Riding the Chisinau to Odessa Train
After producing a lengthy account on the vintage train journey that is the Bucharest-Chisinau sleeper train, this one on the train to Odessa will be much shorter.
Trainspotters: there is not a lot to see here! But wait until you get to Odessa!
The geeky bit is very brief, too. The train is modern, a refurbished Hungarian Ganz-MAVAG Diesel Multiple Unit. It is comfortable and reasonably fast but still takes nearly four hours for the roughly 180 kilometres to Odessa. As you are leaving Chisinau, the train passes some railway depot very slowly but you cannot get off or open the windows.
But if you fancy a lovely trip to a different country – take yourself on a train to Odessa!
Why go to Odessa?
I will keep this brief, too.
The Architecture is Wonderful
Seriously, Odessa is beautiful. These images were just taken during a stroll along Pushkin Street. Basically, the entire length of Pushkin Street from the train station to the Opera House is lined with grand buildings in varying states of repair.
Okay, I went mainly for the opera. But there are plenty of museums, too. The Opera House is a sight to behold. Even if you are not into classical music, it is worth trying to catch a tour, currently running on Fridays and Saturdays at 17.00. The English section of the Opera House website won’t show this. Tickets can be purchased at the ticket office in the main entrance hall.
But honestly… for tickets starting at 60 Hryvna (about 2 EURO), it is almost better to buy tickets for a performance! I went to see “Rigoletto”. I just went to the Box Office after I arrived and purchased a ticket for the same evening. There were plenty available but some ballets can sell out fast, especially those Tschaikovsky classics. It was great to see that the house was nearly full on the night, and this weren’t just tourists. The performance itself was solid, quite old school in its staging and execution, but beautifully sung. What also impressed me is that although Ukraine is not a rich country, the opera house was beautifully maintained.
There were plenty of breaks – most people went out to smoke, but there is a basement bar and if you are fast enough, you have time to nip for a pint in the cafe on the square. The area to the front of the opera is well lit and busy even at night. Although it get much more quiet to positively dark and bumpy as you move along Katherine or Pushkin Street, I never felt unsafe, but I think next time I will bring a little torch. If you walk along Pushkin Street, keep an eye out for Molodost Bar to your left – it is open 24hrs and pretty cool! Coffee, good comfort food, and, of course, cocktails!
The food isn’t bad, either
Travelling from a country where carbs rule and meat is part of nearly every meal, I found the food in Odessa much more varied. Due to the proximity to the Black Sea, fish is on many menus. Despite numeroius pogroms against Jews during the Russian Empire, Jewish tradition is very much alive, so you will find a lot of kosher and Jewish traditional food here. This one is aubergine “caviar”, a Ukrainian dish. I went to Molodost Bar just off Pushkin Street.
Train Ride to Odessa
As there is only one train a day, you want to get up early to catch this one. It currently leaves at 06.57. When I bought my ticket form Chisinau Railway Station the day before, I was advised to come at least half an hour early to clear customs in Chisinau. I stayed at the Cosmos Hotel, so I just strolled casually to station in just over 5 minutes. And indeed, it was the busiest I have ever seen Gara Centrala, but Customs means you walk past some friendly officials, show them your passport and they wave you through to the platform. It barely took five minutes. I recommend you buy tickets the day before, as this train may get busy. In September, Second Class was approximately 80% full. The train is rather modern but was freezing when we first got on. Reservation appears to be compulsory.
As I got on, my passport was checked once more and my ticket taken away, only to be returned to me in Odessa. The train stopped in Bender, Tiraspol, and a couple stops in Ukraine, including a longer stop at the border. For the 180km, it took nearly four hours. The conductress also doubled up as catering services and sold some coffee and pretty greasy pastries… and there is absolutely nothing in the train station or nearby at this time of the day. It appears that self catering on trains is the way to go, really.
I admit it wasn’t the most exciting journey.
But all that changed when we rolled into Odessa, and were welcomed by grannies with signs round their neck offering accommodation and transport. This I hadn’t seen for years. Also, traffic was quite mental and there was just Cyrillic everywhere. I ducked down and walked to my hotel.
At some point you got to buy train tickets, though. Then you get to appreciate the beauty of this neo-baroque train station that is Odessa-Holovna. It dates back to the 19th Century but was completely rebuilt in 1952. To go to the ticket counter for long distance train, turn right in the central hall after the entrance (shown on the right here), then go to the last hall (the passageway in the centre of the picture). The upstairs is nearly empty if you fancy a sit down.
This is one of the ticket halls, and allegedly the only place where I could buy a ticket back to Chisinau. I would say its safe to buy this on the day of travel. But not half an hour before departure! I had to queue a bit, and was sent from one counter to the other. Why exactly this was, I am not sure – my Russian wasn’t good enough to understand everything. This was the only situation where I really needed a bit of Russian to get by… but you can prepare for this. What the ticket office will need, is your name, date of travel and class of ticket you want. I recommend you ask someone at your accommodation to write it all down for you or use a translation app. The rest is self-explanatory. There is only one train from Odessa to Chisinau a day, but for places like Kiev, Charkiv or Moscow there will be several trains a day.
Don’t let the language barrier put you off! Travelling by train in the Ukraine is so safe, old-fashioned and simply beautiful. More on Odessa coming up soon!
Disclosure: This trip was entirely self funded, and I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links (marked with an asterisk). For the simple process of linking to other businesses, I proclaim this unpaid advertising. I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in myself. You can trust me for the complete, unbiased truth. More details on my affiliate link policy are here.
Getting there and getting in
At the time of travel, in September 2018, the train ran daily at 6.57 from Chisinau and back from Odessa at 18.45. I highly recommend that you check the schedule prior to travel, for example on the Deutsche Bahn website.
You can buy a ticket to Odessa in the ticket office at the Gara Centrala – they are open throughout the day, with some tea breaks and a long break for lunch. Tickets are unlikely to sell out but you must buy a ticket before boarding the train. So if time if of the essence, buy it a day in advance. I think they will only sell you a one-way ticket. I am not sure, though. The train is run by Moldovan Railways so theoretically… they should sell return tickets. Does any one know? A single ticket in second class cost approximately 5 EURO.
You will pass through Transnistria on the journey and there is no Moldovan border control on the train as you enter Ukraine and therefore, no Moldovan exit stamp. It is therefore advisable to return to Moldova by train as there will be no Moldovan immigration either. Unlike to Tiraspol, there appear not many trains and minibuses to Odessa, so train is probably the most convenient mode of transport anyway. Quite a few travellers got on or off in Tiraspol, which might make this a convenient way to visit Transnistria. Bear in mind that if you stay overnight, you must register with the Immigration Department although most hotels will do this for you.
Buying a train ticket is great fun if you speak no Russian or Ukrainian. I was too scared to use my credit card so I don’t know whether credit cards are accepted. To buy a return ticket straight after you arrive, you will find some small exchange kiosks as you exit the train station (main building) straight ahead near the tram tracks. Their rates are okay and pretty much the same as in town. Get some Ukrainian Hryvna and go back into the station, head to the row of ticket offices in the last hall to the right. Everything is in Cyrillic, by the way. If you don’t speak Russian, it helps to write down your destination, date of travel and what class ticket you want in Russian or Ukrainian, as well as your name in Cyrillic. Or show your passport. You may have to queue a bit so I wouldn’t try to buy the ticket ten minutes before departure – there is only one train a day, and you’re guaranteed another night in beautiful Odessa… not the worst that could happen.
Arriving in Odessa
Compared to Chisinau, Odessa Main station is huge and heaving. There will be people every where offering you a room, a taxi, to carry your luggage… and everything is in Cyrillic. It may be a bit of a culture shock at first! So I decided to walk to my hotel, catch a breath then change money and get coffee. My hotel was halfway between train station and opera house, and just off Pushkin Street, which is the street you enter if you leave the station and walk straight on… so very easy to find.
Still, I experienced no hassle in Odessa at all. It is a large city with visitors coming mostly from Ukraine and Russia, and no one seems interested to take advantage of the Western tourist. As you get closer to the city centre, you will find people in restaurants and cafes will speak English, too.
You will get First, Second or Third Class tickets. If you say nothing they assume you want to travel second class which is comfortable, although in Odessa I was offered choice between Second and Third Class.
Where to stay
In Chisinau, I highly recommend staying in the centre somewhere along or off Stefan cel Mare Boulevard. Not only is it safe, well lit and easy for orientation, it is central and offers transport any time of the day. I did not have trouble finding something the night before I wanted to stay, and every coffee shop/ restaurant has WiFi, so booking even at short notice is not a problem. Also, Trolleybus 1 and 4 run almost the entire length of Stefan cel MAre Boulevard and will take you to the train station early in the morning.
I stayed in three places in Chisinau:
The Chisinau Hotel* is, though extremely cheap, clean, safe, and right next to a bus stop yet easy to walk to both train station and city centre. It is also really old school, so if you want a taste to Soviet style travel, I would recommend this one. It takes about ten to fifteen minutes to walk to the train station.
Continuing with the faded Soviet theme, my night at the concrete beauty Cosmos Hotel* was somewhat less restful, and unless you’re deeply into concrete and viewing from outside isn’t enough, stay here. I found bed comfort and WiFi less satisfactory, but at least you get your own balcony and the staff was extremely friendly here. Also, you can walk to the train station in five minutes.
After getting a bit tired with endless rounds of pies and bread, I opted for an apartment for the last two nights so that I could prepare food (i.e. salads and loads of fresh fruit) myself . This was also the cheapest, and I loved it. Not only was it 2 min from the Central Market (great for transport and fresh produce) , it was beautiful, clean, and very professionally managed. The listing can be found on AirBnB.
In Odessa, I stayed at the mid-range Vintage Hotel*. It is located halfway between the Train Station and the Opera House, and can be walked easily from the train station. It is in a converted 19th Century House, and very pretty and old-fashioned, yet with modern touches. It doesn’t have an elevator, either. The area is safe, and you can walk to all main attractions. I paid approximately 38 EURO for my single room on the fourth floor. It wasn’t hugely spacious but it was quiet and comfortable. Probably better to ask for a room with high ceilings on the first and second floor – the road the hotel is facing doesn’t get much noise.
Where to Eat in Chisinau
I’m afraid I went off the pies and fried stuff quickly and ended up eating lots of fresh fruit and salad which I prepared in my apartment. As a vegetarian, you may end up somewhat stuffed although pretty much every restaurant will have something veggie even if it is just chips and a cheese pie. Here are a few places I went to and liked:
La Placinte is a Moldovan/Romanian traditional dining restaurant chain. They have ten restaurants in Chisinau and one in Balti and yes, this is meat and pie central! If you want a traditional Moldovan cheese pie, or Mamaliga, the traditional polenta-like side dish, this is the place. Also, they make nice lemonades. This is not fine dining but it’s pretty much a local place.
Delice d’Ange Patisserie is French-inspired and although nothing compared to a quality French patisserie, it is not bad when comparing it to the average cake shop in Eastern Europe, and besides, the setting ina quiet side street is extremely pleasant.
Keks Bread and Dessert is conveniently located on Ismail Street just before it intersects Stefan cel Mare Boulevard. It looks very modern, and has good coffee, small snacks (better portion control than La Placinte) and pretty little cakes of good quality.
You see, Moldova isn’t about culinary discoveries (wine excluded!). What I can say though is that the fresh fruit and veg in the Central Market was of extraordinary quality and very tasty. Pretty much everything there, save for a few oranges, is local and seasonal, and probably organic, and you can taste it.
Where to Eat in Odessa
Compared to Chisinau, Odessa is bigger and a lot more cosmopolitan in character than Chisinau. With nearly a million inhabitants, with a sizeable Russian and Jewish population as well as a rich Black Sea trading history, this is reflected in the variety of food on offer. I’d have happily eaten my way through Odessa but most of the food is pretty hefty and comes in large portions, so I’ll just write a bit more about the nice places I went to, and I’m pleased to say I didn’t really have a bad or lacklustre meal in Odessa.
Ryba V Ogne /Ryba U Vohni: Depending on whether you look up the restaurant name in Russian or Ukrainian, just to add to your confusions. Situated just off Deribasivska Street, this is super central but just off the main tourist trail. Here, it is fish and mostly fish, fresh from what I could observed, cooked in an open kitchen. Service is friendly but a bit slow (even though the restaurant was nearly empty) and it is a bit… modern and cold for my liking. However, both the fish soup and the whitebait/calamari were superb. I eat fish perhaps once every other once and then I try to make it rather good… For Ukraine, slightly on the pricier side but definitely worth a splurge if you want fresh, risk free fish cooked well.
Address: Krasny Lane 1, Odessa. Open daily 8.00-2.00
Molodost: Cool little cafe/bar that is open 24 hours. The menu is a funny mix of “what your granny would cook you” and cool cocktails and specialty coffee and tea you’d get in a hip city cafe. There is a little terrace for sitting out in good weather. Prices are very cheap, yet the quality of the food was exceptional. My simple dressed salad had super fresh vegetables, and the black bread was divine. Also, they do a lot of vegetarian dishes. And comfort food like several permutations of chips and cheese. A total winner.
Address: Hrets’ka St, 19, Odessa. Open 24 hours.
Gogol-Mogol /Hohol-Mohol: Cute cafe with lovely outdoor seating on a corner which you will walk past en route to the Faltz-Fein House (commonly known as House with the Atlantes). IN fact the whole of Hoholiga Street is lined with gorgeous late 19th Century buildings. Leave a bit of room for coffee or dessert here, this is a lovely cute place to with and watch the world go by. You get savoury dishes, too, all very blini and pancake-biased, but their strong point is desserts. I’ve had better fresh lemonade elsewhere, but my pancakes were good enough to recommend this. Again, prices are very moderate.
Address: Hoholia Street 8, Odessa. Open 8am-Midnight daily.
Lviv Handmade Chocolate: One of a chain, originating in Lviv in Western Ukraine which has a long tradition of chocolate production. This is mainly chocolate shop with a little cafe attached, where, of course, you get an enormous menu of hot and iced chocolates, cakes, and pralines. I went because it’s a great place to sit and people watch and because it was busy. Coffee and chocolate did not disappoint either, service was good, and the cakes looked wonderful.
Address: Deribasivska Street 31. Open 10.00-22.00 daily.
And that’s it, folks! I was pretty stuffed after a day and a half of carbs and a bit of fried fish in Odessa. I couldn’t possibly eat any more, not even for research. BAck in Chisinau, I went striaght to the market, bough some kg of tomatoes, cucumbers and grapes, and ate fruit and veg for the next 2 days.
Where to Shop
When it comes to spending money, Moldova seriously sucks. I would say spend money on wine if you can carry it, but otherwise you will come home with your funds undamaged. Saying that, I spent an enjoyable morning in the UNIC Department Store on Ismail Street because I had a foot full of blisters and was not up to walking much. It is a very old-fashioned shop full of mainly Moldovan products. I had a great time browsing the fabric and haberdashery floor and check out the babushka scarfes. If you want a hand embroidered folk blouse, this place has the most choice.
I also managed to buy a hand-winding 1970’s Poljot watch with an alarm from the “Kishinovsky Arbat” next to Organ Hall, a small craft and souvenir market. It’s not really Moldovan, as their main factory is in Moscow, but if you like Soviet watches, you will find something here.
You may or may not find traditional Easter Eggs painted in wax batik technique around Moldova (they are painted in Old Orhei). Moldova and the Bucovina in Northern Romania (and Ukraine) practice the tradition. I bought mine on my last day, in Bucharest, as they are real eggs, and I carried them with great care to the airport, onto a full Ryanair flight and then home where they now live with my vintage Christmas baubles.
This trip helps you to save money! I didn’t really find anything to buy. I love shopping, and I always manage to bring back something from my trips, be it some food, something for the kitchen, or, failing that, an incredibly poor taste magnet. Although there are some shops in the centre of Odessa, some pretty jewellery shops included, all I got was the magnet. And a nice haircut in a fancy hairdressers for 12 EURO. I wish I had had time to visit the Moldovanka flea market in Odessa (you can never have too many old Soviet rangefinder cameras or watches) but I was a bit chicken it might take a lot of time to go there, and this definitely isn’t one for tourists… so I was a bit worried I might stick out. Also, they allegedly sell live animals and pets, which really isn’t for me.