Lviv: The Nicest European City You’ve Never Heard Of

“If you don’t drink, you are either sick or a spy,” said Lviv-born Ivanka. What could I do? I didn’t want to blow my cover. She introduced me to some handmade liqueurs—sour cherry visnjevaca and horseradish horilka. We clinked our glasses and shouted the Ukrainian toast Bud’mo! “We will live for always!”

This happened at Kryivka, a Cold War-themed bar/restaurant/museum/theater complex in the Ukrainian city of Lviv. It’s a tongue-in-cheek recreation of nuclear-era Soviet intrigue, but the sense of being immersed in living history continued on Lviv’s sophisticated city streets and squares.

Just 40 miles from the Polish border, the Ukrainian city of Lviv has an atmosphere that is decidedly un-Soviet. In fact, it’s not even typically Ukrainian, since it feels more like Prague or Budapest. Lviv, Eastern Europe’s undiscovered jewel, is blossoming. While unabashed Ukrainian patriotism is fervent, and English has not yet taken hold, the city embraces visitors. People here are as curious about us as we are about them.

The city has a turbulent past; it’s been ruled by Poland, Sweden, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. Despite all that, it’s remarkably well-preserved. In appearance, economy, and atmosphere, it’s more like what you’d expect to find in a Western European must-see destination, and it’s been known as Ukraine’s “capital of culture” for three centuries. But unlike Europe’s popular tourist cities, you’ll seldom find Lviv crowded. Somehow, this enchanting destination has remained a secret.

Old Town: The Paris of Ukraine

I arrived in Lviv on a six-hour train ride from Kiev. After quickly depositing my bags at the British Club Apartments, I walked a couple of blocks to the old town section. My destination point was Rynok Square, the heart of old town. It wasn’t far, but it took me quite a while to get there; I had to keep stopping to admire the stunning buildings, such as the 19th-century Opera House, an eclectic fusion of baroque- and Renaissance-style architecture.

Eastern Europe’s undiscovered jewel.

For centuries, Lviv was a key point on a major trade route, the fortunes made here attracting the best architects from all over Europe. I almost lost my footing on the uneven cobblestones a couple of times, as the urge to gaze up at the beauty and variety is irresistible.

One of the first things I like to do on arriving in a new city is go to the highest possible vantage point to get a bird’s-eye view and overall bearing of the city. In Lviv, that’s the bell tower in the City Hall building. The 220 dizzying spiral steps to the top of its central turret are foot-worn and uneven. Visitors on their way back down squeeze by in the tight shaft space. But I persisted. At the top, I stooped to emerge from the small door onto a narrow terrace. Surrounding me was a 360-degree panorama of the colorful old town.

The “New Town” of Lviv is a bit of a misnomer. The House of Scientists is an 1898 neo-baroque palace, once used as a casino as well as a shooting site for feature films. Potocki Palace, which houses European art of the 14th to 18th centuries, is easy to find—just look for the multicolored “umbrella ceiling” on the street in front of the 18th-century Parisian-style building.

A Tale of Two Ivans

Two Ivans stand out in Lviv’s history, and you’ll likely stumble across two sites dedicated to them, one in the old town, the other in the newer part of the city.

Ivan Franko Park is one of the oldest parks in Eastern Europe and was the first public park in Ukraine. It’s conveniently located directly across from Lviv University. Formerly known as Kosciuzko Park and the Jesuit Gardens, the park has three colossal oaks in the upper part that are said to be the oldest trees in Lviv. The park’s namesake, Franko, was a Ukrainian poet, economist, and political activist.

Ivan Fedorov, meanwhile, was the 18thcentury father of Slavic printing and first to publish books in Ukraine. Quite by accident, as I was strolling around the old town, I stumbled upon a small square on Pidvalna Street heaped with uneven stacks of used books and magazines, antique Ukrainian army medals, old Soviet vinyl records, clothing, and other tchotchkes. It’s the perfect place to host this Ukrainian-style flea market, with a statue of Fedorov standing sentry in the middle of the square. Although I didn’t understand the Cyrillic typesetting of the Ukrainian and Russian content in the books, it was fun to leaf through the retro cover designs.

Castles, Châteaux, and Churches

Given Lviv’s gorgeous countryside, daytripping to some of the centuries-old fortifications nearby is a must. Miles of single-lane roads, laden with fields of sunflowers and devoid of traffic, lead to remote fairy-tale sites of castles, châteaux, monasteries, and churches. It’s the perfect glimpse into Lviv’s past, to explore without crowds.

You look like a Russian spy. What’s the password?

The 14th-century Olesko Castle is one of the oldest forts in Ukraine. Polish King Jan III Sobieski, most known for halting the advance of the Ottoman Empire in Europe, spent many years of his life at Olesko Castle. I strolled through the uncrowded castle-museum, taking in exhibits of restored weaponry, artistic masterpieces, sculptures, blown glass, and tapestries.

Constructed between 1635 and 1640, Pidhirtsi Castle is styled more like a romantic Renaissance château than a traditional fortified castle. It’s one of the best preserved and most attractive palaces in western Ukraine.

If you only have time for one visit outside the city, I’d suggest the tiny walled town of Zhovkva. Zhovkva Castle is the town’s oldest and largest building. It’s very photogenic, from ground level as well as from the adjacent bell tower. But exploration doesn’t stop there—Zhovkva is brimming with ecclesiastical beauties. There’s the Dominican Monastery complex, the Church of St. Lawrence, the Basilian monastery, and the 300-year-old wooden Holy Trinity Church, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If you need a respite after touring all the historical sights, take a break at one of the many small cafes lining the paved town square for some deruny—crispy Ukrainian potato pancakes—or a bowl of chilled borscht, a sour soup whose main ingredient is beetroot, giving it a distinctive red color.

The 16th-century Krekhiv monastery is one of the most significant Greek Catholic shrines in Ukraine, and a popular pilgrimage destination. The monastery was hard hit after the Soviet occupation in 1939. Ten years later, the monastery was closed. Some of its monks escaped and went into hiding, while others died in Soviet prisons. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the site was renovated and opened to the public.

Coffee and Chocolate

If you’re like me, you probably thought the history of European coffee culture has its roots in Vienna. However, I was surprised to learn that Yuriy Frants Kulchytsky, who brewed the first cup of coffee in Vienna, was actually born in Lviv. To further obfuscate matters, at that time Lviv was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. One thing that’s irrefutable—Lviv takes its coffee seriously. Aromas waft out on every block, enticing walkers to take a seat at an umbrella-shaded table to sip a steaming mug of heavenly brew.

Lviv became a focal point for chocolate lovers in the late 18th century. Chocolates are handmade here, and I tried my own hand at making chocolates at the Lviv Handmade Chocolate shop. It’s a fairly easy process, albeit messy, and the temptation to eat the ingredients is hard to resist. The city is so obsessed with the sweet treats that it hosts a National Chocolate Festival, including nine-foot chocolate sculptures.

Spy Obsession

“You look like a Russian spy…what’s the password?” growled the disheveled guard, dressed in a vintage Ukrainian Insurgent Army uniform. “Slava Ukraini!” I shouted, (“Glory to Ukraine!)” He nodded, tipped a shot glass of honey vodka into my throat, and pushed me toward the catacombs. If you can find it and know the password, Kryivka is a labyrinth of underground tunnels and simulated war bunkers fitted out with antiquated rifles, old newspaper clippings, outdated motorcycles, and other antique war paraphernalia. You can and should order more honey vodka.

Hungry? Fare in Kryivka consists of chunks of bread and kholodets, a glutinous mass of meat and carrots held together in a congealed mold served on tin army plates. In truth, it does more for the atmosphere than for the taste buds.

Emerging Gastronomy

Kholodets aside, one of the highlights of Lviv is its food scene. It’s definitely the best I’ve experienced in Eastern Europe. The variety runs the gamut. Try the beef-filled varenyky (dumplings) at Baczewski, a bright and cheerful bistro that evokes Lviv’s golden days of the 1920s and 1930s. Or opt for savory cholent (potato, barley, bean, and smoked goose stew). Another succulent option is tender filet mignon at The Most Expensive Galician Restaurant, themed to mimic a mysterious Masonic society where you divide the prices by 10 to get the real cost. In either restaurant, you’ll eat well for less than $20.

For some, Lviv’s “emotional restaurants” can be a little gimmicky, but I’m a participatory kind of person, so I had a lot of fun.

Is Lviv Safe?

Yes, Lviv is safe. In fact, the entire western part of Ukraine is safe. On the far eastern peninsula, there is an ongoing territorial dispute with Russia over Crimea, but that’s 1,200 miles away from Lviv. About the worst thing to look out for in Lviv is petty theft, so take the same precautions you’d take if you were visiting Barcelona, Rome, Athens, or Paris, where pickpocketing is rampant.

For me, the absence of mass tourism in Lviv offers an appeal and authenticity often missing in other European cities. It’s what compelled me to explore this fascinating country. After a couple of weeks in budget-busting central Europe, the prospect of continuing my trip without heavy crowds in more affordable destinations was compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed this colorful, walkable city and would go back in a heartbeat.

If You Go

While Lviv is a popular weekend getaway for Ukrainians, this vibrant city has yet to be discovered by the rest of the world, particularly North Americans. The people of Lviv are friendly and welcoming, but most don’t speak English (although this is starting to change. Lots of younger Ukrainians can speak a little of the language). And then there’s the wholly unfamiliar Cyrillic alphabet. These are things to consider when planning a trip to Lviv. Katia, my local guide with JayWay Travel, helped me to navigate the unfamiliar and show me Lviv’s hidden gems.

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