Catherine the Great imagined Odesa as the St Petersburg of the south. Her lover, General Grygory Potemkin, laid the groundwork for her dream in 1789 by capturing the Turkish fortress of Hadjibey, which previously stood here. However, Potemkin died before work began on the city in 1794 and his senior commanders oversaw its construction instead. The Spanish-Neapolitan general José de Ribas, after whom the main street, vul Derybasivska, is named, built the harbour. The Duc de Richelieu (Armand Emmanuel du Plessis), an aristocrat fleeing the French Revolution, became the first governor, overseeing the city's affairs from 1803 to 1814.

In 1815, when the city became a duty-free port, things really began to boom. Its huge appetite for more labour meant the city became a refuge – 'Odesa Mama' – for runaway serfs, criminals, renegades and dissidents; many were fleeing the persecution of Christians in the Ottoman empire. By the 1880s it was the second-biggest Russian port, with grain the main export, and an important industrial base.

It was the crucible of the early 1905 workers' revolution, with a local uprising and the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin Tavrichesky. Then, between 1941 and 1944, Odesa sealed its reputation as one of the 'hero' cities when partisans sheltering in the city's catacombs during WWII put up a legendary fight against the occupying Romanian troops (allies of the Nazis). Around 100,000 Jews in the Odesa region were shot or burnt alive by the Romanians implementing the Nazi racial purification doctrine.

Odesa became a very Jewish city in the 1920s after many rural Jews moved in here while Russian bourgeoisie and intellectuals were fleeing the Bolshevik revolution. But the Holocaust and emigration fuelled by Soviet anti-Semitism reduced the Jewish minority to almost a shadow. Many Jews moved to New York's Brighton Beach, now nicknamed 'Little Odessa'.

As an almost entirely Russian-speaking city, with local identity by far prevailing over national loyalties, Odesa has always been skeptical about Ukraine's independence. But when local pro-Russian forces attempted a coup in the heady days of the Maidan revolution in 2014, residents didn't rush to support them. A stand-off with pro-Maidan Odessites ended in tragedy when a blaze killed dozens of pro-Russian activists in a trade union building they had seized.

As a result of that incident, the situation calmed down, and the city has since replaced Crimea as the number-one destination for domestic tourists. In a peculiar twist, the former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, was appointed the governor of Odesa region. But after a promising a start, he didn't achieve much progress, fell out with Kyiv and resigned.