There’s no hiding from the obvious: parts of Eastern Ukraine have been drawn into a (probably Russia-incited) civil war. Places like the Crimean peninsula, and the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk should, for the foreseeable future, be considered off-limits to all travellers, and it’s important to keep an eye on how this story continues to develop.
The good news? For the time being, Western Ukraine is just fine. In fact, over 1,000 km away from all the hubbub, the city of Lviv remains safe, beautiful, historic, and yes, eminently affordable.
Is It Safe To Travel Lviv?
First and foremost, no, there is no fighting taking place in Lviv. Back in February, when former President Viktor Yanukovych was still (technically) in power, the people of Lviv ransacked police headquarters and effectively took control of their city from their pro-Russian federal leader. Since then, Andriy Sadovyi, the mayor of the city, has kept true to his word and maintained a peaceful environment.
Many Lviv locals are more than happy to entertain good-natured and honest questions about their current political situation, as they are proud of their country’s accomplishments so far. It should go without saying, however, that your own political opinions should be checked at the door in these conversations. Ask to learn and understand, not to make your own viewpoint known.
Ultimately, travellers need to exercise about the same amount of caution in Lviv as they would just about anywhere in Western Europe — maybe less. Watch your wallet, keep your passport somewhere safe, and keep your wits about you. But context here is important: you’re more likely to be relieved of your money/wallet in places like Barcelona, Rome, or Madrid.
Beautiful, Historic Lviv
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Lviv is that, unlike so many central and eastern european cities, its old town survived two world wars (and multiple changes in national orientation) well enough that it didn’t have to be filled in with piles of ugly, Soviet-era architecture. Where cities like Bratislava and even beautiful Budapest were forced to build Communist-inspired, concrete monstrosities in the midst of gorgeous Hapsburg-era gems, Lviv’s downtown has only a light dusting of Soviet influence, maintaining a distinct Austro-Hungarian/Ukrainian look.
The city also features dozens of small museums. Yes, there are some big ones, but the beauty of this place is that in a single day (and for very little money) you can see a historical beer-brewing museum, a medieval armoury, an arts and crafts museum, and then fit in another two or three after lunch.
While in town, eat as much food as you possibly can. While Ukrainian cuisine (and western Ukrainian cuisine in particular) shares common elements with Russian and Polish food, they also have a smattering of Hungarian influence, and a flare all their own. Cabbage salads full of dill, cheese and potato-stuffed varenyky (a.k.a. perogies), skewer-roasted meats and vegetables cooked on open fires, borsch (a beet-based soup), or sheep’s cheese breakfast porridge? Traditional Ukrainian dishes are a specialty, here.
Time Travel In The Carpathian Mountains
If you can, take a day trip to through the western Ukrainian countryside. Although known for its giant, flat plains full of wheat crops, Ukraine also has its own swath of the Carpathian Mountains, and they are within a couple hours’ drive of Lviv.
Once there, it’s not uncommon to see people tending to fields by hand, using only wooden tools to harvest their crops on small, family-owned farms. (Another quick note on food: you won’t eat any finer locally-grown, organic or free range grub than right here.) Many farmers don’t even use hay bailers — they use wooden pitchforks to make haystacks like you might expect to have seen in the 19th century.
Aside from the quaint countryside and beautiful mountain vistas, there are plenty of destinations to explore in Western Ukraine. Check out the Golden Horseshoe Castles, or the site of the old Tustan Fortress, where unique rock formations provide great views and leave interesting clues about the area’s medieval history.
As Lviv is the only major city in Ukraine with a municipally-regulated tour company licensing office, you can feel safe grabbing a bus with a pile of other Ukrainian tourists (there aren’t so many English-speaking tourists). Check to make sure that English is an option on your tour, or that your guide can at least help translate.
Yes, it’s cheap to travel Lviv and Ukraine in general. Wildly cheap. It always was inexpensive, but ever since trouble broke out in the east of the country, the value of the Hryvnia has fallen off quite a bit to about thirteen to nine cents per USD/CAD.
A quick browse-about on sites like Airbnb reveal palatial places for rent at very affordable rates, and the best part is that they’re even close to the downtown, which is itself small enough to walk basically anywhere. Don’t feel like walking? Call a cab! It’s unlikely to run you more than $5-6, and quite possibly less.
Arts and crafts markets provide incredible bang for the buck on everything from hand-carved tobacco pipes to hand-woven wool rugs, not to mention piles of Soviet-era knickknacks. This is definitely a great city in which to buy souvenirs.
What are you waiting for? Western Ukraine is safe, cheap, beautiful, interesting, and not yet overrun with Western tourists. In fact, Lviv is still refreshingly under-travelled and how many European cities can you say that about?
Ukraine is in the midst of an interesting time in its own history at the moment, and stronger ties with the West appear imminent, even while the citizens are prouder than ever to call themselves Ukrainian. An anecdote to end on: at a Jewish restaurant on the site of a former synagogue, our server asked us to haggle over the cost of our meal (a slightly unusual gimmick, to be sure). My wife and I sheepishly sang a song or two in an attempt to put on a show for our server, but we asked that she return the favour. She sang the Ukrainian national anthem with gusto, and at the end, had to wipe away a tear. “Sorry”, she said. “I just can’t help it.” If she loves her country this much, don’t you think you would, too?
Travel Lviv photos courtesy of J.P. Nikota; Slider: “Lwów – Widok z wieży ratuszowej 01” by Lestat (Jan Mehlich) – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons