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A Short Guide to Lviv

Updated: Feb 27, 2020

Lviv old town
Lviv - Krakow's long-lost edgy, cool, eastern cousin

A Lion-hearted city

There are some cities in Eastern Europe which defy logic. Lviv to Ukrainians, Lwów 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 400 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, 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?

Main Square, Lviv
Rynok (Main Square) with the Town Hall at its centre

Best of the Beaten Track

Lviv is, by its very nature, off the beaten track. You’ve made it this, far? Well done, you have made it further than most. Lviv boasts 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. UNESCO recognized this in 1998 by making it a World Heritage Site. You could spend days wandering the old town around the Rynok (Market Square), popping in and out of churches and cathedrals and relaxing in myriad 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.

Latin Cathedral, Lviv - impressive interior

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 a monument to Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz: symbolic of the schizophrenic Polish/Ukranian identity here and also of the poetic heart beating in Lvivians.

Solimiya Krushelnytska  Lviv Theatre of Opera and Ballet
Solimiya Krushelnytska Lviv Theatre of Opera and Ballet

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. You can at least pretend to be in an 80’s pop video anyway, as the mellow sounds of Sadé drift through the air…

Italiys’kyi Dvorek, Lviv
Italiys’kyi Dvorek - an open air coffee-lovers' paradise

Away from the crowds

'Crowds' may be a bit of an exaggeration for this city. There is, however, more to Lviv than meets the eye, and it's worth exploring. 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 and on a sunny afternoon will blow away the cobwebs of what will probably have been a fairly heavy dose of life the night before. Reminiscent of the Royal man-made mounds in Krakow, you start to get a feel of the city and its beauty from here. A short tram ride to the east of the town takes you to Lychakivske Cemetery.

Lychakivske Cemetery
Lychakivske Cemetery: Lviv's answer to Pere Lachaise

Lviv’s answer to Paris’s Pere Lachaise; 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. Many Poles make pilgrimages, since the graves of some 2000 Poles who died fighting Ukranians and Bolsheviks lie here. You get a sense of the history of Lviv, with its mix of Polish, Russian, Jewish, German and Ukranian names on the gravestones. Whatever your nationality, this is Slavic melancholy at its most heartbreaking and serenely beautiful. Wh