Odessa the Beautiful
Odessa is closer than you think if you live in Central Europe now! When looking for flights elsewhere, my beady eyes spotted some very cheap flights from Berlin Tegel to Odessa on Ryanair, starting in November 2019. So unless you are in Ukraine already or in the neighboring country of Moldova and take the train, you can now fly to Odessa at the incredible price of 24EURO one way from Berlin if you are fast enough. Please believe me, Odessa is marvellous. Praises to this fine city are sung everywhere, from the expatriate to the local and the experienced traveller.
I visited Odessa last year as part of my week curiously exploring little-visited corners of Europe and spend two days wandering the city in awe in glorious sunny weather. I also went to the opera. There is so much architecture and atmosphere, I was practically outdoors the entire time. Here are a few of my recommendations. If you know a museum or indoor attraction that is not to be missed in Odessa, please let me know and I will add it here.
Disclosure: I visited Odessa in September 2018, at a peaceful time. Because of current invasion of Ukraine by Russia, I do not advise to travel to Odessa right now (although it is possible by train from Poland and Moldova and by bus) This trip was entirely self funded. I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links, which are marked with an asterisk (*). I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in myself. You can trust me for the whole, unbiased truth. More details on my affiliate link policy are here. For the simple process of linking to other businesses, I proclaim this unpaid advertising.
Walk and wonder
Central Odessa is built on a 19th Century grid, making orientation and walking very easy. Pushkin Street, running from the train station to the Opera, is a good one to start, containing pastel-coloured beautiful 10th Century buildings all along. You will also pass synagogues, courtyards and plenty of cafes. Katerinskaya Street and Polska Street are also great to walk. Most have buses running along them should you get tired, but operate a one-way system. The area around Hoholia Street is also great.
Pushkin and Katherine Street are lined with two-storey houses like this, painted in “Russian Fairytale” colours.
On the corner of Pushkin and Bunina Streets sits the Bristol Hotel. It was purpose built and designed by Russian Alexander Bernardazzi, famous for his neo-baroque architecture of Odessa and Chisinau. You can get the full-on chintzy grandeur from 100 EURO per night, or stop at the very reasonable terrace restaurant for some french-inspired food and people watching.
And so it goes on… corner of Hretska and Pushkin Streets. I have an affinity for green and reds, which may explain the green-hued pictures on here.
More green in an enviable window.
Did I mention that Odessa serves as a veritable balcony inspiration?
More shadowy balconies with stucco on Pushkin Street.
We got these balconies sorted out.
Like, so sorted out. We can sit here in summer with a drink and a book and look at the putti and the aircon unit.
Okay, this one’s a bit precarious but wonderful to look at.
Multicolour blue-green, and all in a single wall. Also note the Art Deco inspired wrought iron here.
A balcony on almost every window. Odessa, I am ready to move in.
The grand finale of balconies. Most of these pictures were taken in Pushkin Street over several walks.
Towards the sea, Pushkin Street ends a the Archaeology Museum. Shame on me, the weather was so beautiful and my time limited, that I did not go in.
Also, vis-a-vis is the house that the poet Alexander Pushkin lived in after being exiled from Moscow in the 1820’s. It is claimed he started writing Eugen Onegin here.
The Odessa Opera and Ballet
Carrying on with the fine arts… seeing Eugen Onegin or any other Russian Opera would have been wonderful. But on my only night in Odessa, I was lucky enough to see an opera here. The Odessa National Academy of Opera and Ballet is one of the top architectural sights of Eastern Europe, and an acclaimed opera and ballet venue. It dominates the Northern part of the centre, where a pleasant park leading to the Potemkin Steps takes over, and you will pass it eventually.
It is always busy, and an architectural and cultural icon of Odessa. You can do a tour of the building, but to really catch the atmosphere, I think it is much better to actually catch a performance here if you can.
You can check what’s on on their website, where you can also purchase tickets. I saw “Rigoletto” here. You can purchase tickets online, and ticket prices start at an unbelievable 50 Hryvna, which is less than 2 EURO. I did not bother buying tickets online before, having checked the website a few days before and seeing plenty of tickets for sale. I just turned up at the box office and bought a ticket a few hours before the performance. The ticket office is located in the main vestibule right by the Main Entrance, is open from 11.00 to 19.30 and usually someone speaks English there. I paid something like 5 EURO for a seat in the front stalls.
And then, it was time to go to the opera! They warn you on their website that too casual an attire will not be tolerated, but I went in jeans and a black blouse that I had taken in my backpack, and nobody would bat an eyelid. I think they’re more talking about too skimpy and outfit or beach attire that won’t get you permission. But bear in mind locals will be dressed very smartly, evening dress or very smart business attire.
The architecture-gazing continued inside, with gilt and velvet aplenty. “Rigoletto” was sung in Italian with Russian subtitles. So if you’re keen to catch the lyrics, bring your own.
This performance was quite old school classic, with traditional costumes, but very pleasant. I am not an opera connaisseur, but I think I can recognize an exceptional voice. I’d say the Rigoletto was good, good average compared to what I’ve seen before at the better opera houses of Europe and the US, and at these prices, I would totally go to the opera here again. Also bear in mind that productions may vary… I went to the ballet in Chisinau a few nights later, and was blown away, despite having seen the Chisinau Opera on a tour a few years previously and not liking it a a lot.
The performance of Rigoletto was quite long with more than generous intervals where people streamed out of the building to smoke and drink. They were generous to go for a drink on the square, even.
Seaside Promenade and Potemkin Steps
What do you read about first when browsing travel websites on Odessa? The Potemkin Stairs! Now, why is that? I know about Potemkin Villages, stemming from a fake prefab village Potemkin built on Crimea to impress Empress Catherine, and generally used for a bit of fakery, and the Battleship Potemkin score by the Pet Shop Boys (that’s my 1980s upbringing and a liking of disco). But Potemkin Stairs? Well, these are essentially a very large, very monumental staircase linking the harbour with the city centre. The whole area and the Primorskyi Boulevard are very pleasant to stroll along.
The Western End of Primorskyi Boulevard, where you can also find the famous “House with one wall” – another Potemkin-style illusion but built much later than the original village. I admit I didn’t go there, taking in the views from Tioschin Bridge instead.
The famous Potemkin Stairs from the top and Primorskyi Boulevard. They are much wider at the bottom, so when you look at them form downstairs, they appear the same width and longer and more monumental than they are. Previously known as the Richelieu Steps, they were made famous in the 1925 movie “Battleship Potemkin” and were officially renamed to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1905 mutiny on battleship Potemkin. Of course, they also provide Potemkin-like illusions.
The Potemkin Stairs in the 1925 silent film are the scene of a massacre on the citizens of Odessa after they sailed out to the battleship to show their support for the mutineers. This counts along with the more obvious war and holocaust memorial sites as a place where you probably shouldn’t take a selfie. However… while the 1905 mutiny took place and is seen as the first step towards revolution, all they did was fire two shots at the opera house but missed – the massacre is an Eisenstein construction. Okay, don’t want to play the schoolmarm here, just telling, in case you’re not into Soviet history/silent movies.
If you walk down the stairs, you get to the busy and rather industrial port area. For the beach, you better go to the Primorskyi District to the East of the centre, where there are numerous beaches and resorts within a (longish) walking distance to the centre.
Odessa Architectural Highlights
And with that, we’re far from finished. A stroll along Pushkin will give you a good idea of what’s available architecturally, but there is more… much more. I think you could happily spend a week in Odessa just looking at all the great buildings. This beauty is in or off Derybasivska Street, perhaps the most touristed street of Odessa, a pleasant walking boulevard with lots of coffee shops and some very nice (and pricey) jewellery shops.
Walk along Derybasivska Street to wards the City Garden Park (itself a beautiful place for a break), and you come to the super ornate Neobaroque Passage. Don’t miss it! There are two smallish entranceways on each side of the building. Built as a hotel with a shopping arcade, the hotel sadly no longer seems to be in existence. My old Lonely Planet raves on about its cheapness, the grand style of rooms and warns about its general grottiness, but try to book it online, and it’s not there. Try to find a hotel entrance, and there’s none. It looks like the hotel is closed and its premises being refurbished because the building itself looks in good nick.
Inside the Passage. The shops are mainly small boutiques with very Eastern European items. If you are into bling or fur you might love it. Also has some nice inexpensive souvenir shop. I must say, I love shopping, but Odessa didn’t cut it for me, shopping-wise, but perhaps I spent too much time looking at buildings.
Look at this! Beautiful. The former hotel is on the floors above shop level but there is no sight of any hotellery action.
There is also a very sweet looking cafe where a macaron will set you back a few cents. What’s not to love?
Just looking out from the passage onto the Liebman House, formerly a confectioner and fancy apartment building. It looks in a rather sad state now but hooray, there seems to be some work going on. Here you can catch a tram to more outlying districts like Moldovanka and its infamous flea market.
Walk in the other direction and towards, the sea, enter Hoholia Street for another generous helping of grand architecture. The Faltz-Fein House is perhaps the most famous, another apartment block boasting two mythical Atlas figures.
But honestly, anywhere in the centre grid you will make discoveries on your own. Here is some 1930’s Grecian mural with Communist elements. Hasn’t quite got the out-and-out revolutionary force of Soviet propaganda posters…
And in contrast to that, the pre-revolution, pre-pogrom synagogue built by the people of Brody in Western Ukraine and aptly named Brodsky Synagogue. It looked pretty locked up so I didn’t try to go in. It was decommissioned in 1920 and house the “Rosa Luxembourg Workers Club” until the collapse of the Soviet Union. After that, it became very dilapidated, said to be “only held together by the shelves full of books inside”. It was returned to the Jewish Community of Odessa in 2016 and will be restored and once again serve as a synagogue and a museum.
And after the greys and the dark, there are lightness and colour once more.
Here’s one for your coffee and cake break. In a city where a cappucchino costs less than 1 EURO, a walking tour of the cafes is not a bad idea. In addition to pretty cafes, there are takeaway coffee stalls run from little hole-in-the-wall places at every streeet corner, usually small individual businesses that are worth your support.
Let’s add some pink into the mix, too. Seriously – just walk and walk… best way to explore this city, but take comfy and very sturdy shoes as there are sometimes lots of steps and the side walks are not always in great condition.
Side streets are worth an explore, too. Often less grand but no less atmospheric. Within the centre area, I felt safe even in the dark, and exploring small empty side lanes.
Another beautiful facade in Hoholia Street near the sea.
Courtyards of Odessa
Courtyards are an Odessa speciality. Entrances are usually unmarked, yet they form a valuable outside socializing space for the inhabitants of central Odessas buildings. Some even have cafes and street art. Quite a few can be found along Pushkin and Zhukovskoho streets. If you need pointers, here are some not-so-secret ones with addresses. While some host cafes and accommodation, others are private, so only enter if they’re obviously open, enter quietly and don’t pry too much, or ask someone for permission.
Sometimes they have grand entrances…
…serve as casual meeting places
… secure parking spaces
and they are almost always planted and green, no matter what state the building might be in.
And last not least, the most well-known courtyard of them all sits in the Italianate Philharmony Hall and houses the fancy Bernardazzi Restaurant. Even when the restaurant is closed, you may go inside discreetly to take a picture.
Well, I am really tempted to visit again. Is there anywhere else in Odessa that should not be missed? Please let me know, and I will include it – with credits, of course.
Update April 2022: Unfortunately, this post has now turned from a picture dump with a bit of practical advice into an Odessa appreciation post. I have a grave and probably not totally unfounded fear that the Russian aggression is not going to stop outside Odessa and that this city, despite a strong Russian culture and many Russian Speakers, will be subject to vicious attacks, and that the Russian aggressors will not stop ther eeither but march towards Transnistria and Moldova.
Visa, Money, Safety…
As a EU citizen, I didn’t require a visa. Entering the Ukraine by rail was easy and hassle free. We stopped at the border for a bit, Moldova Border Patrol didn’t bother, Ukraine Immigration entered the carriage and checked everyone’s passports and stamped them. They spoke English, and the whole procedure took perhaps fifteen minutes.
Arriving at the railway station was somewhat overwhelming – it’s huge and really busy, but no one really bothered me. There are several money exchange kiosks on the square outside the station, and plenty more along Pushkin Street and in the centre. I brought EURO in cash, and exchanging cash at official exchange kiosks was easy and there were plenty around. I paid for larger expenses like hotel and some meals with a VISA card. The exchange rate towards the Euro has remained pretty stable, with 1 Euro to about 30 Ukrainian hryvnias.
By staying somewhere fairly central, I experienced no trouble whatsoever walking around on my own any time of the day and night. Street lighting isn’t the greatest. Nevertheless, I didn’t feel unsafe for one minute but wished I had a torch because some of the pavement in smaller streets really are in a bit of a state. I wished I had a bit more time to venture out to the Moldovanka Market, but decided against it because I heard they are selling pets there and I know it would have upset me, and I simply ran put of time.
It is a tourist city, so while it feels safe, there may well be pickpockets.
How to Get to Odessa
From November, Ryanair will fly twice a week from Berlin (TXL) to Odessa. Already flying to Odessa, amongst others, are Tarom from Bucharest, Austrian Airlines from Vienna, LOT and Ryanair from Warsaw, Czech Airlines from Prague and Air Baltic from Riga.
Odessa Holovna is served by trains from all over Ukraine as well as Moscow and St Petersburg. In 2018, I took the daily train from Chisinau run by Ukrainian Railways. It leaves Chisinau around 07.00 in the morning and returns around 19.00, arriving in Chisinau close to midnight. The schedule keeps changing a bit, so its better to check the schedule on the Ukrainian Railways website, and definitely buy tickets beforehand, because ticket queues in Ukraine are somewhat confusing and often quite long. Also, the Moldovans take their customs seriously, so be there half an hour before departure in Chisinau.
I got there by a rather long way, which I mention here, because it makes a nice (and sometimes cheap) one-week Eastern European itinerary. I flew to Bucharest, then took a minibus to Chisinau. I just picked one up outside Otopeni Airport – doesn’t always work as they get booked up, so if you cannot pick one up immediately, it’s advisable to ask the driver make a reservation on the next available one – speaking Russian or Romanian will help here although there are always some friendly travellers around who will speak both English and Romanian, and I was offered assistance from several people. From Chisinau, I took the once-a-day early morning train to Odessa, spent the night in Odessa and took the evening train back. A few days later, I took the time-warp Prietina Express sleeper train from Chisinau back to Bucharest, then flew back from Otopeni.
Using the bus in Odessa is easy. Get on, make sure you have some change, and pay on exit – the fare was 7 Hryvna in 2018.
Where to stay
I recommend to stay somewhere centrally if you don’t want to negotiate the bus and tram.
I stayed at the Vintage Hotel * . It’s a longish 15-20 minute walk to the Opera House from here, but the hotel is close to the train station, quiet and really lovely. If you don’t mind walking, then this is my recommendation for you. I found the area safe enough to walk around on my own in the evening. It is a small hotel in what roughly counts as a Jewish quarter with lots of synagogues and kosher restaurants. Rooms are individually decorated, very comfortable, with modern bathrooms. Breakfast is served in the restaurant next door and is included in the rate.
If you want to be next to the Opera House and 5 minutes from the sea, try the Palais Royal Boutique Hotel *. I did not stay here, but the location is super central, it looks pretty good, and gets good reviews.
Another lovely area with wonderful old buildings and in close proximity to the sea, though somewhat less crowded, is near Hoholia Street, though it’s mostly apartments to rent there. Closer to the action again is the Londonskaya Hotel* , a very traditional hotel dating back to 1846. THis is where illustrous guests would have stayed, and it continued to operate as a hotel through Soviet times. It probably has the best location in Odessa – right by the seafront promenade and the Potemkin Steps. THe interior looks rather chintzy, so perhaps check the pictures to see if its really your thing.
More Odessa hotels are here*. I have booked all hotels on this trip (except two nights in an apartment in Chisinau) on Booking.com.
Restaurants and Cafes in Odessa
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/Farshirovannaya ryba : 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.
I’ve added all notable places on the map here, complete with restaurants and cafes for a well-deserved walking rest:
Disclosure: This trip was entirely self funded. I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links, which are either declared as such or marked with an asterisk (*). This means I will earn a small commission if you purchase through these links at no extra cost to yourself. I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in myself. You can trust me for the whole, unbiased truth. More details on my affiliate link policy are here. For the simple process of linking to other businesses, I proclaim this unpaid advertising.