. The George hotel is also renowned as a historic meeting place – although the quality of rooms is a bit hit and miss. Whatever you choose, accommodation is already getting pricier for Ukraine, so don’t hang around too long.
What to do
The free walking tours offered by outfits such as Lviv Buddy are an excellent way to understand the city’s painful history. You can then decide on your focus: Lviv has some marvellous architecture (particularly the three cathedrals) and sobering museums, like the former Soviet Prison (but be warned – they don’t translate much into English).
I’d recommend visiting the fabulous open-air Museum of Rural Architecture. You can spend a long afternoon wandering around the wooden farmhouses and churches that are organised by ethnic regions. And if you’re lucky, you’ll be serenaded with a Ukrainian folk song!
But you don’t have to go far from the old town, which is centred around cobbled Rynok Square, where even in December the buskers continue to play beneath falling snow, and skaters glide around the temporary rink. One good starting point is the tower of the Town Hall, from which there’s a wonderful view over Lviv’s rooftops and the domes of empire.
If you’re into walking around old cemeteries, Lviv’s famous Lychakiv Cemetery is a 42 hectare historical monument that’s like wandering around an open-air sculpture museum. Reached via the number 7 tram, it’s a good place to escape the city for a few hours.
Where to eat and drink
The city has a bewildering range of quirky bars and cafes. Within Rynok Square is the bizarre Coffee Mine, where visitors can don a helmet and go down into the cellars to play along with the fantasy that coffee is mined beneath the café. The range of coffees is excellent, and all kinds of coffee souvenirs can be bought in the adjoining shop. Don’t miss the stairs at the back of the shop that lead up to a small but interesting ethnographic museum, displaying costumes and woodwork from a rural Ukrainian past.
I also plucked up the courage to visit the 24-hour underground Kryyivka bar, which is dedicated to the Ukrainian insurgent army that fought the Polish, Nazi and Soviet occupiers in turn. First you must knock on an unmarked door in a dark passageway, and then give the password to the stern-looking man with a shepherd’s waistcoat over his army uniform. I had a bowl of borsch with a thick slab of bread, watching the staff walk up and down with presumably fake revolvers and rifles.
I’d also recommend:
- Trapezna Idey restaurant – go into the basement cellar of the former Bernarden monastery and choose from a range of Galician specialities.
- Pravda Beer Theatre – this quirky bar brews their own beer and names them after the likes of Obama.
- Masoch Cafe – this unique restaurant offers up a whipping (not the cream kind!). It’s not somewhere I actually went but I did get warned about it a few times. It’s where Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch was born in 1836 – yes, he who coined the term masochism.
- Ukrainian Food Art – this expensive (for Lviv) restaurant is set on 5 levels with a fish tank spanning half of the building. Gourmet food and well worth a splurge.
Lviv isn’t quite ready to be a weekend destination for Brits, as flights aren’t quite at the right times. But its quirkiness is bound to be a hit and I’m sure 2019 will see an all-time high for western tourists.