Whilst in Krakow, Poland we took the chance to cross the border over into Ukraine and to the beautiful city of LVIV. This was a unique opportunity to see a country very much at the forefront of current events and to see somewhat of the truth behind the veil of the media, it was quite the adventure in which we were both quite shocked by what we saw and at the same time pleasantly surprised. So what is it like to visit Ukraine…Here is our day in the elegant Львів!
L’viv, Lvov, Lwów, Львів, Львов ,Lemberg or Leopolis… this city has had as many names as it has nationalities, but this has always been the city of the lion and has a strong, proud and beautiful Ukrainian spirit which was a joy to experience…
Getting to Lviv from Krakow:
The distance from Krakow to Lviv isn’t at all far, in fact it is pretty much the same as travelling from Manchester to London or New York to Boston or DC, trips we have taken in the past and can easily be done in a day. However this is the edge of the EU we are talking about and the journey took around 9 hours… 3.5 of those crossing the border!
It was quite some experience so much so in fact that I wrote a post that goes into much more detail, check it out here: Crossing the border from Poland to Ukraine This post not only tells you about our adventure on the border/ journey but also gives you some information on how to take the same trip and what to expect.
First impressions of Ukraine:
I summarised this to a friend recently, when you visit Russia you have an impression of what it’s going to be like: run down, dark and quite intimidating, but then you arrive and to your surprise it isn’t. Then you visit Ukraine and you find the Russia you were expecting! Ok, so this is a little harsh because it turned out to be so much more than that, but the rural areas before you get to Lviv came as quite a shock after the relative modernity and forwardness of Poland.
I went into more detail in my previous blog post, but what I will say is that many times when you cross borders the changes can be quite subtle, take the journey from France through to Holland, you hardly noticed when you transitioned from one to the other bar a few signs. We had stepped into another land, another culture and another time. Crossing the border from the highways of Poland to the crumbling through roads of Ukraine, dust filled the air and the colour seemed to fade.
The road were at best broken tarmac Surrounded by ramshackled corrugated iron houses and breeze block farms down dirt paths, packs of dogs, chickens and goats roaming the streets and people queued glumly in the morning fog for the 30+ year old buses to arrive, faded and layered with dirt. This interspersed with soviet era housing, Gagarin statues and golden domed churches, it felt like the clock had stopped in 1991.
I partly enjoyed seeing such a vastly different place to anywhere I had visited but also wondered what the day had in store for us as this was vastly different to the impressions of Lviv I had heard previously.
General Observations of Lviv:
Firstly Lviv bus station is about 6km outside of the centre and takes about half an hour in a taxi. The bus station is not what you expect of Lviv although after the drive from the border is not exactly surprising! It’s a cold, harsh soviet monstrosity in the middle of a residential area consisting mostly of tower blocks and dusty, crumbing roads, it’s pretty uninviting and it’s hard to come across anyone able or even willing to help us! Eventually we managed to somehow negotiate a taxi to the city at a cost of 60 UAH (£2.49!)
I have to be honest and say that I knew little really of the city or even the country before visiting but there is a certain draw in the mysterious and the unknown. I knew enough to know that Lviv is pro European and the least likely of anywhere in the country to encounter any trouble. My research had also suggested that due to the history of the city and it’s changing nationality over the years that it’s architecture and culture were very much inline with that of Poland.
However what you do find is in fact find is a city that is very proud to be Ukrainian, everywhere you looked there were flags draped from apartment windows and flying from the cars and almost everyone speaks entirely Ukrainian and not Russian. It is known as the most Ukrainian of all the cities in this country and Russia’s influence is fiercely rejected over here in favour of a more European feeling city.
The centre square, Rynok, itself if a testament to the history of this city, the Baroque and neo-Renaissance style Opera house – Built by the Austrians stands across from the Adam Mickiewicz statue which celebrates the 19th century poet and his Polish works, this, mere steps from the large monument to Shevchenko, the staunch nationalist whose poems created a strong sense of national identity in Ukraine. This is what gives Lviv it’s unique and varied cultural feel.
It feels dirtier, worn and a lot less approachable than Krakow though, despite sharing many of it’s bohemian charms. The buildings are of a similar architecture but are a lot less well maintained, the trams are older and rumble through the unevenly cobbled and crumbling streets and there is not another tourists in sight! There is just this other atmosphere to the place you can’t quite pin down, but you get this deep sense of culture, history and unpredictability… as well as quite a lot of stray dogs.
The city itself could not be any more different than the outlying rural countryside and the area around the bus station, it’s like another country again. It still retains that edge but becomes a wonderful grand old city. It’s central “Old Town” deserving of it’s UNESCO listed status with it’s characterful dust layered Art Nouveau and Baroque buildings literally telling the story of this city’s turbulent history.
The details of the city’s facades are absorbing, even the most mundane of buildings would stand out as a masterpiece in any other city. As much as the Ukrainian’s have an intensity to them the pace of the city seemed generally quite easy going and most were more intrigued by our presence rather than outraged!
One thing we did notice was how religious people are here, we had picked up on it in Poland, how the churches were a lot more in use than other countries and not just a tourist attraction. Visiting was quite an intense experience even for a pair of hardened atheists, you always want to be respectful of other cultures and it’s nice to be able to sit back and watch the locals. Quite a few people actually got down on the floor in the middle of the church to pray and many were going around the room kissing various images and objects.
Entering these churches with a camera and a foreign voice instantly results in many stopping and turning around and staring intensely at you! The churches in this city are it’s most recognisable feature, a real feast for the eyes, the lavish detail really is something to behold, it’s almost too much for your eyes to take it and really does go someway to expressing the passion the Ukrainian’s have for their religion.
It’s an enigmatic, charming and absorbing city, the rows of cobbled streets heading off Rynok square each leading to another century’s old church full of the faithful, or courtyards filled with the smells of local cuisine cooking away whilst the head-scalved babushkas chatter as they scrub with their donkey stones in a scene reminiscent of times past.
This city has mostly been spared the violence of the rest of the country, much like it’s architecture was left largely absent from the cold soviet blocks of it’s outskirts and compatriot cities. However sentiment towards Russia is bitter here and it is obvious a strong stance is being taken towards the freedom and independence of Ukraine.
In the central square two tents remain, it’s occupants defiantly and peacefully continuing the protests of the Ukrainian cause, yellow and blue flying high and proudly alongside images of what I am only assume to be victims of Russia’s campaign.
Internet searches bring up images of this area filled with flag and banner waving residents making sure their voice is heard. All over the city there are more flags and many shops sell toilet rolls baring Putin’s face as well as posters likening Russia’s leader to Hitler.
Tips and Advice:
The currency in Ukraine is the “Hryvnia“, we tried in vein to get hold of it the UK but it pretty much isn’t stocked by anyone due to the instability of the economy in Ukraine. Even in Poland it is hard to come by, we tried several “Kantors” with no success.In the end we were only able to get hold of 2 notes: A 100 and 500, for only around £30 out of the £100 we had put aside for the day.
Lviv bus station itself does have exchanges if you get desperate but we didn’t want to chance it. We struggled to even spend £35 such was the low cost of everything! The exchange rate is around £1 = 24.36 UAH and something like a can of coke would cost around 6 UAH, that’s £0.25! We pay around £0.70 in the UK! It’s hard to change back though as it is almost worthless outside Ukraine so best to change small bits as you go.
Language/ Tourist Information:
There does seems to have been some maps erected around the city which really helps in negotiating your way from sight to sight. Asking for help here is quite difficult as many people know very little English and speak only Ukrainian, thankfully these new signs have Romanised lettering as well as Cyrillic.
You might find communication a little difficult but some of the younger people know a few words in English or German, it’s best to have a phrase book as things can get a little confusing!
We noticed a few times that when we started to speak people would stop and look around at us, many unsure on where we were actually from or even what language we were speaking, some thinking we were Dutch! We do enjoy the challenge though and it’s all part of the experience!
Lviv has a tram network which consists of around 9 lines and has been running since 1880 along with the more modern trolley buses and normal buses. The city is well covered by all these modes of transport and buses can be taken from here up to the main bus station outside of town by marshrutky 71 and 180 from pr Svobody or trolleybus 5 from pl Petrushevycha. The train station is also connected by trams 1 and 9. All are as expected very cheap and use a similar time stamp ticketing method as Krakow and many other Eastern European tram networks, more info including maps and time tables can be found here: www.lviv.travel/en/tourist-information/transportation
However in the end we didn’t need to use any public transport to get around the city, it is quite small and compact and all the sights we wanted to see were well within walking distance. Walking is also a great way to see the city and we enjoyed wandering the cobbled streets and coming across many unexpected and interesting sights.
A day in Lviv, must do and must see:
The UNESCO listed Historic old town.
The whole of the central old town district is worth spending some time wandering around the cobbled streets and is well worth it’s UNESCO status, leading from the main square the cafe’s and churches which line the streets feel endless! Go on a walk around here and see what you find!
This is one of the city’s oldest streets first being documented in 1382 and connects the market square to Galicaian square as well as housing the Boim Chapel. Every building along here is worth a look, holding fascinating details and history.
Town hall tower/ Rathaus
In the centre of market square is the imposing town hall and it’s 306 stair tower, first established in the middle of the 14th century it has been re-built several times after being levelled in a fire in 1381 and then deemed unstable in the early 19th century. The 65 meter high replacement is a replica of the original tower and leads up to amazing panoramic views of the city and all for only 10 UAH (£0.44!)
This is a unique and exceptional architectural monument dating back to the 16th-17th centuries, constructed on grey sandstone the façade is now an imposing black colour due to century’s exposure of dirt, dust and smoke. There is also a fascinating museum inside and it lies just off Market Square.
Market/ Rynok square
Rynok square, the centre point of the city, surrounded by stunning buildings, statues, palaces, fountains and crowds. Dating back to the very beginning of the history of Lviv when in the middle ages livestock would be traded here and criminals publically punished it is still the most popular meeting place within Lviv and great spot to people watch from it’s many cafes.
If Lviv is short of one thing it certainly isn’t churches, it’s abundance and diversity is amazing (even for an atheist), each one exquisitely detailed and decorated and filled with passionate and faithful worshipers. From the grandeur of the three cathedrals to the tiny chapels, there are too many to count, here are some of our favourites:
Chapel of boim
This chapel is a Renaissance masterpieces and was commissioned by a well-known Lviv merchant George Boim in 1609-1615 and is decorated with lavish and detailed carving and often sited as one of the most beautiful churches in the world.
A church has stood here from the second half of the 13th century being constantly built, re-built and added on to and experiencing it’s heyday in 1612. The building itself is one of the most impressive we came across, it’s exterior columns continuing inside in a white and golden theme with an imposing central dome. During the 1970’s this church was unbelievable used as a warehouse!
Church of Transfiguration
One of the most colourfully of the decorated churches it is characterised by it’s twin domes facade and larger third dome in the middle of the building and is one of the first things to catch you eye from the Town Hall tower.
St.Andrew the First-Called Cathedral belongs to Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine and is one of the most impressive cathedrals of Lviv, the interior roof painting is an absolute masterpiece!
We came across this more by chance as it is a little out of the way of the others just as mass was finishing, and what a discovery it was. The internal fresco is one of the best I have ever seen and just blew us away. This particular version of the church was built in 1758!
Dedicated to St. Peter and Paul it is one of the oldest and largest churches in the city, it is noted for it’s interior decoration which dates back from the 19th century but was badly damaged during the city’s soviet rule when it was used as a storage facility.
Wandering around the former monastery is like stepping back in time and contains many fascinating features in including a small statue of St. John of Dukla, the patron saint of Lviv.
St George’s Cathedral
Technically another of the churches this one stands out on it’s own and is a 15 minute walk from the centre of the city, it is the Baroque pearl of Lviv and it’s interior is truly a majestic sight well worth the uphill trek! This church also featured the “Turin Shroud” on display and people were queuing up to kiss the glass and kneel in front of it.
All over the squares of Lviv were flea markets and stalls selling everything from antiques to books and souvenirs and traditional Ukrainian crafts. Wandering around these is like being in an open air museum and some of the objects for sale are truly fascinating if not a little strange. We ended up picking up an SS officers ID and a Chernobyl liquidators medal and all for a very small sum.
The flea market in Ivan Fiodorov Square is one of the largest and most popular.
Shevshenko Monument & Others
Within Lviv there are many monuments all over the city, one of the most popular is the Shevchenko monument in the square by the Opera House and has become one of the most recognisable images of Lviv and represents the revival of the Ukrainian nation.
Others in include the monument to King Daniel of Galicia in Galician Square, Adam Mickiewicz and Ivan Fiodorov all of which are surrounded by glorious squares.
The opera house was one of the first things we came across after stepping out of the taxi into Prospect Svobody. It’s one of the symbols of the city and an architectural landmark of Ukraine. The building was erected in 1897-1900 in a classical style with forms and details characteristic of Renaissance and baroque architecture and is a striking and splendid sight to see. Unfortunately the Opera wasn’t open when we visited but the interior is famous for it’s lavish decorations and should be a must see.
If you have longer here are some other suggestions:
- Lviv Arsenal
- Italian Yard (Italiys’kyi dvoryk)
- Jan III Sobieski Palace (Palats Kornjakta )
- lychakiv cemetery
- Lviv history museum
Final word on visiting Ukraine:
Visiting Lviv is a rewarding experience given the feel of authenticity which comes from it’s relatively undiscovered tourist potential and that really is it’s charm. We did indeed fall in love with Krakow but yet at the same time it can feel a little swamped, but not here, you feel almost like a pioneer. Many people talk about the elegance of Lviv in comparison to some of Ukraine more soviet style cities and you can really feel it here, it has that European style and swagger to it whilst staying true to it’s Ukrainian culture, it’s a strange and delightful mix.
Of course, one could never say they have really seen the heart and soul of a country after just a day, and although I am please to have added another country to the list and feel we made the most of our time here, I would love to visit again. I think we did see and learn a lot here, but Ukraine is a diverse and vast country with much more to offer. Kiev is somewhere we would love to visit to get to know more of the soviet history within Ukraine as well as visiting the fascinating and haunting Chernobyl
So, should you visit Ukraine? Well if you’re not already convicted from reading my post and seeing what amazingly beautiful sights the city has to offer then I am not sure what else I can do! Ukraine may be going through a tough time at the moment but what is reflected in the media is nothing like the impression we got.
Of course, be careful and avoid areas close to the border/ Donetsk / Crimea but understand that if you pass up on Ukraine you miss out on one of the most intriguing and inspiring countries in the world. I am proud to be one of the few who crossed that border and although fraught with complexities I also have a new understanding of the Ukrainian troubles and an affinity with the people.
Lviv is a great place to start when thinking about visiting Ukraine, you can be sure to have an unforgettable and trouble free experience and one which will cost you hardly anything! Go on, go out there and see it for yourself!
I knew I was overly aware of the name Lviv before I even looked on the map when others seemed a little bewildered, I just figured it was because I take an interest in maps and geography as part of my obsession with travel. Turns out it is most likely because my home town of Rochdale, Greater Manchester is actually twinned with Lviv and I cross over the “Lviv Bridge” on an almost daily basis! I knew there was something drawing me over to Lviv!
For more information the official Lviv tourism website is: www.lviv.travel/en/index