Lviv: Europe’s best kept secret

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Not many people think of Lviv or Ukraine when they plan their next European vacation.  But we did, and started congratulating ourselves for the choice we had made immediately upon arrival .

Lviv is European elegance and sophistication at third world prices – what can be better than that?  If you are a “value-for-money” freak like me, there are few places you would like more.  We stayed in an excellent hotel called Swiss (http://www.swiss-hotel.lviv.ua/en), which was a restored stone building with “old-world-charm” as they say, and paid less than $100 for our room for two.  In many EU cities this price would be impossible for such a well-maintained, charming hotel right in the center of historic downtown.

Perhaps the main reason Lviv looks more “European” than most other ex-Soviet cities is because it has historically had a dominant Polish culture as well as a “German” period in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, with the Ukrainian population becoming a majority only in the 20th century, following two Soviet invasions and the unfortunate demise of the city’s Jews during WWII.  As such, many different influences can be seen in the city’s streets today.  There are churches and cathedrals belonging to various denominations, as well as a number of synagogues.  The historic city center is a fascinating mix of architectural styles from gothic and baroque to renaissance, classic and others.

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Historic city center of Lviv.

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A curious little resident.

On the map, the city lies near the borders of Poland, Slovakia and Romania, just north of the Carpathian range. I am sure many people thought it unfortunate when Lviv fell in Soviet hands at the end of all the wars and political squabbles over control of the region. How different things could have been for the city had it become a part of wealthier Poland, and the EU, wealthier still. With Ukraine’s recent dances with the EU, at least the latter could be a reality for Lviv in the not-so-distant future, barring any strong intervention by Russia.

The most amazing things about Lviv besides the architecture and cultural aspects are its awesome food, and perhaps not so surprisingly given the Eastern European stereotypes, the beautiful women. I made the mistake of going there not only with my wife, but my mom as well during the same trip. How’s that for stupid? Not that I was planning to do anything, but pretending the blonds in short shorts don’t exist starts taking its toll on you after a few days. As beautiful as Lviv is, it is not a good place for a honeymoon – if you want your marriage to last beyond the first week, that is.

Right. Let’s talk about food. As is the case with the rest of its culture, the food in Lviv has Polish, Russian and Ukrainian influences. While there is no shortage of “vareniki,” “pelmeni,” “borsch” and other Ukrainian/Russian dishes, there are also plenty of Polish delicacies to choose from, such as “zrazi” (spelling?). Our favorite restaurants were Seven Piggies (http://www.7piggies.com.ua/7p_eng/7pEngIndex.html) for Ukrainian, and Kupol (http://www.kupol.lviv.ua) for Polish cuisine. I should also mention there are amazing cakes and coffees to be had throughout the city. One of our favorites was Veronika (http://www.veronica.ua). If you go there, order the Hungarian cake!

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Seven Piggies restaurant.

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Salo, or 120 days of gluttony.

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Interior of Kupol restaurant.

A few other things Lviv is famous for are its glass arts and its “salo” museum.

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Glass figurines in flea market.

I’d like to finish with an interesting nugget of information: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, after whom Masochism is named, was born in Lviv and today there is a themed cafe in the historic city center cherishing (and exploiting) his memory. You can treat yourself to some nice local food there while being mistreated by their staff.

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The menu at Masoch Cafe.