My first visit to Lviv, Ukraine absolutely blew me away.
The weekend trip had a little bit of everything. From some super fun highs to some emotional lows. From the sheer affordability of it all to the harsh conditions that some of its citizens live under.
After spending 2 days there, only one thing is for certain. I can’t wait to see it again.
It's no secret that Ukraine is very affordable, especially compared to Western prices. But I didn't realize just how affordable it was until I arrived.
A pint of craft beer cost anywhere from $1 to $2. Meals at sit-down restaurants were less than $5. The tram fare was $0.18.
On the flip side, what this also means is that the country isn't all that developed. The average salary is in the $200 to $400 USD range per month. And that's why many young people flock to neighboring Poland to earn a better living.
Unfortunately, the older generation isn't as lucky, and some of them have to think of creative ways to make a few bucks. More on that later.
Joanna and I, along with a couple of friends, booked beds at Old City Hostel, right in the middle of the city. Lviv city center isn't really that big, so it was super convenient to walk around from the hostel.
The hostel itself was no frills. It was cheap and convenient, but don't expect a high level of comfort.
We just happened to be visiting on Independence Day. A dance performance was happening right in the middle of Rynok (main square).
The night had an awesome vibe. Tourists and local alike seemed to be having a great time. I was happy to be visiting a new city and country.
At the same time, I couldn't believe that I was so hesitant to visit Lviv, or Ukraine in general, because it was always kind of a mystery to me. I didn't know if I'd be safe or treated well.
Well, the verdict is that I'm glad I can finally put that thought to bed.
There were tons of great places to eat and drink. Every single place we visited, I would go back again in a heartbeat. In fact, I think everyone who visits Lviv for the first time should hit these legendary spots.
Dim Legend is Ukrainian for House of Legends. The restaurant takes up an entire building. Each room in the building has a different theme, and the rooftop has a random old car.
I have no idea why, but it was cool to sit in it.
The restaurant also hires midget waiters, and we did indeed see one. I don't know how I feel about this, so I'm just going to leave the topic alone.
But I would definitely go back to Dim Legend for the food and drinks. Maybe next time I'll even try to throw a coin into the chimney sweep's hat!
(2019 Update: Visitors are still welcomed, but there are no more food or midget waiters. The restaurant is now purely a tourist attraction)
One of the must-see places in Lviv is Kryivka. It sits in the middle of Rynok and is super easy to find. You just have to know where to look.
The door has no sign, but it's so popular that there's usually a line outside.
When the doorman opens the door to let you in, you have to say "Slava Ukraini", which means Glory to Ukraine. As soon as you say it, he lets you in and give you a shot of vodka to welcome you.
He then directs you to go downstairs to the basement, where there might be random performance breaking out in the middle of dinner.
Just go and check it out for yourself. It's totally worth it.
And the best part is that it is open 24/7.
We literally waited for 2 days to get into the Baczewski breakfast buffet.
On the first day, we arrived at 10am and waited in line. By the time 10:45am rolled around, the hostess came out and said breakfast was ending.
So the next day, we arrived at 9:15am and waited in line again. We didn't actually get seated until close to 10:30am, and we were one of the last ones to get in.
It was chaotic because we all took turns packing our bags while waiting in line so that we could check out of the hostel before we got seated.
But the atmosphere was superb. There was a pianist playing. There were birds chirping.
It was definitely worth seeing. I would just try to go a lot earlier next time.
It seems like all the famous restaurants and bars take up entire buildings, and Beer Theater was no exception.
On the ground floor were thousands of beers for sale.
On the second floor was a band playing to a raucous crowd.
We settled on the third floor and grabbed food and drinks while enjoying the music.
Go watch the band. Your visit to Lviv is not complete without it.
Lviv is lined with so many beautiful churches. If you're into seeing churches, you will not be disappointed. Pretty much all of them have very cool interiors that are worth taking a peek.
On the flip side, we saw a few old ladies sitting in front of church steps asking for handouts. At a time when they should be in rocking chairs playing with grandchildren, they are wearing dirty clothes and begging for money on the streets.
They probably haven't been hugged in years.
Admittedly, I got pretty emotional seeing them in such harsh conditions. One particular woman reminded me of my own grandmother, and tears started streaming down my eyes.
I thought I was immuned to it by now, after seeing so many unfortunate people living on the streets of LA and SF.
But I wasn't.
Perhaps I was just being overly dramatic. Or maybe I was just missing my grandma.
Either way, the gut punch made me appreciate my own life a whole lot more. I had a way out of Lviv. These ladies didn't. The reality of it was hard to swallow.
We were too late to buy train tickets for our return journey, so we ended up taking a taxi and crossing the border on foot. What we saw unfold in front of us at the checkpoint will stay in my memory bank for a long time.
In what has to be one of the hardest ways to cash in on price arbitrage, Ukrainians waited in line for 2 hours in the rain. They got patted down and scanned with a metal detector by Polish border patrol.
When they finally crossed the border, they'd try to sell the couple of packs of cigarettes and a half liter of liquor they carried across with them, all in the hopes of making something like $4 for the day's work before going back home.
When I got to the front of the line, I took out my US passport and was let through immediately.
Crossing the border by foot was an adventure. I couldn't really relax, though. If I tried to create a bit of space while standing in line, someone would squeeze right through. I had to block people from cutting in front of me for the entire 2 hour wait.
But they were trying to make a very hard living while I was on vacation. The sense of urgency between us was not comparable at the slightest.
While I did not enjoy this border crossing experience, I can now say I'm glad I did it.
With this bitter-sweet trip to Ukraine, I hit my travel goals for the year.
And all this, all the eye opening stuff that you cannot fully experience from travel guides or textbooks, all the sights and sounds and smells that are only available when you take the time to actively seek them out in person, all this is exactly why I travel.
It just makes me appreciate what I have even more. The stuff I take for granted. The food that's always on my table. And the ability to live life on my own terms is a luxury that many people cannot afford to have.
I leave Lviv this time with a new perspective. And that's what travel is all about.
Until next time,
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