Lviv is rightly proud of its beautiful architecture and its role as a hub of Ukrainian culture. Just over a century ago, however, it lay within the boundaries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its famous coffee-house tradition – a coffee scene Lviv helped found. That caffeinated obsession lives on, with distinctive local cafes creating a brew of quality and novelty.
There’s a legend which links Vienna’s coffee houses to a native of the Lviv region of Ukraine: Yuriy Frants Kulchytsky, a nobleman of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1683 the disguised Kulchytsky slipped through the Turkish army besieging Vienna, in order to communicate with allies who could bring relief to the suffering city. As the story goes, he later used the defeated Turks’ sacks of beans to found one of Vienna’s first coffee houses, the Blue Bottle. Whatever the truth, Kulchytsky’s legend survives in Lviv, as does its love of coffee. Here’s our selection of the city’s best cafes.
The reborn bottle
The city’s 21st-century tribute to Kulchytsky is the cafe known as Pid Synoyu Plyashkoyu (bluebottle.lviv.ua), which translates as ‘Under the Blue Bottle’. Though it’s a coffee bean’s throw from the beautiful Ploshcha Rynok (Market Square) and Ratusha (Town Hall), it’s not easy to find; from Ruska Street, a shadowy lane leads through a courtyard to an ornately carved door.
The interior is highly atmospheric: a dim cave of brick and timber, lit by candles and recessed electric lights. The scuffed table tops and sloping brick floor are suggestive of great age, and prints featuring old Lviv hang beneath a vaulted ceiling.
It feels like the perfect place to pose as an intellectual and jot down a line or two of verse in that otherwise unused Moleskin notebook. To assist with the creativity, order a coffee from the interesting menu; perhaps the grand-sounding Kava à la Wilhelm von Habsburg, which is really a black coffee accompanied by a small jug of milk (and a chocolate biscuit).
Into the coffee mine
Across the street from Under the Blue Bottle is Lvivska Kopalnya Kavy (Lviv Coffee Mine), a cafe that’s as odd as its name suggests. Its ground-level operation appears conventional, a combination of a cafe and a shop selling coffee apparatus. However, descend the stairs to the cellar, and you’re handed a hard hat before wandering through a maze of tunnels dotted with cafe tables – the ‘coffee mine’.
It’s a fun space which is partly a tourist trap, but still has the capacity to surprise. Especially when one of the waiters uses a blowtorch to set fire to the coffees at a nearby table. Don’t be alarmed – it’s just the cafe’s signature Flaming Coffee, in which a layer of sugar atop the beverage is caramelised into a hard sweet surface by the flame.
The Vienna coffee that never left
On leafy Prospekt Svobody with its soaring statue of Taras Shevchenko, you’ll find the Videnska Kavyarnia (wienhotel.com.ua), or Vienna Coffeehouse. When it opened in 1829 as the Wiener Kaffeehaus, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was at its height and the frothy coffee and creamy cakes were a symbol of its prosperity.
Lviv has since been part of three different countries – Poland between the two world wars, then the Soviet Union, and finally independent Ukraine. However, this cafe has miraculously retained its name and distinct Viennese style. Its tiled floor is set with wooden tables bearing lace tablecloths, the windows are hung with heavy curtains, and there’s a portrait of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef watching over the genteel decor.
As is traditional in a Viennese coffee house, there’s a substantial food menu of hot dishes and salads. It’s the coffee selection that shines, however, with the full range of variants including coffee with rum, and Coffee Surprise (coffee and egg yolks whipped with sugar). You can’t go wrong here by sticking to the classics in the form of a slice of Sachertorte and a Viennese coffee, which is delivered with a jug of milk and a glass of water on a small tray.
A world of coffee
A short walk from the Town Hall is Katedralna Square. On its south side a string of cafes look out at the Latin Cathedral and the adjacent Boyim Chapel, the burial place of a 17th-century merchant family. After you’ve admired its detailed decoration, stroll over to Svit Kavy to recaffeinate.
It’s a stylish place to sip a coffee, with ambient outdoor seating and a pleasant interior with brick floors and exposed rafters. Internal walls are decorated with antique coffee grinders, and seating is scattered through quiet nooks and crannies where you can take a restful break from sightseeing.
Svit Kavy (Coffee World) lives up to its name by stocking beans from around the globe. It’s a great place for an espresso, but it also has a range of filtered coffees including French press, Chemex and V60 brews. In the Viennese tradition, it also serves cakes – try the excellent cherry strudel with vanilla custard.
Smile for the cameras
Lviv loves a themed cafe, and a short walk south of the city’s historic heart is a quirky venue focused on photography – or more precisely, cameras. There are hundreds of them from every era, mounted on picture frames and hanging from its walls.
Other than the camera obsession, Fixage (facebook.com/fixagephotocaffe) is a classic Viennese cafe with the furniture to match: solid wooden chairs at heavy octagonal tables upon tiled floors. Continuing the theme, a glass case next to the counter is stocked with beautiful cakes possessing a sky-high calorie count.
The coffee menu includes plenty of choices; the highlight is the Johann Gloisner Coffee (Gloisner was a noted early photographer who lived in 19th-century Lviv). To prepare this, the barista sets fire to brandy before adding it to the coffee in an elegant small cup. Just like Lviv, it’s a heady brew flavoured with a dash of history.