“Ukraine? You bet!”
That’s how my travel buddy Ben replied when I suggested the trip. My wife had — politely and, let’s face it, quite reasonably — declined my invitation to visit a country currently mired in an armed conflict with Russia, and whose main tourist attraction is the site of history’s worst nuclear meltdown. But I knew Ben would be up for it. Like me, he’s a total Eastern Europe geek. Like me, he’d never been. And like me, he has an inexplicable affinity for the uniquely quirky culture of the eastern Slavs.
Our first stop is the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Famous for its charming main square and for its feisty, Western-looking, Putin-phobic politics, Lviv appears poised to emerge as a travel hotspot. The easy-as-pie, one-hour flight from Vienna — with just a few minutes between the “cruising altitude” and “beginning our descent” pings — underscores Lviv’s huge touristic potential.
Having traveled in former Eastern Bloc countries like Poland and Hungary 20 years ago, when they were still diamonds very much in the rough, Ben and I arrive with tempered expectations for Ukraine — which, economically, is several years behind those places. But our initial reconnaissance walk around Lviv reveals a town that’s in remarkably fine fettle, and already well on its way to becoming “ready for prime time.” It’s tidy, well-organized, and very accessible to outsiders. Lviv has just the right number of tourists: Ukrainians and Poles, maybe some Germans, a few other Europeans, and a scant smattering of in-the-know American backpackers.
We enter town by crossing through the grand, elongated square bounded on both sides by Svobody Prospekt (“Liberty Avenue”). From the steps of the opulent, unmistakably Habsburg-style opera house, the plaza elegantly stretches several hundred yards past fountains, benches, and parks to a towering statue of Taras Shevchenko.
We’ll hear Shevchenko’s name again and again, and again and again, and again and again and again through our travels (and yet, somehow, I’ll never master the pronunciation — I insist on referring to him as “that poet guy”). The national poet from the 19th century, Shevchenko has recently become embraced as the standard-bearer of Ukrainian cultural identity — which makes him more important today than ever, with the looming threat of Putin to the east. All over this huge country (nearly the size of Texas), statues of Lenin have been pulled down and replaced by Shevchenko. When a tour guide informs us that “there are more statues of Shevchenko than of any other historical figure on earth”…the crazy boast seems almost plausible. (Almost.)
A few blocks farther in — after pausing for a cup of Lviv’s famous coffee at the cozy, venerable café, Svit Kavy — we arrive at the main market square, Ploshcha Rynok. Paved with pristine cobbles, ringed by colorful facades, anchored at its four corners by fountains dedicated to Greek gods, and facing the blocky town hall, the Old World square is what I’d describe as “Euro-cozy” — the kind of place you fabricate excuses to return to, again and again.
Both geographically and culturally, Lviv is closer to Poland than to Kiev. And historically, this region was essentially Polish all the way until after World War II, when shifting borders relocated a huge chunk of Lviv’s population to the newly Polish city of Wrocław. Having both guided Rick Steves’ Europe Tours in Poland, Ben and I feel a constant sense of déjà vu. Lviv’s grand square feels like the little sister of Kraków’s famous one.
We stroll through lovely Lviv without a sightseeing agenda, just exploring. We pass a dolled-up chocolate store with giant cartoon characters out front, marked by a big ROSHEN sign. Ben explains that this is a wildly successful Ukrainian chain owned by the current president, Petro Poroshenko, who (not unlike certain heads of state closer to home) has few qualms about leveraging his political clout to boost his brand. (Later, a guide will explain that — seeking ostensible compliance with regulations — Poroshenko has officially put his business “up for sale,” but at a ludicrously inflated price that no serious buyer would consider.) We walk through the Roshen shop, which feels like a carbon copy of an M&M Store with a Ukrainian accent.
Another popular stop: the little stands selling sweet “drunken cherry” liqueur that are scattered throughout the cobbled old town. Each one attracts a convivial little crowd out front, sipping their little plastic cup of sweet booze, shifting weight from one foot to the other to stay warm.
Lviv has an abundance of dazzling churches — more than its share. They look essentially Polish Catholic from the outside. But it’s Saturday night, and many are currently holding services — luring in passersby like us with the strains of Orthodox chanting. We come to learn that Lviv (and much of Ukraine) is characterized by its ecumenism: locals are a hodgepodge of Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and “Greek Catholic” — a unique hybrid that answers to the Pope but follows Orthodox liturgy. Standing in the crowded entry foyer of a hulking church with frilly Baroque altars, immersed in harmonious chanting and inhaling incense, it’s clear we’re at a crossroads of civilizations.
For dinner, we follow our GPS in circles around that same Bernardine Church, finally discovering a hidden cellar restaurant we’d read about called Trapezna Idey. (Being a guidebook author myself, I have sympathy for the directions in our otherwise reliable Lonely Planet Ukraine, which tells us to look for a giant paper airplane monument…that no longer exists.) There we settle in for a delicious traditional Galician meal. For my “welcome to Ukraine” dinner, I couldn’t resist the borscht — savory red beet soup, with big chunks of potatoes and other veggies. Ben digs into a plate of potato pancakes smothered in a mushroom cream sauce.
By the way, Lviv is cheap. No — I mean cheap. As in, “filling, sit-down traditional dinner for about $5 per person” cheap. A crosstown Uber costs a few bucks. And our comfy, central, well-equipped, two-bedroom Airbnb is about the price of two hostel bunks in London. It’s hard to think of any place in Europe where you can travel so comfortably and safely, on such a low budget.
The next day, we decide to get our bearings with a “free” walking tour. In keeping with that old Ukrainian adage, “You get what you pay for,” it’s not the best tour we’ve ever taken — but it does offer a handy orientation to the town and its landmarks. At one point our guide recommends a “coffee mine” where you don a hardhat and order a coffee caramelized with a torch. It sounds just the right kind of kitschy. We make a mental note to swing back later.
Speaking of kitsch, the walk leaves a strong impression that kitsch is a forte of Lviv tourism. One bar on the main square — with a patriotic, militaristic, fiercely anti-Russian theme — allows you to enter only after you bark the password (Slava Ukrayini! — “Glory to Ukraine!”). From there, you spelunk through a warren of cellars and into a courtyard where a huge, robotic Truckasaurus “secret weapon” has been welded together from various car and tank parts. Finally you get to poke your head through a hole to pose in a giant photograph of Ukrainian troops about to execute a Russian officer. (Unlike kitsch, subtlety is not a Ukrainian forte.)
Just around the corner, in the home of the Lviv writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, is a restaurant dedicated to the kinky predilections that typified his personal life: masochism. Our guide calmly explains — as if this were an entirely rational practice — that if you let the waitstaff beat you with a whip, you’ll get a discount on your bill. And, according to a friend of hers who works there, they really lean into it.
A real gem of the tour is our visit to the Armenian Cathedral — representing yet another faith in this ecumenical city (Armenian Apostolic). Nondescript from the outside, the cathedral’s interior is slathered with stunning Art Nouveau frescoes by the Polish painters Jan Henryk de Rosen and Józef Mehoffer. Of all the churches we step into on the tour, this is the only one we decide to circle back to later for closer inspection — and simply to bask amidst the glorious paintings.
After the tour, we scale the hill just behind the old town, ascending a long wooden staircase to the summit of the High Castle. This historically strategic site is now home only to an observation platform. On this sunny weekend, it’s crowded with Ukrainians surveying the views over the city and snapping pictures of each other. High overhead flaps a giant Ukrainian flag. On this fine early autumn day, the flag matches its natural inspiration: fields of golden wheat under a vivid blue sky. While the tourists’ Lviv is constrained to its compact historic core, from up here it’s clear that the city sprawls in all directions, curling entirely around the hill we’re standing on.
Descending the hill, we decide to see more of this increasingly fascinating city. A $4 Uber ride later, we pull up at Lychakiv Cemetery — one of those classic old European cemeteries that feels like a monumental park filling a forest. I love a good European cemetery…and Lychakiv is one of the best I’ve seen.
We go for a pensive hike, noticing how the gravestones tell the complicated story of this multilayered city. They come in a wild variety of styles, and the epitaphs are a bewildering mix of Cyrillic, Polish, and German. Ukrainian headstones are topped with a Latin (rather than Orthodox) cross. Poignant graves show a young man, who died in his 40s, and his septuagenarian wife, depicted in her old age, after decades of widowhood. They look more like mother and son than husband and wife — a contemplation, perhaps, on the perils of being a Ukrainian man in the early- to mid-20th century.
Another dirt-cheap Uber ride takes us across town to Lontsky Street Prison — Lviv’s main prison associated with the Soviet leadership in Ukraine, and the site of some horrifying atrocities. In June of 1941, Soviet authorities executed thousands of prisoners — including more than 1,500 in this building.
Lontsky Street Prison is slated to become one of Ukraine’s most important national memorial sites. But for now, it’s still a work in progress. The door is guarded by gruff, flak-vested, assault-rifle-toting soldiers who eye us suspiciously when we arrive, and then — once they see we’re curious tourists from half a world away — heartily invite us in to learn the story of the place. It turns out they’re guarding an idea more than a building — this remains a dank, grubby old space, with a few makeshift cardboard information panels. It smells like wet concrete and diesel fumes.
The prison’s current state speaks volumes about just how young the fledgling Ukrainian nation is. They have bigger fish to fry than fancy museums. (In fact, under Russia-friendly former president Viktor Yanukovych — who was ousted in the 2014 revolution — authorities tried to close this prison, to brush the ugly Soviet blemishes under the rug.) And yet, in some ways, the neglect enhances the experience. The prison is more poignant because it has no choice but to speak for itself.
Leaving the prison, we take a shortcut through a sprawling, lush, slightly overgrown park back to our Airbnb. At one point, we’re passed by a formation of a dozen Ukrainian soldiers, in fatigues, marching in lockstep. If I were Ukrainian — knowing that a war against a giant neighbor rages on my eastern border, 750 miles away — I’d find this little battalion a comforting sight on a Sunday stroll.
Rested up from the day’s sightseeing, we head into the old center for an evening stroll. As afternoon turns to evening, the square is lively with musicians and roving groups of heavy-drinking tourists.
We eat well in Lviv, for very little money. In addition to Trapezna Idey, we have delicious dumplings at Khinkalʹnya Na Fedorova — one of several solid Georgian restaurants in town. For a quick bite, we find the cheap-and-cheery Puzata Hata cafeteria chain to be a reliable, extremely affordable choice, with a long cafeteria line of traditional fare. With locations all over the country, this turns out to be a handy go-to. (Entering for the first time and seeing the long, surly row of monolingual cafeteria attendants manning their stations — like humorless mid-level bureaucrats guarding their nuclear silos — Ben and I nudge each other and say, “Oooohhh…we are about to get yelled at.” And indeed we are.)
Tonight for dinner, curiosity lures us to a simple, hole-in-the-wall Crimean café, operated by recently relocated refugees from the little Black Sea dongle of Ukraine that was annexed by Russia in 2014. Digging into our simple meal of hearty soup, fresh salads, and noodles with rich meat sauce, we watch gauzy, slow-motion Crimean tourism videos on the big TV screen — revealing a starkly mountainous landscape and dreamy beaches in a corner of Europe that few Americans visit. (Duly inspired, we add Crimea to our list of upcoming trips.)
On our last morning in Lviv, Ben and I are ready for one more memory before heading to the airport. On a quest to caffeinate, we remember our guide’s tip about the “coffee mine” (Lvivska Kopalnya Kavy) on the main square. We head into the standard-issue coffee house interior. Then we discover a staircase that leads deep down into the 800-year-old cellars of the building, which feel chipped by hand out of solid rock. We’re issued hard hats and hunch our way through passages to a tight, dimly lit seating area. We pull up rustic, uncomfortable wooden stools at a battered table tucked in a nook below a blackened wall. Squinting our way through the menu, we spot the drink the place is known for: caramelized coffee.
The server brings us a tin cup filled with coffee and sets it deliberately in the middle of the table. In his other hand, he carries a blowtorch. Not a cute little chef’s torch, with a harmless blue flame for gently caramelizing crème brûlée. No, this is a military-grade, just-wait-’til-those-Russkies-show-up blowtorch. He moves the napkin holder out of the way. And just as I’m thinking, “Why did he have to move that? It’s all the way across the table…” — the blowtorch explodes to life.
I don’t know exactly what we were expecting. Maybe a foot of flame, for show, for just a few fleeting seconds. Just long enough for a fun photo op. What we were not expecting was a terrifying five-foot flame to spurt out across the tabletop, licking the wall behind it and scorching the exposed stone. The heat from the blowtorch is intense. My eyebrows singe and my eyeglasses frames start to radiate heat to my cheeks. Ukraine plays for keeps.
After several seconds of pyrotechnics, the server dials back the flame and aims it at the tin cup, scorching a crispy layer of caramelized sugar on the top of the liquid. When finished, he blasts his blowtorch against the wall a couple of more times — just to remind us that he could kill us with the flick of a wrist — then walks off without fanfare…on to the next table, where a half-dozen hungover bachelorette partiers have no idea what they’re in for.
The blowtorch coffee experience turns out to be the perfect conclusion to our Lviv visit: memorable, unexpected, just a little bit challenging, but ultimately rewarding. Lviv is not quite for everybody, but it is well worth a visit for curious, adventurous travelers with an appetite for off-the-beaten-path gems that are just about to break through as tourist darlings.
Oh, yes — and for people who enjoy getting whipped for a discount on their near-death coffee experience.