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Medieval Castles, Amusement Parks, and Underground Coffee Houses

In addition to being potential summer destinations, these 11 cities can give you a better understanding of Ukraine. From Hromadske.

by Natalia Tikhonova 7 July 2017


There is a saying: “Lviv’s ideal is Krakow, but Krakow’s ideal is Prague.” Lviv is the capital of western Ukraine and the cultural capital of the country, and truly reminds you of both Krakow and Prague. History literally peeks out from every corner here, so it’s better for lovers of antiquity to wander slowly through the city center: here and there on the walls of houses you can see inscriptions from the times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In general, ancient Lviv changed “owners” many times. The small, historical city center was put on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. You can walk around it in half a day. But we advise you to stay long enough to visit Lviv’s coffee houses and secret restaurants, and try local chocolate, beer, and infused liquors. Stop off at Coffee Mining Manufacture, an underground coffee house, stylized as a coffee “mine”: put on a helmet with a flashlight, walk under dark vaults, and try special sealed coffee.





If a taxi driver asks you “Where you goin’?” this means that you’re in Odessa, the famous port city with an atmosphere unlike anywhere else. In fact, Odessa’s language is one of the local attractions. People from Odessa say that hearing it is like climbing the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In order to hear the authentic Odessian lingo, go to Pryvoz, a famous Odessian market (it’s true that here no one calls it a “market” – Pryvoz is just Pryvoz).


In Odessa quiet yards still remain between homes, where linens line-dry and old men play chess and backgammon. In the last few years, Odessa has become the main Ukrainian sea resort. So come and buy rachki (that’s what they call little shrimp here), walk along Primorsky Boulevard, and then go to the sea to listen to the waves perform jazz.





They say that by the time the first coffee house opened in Vienna, 10 had already been serving the brew in Kamianets-Podilskyi. This small medieval city survived long years of Turkish domination, which explains its coffee culture. People go to Kamianets-Podilskyi to see a real medieval castle, which stands on a steep shore on a bend of the Smotrych River. Lithuanian princes built this fortress in the 14th century for protection from the Turks and Tatars. Despite being seized repeatedly, the castle held up well and now a museum and a nature reserve are here. In one of the castle towers there is a ceramics workshop where everyone can try their hand at a potter’s wheel. A tall stone bridge, which offers picturesque views of the valley, takes you across the river to the city. Alas, little is left from the oldest part of the city, but people are actively restoring it.





Chernivtsi is called “little Paris.” The practically untouched ensemble of the city was formed between the turn of the 19th century and the 20th, when it became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the Habsburgs. Above all, the city is famous thanks to a collection of buildings resembling Hogwarts, the castle complex in the Harry Potter series; this was the former residence of the Orthodox metropolitans of Bukovina and Dalmatia. Now, it’s home to the Chernivtsi National University.


So that you don’t miss anything, they developed a special pedestrian route in Chernivtsi for smartphone owners. Signs are scattered throughout the entire city, with Ezhik, a tour-guide company, offering information, numbers, and QR-codes, through which you can find out more about this or that house, church, or monument.





Mukachevo and Uzhhorod are two cities that compete for the title of the capital of Transcarpathia, a region in western Ukraine bordering Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland. In Mukachevo tourists visit Palanok, a major castle from the 11th century with a complicated fate. At various times, this residence, once the home of princes, housed a prison, barracks, and a trade school. Now there is a museum in the castle. Also to be found in Mukachevo are thermal springs with water at a temperature of 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), which benefits the skin and circulatory systems.





Uzhhorod lies on the border with Hungary and has often changed hands. The city developed in the Middle Ages around the citadel, which consisted of the fortified Uzhhorod castle. Now the Transcarpathian local history museum stands here. Besides that, it’s also worth visiting the Museum of Folk Architecture of Transcarpathia and trying the local cuisine, which is heavily influenced by neighboring Hungary. By the way, the language here is out of the ordinary; it is something like a Ukrainian-Hungarian mix, called surzhyk in Ukrainian.





Poles founded Ivano-Frankivsk as a fortress to defend against the raids of Crimean Tatars and Zaporozhian Cossacks. Today what remains is only a fragment of its defensive wall with a bulwark. But the market square is well-preserved along with the symbol of the city: the building Ratusha, which means the "seat of local government," and is derived from the German word for city hall, Rathaus. Nearly every tourist stand offers audioguides in English or Ukrainian. There is a choice of two routes: romantic or mystical.


In the city there are sad signs from another, later time period. In 1941 the NKVD [the then-Soviet secret police, and predecessor of the modern-day FSB] shot more than 500 people in Ivano-Frankivsk. At the site of these events now stands the memorial complex Dem’ianiv Laz.





Poltava is one of the oldest cities in Ukraine; archeological excavations allow us to confirm that the city is more than 1,100 years old. In 1709 the famous Battle of Poltava took place nearby, ending with the decisive victory of Russian ruler Peter the First over the Swedes. The battle determined for a long time the fate of the city. As a result of the Russian triumph, Poltava became part of the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union.


Poltava also basks in literary glory, as Nikolai Gogol, a Ukrainian-born Russian writer, lived here. In the village of Gogolevo, you can find his estate, which is now a museum. You can also visit places familiar to every schoolchild: Dikanka, Sorochintsy, and Myrhorod – literary landmarks from Gogol’s works – all of which are physically located on the outskirts of Poltava.





There likely aren’t bigger patriots of their own city than Kharkovites. Come here and see for yourself. Local inhabitants are ready to talk about their city for hours and even take you on a tour of it. In fact, they will probably send you to the big amusement park: Gorky Park, built in a modern, Western style. It’s almost like a local Disneyland! Peek into the museum of railway technology near the train station: walk between old rail cars and then stop by an unusual cafe, where little trains deliver food to visitors.


Kharkiv is the second most populated city in Ukraine. It is often called “the first capital” as it was exactly here where the capital of the republic within the Soviet Union was located. This is noticeable in the modern look of Kharkiv – many Soviet artifacts have been preserved here, as well as [Soviet] monumental aspirations. For example, the Gosprom building or the area around Freedom Square, the largest city square in Ukraine, where the biggest monument to Lenin stood. For a long time the leader’s boots remained on the pedestal and local inhabitants joked: “Let’s meet at the Louboutins! [A pun on Louboutin designer shoes being known for their bright red soles, leading people to compare them to Lenin's boots.]





Ancient Chernigov is first mentioned in the Primary Chronicle, the first recorded history of Eastern Slavs, and is a history of the Kievan Rus'. It’s worth starting to get acquainted with the city at Val, the former Chernigov …  The ancient Savior’s Cathedral, St. Boris and Gleb Cathedral, and the Church of St. John the Apostle are located here. At the end of the 18th century the fortress walls were razed and boulevards were built in their place. Another attraction of the city are the 12 cast-iron cannons, which, according to legend, were donated to the city by Peter the First for the heroism displayed by its inhabitants in the Battle of Poltava.


Local inhabitants say that practically every place in the city has its own legend. This is reflected in the city’s logo. It is a yarn ball, interlacing threads from the past, including the outlines of a temple, a sword, a river, and a monk.





The first written references to Buchach go back to the 14th century. It was around this time that the Buchach castle was built in the city. In 1672 a treaty between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire was signed under its walls, establishing that half of the city would go to the Poles and the other half would go to the Turks. The border passed along the Strypa River. The city existed like this for 11 years until the Poles, together with Hetman Sahaidachny, a 17th century Cossack leader, took full control of it. In the 18th century the castle lost its defensive significance and was eventually abandoned. Around this time Buchach came under the authority of the Habsburg monarchy, and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and took on the imperial style. That is when the town hall, the Basilian monastery, and the Assumption Cathedral, executed in the Baroque style (a rarity in Ukraine), were built. They still survive today, along with the castle’s picturesque ruins. 


Natalia Tikhonova is a Hromadske contributor. The original version of this article, in Russian, was published on Hromadske, a Ukrainian internet TV and multimedia organization. TOL has done some editing to fit our style. Reprinted with permission. All images courtesy of Hromadske.

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