Still below the radar, Lviv in western Ukraine offers one of the most affordable city breaks around. Expect the unexpected.
Lviv in western Ukraine is a pin-up pretty city. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, at its heart is an old town that’s characterised by Crayola-coloured building facades, stucco work, cobbles, fountains and a menagerie of stone lion statues.
Its good looks are surprising, considering the city was under the control of the Soviet Union for decades. The lack of stark concrete construction is just one of the surprises that Lviv has up its sleeves, though. This is truly a city of curiosities.
Lviv is home to at least three wishing spots, a raft of completely off-the-wall bars, and slightly screwball sights such as The Yard of Lost Toys – a courtyard of disowned dolls, one-eyed teddy bears, and weather-worn rocking horses that springs up, unannounced, in front of a cluster of residential flats.
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On top of all this, Lviv is still relatively off the radar as far as city break destinations go. The voices that fill the attractions, cafes and eateries belong predominantly to locals and tourists from neighbouring eastern European countries. Spending a long weekend here still feels like you’re doing something a little bit out of the ordinary.
It’s certainly out of the ordinary as far as affordability is concerned. The pound is strong against the hryvnia, making a trip to Lviv one of the most budget-friendly city break options around. This is our itinerary for a long weekend that doesn’t even come close to breaking the bank.
Check into: Danylo Inn. Opened in 2015, the boutique Danylo Inn is located inside a renovated 18th century building and is steps away from the centre. Design-wise, it’s modern with exposed brickwork, wooden floors and contemporary pieces of artwork.
The hotel doesn’t serve breakfast, but it’s haloed by dozens of coffee shops and cafés that serve food first thing. Lviv Croissants is one of the most popular with locals and there’s often a queue out the door.
Explore: the Market Square (aka Rynok Square). Part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, this square is corralled by Renaissance and Modernist buildings with lemon yellow, sage green, terracotta and nursery room-blue facades.
There are four fountains to discover on each corner and the hunt for Lviv’s 24 lion sculptures begins here. The centrepiece of the square is the City Hall where, every weekend, on the hour, a set of shutters flings open on the third floor and two uniformed trumpeters appear in order to pip out the city’s anthem to the crowds.
Make a pit stop at: Lvivska Kopalnya Coffee Manufacture. Lviv takes its coffee seriously. Legend has it that Europe’s first ever coffee shop was founded in Vienna by a Lviv local called Yuriy Frants Kulchytsky.
Today, coffee shops around the city celebrate this legacy. At this particular option, near the statue of Diana on Rynok Square, you can buy bags of beans and coffee souvenirs alongside the actual cups of java. If this is all a bit too strait-laced for you, you can head to the underground area of the café where waiters will heat your coffee with flaming blow torches.
Admire the view from: The City Hall. The 408-step climb to the top of the Bell Tower at City Hall is punishing, but it rewards those who make it with 360-degree views of the city with its rusty red rooftops and the spires, domes and towers of its manifold churches.
Stop for a drink at: Pyana Vishnya. This box room-sized bar only serves one type of drink – sweet cherry wine. It can be ordered hot or cold and can be enjoyed inside, beneath the chandelier of cherry wine bottles, or outside, at the patio-heater-warmed poseur tables on the street.
Eat dinner at: The Most Expensive Galician Restaurant. There’s no sign above the door of this quirky concept eatery. After using the door knocker to request entry, you’ll be met at the entrance by an ‘uncle’ in a bathrobe, before being taken inside.
Galicia was a geographical region between central and eastern Europe that Lviv once sat plumb in the centre of and the menu showcase the areas food. Think farm-to-fork style with lots of hearty duck, goose, carp and foraged vegetable dishes. Don’t let the prices startle you, they’re part of the theme – the eatery offers all diners 90% off.
Explore: the UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety. Book a guide at the Tourist Information Centre in Market Square as a tour will let you in on the hidden meanings of the frescoes on the front of the city’s historic buildings. You'll also take in Lviv’s many churches and cathedrals – from the Gothic Latin Cathedral to the copper-domed Transfiguration Church.
Tours also serve up a sombre insight into Lviv’s Jewish history. Before the 1940s, Lviv had a thriving Jewish community. This population was decimated during the Second World War when hundreds of thousands were rounded up and sent to concentration and extermination camps.
A poignant memorial to the city’s losses was opened in 2016. Entitled Space of Synagogues, it’s located within the ruins of the 16th century Golden Rose synagogue.
Eat lunch at: Lviv Chocolate Factory, Serbsak Street. The city's chocolate factories and adjoining chocolate shops and cafés rival those in Belgium and Switzerland for variety and quality. Skip the savoury and go straight for the sweet. A pudgy brownie and a hot chocolate are enough to fill you up for the afternoon.
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Go on the hunt for: The city’s wishing and good luck spots. These include the Monument to the Chimney Sweep, which is located on the roof of the House of Legends café alongside a full-sized vintage car. To make a wish, visitors need to climb up to a viewing platform and attempt to throw pennies into the sweep’s hat.
Then there’s the Monument to the Inventors of the Kerosene Lamp and the bronze of painter Nikifor Epifaniy Drovnyak. At both sites, visitors can make a wish by touching the nose of the statue.
Have beer at: one of Lviv’s quirky bars. Knock on the unmarked door of Kryivka, just off Market Square, and you’ll be met by a uniformed soldier. You have to swear your allegiances to the Ukraine before you’re allowed in, given a shot of vodka, and led down into the underground bunker-style bar.
Tuck into dinner at: Celentano Ristorante. This is the place where Lviv locals go on a Saturday night for a relaxed meal with family or friends. It serves pizzas the size of satellite dishes, which are easy to demolish after a few drinks in the city’s kooky bars.
Stroll: Up to Castle Hill. Wander along Kryvonosa Street, through leafy High Castle Park, and take the wooden staircase for panoramic views of the city. At a leisurely pace, this 413-metre ascent takes about 45 minutes. Locals sell cups of hot cherry wine from flasks here in the winter and ice creams and cold drinks are always on hand in the summer.
Tour: Underground Lviv. Tours of the city’s underground areas can be booked through Lviv Buddy at the Tourist Information Centre in Market Square. Lasting roughly two and a half hours, they take you into basements, catacombs and the underbelly of an old pharmacy with a few skeletons in its closet.
Re-fuel at: Seven Piggies. The menu at Seven Piggies, a 20-minute walk from Rynok Square, salutes the traditional cuisine of Ukraine. You can sink your teeth into plump dumplings – vareniki – cockle warming stews, and dishes like banosh, which is a little like a bowl of polenta topped with tangy sheep’s cheese and either vegetables or waist-worrying chunks or pork crackling.
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