Odessa is a port city on the Black Sea in Ukraine, an Eastern European country. In the past, the city was essentially a seaside town for Ukrainians to enjoy the warm weather in summer but over the last few years since Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, more and more international visitors are discovering Odessa’s gorgeous pastel-coloured 19th-century architecture, it’s unusual museums and historic sites and yes, it’s beach nightlife scene that rivals Ibiza in Spain.
Odessa really has something for everyone. Odessa’s beach and seaside attractions are the city’s main draw but the world-class Opera house, art galleries, catacombs and all of the other cool things to see in Odessa are what make it special.
Many visitors travel to Odessa without knowing much about the city because of its exceptionally low prices and great weather and are stunned by how charming the city is for its other qualities, and this ultimate guide to Odessa will show you what they are.
This ultimate Odessa travel guide will show you all the most beautiful places in Odessa, what to expect when visiting, where to stay in Odessa and things to do in Odessa which will help you in planning a trip to Odessa.
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How to get to Odessa
Odessa International Airport flies directly to two of the main airports in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city, daily as well as many cities around Europe and nearby such as Vienna, Moscow and Tbilisi in Georgia via airlines like KLM. If you are travelling to Odessa from further afield, the most convenient option would be to fly to Kiev and catch a domestic flight to Odessa. There is a ‘trolleybus’ service (tram) from Odessa Airport into the city which runs several times an hour or there are plenty of unmetered taxis.
Odessa is quite far away from other major European cities, but they are still accessible by trains which are usually infrequent yet incredibly cheap sleeper trains. The nearest and fastest city to reach from Odessa is Kiev in around seven hours, and Moscow and Minsk take around 24 hours and there are fewer rail services outside of the summer season.
What to expect in Odessa
Ukraine, in general, is one of the cheapest countries to visit for most Western tourists and this includes Odessa. Expect beautiful hotels for the equivalent of €40 and fancy coffees for less than €1. The currency in Ukraine is the Ukranian Hryvnia (UAH).
For a lot of people living in Odessa, Russian will be their first language though the only official language is Ukrainian. Younger generations and service employees will probably speak basic English but it’s not common, learning a bit of the Cyrillic alphabet will help you understand menus, signposts, etc.
Ukraine is not part of the Schengen area or the EU so make sure you double-check your visa requirements. And there is unrest near Ukraine and Russia border, so is Odessa safe to visit? Thankfully, Odessa is nowhere near the conflict and it’s just as safe to visit as any other Eastern European city for most travellers.
How to get around Odessa
The centre of Odessa is compact and walkable so, aside from your transfer from Odessa Airport or train station, you may not require public transport at all but if you do there are plenty of options from trams, buses and taxis.
Trams are the most popular public transport option because they’re easy to navigate and they operate between the airport, train station, bus station and Arcadia beach. On trams, you pay in cash to the conductor and most journeys are less than €0.25. If you need to take a bus, unlike most other cities in Ukraine you pay the driver when you leave.
However, a lot of travellers opt for taxis in Odessa because they’re so cheap and public transport in Odessa doesn’t have air conditioning and are magnets for pick pocketers. Tipping taxi drivers is not required, but most taxis don’t have meters so agree on a price upfront.
The best time to visit Odessa
The summer months between June-August are without a doubt the best time to visit Odessa. The city has a wonderful stretch of coastline filled with beaches, resorts and activities so it would be a shame to not be able to make the most of this time of year where temperatures reach 30 degrees Celsius and even though this is peak season for Odessa and accommodation and transport costs may be marginally higher than usual, it’s still far cheaper to visit Odessa than comparable European beach cities like Ibiza or Barcelona during this time of year.
But if you’re a culture vulture and watching The Nutcracker ballet is on your bucket list, travelling to Moscow and seeing the famous festive ballet might be expensive. However, you can visit Odessa in November or December and watch the many highly professional annual performances for as low as €10 a ticket!
Things to do in Odessa
One of the top things to do in Odessa that’s on every visitor’s must-do list is to sunbathe on the beach! Odessa beach is situated on the Black Sea and Langeron beach, in particular, is the most accessible to tourists. It can get crowded in the summer but it’s absolutely worth it and you can hire sunbeds and check out the restaurants and facilities nearby.
You can also visit Odessa harbour which is the biggest in Ukraine and one of the most important on the Black Sea. Several boats and ships sail in and out every day and it’s a great place to go during sunset.
Opera and Ballet House
Odessa’s Opera house is one of the city’s biggest attractions and best-loved buildings. Many people associate ballets by composers like Tchaikovsky as being a cultural experience to have in Russia, but because of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s close ties to Russia, Ukraine has a very long and impressive operatic history too.
Odessa’s Opera and Ballet Theatre is a grand and ornate building influenced by the Baroque style built in the 19th-century. They have performances year-round and while ballets and operas in other European countries might set you back some serious cash, tickets for an opera in Odessa start from around €2. Take a tour and get backstage access!
Derybasivska street is Odessa’s main city street and it’s worth a wander down during your trip because there’s so much to see. There are tonnes of gorgeous little cafes and bars like the Friends and Beer Microbrewery and lots of commemorative statues such as the Monument to de Ribas.
At the end of Derybasivska street is the Odessa City Garden, a delightful green space with lots of flowers, more monuments and a perfect place to chill out in the middle of the city.
There isn’t a stronger symbol to Odessa than the Potemkin stairs. Constructed in 1841 right by the harbour, these were the steps that sailors used to walk into the city and were the ‘official’ entrance to Odessa. They were built wider at the bottom and narrower at the top in order to appear much taller and steeper.
The stairs were featured in a famous scene in the silent film Battleship Potemkin where a baby carriage accidentally rolls down the stairs. It’s known as a cinematic masterpiece and this scene has been paid homage to in several Hollywood films, particularly The Untouchables.
What was once a historic neighbourhood in Odessa is now one of the top party destinations in the country. The Odessa nightlife in the Arcadia district is thriving enough to rival any other European city like London, Berlin or Ibiza and is filled with a huge choice of clubs, bars and events and attracts world-class DJs, festivals and concerts.
Museum of Western and Eastern Art
There are lots of fantastic museums in Odessa and you can easily split your days exploring them in the morning and relaxing on the beach in the afternoons. One of the best galleries in Odessa is the Museum of Western and Eastern Art. It’s housed in a stunning pastel-coloured palace with lots of pretty intricate details throughout and displays mainly pieces of art that you’d expect to see in a royal home such as vases, sculptures and furniture.
Vorontsov Palace has a bit of everything. Not only is it a charming 19th-century palace which now functions as an arts centre and events space, but it’s a whole complex with lots to see. It has a striking ‘colonnade’ which is also considered a symbol of the city as it’s positioned on a hill looking out over the sea and the city. The area is open 24/7 is worth a visit just for the views.
What to eat in Odessa
Odessa possibly has the most multicultural population in Ukraine, since it’s a port city, with strong influences from Greece, Bulgaria and Jewish communities in Russia which are all evident in Odessa’s cuisine. Typical Ukrainian food is warming comfort food like borscht (beetroot soup) and vareniki (dumplings) which are readily available in Odessa, but the city has its own hyper-local dishes.
For traditional Ukrainian food, head to Kumanets restaurant. It’s a very tourist-orientated place with staff dressed in authentic Ukrainian dress and it’s always packed, but the food is amazing. For traditional Odessa cuisine, you need to try the seafood and as much of it as possible. Black Sea mussels with plov (rice cooked in broth), brizna (a Greek-inspired, herb-infused goats’ cheese) and the Jewish-influenced forschmack (herring pate on rye bread) are all top things to eat in Odessa.
Where to stay in Odessa
Budget – All the accommodation in Odessa might seem affordable to most, but if you’re a budget traveller you can save a lot of pennies in Odessa while still staying in fantastic accommodation. A bed in Kosher Hostel’s dorm rooms cost around €10 a night and for that, you’re located right in the centre of the city in a very retro and super-friendly hostel.
Mid-range – You’re spoiled for choice with the affordable hotels in Odessa, but a couple of the best are Odesskiy Dvorik and Design Hotel Skopeli. Both are less than €50 per night and while the Odesskiy Dvorik is a classic, fuss-free hotel in a beautiful building and gorgeous courtyard, Design Hotel Skopeli is right on the beach (literally) with a laid-back vibe and balcony rooms overlooking the Black Sea.
Luxury – For less than €100 a night in Odessa, you can easily stay in 5-star luxury hotels. The Panorama De Luxe hotel is super-luxe with comfy, plush rooms decorated to a high standard and a private pool area overlooking the sea. Nemo Resort is another beachside option with panoramic windows and even space for parking if you’re hiring a car while in Ukraine.
Tours to do in Odessa
Local Food Tour
Foodies will love Odessa’s unique food scene and because of its location on the Black Sea, the cuisine is distinct to the rest of Ukraine. Learn about and taste Odessa’s food from a local food lover and visit markets, traditional canteens and restaurants on this local food tour to make sure you don’t miss out on tasting something delicious that you can only experience in Odessa!
Exploring the Odessa Catacombs is a must-do activity in Odessa. They are unlike the ones in Paris or Rome where they’re like small chapels made out of human bones.
The Catacombs are an extensive maze of caves literally underneath the entire city of Odessa and the outskirts and are best navigated with the help of a knowledgeable guide who will be able to show you the most interesting corners including the modern-day cave paintings and why the Catacombs exist.
Alternative Walking Tour
Odessa can already be considered an ‘off the beaten path’ destination, but if you’re a truly intrepid traveller, then you can go one step further by joining an alternative walking tour and seeing a side to Odessa that the tourists don’t see.
Explore a historic neighbourhood that doesn’t have all the big monuments and hear stories about Odessa’s dark, criminal past.
Day trips from Odessa
If you want to understand more about the Soviet Union and communism, then a day trip to Transnistria will be absolutely fascinating! Internationally recognised as Moldova, Transnistria is its own state which covers a sliver of land on the Ukrainian border. Feel like you’ve gone back in time and explore the quintessential communist-style buildings in this unusual place only 2 hours’ drive from Odessa.
Lower Dniester National Park
Odessa has the city life and beach life covered, but if you want to explore the countryside then a day trip to the nearby Lower Dniester National Park is ideal. Check out the local wildlife like pelicans and storks, go on a river cruise past the white water lilies and see what the natural side of Ukraine has to offer.
You may have a rough idea of Ukraine’s history during the last 100 or so years, but there are more than 2,000 years’ worth of battles, invasions and rulers to discover. The perfect place to find out more about Ukraine’s epic history is by visiting Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi on a day trip, an ancient city with medieval fortresses and castles on the Black Sea only a short car journey from Odessa.
Recommended tours in Odessa
- Panoramic Odessa Private City Tour by Car
- Private Tour of Odessa Catacombs
- Wild Odessa Catacombs Tour
- Private Sightseeing Walking Tour of Odessa with Local Guide
- Odessa Painting Tour
- Criminal History Tour of Odessa
- Full-Day Combo Tour from Odessa: Akkerman Fortress and Shabo Wine Center with Tasting
- Cossack ethnic tour
- Street Art Walking Tour