Dateline: Southern Ukraine
Ah Odessa, out of all the countries and cities I’ve visited and written about, I can’t believe I still haven’t written about my own hometown.
Actually, the reason I haven’t written much about Odessa is that I left my hometown in my early teens for a new life in New York. But just because you leave Odessa, doesn’t mean Odessa leaves you.
In the past seven years, I have returned to my former hometown no less than five times.
Here’s a local’s unique perspective to one of the most special and picturesque cities in the world.
Odessa is Ukraine’s 4th largest city by population, behind Kiev, Kharkov, and Dnipro with a population of around 1M inhabitants.
While Ukraine has a fairly large coastline of the Black Sea, Odessa is the premier city for getting sun and tan. That has become more so after Crimean peninsula switched over to the Russian side.
That event made Odessa as one of the only viable options for escaping the country’s oppressive summer’s heat. (There’s also Mariupol on Azov Sea to the east, but it’s yet another mediocre Ukrainian 3rd-tier city and can’t compare to Odessa.)
The entire former Soviet Union not only knows where Odessa is located, but they also have heard stories about the locals, Odessits (Одесситы).
Depending on who you ask in Ukraine (or other ex-Soviet Union countries), that person will have something to say about the locals, whether it’s positive or negative.
Generally speaking, Odessits share a particular humor, have their own colorful way of speaking Russian and even have a very specific accent that only exists in Odessa (I don’t have it, but my mom definitely does.)
Like most ex-Soviet Union cities, Odessa has greatly changed over the years. Many people immigrated to Odessa from nearby towns and cities and from other countries. So, it’s definitely not the same city as it once was.
Where to stay
Odessa is a relatively big city (over 1M), but, as a tourist, there are really two places to base yourself in the summer months. The first option is the beautiful center. The second option is closer to the action near the beach.
Out of all the Ukrainian cities, Odessa’s center is definitely the most picturesque and memorable. Kiev with its charming old town comes close, but there’s something that makes Odessa’s center truly special that visitors and locals alike can’t really put their finger and describe.
The second option is right near the beach and, thus, closer to the action. Although Odessa has several beaches along its generous coastline, most of the action takes place near two nightclubs Ithaca and Ibiza, located near a beach called Arcadia.
Back when I was a young kid growing up in the Soviet Union, Arcadia was a quiet area that was frequented mostly by families; there weren’t many fancy shops or noisy nightclubs.
That’s a far cry from today as the main strip leading from the city to the beach is filled with restaurants, stores, and coffee shops. There’s even a small amusement park for your enjoyment.
Both options are viable so it really depends on what you’re looking for.
How to rent accommodation
Odessa is a seasonal city so it’s pretty easy to rent apartments in the offseason, but that can be very challenging during the peak summer months.
There are several ways of renting apartments. The first is through Airbnb.com. Because Airbnb is typically targeted to foreigners instead of locals, the prices are typically higher than similar apartments that are rented to locals.
It’s not uncommon to find a decent apartment in the center for something like $1,000/mo, while the same type of apartment may be offered for like $600-700 on a rental site targeted at locals.
Nevertheless, negotiating on Airbnb is always an option. If you’re staying for at least a month, ask for a discount. It’s not uncommon to get anywhere from 10-30% off simply by asking.
Another good site for apartment rentals is doba.ua. This site lists apartment that is rented out by night and is aimed mostly at locals.
Most of the people advertising apartments don’t speak English, so it’s a good idea to have a local friend help you make reservations. This is the site I mostly use for booking accommodation.
Finally, there’s the king of all sites: OLX.com. This is sort of a Ukrainian craigslist where you can buy/rent/sell pretty much anything from used kitchenware to luxury apartments. This is the main site that Ukrainians use for pretty much anything. It’s a site where I found my last three Kiev apartments.
While you probably wouldn’t be using the site to find a long-term accommodation in Odessa (you could do that), the site also lists apartments that can be rented for short term, which is typically anywhere from 1-3 months. That’s super ideal for spending an entire summer in Odessa.
Although all three are solid options for finding an apartment in the city, if you’re not on a true shoestring budget, Airbnb is a great choice for securing a great pad in a great location. Assuming, of course, you book well in advance, especially if you’re looking for longer periods of at least a month.
How to get around
There are two ways to get around in Odessa: public transportation and taxis. Fortunately, with the arrival of Uber in 2016, it has gotten much easier to efficiently get from one place to another.
When I spent the summer in Odessa last year, I stayed in the center but enjoyed the sun and sand on one of the less populated beaches at the southern end of the city.
I generally took the public transportation (marshrutka, $0.25) which took about 25 minutes to get from downtown to the beach. I also took Uber a couple of times; the ride was about 7-10 minutes and cost around $3-4.
The best beaches
Odessa is graced with a generous coastline stretching from the northern area all the way to the south where it meets another city, Chernomorsk (Черноморск, formerly called Ильячевск).
Just as you’ve probably guessed, not all beaches are the same. There are three types of beaches in Odessa: public beaches, paid beaches (where you pay a fee for a beach chair or a tent, you can even order food and drinks which they’ll bring right to where you’re seated), and, finally, private beaches that are only accessible to the owners of the private land (and their friends).
When it comes to paid beaches, they vary from those without frills mostly frequented by families all the way to party beaches that rival to party destinations such as Ibiza or Miami.
The closest beach to the city is Langeron (Ланжерон). It’s a beach that everyone knows and, thus, one of the most popular beaches in the city. All you have to do is walk towards the sea from the center and you’ll end up on this beach.
The problem with this beach is that it gets overly crowded in the summer months (even worse on weekends) when the entire city descends on it. The result is that people end up being packed like sardines—lying right next to each other. That’s probably not an idea of a vacation that you had in mind.
A much better idea is to go to one of the paid beaches. It’s something that I resisted when I first visited—why do I have to pay to access a free resource?—but after trying it once, I became a convert and now exclusively go to paid beaches.
Paid beaches range from expensive to completely affordable. The more expensive paid “beach clubs” attract the typical “seen and be seen” clientele, while there are also plenty of “chill” beaches where, for a small fee, you can have a true piece of mind.
The great thing about paid beaches is that you rent a beach chair, an umbrella or even a huge tent for two or more people. You can also order all kinds of food and drinks which are brought directly to you. There are also restrooms and showers.
Thus, you can spend the entire an entire day at the beach instead of breaking up your day when you get hungry or thirsty.
One of my favorite beach clubs was called “Agarti.” It was a chill beach that’s more reminiscent of Goa, India than Ukraine. It was super affordable, had a chill music, and attracted a chill crowd. It was about a 25-minute bus ride from the center, so it was never packed. Thinking back, spending time at that beach club was probably the best part of my vacation.
In the famed Arcadia beach, you have two popular nightclubs that everyone in Odessa knows: Ithaca and Ibiza. These are party nightclubs that are frequented by the “seen and be seen” crowd.
The best time to come
Odessa’s summer season begins around the end of June when the water temperature gradually starts to rise; the water becomes truly warm by the end of July. This lasts up until around the middle of September. Towards the end of September and beginning of October, temperatures drop substantially and it becomes chilly so you need a jacket or sweater.
This is unlike coastal cities on the Mediterranean like Barcelona or Rome which are still very warm and pleasant that time of the year.
Actually, the best time to come to Odessa isn’t in July or August, but in the first half of September. By that time, most tourists have left (because it’s cold), few families are on the beaches (school season started), and prices for accommodation drop back down to normal levels after being in the stratosphere in the three months previously.
Visiting in the offseason
For such a beautiful city in the summer, Odessa is a completely different city in the offseason. Once the summer finally ends in the second or third week in September, temperatures drop quickly and the gorgeous blue sunny skies give way to rain and clouds (although the sun does make frequent appearances from time to time).
In the winter, while the city’s proximity to the sea guarantees that it doesn’t experience super cold -25 C (-5 F) temperatures like the rest of Ukraine, Odessa still gets its fair share of snow. Coupled with short days and not a particularly “cozy” center due to the city’s sizable blocks and few pedestrians, and what you get isn’t the most pleasant to spend the winter in.
In the last few years, I spent a couple of winters in Odessa (even celebrated the New Year there), and it’s definitely not my first choice of a city to spend the winter. Cities like Lviv with their cozy squares and narrow streets are much more suitable for cold, Ukrainian winters.
What language to speak
For a city located in Ukraine, Odessa is a predominantly Russian-speaking. It’s probably one of the more Russian-speaking cities in Ukraine.
My native language is Russian. Everyone in my family uses Russian as their native language. In fact, an easy way to tell that a person is not from Odessa is if they have a Ukrainian accent when speaking Russian.
While everyone understands and speaks Ukrainian, the only language you need to know in Odessa is Russian.
Safety and security
While Odessa, just like Ukraine, is fairly safe and secure, you still should watch out for petty scams. In Ukraine, Odessa has always been known as the city of swindlers (аферисты). While there’s a low chance you’ll experience any kind of serious harm, you should still keep your eyes open for minor stuff.
These include pickpocketing in tourist areas, short-changing you by taxi drivers and restaurant waiters. Some of the more serious issues that tourists have experienced were when apartment owners didn’t return the deposit back (partially or all of it).
Ever since returning to Ukraine back in 2011, I spent many summers in Odessa. Most of them were quick trips from Kiev, lasting around a week or two. Gradually, my sojourns in Odessa became longer; a year ago, I spent several months in Odessa.
Odessa has always been a special city in Ukraine (and the entire former Soviet Union). It was always a great summer destination for having fun and enjoying the sun.
Ever since Crimea became under Russian control, Odessa became the prime destination for summer tourists for the entire country. This resulted in extreme crowds, jacked up prices from restaurants to accommodation, and, generally, lots of hassle that comes with all of that. I solved this problem by visiting Odessa in September when the majority of the crowds are gone.
Still, have no illusions about it: Black Sea beaches aren’t exactly the Mediterranean, and definitely aren’t the Caribbean beaches I’m used when I was living in America and Latin America. The sand isn’t silky white and often times the Black Sea isn’t exactly clear enough to swim in.
Nevertheless, while there are plenty of cities around the world with better weather, beaches, food and even people, there’s only one Odessa.