This Place Is Dirt Cheap…And Delightful
Vicki and I were in Lviv, Ukraine, checking it out as a potential travel base.
Lviv offers easy access to six borders: Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova. The Baltic states lie just beyond. Only Belarus requires a visa; other countries just invite you in, usually with a maximum three-month-stay restriction.
At times in its history, Lviv attached itself to Poland or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One sees the past in the old cemetery, where those who died in the 19th century display tombstones in Polish or German. Those who died more recently lie under tombstones in Ukrainian.
Ukraine has stayed out of Europe’s Schengen region, so Westerners can do three months in Ukraine, three months in the EU, and then back again. Toss in a winter escape every year, or three months next-door in Romania, or both, and most of us can base out of Lviv forever, without hassling with resident visas.
Our first evening in Lviv, we walked across the street from our hotel to the magnificent Opera House. We saw the Lviv Theatre of Opera and Ballet’s performance of Swan Lake, a full production with 30-piece orchestra. The hot audience seemed to anticipate every move.
Lviv has three state theaters downtown, all within a few blocks of each other: opera and ballet, theater, and philharmonic. Forget theater; we don’t speak Ukrainian. But the other two offer a pleasant diversion in gorgeous surroundings.
Ukraine uses a different alphabet. So besides a language barrier, we can’t read menus, street signs, or posters for upcoming ballets or concerts. We got around the problem by asking for help. Educated young people—those with the stylish clothes doing the public-face jobs in the higher-end places—often spoke English. Our favorite barman spoke German, which we could guess. We ate at “bistro” places, that is, cafeterias with steam tables. We could look at the food itself rather than menus. We also ate at a fine microbrew house across from the Hotel Lviv that had an English-language menu and a few English-speaking staff.
Finally, we carried a small calculator in case we wanted to ask what something cost or to show someone our shoe size or to check on a bus we wanted, say. A smartphone with a translator app would have been handy, too.
As for housing costs, let’s start with our hotel. We stayed in a luxury room at the center-city Hotel Lviv for a special weekly rate of US$280 (US$40 a night). That price included Wi-Fi, breakfast for both of us every day, maid service, the works. So a month in a hotel costs US$1,200, or even less if you can negotiate a monthly discount. Hotels offer a big advantage: You only pay when you’re there. While you’re traveling around Eastern Europe, you check out of the hotel and eliminate that cost.
In Lviv’s central plaza we ran into a Ukrainian American, a retired school teacher from Chicago, who comes to see relatives in Lviv every year or two. On this visit he rented a furnished studio apartment in center city for US$320 all in, including utilities and Wi-Fi. He lucked into the unit because a friend of a friend had just moved out. You and I, with neither contacts nor language skills, might have a tougher time getting that great price, at least at first. Still, we can get lucky, too.
Lviv Today, a local English-expat magazine with both printed and online editions, advertised a furnished three-room apartment, renovated, great view, across from city hall, for US$900 a month. We also saw ads for an apart-hotel at about US$35 a night.
A half-liter of draft beer in an outdoor cafe costs less than a dollar, lunch at one of the bistros maybe two or three dollars. (Girls attending the bistro counter tended to weigh the food over and over, as portions were often priced by weight.) A bus or tram ride costs 20 cents, ballet tickets US$8, a half-liter of local “cognac” US$7, and a bus to Poland US$2.
Several places offered a two-course lunch deal for a couple of bucks, served from noon to 5 p.m. Eat a late lunch and you can segue directly from the blue-plate special into happy hour. We saw many locals who appeared to do exactly that. Lvivians love their vodka—something like US$6 a liter—and beer.
Why so cheap? Recent political unrest in Kiev, followed by war in the east, tanked the currency. The exchange rate went from 8:1 a few years ago to 12:1 today. I was in Ukraine three years ago and found it cheap back then. Now it’s dirt cheap.
One final note: Center-city Lviv street signs show arrows pointing to Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, several hundred miles away. In my experience Europeans refuse to use north, south, east, and west. Years ago a girl on a London sidewalk, after I’d asked if I was heading east, assured me, “We don’t have east around here.”
So, consistent with European attitudes, Lviv signs showed “Kiev” as a surrogate for “east” or “northeast” or even “this way out of town.” I got a kick out of the concept. Imagine someone trying to navigate Chicago’s Loop, say, relying on helpful street signs that point to Washington, D.C.
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