Scratching under the surface, there are plenty of stories around every corner in this hedonistic city founded on the steppe by Catherine the Great. The legacy of Odesa’s 19th-century ‘free port’ past, many European immigrants and once thriving Jewish community is still present on the cobblestone streets named after celebrated Russian writers, behind the pastel-hued facades of neoclassical and art nouveau mansions, inside dilapidated courtyards and in labyrinthine catacombs. Here’s how to make the most of your stay if you only have a couple of days to take it all in.
This is a city best enjoyed on foot, so start early with a coffee – or perhaps a kompot (fruity drink) – at Kompot, a trademark Odesa cafe on pedestrian Derybasivska street. A leisurely walk towards the port takes you past a ‘who’s who’ of Odesa’s illustrious ex-residents. Look for the statues of José de Ribas (the Spaniard who built Odesa harbour) on the far end of Derybasivska, beloved Russian poet Alexander Pushkin at the colonnaded City Hall around the corner, and Frenchman Duc de Richelieu (the city’s first governor) on tree-lined Prymorsky boulevard, above the iconic Potemkin Steps.
Probably the most photographed Odesa landmark – recalling the famous scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s brilliant Battleship Potemkin – the steps are flanked by the terraced Istanbul and Greek parks and make a perfect spot to linger, enjoying impressive views of the harbour below (take the funicular down and back if you’re feeling lazy). End your morning stroll in the Garden of Sculptures at the Odesa Literary Museum, but go with a local to appreciate the urban folklore of Odesa characters at this open-air exhibition; a new sculpture is added each April 1, on the city’s annual Carnival Humorina.
To get your first taste of Odesa’s flourishing culinary scene, pop into the City Food Market for a quick lunch. It’s a tempting mix of street food with everything from burgers and pasta to a hummus bar and pho soup stand under one hip roof.
Sufficiently energised, embark on one of Odesa’s more unusual adventures: a catacombs tour. You’ll get a great experience at the Secrets of Underground Odesa museum in Moldavanka, the rough-around-the-edges neighbourhood masterfully described in Isaac Babel’s Odessa Tales. The two-hour guided tour takes you 25m below ground through 3km of tunnels (only a fraction of the city’s 2000km of catacombs), and tells a fascinating history of limestone quarries, smugglers and slave traders, the WWII partisans’ resistance movement and even a Soviet bomb shelter.
Once safely back on Odesa’s cobblestones, devote the rest of the afternoon to some fresh-air fun. A ramble through the sprawling Shevchenko Park will lead you to Lanzheron, the first in a line of beaches stretching southeast of the city centre. Odesa can’t boast pristine or dazzling stretches of sand, and yet its beaches get absolutely packed in summer, so exploring the 5.5km Route of Health on two wheels is a great way to see the coast. Rent a bike on Lanzheron beach and follow the path to Arkadia, where you can reward yourself with a drink at one of the many beach bars.
If you’re feeling up to it (and it’s summer), stay on Arkadia to sample Odesa’s infamous nightlife, as the rowdy Ibiza-style clubs here go off until dawn. You don’t need to venture far for dinner, either – the popular Dacha, just above the beach, is a fun choice with wholesome meals in an ambiance that resembles a Russian country house. For a more low-key evening, head to the City Garden for Ukrainian borsch soup, Black Sea salmon and Georgian khachapuri pastry at stylish Klarabara, followed by live jazz at cozy Perron 7 club.
Kick off day two with a ‘gogol-mogol espresso’ at Gogol-Mogol, a cheerful cafe named after a traditional egg-based dessert and decorated with old books and bikes, and spend the morning museum-hopping. At the Odesa Archaeological Museum you’ll get acquainted with perhaps less expected actors on the region’s history stage. Impressive statues and sarcophagi attest to the spread of ancient Greek settlements across the northern Black Sea coast, while the Skythian section brings to life the nomadic warriors that once roamed the Ukrainian steppe.
The city has several worthwhile art collections but Ukraine’s own MoOMA (not to be confused with the more famous acronym), or the Museum of Odesa Modern Art, is the venue for the Odesa Biennale of Contemporary Art for good reason. A retrospective of its first decade features thought-provoking – and often political – works of Odesan avant-garde, post-modernist, non-conformist and conceptualist art.
The quirky Gogol-Mogol cafe on Nekrasova street is a popular Odesa hangout © Brana Vladisavljevic / Lonely Planet
When it’s time for lunch, stop by the slick Gastrobar Odesa to fortify yourself with some healthy tapas or grilled meat, but give the drinks list a miss because you’ll need a clear head for your next destination.
Hop on a trolleybus from Shevchenko Park to the Shustov Cognac Museum, which is worth a visit even if you’re not a fan of the fancy drop. A guided tour includes tasting and can be booked online; you’ll learn all about the Shustov family, the history of the drink (brought to Odesa’s port way back in 1803) and the 150-year-old Odesa Cognac Factory as you sip your way around its ancient cellars.
Afterwards, catch another trolleybus to bustling Privoz Market, also a long-standing (and no less authentic) city institution. Mingling with ordinary Odesans at this massive, chaotic farmers’ market that sells everything you could ever wish for – from caviar to pirated CDs – and browsing the stalls with fresh produce or haggling over secondhand bargains is a fun way to soak up the local life.
Dried and smoked fish for sale at Odesa's hectic Privoz Market, the largest in Ukraine © jaras72 / Shutterstock
Make your way to the Palais Royal Garden for dinner at Maman, the top venue for Odesa fusion cuisine, or join the cool crowd at Dizyngoff, near the Potemkin Steps, for creative cocktails and more French and Middle Eastern influences on the menu. End the day in style with a performance at the glorious Odesa Opera & Ballet Theatre, praised both for its neoclassical architecture and excellent acoustics. If alternative-culture gigs are more your thing, don’t miss the open-air Green Theatre in Shevchenko Park, which stages a varied program of concerts, movies and other happenings on warm Odesa nights.
The neoclassical Odesa Opera and Ballet Theatre, the city's premier entertainment venue © Murat An / Shutterstock
Make it happen
Odesa is well connected by air with a number of European destinations, as well as Istanbul and Tel Aviv. If you’re flying into Kyiv, there are several daily flights between Odesa and the Ukrainian capital (which only take an hour), or you can choose the more romantic overnight train experience.
For some French-inspired luxury, Hotel de Paris Odessa is a contemporary boutique hotel recently opened in a restored 19th-century mansion a minute away from the Potemkin Steps, with a spa and a restaurant serving international cuisine. A great option for budget travellers is Babushka Grand Hostel, inside an 18th-century apartment close to the train station and Privoz Market, offering both dorms and private rooms, a communal kitchen and a relaxed vibe.
Brana travelled to Odesa with support from Odessa City Council Department of Culture and Tourism. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.