Discovering Lviv – The Hidden Gem of Ukraine

I lived in Ukraine for the first 14 years of my life. I went to school in Kyiv, I went to the seaside during summers and I’ve spent a fair share of time in the Carpathian mountains as a kid but somehow I never went to Lviv, the city of lions.

Lviv Opera

In front of Lviv Opera, photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

In 2010 I drove through Lviv but I got so annoyed with the confusing streets and never ending cobble stones that I decided to not stop in the city. In 2014 I ended up in Ukraine once again. I was going from Warsaw to Kyiv and decided to stop in Lviv for a day so I could meet a local entrepreneur/travel blogger.

Little did I know that one day stop would make me fall in love with this beautiful city. Since I didn’t come by car the streets appeared as very cute and historical. The cobble stones made me think of old medieval towns and the whole city just had a very welcoming vibe. I spent the whole day walking around Lviv even though there was a pretty serious rain storm outside. I made a promise to myself to come back to Lviv and spend more than a day there.

One month later, after visiting Kyiv I went back to Lviv for a few days. Just 3-4 hours before arriving to Lviv I sent out a few CouchSurfing requests and surprisingly enough got a reply almost instantly, from Liliia. We took a tram from the train station to the center of the city and our awesome host. Liliia turned out to be not only a great host but also a great guide who showed us the city, introduced us to her friends and all in all helped us have a great experience.

First of all, Lviv is really different from all the other Ukrainian cities. Ukraine could have probably been like Lviv but the huge influence of the USSR made it different. Most ex-Soviet cities have the cold square architecture that looks quite boring. Lviv, however, perserved an interesting mix of Ukrainian, Polish,Armenian, Jewish, German and Austrian cultures. Somehow the city survived two World Wars and now offers us its architecture in the original form. In 1998 Lviv’s historic center became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

One of Lviv's Cathedrals,  photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

One of Lviv’s Cathedrals,
photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

I can keep on going about the old historical facts but you can find this info on wikipedia. Now let’s talk about what I have seen and liked in that city and what I recommend seeing when you visit Lviv, Ukraine.

 

Walking around Lviv

Right next to the Lviv’s Opera House (which you can’t miss) there is Lesi Ukrainky street where you can find a small market with loads of cool souvenirs: magnets, Ukrainian traditional clothing, paintings and a lot more. I couldn’t resist buying a t-shirt there. Remember that you can haggle with the vendors for a more authentic bazaar experience.

Lviv Opera Theater

Lviv Theater of Opera,
photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

From the market walk back to the theater and enjoy a relaxing walk through the Svobody avenue all the way down to Mitskevycha square. On your way you can grab some ice cream and enjoy it on of the numerous benches, if they aren’t taking up by a group of old men playing chess. Now you can head to Rynok Square (Market Square)  to see more beautiful buildings, street performers, cute shops and a lot more. You can easily spend 2-3 days just walking around the old town.

 

What to visit in Lviv

Lychakiv Cemetery is a must-see in Lviv. This cemetery is like nothing I have ever seen before.

Lychakivske Cemetery

Lychakivske Cemetery,
photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

Lychakiv Cemetery, Lviv, photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

Lychakiv Cemetery, Lviv,
photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

The Lychakiv Cemetery (Lychakivs’kyi tsvyntar) is one of Europe’s oldest and most famous cemeteries. Along the regular tombstones you will find grand monuments and even small chapels. The place has a unique feel to it and you could spend hours there, wondering around and reading writings in Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Latin, Hebrew and some other languages.

Lychakiv Cenetery Lviv

Chapel,Lychakiv Cemetery,
photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

This is the only cemetery (in my experience) that charges an entry fee, unless you have relatives buried there. I think the fee is a couple of euros, although we went in for free. If you go through the main entrance, you will pay the fee. If you go through a different side, you might get in without paying.

Lviv High Castle

Right before the sunset you should start climbing up the High Castle (Vysokyi zamok). The hike to the top might make you sweat so bring a bottle of water with you. Most people get a little disappointed once they reach the High Castle since there is no castle… Once upon a time there was a castle but it was destroyed by different wars. The city considered reconstructing the castle but it isn’t possible at the moment (and I am sure it would be crazy expensive). This place is the highest point of the city and offers a great view, especially during early evening.

High Castle in Lviv, Ukraine

Lviv High Castle
photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

When we got to the High Castle there were a lot of people, taking photos, enjoying the weather and even launching candle powered light balloons. This is another “must-see” place in Lviv.

Lviv has in incredible coffee culture. You can get a cup of coffee anywhere and everywhere. Besides coffee shops I’d highly suggest trying out Ukrainian food. There is no shortage of restaurants in the city. For a very unique coffee experience I would highly recommend the Lviv Coffee Mining Manufacture (Львівська копальня кави) located near the main square, Lemkivska Street 15a. If you are not in the mood for a coffee I still suggest going to his place and checking out their basement. Before going “to the mine” you’ll be handed an old metal helmet (for obvious reasons). Take a tour of the underground cafe, find a table in one of the poorly lit corners and enjoy the ambiance.

Lvivske Museum of Beer & Brewing  is very affordable and interesting. For $2 you get 2 freshly brewed beers and access to the museum. You can visit the museum by yourself, however a guided visit is a lot more interesting. You should contact the museum in advance to find out about their tours in English. The exhibition was cool, the short documentary about Lvivske beer was interesting and the beer was amazing. I don’t remember the last time I tasted such fresh beer.

Pharmacy Museum

Pharmacy Museum, Lviv,
photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

Pharmacy Museum, Lviv,  photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

Pharmacy Museum, Lviv,
photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

There is also a “Pharmacy Museum” which is pretty unique, loads of gorgeous churches, cathedrals and other historical monuments, even the main Post Office is worth walking into! I am sure I’m forgetting a lot of details and places, so Lviv is yours to discover. I am still surprised (but happy) that Lviv is not more known abroad. The city is simply amazing, a lot to see and do and prices are incredibly low, especially for Western travelers. There is a huge demand for cities like Lviv and I think now is the right time to visit, before the city gets ruined by the tourists and turns into another Prague…

"Something Interesting" gift shop in Lviv,  photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

“Something Interesting” gift shop in Lviv,
photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

Besides the landmarks, restaurants and coffee shops Lviv offers a lively and interesting night life which you should not miss. More on that in the next post.

Have you ever been to Lviv? Would you like to go there? Let me know in the comments!

– Alex

Tips for Visiting Auschwitz Death Camp

Writing about Auschwitz-Birkenau is hard, visiting the death camp is even harder.

auschwitz barbed wire

Barbed wire fence in Auschwitz I

While in Warsaw I have decided to spend a week-end in Krakow. A beautiful city in Southern Poland. I have been to Krakow in December 2010, when the city was cold and full of snow. The warm days of late spring promised a lot more. So off we went. After getting in touch with Michał on BlaBlaCar and arranging a ride to Krakow I had to figure out some activities for the week-end… besides going to bars.

Most people who visit Krakow will do 2 things: Salt mines and the infamous death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. To be honest I didn’t care so much about the salt mines, since I’ve heard it wasn’t all that impressive. Auschwitz, however, was a must-see.

Getting to Auschwitz

visiting auschwitz I

The city of Oświęcim (renamed to Auschwitz by Germans) is located 67km away from Krakow. Nazis built 3 concentration camps there: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenau and Auschwitz III–Monowitz. Most tourists will book a guided tour to Auschwitz directly in Krakow. Most tours cost 100-150zł ($35-50USD). This includes transportation from Krakow to Oświęcim and back. However, you can make that trip on your own, for a lot less.

One way train tickets from Krakow to Auschwitz costs 9zł ($3) and bus ticket is 12zł ($4). This website will help you find the schedule for the trains and buses. I recommend taking a bus since it’s faster (1h15-1h20) and the local train takes over 2 hours to reach the city of Oświęcim. Some buses from Krakow will drop you off at the train station, others will take you to the Auschwitz I gate. If you need to get to Auschwitz from the train station you can catch a cab for 10-15zł or take a local bus (numbers 1 and 24-29) for less than 3zł. There is a free shuttle that runs every 30 minutes (sometimes more often) between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

Entrance to both sites is free, however they have “donation boxes”, so feel free to leave some money which will help maintaining the museum. Remember that access to Auschwitz I is only open to organized tours from 10am until 3pm. If you are coming alone, make sure you enter the museum grounds before 10 or after 3, You can also join a guided tour at the museum for 40zł. You can also buy a brochure for 10zł at the museum kiosk, this brochure will explain a few things about the site.

I should mention that buses back to Krakow are running until 5-6 pm or so, last train is departing around 7:30pm. I might be wrong but that was my experience (on a weekend). Before going there I suggest you check the schedule on the website I mentioned earlier and plan your return trip so you don’t get stuck in Oświęcim for the night… unless you really like very small towns.

The Auschwitz I

sign on the gates of auschwitz

“Arbeit macht frei” – “work makes (you) free”

When planning to visit the Auschwitz museum I was expecting it would be a sad experience. To be honest – it wasn’t sad. It was heart-breaking, it was disgusting, it was painful and very touching. Walking through that territory and imagining the suffering of Poles, Jews, Romas and many others is simply devastating. Then, I walked into the gas chamber. I can’t really explain what I felt. All I can say is that within minutes I had to walk out as I got dizzy, sick to my stomach and holding back tears.

Auschwitz I gas chamber

Auschwitz I gas chamber

After a relatively brief tour I walked out from the museum grounds since I planned to visit Auschwitz II – Birkenau. This second site is located about 3km away from Auschwitz I. You can walk if you feel like it but I suggest taking the free shuttle.

Another tip: look at the shuttle schedule before entering the museum. This way you will make it to the shuttle stop and wouldn’t have to wait for 25 minutes till the next shuttle. Just make sure you get to the shuttle stop a few minutes before the departure.

Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

As I was approaching the second site I couldn’t believe how huge it was. Barracks after barracks after barracks.

Visiting Auschwitz II - Birkenau

This second concentration camp had a capacity of 200,000 people at a time. Millions of people were sent to this site, most didn’t make it out of there alive.

Birkenau Railway

The railway tracks inside Birkenau split in different directions as camp was divided. Some parts were exclusive to men, some to women, some to Gypsies, some to Russians, etc. The rails that go to the right were probably the scariest, although most prisoners didn’t know about it.

Birkenau Road of death

Jews selected by SS for immediate death were headed along this road upon arrival to Birkenau. On the left and the right side of the road you can see ruins. Nazis tried to destroy the barracks and crematoriums to hide the evidence of their inhuman actions.

Birkenau memorial

 

I probably would not visit Auschwitz any time soon. It is a very difficult experience. Besides understanding how many people died there and how they were killed a lot of other things seem to be happening. Maybe my mind played tricks on me but I could swear I still smelt like something was burning near the destroyed crematorium. The air around the camp was heavy and the atmosphere was just… different.

If you ever get a chance – please do visit Auschwitz because no one will ever be able to explain what’s it really like.

I spent a lot of time deciding if I should publish this post since writing about it brings back the sadness and some other feelings. I hope this post will help you get prepared for the visit to Auschwitz – Birkenau.

 

– Alex

 

Invisible Exhibition – Warsaw, Poland

How much money would you be willing to pay for an exhibition that you can’t see? I paid about $8 and it was totally worth it!

NIEWIDZIALNA WYSTAWA Warsaw

photo by Elizabeth Viatkin

The Invisible Exhibition (Niewidzialna Wystawa) in Warsaw offers just that: a tour into the world “without sight”. They asked us to not reveal too many details about this great exhibition so I will keep it short.

Before entering the exhibition rooms you will be instructed on how to behave. These little rules and hints will be very useful, so listen carefully. After the instructions your guide will take through a very memorable experience when you will use all your senses, except the sight. Your guide will be either blind or almost and you will not see anything for about an hour, while going through the exhibition.

It is highly suggested to contact the folks at Niewidzialna Wystawa a day in advance (especially if you want a tour in English). When I went there they told us that sometimes you might wait a while for a tour and someday they are sold out for the day. If you are a big group – you should also contact them in advance and reserve a tour.

If you can’t visit this exhibition in Warsaw – you can also visit it in Budapest and Prague.

One last tip: bring a few złoty with you for the tour, they might come in very handy at the end of the tour 😉

The regular tickets cost 24 zł on weekdays and 28 zł on weekends. You will pay 3 zł less if you buy the tickets online. Lower prices are also offered for students, elderly, families and groups.

For more info: Niewidzialna Wystawa Website (EN and PL)

 

– Alex

The Neon Muzeum in Warsaw

The Neon Muzeum is located in Praga district, Warsaw. This museum’s main goal is to preserve and document old Polish neon signs.

Elizabeth made this short video to gave you an idea what it’s about. If you are in Warsaw – you must check this place out.

Besides the museum you can also enjoy the Soho Factory, where the Neon Muzeum is located. You will find some cool shops, cafes and more around the museum. Remember that the museum is not publicly funded so your donations will help keeping this place alive.

Neon Muzeum:

Budynek 55, Soho Factory, Mińska 25, 03-808 Warszawa

Neon Museum Website

Opening hours:

Monday    Closed
Tuesday    Closed
Wednesday    12:00 – 5:00 pm
Thursday    12:00 – 5:00 pm
Friday    12:00 – 5:00 pm
Saturday    12:00 – 5:00 pm
Sunday    12:00 – 4:00 pm