Catherine the Great founded the city in 1794, envisioning a glorious seaside southern capital. Creating an urban pearl on the shores of the Black Sea, her team of international architects didn’t disappoint. Fabulous frontages went up, displaying an eclectic blend of architectural styles. Limes, acacias, chestnuts and plane trees were planted, adding greenery and shading streets to keep the Russian aristocrats who flocked here cool in summer.
During the Second World War and Soviet occupation, Odessa’s buildings remained remarkably intact, but were neglected to simply fade away. Now renovation and restoration are returning them to their former glory. On vul Pushkinska, I marvel at the Hotel Bristol’s makeover. Freshly painted in a dusky pink, the Bristol looks like the home of a fairy-tale heroine. In a Renaissance and Baroque fantasia of plaster and marble work, I see lions’ heads, semi-naked women and cherub wings carved intricately between columns and arches.
I find the city’s renowned Opera and Ballet Theatre, just a few streets from here, similarly rejuvenated. It’s a glamorous oval-shaped, late-19th-century, pale butterscotch affair, adorned with sculptures of mythical entities. Inside, goddesses of the stage – including Isadora Duncan and Anna Pavlova – once danced here for rapturous audiences, seated in sumptuous velvet, surrounded by Rococo splendour.
From here I head to nearby vul Prymosrky, a stately, tree-lined pedestrian area, running parallel with the sea. Babushkas rest on old-fashioned benches, watching photographers with peacocks approach visitors to photograph them and women in heels push Mary Poppins-style prams.
My stroll ends at the Potemkin Steps, the sweeping stairway made famous in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin. They feature in the film’s best-known scene, where Russian soldiers massacre Odessans during a 1905 anti-tsarist uprising. Although the massacre never actually took place on the steps, they remain a key city landmark.
From the top of the steps, I look down towards the port, Ukraine’s largest. During Catherine’s reign it was a free port, welcoming migrants from all over Europe to make a new home here. Turks, Albanians, Bulgarians, Poles and Armenians alongside Germans, French and Italians – all came and contributed to the creation of a city whose statue-lined rooftops and dreamy half-there, pastel-painted buildings make Odessa the prettiest, pearliest seaside queen I have ever seen.
PS Ukrainian International (00380 44581 5050; flyuia.com) offers flights from Gatwick and Heathrow to Odessa from £315 return. A number of buses run from the airport to parts of Odessa; tickets cost around 16p. Expect to pay around £8 for a taxi; negotiate a fee before you get in.
Cox & Kings (0845 154 8941; coxandkings.co.uk) offers a three-night package to Odessa at the Bristol Hotel (see ‘The Best Hotels’) with breakfast, from £825 per person, including private airport transfers and return flights with PS Ukrainian International via Kiev.
THE INSIDE TRACK
If you land at Odessa airport via a connecting domestic flight, the shuttle bus will drop you off by steel gates outside the terminal. Luggage follows in a trailer.
With numerous roadside cafés, vul Derybasivska is best for people watching; across the street, Pazzah shopping arcade has well-preserved examples of Odessa’s architectural embellishments – think nymphs, lions, goblins and gods.
Vul Gogolya, just west of the Potemkin Steps, is also famed for its array of fabulously elaborate 19th-century buildings.
Museums and galleries all have different closing days; check opening times individually.
THE BEST HOTELS
Quiet and pleasant location near the Opera and Ballet Theatre, with comfortable small rooms, friendly staff and free Wi-Fi (00380 48 242 9022; ayvazovsky.com.ua; doubles from £108 per night).
Frederic Koklen ££
City-centre boutique hotel in classic-style mansion offering bespoke elegant rooms plus gym and spa (737 5553; koklenhotel.com; doubles from £123 per night).
Bristol Hotel £££
Fabulous-looking five-star city centre hotel, with tasteful, large rooms, sweeping central staircase and high ceilings (796 5501; bristolhotel-odessa.com, doubles from £168 per night).
THE BEST RESTAURANTS
Russian dishes galore – from pickled watermelon to Beluga caviar – in a colourful, timber-lined restaurant; also serves Crimean wine (24 Lanzheronovskawa Street; 784 0203).
Pretty café, with antique furniture and paintings, tucked away in the City Garden, serving simple international as well as Odessan dishes (City Garden; 741 3331).
Ukrainska Lasunka £-££
Lively and atmospheric, offering an extensive range of traditional and tasty Ukrainian dishes, with an English menu and live music most evenings (Derybasivska 17; 725 8412).
What to avoid
- Pavements aren’t in the best condition. Look where you are going to avoid tripping.
- Pickpockets target the Derybasivska/Primorsky area. Avoid wearing a backpack and keep valuables hidden.
- Odessa’s beaches can get crowded in summer and many remain polluted; think twice about swimming.
- Keep your passport with you. Ukrainian police are keen on checking papers. They may ask for money, but don’t oblige. Rather, ask to be taken to the station. Police then leave most people alone.
5 random facts about Ukraine
- According to the Traveler’s Digest, Kiev is home to the most beautiful women in the country.
- The invention of the first gas lamp took place in Lviv.
- The country is the second largest in Europe after Russia.
- Ukraine hosts up to seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the primeval beech forests of the Carpathians.
- It has one of the largest armies in Europe.
What else to read about Ukraine
Thank you for your interest in Ukraine and we hope that you will love this country even more when you will visit it.
There are many exhibition centres and art galleries in the Kyiv city for lovers of contemporary art and modern style.
They are almost always open for tourists with sophisticated taste and are ready to share the bright impressions.
In Kyiv you can spend time with your family with fun and pleasure: hiking to museums, amusement and attractions park; participation in family festivals and events.
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