One of my silent travel goal is to visit a new country every year. I am proud to say I added a couple new pins to my travel map this past summer. One of them being: I crossed the country border to Eastern Europe, specifically to Ukraine, which involved taking an overnight train from Krakow to Lviv.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect from Ukraine – prior to meeting my boyfriend (who is Ukrainian) I’ve only ever heard of the country when a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane was shot down while flying over eastern Ukrainian airspace in 2014. I had also watched Winter on Fire, a Netflix documentary on Ukrainian fight for freedom, which is far more relevant for our visit to Kyiv later on.
Tl;dr – I had no expectations of Lviv, nor have I even heard of it before the trip.
But what I found in Lviv surprised me in the best way possible. Lviv is a cozy and charming little European town that is very rich in history – and its beauty rivals other popular Western European towns I’ve visited. Named after Leo, the eldest son of King Galicia, Lviv was once called Leopolis – aka the lion city. This is why the city emblem features a Lion.
Everything is relatively cheaper here, compared to similar towns in Western Europe. Best of all? There are almost no international tourists here in Lviv! It seems that most tourism in Lviv comes locally or from the nearby bordering countries. It is after all known as the cultural center of Ukraine. But even though we visited in the middle of Summer, the tourist spots were not overcrowded and we hardly ever had to wait. What a truly hidden gem.
Where to stay in Lviv
The touristy part of Lviv, the old town, is very small so you won’t have any problems finding a place to stay. Find Rynok Square (Market Square) on Google Maps – anywhere within a block or two from this spot is a great option.
The three of us stayed at a 2br apartment on Brativ Rohatyntsiv street and we really could not have asked for a better place. The apartment is modern and spacious. It’s actually a one bedroom apartment, but the living room had been repurposed into a second bedroom. The location is amazing – it’s super close to everything, so we didn’t need to use any public transport – we just walked everywhere. It was also super affordable at US$40 a night.
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What to do in Lviv
Free Walking Tour
To get a bearing on the city, I highly recommend starting off by joining a free walking tour of Lviv. It starts daily at 11AM every day at the Market / Rynok Square (double-check the time here) – just look for the person carrying a bright yellow umbrella! This tour is 100% free and exists in popular destinations in Europe. We had been taking advantage of it in cities like Krakow and Budapest. There is no commitment or strings attached and the tour should only take you 2.5 hours. If you like the tour, you can leave a small optional gratuity at the end of it. It’s a great way to get familiar with the city while learning about the rich history.
Ivan Fedorov Monument
If you choose to do the free walking tour, you’ll come around this area at some point. Ivan Fedorov is a printing pioneer in Ukraine and he spent much of his days in Lviv. Fittingly, the area where the monument stands is now known for its vintage market, selling second-hand books, used records, and pins. We came back after the tour because I wanted to check out the vintage market, even though most books and records they have were written in Cyrillic.
There is also a very grand-looking Catholic church next to this area which you should have also visited if you do the tour.
Lviv Opera House
The free walking tour ended here at the square in front of the Opera Hall. While there isn’t much to see of the opera house (unless maybe if there is a show), you can hangout at the square, take pictures or have a cold beer while people watching.
There is a nice market called Vernissage to the east of the square where you can find cool knick-knacks, souvenirs, t-shirts – I recommend you check out some Vyshyvanka (Ukrainian embroidered traditional wear) and Vinok (the Ukrainian flower wreath that is commonly worn by women during festive seasons).
Lviv City Hall Clock Tower
Get a 360-degree view of the city from above by going to the City Hall and climbing up the Clock Tower. There is a nice observation deck on the top where you can see all the buildings in the city. It’s actually not very high but Lviv is a flat city with no highrises so you don’t really need to go up high to get a good view.
I have to warn you that you do have to climb quite a bit of stair to get to the observation deck – no other options. It’s not that bad though – and on the way up, you can see the clock mechanism.
It’s not free to go up the tower – you pay a small fee at the bottom of the staircase before you start climbing, but it was so cheap I don’t remember how much. Other free options are the rooftop of House of Legends and Lviv Handmade Chocolate, but the city hall tower is much higher than these two.
House of Legends
House of Legends is a whimsical narrow building with a black dragon, various paintings and a black tram on its facade. Every day at 6pm, they have a small pyrotechnic show and the dragon would spew small fireworks. The building is technically a Chimney sweeper theme restaurant / cafe, but you can go in and explore without ordering anything. Go up to the rooftop via a narrow staircase, where on the way up you get a glimpse of the different themes of each floor. I felt like I was in a Hayao Miyazaki movie when I was there. Bonus: If you make it to the roof top, there is a white trabant car just casually parked there.
Lviv Handmade Chocolate
This was a pretty freakin’ delicious one – you can’t leave Lviv without trying some of their handmade chocolates! They have hundreds of different chocolate variations in all kinds of shapes and forms – there are block chocolates, chocolates in boxes, or the fresh ones you can choose right from behind the glass panels. Aside from the traditional chocolate flavors, they have interesting options like smoked dark chocolate, chocolate with ginger, and chocolate with sour cherries.
They also have a cafe where you can get cakes, coffee, and hot chocolate drinks.
The building itself is also worth checking out – It’s old but nicely maintained. You can go up the spiraling staircase to the rooftop and enjoy your chocolates there (if you find a seat, that is – there were not that many).
As we climbed up the staircase to the rooftop, we spotted a few oddities – some of the floors are uneven, and some staircases go up a few stops only to go down again. Yuri told me that this could have been because the store originally occupied only the building that was facing the street but was later expanded to the building that’s located next to it, and joined by the staircase. However the floors of the two buildings are built in different heights, so they had to make do by building some weird architecture elements on the staircase. But… it works?
Lʹvivsʹka Kopalʹnya Kavy (Lviv Coffee Mining Manufacture)
If you are a coffee enthusiast, you must visit this place! Located centrally right on Rynok Square, they have a vast range of roasted coffee beans that you can take home. There is an English menu with descriptions of each bean and the staff speaks English fluently. You can choose to buy as much or as little as you want of each roast. At the back of the coffee roaster, there is a coffee-themed souvenir store worth checking out as well.
Pid Synʹoyu Flyazhkoyu (Under the Blue Bottle)
Yes, THAT blue bottle coffee. You’ve probably heard of Blue Bottle coffee from California that has gained major popularity around the world, but did you know what the “Blue Bottle” name refers to? As it turns out, the pioneer of coffee houses in Europe who first brought about the idea of a coffee house to Europe is a Ukrainian soldier named Yuri Kulczycki. It was said Kulczycki came to Vienna after spending years in Turkey and discovered the coffee house experience there, which he brought over to Vienna. He then created the first coffee house in Vienna in 1683 called “Under the Blue Bottle”. The coffee house no longer exists, but you can find a reincarnation in Lviv under the same name! (Source:BBC Travel)
After a whole day exploring Lviv, we grabbed a taxi to the station (10-15 mins ride) and took the overnight train to Kyiv. We stayed in Lviv for just a short 24 hours, but if you’re staying in Lviv longer, there are so much more you can do – check out this article for more ideas: 21 Unique Things To Do in Lviv, Ukraine
I hope this was useful to you guys who are planning to visit Lviv! As always, let me know in the comment below if you have any feedback. I’d love to hear from you!