The scent of freshly brewed coffee wafting past grandiose cathedrals, derelict houses, mysterious wooden doors and romantic courtyards – Lviv’s occidental civility and decadent elegance come as a surprise even for connoisseurs of Eastern European travel gems. This western Ukrainian city is a polyglot and cosmopolite which preserves the architectural and culinary legacy of various states and empires that possessed it throughout the centuries.
With a good airport of its own and not far away from budget airports in neighbouring Poland, Lviv is one of Europe’s most intriguing weekend destinations – and it feels eons away from the troubles in Ukraine’s east.
It might be wise to start your day in Lviv by losing some calories, because you’ll sure as hell gain more than you planned to while you’re here. There’s no better way to do it in Lviv than by climbing the City Hall tower located in the main square, Ploshcha Rynok. With a throng of city officials rushing to morning meetings, make your way through the corridors of power to the fourth floor, where you’ll find a steep spiral staircase leading to an observation deck at the very top of the Italianesque tower. From this vantage point, Lviv looks like a toy town teleported from your great-grandmother’s childhood.
For a well-deserved breakfast, head to Lvivski Plyatsky, just across the square. After the arduous climb you’ll feel no remorse for gorging on local classics: sweet and savoury strudels as well as syrniki (cottage-cheese cakes with raisins).
After the meal, begin exploring the opulent houses of worship whose shiny cupolas you’ve just seen from above. Start with the Latin Cathedral, originally an austere 14th-century Gothic structure which now displays a fusion of styles that were in vogue in Europe over the last seven centuries. Next, check out the Dominican Cathedral, a richly decorated 18th-century baroque edifice. It’s surrounded by a small garden which comes with a modest book market positioned on the granite podium of the monument to Ivan Fyodorov, the man who printed the first Russian book in Moscow and died as a fugitive in Lviv.
For lunch spiced with some modern art, head to the former Bernardine monastery where an unmarked but hard-to-miss ancient wooden door opens into the Museum of Ideas (idem.org.ua). This gallery is combined with a popular bohemian hangout, where they serve some of the best western Ukrainian dishes – such as banosh (Carpathian polenta with homemade cheese) and bograch (a local version of Hungarian goulash) – and a multitude of nalivki (fruit liqueurs).
After that, you might need a serious nap followed by afternoon coffee – a must in the city that’s all about coffeehouses. Coffee was brought here by Turkish traders in medieval times, along with the ancient way of making it on sand stoves. You can literally dig into local coffee culture at Kopalnya Kavy (Coffee Mine): enticingly aromatic beans are extracted here from an underground storage which you can tour. After tasting the brew (served inevitably with more fruit liqueur), drop by the souvenir shop, if only to pick up the ‘Local’ discount card – a crucial item if you follow our dinner advice.
How about splurging on what dubs itself ‘the most expensive restaurant in Galicia’? A crucial spoiler here – the ‘most expensive’ claim doesn’t have to be true. The place is camouflaged as a shabby-looking apartment complete with a burly resident who greets you at the door and shows you an opulent Freemason hideout. No more words here, or we’ll break our secret vows. Just show them your ‘Local’ card, which will make all those extra zeros in the intentionally outrageous menu suddenly disappear (giving you a 90% discount).
Start the second day with a sumptuous buffet breakfast at Baczewski (baczewski.kumpelgroup.com), and don’t forget to book your dinner at the same massively popular place – yes, it’s pretty essential to visit it twice! Following breakfast, venture out of the old city. Pekarska street will lead you through a charmingly derelict residential area to the Lychakivske Cemetery, a forested hill dotted with elaborate grave monuments that make it look like the Ukrainian version of the Père Lachaise. Walk around and ponder existential matters, with hundreds of stone angels and saints gazing at you in sombre silence. On the way back into the old town, grab a bite and a pint of beer at Kumpel.
It’s time to discover Lviv’s Middle Eastern heritage, carefully hidden behind the city’s exemplary, old-fashioned Europeanness. The Armenian Cathedral has been the heart of a community that lived here since the foundation of the city. First admire the edifice, tucked in an unassuming courtyard and resembling an exotic visitor amid the Habsburgian surroundings. Then walk around to its streetside entrance to see the interior, which includes amazing frescoes that look like a cross between Gustav Klimt’s paintings and Byzantine icons.
If all the angels you’ve seen by now are already singing in your head, they might be suggesting to top off the day of aesthetic education with an evening at the Lviv Opera. The experience is not exactly as top-notch as in Vienna, which influenced Lviv’s opera culture, but movingly old-fashioned interpretations of world classics and colourful performances based on Ukrainian folklore are unlikely to disappoint.
Back at Baczewski for dinner, recap all you’ve learned about this fascinating city’s many communities and historical periods by tucking into Jewish beetroot forschmak (herring pâté) and Polish pierogi (dumplings) and downing as many Ukrainian nalivki shots as you can without someone having to carry you back to the hotel.