A grand mix of Russian, Polish and Austrian influences, Stuart Wadsworth returns to Lviv and discovers that Ukraine’s “Lion City” is ready to roar again. Read on for his top tips…
There are some cities in Eastern Europe which defy logic. Lviv to Ukrainians, Lwow to Poles, Lvov to Russians, Lemberg to Austrians and Germans, the city is a microcosm of Central European history, a battleground for centuries, truly a meeting place of the east and the west. A city whose name derives from the word ‘lion’ should be indomitable and indeed many have fought over this city, and many have lost it.
At heart, it’s Ukrainian, though the Poles in particular might have something to say about that, having occupied it for over 300 years. Many feel it’s a kind of long-lost half-sister to Krakow. It’s a little shabby, a little edgy if you like, in the Russian style – but at the same time it has an elegance that is pure Austrian and a café culture to match. The scars of the Nazi occupation can be felt in its now-deserted Jewish quarters, and the shackles of half a century of Soviet repression have just been shed, but its previous claim to being one of Central Europe’s most playful and flirtatious cities is re-emerging. And yet, despite winning over almost all who visit, Lviv remains relatively undiscovered, a budget-traveller’s dream and the perfect place to impress your friends back home that you have really found a hip, up-and-coming and inexpensive destination. Gateway to Ukraine, a tantalizing glimpse of the east and not at all what you might imagine. What are you waiting for?
Best of the Beaten Track
Lviv is blessed with a plethora of museums and art galleries, and enough mesmerizing buildings to make you want to throw away your rucksack and sell it for an easel and oil paints to take up street art. You could spend days wandering the Unesco-listed old town around Rynek Ploscha (Market Square), popping in and out of churches and cathedrals and relaxing in the myriad of atmospheric cafes, losing yourself in the town’s old-world charm. The good news is that Lviv is compact and easily negotiable on foot, so you need never hop on a bus or get in a taxi to see the main sights.
It seems unfair to single out one of these magnificent pieces of architecture over any other, but the distinctive round-domed Dominican Cathedral and gothic Latin Cathedral should not be missed. The former is adjacent to the bohemian Armenian quarter which houses the artsy Dzyha café and is perfect for a late morning latte. The neo-Renaissance tower of the Ratusha (town hall) can easily be climbed for amazing views of the surrounding splendour. Prospekt Svobody (or ‘Planta’ as the older locals call the boulevard, referring to the greenery around) is where young and old alike seem to strut their stuff, especially around sunset, as couples come out to hold hands and stroll along this outdoor catwalk. A statue of Taras Shevchenko, national poet and hero, is in the middle of it, while at the southern end stands Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz: symbolic of the schizophrenic Polish/Ukranian identity here and also of the poetic heart beating in Lvivians. Guarding its north side is the splendid turn-of-the-century Solimiya Krushelnytska Lviv Theatre of Opera and Ballet, a sumptuous affair that wouldn’t look out of place in Vienna. For fantastic views over the theatre, go to Panorama restaurant just opposite. Round a day’s sightseeing off by relaxing in Italiys’kyi Dvorek, a romantic hotspot of a café hidden down an alley off the square. This open-air coffee lover’s paradise is a riot of Italianate arches and statues, and if you’re not careful you can waste whole days loafing around here, feeling like you are on a film set – which in way you are, as it has been used as a backdrop on several productions.
There is more to Lviv than meets the eye. This is a city which keeps her secrets from the hurrying weekender, and must be delved into over time, savoured at a gentler pace. A stroll to the Castle Hill is a quintessential Lviv experience – from where to plan your alternative sightseeing. On a sunny afternoon, a stroll here will blow away the cobwebs of what will probably have been a fairly heavy dose of life the night before. Reminiscent of the man-made mounds in Krakow, you start to get a feel of the city and its beauty from this vantage point.
A short tram ride to the east of the town takes you to Lychakivske Cemetery. Lviv’s answer to Paris’s Pere Lachais; a spectacular but shambling assortment of gravestones, tombs, statues, crosses and floral tributes that is a photographer’s dream, all set in lovely overgrown grounds. This is Slavic melancholy at its most heartbreaking and serenely beautiful. While you’re in this part of town, take a stroll to the nearby open-air museum of Folk Architecture and Life which gives you a real feel for the traditional wooden houses and churches, furniture, clothing and farming life that has shaped this most earthy of countries.
A trip to the Lvivskie Museum of Beer and Brewing is also highly recommended; the small entrance fee is more than compensated for by limitless glasses of delicious frothy beer, and English language tours of this 290-year old cellar will satisfy the curiosity of the most avid hop-lover. This could turn into a boozy night of guzzling if you are lured into the adjoining Robert Dom’s Beer House and get seduced by the litre mugs of freshly poured nectar for around a Euro a pop.
Experience & Events
The main event occurring in Lviv in the near future is, of course, the Euro 2012 football competition. Although there are doubts in some quarters that the city will be ready in time, particularly with regard to its new stadium, when quizzed Lvivians give a disarming shrug of the shoulders and reply “this is how things work in Ukraine! We will be ready, but we’ll leave it to the last minute!” Fingers crossed, they will. So far however, only the hotels of the city have been given the green light by UEFA. For those not of a footballing bent, the Theatre of Opera and Ballet stages productions daily. Stump up a fraction of what you would pay for a similar production in western Europe, and you will be treated to a 90-piece philharmonic orchestra, more than 40 world-class soloists, a choir and a ballet troupe.
Slightly less high brow, but equally fun, the recently inaugurated Annual Fluorescent Art Festival is a two week extravaganza of glow-in-the-dark bodypainting, music and dance that takes place each June. The Lviv Lumines festival (to give the event its official title) “offers a fun and interactive way of viewing the very specific and engrossing art of fluorescent art” according to the organizers. If that still sounds too cultural for you then you’ll be pleased to know that every May Lviv stages a very special ‘talent’ show, known as ‘Lviv’s Ideal Lady’. The city’s prettiest specimens come under scrutiny not just for their looks, but for their ‘culinary, intellectual and choreographic skills’. Hoo-ah.
If Lviv is endowed with enough great hotels to keep UEFA head honcho and stern taskmaster Michel Platini happy, it must be doing something right. From the the post-soviet to the palatial, Lviv suits all pockets. Starting with the budget choices, you can’t go far wrong with the newly-renovated Sun Hostel. Central, homely and very good value, an ensuite double here will set you back little more than 15 Euro a night. Australian Eddie’s Kosmonaut Hostel is typically Lvivian – scruffy but full of character. The Soviet theme and chance to meet cool new friends are your best reason to chuck your rucksack down here. For a true Soviet experience though, try a night at Hotel Lviv. Dour stares from receptionists, attendants noting your comings and goings on each floor and a ‘disco’ downstairs. Still scraping in at most people’s budget range (around 30 Euro a double) comes the George Hotel. Turn-of-the-century chic is reason enough to choose this place, which embodies the term ‘faded grandeur’. Obsequious bell-hops and stiff waiters are all part of the George experience. Just skip down that grand staircase in the morning and pretend you don’t feel like a king. Really splashing out? Go to Hotel Opera at the end of Svobody Prospekt and just feast on that amazing view every mealtime at Panorama.
And then there’s the food… Lviv was once known as a centre of culinary excellence, in Habsburg times. Unfortunately the Russians came in and rather soured things. Luckily, the old times are returning and Lviv’s restaurant scene is starting to flourish again. If you want to transport yourself back to those heady days, make your way to Kupol, a throwback to the 1920’s which seems to effortlessly recreate pre-Soviet decadence with quirky wall decorations and wonky wooden tables and chairs. The eccentrically-decorated little garden is perfect on a sunny spring morning, and the Polish-Austrian-Ukranian menu does not disappoint. Veronika and its sister café Amadeus are serious contenders for cafe/restaurant of the year awards. The former serves astonishing omelettes and sumptuous cakes in a classy candle-lit basement, while the latter oozes class with one of the most eclectic menus in Lviv. Prices for both will not make you feel too much lighter, and neither will the food – but hey, you’re on holiday right? Try ‘The Most Expensive Restaurant in Galicija’ to get a feel for nouveau-riche Ukranians on a night out. This Masonic-themed place feels slightly sinister yet sexy at the same time. Enquiring as to the outlandish prices may land you a ‘tourist’ discount and your bill will magically be 90% cheaper. Don’t ask… Cheese soup and duck pate here recommended. ‘Pidpilya’ in the basement of Cabinet café does the best pirohi (Polish dumplings) in town.
You might have been excused for writing Lviv’s nightlife off as a non-event five or six years ago. Now, it’s all change and you can expect to party to dawn every night of the week if you so choose. Kick off at a cool café like Cabinet early doors, where you can sup a few beers in refined literary surrounds and even shoot a game of pool. Have a perv in Masoch Café, which is dedicated to writer and kinky fantasist Leopold von Masoch, who penned Venus in Furs. Born here but raised in Austria, he would have been impressed by the attention to detail here, including high heels and handcuffs adorning the wall, and a positively pornographic menu. Head to the Armenian quarter with its lively atmosphere and check out Gasova Lyampa, where you bizarrely walk down a flight of stairs only to ascend another and then admire the industrial décor, busts and pictures in homage to Ignacy Lukasiewicz, founder of the Polish oil industry and inventor of the Kerosene lamp. Move on to Kryivka, underneath ‘The Most Expensive Restaurant…’ where you have to utter a password to a uniformed guard through a peephole on entry: “Slava Ukraini” (“Glory to the Ukraine”) before being offered a tumbler of something strong as a gift. Downstairs discover a chaotic but jovial bunker full of good-natured banter – Lviv’s youth enjoying plentiful cheap beer served by pretty girls in army uniform. Themed (like many new places in Lviv), Kryivka pays homage to soldiers of the Ukranian Insurgant Army (UPA) who waged guerilla war against the Nazis, Poles and Soviet Union from 1943-49. If you are still compos mentis on leaving, you might want to head to a club like Metro with its progressive, cutting edge dance music, beer and girls on tap.
Getting to Lviv, it has to be said, is the one downside. The city does have an airport, but it’s not what you would call well-connected – and not at all to budget carriers, barring one Wizz Air connection to Kiev. Some intrepid souls fly to Rzeszow in Poland and train or bus the rest. Direct train connections from Krakow and Kiev are approximately ten and eight hours respectively. Just think: this is why this place is still so cool.
Ukraine has an enviable literary reputation. Giants like Gogol and Bulgakhov hail from Odessa and Kiev respectively, and a copy of Dead Souls or Master and Margarita will impress the locals. For a more modern perspective on Ukraine, reach for A Short History of Ukrainian Tractors by Marina Lewycka which whimsically documents the problem of Ukranian husband-hunting in the west and also the magnificent Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. Tackling the murky issue of Jewish shtetls (villages) in western Ukraine and their annihilation under the Nazis with sensitivity and humour in spades, this is a truly illuminating read to accompany you in Lviv.
Soundtrack to the City
View Lviv City Guide Map in a larger map
Featured photo by Juanedc