Guided Tours of a Museum City

  • Guided Tours of a Museum City
Issue 14, June 2009.

Guided Tours of a Museum City

Lviv is one of the few cities in Eastern Europe that has managed to preserve its medieval authenticity, escaping major damage repeatedly despite being the scene of brutal fighting in virtually every conflict to rock the region in the past few centuries. This charmed life has produced a wedding cake of a city boasting endless delights which can be explored on many different levels, with something for every taste from the macabre to the romantic. As the tourism industry improves and innovates to meet the demands of the 21st century tourist trade, more and more specialized tours are being offered up allowing guests to explore specific areas of Lviv’s past. Whether your interest is in underground catacombs or the city’s Habsburg heritage, you are now almost guaranteed the chance to find the right tour for you!

All roads lead to the Rynok: Tours of Lviv Old Town

Founded in the mid 13th century, Lviv is one of the oldest towns in Eastern Europe. The city was always a mercantile and cultural crossroads, something which has enabled it to consistently attract a wide range of talented artists, architects and sculptors from across the continent. This rich inheritance led many in Soviet days to regard the city as a kind of European enclave in the drab and monotonous USSR and has since helped make Lviv Ukraine’s most attractive and cosmopolitan town. Tours of the Old Town necessarily focus on the city’s trademark Rynok Square (Market Square), where the many different architectural traditions represented throughout Lviv can all be found. Here your tour guides will be able to showcase everything from Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque  and Classicism right up to examples of Eclecticism and Art Nouveau. Each of the 44 houses located on Rynok Square have their own unique and enthralling histories, while the town hall in the centre of the square is worthy of a separate tour in itself! This standard tour may seem a little sedate for those who consider themselves to be Lviv experts, but nevertheless it is highly likely that you will learn a lot about the city that you did not know and will develop a new appreciation for the beauty of the city and the legacy of its cosmopolitan past.

Borderland Bastion: Exploring Lviv’s Ancient Fortifications

This excursion gives a full impression of the defences of medieval Lviv when the city was a bastion which could expect attack at any moment from almost any direction. It is a tale of ramparts, towers, ditches, underground secret passages and long-forgotten castles. The excursion will acquaint you not only with the city fortifications themselves but also the surrounding monasteries, which although now in many cases part of the downtown area, were nevertheless originally part of the overall city defences. For the first three hundred years of its existence, Lviv was fenced in by an elaborate triple ring of fortified defences, the remains of which can still be traced in today’s city architecture despite the heavy toll of fires and invasions over the interceding five hundred years. This feat of medieval engineering made Lviv one of the best-defended cities in Eastern Europe and created a sense of security that in many ways was the principle factor in facilitating the rapid growth and expansion of the city into the regional pearl it is today. Highlights of this tour include Lviv’s Royal Armoury, High and Low Walls, Gunpowder Tower and Towers of Tailors, Turners and Tradesmen, plus fortified abbeys and cathedrals, while there is also a nod to work of the Habsburgs and the Old Austrian Citadel of the 19th century which formed the bulwark of their imperial presence in the region.

Stone Age Tourism: Lviv’s Castles

This excursion includes visits to Lviv’s most prominent churches and castle ruins. You will learn the history of the city’s castles, learn about the legends surrounding a miracleworking icon, explore the architectural trends evident in the ruins of the city’s fortified strongholds and see some of the oldest surviving frescos in the former USSR. During the excursion you will find out a lot of interesting facts about saints, church traditions, religious holidays, and also about the workings of the many monastic orders to whom the bulk of the city’s defensive structures originally belonged. Although there is little in terms of bricks and stones still standing from many of Lviv’s oldest and most historically important castles, there is still much that can be seen and lots to learn about this aspect of the city’s history, providing an insight into why the city first grew as it did and what the positioning of various castles and strongholds has meant for the development of the modern city.

Habsburg heritage: A look at Imperial Lviv

While much of Ukraine wrestles with its Soviet past and struggles to come to terms with the impact of hundreds of years of Russian rule, in Lviv there has been a concerted effort in recent years to hark back to a different inheritance with a distinctly European flavour that sets the region at odds with the rest of post-Soviet Ukraine. For almost 150 years Lviv was the eastern capital of the Hasburg Empire, a sprawling conglomeration of regional units tied together by loyalty to the Viennese Habsburg dynasty that stretched from Lviv and Western Ukraine in the east down to the Adriatic in the south. This link to the core of modern European history is something that many in Lviv see as being a key element in the city’s modern renaissance and it is no accident that many of the bars and restaurants to have opened up for business in recent years have borrowed heavily from the Habsburg past for the inspiration. Tours of the city’s Habsburg past will offer an insight into quite how much of the modern city is due to the influence and expert building techniques of the Habsburg authorities. Well-known examples of Habsburg craftsmanship include the National Opera House and much of what is today Prospect Svobody, while those taking the tour may also be surprised to learn that the city’s Ivan Franko University Building was once the seat of regional government and is built on the site of a former casino which was once graced by Emperor Franz Josef himself!

Legendary Lviv: City of Mystery

With its cobbled streets, ancient facades and shady courtyards, Lviv can sometimes seem like it is a city stuck somewhere in between a fairytale and a gothic horror novel. Unsurprisingly, this inescapable ambience of romance has also given birth to more legends that many entire countries can boast. On this tour you will be offered a journey through mystical Lviv from the very foundation of the city until the present day, with exotic and tall tales about ghosts, alchemists, vampires, demons and ghoulish figures abounding. Highlights include a chance to explore the Jesuit crypt beneath a Roman Catholic Church which is said to be haunted by the ghost of a monk who disappeared from Lviv in mysterious circumstances and the vault of Lviv’s drug store museum which includes a fabulous and fantastic alchemist’s room. Other legends include the lion monument which according to ancient folklore will come to life when the most beautiful girl in the world walks past – surprisingly this has yet to happen!

Coffe Captial: Lviv Cafe Culture Explored

It is quite simply impossible to imagine Lviv without its many coffee houses and their comfortable, unique atmosphere where even time itself dissolves like sugar in an aromatic cup of the city’s favourite drink. They say that Lviv and coffee are inseparable notions, and on this excursion you will come to understand just how important this drink has been to the city over the centuries. Highlights of the tour include the revelation that coffee was first introduced to Central Europe by a Lviv local, while also learning that some of Europe’s first ever coffee
houses were located in Lviv. This is perhaps not surprising given the city’s close proximity to the Middle East and its importance on Medieval trade routes, but nevertheless it is a striking fact that this quintessentially European culture of coffee houses first entered the continent via Ukraine’s cultural capital. Beyond the historical revelations this tour will also offer a more street level insight into coffee culture, with tales of old coffee house traditions and even a wide range of coffee-related jokes. Coffee has proved Lviv’s most enduring export to the West, and this tour has all the evidence to prove it!

Holy City: Spiritual Lviv

Lviv has long been famed as one of Europe’s most successful multi-faith communities, with representatives of many of the Christian denominations living side by side in peace during periods when elsewhere in Europe religious differences were leading to bitter rivalry and much bloodshed. This inter-denominational inheritance is reflected in the city’s history, which has been shaped by Armenians and Jews as well as Orthodox and Catholic believers. Beyond the politics of Lviv’s many interacting religions, this tour is also about beauty and mankind’s never-ending efforts to produce the perfect monument to the majesty of God’s creation. Cathedrals of splendour dot the Lviv skyline and represent a stunning variety of both religious denominations and architectural styles. This fascinating tour also takes you into the bewitching world of the city’s medieval monasteries, which includes Bernardine, Dominican and the barefooted Carmelites.

City of the Dead: Lychakiv Cemetery

Lviv is often called an open air museum, but your acquaintance with this museum would not be complete if you have missed out on a tour of Lychakiv Cemetery, which with its unique collection of graves dating back over 200 years is literally a city of the dead where Lviv’s cosmopolitan past comes back to life in row upon row of elegantly craved tombstones and statues. Visitors come to Lychakiv not only to encounter beauty, but first and foremost to pay homage to the mortal remains of those who are the pride of our people, who created Lviv’s history and culture and who exalted the city’s invincible spirit. You will encounter everything from Napoleonic generals and 19th century Polish revolutionaries to Ukrainian nationalist heroes and bards whose work in Habsburg-era Lviv laid the groundwork for modern literary Ukrainian. Some tombstones were vandalised and damaged by the Red Army after the Soviet seizure of 1939, but the graveyard remains remarkably well-preserved and is a fascinating way to gain an insight into the layers of history which one encounters elsewhere in Lviv through the different architectural styles of the city’s buildings. In recent years the cemetery’s graveyard memorial to Polish soldiers who died in the fighting that erupted following the Russian Revolution of 1917 has undergone a major renovation and is now a fitting monument to their long-forgotten and ultimately futile patriotism. Unsurprisingly, there is also a nearby chapel dedicated to Lviv’s insurgent army and other nationalist figures. This is Lviv, after all, where nothing is quite so simple or clear cut as you might at first expect!

Lover’s Guide To Lviv: The Romantic City

Lviv is one of the most romantic cities in Ukraine, if not the whole of Eastern Europe, and this tour offers you a window on the legends that lie beneath the city’s passionate heart. It is a long tour of some 4 hours but few will complain as they learn all about the secrets behind the winding cobbles streets of the city and hear tales of Polish princes, Austrian noblemen and the gorgeous Ukrainian maidens who bewitched and hypnotized them all! Famous lovers such as the notorious Mr. Masoch hailed from Lviv, and it is thought that much of the erotic energy which he was to expend in introducing the world to the dubious pleasures of Masochism were first generated by the unrestrained sensuality of 19th century Lviv. It seems that some things never change, and Lviv remains as romantic and seductive as ever, but this tour will demonstrate that the romance of Lviv is nothing new – on the contrary, it is part of the city’s very soul.