The de facto capital of Ukraine’s folksy west, history-rich Lviv is a world away from most travellers’ notion of a post-Soviet city. Forever promising to become the next Prague or Kraków, this million-strong Austro-Hungarian gem, packed with a millennium of churches, a huddle of bean-perfumed coffee houses and Eastern Europe’s quirkiest bunch of restaurants, has been on the verge of bursting onto the international tourism stage for decades.
Following the recent political changes in these parts, this seductive Ukrainian diva may just be about to enter stage left. And Ukraine’s about-turn to the West is not the only thing making right now a great time to pay Lviv a visit. Following the devaluation of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnya, never before has Ukraine been more affordable as a destination (a tram ride costs the equivalent of six US cents, a cup of coffee 80 US cents). But is it safe? Well, many travellers turning up in Lviv since the start of the conflict in Ukraine’s east have been surprised to find a city on the up, its famous cafes and restaurants packed and nary a Kalashnikov in sight.
Viennese coffee traditions
The international bean-frenzy has crept across Eastern Europe in a rash of cloned cafes, but Lviv is different. A reluctant part of the USSR for only 50 years, this Habsburg city managed to retain its Viennese caffeine traditions and the result is the best line-up of coffee houses in Eastern Europe, some roasting and grinding their own blends. September’s coffee festival pays homage to western Ukraine’s best brews, but if you pitch up in Lviv any other time, Svit Kavy near the Latin Cathedral is a traditional coffee house where the focus is firmly on heart-pumping roasts. For a fun but equally tasty take on Lviv’s percolated customs, head for Lvivska Kopalnya Kavy, literally the ‘Lviv Coffee Mine’ right on the main square – ploshcha Rynok. Beneath this traditional dark-wood Austrian-era coffee house is where Lviv’s stratum of arabica is mined; you can visit colliers at the bean-face before heading back upstairs for a fragrant cuppa.
Theme restaurants are a lamentably tacky feature of most post-Soviet cityscapes, but Lviv does madcap dining with style. Often taking inspiration from the city’s rich past, eateries here not only fill the stomach but feed the mind, providing lessons in history and culture as you dine. Top of the pile is the ploshcha Rynok’s Masonic Restaurant, also known as ‘Galicia’s most expensive restaurant’. Finding the door is impossible without insider knowledge but once inside, the interior, packed with glittery Masonic symbolism, will have you gazing open-mouthed (swallow your food first). Dim Lehend (House of Legends) celebrates all things Lviv (lions, underground rivers, chimney sweeps) in a warren of rooms, while Pid Sinoyu Plyashkoyu takes diners back to the days of Austro-Hungarian Lviv as do Brudershaft and Kupol, both a short walk from ploshcha Rynok. For a kinky experience, head to Masoch Cafe where waitresses handcuff and whip guests as they select from a menu of aphrodisiacs in a saucy interior (don’t worry, it’s all just a bit of fun).
City of festivals
Some 50 festivals crowd Lviv’s annual events calendar and no matter when you turn up, there’s always something going on to please one of the five senses. The sense that Lvivites seem to want to satisfy the most is taste, with festivals dedicated to chocolate, bread, beer, coffee, doughnuts, cheese and wine proving that Ukraine is not the culinary wasteland many expect. Musical bashes reflect Lviv’s past and present with everything from classical music (Virtuosos festival) to Jewish klezmer (LvivKlezfest), jazz (Alfa Jazz Fest) and folk (Etnovyr) filling streets, theatres and churches with enthusiastic foot-tappers. Lviv is also where the heart of Ukrainian national identity beats strongest, and nowhere else in the country is Ukrainian Independence Day (24 August) celebrated with greater gusto. And when Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko’s birthday (9 March) comes round, out come the locals in cultured droves.
From the broken Gothic arches of the Latin Cathedral to the mystique of the Armenian Cathedral, the bizarre Boyim Chapel and the rococo dome of the Dominican Cathedral, no other place in Ukraine comes anywhere near Lviv on the temple-o-meter. The ‘opium of the masses’ has been fully legalised since 1991 and grandfather Lenin would spin on his pedestal (were he still up there in Ukraine) if he witnessed the sight of tourists and expats filling pews at the Latin Cathedral for the daily service in English. Growing congregations in Ukraine’s multi-faith west have meant funds from abroad for renovation, much of it still ongoing. To see the state of disrepair churches were allowed to fall into during the dark decades of Moscow rule, head for the big old Jesuit Church on vul Teatralna where the cracked and faded baroque nave is best appreciated in dusk’s atmospheric half-light.
As across Eastern Europe, until the Nazis and the Soviets rolled in, Lviv was a multicultural patchwork of nationalities and one of the largest groups were the Jews. It’s estimated there were 100,000 Jews living in the city just before WWII; while much of their heritage was destroyed and the Jews themselves obliterated by the Nazis, some worthwhile sites have survived. A short walk from ploshcha Rynok is the site of the Golden Rose Synagogue, blown up by the Nazis in 1941 – a Jewish restaurant stands nearby but rebuilding plans have stalled. Lviv has its own Holocaust memorial on the edge of the city centre, while in the suburbs, on the road to the Polish border, the Yanivske cemetery has a large area with Hebrew-inscribed headstones. However, the most chilling site is the plaque marking the location of the Janowska concentration camp where almost all Lviv’s Jews were murdered.
Make it happen
Lviv International Airport now has flights to Vienna, Munich and several cities in Italy, as well as at least two connections a day to Kyiv. Otherwise, you can fly to Kyiv, then take an overnight train. The new Astoria is a wonderful retro-fitted 1930s art deco hotel with an authentic period cabaret planned for the basement, while Vintage provides boutique comforts right in the old centre. Pick of the bewildering array of hostels is the Old City Hostel, which has great views and well-maintained facilities.