Home to a burgeoning café scene and an ever-growing stock of backpacker hostels, the western Ukrainian city of Lviv (Львів) represents the country at its most tourist-friendly. A top pick in Rough Guides' top ten cities for 2014 list, it’s certainly the Ukraine’s biggest surprise, a former outpost of the Habsburg Empire whose elegance and charm will challenge any preconceptions about what eastern Europe or former Soviet cities are supposed to be. So if you’re considering a trip to Europe’s eastern fringes this year, here are ten reasons why Lviv, Ukraine should be on the itinerary.
Lviv’s pedestrian-friendly Old Town still looks and feels like a slice of Central Europe, its welter of Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian churches attesting to a multicultural past. Centre of Lviv’s social life is the spacious Rynok or former market square, abuzz with outdoor cafés and surrounded by Renaissance mansions backed by a warren of courtyards. Nostalgia for the Habsburg era has been put to good use by the booming tourist industry, lending Old-Town nightlife a distinctly theatrical feel: you’ll see top-hatted staff ushering visitors into nineteenth century themed cafés, and frilly-aproned waitresses serving up frothy mugs of beer.
Running along Lviv’s Old Town to the west is Prospekt Svobody (“Freedom Avenue”), a broad two-lane street with a strip of fountain-splashed park running up the middle. Presiding haughtily over the northern end is Lviv Opera House, dating from 1900 and topped with a trio of winged statues symbolizing the arts. To the south, a modern monument to Ukrainian poet Shevchenko and a pre-World War I statue of Polish national bard Adam Mickiewicz point to Lviv’s ambiguous cultural heritage.
The peaks and pastures of the Carpathians may be a long way from central Lviv, but the lure of the mountains has always exerted a powerful influence over the city’s imagination. Spread over a forested hillside to northeast of the city centre, the Museum of Folk Architecture provides the ideal introduction to the much-cherished rural traditions of the Ukrainian southwest. The most spectacular buildings are the fairytale Carpathian churches, their belfries raised in pagoda-like tiers.
Three kilometres southeast of the centre, Lychakivs’ke Cemetery is one of Europe’s most celebrated burial grounds, park-like in its landscaped beauty and brimming with over two centuries’ worth of fine funerary monuments. Originally laid out in 1786 it is now a museum reserve: indeed the sheer profusion of ornate family chapels, sculpted angels and statues of the deceased gives the place the appearance of an outdoor art gallery.
Somewhat underfunded in recent years, Lviv’s museums are actually rather charming in their creaky wooden staircases, polished parquet floors, staff that follow you from one room to another switching the lights on and off, and a refreshing lack of anything resembling touchscreen interactivity. Housed in the rather grand Potocki Palace, Lviv Art Gallery does at least display some fine-looking antique furnishings in a sequence of opulently decorated halls.
One exception to the old school museum rule is the Brewery Museum, an entertaining display that tells the history of brewing from its origins to the present day. It’s attached to the Lvivskie brewery, a highly respected institution throughout both Habsburg and Soviet eras that continues to churn out local-recipe brews. And it’s far from being the only show in town: Stare Misto is a highly rated local private brewery supplying many of Lviv’s bars, and a number of the city’s pubs (notably Kumpel) brew their own excellent ales.
A huge wedge of greenery stretching south and uphill from central Lviv, Stryiskyi Park is the ideal spot for a leafy stroll or a blanket-on-the-lawn picnic. Mazey paths lead through the landscaped, largely wooded terrain. In the southwestern corner of the park, the Lviv Childrens’ Railway is run by teenage trainees and operates narrow-gauge services round the rim of the park.
One of Lviv’s most famous sons is Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895), author of Venus in Furs and inspiration behind psychologist von Krafft-Ebing’s concept of masochism. In this city filled with themed cafés and pubs, it is only fitting that the man who lived his fantasies as well as writing about them should have a tribute bar of his own. The kinky décor at Masoch contains the kind of lacy fabrics and undergarments that are charming rather than over-the-top. Cocktails have corny names like Burning Desire, and your bill is delivered in a high-heeled shoe.
During its Habsburg heyday Lviv’s cafés were famous for keeping the city awash with coffee, hot chocolate and ice cream. And judging by the number of coffee shops and patisseries clogging the city’s central boulevards today, it’s a tradition that is very much alive. Something of a local institution, the Lviv Handmade Chocolate café makes pretty much everything you might want from the brown stuff – you can drink it in any number of forms, eat it as a mousse, or buy bags of chocolate sweets in all possible shapes, sizes and flavours.
One of the most authentic souvenirs of any Ukrainian trip, the sorochka is a white smock embroidered with traditional folk motifs, still worn by locals on festive occasions. If you’re looking for the high-quality hand-embroidered version, head for the Old-Town souvenir and handicrafts market on the corner of Teatralna and Lesi Ukrainky streets. For a cheaper, factory-produced sorochka, browse the open-air stalls of the Krakivsky rynok (market), the city’s main source of fruit, veg and inexpensive clothes.
See what the Rough Guide to 2014 says about Lviv, Ukraine.