Kyiv, Lviv, and Odessa are the three destinations in Ukraine that “everyone” knows about. Obviously I know Kyiv fairly well by now, but the race is on to visit the other two.
A couple weekends ago, my friend A and I decided to take the train to Lviv for the weekend. She and I took a road trip to Poltava a couple years ago, and we’ve been scheming up our next trip ever since. We settled on Lviv because it is a “must visit” Ukrainian destination. Plus we could take the train and avoid driving. And, we all know I love riding the train.
Located in western Ukraine, Lviv has that “quaint European town” look. Many of the buildings feature fancy, intricate facades and colorful paint jobs, but it lacks the Brutalist architecture style and high-rise block-like apartment buildings found in Kyiv. The city center was named an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. Unsurprisingly, Lviv’s classic city center square is its focal point.
Just about everyone I know in our local community has been to Lviv and loves it. In the weeks leading up to our trip, I asked around for suggestions on things to do. Admittedly, I was a bit disappointed to find the common answer was “stop in cafes and walk around.”
I’m all for wandering — in fact, it’s how I often find the local street art — but wandering for three days without purpose isn’t my idea of a good time. And while I love trying the local food, I’m not really a foodie, so filling days with popping in and out of cafes, restaurants, and bars leaves me feeling a bit meh.
The truth is, I felt fairly middle-of-the-road about Lviv in general. I expected to be wowed — maybe because so many people love the city so much.
Yes, the city center is lovely, but it’s also touristy and sort of tacky. We made our way through the center a few times (it’s called the center for a reason), but generally avoided it. Unsurprisingly, when we wandered away from it, we found the parts of Lviv that I loved the most.
The Yard of Lost Toys
We chose an Airbnb on a hill overlooking Lviv. On the walk down into the city center the very first morning, we happened a courtyard filled with stuffed animals, dolls, and other assorted toys. They sat on shelves, hung from a clothes line, and perched on every open windowsill, rock, and bench.
We did a bit of on-site research and discovered the Yard of Lost Toys started when someone found a couple of toys, which he set in the courtyard in case anyone came to claim them. Having memorably encountered several lost toys over the years, I find this incredibly endearing. I always worry about the child who lost the his teddy bear or a favorite toy truck. In college, I broke down in tears when I saw a stuffed Elmo on the side of a road.
Hundreds of toys fill the courtyard, some heavily faded and roughed up from years of weather. Others almost look fresh and new, like someone placed them in the courtyard yesterday. Every time we walked by, a couple people were wandering through. Clearly, the Yard of Lost Toys is, in some strange way, a captivating draw.
I suppose some might think it’s a bit eerie or creepy, but I think it’s equal parts sweet and enchanting. If they’re going to be “lost” forever, at least all of these toys are lost together.
Sister Daria’s Pysanky
Lviv has a lot of churches. They’re big, bold, and well marked throughout the city. But the one that drew us in was unassuming and tucked off a side street.
Initially, I noticed the church’s lovely courtyard. Clean and quiet, a couple people sat on benches scattered around the church complex, but no one was hustling about, acting as tourists do.
The front gate was unlocked and open. A small, easy-to-miss sign invited people inside to see the church’s pysanky collection.
Pysanky are intricately detailed, painted eggs. Dating back centuries, this exceptional art form is probably my favorite Ukrainian tradition. I love exhibits of pysanky. I can’t get over the detail, colors, and artistic flair … all on fragile eggs that have withstood the world for decades.
So, when we saw the church had a pysanky collection, we decided to wander in.
A kind, elderly nun met us in the church’s lobby before we even had time to walk into the nave. She invited us into the gift shop, where we encountered the most stunning collection of pysanky I’ve ever seen.
A woman named Sister Daria painted hundreds of pysanky representing a wide variety of different Ukrainian regions and traditional symbols over the years. She gifted the collection to the nuns of this church, who proudly shared it with anyone who happened to stop in.
The nun let us look at the collection, answering our questions and providing some context about which regions different eggs represented.
My eyes ran from shelf to shelf and cabinet to cabinet. My jaw dropped at the complex and intricate designs: delicate flower petals and tree limbs, tiny people in costumes, geometric patterns.
I’m not sure how long we spent looking through the collection, pointing out our favorites. The nuns at the church had painted several eggs of their own, which they sold in the gift shop. I bought four — each representing a different area in Ukraine with a different color palette — both as a unique Ukrainian souvenir and a tangible memory of our time spent with Sister Daria’s pysanky.
Hidden Collection of Vyshyvanka
Another one of Ukraine’s cultural icons is the vyshyvanka. These are traditionally embroidered shirts, but the patterns are also embroidered on dresses, scarves, and other clothing items.
Vyshyvanka are everywhere in Ukraine. There is a Vyshyvanka Day in the fall when everyone wears the traditional clothing, but it’s common to see people wear it at any time. In fact, it’s become such a “hot” fashion trend that it’s been commercialized for the runway and is found mass produced in fast fashion clothing stores like H&M. But at its roots, the Ukrainian vyshyvanka has a deep and meaningful history.
Like pysanky, I love to admire the detailed artistry and craft work. How any woman found time to stitch such detailed clothing when caring for all other aspects of the home — especially with minimal light throughout the winter — is beyond me. And, like pysanky, different patterns, colors, and styles are common in different parts of the country.
Any national or cultural history museum in Ukraine features the national costume. But every other vyshyvanka display I’ve seen up to this point paled in comparison to what we found in Lviv.
A street poster for a mall tipped me off. On the bottom of the six-foot poster was a throwaway line about an ethno-fashion exhibit on the fifth floor. We entered the (traditionally Ukrainian) “mall” and rode the escalator up five floors. In the back corner, near a dimmed light, we found the entrance to a store that sold vyshyvanka. And, in this store, we discovered a woman’s private collection of vyshyvanka collected from all over the country.
Her collection exquisite collection was well-displayed and carefully laid out based on region. Over the years, she’s amassed an impressive array of dresses, aprons, shirts, belts, jewelry, shoes … even bridal headpieces made of bees wax.
Like the pysanky, we moved from one section to the other absolutely stunned by the collection. The owner answered our questions about her collection. And, she generously gave us all the time and space we wanted to enjoy it.
Time dropped away as we wandered through the display. Like the Yard of Lost Toys and Sister Daria’s pysanky collection, spending time in this space let us truly experience “local” Lviv. And it’s these memories — not those spent crossing the popular city square — I’ll most treasure from our weekend getaway to one of Ukraine’s most popular cities.