Traditional matryoshka, or nesting dolls
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Editor's Note: Due to ongoing issues in the Crimean peninsula, stops in Odessa have been halted by most cruise lines.
Odessa is a beguiling and beautiful city that possesses a distinctive character. In contrast to other cities in the former Soviet Union, the "Pearl of the Black Sea" features a warm Mediterranean climate and cafe society feel, enhanced by the annual average of 300 days of sunshine.
The third-largest city in Ukraine, it was founded in 1794 by Catherine the Great, who decreed that a sea port should fortify the southern edge of the Russian Empire and resemble a St. Petersburg of the south. The result is a city of pastel-colored buildings steeped in French and Italian style and punctuated with grand boulevards, statues and fountains.
Odessa was once one of Russia's largest and wealthiest cities. Now, many of the buildings are shrouded in faded elegance. A huge amount of restoration work has been completed or is under way to restore crumbling facades to their original grandeur, most notably illustrated in the jaw-droppingly beautiful Odessa Opera and Ballet House.
Life in Odessa is encapsulated on Primorsky Boulevard. Elderly babushkas dressed in black with knotted headscarves sit on benches; local girls in vertiginous heels gracefully walk past tourists trudging along in trainers; skateboarders show off their skills; and talented musicians and singers display Odessa's musical heritage with the help of the stringed bandura, Ukraine's national instrument. The shady tree-lined boulevard, less than one-third of a mile long, has a friendly and inclusive vibe; whatever time of day you visit, there will be something going on.
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Matryoshka, or nesting dolls, are a fun souvenir. Unlike their Russian equivalents, which are miniatures of the same doll in diminishing size, the Ukraine dolls often represent a family, starting with the father, mother and children and sometimes including a tiny pet or chicken in the middle. The open-air market beside the large park on Preobrazhenskaya Street is a fun place to browse for everything from kitschy Odessa sailors' hats to hand-made embroidery and ex-Soviet era memorabilia.
Ukrainian is the official state language. English is widely spoken in shops, restaurants and tourist attractions around the port.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the Ukrainian Hryvnia. For current currency-conversion figures, check oanda.com or xe.com. Some souvenir stalls accept U.S. dollars and euros, but it's best to take out small amounts of the local currency. There is an ATM and currency exchange in the port's passenger terminal, and all major credit cards are accepted in restaurants and shops.
Where You're Docked
Opened in 2005, Odessa Commercial Sea Port is the largest and most modern port facility in the Ukraine and one of the biggest ports in the entire Black Sea region. It can accommodate five cruise ships and caters to about 4 million passengers per year.
The well-equipped cruise terminal features a tourist information center with free city maps, toilets, cafes, bars, and souvenir and duty-free shops. Other facilities include Wi-Fi, telephones and a post box. The port is a tourist attraction in its own right and is home to a striking sculpture called The Golden Child, by Ernst Neizvestny, which was unveiled in 1995 to mark the 200th anniversary of the city. The passenger terminal is less than one mile from the city center, and it's a 15- to 20-minute walk to the historic Old Town that's almost directly opposite the terminal.
On Foot: Odessa is a city made for walking, and it's truly the best way to get around. The Potemkin Steps are a 10-minute stroll from the cruise terminal, and once you get to the top, all the other main sights are within walking distance. The central historic area is compact, and it's easy to find your way around with the help of a map because the streets are laid out in a grid system.
Public transport: The city offers an inexpensive bus and tram network, and tickets are interchangeable between the two. But it's unlikely the drivers will speak English, so it can be confusing for day visitors to find out which service to catch. It's best to get the information from a tour guide on the ship.
By Taxi: A taxi is the best option for visitors who want to head farther afield. The majority of ships arrive after breakfast and leave in late afternoon, so there is time to explore. Taxis can be hailed on the streets. A ride across the city costs roughly $10, but it's always best to double-check the approximate price before setting off.
Watch Out For
Hawkers will offer eagles, snakes and small crocodiles (with their mouths taped shut) for photographs in return for unspecified amounts of money. The eagles are particularly prevalent on the Potemkin Steps, and animal-lovers might not like the sight of these magnificent birds of prey tied to railings or flapping upside down while being taken up and down the steps by their handlers.
St. Catherine's Square, the starting point for the majority of guided walks offered as cruise-ship shore excursions, is in the heart of Odessa's historic center. It's dominated by a restored statue of Catherine the Great and surrounded by pretty pink and pastel-colored buildings, many opening to flower-filled courtyards.
Odessa's most famous sight, variously known as the Primorsky Stairs and Richelieu Steps, is now generally known as the Potemkin Steps after being immortalized in the acclaimed 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin. The stairs, which are wider at the base than the top, create an optical illusion -- from the bottom, it's impossible to see the landings, so it looks like a continuous flight of steps.
Next to the Potemkin Steps is Primorsky Boulevard, an elegant, elevated pedestrian boulevard with views over the port and sea. In the 19th century, the fashionable ladies of the city walked up and down to show off their latest Parisian clothes, and the ornate Londonskaya Hotel, or London Hotel as it is commonly known, attracted literary greats. Today, the elegant thoroughfare, with a glass showcase featuring artifacts from an ancient Greek settlement, remains the place to see and be seen.
The beautiful Odessa Opera and Ballet House is an architectural marvel. After the first building burned down, a replacement was constructed from local limestone in 1887. A major restoration spanning 10 years began in 1996 when the foundation was strengthened with 1,800 piles driven into solid underlying rock. Some cruise lines offer daytime theater tours so visitors can see the opulent auditorium with its red velvet seats, chandeliers, richly gilded decor, and curtain encrusted with gold and silver threads and semi-precious stones. For passengers staying in Odessa over night, tickets to opera and ballet productions can be bought from the ticket office up to 7 p.m. on the day of the performance, and the best seats in the house are only about $20. (Tchaikovsky Avenue 1)
City Garden, Odessa's first park, is located halfway up Deribasovskaya Street, one of the city's main shopping streets. Popular with tourists and locals alike, the park was created by wealthy brothers Joseph and Felix de Ribas in 1803 and donated to the city. Surrounded by restaurants, it has a bandstand, water features and a sculpture of a chair commemorating the satirical book "The Twelve Chairs," written by Odessa-born authors Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov. It's an irresistible stop for a photo opportunity.
Even if you don't buy anything, it's well worth taking a look at the Passage, one of several glass-roofed galleries built at the end of the 19th century. Statues line the decorative interior of the small ground-floor shopping arcade. (At the junction of Deribasovskaya and Preobrazhenskaya Streets)
Been There, Done That
Russian poet Alexander Pushkin lived in Odessa for one year between 1823 and 1824, and the city inspired works like "Eugene Onegin," "The Gypsies" and "The Fountain of Bakhchisarai." The Pushkin Museum is located inside the house where the poet lived and includes original manuscripts and mementos. (Pushkinskaya 13; open 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday)
The 225-acre Shevchenko Park was founded in 1840 by Emperor Alexander II. A wide avenue leads down to a World War II memorial, the Monument of the Unknown Sailor, overlooking the sea. The park is a 15-minute walk or short taxi ride from Deribasovskaya Street; you can also take the number 3 trolley bus or 28 tram. (Marazliyevskaya Street 1)
Odessa contains the longest network of catacombs in Europe, stretching an incredible 1,553 miles beneath the city. Created during the mining of sandstone to build the city more than 200 years ago, the tunnels were used during World War II to hide Jews and partisans. A small section of the catacombs can be explored during guided tours bookable through local organizations, including Odessa Walks and Tours By Locals.
For a real taste of Odessa, visit the Privoz food market, one block west of the train station and about a 20-minute walk from Deribasovskaya Street. The largest food market in Ukraine and the oldest in Odessa, it was built in 1827 and gets its name from the Russian word for import, relating to the time when mainly imported goods were sold from the back of carts. Today, some 6,000 traders sell a huge variety of Ukrainian products that include cooked meats, pastries, cakes, cheese and pickles. (Privoznaya Street 14; open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday)
Ukrainian cuisine is hearty and filling. Typical dishes include borscht, a jewel-colored beetroot soup, which can be served hot or cold and becomes a meal itself when combined with chunks of beef. Chicken Kiev is also an omnipresent dish on restaurant menus. Being a major sea port, Odessa has always had a melting pot of cultures, reflected in the diversity of the city's restaurants, which include European, American, Mediterranean, Jewish, Mexican, Middle Eastern and Asian fare. Even in the main tourist areas, where there are plenty of restaurants to choose from, prices are reasonable.
If you can't make up your mind what type of food to go for, Buffalo 99, just across the street from the Odessa Opera and Ballet House, caters to every taste, from the all-American breakfast or Russian curd fritters served at the start of the day to burgers, pasta and regional dishes from lunchtime onward. (Rishelievskaya 7; open 9 a.m. Friday to Sunday and 11 a.m. Monday to Thursday; stays open through the evening)
For an authentic taste of Odessa's Jewish heritage, the cafe-style Rozmarin in the Jewish quarter is a kosher meat restaurant popular with locals and visitors. (Malaya Arnautskaya 46a; open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday)
A more pricey option that will appeal to wine-lovers is Bernardazzi, which is located in the landmark New Stock Exchange building, another central location on the corner of Pushkin and Rosa Luxemberg streets. The building was designed by Russian architect Alexander Bernardazzi and built in the 1890's. Recipient of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, the restaurant's cellar is home to about 5,000 bottles, and the menu includes recommended wine pairings in different price brackets. (Bunina Street 15; lunch served from 11 a.m. daily)
For diners who want to read more than a menu, there is plenty of material at Pobeda on Grecheskaya Square, the city's largest and most central square. Divided into different rooms, the cafe offers a library that contains 2,000 books to browse through. You can take one to look at while enjoying a sandwich or typical Russian dish, such as a bowl of borscht soup, and if you find a book you just can't put down, you can buy it and take it back to the ship. It's also worth noting that drink prices are cheaper if you sit at the bar instead of a table. (Grecheskaya 25; open from 11 a.m. daily)
Staying in Touch
Inexpensive Internet cafes can be found throughout Odessa, and prepaid time cards are available from computer shops and newsstands. The Mouse Club, at Chaikovskovo 16 near the opera house, and Internet Planet, at 58 Rishelevskaya, are open 'round the clock. On Deribasovskaya Street, countless bars and restaurants provide free Wi-Fi, including the Steakhouse at number 20 and Contrabass art-cafe at 31.
Best for First-Timers: The ideal way to discover Odessa is during a walk through the streets and a stop to take in the view from the top of Potemkin Steps. The historic center of Odessa is only a 10-minute ride from the cruise terminal, so a typical tour (four hours) allows plenty of time to see sights, including the Opera and Ballet House and Preobrazhensky Cathedral, and to shop for souvenirs.
Best for History Buffs: Odessa became the home of a large Jewish community during the 19th century, and, by 1897, Jews made up nearly 40 percent of the population. A Jewish heritage tour (4.5 hours) covers Yevreyskaya Street, or Jewish Street, where the Central Synagogue, built in 1857, ranks as the oldest in the city. The tour also includes the poignant Holocaust Memorial and Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Best for Repeat Visitors: For independent travelers and those returning to Odessa, a home visit (2.5 hours) offers a very personal and first-hand look at the city. Participants will be dropped off at the homes of residents who will share memories and anecdotes and talk about their lives in Odessa over refreshments.
--by Jeannine Williamson, Cruise Critic contributor
For More Information
On the Web: Odessa Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Mediterranean Ports
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide