One could rightfully describe Lviv as truly Ukrainian and truly European, and the two adjectives would not be mutually exclusive.
Fifty years of Soviet rule have had a twofold impact on the city, and a major one. On the one hand, Lviv people take great pride in their Ukrainian identity and traditions. On the other hand, they (as well as Western Ukrainians in general) are exquisitely open to foreigners.
The city exudes a truly European vibe, which reminded me of other, highly popular Eastern/Central European destinations like Wroclaw and Prague. Except, unlike the former and, even more so, the latter, it is not as packed with tourists (though it does get its good share, and rightly so).
What’s out of the question is that, on average, Lviv people are rather reluctant to speak Russian, regardless of whether they are familiar with the language or not. True story, as we’d spoken Russian the whole time in Kiev and Odessa, and had never encountered this reaction.
Conversely, English-language signs and information are abundant everywhere.
The resemblance with Polish cities and the (relative?) hostility toward everything Russian do not come as a surprise, if one thinks that historically the city was part of Poland, till it was invaded by Nazi Germany and then annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II.
We spent a little less than two whole days in Lviv as part of our Ukrainian tour. As with both Kiev and Odessa, it wasn’t enough to explore the whole of it, but it was certainly enough to appreciate its genuine and authentic charm.
This is Lviv as I saw it, in 7 hotspots and 38 snapshots.
1. Ploshcha Rynok: the Market Square
Ploshcha Rynok (Площа Ринок), Lviv’s main square, lies at the very heart of the historic centre, and calling it ‘lovely’ sounds almost derogatory.
Neatly cobbled and chromatically impeccable, it is framed on all four sides by a few dozens townhouses – all of which, by the way, have the same size, the same number of windows per storey (usually three or four), and the same number of storeys (three or four).
It’s very easy to wander about and shift your look from one historical building to the next. Sooner or later, though, you eyes will inevitably be drawn to the Town Hall. The Town Hall (‘Ratusha’, in Ukrainian) is the pale yellow building that dominates the square. Imposing, yet elegant, it’s made even more unmistakable by the tower in the middle, which visitors are allowed to climb so as to enjoy the view from the top.
The square is lively and vibrant, equally crammed with tourists, locals and colourful kiosk and shops signs all around. Add to the picture the occasional (or regular) busker entertaining crowds of onlookers at strategic corners of the square, and you’ve got it all.
2. Coffee and chocolate
So, we’ve established that Ploshcha Rynok is an absolute must. However, you should also know that the two key words Lviv rhymes with are ‘coffee’ and ‘chocolate’, aka the best of both worlds.
The city has a long-standing tradition of coffee brewing, which dates back to the late 17th century, when the first coffee houses were opened. Needless to say, the smell of coffee lingers in the Lviv air like oxygen and, when you least expect it, it hits you.
Bars and cafés serving good coffee are countless, but if there’s one special place you should consider visiting, it’s the Coffee Mine. Located in the main square, it includes both the actual café (with large rooms and a bright, colourful covered garden) and, well, the mine.
Yes, because in Lviv that’s how they got coffee. Coffee didn’t grow on trees: it was mined from underground. And underground you can go in the mine, as long as you wear a helmet and make your way around dark, low corridors where time quickly goes back to the old days and method of extraction. Super interesting and great fun!
You can’t leave without trying one in a (large) number of coffee-based drinks on offer on the menu, some of which rightfully sound like unprecedented experiments. I got a tad carried away myself and, despite being a huge fan of the most primitive, but authentic form of black coffee, I let myself be tempted by an arguable combination of coffee with ginger, mint and ginger liqueur.
The waiter produced two cups and a glass on a tray. He poured the content of one cup into the second (which was empty), and left. I was left with a ‘coffee’ and the ginger liqueur. I had no idea whether I should take any extra steps before moving on to the drinking phase. I eventually kind of mixed and matched the content of the cup and of the glass as I deemed appropriate, and drank it all to the last drop.
I still feel I didn’t get it quite right, as it made for too ‘unique’ a coffee-drinking experience, too focused on drinking and too little focused on coffee. I’d be willing to go back and collect further instructions before gulping down the whole thing. Oh well.
Last (but not least) coffee-related fun fact: it appears that we owe the introduction of coffee in Europe to Lviv-born Polish nobleman Jerzy (Yuriy) Franciszek Kulczycki (Kulchytsky). Back in 1863, during the Turkish siege of Vienna, Kulchytsky allegedly managed to sneak out of the city and ask for help. Later he used the sacks of beans left behind by the (defeated) Turks to open one of the very first coffee houses in Vienna.
So a statue of Kulchytsky was built and unveiled in his hometown, in Danylo Halytsky Square, north of the main square. It depicts both the notable Leopolitan, sitting proudly on a low wall, and the bean sacks that proved so crucial to the successful outcome of his accomplishment.
Lviv chocolate is no less special than coffee. Alongside specialised shops and a dedicated museum, it appears in virtually each and every shop window in the city. We must have gone around one hour without chocolate, but then we happened to enter a souvenir shop just off the main square, and that was it: chocolate happened. In fact, it is super delicious, and it has a unique texture and taste: not too thick but not too airy the former, not too dark but equally intense the latter.
Almost forgot to say: of course the city has dedicated coffee and chocolate festivals running every year, respectively in late September and mid-February. Depending on how fond of coffee and/or chocolate you are, this might help you plan your Lviv trip in a more timely manner.
3. Prospekt Svobody
Prospekt Svobody (Проспект Свободи) is a broad, tree-lined avenue that lies just off the main square. Literally called ‘Freedom Avenue’, it is equally popular with tourists and locals, and forms an integral part of Lviv’s historic centre.
The avenue is dominated by a statue of… Taras Shevchenko! I still hadn’t mentioned his name here, after I talked about him multiple times in my Kiev and Odessa posts. Really, though, of all places Lviv couldn’t fail to celebrate him.
The monument was built in Argentina by the Ukrainian diaspora and unveiled in the avenue in 1992. It includes a statue of the Ukrainian hero and a tall, superbly decorated stele, which looks like a wave-shaped representation of folk art, and is allegedly also a symbol of a national revival movement.
Keep strolling down the avenue, and you will find yourself right in front of the State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet, a large, sumptuous building whose size is made even more imposing by the broadness of the prospekt. Built in Neo-Renaissance style, the building still displays its original, late-19th-century appearance. The roundish fountain right in front of the theatre makes for a nice contrast with the largely straight lines of the façade.
4. Boim Chapel and ‘All of Its Friends’
On average, Lviv’s churches are nothing like their Kiev counterparts. While the latter are mostly colourful and richly decorated, the former display neutral colours and a fairly essential appearance. While the latter are largely the result of very recent renovations, the former often retain their 16th-century appearance: their ‘worn out’ look is revealing of both their ‘old’ age and long history.
I won’t be dwelling too much on the religious Lviv. For one thing, as I’ve said many times, churches are not my ‘forte’, plus I had little time to explore it anyway, so I’m not reliable enough a source of information. If you happen to be in the city for one day or two, and have to make a careful selection of Lviv religious sights, you might want to keep an eye out for two in particular.
When it comes to Boim façade, forget all I said about the average essential appearance of Lviv churches: it’s as elaborate as it can get, and that makes it beautifully unique.
Boim Chapel (Каплиця Боїмів) was built in the early 17th century by initiative of Georgi Boim, a Lviv-based merchant of Hungarian origins who wanted a burial chapel for himself and his family.
Its black façade does not go unnoticed, as it’s entirely covered in deep carvings depicting ‘dark’ episodes from the Bible on the subject of death.
Today the chapel is part of the Lviv Art Gallery.
Armenian Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary
One of the most interesting religious buildings in Lviv is the Armenian Cathedral. Located north of the market square, it originally dates back to the 14th century, though its current appearance results from an early-20th-century renovation.
The church was shut down by the Soviets after 1945, when the Armenian community was also dismantled, only to be revived between the late 1990s and the early 2000s. It is objectively beautiful, partly thanks to the vaguely exotic quality of the overall structure.
5. Extra highlights and cobbled streets
When it comes to its architecture, Lviv is super diverse, interesting and… well, objectively lovely. No wonder the Old Town has been a UNESCO-listed site since 1998.
When someone is visiting a city you’ve already been to, and are somewhat familiar with, it’s easy to tell them things like: ‘You can’t get lost!’ ‘After a while you don’t even need a map anymore’, and the like.
Well, allow me to make the same remark about Lviv as well. Once you have duly checked the ‘mandatory’ city sights off your list, you might want to spend some extra time wandering about. You won’t regret it. That’s how the city will disclose its most unexpected and charming corners: cobbled side alleys lined by pastel-colour buildings, and quaint façades. A true delight for the eye.
6. Vysokyi Zamok: High Castle Hill
High Castle Hill (Високий замок) is the ideal counterpart to urban sightseeing around Lviv city centre.
The hill where the old castle was built sits north-east of the historic centre. It takes about half an hour to get there on foot. From the Kulchytsky monument in Danylo Halytsky Square (see entry no. 2) take Maksym Kryvonos Street: it will take you straight to the hill.
When the street starts going uphill, you will know you’re almost there: the cobblestones turn into earth, and the vegetation grows thicker. Once you’ve entered the park, you should look out for the metal staircase if you wish to reach the top of the hill.
After you’ve climbed a decent number of steps, keep going down the path, which runs all around the hill to the very top. There, in the middle of a round, cobbled platform, a Ukrainian flag is proudly flapping in the wind. Find your own spot and take a moment to admire (and doubtless photograph) Lviv from above. If it’s a clear, sunny day, the bird’s eye view you get from there will be as rewarding as it can get.
7. National Restaurant
While in Lviv, we also had dinner at the National Restaurant, which you find just off the main square. The restaurant is specialised in cuisine from Ukraine, the Caucasian region and Central Asia. In fact, it is (also) known as ‘International Varenyky Fund’ (IVF), as it aims at offering a diverse, tasty combination of traditional dishes at low prices. The menu itself includes an explicit declaration of intent.
My varenyky were delicious, and Bobby looked equally happy with her manti, beef-filled dumplings (rounder and shaped differently than varenyky) originally from Central Asia, but also popular in other cuisines (e.g. South Caucasian and Russia). I won’t even try and further delve into the origin and history of the dish, or this post will never come to an end.
We also shared a khachapuri, a Georgian flatbread filled with cheese which always, invariably makes me hungry only by thinking about it. You want to try it, trust me on that.
I’ve read partially conflicting reviews and opinions on the National Restaurant. We had a very positive experience, though, so if you asked me, I would point it out on a Lviv map for you to find it more easily. Remember that you cannot pay by credit card (unless something has changed over the past few months), so make sure you have cash before you go in!
And that’s all from Lviv. There’s only one stop left on our Ukraine map now. Let’s head west, let’s go to Uzhhorod!