My real question planning my trip to Lviv, Ukraine: would it be worth two night trains? Because of transportation schedules, visiting Lviv meant that I would be taking two night trains (to and from Poland) in a period of four nights…which is a lot for me, who struggles to get a good night’s sleep.
But Lviv was so worth two night trains! The city is definitely unique and a great introduction to Ukraine. I’m not entirely sure what the rest of the country will be like (I’ve heard that it’s much more Soviet-like), but Lviv definitely surprised me. The coffee and café culture is truly alive here, giving it a slightly trendy and hip vibe. The charming Old Town and square reminded me a bit of Prague, Krakow, and Budapest. But definitely a lot more “eastern” feeling and more gritty for sure. It has made me want to explore more of Ukraine and spend more time in Eastern Europe. It is also one of the absolute cheapest countries I’ve been to in my life! You can read more about my first impressions of Lviv here.
There’s actually a decent amount to do in Lviv, despite the Lonely Planet guidebook saying only three things. The historic city center is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the streets of the Old Town are definitely worth a wander! If you’re going to Lviv, here are some things to check out in the city:
The Market Square is the heart of Lviv’s Old Town and its main tourist center. There’s the city hall building and tower, plenty of beautiful buildings, and lots of shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, and churches dotted around. When I visited at the end of December, the square was decked out with Christmas market stalls!
The tower dominates the center of Lviv’s Old Town skyline, and if you’re willing to climb up a dizzying amount of stairs, it has a spectacular viewing platform at the top! You have to wind around the building and its city government offices in a bit of a maze to reach the tower entrance. Tickets for students cost 15 UAH (~$0.60 USD).
By far one of my favorite places in Lviv was the Lychakiv Cemetery, located about 20-30 minutes walk outside of the Old Town (or easily accessible by tram #2 or #10). Home to some of Lviv’s famous citizens, the place looked absolutely magical with a fresh blanket of snow. There are plenty of war memorials and graves of veterans, and lots of graves are Polish—a testament to the changing border over the centuries. The Ukrainian poet and nationalist Ivan Franko is buried here. My main suggestion would be to just get lost and wander around the graves. It costs 15 UAH (~$0.60 USD) for student visitors. Don’t miss this on a trip to Lviv!
The High Castle isn’t really a castle, but the site of a former castle on the top of a hill overlooking Lviv. It is well worth the hike up to the top for the amazing views of the city and the surrounding area! The path winds up around the hill slowly and not all that steeply, but it’s still a trek. There’s no admission fee.
Prospekt Svobody (Freedom Avenue)
This is one of the main drags in the center of Lviv. One of the main landmarks on Prospekt Svobody (Freedom Avenue) is the monument to Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian national poet. The whole street was full of Christmas market stalls and lights when I was there!
On the other end of pr. Svobody is the Lviv Opera House. It’s a beautiful building, especially lit up at night—and especially during the Christmas markets! This is one of Lviv’s main landmarks, and bonus points if you can see a show!
Lviv is full of beautiful and stunning churches, all of which are worth poking your head inside to see the interior. None of the churches charge tourist admission fees, just remember to be respectful. One of my favorite churches was the Latin Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church right off of the Market Square. The cathedral was founded in 1360, and the current building was refurbished around 1775. The full name of the church is the Archcathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is covered in beautiful wall paintings, and definitely one place to visit!
Saints Peter and Paul Church
Another beautiful church, again just a block off of the Market Square, Saints Peter and Paul Church is a Ukrainian-Greek-Catholic church. Built between 1610-1630, the church was closed in 1946 due to the Soviet regime’s stance against religion, and was used as a warehouse and a book depository. It was re-opened in December 2011, and it’s another church you shouldn’t miss on a visit to Lviv.
Church of the Transfiguration
Probably my favorite church in Lviv is the Church of the Transfiguration, an Eastern Orthodox church right by the Market Square. The blue interior is absolutely stunning and almost makes you feel like you’re in another little world.
The ruins of the former Golden Rose Synagogue, which used to be the oldest synagogue in Ukraine, are in the Old Town. There are now memorial plaques on the site with information and quotes, and you can see the ruins of the mikvah, the ritual bath. Lviv had a Jewish population of over 140,000 people on the eve of World War II, which was over one-third of the entire population of the city.
This interesting museum traces the Ukrainian liberation movement from the 18th-century up to the present day. It’s mainly a large collection of military objects and important military figures. Unfortunately, almost everything is in Ukrainian, with only one small information board in English in each room. There’s no information in English in the final room, about the Ukrainian liberation and the end of Soviet rule (which is what I was most interested in!). Admission for students is 20 UAH (~$0.80 USD).
Another museum in Lviv is the Ethnography Museum, located right off of pl. Svobody. The museum houses a collection of items from both Ukraine and all over Europe, mainly from the 15th-century onwards. Again, there was usually one information board in English in each room of the museum, and everything else was entirely in Ukrainian. The building is beautiful though, and well worth a visit just to wander around the rooms (and especially the staircase to the second floor). Admission is 10 UAH (~$0.40 USD).
Prison Museum (Territory of Terror)
One of the biggest disappointments of my trip to Lviv was that the Prison Museum was closed over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. It sounds amazing though, and if I go back to Lviv this is the number one thing I’ll be seeing! This former prison complex (also the area of the Lviv Ghetto) was left virtually untouched since the Soviets left after the fall of the Soviet Union, and opened in 2009 as a museum. Today it houses exhibits on the secret police and terror regime in Lviv, during both Nazi and Soviet occupation. I read somewhere that it’s helpful to get in touch with the museum in advance of your visit and ask for an English guide to show you around. The Memorial to Victims of Occupation is on the main street nearby.
This beautiful palace now houses the Lviv Gallery of Art, but is well worth visiting just to see the exterior. Built in 1880 for the noble Potocki family, the interior was designed in the style of the French King, Louis XVI. It’s located on Kopernyka street, right off of Prospekt Svobody.
There are lots of other museums in Lviv: the Lviv National Museum, the Arsenal Museum, the Pharmacy Museum, and the Museum of Folk Architecture and Life to name a few.
I did a lot of cool things in Lviv, but probably nothing compared to Kryjivka, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army themed underground bar. You need a password, Slava Ukrainii / Слава Украïнii (Glory to Ukraine) to get in, where you’ll be given a free shot of Ukrainian honey liqueur and sent downstairs into a bar that’s full of drawings, photos, and plans of army camps (as well as weapons that you can take pictures with). The menu has information about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during (and following) World War II, and you can also shoot BB guns at pictures of Putin. The bar is located off of Market Square, down a normal-looking alley at number 14 (14 pl. Rynok).
Lviv Coffee Mine (Lviv Kopalnya Kavy)
Keeping on with the underground theme, Lviv Coffee Mine (Kopalnya Kavy // Копальня Кави) is a great place for a cup of coffee. Half museum, half café, you can drink a number of tasty coffees (including Lviv-style coffee, which is served Turkish style with liqueur and lemon) underground in a former coffee mine. You can still walk around the mine even if you’re not getting a drink—you’ll be given a hardhat and light at the entrance, and can walk around in a circular loop, including the former cart tracks. It’s right off of the Market Square, number 10 (10 pl. Rynok).
Пузата Хата (Puzata hata) restaurant
One of my single best discoveries in Lviv: Пузата Хата, a cafeteria-style restaurant dishing up loads of delicious Ukrainian food for incredibly cheap prices. Whatever you do, don’t miss out on the dumplings (vareniki // вареники), borscht (the Ukrainian take on beet soup), and kvas (квас), a popular non-alcoholic drink that I can only describe as bread-flavored Coca-Cola. And when I say it’s cheap, I mean two courses for two people, including two drinks, was about ~110 UAH, or $4.50 USD. Thank you, Lviv!
The Basics: Lviv is located in western Ukraine, in an area that has historically changed between Polish and Ukrainian (and of course, Soviet) hands several times over the past few centuries. The city can pop up with several different names: Lviv (Львiв) in Ukrainian, Lwów in Polish, and Lvov (Львов) in Russian. Ukraine is not a member of the EU. The currency is Ukrainian hryvnia (UAH), which is incredibly cheap for those with dollars, euros, pounds, or any western currency. While regions in Eastern Ukraine may be engulfed with fighting from separatist rebels, Lviv and Kiev (and western Ukraine) are generally safe. Lviv has a population of about 725,000 people. Ukraine has a total population of 45.5 million, with about 2.8 million people living in the capital, Kiev.
This part of Ukraine really does not like Russia.
Getting Around: There are buses and minibuses in Lviv, but the easiest way to get around is by tram. A tram ride costs 2 UAH (about $0.08—just 8 cents!!), and tickets are bought at the front from the driver through a tiny window slot. Make sure to validate your ticket (with the ticket punch) once on the tram. Several trams run from the railway station to the city center and Old Town (including #1 and #9).
Where I Stayed: I stayed at Old City Hostel, which had an unbeatable location right on pl. Svobody and a block away from the Market Square. The bed was comfy (with individual plugs and reading lights), there were large lockers in the room, multiple kitchens, nice bathrooms, and a nice common room. Security was good, with a code for the door for the entrance, an electronic fob, and a lock to the room. They also have a fair amount of private rooms. A bed in a 4-bed dorm cost me about $6.50 USD per night (180 UAH). My room did smell faintly of smoke, and was a little noisy being right on the main street. There’s also no luggage storage room for leaving your bags, just leaving them on the side in the common room. But this was a really nice hostel, and a steal for the cheap price! And they also give you a 5% discount coupon to the Puzata Hata cafeteria/restaurant! I’d definitely stay here again.
Lviv is a really interesting city and I’m so glad that I visited! This is one off the beaten path destination that is well worth a visit.
Have you ever been to Lviv or another destination off the beaten path? What was your experience like?