Ukraine is Europe’s largest country, and thanks to its size, its diversity is largely undiscovered. One of Europe’s last travel frontiers, it’s a nation rich in colourful tradition combined with surprising cities and outdoor offerings.
Its diverse landscape encompasses the mountainous Carpathians where mountain biking and hiking are key activities, the biodiverse Danube Delta where you can go bird watching, and the coastline along the Black Sea near Odesa. There are also vineyards along the southern coast.
The energetic city of Odesa is the largest along the Black Sea on the southern coast. Situated on rolling green hills overlooking the main harbour, immigrants from all over Europe were invited to make their fortune here when Odesa was founded in the late 18th century. Odesa was originally meant to serve a ‘Window to Europe’, hence its architecture bears little resemblance to grey communist house blocks, and was largely influenced by French and Italian styles, where neoclassical pastel buildings line a geometric grid of leafy streets.
Having weathered the tumultuous post-USSR period, Odesa is booming again, attracting visitors – both local and foreign – to its sandy beaches and city attractions.
Of the architectural gems, the Vorontsov Palace was built in 1827 on the site of a Turkish fortress and later was the residence of a famous statesman.
Nowadays, it is an art centre and a hub for youth cultural events. Another icon of the city is the Potemkin Stairs, built in the 19th century to give the city direct access to the harbour in 192 steps.
Ukraine is the perfect place to get acquainted with composers like Tchaikovsky, and the best place to appreciate the culture is at the 19th-century Odesa National Opera and Ballet Theatre, which is influenced by French and Italian Baroque styles. Odesa’s city centre, Derybasivska Street, is a pedestrian street surrounded by ancient landmarks, shops, restaurants, and cafés that serve some of Eastern Europe’s best coffee.
Odesa is also home to Europe’s largest outdoor bazaar at the “seven-kilometre market”, a vast Ukrainian market made up of alleys formed by stacked containers, with its own rules, codes and languages (from Chinese to French and Farsi). It’s so large, it operates as a law unto itself, with stallholders from all over the world dealing in all manner of goods.
Another major attraction in Odesa actually lies under the city: the world’s largest network of underground catacombs. Stretching over 2,500km (and counting) the Odesa Catacombs are long and very dark, with a small portion open as an museum. First used in the 19th century as underground quarries, they were used as a labyrinth of hiding places by local partisans during WWII, and were later used by smugglers. You can explore the tunnels on organised tours.
With Odesa as a base, it’s easy to explore the surroundings, whether it’s the beaches of the Black Sea, vineyards, or a wetland park. You can also visit the 13th century Akkerman Fortress in Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky. Despite being attacked many times in the past, the Akkerman Fortress is considered the best preserved medieval fortification in Ukraine. Wander along the underground labyrinths, or enjoy the view of the firth from one of the 34 towers.
Odesa is a stone’s throw away from several beaches where you can relax, partake in water sports, or party. The most convenient to access is Lanzheron and is therefore the most crowded, however it does spread itself across several beaches. Arkadia is the largest, most developed and the most expensive beach in Odesa with lots of cafes, restaurants and kiosks.
Otrada Beach is the only beach accessible via cable car, where you can enjoy the coastal views from the ride. The beach consists of numerous smaller beaches.
LOWER DNIESTER DELTA NATIONAL PARK
The park is located in a wetland of international importance, and is home to many endangered species. During water excursions, you can see birds nesting in the wetlands, including pelicans, swans, big and small cormorants, storks, wading ducks, and even the glossy ibis (plegadis falcinellus), which is on the Red List of Threatened Species.
There are 4 water routes within the park, including the “Kingdom of Birds”, “Shiny Ibis”, “Dniester Amazonia”, “Old Turunchuk”, as well as on Gontarenko Island.
The Dniester Delta is also the only area in Europe where the European mink thrives, and the species has become a symbol of the park.
One of the most picturesque times to visit is during the bloom of White Water Lilies on White Lake, when the water’s surface resembles a carpet of white petals. In addition, there are also thickets of rare plants like the Fringed Water Lily (nymphoides peltata) and one of Europe’s largest plantations of Yellow Water Lilies (nuthar lutea).
Ukraine has been making wine since the 4th century BC, mainly along the southern coast of Crimea, and gradually expanded to northern parts of the country. The climate and terrain surrounding Odesa is ideal for winemaking, making the region one of the capitals of Ukrainian winemaking.
Wine tours are the best way to experience the popular vineyards of southern Ukraine, and autumn is the best season for touring local wineries. In addition to red- and white-wine grape varietals like Chardonnay and Merlot, wines here are also made with regional grapes like Telti-Kuruk, Rkatsiteli, and Saperavi.
After suffering a blow from Russian aggression in Crimea (where many vineyards are) in 2014, Ukraine’s wine industry is enjoying a revival and branching out into more sophisticated wines – gone are the sweet wines and in their place are sophisticated dry wines (both red and white) characteristic of European flavours.
The main winery area in Odesa is in the nearby town of Shabo, home of the Shabo Wine Culture Center where you can explore the vineyards, underground wine storage, and their 200-year-old Royal and Sherry Cellars, in addition to tasting several kinds of wines.
Around the region, you can visit a number of wineries where you can tour their winemaking facilities, vineyards, and sample traditional dishes with local wine. These include Kolonist and Koblevo, both not far from Odesa.
Odesa also produces sparkling wine at the Odesa Sparkling Wine Factory which was established in 1899; you can tour the historic building, learn about the history of sparkling wine, and have a sample their products.