The Pearl of the Black Sea, Odessa is a major seaport and the third largest city in Ukraine. What attracts hordes of visitors to this exotic Mediterranean locale is the mild climate, warm waters and sandy beaches where you can explore the city by strolling in the shady lanes, stopping to look at the beautiful pastel buildings and cozy squares that remind you of a Greek colony.
Odessa once was the site for a Greek colony and now is home to a diverse population from Europe and as well as Russia, and both cultural influences are evident throughout the city. The city bears marks from its days of Tsarist Russia, and that is very evident by the fact that most of the population speaks Russian rather than Ukrainian!
Odessa is a warm water port and in fact has two important ports, Odessa and Yuzhny, which is also an internationally significant oil terminal. Illichivs’k is another important port located to the south-west of Odessa and together with the railway network they are a major transport junction within the region.
Looking around the city you will notice that most of the city's houses built around the 19th century are made of limestone which was mined nearby. The abandoned mines were broadened and used by local smugglers as a hideout, but his subsequently created a huge labyrinth of catacombs. These are a great tourist attraction but also the reason why a subway system was never built in the city.
The cosmopolitan city is known for its sense of humor, especially for its ability to laugh at itself. Another way to spend time here is to book yourself in one of the many therapeutic resorts in and around the city and just lay back and relax in the name of good health.
Odessa was originally a town known as Hadjibey, part of the Dykra region, and was inhabited by Turkic tribes. The town came under the Ottoman Empire after 1529 and in the mid-18th century, the Ottomans rebuilt a fortress here and named it Eni Dunia, Turkish for new world.
General Grygory Potemkin captured the fortress in 1789 for his lover Catherine the Great, during the Russo-Turkish War. One of the troops was under the command of a Spaniard in Russian service, Major General Jose de Ribas who built the harbor her and in his honor, the main street in Odessa today, Deribasovskaya street, is named after him.
Russia formally gained possession of the town in 1792 and it became a part of the Novorossiya (New Russia). A city was officially founded here in 1794 as a Russian naval fortress and renamed Odessa. No one really knows how it got this name but one tale suggests that Catherine II of Russia said that all names in the South of the Empire were already masculine, and so she decided to name the new acquisition a more feminine Odessa.
The new city quickly became very popular mainly due to the work of the Duc de Richelieu, who served as the city's governor for eleven years between 1803 and 1814. Having fled the French Revolution, he had served in Catherine's army and is said to have been the mastermind behind designing the city and organizing its amenities and infrastructure. He is considered to be one of the founding fathers of Odessa.
When Odessa became a duty-free port in 1815 things started becoming even better and the now increasing need for more labor led to the city becoming a refuge - Odessa Mama - for criminals, renegades and dissidents. However, by the 1880s it was the second-biggest Russian port, with grain being the main export.
The boom was shortly interrupted by the bombarding by the British and French naval forces during the Crimean War between 1853 and 1856. But the city did not take long to recover from the tragedy. In 1866 the city was linked by rail with Kiev and Kharkov as well as Romania.
This port was the centre of the early 1905 workers' revolution, with a local uprising and the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin Tavrichesky. Odessa was also designated as one of Stalin's 'hero' cities, when it’s citizens sheltering in the city's catacombs during World War II put up a fight against the occupying Romanian troops.
Odessa, at one point, was home to a large population of Jews who initially came here to escape persecution, but tragically suffered the same fate here. Most who survived emigrated to Palestine and New York's Brighton Beach, now nicknamed 'Little Odessa'.
In 1991, after the collapse of Communism, the city became part of newly independent Ukraine.
The historical city has many museums that give you further insights to the city and its wonders. You can spend many lazy afternoons strolling through the various galleries and looking at the numerous exhibits in all the museums the city has on offer.
1. The Archaeology Museum, founded in 1825 is the city’s oldest museum and after just 60 years of its opening, the museum’s collection grew too big for the original building. The current museum building was built in 1883 to house the museum’s every expanding collection. Right in front of the museum is a gleaming white sculpture named ‘Laocoon’, which is a replica of the great work of art sculpted by Agesander, Athenodorus, and Polydorus in 125 BC, unearthed in Rome in 1508 and now standing in the Vatican. According to Greek mythology, Laocoon was the priest of Apollo who warned the Trojans against the wooden horse at the gates of the city.
The museum’s eleven halls have over 160,000 exhibits - local collections and as well as Greek, and Roman artifacts. On display are late Bronze Age and Trypilian artifacts, and Black Sea Hellenic sculptures. The impressive Egyptian hall is one of the biggest crowd drawer complete with a funeral inventory, wood and stone sarcophagi, and hieroglyphic stone slabs and fragments of papyrus. Don’t forget to visit the special room designed to exhibit coins from around the world dating back to the 5th century and jewelery from the early Greek Black Sea settlements.
2. The Private collection of Belshchunov A.V. Museum has exhibits presented to the city from the private collection of a public worker and collector, Alexander Vladimirovich Belshchunov who had been collecting art from around the world during his lifetime. When he was alive, his apartment was a meeting place for many prominent artists of the city. After his death, his will stated that he had given his apartment and his entire collection of art and other objects to the city. The massive collection includes a western European hall with German porcelain and fans, an oriental room, a Greek Orthodox room, a Central Asia room with Persian carpets, a Ukrainian room with icons painted on canvas and folk arts, and a room devoted to the history of Odessa. The exhibits are displayed by theme and the variety of one man’s dedication to art leaves the visitor in awe!
3. The East and West Art Museum is also called the Odessa Museum of Western and Oriental Art. The museum was founded in 1920 and its collections include western European and oriental antique art. The Western European palette includes magnificent works of art by Italian, French, and Dutch painters. The interior too is richly decorated and has over 6,000 exhibits spread over two floors.
4. The Fine Arts Museum is housed in a grand palace built around 1810 in the Russian classic style and was once owned by S. Potoksky. The original collection consisted of a small collection of pictures but later several paintings were donated by the St. Petersburg museum of Arts and today the museum's 26 halls display a rich collection of paintings that includes a collection of 15th-16th century Russian icons.
5. The Greek Collection Fund honors revolutionaries and patriots. Odessa being a center for revolutionary movements, in 1814 it also was the birthplace of a secret revolutionary society of Greek patriots Philiki Eteria, which played a major role in preparing for the Greek national liberation revolution of 1821-1829. This museum honors these revolutionaries.
6. The History and Local Lore Museum covers the entire history of Odessa from the 14th century to present day. Exhibits include everything from theater tickets, documents, and currencies, to military equipment and historical clothing. Many of the exhibits showcase the Ukrainian liberation war against Polish magnates.
The World War II museum located at the back through a picturesque courtyard with statues of famous figures displays equipment and photos during the war. It also showcases battle trophies, banners of the military units that liberated the city, and also weapons and personal belongings of Soviet soldiers.
7. Literary Museum traces the history of literature in Odessa of over 200 writers, highlighting biographies of Russian, Ukrainian and foreign poets, journalists, and authors who lived in Odessa, including Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, Gorky, and Tolstoy. Many books and old newspapers are also on display.
8. The Pushkin Museum highlights his stay for a year in Odessa while in Russian exile and displays original manuscripts from Pushkin's writings, and a copy of a page from his book ‘Eugene Onegin’, which Pushkin wrote while in Odessa. There are also several other old picture of Odessa.
After you have exhausted all the museums in your list, the city has more to offer.
1. The Potemkin Stairs (named after the rebellious battleship Potyomkin) are the entrance into the city from the sea. The 192 stairs lead from Prymorsky Boulevard down to the sea and were constructed 1837.
2. Odessa Opera House once echoed with concerts conducted by Peter Tchaikovsky and ballets featuring Anna Pavlova. The interiors are no less impressive, and leave you agape at the splendor and luxury of its richly decorated halls lined with sculptures from Greek mythology and the red velvet seats and boxes.
4. Spaso-Preobrazhenskiy cathedral was built in 1795, just a year after the founding of the city and was one of the biggest in Russia, almost 50 m wide and over 100 m long. It could accommodate over 10,000 people but it was closed down in 1932. In 1936, Stalin order the Cathedral destroyed. Luckily, the church is being rebuilt and is under extensive restoration work.
When in Rome, do as the Romans it is said, and rightly so. Here are some pointers to keep in mind for when you are visiting Odessa, so that you don’t offend your hosts.
When visiting orthodox churches, women should wear scarves over their heads and men should take off their hats. Do not wear shorts or sleeveless shirts.
If you are planning to gift a bouquet remember to only purchase flowers with odd numbers (even numbers are considered bad luck) and never yellow (symbolizes goodbye and for funerals).
It is forbidden to take pictures of army and naval bases, and the rue is strictly enforced. You might even be asked to leave the country!
On special occasions people wear the national outfit, vsishivanka for women, a white blouse embroidered with brightly colored patterns.
By air: Odessa International Airport is the city’s only airport, although most travelers fly to Kiev then take a bus or train to Odessa.
By train: it is said to be the best way to travel in Ukraine, though they are slow and not very comfortable.
By bus: Inter-city buses tend to be overcrowded but could be an option.
Trams and Trolley Bus: these have fixed stops only but if you can get a local to help you, you should do fine.
Taxi: The most inexpensive and convenient way to travel around Odessa is in taxis unless you don't speak the language, in which case the price goes up immediately.
Climate: since most of the city is located quite high above the Black Sea, Odessa's climate verges on the Mediterranean. Winters can be very cold but the sea takes the edge off the chill. Summers are warmer than the rest of the country but late spring and early autumn are the most comfortable months for visiting.
Language: The primary language spoken is Russian, with Ukrainian being less common despite its being an official language.