I never intended to visit Ukraine, or at least last summer anyways, although it has always been on my list. I had originally planned to travel to Belarus, via Lithuania, but there was an issue with my visa payment and then my passport got lost in the post. So 4 days before my flight to Lithuania with my passport back but no visa, I quickly planned a trip through Poland and into Ukraine overland and then back to Poland where I already had a flight home booked from Warsaw.
Arrivals. I chose to visit Lviv as it was close to the Polish border and on the train line from both Krakow and Warsaw, so it made sense to do a round trip and visit all three. There seemed like there was enough to do for a weekend with it being a UNESCO City and I could get the overnight sleeper from Krakow (and then on to Warsaw) it meant I had two nights of accommodation which I wouldn’t need to budget for. Although you can fly direct from many UK airports to the capital Kiev, currently there are no direct flights to Lviv from the UK, so you could fly via Kiev and get an internal flight to Lviv (takes just over an hour) or you can fly to a different European city first and then get another flight on to Lviv. Popular budget airline Wizzair fly to many European destinations from the UK and also fly into Lviv from Berlin and Wroclaw.
Of course you can enter the Ukraine overland like I did & again there are a few options if you are coming from the direction of Poland. Bordered by Belarus from the North, you will have to arrange a visa in order to travel through that country, which is where I failed (although check the embassy website, controls are being slackened for short trips), to the East is Russia, another country with strict visa controls and an unstable border around the South East. The Western border stretches along a few countries, so with a bit of planning I’m sure you could drive, bus or train in from Moldova, Hungary or Slovakia, but the closest country and closest foreign cities from Lviv are Poland and either towns Lublin (132 miles) or Krakow (200 miles).
I travelled in from Krakow, as there was a direct overnight sleeper train and as I had never visited Krakow before, I could do the sights there first.
Although no visa is needed for EU nationals to visit Ukraine, it isn’t a Schengen area, and so as you cross the border you are rudely awakened by a serious looking female border guard (or at least I was). Half asleep after having a torch shone in my face and passport taken off me, our train continued off in the same direction, I felt that this was a good sign, and 20 minutes later my passport was returned to me with a shiny new stamp and I settled back to sleep.
I booked my train tickets online before I left the UK using Polrail and then picked up the tickets from their office close to the station in Krakow on arrival. The overnight from Krakow to Lviv took just under 8 hours and I booked a bed in a shared sleeping compartment for around £47. Polrail were super helpful and sent simple easy instructions via email, but be aware of local spellings when choosing your intended destinations, Lviv is also spelt Lvov and Warsaw is also spelt Warszawa.
I arrived in Lviv early Sunday morning at around 6am, so the city was still waking up, and so was I to be honest. It was about a 40 minute walk to my accommodation the Old City Hostel which cost me around £14 a night, but first I needed money. It is pretty hard to get your hands on any Ukrainian money in the UK, your local Thomas Cook will definately not have any behind their currency exchange counter, but I told my bank of my plans before I left and the first ATM I popped my card into on the main street (Horeodotska St) worked, SUCCESS!
As my hostel wasn’t technically open until later that morning they still kindly let me dump my bag, charge my phone and freshen up, then I headed back outside to find breakfast. Not too much was open early on the Sunday morning, but I was glad of the walk to get my bearings and I stumbled upon a lovely little friendly cafe selling juice, coffee and crossants, I managed to point and smile and successfully order my breakfast at the aptly named Lviv Croissants.
History Bit. People have inhabited Lviv since the 6th century and this region of Ukraine has been part of many different countries/states over the centuries including Poland and Hungary. It wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that Lviv became the centre of a new Ukrainian national movement and so retained its importance when the country became indepedant during WW1, WW2 and then again after Soviet rule in 1991 and is currently the 7th largest city in this compelling country.
Sights. The unofficial centre of this city is in and around Rynok Sq. Here is where you can find the tourist information centre, so I stocked up on a tourist map and got the opening times of the local sights. You can spend the best part of a day around this Historic Square, and it is the reason for its UNESCO status, so be sure to visit the town hall, which if you have the stamina, climb to the top of the tower inside to admire the views. Also around the square are many other fascinating buildings, including the Black House, which is one of the oldest houses in Lviv, built in sandstone that has blackened over the years hence the name and now is home to the historical museum.
As well as museums and historical architecture, there are 4 fountains – Diana, Neptune, Adonis and Amphitrite, shops, restaurants, bars, as well as a large LVIV sign that always had a small cluster of people waiting for a photo beside it. It was especially busy and bustling the weekend I was there, due to a Jewish food and drink festival taking part in the square and there was a great mix of stalls selling food, drink, souvenirs and even Putin toilet paper.
More than once over the weekend, I sat outside one of the bars dotted around the periphery of the square to soak up the atmosphere, listening to the music and watching the locals engage in traditional Jewish dancing, the stress of my visa and passport woes from the previous week eliminated.
It wasn’t just in the main square where there was dancing, stalls and festivals, a short walk opposite my hostel was the City Garden a long expanse of lawn, benches, fountains, statues and walk ways, which was always full of locals morning, noon and night. For the two days I was there, it played host to a strong man competition, a singing competition, traditional dancing and loads more, it was always full of life and perfect for people watching.
Lviv was certainly full of life!
One of the standouts of Lviv for me, other than just the wonderment of watching the locals take having fun, very seriously whether it was a weekend or work day, was the cathedrals and churches. There are many to visit and all easily walkable, the most impressive I felt was the Armenian Cathedral, only small, but the interior was outstanding and should be a must on any visit to this city. There is also a Latin Cathedral, the Church of Holy Communion, the Bernadine Church and a Carmelite Church just to name a few, but it is by no means a full list of all the places of worship which are all walking distance from the main square.
If you fancy a good walk and getting out in the fresh air, then head east from Rynok square to the well signposted High Castle Hill, an artificial hill built on the summit of the now ruins of Lviv Castle. Though you could take a taxi half the way up, its only about a 2km walk from the city centre, with lots of vantage points and walking trails to follow, and I really enjoyed just taking my time along with many other locals and their dogs in what is obviously a popular local afternoon out and you are rewarded with great views once you reach the top.
On my way back down, I didn’t head straight back to the centre, but took a road west, initially back towards the train station and then turned right up Vicheva Street, as there was a stretch of interesting buildings along this route. First up is a Benadictine Monastery and church, there are a number of little cute shops, a small square, a museum and two more churches, which made for a great detor on my way back to the old town.
I spent another good afternoon just seeing where the wind took me, stumbling upon the national opera house, with a rather refreshing fountain, more gardens, more churches, a market and there were lots of dairy free friendly coffee shops as well as people dressed in traditional costume and traditional dancers, the streets were always alive.
Food and Drink. Speak of coffee, as well as the croissant place I found on the first morning, I had some brilliant other finds for coffee, cake and local dishes, all inexpensive and friendly, not all with English translated menus, but that’s all part of the fun isn’t it! Lviv is known as the coffee capital of Ukraine, and you are never too far from somewhere selling you a hot or cold caffeine drink. Some real jems I visited included The coffee shop company with a great selection of cakes, the adorable Mocco Coffee and cheesecake is a must at Brown Tea and Coffee Shop & they all seemed to offer soy milk. As for dumplings and local beer, even eating & drinking on the Square isn’t expensive, as in other European cities that maybe are further west, so take your pick. I spent time sipping the beer & sampling dumplings at Atlas opposite the LVIV sign and another one that didn’t seem to have an English translation, which was just off the square to the west, but I do remember the borscht was delicious, I even found a vegan restaurant on Brativ Rohatyntsiv St called Green.
It was an adventure, and has just whetted my appetite to see some more of this captivating country, sample more of the food and learn more of its history, I hope to return!
LVIV tip – if arriving or departing by train at the main station, there is one ‘foreign language’ kiosk who can advise on trains, correct platforms etc in English, a lifesaver if you don’t understand the Cyrillic notice board like me. Also, for a small fee there is a fancy waiting room with comfy seats and wifi, perfect if you have a long wait for your train.
Always be polite 🙂 The translation for thank you is pronounced something like Dyakuyu 🙂