Odesa is a city straight from literature – an energetic, decadent boom town. Its famous Potemkin Steps sweep down to the Black Sea and Ukraine's biggest commercial port. Behind them, a cosmopolitan cast of characters makes merry among neoclassical pastel buildings lining a geometric grid of leafy streets.
Immigrants from all over Europe were invited to make their fortune here when Odesa was founded in the late 18th century by Russia's Catherine the Great. These new inhabitants, particularly Jews, gave Russia's southern window on the world a singular, subversive nature.
Having weathered recent political storms, Odesa is booming again – it now substitutes for Crimea as the main domestic holiday destination. It's a golden age for local businesses, but it puts a strain on the already crowded sandy beaches.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Odesa.
Odesa's elegant facade, this tree-lined, clifftop promenade was designed to enchant the passengers of arriving boats with the neoclassical opulence of its architecture and civility, unexpected in these parts at the time of construction in the early 19th century. Imperial architects also transformed the cliff face into terraced gardens descending to the port, divided by the famous Potemkin Steps – the Istanbul Park lies east of the steps and the Greek Park west of them.
Fresh from a controversial renovation, which changed its original outlook, the Potemkin Steps lead down from bul Prymorsky to the sea port. Pause at the top to admire the sweeping views of the harbour. You can avoid climbing back up by taking a funicular railway (3uah) that runs parallel. Or, having walked halfway up, you can sneak into a passage that now connects the steps with the reconstructed Istanbul Park.
Odesa's main commercial street, pedestrian vul Derybasivska is jam-packed with restaurants, bars and, in the summer high season, tourists. At its quieter eastern end you'll discover the statue of José de Ribas, the Spanish-Neapolitan general who built Odesa's harbour and who also has a central street named after him. At the western end of the thoroughfare is the pleasant and beautifully renovated City Garden, surrounded by several restaurants.
The dystopian Soviet name has stuck to this 5.5km stretch of sandy, rocky and concrete beaches that form the city's recreational belt. Packed like a sardine can and filled with noise and barbecue smells, the beaches are anything but idyllic, yet this is a great place for mingling with Ukrainian holidaymakers in their element. Starting at Lanzheron Beach, which boasts a wooden boardwalk, the route ends at Arkadia, the newly renovated nightlife hot spot, filled with clubs and fancy resorts.
City tours inevitably stop near this portly art nouveau house with two atlantes holding a sphere dotted with stars, a depiction of the universe as if seen from the outside. Built by Odesa's most celebrated architect, Lev Wlodek, the house belonged to baron Friedrich von Falz-Fein. He was the eccentric German aristocrat who bred zebras and wildebeest at his steppe estate of Askaniya Nova, where he was born in 1863.
This is where Russia's greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, spent his first weeks in Odesa after being exiled from St Petersburg in 1823 by the tsar for mischievous epigrams. Governor Vorontsov subsequently humiliated the writer with petty administrative jobs and it took only 13 months, an affair with Vorontsov's wife, a simultaneous affair with someone else's wife and more epigrams for Pushkin to be thrown out of Odesa too.
Perhaps to copy Brighton Beach, New York – where half of Odesa seems to have emigrated – the authorities built a boardwalk at the beach closest to the city centre. It looks modern and attractive, but it is small and hence often crowded. Reachable by foot via Shevchenko Park in the city centre, Lanzheron is the first beach on the Route of Health, a seaside promenade that goes all the way to Arkadia Beach.
The opulently decorated Passazh shopping arcade is the best-preserved example of the neorenaissance architectural style that permeated Odesa in the late 19th century. Its interior walls are festooned with gods, goblins, lions and nymphs. Commissioned in 1899, the building is sadly underused, with the main occupant being a rather mediocre hotel. But the shops inside the arcade are worth browsing.
The war in the east and regular political strife give Ukrainian artists a lot of here-and-now material to reflect on, and the result is often brilliant, to which the exhibitions in this great establishment attest. Located in a stately imperial doctor's manor house, the museum is the main base of Odesa biennale. The awkwardly constructed official name abbreviates as MOMA. Because, Odesa.