Spotlight on: A Day in Odessa, Ukraine
History in a Nutshell: Not much was going on around what is now the city of Odessa before the end of the eighteenth century. Before then, the spot had been a trading post slash fortress for a time on the edge of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, then on that of the Ottoman Empire. The 1790s are when things really picked up. Fierce land and naval battles between the Turks and Russians ended in Russian Victory. It was then suggested to Catherine the Great that she convert it from trading post slash fortress to huge port slash good-weather (all is relative in Russia) getaway. It grew and grew, fueled by a unique blend of people from everywhere, and was awarded the title of “hero city” during World War Two for valiantly resisting the Nazis. Safe to say, Odessa managed to squeeze a fair chunk of history in just over two hundred years.
Fun Fact(s): The founder was Spanish and two of the first governors were French. The architects were Italian, the overlords Russian. A third of the population was Jewish. And the most famous resident-in-exile a hopeless Romantic poet from Saint Petersburg (yes, Pushkin briefly cooled down here).
Language & Currency: Ukrainian, Russian (dominant in Odessa); Ukrainian hryvnia (₴)
Population: Just over a million
Odessa? That’s in New York, right?
So now that you have the historical nutshell, what now? Why travel to this seemingly bleak average-size city west of Crimea where people relish in speaking neither Ukrainian nor Russian but a blend of the two? Well, at least for a day, it’s worth it, though maybe not all the way from NYC. But from Kiev, Ukraine‘s energy-filled capital and largest city, hop on the highly enjoyable-worth-the-experience night train to Odessa. It’ll set you back more than half the cost of an average hotel room. Then take a morning stroll up the Potemkin Steps, one of cinema’s most iconic sites. Definitely see Eisenstein’s masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin, before you go. Throughout the twentieth century, Odessa, being on the fringes of Russia and Ukraine, too, always had a special place in the highly politically and historically charged USSR.
What to Do in One Day in Odessa
Odessa does not have the unlimited sightseeing potential of major European cities. But this is a great city to take it easy. And there’s no better place to do that than the many parks. I was very pleasantly surprised by the amount of manicured green spaces. I found it indescribably uplifting to just people watch in, say, City Garden. Maybe it has something to do with people being from all over Europe and beyond, or else it being one of the warmest places in Ukraine. Though lacking in name originality, this small yet bustling central park offered some joyful chilling. Another downtown greenery option is Preobrazhensky Park, adjacent to the cathedral. But if you really want to take a Parisian style stroll, go no farther than Prymorskyi Boulevard. In the space of a minute, I saw an enthusiastic Superman-suit clad dad embarrassing his children, and a couple a few paces off decked out in furs, top hats, and walking sticks. The Boulevard will take you right to the Potemkin Steps, not to miss because of their symbolic significance, and just their sheer breadth.
What makes or breaks the tourist potential of a city for me is its walkability. And Odessa delivers. The center is very condensed and clean. It’s also fun to get even slightly off the main drag into more residential areas, equally as charming. Off the beaten path, too, is the central post office, open 24 hours. A huge soviet building, I’ve never been to a post office like it. Not on the average tourist itinerary, though, but all the more worth the stop. Moreover, even down near the ever-busy port, I found walking around very pleasant and relaxing. This area isn’t so touristy as downtown, either. Then again, great about Odessa is that it’s not on many travelers’ radars, yet.
Evening plans? Spend a night at the beautiful Italian baroque/French rococo opera house, known as the Одеський національний академічний театр опери та балету. As I said, the opera. A far cry from what you’d typically find in your average Russian/Soviet city (think of Novosibirsk’s behemoth opera house), this little jewel is the work of Fellner & Helmer, the same architects who designed countless other opera houses of central and eastern Europe in the nineteenth century.
Should You Travel to Odessa?
Definitely. Odessa is the perfect getaway, any time of year. It’s easily accessible and a pleasure to leisurely explore. The list of to-dos are present enough to not get bored, yet not bursting as to be overwhelming. The boutique hotel scene is in full swing, not setting you back more than $50 for a large and charming room with breakfast included, such as at the Frederic Koklen, centrally located. (If arriving early by train, as I was, the staff will kindly take care of luggage even though your room may not be ready. Perfect to hit the ground strolling). The food, as in much of Ukraine, is simple, cheap, yet absolutely delicious.
People are super friendly, which arguably isn’t the case about everywhere in eastern Europe. Overall I felt right at home in my own, tidy human-size city just walking about. So if you want great little taste of eastern Europe, mixed in with a whole bunch of other cultures, Odessa is definitely for you.