L'viv - the Ensemble of the Historic Centre represents a crossing point of cultures and architectural traditions.
The trade routes in the Middle Ages attracted a number of etnic groups with different traditions: Ukrainian, Armenian, German, Jewish, Polish, Italian and Austrian. These groups lived in separate communities, and left their own religious and artistic marks on the city.
In comparison to other central and eastern European towns of medieval origin, L'viv survived very well (comparable to Cracow, but with a different road in history).
Map of L'vivLoad map
While I write this, the Russian army is bombing and shelling Ukraine, targeting and killing civilians indiscriminately. Whole towns are obliterated and millions of Ukrainians are fleeing the front lines. So far, L'viv being the western most major city of Ukraine has been spared the worst, but individual bomb raids have reached it. Hopefully, the precious jewel that is L'viv will remain unscathed, while the Ukrainians repel the Russian army.
One justification for the war can be found in Putin's now infamous pseudo historic treatise on Ukraine. It's major claim is that there is no such thing as an Ukrainian nation. All Ukrainians are really Russians at heart; Russians who need to be bombed back into the nation they belong to.
The whole argument is bs. Nations are constructs, not natural or historic givens. By Putin's logic, Austrians and the German speaking Swiss should be German; they decidedly are not. Listen to me and Philipp discuss the abuse of the German language that is parkieren, or try to explain to me what a Paradeiser (?!) is, and you will understand. Parken und Tomate are the proper German words if you are wondering.
In 1870, when Germany unified under Prussian banners, some felt German, but most felt they were Hessians, Prussians, Bavarians, Frisian (my paternal ancestors), Polish, Danish and what not. The German nation had to be created not just by blood and iron as Bismarck succinctly put it; and there was way too much of it. But also by assembling regional myths and traditions into a coherent national story. Go listen to Neil MacGregor's podcast on Germany if you are interested how the Grimms, beer and sausages contributed to creating a German identity.
But even if you accept Putin's premise that nations are historic entities, L'viv demonstrates how inconsistently Putin (or for that matter any nationalist) applies his own logic. If you read my previous review from 2020, I reference Russia exactly zero times. Same as Els in her intro. She does mention plenty of nationalities congregating in this multicultural hub: Ukrainians, Polish, Armenians, Austrians, Germans, Jews, and even Italians (?). But Russians are pointedly missing in her list. And they are missing for a simple reason: L'viv was never part of Russia and there is no way to construe it as Russian. Unless you are Russian nationalist who enjoys pseudo history and who is eager to subdue all those lesser people around your great nation.
For the most part, L'viv was part of Poland and the Polish Lithuanian Commonweal. After the partitions of Poland it became the capital of the province of Galicia in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. As I understand it, it was the 4th most important city in the empire and blossomed. In the interwar period it became Polish again in the 2nd Polish Republic. It was only after World War 2 that the territory became part of the Soviet Union and the Polish population was expelled westwards.
I have visited L'viv twice. One time coming from Zamosc years ago. And in 2021, during the summer easing of the Covid lockdowns. Each time I came I found a splendid, lively and culturally rich city. I fondly remember the many restaurants and the busy bars and cafes, serving Austrian style coffee. I guessed that at the latest when Ukraine joins the European Union, L'viv would feature prominently on the European getaway list or the UK stag nights.
With war raging, the obvious priority is not on making this a tourist hotspot. It is on the ordinary Ukrainians suffering from the Russian aggression and making it out alive. But after the war is over I hope that L'viv will keep or regain it's unique charm quickly.
Lviv (Lvov, Lemberg) is a beautiful Central European city, but you shouldn't expect a grand majestic city like Prague, Budapest or Cracow. It is much more intimate in character. Its historic centre portrays medieval and Renaissance architecture, while its surroundings is mainly made of Neoclassical boulevards (prospects in Ukrainian) and churches (like the prominent St. George Cathedral). Some art nouveau architecture is present too (as for instance, the railway station) whereas Stalinist style buildings are surprisingly sparse.
In the centre there are numerous churches, the most special of which are, in my opinion, the Boim Chapel and the Armenian church. The Boim Chapel is an impressive family church, built in the 17th Century entirely of black stone and is artistically interesting.
The Armenian church is hidden in one of the smaller streets of the old town. Its entrance is hidden behind a barber shop. It has beautiful medieval frescoes and an atmospheric courtyard.
Look for the impressive sculptures of Pinsel, a local German artist of the 18th Century. His works are found in several churches and there is even a museum entirely dedicated to his oeuvre.
An important museum is the National Museum where you can admire the history of Ukrainian art. Its most important feature is its collection of historical icons.
After the first partition of Poland in 1772, L'viv (Polish Lvov, German Lemberg) became part of Austrian Empire and was the capital of the region of Galicia. It would grow to be the 4th largest city of first the Austrian, then the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Walking around it's old town today, you clearly see the Austrian influence in the architecture: It's feels like a small Vienna, quite out of place this far east.
While the Austrians, initially tried to Germanize the region, they never succeeded. Eventually, Polish became the administrative language spoken in the city by the Polish elite, while Ruthenian (Ukrainian) was the language of the countryside and the peasant population. It's a role reversal compared to cities further west where Polish was the peasant language while German the language of the city elite.
After the 2nd World War Stalin forcibly resettled the Polish (west) and Ukrainians (East) populations. The Polish replaced the Germans of Silesia that were expelled and had to migrate further west. This is why, if you are in Wroclaw (Breslau) you will find restaurants serving Lemberg/Lvov cuisine.
Wandering the streets of L'viv you feel like you can see a glimpse of the glory of the Austrian empire. This was a vibrant, cosmopolitan city, with Jews/Jiddish, Armenians, Polish, German, and Ukrainian influences. The Armenian church is a true gem as is eating at an authentic Jewish/Jiddish restaurant. It all ended due to World War 1.
L'viv rivals other central and eastern European cities such as Vilnius and Krakow. Similar to these cities, it has also become part of the tourist itinerary thanks to low prices and cheap flights (pre COVID).
L'viv has an international airport and (pre Covid) there were an increasing number of cheap flights going there from all over Europe. Alternatively, you can take a bus from Warsaw or Lublin in Poland. Or a train to Kiew.
In my case, I stayed at Zamosc and then found a connection from Tomaszów Lubelski. But instead of going straight to L'viv I got off at Schowkwa where I visited one of the Wooden Tserkvas. From Schowkwa, there were plenty of local busses doing the trip to L'viv. However, I got drop off way North of the city center and it was a long walk to get to my hotel. I left by express train to Kiew.
The Historic Centre of L’viv presents an eclectic mix of architectural and artistic highlights of both Eastern European and Western origin. I stayed there for 2 nights during the long Pentecost weekend. The city is very popular with Polish tourists – the border is only an hour away – and has a lively atmosphere with cafés, terraces and street performers. Cost levels are very low, they are comparable to those in Belarus which I visited last year and a fraction (25-30%) of those in Western Europe. It is easy to navigate in L’viv as signs around town are in English as well: a souvenir from the Euro 2012 football championships.
L'viv has traditionally been a trading city, and has been part of the Kingdom of Poland (until 1772) and Austria-Hungary (until 1918). It attracted different populations that lived in their own communities - from Armenians to Jews, and from Ukrainians to Germans and Hungarians. Reminders of this multicultural history can still be found, though most of them have only been revived since post-Soviet times. Much of the buildings that one sees nowadays around town date back to ca. 1900, and subsequently there is a lot of Art Nouveau.
The city has no exceptional highlights that would warrant a WH listing on its own and it lacks a certain prettiness that for example attracts the tourist masses to a town like Cesky Krumlov, but there is a bunch of sights that are worth seeing anyway. The Armenian Cathedral for example should not be missed. Its multicolour interior is vastly different from the usually sober Armenian churches that I have seen around the world. The facial expressions on the wall paintings (also dating from around 1900?) are odd, to say the least.
Further to the north lies the Opera, a neo-renaissance building from 1901 that could be at home in Paris. Nearby is the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum. It still seems to adhere to the communist manual for museums (an elderly lady is present in every room), but the collection should not be overlooked. It mostly consists of late medieval and 16th-17th century icons that were removed from churches in the L'viv region. Even a few full iconostases are present. The quality of the icons is exquisite, and there are explanations in English.
The main square (Rysnok Square) has a number of interesting 17th-century merchants' houses. In one of them lies "the Italian courtyard" - the city's most romantic place, where photographers were busy capturing bridal couples when I visited. In the southeast of the center lies the former synagogue (only some ruins are left) and the Greek-Catholic Bernardine church with its fortifications.
The L’viv WHS consists of two locations: besides the city center as described above, there’s also St. George Cathedral which lies some 2 km to the west. It is the main church of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. The yellow baroque and rococo-style building lies on a hill. It was busy when I arrived: a wedding ceremony was going on. Apparently, Sunday is a popular day to marry in Ukraine, because the next couple was already waiting outside. I was able to get inside anyway via a side entrance. Like the other churches that I visited in L'viv, there are many banners depicting saints and the Ukrainian national colours. St. George, killing the dragon, seems to be the most popular saint in the city.
Looking back at the many small and larger churches that I visited in L’viv they are mostly Catholic in some kind of denomination (I did not enter an Orthodox church, although 32% of the population belongs to that faith). The proximity to Poland and the long shared history with the Polish people will be the cause of that. The popular Polish pope John Paul II is revered here very much as well.
The Old Town in Lviv was named a Unesco World Heritage Site not without a reason. In the old city of Lviv different cultures reflect. Here the respective rulers - Poles, Austrians, Ukrainians - left their mark. The old town of Lviv is reminiscent of the old Austria or Krakow. However, it has not been renovated.
Everywhere there are places where one can feel transported into a bygone century. The center of the old town is the Rynok. Here is the Ratusha. The old town hall houses today the county government of Lviv region. You can climb the great tower of the building for a small fee (about 40 euro cents). Then you have a wonderful panoramic view of the entire old town. In the old town there are eight churches. The oldest of these is the Armenian Mary's Cathedral in the Krakivska road. It was built around 1356. And such a variety of galleries and museums... The Ukrainian National Museum boasts a large collection of icons. As for the old synagogue in the Staroevreiska road, unfortunately the foundation walls are only preserved. Another highlight of the Old Town is the old Opera Lviv.
Our first visit to Lviv was fall of 2010....a very old city with rich history....We stayed in the city center and were blown away by the beautiful old buildings, monuments, churches. Parks. Needed some upgrading to be sure, but such a surprising "find". Subsequent visit in 2011 showed construction everywhere-streets, airport , downtown- in preparation for the Eurocup in'12 . Still very enjoyable to stroll, rest in coffee shops, visit museums. On this, our 3rd visit to Lviv , summer, 2013, we are amazed by the positive changes in the city..the new airport is stunning, and the old buildings downtown have been refurbished. So much to see and enjoy in this old city.....I predict a flood of visitors when word gets out on the quality of hotels, food, transportation and the best part, the people who are giving such good service ! Things have changed !!
If you want to relax, eat good food and take long walks in a beautiful town with brilliant architecture, Lviv is the place for you. Though still quite expensive to reach, it's financially rewarding once you get there. A three-course meal in the best restaurant in town did not cost me more than 14 euros and the average price was far below that.
The Rynok Square is the centre point of the town and is in the old town and it is here you will find the true historic atmosphere. As a trading point between the east and the west, the rich town of Leopolis developed here already back in the 13th century. My personal prediction is that within 10 years from now, Lviv will be a serious destination on the tourist map of Europe. Just wait until Lviv has transformed from its current state of faded beauty and it will be a place well worth discovering for those looking for the absolute best pearls in Eastern Europe.
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