Perched on the hills overlooking the Gulf of Odessa along the northern Black Sea Coast is the city of Odessa, Ukraine. It’s located roughly 275 miles south of Kyiv, the national capital, and is known as the Pearl of the Black Sea. With a nickname like that, it’s no wonder there are so many fantastic things to see and do in Odessa, Ukraine.
The History of Odessa
Its seaport, which made Odessa a popular transportation hub and tourism destination, was first established in 1794. But long before Odessa became the playground of Russian aristocracy, the area was home to an ancient Greek settlement established around the 6th century BC.
Some believe it was the Greek city of Histria who established this settlement. Archaeologists don’t know for sure, but artifacts unearthed in the area confirm that the settlement had strong ties to the eastern Mediterranean.
Various rulers, including nomadic tribes and the Ottomans, ruled the Odessa area through the Middle Ages, until Russian Emperess Catherine the Great, founded Odessa in 1794.
My Time in Odessa
Throughout my time in Ukraine, it wasn’t lost on me that my father’s family came from just a few hundred miles away from the locations I was exploring. It gave me a sense of connection I often feel when I visit this part of Europe.
And it didn’t hurt that the people were unbelievably warm and kind to me. Amazing food and beautiful architecture are wonderful, but it’s the people that truly make the place. Everyone treated me like family, and I walked away from my time in Odessa with my heart full.
My trusty guide through it all was a woman named Natasha, who works with Tours by Locals. Her knowledge of her city and its history, culture, and food was second to none, and I couldn’t have put this guide together without her. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the top things to see and do in Odessa, Ukraine.
See the Potemkin Stairs and Square de Richelieu
If you’re looking to explore Odessa on foot and are looking for a good place to start your adventures, there are few places better than the Potemkin Stairs. This grand, outdoor staircase rises 27 meters from the Port of Odessa to Square de Richelieu at the very top.
The immense staircase is a whopping 142 meters in length and dates back to 1873. The stairs came about because Odessa residents needed way to descend the city’s hilly terrain to the harbor below. Until then, only crude wooden stairs and winding paths linked the harbor to the rest of the city.
At the top of the steps, Square de Richelieu is home to the Duke de Richelieu Monument. The bronze statue depicts the town governor Armand-Emmanuel Sophie Septimanie de Vignerot du Plessis, clad in a Roman toga. It holds the distinction of being the first monument erected in the city!
Experience a Walking Cognac Tasting at Shustov Cognac Museum
Ever since I was old enough to drink alcohol, cognac has been one of my favorite adult beverages. Cognac lovers visiting Odessa must stop by Shustov Cognac Museum to go on the ultimate tasting tour of their facility. It’s one of my favorite things to do in Odessa, Ukraine.
The museum is owned by Global Spirits, which produces over 500 different spirits. Their cognac brand, Shustoff, has an epic history dating back to its founding in 1863. They were even named the best cognac produced in Europe in 2012!
The entry fee includes the cost of a cognac tasting, which is the highlight of the tour. Along the way, you’ll visit their cellar, which houses 500 enormous oak barrels, each of which can hold up to 10 tons of cognac. During my visit, I learned that their barrel rooms are kept dark to help the cognac age better. The facility houses some of the largest barrels in Europe, including one from 1893 that holds over 25 tons.
I personally loved trying the “Pirates and Their Treasures” cognac, an extremely limited edition that traveled, in a barrel, around the world on a yacht. Only 99 bottles of it exist in the world! Their 50-year-0ld Quintessence is also quite delicious!
I also got a chance to try their 70-year-old Exclusive, which is not typically a part of their tours. It’s a sweet and unique cognac that is usually reserved for people inside the Shustov company!
Enjoy Ukrainian Seafood at Dacha Restaurant
Located inside a summer house built in the 1850s is one of Odessa’s best eateries, Dacha Restaurant. The restaurant’s menu takes full advantage of Odessa’s location on the Black Sea, which makes the city’s cuisine quite different from the heavier, meatier fare found elsewhere in the country.
One of the dishes you must try there is the vorschmack, a creamy and briny fish salad you spread on pumpernickel bread. The onions in it make it a real standout! I also highly recommend their fresh sardines, which come with tiny “new” potatoes.
Elsewhere on their menu is the chicken “neck,” which is a chicken stuffed with breading, almost like a stuffed cutlet. If you like sweets, you can go with the rugelach, which are small, fluffy croissants stuffed with jam.
Or try the nalysnyky, a folded crepe filled with cottage cheese and dusted with powdered sugar. Honestly, whether you’re in the mood for sweet or savory, you can’t go wrong at Dachma. It should be on everyone’s list of the top things to do in Odessa, Ukraine!
Have a Traditional Cossack Food and Wine Experience at Don Alejandro Winery
If you’ve followed my travels for a while, you probably know that I love visiting wineries. Big wineries are great, but some of my favorites are the small boutique wineries. Just outside of Odessa is Don Alejandro Winery, a cute boutique winery located in a private home!
The owner, Alejandro, is a kind and warm-hearted man who graciously invites visitors inside to see how it all works. The property is stunning and includes several houses and buildings.
Some of the walls even have wine bottles and vases set into them, while other walls and outdoor pathways are made to look like mosaics! If you visit the top floor of the house, you’ll be treated to remarkable views of the nearby estuary and distant grape vineyards.
You can also visit their underground cellars, which are home to 93,000-liter barrels, and the original winery. The original winery now stores wine and champagne, which they ferment on racks. Their cellar holds a whopping 170,000 bottles.
Food & Wine
But the real highlight of my time at Don Alejandro Winery was when Alejandro pulled out some bread, salo (pork fat), liver sausage, Bryndza cheese, blood sausage, and more.
He even hand-fed me some of it, which was so tasty, it had my mouth watering! It was all remarkably fresh and organic. The Bryndza cheese, which reminded me a lot of feta, and the earthy blood sausage were my favorites!
Pairing them with Ukranian Saperavi dry red wine and their tropical Quintessence Grand Reserve blew my mind. I also loved their aged farmhouse champagne.
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Dine at Kumanets
Located just one block away from the apartment I’d rented in the city center is Kumanets, a warm and cozy restaurant that offers true local cuisine. I recommend trying a flight of their vodkas, which include a spicy horseradish vodka, cranberry vodka, and a unique sea buckthorn vodka.
Staples like salo with bread make for a great appetizer. Another great starter is the smalets, a garlicky pork lard spread that goes well on rye bread. One of my favorite dishes was the “lazy” dumplings, which are served with savory, slow-cooked veal and a sweet cranberry sauce that cut the richness of the meat.
I also have to shout out the stuffed cabbage, which was right up my alley. The stuffing was made of tender pork and rice. It reminded me of other stuffed greens I’ve had in places like Armenia and Greece!
You also cannot visit Kumanets without trying their fried goby, which is a type of Black Sea fish. It has tasty and flaky meat and comes with a spicy horseradish mustard sauce. The fish does contain bones, so I recommend picking through it and feeling around with your teeth and tongue so you don’t accidentally swallow one. It’s a must and eating it is among my favorite things to do in Odessa, Ukraine.
Explore Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi Fortress
Roughly 90 minutes southwest of Odessa by car is the port town of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi. It’s historically known as Akkerman and is home to one of the most impressive historical sites in the area, Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi Fortress.
The massive fort stands on the remains of the ancient Greek city Tyras, which stood from the tail end of the 6th century BC to the 4th century AD. The fortress itself, which dates back to the 13th-14th centuries, is a Genoese construction atop a hill overlooking the Black Sea.
Exploring the Fortress
It only costs 80 hryvnia/roughly $3.50 USD to enter. Inside the fortress’ walls, it’s like a small city. You’ll find shops and vendors selling everything from coffee to replicas of Phoenician coins, which a local shop owner will make for you for 75 hryvnia/$3 USD.
The fortress is easily one of the most stunning historical sites I visited in Ukraine. As you explore, you’ll come across the structure’s multiple defensive walls, dungeons, underground storage areas for gun powder, and even a command tower.
Atop its walls, you can enjoy amazing views of the whole of the fortress, as well as the city and bay beyond. Just remember to stay in the designated areas and always pay attention to the signs. Explore, but stay safe!
The Food in the Fortress
As the fortress is pretty much its own village, there are also places to grab a bite to eat inside its walls. I found a place that sold pork sausage, stuffed pitas with tomatoes and sulguni cheese, cabbage salad, and pomegranate wine.
The sausages were tender and tasty and came with ketchup. I really enjoyed the crunchy cabbage salad as well. But the pomegranate wine was my favorite. It was dry and fruity, and a bit different from the kinds I’d had during my travels in Armenia back in 2019.
Best of all, the restaurant had some interesting decor, including shields on the walls. You can also try on the helmet of their suit of armor and gauntlet! It’s a fun and immersive way to enjoy a restaurant experience and is hands down, one of my top things to do in Odessa, Ukraine!
Visit Kozy Ta Matrosy
If you take a day trip about two hours south of Odessa, you’ll find yourself in the sleepy farming village Mykolaivka. Located along the Black Sea coast, this little village is home to one of the most unique adventures you can have while in Odessa. To take part, you have to check out Kozy Ta Matrosy, a local dairy farm and restaurant!
As you would expect on a farm, the land here is the playground of lots of goats and chickens. The goats, in particular, are very cute and friendly. You can even feed them if you want to, but be warned—they can be very excitable and pretty ravenous!
You can also take a tour of the farm, where you can see the goat stables and troughs, the goat milking stations, greenhouses, and lavender fields. Next to the lavender fields is a site set aside for future guesthouses. They also have plans to open an on-site restaurant on June 9, 2021!
My favorite part of my visit—after being mobbed by hungry goats—was getting to taste some of the foods they produce. They included a creamy goat milk, a dense goat cheese similar to mozzarella, and panna cotta topped with condensed milk. Their goatmilk milkshake and Turkish coffee were also highlights!
Enjoy Black Sea Mussels & Oysters at Chernomorka
Right next door to Kozy Ta Matrosy, along the shores of the Black Sea, is their rustic seafood restaurant, Chernomorka. The restaurant has the aesthetic of an authentic fisherman’s village, with its wooden structures and white tables.
Even though I was in the south of Ukraine, they almost made me feel like I was dining on an island in Greece! Among their specialties is raw oysters from Ireland and France.
I’m an avid raw oyster lover, but I also know that they aren’t for everyone. But if you have an adventurous palate like I do, they’re one of the tastiest things you can get there. They’re briny and fresh, and taste incredible with a bit of spicy horseradish sauce!
Black Sea Mussels
If you’re more into cooked seafood, never fear. Their Black Sea mussels are phenomenal and come in a large bowl with a creamy sauce that includes dill, onions, parsley, and a drizzle of oil. The serving size is massive—I estimated there were at least 50 in the bowl—and they’re downright addicting!
Fried Fish Platter
As far as actual fish goes, you have several options to choose from. Or do what I did and order a platter of all of them! My fried fish platter included khamsa (anchovies), lufar (bluefish), sargan (garfish), stavrida (horse mackerel), and barbulia (goatfish).
They are some of the best fried fish I’ve had while traveling and reminded me of some I’d eaten along Italy’s Adriatic Sea coast. The lufar, or bluefish, was quite bony for being the most expensive fish in the Black Sea. But I could easily eat the stavrida without worrying about the tiny bones inside.
All in all, the food here alone is worth the two-hour road trip down to Mykolaivka. It’s one of the things you have to do when you visit Odessa, Ukraine!
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Indulge in Ukrainian Barbecue at Rebernia
After visiting their branch in Lviv and falling in love with it, I had to visit Rebernia’s location in Odessa! Located along Derybasivska Street, this restaurant is the best place in town for pork ribs, which they cook on huge, flaming, rotating grills.
As is the case in Lviv, Rebernia offers no utensils and no plates. Instead, you put on a bib and eat right on the table. Each table comes stocked with a roll of paper towels, because you’re going to get messy!
Their ribs are as tender as can be, and come with a cup of sweet and sour barbecue sauce. Adding it to the already sweet meat is like heaven in your mouth!
To break up the fattiness of the ribs, have a cheese and pesto salad on the side. It contains some tasty, ripe tomatoes and serves as a great palate cleanser.
A specialty on the menu is the Potato Egg Bacon Monster, a dish made up of a fried potato, a fried egg, thick-cut bacon, and a tomato-based dipping sauce. And yes, you eat it entirely with your hands like a champ! Getting down and dirty at Rebernia has to be one of my favorite things to do in Odessa, Ukraine.
If you have room after all of that, wash it all down with a bowl of chocolate ice cream. It was so creamy and smooth that it reminded me more of a chocolate mousse!
Try Ukrainian Craft Beer at Mash Taproom
If you’re looking for a nightcap after an evening on Derybasivska Street, a great place to enjoy it is Mash Taproom. When I visited, they had twelve beers on tap as well as over a hundred canned and bottled options.
One of my favorites was easily a chocolate stout from Kyiv. It had a malty caramel-like flavor and tasted like a melted brownie! Their pastry sour with marshmallow, blackberries, and pomegranate was a fruity burst of flavor.
You also can’t go wrong with their triple IPA, which is honestly one of the best IPAs I’ve ever had in my life. The hazy and sessionable beer had an amazing mouthfeel!
And if you somehow still have room in your belly for food, you can always order some fried cucumbers, tacos, or blood sausage! So if you’re hankering for a night out, visiting Mash Taproom is among the best things to do in Odessa, Ukraine!
Eat Ukrainian Street Food at Privoz Market
In my opinion, traveling is about meeting and mingling with the locals. If you agree and want to venture beyond the tourist hotspots, stop by Privoz Market. As Odessa’s oldest and largest market, it’s also a fantastic place to people watch and try lots of delicious foods!
Privoz Market is actually a series of indoor and outdoor facilities, including three buildings. Outside, you’ll find lots of vendors selling snacks like donuts and baklava, as well as clothing and accessories.
The Meat Market
Inside the meat building, you’ll come across butchers dismembering various animal carcasses. It’s gory, gruesome work, so you may want to skip it if that’s too intense for you. But I personally like how raw and gritty the butchers’ work is.
Throughout the market are lots of vendors selling salo, a type of pork lard. It comes in lots of varieties, and many of the vendors are more than happy to give you a sample to taste. Other vendors sell everything from cheese to pastries to sausages to cakes to honeycomb!
Personally, I loved the salo with garlic and pepper, a dense and smoky string cheese, and a rich and floral honey! If you look hard enough, you’ll find a man who sells and sharpens knives in a small stall.
Produce, Snacks, and Seafood
Another in the produce section sells a variety of spices, and others offer a Georgian candy called churchkhela! If that’s too sweet for you, you can also find dried fruits, nuts, fresh juices, and a Ukrainian drink called kvass, which is made from rye bread.
As Odessa is on the Black Sea, it’s only natural that seafood is prominent in the market. Vendors here sell everything from clams to salted fish to shrimp to sturgeon here. I even met a woman who has entire baskets of live crayfish! It’s sensory overload but is also one of the top things to do in Odessa, Ukraine!
Visit Marynivka Cossack Village
After I visited a Cossack village in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, I thought I knew what to expect in Marynivka. This small village about 45 minutes north of Odessa is inhabited by Cossacks, who are East Slavic Orthodox Christians hailing from the Eastern European steppes.
While there are some modern conveniences here—you can spy solar panels on some of the roofs—life in Marynivka is very much a throwback to traditional Cossack life.
One of the first things you should do is check out one of the local homes. I visited one that was over 130 years old and also serves as an ethnographic museum.
Along the woman’s shelves is old pottery, and you can see lots of traditional embroidered clothing. In the kitchen are a stone oven, ceramics, and intricately decorated maces!
Probably the most unique experience I had in Marynivka was my trip to visit the local chiropractor. My back had been bothering me for a while due to the non-stop way to tend to travel.
The chiropractor laid me down on his floor and cracked my back and hips, before cracking my neck! I was a little flushed by the end of it, but it did the trick!
Food and Artisans
Food-wise, borscht (a traditional beetroot soup) and chicken cutlets with potatoes, tomatoes, dill, and cucumbers were on the menu. I loved the heartiness of the borscht, which also contained pork, onions, and cabbage. The crispy cutlet and fresh vegetables were also a highlight.
Also be sure to visit the local artisans! The chiropractor is also a blacksmith, so you can watch him forge metal right in front of your eyes. You can also see the local potter pound clay and mold it into dishes. It’s fascinating work that blows my mind, no matter how many times I see it!
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Explore the Local Attractions
Odessa is a stunning city with a lot to see and experience. I’m a big proponent of going on walking tours when you travel, which allows you to experience the city the way a local would.
The Odessa National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet
My walking tour of Odessa began on a sunny afternoon at the Odessa National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet. Arguably one of the city’s most famous buildings, it’s built in the Vienna Baroque style. It originally opened in 1810 and was then rebuilt after a fire in 1873.
Visiting this cultural landmark is among the best things to do in Odessa, Ukraine. If you have time, head inside to see a show, or just hang out at the fountain outside!
Odessa City Hall
Past the theatre, you’ll find the gorgeous Odessa City Hall at the intersections of Prymorskyi Blvd., Chaikovskogo Lane, and Pushkinska Street. Take a look at the two statues, representing day and night, on the roof. The clock below them chimes every 30 minutes, and in front of the building itself is a monument to Alexander Pushkin.
If you continue along Prymorskyi Boulevard, you’ll find a beautiful pedestrian area lined with trees. Here, you’ll find everything from street musicians to artists. There’s even a section of the street that’s an archaeological site covered by Plexiglas. Beneath it, you’ll see an excavated section that houses ancient Greek amphoras, coins, stone tools, and much more!
Not far from here, you’ll find Odessa’s most well-known landmark, the Potemkin Stairs, as well as Square de Richelieu at the very top! As I mentioned earlier, they’re both one of my top things to see and do in Odessa, Ukraine, so check them out if you haven’t already!
As you make your way toward the end of Prymorskyi Boulevard, you’ll find yourself approaching the port area. Nearby is another historic landmark, Vorontsov Palace. This grand home was built between 1827 and 1830 for Prince Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov. It later served as the headquarters of the Soviet Red Guards.
Adjacent to the palace, overlooking the port, is the Colonnade of Vorontsov Palace. This open-air structure features 20 columns arranged in a flattened U-shape, which support a curved roof.
Leading away from the palace and the Colonnade is Tioschin Bridge. Also known as Mother-in-Law Bridge, this pedestrian bridge spans a ravine near the port.
The bridge used to be decorated with thousands of love locks, but after they caused the bridge to get too heavy, the locks were moved to a display nearby. Add one to represent you and your love! It’s one of my favorite things you can do in Odessa, Ukraine!
Dine at Gambrinus on Derybasivska Street
If you’re looking for a spot in Odessa that’s always teeming with life, Derybasivska Street is where to go. The city’s main pedestrian boulevard, Derybasivska Street is lined with countless bars, restaurants, and cafes. When it’s warm out, you’ll even see street musicians. Strolling it is one of the best things to do in Odessa, Ukraine!
Along the street is Gambrinus, an underground, 19th-century tavern that dates back to 1883. As you would expect, the tavern plays host to local musicians and offers a wide selection of beers, including some of their own brews. Try one of their malty lagers, and if beer isn’t your thing, you can always grab a cognac or a brandy.
Enjoy your beverage of choice with their incredible fried fish platter. For 250 hryvnia/$10 USD, you’ll receive several fried and battered goatfish and gobies. The goatfish are especially meaty.
Just remove the spine and be wary of the bones, but the meat is so succulent, it’s worth the trouble. You can eat the gobies and their bones, but I highly recommend chewing them thoroughly to break them down.
And in case that wasn’t enough for you, you can enjoy a second platter containing vorschmack (minced fish paste), pork ribs, onion rings, chicken wings, French fries, fish balls, and a gigantic pretzel. The pork ribs and their Chinese-like sauce were the highlight, and the fried fish balls with tartar sauce were to die for!
As someone with Slavic blood, my entire trip to Ukraine was something like a trip to the Motherland for me, as Hungary is just a hop, skip, and a jump away. Everyone I met in Odessa treated me like family, even though there was a clear language barrier between them and me. From the vendors at Privoz Market, to the bartenders I met, to the villagers who tended to me, they treated me like a king. I’m so grateful to them and to this beautiful, stunning country. Do yourself a favor and visit so you can experience the top things to see and do in Odessa, Ukraine yourself.
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