Odessa is Ukraine’s third-most populous city and a major seaport along the Black Sea. Known as “the pearl of the Black Sea”, the city is a seaside escape during the summer and is quickly becoming a top cultural destination as well. Founded in 1794, Odessa is relatively young when compared to Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. This means it has developed a unique atmosphere and its own artistic culture that you can’t find anywhere else in the country.
With a population of about one million, there are plenty of interesting things to do in Odessa, Ukraine. Read on to learn about 20 of Odessa’s wonderful attractions and activities.
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Head underground to the Odessa Catacombs, a labyrinth of caves underneath the city. The majority of these catacombs were formed as a result of coquina stone mining from the 19th century. In addition to the natural caves, the system is made up of Cold War nuclear bunkers, basements, drainage tunnels and storm drains. One of the former quarries features coal paintings, symbols and inscriptions carved onto the walls, and some Soviet-era memorabilia are on display. There are even some small underground lakes where fish are
The subterranean cavities span three levels and go as deep as 60 metres below sea level. With a total length of 2,500 kilometres, it is the largest urban catacomb system in the world. To put this in perspective, the Catacombs of Paris span about 500 kilometres.
Since it is so easy to get lost, the entrances to the catacombs stay closed. You are only advised to enter with a guide, so book a private or small-group tour lasting two to four hours. You’ll still get to explore at your own pace, but you’ll also have an experienced local to ensure you make your way out safely. Even more, you’ll gain an insight into the fascinating history and dark secrets surrounding the catacombs.
One of the best-known tours is the Secrets of Underground Odessa, taking you into the main bunker, the partisans station and more. Transportation to and from your hotel is organised for you, and you’ll be provided with a helmet and flashlight before you begin your exploration. You’ll even stop for hot tea and a biscuit along the way.
Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre
The most impressive piece of architecture in the city is the Odessa National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet. The elegant Vienna Baroque building opened in 1887 and features a late-French Rococo audience hall with gilded stucco figures and opulent chandeliers. The hall’s horseshoe-shaped design creates unique acoustics that can reach anywhere inside the hall. The current Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre is a reconstruction of the first opera house that was built in 1810 and destroyed by fires in 1873.
For an affordable price, you can come and watch a ballet or opera performance. There is a schedule of all productions and concerts on the English language version of the website. You can book your tickets in advance an hour before the matinee or evening shows begin. Guided tours of the theatre are available too. While most of these tours are conducted in Ukrainian, you’ll still get to admire the incredible architectural intricacies up close.
Be aware that the theatre has a strict dress code, and anyone wearing casual T-shirts, singlets, shorts, or sports shoes will not be allowed in. While this may be frustrating if you haven’t packed any nice clothes for your trip, it’s a perfect excuse to go shopping and buy a fancy new outfit!
The Museum of Modern Art of Odessa
Odessa’s modern art museum is located inside a charming yellow residential manor and began as a small collection of avant-garde pieces. The exhibits showcase the work of Odessa’s leading sculptors and painters from the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as supporting up and coming artists from the area. Unlike many contemporary art galleries, you won’t find work by any international artists here.
The museum also preserves Soviet-era artifacts and non-conformist art pieces reflecting the revolutionary events of the 1980s and 1990s. Stop by Belinskogo 5 between noon and 6 p.m. from Wednesday to Sunday and look around.
The Potemkin Stairs
Considered the formal entrance to Odessa, the Potemkin Stairs are a giant staircase extending for 142 metres. The lowest step is almost 22 metres wide, while the top step is 12.5 metres wide. The stairs were built in the mid-1800s and intentionally create an optical illusion. Looking down the stairs from the top, the steps are initially hidden with only the landings visible. From the bottom looking up, it’s the opposite.
The steps are also famous for appearing in the 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin. At the top of the stairs is a bronze statue of the city’s former governor, Duke de Richelieu, which was the first monument installed in Odessa. A funicular runs parallel to the stairs for those who want to reach the top but don’t feel like climbing almost 200 steps. Halfway up, there’s a passage that takes you to Istanbul Park, a symbol of friendship between the two cities.
Derybasivska (or Deribasovskaya) Street is a kilometre-long pedestrian street in the heart of Odessa. It passes the City Garden, as well as several restaurants, cafes and pubs. The walkway is dedicated to one of Odessa’s founders, José de Ribas, whose statue can be found at the eastern endpoint.
During the summer, this is a wonderful area to people watch and listen to local buskers playing some tunes. You may be lucky and wander into one of the markets and fairs held here. The street comes to life in the evenings too, with vibrant fluorescent lights and accordion players to entertain you as you scope out a cool bar to pop into.
The oldest public park in Odessa is the City Garden. Originally owned by Felix de Ribas (the brother of José de Ribas), it was donated to the city in 1806. The garden includes the Odessa Orchestra’s summer theatre, a gazebo and a beautiful fountain.
There are also numerous sculptures of notable cultural figures from Odessa, including the Monument to Ilf and Petrov, who are known for their novels The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf. Another noteworthy sculpture is the bronze tree with fruits that form hearts. On the trunk of the tree, the word love is engraved in 65 different languages.
This small park is a serene and relaxing spot in the middle of the city, perfect for stopping at when you’ve been walking all morning. There are plenty of coffee shops and vendors nearby, so grab a drink to go and come and sit for a little while.
Along Derybasivska Street near the City Garden, you will come across the Passage, a stunning 19th-century hotel building. The ground floor of the building is where you’ll find the opulent Neo-Baroque passage covered with a glass and metal ceiling to let in natural light. Adorned with Stucco figures of ancient Greek gods, its architecture and charm symbolize the golden era of Odessa. On either side, the passage is lined with boutiques, souvenir shops and cafes.
The Transfiguration Cathedral and Cathedral Square
The Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral (or Transfiguration Cathedral in English) was Odessa’s first Orthodox cathedral, dedicated to the Transfiguration of Jesus. It was originally built in 1794 but destroyed by the Soviets in 1936. After four years of rebuilding, the current cathedral was opened in 2003. The bells of the 77-metre-high tower are controlled electronically and can play 99 different melodies.
It’s worth going inside to admire the magnificent interiors. With pale marble floors and white walls, the opulent golden detailing and impressive frescoes stand out against an immaculate backdrop.
The area surrounding the main structure is Cathedral Square. Watch the local Ukrainian men gathered to play chess, and stop to admire the work by some local artists showcasing their creations. One of the best free things to do in Odessa is to hang out in this lively square for a while and get a glimpse into daily life in Odessa.
Street Art Walking Tour
In recent years, Odessa’s younger generation has transformed the city’s monotone spaces into colourful and inspiring corners. These street art murals began by a collective of non-traditional artists known as Odessarium, and have proved to be a wonderful method of revitalizing the city’s neglected buildings.
Although it’s always nice to see a piece of artwork unexpectedly, you don’t have to search the city for the murals all by yourself. Book a street art walking tour, which typically departs in the afternoon and lasts two hours. This ensures you’ll get to see the very best street art that Odessa has to offer.
As mentioned earlier, Odessa is located along the Black Sea, providing the opportunity to escape city life for the day. The city’s most popular beach is Lanzheron, which is easily accessible from the centre of the city. The long sandy shoreline and abundance of nearby eateries make it the go-to spot for both locals and travellers during the summertime. Lanzheron’s white sand beaches are always clean, and with no strong waves, the clear waters are ideal for a refreshing and relaxing swim.
Beach chairs and umbrellas are available to rent as well. With restaurants and bars all along the pier, you can easily spend an entire day here. Lanzheron is particularly crowded during July and August, so if you’re after a more secluded spot to yourself, be sure to get here early in the morning.
Beside Istanbul Park and the Potemkin Stairs is the Primorsky Boulevard. The walkway passes by many other attractions too, making it one of Odessa’s most significant boulevards. The tall, leafy trees create the ideal setting for a shaded stroll during the hot summer days. If you find yourself here at night, you’ll feel the cool sea breeze and see the path lit up with colourful bright lights.
Not to be confused with the Vorontsov Palace in the Crimean Mountains, Odessa’s Vorontsov Palace was built on the site of the former Turkish fortress of Khadjibey. The 19th-century palace and colonnade at the end of the Primorsky Boulevard were built between 1827 and 1830.
The complex was severely damaged during the Crimean War in the mid-1800s and restorations efforts are still ongoing to keep up its original grandeur. The palace is free to enter, and there are two large marble lions modelled after the Medici lions in Rome.
Odessa Archeological Museum
One attraction at the beginning of the Primorsky Boulevard is the Odessa Archeological Museum. Although founded in 1825, the current building housing the museum wasn’t completed until 1883. This makes it one of the oldest archaeological museums in the country with a rich and sizeable collection. Today, the museum is also a scientific research institute, studying the archaeology of the Northern Black Sea’s primitive societies.
The museum’s 160,000 artifacts include Ancient Egyptian sarcophagi and archaeological findings from the Northern Black Sea region. The museum is known for having over 50,000 coins from various ancient societies, including Greece, Rome, Kievan Rus, and the Russian and Byzantine Empires. Fortunately, the main exhibits all include explanations in English. Come by and take a look between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. from Wednesday to Sunday.
Odessa is home to one of the largest food markets in the world, Privoz (or Pryvoz) Market. The market began in 1827, with farmers gathering with their horse-driven carts to sell their fresh produce. Adjacent to the old bazaar, the market continued to be expanded as the city itself grew. Eventually, vendors started coming here to sell anything and everything.
In addition to the weekly fruit and vegetable shopping, the market is a place for locals to converse and trade gossip. Tourists, on the other hand, can pick up some affordable clothing, perfume, toiletries, and just about anything else. Haggling is expected, so try and pick up a bargain! The market runs daily at Pryvozna Street from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.
Shustov Cognac Winery Museum
Did you know that Shustov Cognac is one of only a few brandies outside of France that can legally be called cognac? Take a private tour of the Shustov Cognac Winery Museum to discover the history of one of Ukraine’s most popular alcohol drinks and see for yourself how it’s produced and aged.
To conclude the tour, relax at the museum’s chic bar area and sample several classic and vintage cognacs. Transportation to and from your accommodation is arranged, so all you have to worry about is enjoying the taste of the brandy!
Local Food Tasting
Curious about Ukrainian cuisine? Take a lunchtime food tour and taste at least five traditional dishes from the south of Ukraine. Your local guide will take you to the market to sample the freshest ingredients, and you’ll even have the option to extend your tour and prepare a home-cooked meal. You may discover a dish you love yet never would have considered trying on your own!
Easily the most terrifying Odessa attraction is Insomnia, a haunted house where you choose the level of horror you’re willing to endure. Starting with the light tour is recommended, as many visitors report being so scared they had to leave early! Not for the faint of heart, the committed actors will bring the scares from start to finish. If you’re a fan of scary movies, however, this is the perfect place for you.
For 350 Ukrainian hryvnia (equivalent to about 13 euros), this haunted house is an experience you won’t soon forget. Insomnia is open between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. from Monday to Thursday and 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. from Friday to Sunday.
Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art
The Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art on Pushkin Street showcases collections of fine arts previously owned by the University of Odessa and the City Museum of Fine Arts. Founded in 1923, the collections include works by Rubens, Frans Hals and Caravaggio, among others.
In the Eastern sections, silk paintings, porcelain, embroidery and weaponry from China, India, Tibet, Iran and Japan are on display. Displaying such a diverse mixture of artworks allows visitors to compare and contrasts between historical and cultural art movements. There’s certainly something that will interest everyone here.
Of course, the 19th-century building housing the museum is a work of art itself. Visit between 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. on any day except Wednesday.
Darth Vader Statue
Perhaps the city’s most unexpected attraction is the Darth Vader statue on Stovpova Street. In 2015, an old statue of Vladimir Lenin was ordered to be “decommunised” and was transformed into the iconic Star Wars character. At the same time, a Wi-Fi hub was installed in Darth Vader’s helmet, allowing passersby to connect to the internet. It’s a pretty innovative way to turn a symbol of dark times into a fun tourist attraction, so stop by and take a few pics while you’re in the area.
Struggling with jet lag? Stop by the perfectly-named Traveler’s Coffee on Derybasivska Street. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it’s the best place to grab a good cup of coffee, even if you arrive in the city at four in the morning! The kitchen also serves up a range of European and Asian cuisines if you’re in need of a proper feed. The head chef has worked all around the world, from Ibiza to Morocco, before returning home to Odessa.
Recommended tours in Odessa
- Panoramic Odessa Private City Tour by Car
- Private Tour of Odessa Catacombs
- Private Tour of Jewish Community in Odessa
- Odessa National Opera and Ballet Theater Tour with an Exclusive Backstage Access
- Criminal History Tour of Odessa
- Insta Holidays – Odesa
- Palaces of Odessa Private Walking Tour
- Shustov Cognac Winery Museum Tour with Tasting in Odessa