Lviv, located in Ukraine’s west, is one of those cities that all the best adjectives fail. However, I think if I had to choose one to describe Lviv, it would certainly be unexpected. Before spending last weekend there, I knew very little and had only heard about it in idle conversations about my future travel plans, with both Ukrainians and foreigners always telling me that I wouldn’t regret visiting. As I climbed clumsily down the steep metal steps of the hefty InterCity carriage that had carried me through 500km of flat Ukrainian farmland and the occasional trackside village, I knew Lviv was not going to be the smaller version of Kyiv that I had expected, it was going to be different in every way. I believe I was introduced to Lviv’s unique character in the best way possible.
Having arrived at the central train station around 8pm, I had just the right amount of time to stumble down the steep thoroughfare, weaving past avid market sellers and the occasional Soviet tram, to the square in front of one of the city’s most emblematic buildings: the Lviv Opera and Ballet. I took off my backpack with great relief and sat on the edge of the stone water fountain in front of the pillared building. Camera poised, I gazed down the wide tree-lined pedestrian zone, cutting the two lanes of incessant city centre traffic in half. Leopolitans were everywhere- children playing on motorised scooters, groups of elderly men siting on benches drinking beer and playing draughts amongst raucous laughter, teenage couples taking selfies in each others’ arms and ladies with bumbags selling souvenirs to tourists. With perfect timing, the sun began to set behind the statue standing majestically on the roof of Lviv’s home of music and dance, casting a orange glow onto the balconies and windows of the tall, intricately carved buildings around me and onto the paving stones below my feet. Yet, despite all the people enjoying the end of the working week and the sunset alongside me, I felt quite content, relaxed and solitary, I felt I was blending freely into the background. This is a feeling I crave on my city escapes, yet one I had not expected to feel so overwhelmingly in Lviv. This was just the beginning of my stay and just the beginning of my discoveries of Lviv’s unexpected treats for the eyes, tastebuds and soul. Here’s five…
Lviv is very different to Kiev and its beauty is best seen from above. The spacious boulevards, riverside walks, golden-domed cathedrals and hectic metro stations of Kiev had been replaced by a labyrinth of narrow, cobbled passageways, extensive urban parks, church steeples cutting defiantly above rooftops and courtyards and rusting trams rocking noisily from side to side. After a day of walking leisurely (and cluelessly) around the city centre, I wanted to see the whole city panoramically to really orientate myself and witness the hustle and bustle of the central Rynok (market) Square. I experienced two very different vantage points, both worth the climb for different reasons….
- Ratusha (Lviv Tower) – The unmissable Lviv City Hall is the only building located in the centre of Rynok Square. The building itself dominates the Lviv skyline with its flower boxes, wooden window frames and 65m-tall perfectly white clock tower. For the view, simply enter the city hall, climb to the fourth floor following the ‘tower’ signs until you reach the ticket office. This is where the fun begins. The climb up to the viewing platform at the top is an interesting and tiring one- with an uneven and gradually-narrowing wooden staircase leading you up and up. With no windows on the way, you really have no idea how far up you are. However, those descending will be more than willing to share with you between deep breaths just how far you have to go as they squeeze past you. The view is well worth the effort and invasion of personal space as you pass through the small door at the top and see the city before you. The central location of the tower means you can see the dramatic architecture of Rynok square and central Lviv in great detail. It’s the ideal place to go to watch people weave through the streets below and to appreciate the sporadic geography of the city centre. Tickets: 20₴ (less than €1).
- Vysokyi Zamok (Castle Hill) – Located just north of the city, around a 30-minute walk through quaint residential streets, the name Castle Hill is a little deceptive as there is no castle whatsoever. This steady climb is best done leisurely, strolling first through the stunning Vysokyi Park before climbing the metal staircase to the upper observation deck. Despite the souvenir and ice-cream stands, the observation deck is spacious and peaceful, allowing you to appreciate undisturbed views of the city centre on one side and Lviv’s more modern, residential districts and surrounding countryside on the other. It’s an ideal place for those wanting to escape the busy city centre, feel like a local, enjoy a nice walk and really get a feel for the size of Lviv. Keep your eyes peeled- from here you can see trains and planes arriving into Lviv.
Coffee and chocolate
Unexpectedly, Lviv is famous for its chocolate and coffee, a legacy it has held from its days on the fringe of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Coffee shops are by far the most abundant commerce in the city centre and even if you don’t want to sit down, coffee to go can be found on every street from carts and vans. Generally speaking, the quality is excellent as Lviv residents and visitors expect no less. Being the type of traveller whose trips are defined by where I can obtain my next caffeine fix, Lviv’s tradition of roasting speciality coffees from around the world was a very welcome (and irresistible) surprise for me and my consumption increased several-fold! Not one place let me down! Lviv chocolate can be bought in special handmade chocolate shops and in all souvenir shops. Enthusiastic chocolatiers also sell cups of melted chocolate on the street from large metal saucepans for very little money. My sweet tooth and caffeine addiction lead me to several coffee and chocolate spots. Here are my recommendations, each staffed by experts and defined by their own distinct ambience and style, selection of coffees and roasting traditions…
- Virmenka, Virmenska St 19, Lviv
- Svit Kavy, Katedralna Sq 6, Lviv
- Lvivska Kopalnya Kavy (Lviv Coffee Mine), Rynok Sq 10, Lviv
- Lviv Handmade Chocolate, Serbska St 3, Lviv
I also recommend you explore the length of Lesi Ukrainy St for great spots for coffee, beer, brunches and evening meals
Lviv’s nickname should be ‘hidden’. As is to be expected in cities with such a strong link to a rich past and a compact historic centre, many of its gems are hidden away and are far from extravagant and expensive. Lviv is packed with them, ready to amaze those who are curious enough to find them and learn the stories behind them that add to Lviv’s uniqueness not only within Ukraine but in Europe as a whole. I won’t give away addresses as it tends to detract from the fun of their discovery!
- The Lviv Armenian Cathedral– A colourful cathedral built for the Armenian community of Lviv in the 14th century. Stained glass and detailed paintings are everywhere, accompanying a strong smell of incense. Unlike the other, more prominent places of worship in Lviv, the façade of this special church forces it into the background, easily missable to the less observant.
- The Yard of Lost Toys– A secluded backyard of an apartment block a few streets from the bustling city centre which is home to several hundreds of lost toys, waiting weather-beaten for their owners’ return.
- The “Identity Crisis” Street– A street with multiple names, with a new one added as a part of an annual film festival. Those amongst you that can read Cyrillic script will notice the film theme.
- Street Poetry- As I’ve hinted to previously, Lviv is in touch with its artistic side. Street artists have painted versus from Ukraine’s most famous poems on the walls of the old town.
- Pidvalna St. Second Hand Book Market- Exactly what it says, all under the watchful eye of the book-carrying monument to Ivan Fedorov.
- Street performers – The city is full of people performing for tourists and locals. From classical violinists to people dancing in minion costumes, there’s everything.
Colourful buildings and cobbled streets
The whole of Lviv’s historic centre is inscribed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites which says a lot about the beauty and historical charm captured in small walkable area. A zone dedicated exclusively to those on foot is a rare sight in Ukraine, yet this is the case for the entirety of the UNESCO site, with pedestrians reining the cobbles. Take time to wander aimlessly through the maze of narrow car-free streets, occasionally gazing up at the diverse architectural features of the buildings, often resembling those adored by tourists to the Czech Republic and neighbouring Poland. What’s more, the city appears to have been built around the churches and important edifices present before its expansion, meaning that it is not rare to find little squares housing a solitary masterpiece of architecture, with other, ‘newer’ buildings encroaching on their space just enough so as not to detract from their predecessors’ grandeur. Leopolitans spend time on the balconies or looking through the shuttered windows of their city centre apartments, admiring the scenery and the streams of pedestrians below, it’s easy to see why. Coloured buildings are the prominent feature of the central Rynok Square and are a treat for the eyes and the camera lens. It’s also definitely recommended to explore some of the areas on foot outside the immediate centre, where different but no less impressive architecture can be found. So pack comfortable walking shoes…
A ‘Made in Ukraine’ hotspot
Lviv’s fairytale-like architecture and alternative, relaxed ambiance makes it a great place for the artistic and musical. A number of companies selling handmade gifts, decorations, clothes and accessories have based themselves in Lviv to make the most of not only its popularity amongst tourists but also its reputation as one of the most creative cities in Ukraine. The markets and picturesque streets are full of businesses and individuals selling their innovative (and useful) creations. For me, the wallets, t-shirts, ornaments, passport covers, bags, neckties and notebooks were some of the most beautiful and unique that I have ever seen and for the prices at which they are sold, you would struggle to find such quality elsewhere. Also, most items have a subtle touch of Ukrainian tradition, making them pleasant (and not tacky) souvenirs and presents!
All in all, a phrase that will forever remind me of my days in Lviv would be that written on the wall of my hostel: “Go where you feel most alive”.