Updated: Feb 27
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?
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.
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.
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…
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.
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. 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. If you’re here at Easter time, you might be lucky enough to see a typical outdoor Carpathian-style Orthodox church gathering, with families parading proudly in their Sunday best, carrying little wicker baskets full of eggs and bread.
Making a trip to the Lvivskie Museum of Beer and Brewing is highly recommended; the small entrance fee is more than compensated for by limitless glasses of delicious frothy beer, and this 290-year old cellar satisfies the curiosity of the most avid beer-lover, including English language tours and a video showing how close to Lvivian hearts this golden liquid is. 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. Beer snacks abound to soak it all up.
Hitting the Hay
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 Dream Hostel. Central, well-equipped, funky and very good value, an ensuite double here will set you back little more than €25 a night. Another very good option is Cinema Hostel - comfortable, welcoming and homely, it makes a great budget option. Comfortable couches and a lounge area with TV showing a selection of classic films for hostel dwellers. Still scraping in at most people’s budget range (around €30 a double) comes the George Hotel. Turn-of-the-century chic is reason enough to choose this place, which defines 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. Good buffet breakfasts too. Another very good and central mid-range option is Hotel Rudolfo, just a few metres from the opera. Spacious, clean suites, some with balconies and great views. Friendly staff and very generous breakfasts. Prices start at about €50 for a double. Really splashing out? Go to Hotel Panorama at the end of Svobody Prospekt and just feast on that amazing view every mealtime. Rooms come equipped with air-conditioning, telephone, filtered tap-water, refrigerator, minibar and satellite TV. Priciest doubles come in at about €100 a night.
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 1930’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. A perfect place to sample a bowl of borshch or varenky. 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 Galician Restaurant’ 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 Kabinet café does the best pirohi (Polish dumplings) in town.
Watering Holes You might have been excused for writing Lviv’s nightlife off as a non-event a few 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 Kabinet early doors (for it doubles as a cafe-bar and restaurant) 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. Most bizarrely, people here line up to be whipped or caned by frisky waitresses. Head to the Armenian quarter with its lively atmosphere and check out Gasova Lyampa (Gas Lamp), 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 Kyrivka, 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. Encouraged, you might venture downstairs to 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) specifically, this place 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; or you might want to stagger home while you still have memory of the night.
Getting There Getting to Lviv, it has to be said, is the one downside. The city does have an airport, and there are a few more budget connections these days, including very cheap and convenient connections from Warsaw Modlin and Krakow with Ryan Air. There is also a connection with London Stansted in the UK. Some intrepid souls fly to Rzeszow in Poland and train or bus the rest. Direct train connections from Krakow and Kiev are approximately eight and six hours respectively. There is, however, a direct train connection from Przemysl in the west of Poland which takes approximately two to three hours and costs aound 50zł (€12) one way. Buses are also tricky. There are some direct connections from Przemysl in Poland now. However, it can take about five or six hours. Price €9-18. If you are a true penny-pincher, you can nip across the border on foot after hopping on a mini-bus from Przemysl in Poland then get on another on the Ukraine side. This will set you back about €3. Expect delays coming back.
Further Reading The old and trusty Lonely Planet guide to Ukraine - (http://www.lonelyplanet.com/ukraine/western-ukraine/lviv) - is handy for Lviv. In addition, there is Lviv Life (www.lviv-life.com) and Lviv Today (www.lvivtoday.com.ua), both of which are good for cultural events and what’s on. Practical dual-language Ukrainian/English maps are available at www.vidviday.co.ua. Ukraine has an enviable literary reputation for a country for, well, if not its size, then its history. Giants like Gogol and Bulgakhov hail from Odessa and Kiev respectively, and a copy of ‘Dead Souls’ or ‘Master and Margerita’ will impress many a Ukranian. For a more modern perspective on Ukraine, reach for ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian’ 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 shetetls (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. It's aslo been made into a very good film. Bruno Schultz, born in a part of Poland which is now Ukraine (Drohobych) is an under-rated writer in the west, and his dream-like novellas ‘The Street of Crocodiles’ and ‘Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass’ are essential reading.
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