The Faded Beauty of Lviv, Ukraine

Vienna, Prague, Krakow, Budapest. All these cities and their historic old towns are unquestionably beautiful, but they all have the same sort of sterile feel to them. They’re immaculately maintained and well worth visiting, yet they feel a little unreal. Maybe it’s because those places are designed tourism in mind. You’ll run into the same chain stores, the same overpriced coffee shops and the same accordian-wielding street performers. Everything is a little too beautiful. As different as the architectural styles are in each of Europe’s great old towns, there’s a feeling of sameness when traveling through them.

That wasn’t the case in Lviv (also known as Lwow) in western Ukraine, where I spent four nights. The city has similarly impressive architecture to those better-known cities, but it’s a lot rougher around the edges. Many of the buildings escaped catastrophic damage during the World Wars. They couldn’t escape years of neglect due to poverty and indifference. There are plenty of beautiful buildings and gentrified for tourism streets, although it’s not hard to find an alleyway or a small road with a much more lived-in feel. Tourism is no doubt present in the heart of the old town, although the 180,000 annual tourists to the city is a fraction of what those other great cities get.

The city of 700,000 is steeped in history, like so many other cities in Europe. My great grandpa came from this city when it was the Polish part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The collapse of the empire stirred up a conflict between Poland and Ukraine, and Ukraine officially took over the city when Poland’s borders were changed. Before the World Wars, Lviv was the site of battles against the Swedes and also the Turks.

Now, tourism plays a big part in Ukraine’s seven largest city. You’ll see some outright tackiness – such as people posing as Minions and Darth Vader to make some money – but it’s a lot more subdued than most of the touristy old towns. There are a handful of museums, a top-notch opera house and a number of quiet places to go for a walk. I can’t really put my finger on why I loved Lviv so much. It probably had a lot to do with the city actually being inhabited and not completely gone to tourism. That could change in the future, but right now Lviv feels like what Europe must have been 100 years ago before widespread tourism and gentrification took over.

Below are some of the photos I took.

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Away from the main square are a number of rough-looking yet striking buildings.

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A pharmacy and apartment complex. About a kilometer away is a new, fancy mall that’s nearly completed.

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The Lychakiv Cemetery holds 300,000 graves. Most of the older graves are Polish, while the newer ones are almost exclusively Ukrainian.

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The Lviv Theatre of Opera and Ballet is a great place to catch a show for $5.

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No cars are allowed down this street.

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This building is more ruined than most.

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Karge

Karge

I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?