Latin Leopolis, The City of the Lion
Coming back to one of our less visited countries in Europe, Ukraine, also one of the biggest with so much to see and so much to offer. While we had a great time visiting the capital Kiev in other trips, it was about time to come to the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site listed city of Lviv. The most historical of any in the country and with such an incredible vast amount of old buildings, churches, palaces and monuments all over the city; many of which already perfectly restored to their former glory with many on the way. In this city you can still strongly feel its Soviet past with areas where it seems time stood still, but it is changing and redeveloping rapidly itself to become the next new major tourist spot in Eastern Europe.
The city’s potential is unquestionable. Through its history of invasions and different empires taking over this region it kept gaining strength and importance, and survived almost intact the Soviet invasion and both World Wars, unlike majority of its neighbours, or even Kiev that was severely destroyed to rubble.
Invaded by the Tatars in 1261 by King Daniel and completely razed to the ground, was rebuilt from 1270 by King Lev (Leo) who chose it as his residence, making it the capital of Galicia-Volhynia. Inherited by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1340, then Poland gaining control in 1349 with Casimir III becoming part of the Kingdom of Poland until 1772 with the First Partition of Poland and as such, the region annexed to Austria, Habsburg Empire. This would last until the end of WWI with the fall of the Habsburg Monarchy, leading to the Polish-Ukrainian War, when Poland retook control. As for the last years on the city’s recent history, at the brink of WWII the Soviets invaded the land and slowly annexed it to the Soviet Union, lasting until its complete independence in 1980.
It is a miracle that having such a turmoil history of invasions and wars, the city retains majority of its historical buildings and glorious past. While not too big, it is good enough to fully enjoy for a weekend. Distances are not large, and visiting the city is very straightforward. We walked to every corner without the need for taking any public transportation. As you will see the historic old town is in fact very small, however, the elegant “newer” late 19th early 20th century extension of the city that grew outside of the former walls on all directions is even prettier than the old town. Big avenues, tree-lined streets with grand and opulent architecture, palaces and hundreds of art-nouveau houses as this was the architectural style of the era are literally everywhere you look. Large parks, one of the oldest planned university in the country or an incredible baroque-rococo cathedral, just to name some of its gems.
We were very pleased with the people, their hospitality and care and all considering it was difficult to find someone speaking English. They tried their best and so we did in the other hand. This is a similar experience to what we had in Kiev. They are nice and polite by nature, but still retaining their cold appearance. This is not to judge, they are not that open-minded as Western Europe, they did have tough times for many years and it will take years of slow changes in this sense.
When coming to food subject, this is something we will always remember from Ukraine: It’s great! Cheap, large portions and good quality, everywhere to be honest. But there is a chain of restaurants that top the list. We tried this in Kiev, and were very delighted to know there are 2 of this restaurants in Lviv. Remember the name, Puzata Hata (Пузата Хата). It is a self service, pure house-made traditional Ukrainian food; simply get a tray and move through the long counters of food where the chefs are doing the food just behind your eyes and serving you. Try the soups, either hot or cold, notably the beetroot ones (majority of them), and the dumplings (pierogi). If you type the name in Google maps you get the locations, but there is one in Shevchenka Avenue 10 (meters south from the Miskevycha Square, southwest corner of the old town) and in Sichovykh Striltsiv Street 12 (meters from the Ivan Franko National University/Ivan Franko Park at the west of the city).
For more information about Lviv check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Ukraine’s currency is the Hryvnia (UAH). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Lviv
- New Town Completely surrounding and encircling the old town is full of palaces and impressive constructions of all eras, majority from the 19th/20th centuries. Farther ahead from this elegant urbanism, you will find the typical yet ugly communist large blocks where majority of people lives. In order, west to east, you can find:
-Train Station The westernmost point of the “New Town”, a masterpiece from 1904 in art-nouveau style. The square at the front it is still unfortunately a mess of parking lots, and confusing bus and tram stops.
-Horodotska Street Major thoroughfare crossing the city from the west towards the old town. You will reach this via the Chernivetska Street that connects with the train station. Along this street there are many grand buildings and palaces.
-Church of St. Olha and Elizabeth Built between 1903 and 1912 in neo-Gothic style as Roman Catholic, today the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
-Circus Farther ahead along the Horodotska Street was built in 1969 and a truly masterpiece of Soviet architecture.
-Saint George’s Cathedral One of the major landmarks in Lviv, built between 1744-1760 in baroque-rococo style. It sits by the Metropolitan Gardens, at its south the Saint George’s Square and the main University buildings, and the Ivan Franko Park on the east (see South of Horodotska Street point below).
-Drama Theatre Small building reminiscent of neo-Gothic architecture.
-Church of Saint Anne At the intersection of Horodotska with vulytsya Tarasa Shevchenka.
-School At the next corner from the Church of Saint Anne, easy to spot as the red brick building made during the Polish period resembling Hanseatic style.
-Hotel Astoria Once one of the most up-scale in the city, in German jugendstile (art-nouveau).
-Svobody Avenue Continuing straight you will reach the end of Horodotska by the Freedom Avenue with the Opera and Ballet (described later below).
-South of Horodotska Street Where most of the parks and gardens within the city limit are.
-Metropolitan Gardens At the eastern side from Saint George’s Cathedral, offering great views to this and the Metropolitan Palace right at the front.
-Metropolitan Palace Built in 1762 to Clement Fessinger’s design in a transition from Baroque to neo-Classical.
-Saint George’s Square South of the Cathedral, and facing at its southern side the buildings of the University.
-Polytechnic University Very beautiful large buildings with a great urban landscaping.
-Building 9 The Former Chemical Laboratory, from 1876, is the central building facing St. George’s Square.
-Buildings 1 and 5 At both sides of Building 9, on St George’s Square.
-Building 11 The Institute of Telecommunications, Radioelectronics and Electronic Engineering. By the side of Building 5.
-Building 12 The main building of the University, its principal facade is by vulytsya Stepana Bandery at the southern side of the whole complex.
-Scientific Library Opposite Building 12 at its eastern side.
-Saint Mary Magdalena Church In vulytsya Stepana Bandery, after the university heading towards the east. Built in the 18th century.
-Mount Shembeka East from Saint Mary Magdalena Church, you can see the remains of the Citadel, with the 1st Great Maximilian tower in this park.
-Vasyl Stefanyk Library At the eastern edge of Mount Shembeka.
-National Art Gallery Founded in 1907, opposite Vasyl Stefanyk Library.
-Potocki Palace Behind the National Gallery, on a nice square with parks at the front and back. Built in 1880 in beaux-arts style as the grandest of any mansions in Lviv, for the back then, Minister-President of Austria Alfred Józef Potocki. Now one of the Ukraine’s President house.
-Plac Maryji Few meters more east from the Potocki, the southern edge of Svobody Avenue described in the point below.
-Ivan Franko Park Returning back up, is the largest park within the city.
-Ivan Franko National University Marking the easternmost side of the park, the oldest university in Ukraine, founded in 1661. A great classical style building.
-Casino Szlacheckie At the corner of the park, in Baroque style.
-Plac Hryhorenki Meters east of the Casino, small square surrounded by beautiful architecture all around, very near Svobody Avenue in the east.
-Svobody Avenue The Freedom Avenue/Park is a long square built after the demolition of the former city’s fortifications and nowadays comprises many of the historical and most celebrated buildings. It northern edge is the end of the famous Horodotska Street.
-Opera and Ballet At the north head of this square, is one of the most beautiful opera houses in Europe, a masterpiece of beaux-arts architecture, built in 1897.
-Mariya Zankovetska Theater Also at the northern end of Svobody, side by side with the Opera. This enormous building is home of the drama theatre.
-Andrey Sheptytskiy’s National Museum The next important construction south of the Mariya Zankovetska Theater.
-Palaces Many aligning both sides of this park avenue.
-Jesuit Church Half way down this avenue. Built in Baroque style.
-Grand Hotel Opposite the Jesuit Church, built in 1893.
-Plac Maryji and Plac Adama Mickiewicza Southern edge of Svobody Ave.
-Statue of Mary Giving the name tot his part Plac Maryji.
-Sprecher Building Built in 1914 for businessman Jonah Sprecher.
-Adam Mickiewicza Statue The greatest Polish Romantic poet of the 19th century.
-George Hotel Another of the up-scale historic hotels of the bygone era.
-Plac Halicki At the southern edge limiting with the old town. All this area was created after demolishing the former fortifications. Completely surrounded by historical buildings of every style.
-Plac Soborowy The next square in this part of the city, home to another of the key landmarks in Lviv.
-Bernardine Church and Monastery Built in Italian and Dutch mannerism style, consecrated in 1630.
-Plac Mytny The southeastern most square outside the old town.
-Hlyniany Gate and wall One of the very few remnants of the former city’s fortifications. Stands by the east side of the Bernardine Monastery.
-Saint Clare Convent Opposite the Hlyniany Gate.
-Wały Gubernatorskie The Governor’s Shaft square and park were created when also demolishing the city’s walls and bastions. It starts by the Plac Mytny in the south, right at the opposite side of the Svobody, which together with this, and the Old Town in the middle, are the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed area.
-Council Office The first buildings by the eastern side.
-Arsenal Remnant of the fortifications, it is a great museum about them.
-Dniester Insurance Building Adjacent to Arsenal, in art-nouveau style.
-Dormition Church A must visit landmark, the main Orthodox church in the city built at the end of the 16th century in renaissance style. Its tower the Korniakt, is one of the celebrated achievements, built in 1695 with 65 meters.
-Dominican Church The next after the Dormition, built in the baroque style and consecrated in 1764. Its neo-baroque bell tower was added in 1865. It Resembles the church of St. Charles Borromeus in Vienna with its concave facade and huge elliptical dome.
-Royal Arsenal Attached to the Church of the Holy Communion.
-Gunpowder Tower In the middle of this section between the Dormition and the Carmelite Monastery, creating a great architectural composition.
-Carmelite Monastery Across from the Dormition. As this was outside the city’s fortification, it had its own fortified walls for protection.
- Stare Miasto The Old Town, sandwiched in between the Svobody (Freedom) Avenue on the west, to the north by the High Castle Park, to the east by the Na Valakh Square and the Valova Street at the southern boundary, all of which, spaces created after the demolishing of the old fortifications to expand the city beyond its medieval core.
-Market Square Ploshcha Rynok or Rynek as it is commonly known these squares in Polish cities. It was designed and built during the Polish period hence its resemblance to any city in Poland, completely surrounded by beautiful tenements from renaissance to modernist architecture.
-Four fountains One at each corner of the square, representing Greek mythological figures: Neptune, Diana, Amphitrite and Adonis.
-Houses on each side All of which full of history and beauty, and different architectural style. For a comprehensive list of the buildings check Wikipedia.
-Town Hall In its place since medieval times, the current one was built between 1830 and 1835 in Viennese classical style. It is possible to climb the tower for great views.
-Latin Cathedral At the southwestern corner of Market Square dating from the 14th century in Gothic style.
-Chapel of the Boim Family Built in 1609, a marvel in late renaissance architecture, and a marvelous interior. It is located attached to the Latin Cathedral.
-Armenian Cathedral North of Market Square, with origins dating from 1363, transformed, rebuilt and enlarged during the centuries, has a beautiful inner court in renaissance style, the oldest structure.
-Church of the Transfiguration Meters from the Armenian Cathedral, was built between 1703 and 1731, in classic style and Baroque interior. It was destroyed by Austrian artillery in 1848, reconsecrated again in 1906.
- High Castle Park Northeast from the Svobody, north outside of the Old Town. Large park in the place where the original castle since the foundation of the city once stood.
-Union of Lublin Mound Built in 1869 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Lublin Union. The views from its top of the entire city are worth the climb.
Lviv has a small international airport just 7 kilometres from downtown. While not offering many routes through Europe, you might be lucky to have a direct route from wherever the city you intend to come from. Flying to Kiev and getting on an internal flight is another good option as internal flights are not expensive with decent frequencies through the day. Flying instead to Rzeszow is a further great option. This city in Poland has a good number of routes by low-cost carrier Ryanair. From here it is supposed to be around 3 hours bus journey to Lviv with frequent buses all day until late at night, with some night buses. Now as I mentioned “supposed”, here is why. Nowhere it was mentioned how long the border crossing was going to take, and believe it or not, we spent 5 hours in the border from Poland to Ukraine! On the way back we were a bit more lucky at just 3 hours. Have this counted in your timings, or you will face troubles reaching any further transportation. Calculate 8 hours in total each way to be on the secure side, and even this, it took us 10 hours on the way in for us.
By train or by bus it is only optional from the neighboring countries such as Poland next door, and of course from the main cities across Ukraine. The train will be faster than the bus on the border checks, but you need to change trains at the border.
Once in Lviv, the city boats trams, buses and trolleybuses, however there is no need for taking any public transportation to move around. The city is small and very compact, where the sights of the historical old town are near each other.
Although the city is still quite off the path and “unheard” to the tourism, this is changing rapidly, and from our experience of enjoying the city pretty much to ourselves and locals, it is matter of time for Lviv to become the next city-break hotspot in Eastern Europe. It is nevertheless one of the most historical cities in Ukraine, and the choice of hotels as it is now was great. You have any kind of accommodation, of any kind of comfort and level of quality. So while 5* properties are very limited, there is a wide range of properties from 4* and below.
Finding a deal was not hard for us, but we are also aware we came here already in low-season. I will not be surprised at all for the prices to dramatically increase during summer months. A good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the superb Atlas Deluxe, in Shevchenko Avenue, 27. The property is a very charm piece of art-nouveau architecture, something that Lviv is very famous for. From the outside to all the interiors the hotel is very well cared, very clean and cosy, with friendly and helpful staff at all times. The room spacious and very well maintained, with also a very beautiful top of the class wallpapers! They got our attention since we like interiors and design a lot. The bed was extremely comfortable, not the biggest though. Breakfast was very nice. Not only you have a buffet, they do also offer a-la-carte staff like omelettes and other style of eggs, included. Very elegant waiters, spotless clean and great service. Will definitely recommend to anyone visiting Lviv! You are less than 5 minutes away from the old town and walking distance to everywhere you need to go as a tourist. The tram number 1 also passes nearby and takes you directly to the main train station.