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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ukrainian is the official state language. English is widely spoken in shops, restaurants and tourist attractions around the port.
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)
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.