The Ukraine was Country #44 for me. My first stop was in Odessa, called the Pearl of the Black Sea. I’d been given several expectations of cheap prices, beautiful girls and an International culture. All were true, and so much more.
I had organized to get toured around the city, but a fiasco with my email prevented me from finalizing where and when to find my guide. Instead, I reverted to old habits of simply wandering around the city. I failed to follow my own advice of taking a walking tour as my first action in the city, but I think I still managed to cover a good portion. Here’s what I saw, and some tips for your own travels to Odessa.
Deribasovskaya Street and the 12 Chairs Monument
It was already fairly late in the day when I made it to Odessa, having caught a Blablacar from Chisinau, Moldova and traveling through Transnistria. Looking for dinner, I wandered onto Deribasovskaya Street, not yet know that it was one of the main attractions of the city.
Deribasovskaya Street runs east to west along the northern side of the City Center and is lined with restaurants, shops and cafes specifically for tourists, but frequented by locals too. At the night, the street was particularly busy. Along the street and many of the side streets were a bunch of young girls dressed in traditional Ukrainian clothing and riding colorful ponies, a sight I hadn’t yet seen in my travels.
The street was originally built along the city’s oldest park. Today there are several statues and sculptures in the park, including the Monument to Ilf and Petrov, otherwise known as the Twelve Chairs Monument, a bronze chair based on the 1928 Russian novel. A little ways off is the Monument to Leonid Utiosov, a bronze park bench where the Odessa-born music legend sits and looks out at the park. Nearby, you can hear his music at the phone booth.
I finally ended up eating with the Mafia and then called it a night.
The following day, I made my way back to Deribasovskaya Street to meet Scott Paton for a pizza lunch and an interview with Daddy Blogger. We had been trying to connect up for weeks, and it just so happened that Scott was the editor for Daddy Blogger, so we were able to do a three-way interview at Scott’s Airbnb.
The Airbnb was just behind the statue of the Duc de Richelieu at the top of the Potemkin Stairs, so I continued my exploration from there with Scott as my guide. He told me about the significance of the stairs at the time, and how they were the original entrance to Odessa by the sea. They were made famous by the 1925 movie The Battleship Potemkin. The stairs are an optical illusion. From the correct angle at the top, all you see are the 10 landings. Similarly, all you can see from the bottom are the 192 stairs.
Primorsky Boulevard and Istanbul Park
Next to the top of the stairs, running south, is Primorsky Boulevard, a tree-lined lane filled with couples, artists and a glass-covered archaeology site. At night, the trees light up with multi-colored Christmas lights, and a fleet of coffee trucks await to serve steaming lattes. At the bottom of the park is the Monument to Alexander Pushkin – the famous Russian poet and novelist considered to be the founder of the modern Russian language. It was quickly becoming evident that the Ukraine really likes its statues and sculptures.
Archaeological Museum and National Theater of Opera and Ballet
Continuing on past the park, I saw a handful of beautiful buildings, starting with City Hall. Designed in the Neoclassical style, the building is easily recognizable as the local government. Around the back of City Hall, past the distance pointer, is the Archaeological Museum with a statue of Laocoon in front. Next door is the Maritime Museum, surrounded by beautiful rose gardens and, when I was there, an art exhibit.
This is also the location of the National Opera and Ballet Theater, both #1 and #5 on Tripadvisor’s “Top Thing to Do in Odessa” list. The building was built originally built in 1810, but burned down in 1873. It was rebuilt in 1887 in a French rococo style, and most recently refurbished in 2007. It now looks as it originally did in 1810. I didn’t get a chance to make it inside, but from without it was clear it was a definite masterpiece in a city full of beautiful and diverse architecture.
Tarasa Shevchenka Park
The last place I explored that day was Tarasa Shevchenka Park overlooking the Port of Odessa. The park was absolutely packed with tons of activities going on, including an archery and throwing knife pitch. Nestled in the trees of the park is the Green Theather, a separated area reminiscent of Christiania in Copenhagen. A large amphitheater is located in the center, and plenty of food stalls surround it.
The next day I also found the Luna Park inside Tara Shevchenka Park, a permanent carnival establishment complete with games of skill, several rides and a giant Ferris wheel.
For my final day in Odessa, I decided to explore the beach. Leaving my luggage at the NEBO Hotel where I was staying, I took the city bus down to the Arcadia “boardwalk.” This walking street at the south end of town is lined with shops, amusement park rides and a large waterpark. At the end of the street is the beach, where Ukrainians and presumably other tourists pack the sands beach chair to beach chair.
The beach actually extends up several miles along the coast of the Black Sea, all the way to the port near the Potemkin Stairs. Some parts are too rocky to enjoy, but most of the coast is sandy beach, and completely packed with people.
The final place I went to could certainly be considered controversial as a general statement. One of Odessa’s top attractions is a dolphin show. These tend to have a bad rap in general, despite any status they have as a conservatory, research facility or any other stated purpose. Having said that, dolphins are some of my favorite animals, and I thoroughly loved the show.
Obviously this is a point of contention for many people, but I personally like to experience things for myself, rather than listening to all the hype from everyone else. Too often, all similar attractions get identified with each other, and one of them doing something wrong gives them all a bad name. Similarly, media and journalists love to find fault with things and concentrate on the bad. Rarely do they look at the positive side of things. I’m not saying that dolphinariums are a good thing; rather I simply refuse to accept the “group agreement” about all the bad news and facts in the world.
Transportation To and Through Odessa
There are plenty of ways to get to Odessa. Flights there can be really cheap, while many come by ship across the Black Sea. Personally I took a Blablacar from Chisinau. Most bus, train and car options from neighboring countries run around $10-$20.
The trains in the country tend to be the cheapest, but I also found that there are two wildly different types of trains. One is an ancient metal box loaded with a dozen Russians per sleeping car eating pungent food in squalid conditions. The other is a comfortable, modern train. Unfortunately, unless you speak Russian or have a local translator, getting the correct ticket is nearly impossible. After hours of trying, I finally got a ticket which I was assured was for the good train, but at the end of the night I found it was for the other. I ended up refunding it and getting a bus up to Kiev. The buses are very nice, and only a couple dollars more than the train.
Local transportation is wonderfully cheap. A single ride on the buses or metro costs less than $0.20. Routes run all around the city. Most of the buses look like relics from pre-Soviet days, which is exactly what they are. They run on the original, ancient tram lines using the overhead power cables. Perhaps not the smoothest ride, but I never felt they weren’t safe.
As one of the top tourist destinations in the Ukraine, there are plenty of places to sleep in Odessa. I stayed at the Nebo Hotel, a small serviced apartments hotel with a great view. There are hundreds of other hotels, B&Bs and hostels to stay at. The hostels are as cheap as $3 a night, and the hotels only average around $25 a night, making this one of the cheapest cities in Europe to visit. Don’t forget to claim your $20 credit with Airbnb if you haven’t signed up already, or get insider deals with Agoda.
Planning to Visit Ukraine?
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.