Odessa City Center

What to Do and See in Odessa, Ukraine

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.

Odessa Street Art

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.

Derybasivska Street

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.

Twelve Monuments Chair

I finally ended up eating with the Mafia and then called it a night.

Potemkin Steps

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.

Potemkin Stairs in Odessa

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.

Istanbul Park in Odessa

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.

Odessa City Hall

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.

Green Theater in Tarasa Shevchenka Park

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.

Luna Park in Odessa

Arcadia

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.

Beach Crowd in Odessa

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.

Black Sea Beach in Odessa

Nemo Dolphinarium

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.

Dolphin Show Odessa

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.

Tram in Odessa

Accommodations

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.

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…

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18 comments

  1. Taking a walking tour is always a good idea, but how one can see, you found some beautiful spots by yourself 🙂 I love the look of the Primorsky Boulevard and you could totally find my hanging around in Arcadia 😀 Taking the right train is a bit of a gamble in many countries, but as long as it is only a short ride …

    • Thanks for the comment! I couldn’t agree more about the trains. I was going to take the train from Kiev to Bucharest, but it would have been 24 hours, and I had already seen what the conditions were like. I’ll certainly be back to Odessa again someday to explore those places more, and partake in that wonderfully cheap food.

  2. Had never heard of Odessa! The streets are so vibrant! :)The Arcadia will all it’s amusement activities and the beach! 🙂 Would have loved to see visuals of the dolphin show though!

  3. You know…. I rarely do walking tours, but this sounds a great idea. Being a bit of a carnival freak, I’d have loved the Luna Park inside Tara Shevchenka Park.

  4. Odessa looks nothing like I expected! Looks like you had a great time, any favorites?

    • To be honest, there wasn’t really anything I didn’t like. I really loved the dolphin show, and the parks were really nice too. The streets and beaches might have been a bit touristy for my taste, but I still enjoyed them. If I had to pick my favorite spot, it would probably be Tara Shevchenka Park, with the Luna Park in it. I didn’t even mention the massive rope obstacle course in the trees next to Luna Park. So much to do there.

  5. I’ve heard and read tons beautiful stories about Ukraine and dying to explore it as soon as possible. Not only Kiev, seems like there’s also many fun things to do in Odessa. Is it safe to travel around Ukraine now though?

    • I don’t think it’s possible to travel into Eastern Ukraine, but the rest is still relatively safe, with the usual precautions taken. I know the Odessa Mafia have made a name for themselves, and there are few countries in the world that don’t have scams. But I never felt unsafe there. I also still want to explore more of the country. Especially the mountains in the west.

  6. My first introduction to Odesssa was many years back through a novel by Irving Wallace that was titled as, “The Odessa File”, The city is charming and has an elegance which is at the same time so colourful. Would love to visit the city some day.

  7. authenticfoodquest

    The beach looks great, but surprisingly packed. Were you there on a weekend? This is such a refreshing point of view on Ukraine and Odessa in particular. Sounds like knowing the local language is critical. Is English widely spoken? The prices are incredible. Good to know it is one of the cheapest countries in Europe 🙂

    • That was actually a weekday, but still in the summer. A few of the touristy places spoke English, but it certainly wasn’t common in the country. I’m used to getting buy with the language barrier though.

  8. Congrats on country #44! Thanks for this insight into your travels through Odessa – Ukraine is not a country I would have immediately thought to visit, but it seems like the city has a lot of color, culture, and history – definitely a lot of statues and sculptures to take in! City Hall is such a beautiful building, I love the Neoclassical style.

    The beach at Arcadia definitely looks packed with people, so I would perhaps try not to get caught up in the crowds; I’m not a fan of dolphinariums myself, but I do agree with and respect your view on seeing things personally for yourself before judging or jumping to a particular view. Sometimes there are positive impacts or sides to a story which we need to be open to hear.

    • Thanks a lot for your feedback. I certainly found Odessa to exceed my expectations too. I really appreciate your comment about the Dolphinarium. I would have liked to dig into what good their attraction was doing for the animals, but there was a distinct language barrier. I’ve yet to find a single news article in English about them online. But yeah, I think the most important thing is to be willing to see both sides of the equation, rather than listening to one side.

  9. The glass covered archaeological site at Primorsky Boulevard sounds really intriguing! I love how this park and the Tarasa Shevchenka Park have so much to do, but completely different atmospheres! A peaceful, and colorful walk with latte versus watching archery and knife throws. Both sound so cool!

    • There were so many more parks in Odessa I could have written about to. It really is a beautiful city. That archaeological site wasn’t too big – just a small underground room, but still interesting.

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