Last weekend, I traveled to Western Ukraine where I spent an entire week visiting a bunch of different regions and cities. I spent a couple of days in the following cities: Lvov (Lviv), Uzhgorod, Mukachevo and a small city called Beregovo near the Ukranian-Hungarian border.
Western Ukraine is completely different from Central, Southern, and Eastern Ukraine. First of all, the language that’s spoken regularly is Ukrainian—and not Russian that’s predominant in Southern and Eastern parts of the country. Although it sounds crazy, while Ukrainian is the official language, it’s by far not the most spoken language in the country—Russian is.
Second of all, the people in Western Ukraine are also very different than the people in other regions. During my travels there, I noticed lots of families, lots of traditional cultures that I didn’t notice as much, obviously, in the capital and other regions of the country.
Up until World War II, Western Ukraine belonged to different countries neighboring Ukraine: Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Romania. Lviv (Lvov) used to be a Polish city. After the Soviet Union won WWII, Stalin moved the border westward, gobbling up existing lands and making all of those cities that used to be foreign countries, effectively part of Ukraine.
Lviv and the rest of the region
Lviv is the most important city in the region and is typically the stopping point for people who’re planning their trips to other parts of the region. There are fast trains (Intercity) operating from Kyiv, which take about 5 hours or so. After that, you can continue to cities like Mukachevo, Uzhgorod or Poland.
Lviv is entirely different from other Ukrainian cities. In fact, in many ways, it feels like I’m in a completely different country. The rest of Ukraine has a decidedly Soviet feel, but Lviv feels like stepping across the border to neighboring Poland or Slovakia. Most of the streets are narrow and the entire city has a pleasant coziness to it that other Ukrainian cities do not have.
The center of Lviv is littered with a large array of restaurants, eateries, cafes, and bars of all kinds. Beer is an especially big part of Lviv, with amazing, world-class breweries throughout the center. When you’re there, be sure to check out the “Pravda brewery” for some great local beer and tasty food.
The restaurant scene is also pretty good. I had all kinds of great food, starting from tasty Georgian dumplings (хинкали) ending in awesome burgers from a recently-opened burger joint.
The only problem with Lviv is that it’s a relatively small city. Two full days is more than enough to get a general feel for the city and understand what the city is all about. In my first full day, I walked all over the city and probably within several hours found myself returning to the same main square over and over again, albeit from different streets.
If you’ve seen all there’s to see in Lviv and ready for something new, I recommend exploring a city like Uzhgorod. Uzhgorod is a much smaller city (pop. 112,500) but it has a lively downtown area replete with nice cafes and restaurants that serve great local food as well as nice ice cream.
Uzhgorod is a very green city, replete with lots of trees, gardens and other greenery. Its beauty is compounded by the fact that there’s a river that runs through the city (Uzh) and that makes the city even more aesthetically pleasing.
Since Uzhgorod is smaller than Lviv, you don’t need much more than about 1-2 days to cover everything in and about the city. I would say one full day should be enough, but give yourself an extra day just to be sure you’re not in any rush and feel you’ve gotten a solid sense of the city.
My favorite parts about Uzhgorod were the various eateries serving local cuisine, the picturesque little streets of the city, and the very traditional Ukrainian restaurants that you’d be hard-pressed to find even in the capital of Kyiv. There was one such restaurant that was about 15-minute car ride from the center that served authentic Ukrainian food that was one of my favorite parts about the entire trip.
Deeper into Western Ukraine
From Uzhgorod, you have several options to further explore Western Ukraine. One option is to head down to Mukachevo, a small city that’s more or less of a hub between Uzhgorod/Lviv and other smaller towns. Mukachevo is a small city with a few main streets. It was pretty lively when I visited in May, with lots of young people, old people and families hanging out and enjoying themselves. The main problem with the city is that it shuts down at around 10 pm and so there’s nothing to do after that.
On the other hand, if you just want a small city to relax and chill out, it makes for a perfect stopping point.
I would say even one full day is too much for a city such as Mukachevo. I arrived in the afternoon and left the following morning at 5 am. After exploring the city for about 3-4 hours, I got a good sense of what the city is like and felt good about moving on to different destinations.
One of my favorite cities, where I spent an entire 3 days, was Beregovo, a small city close to the Hungarian border. I found the city interesting for several reasons. First of all, it’s the only city that I visited in the region that has signs in two languages: Ukrainian and Hungarian.
Hungarian is an interesting language, that’s unrelated to pretty much anything else, so it was cool to see it all kinds of signs written in Ukrainian, which I can understand and Hungarian that’s completely illegible to anyone who wasn’t born in Hungary (or hasn’t tried to seriously study it).
It was also pretty cool to hear Hungarian all around, in cafes, restaurants, and out and about on the streets. Even though I know like one or two words of Hungarian, I can immediately recognize the accent and know when Hungarian is being spoken. It was also pretty cool to go into some small shop and hear the owner of the shop speak Russian with a Hungarian accent. It felt like being in Hungary, but yet still being able to speak Russian and Ukrainian without resorting to English.
Another great thing about Beregevo—and why most people choose to visit this city—is because there are various thermal baths that you can visit. These complexes with different pools in them. There are jacuzzi type areas where you can enjoy very warm water (40 C) to more moderate but still pleasant water in one of the larger pools (36 C – 37 C).
I was there at the end of April/beginning of May, so it was the perfect spring weather, not too cold and not too hot, making it perfect for spending most of the day spending submerged into nicely warm water.
They say that this water that comes from the earth is also very therapeutic, helps to alleviate all kinds of ailments such as arthritis, bad knees, and other problems. I suppose there’s some truth to that because many of the people there were on the older side and an older couple I spoke with told me that they make frequent trips to this resort (every year, or even several times per year) and they found that it helps them to stay better and delay the onset of aging.
I liked Beregovo for all the reasons above, and it’s a city I could see myself returning to. I even found a nice Hungarian restaurant that served one of the best pizzas (among other things) that I tasted in all of Ukraine. It’s a city that I can see myself spending perhaps up to a week, just walking around, enjoying the Hungarian/Ukrainian food and just enjoying a complete difference pace of life than I was used to in Kyiv and other big cities.
When it comes to the thermal baths, I probably wouldn’t go there unless I was visiting with a girlfriend or a wife. It’s not a place to go if you’re single with several guys; I mostly saw couples there, so it would weird to go there if you’re in a group of several guys.
One problem with Beregovo that I noticed isn’t directly related to the city itself, but has to do with logistics: it’s a city that’s hard to get to from other parts of Ukraine, especially Kyiv. Not only do you need to take a train from Kyiv to one of the major cities (e.g., Mukachevo or Lviv), but you also need to another train or bus to Beregevo. So, in total expect to spend an entire day in transit getting to the city.
However, even with the enormous amount of time you need to get into the city, I still would consider a city for a visit. I would just break up the long trip into several parts: a stopover in Lviv or Uzhgorod where I would spend the night before continuing over to Beregevo by bus.
So, there you have it, a rough guide to my favorite cities and towns in Western Ukraine. If you’ve been thinking about visiting, definitely don’t delay and check it out as soon as possible. It just might be something that you’re looking for.