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Note: Because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I don’t currently recommend traveling to this destination. I stand with Ukraine.
Greetings Internet Stranger! Before my most recent trip to Eastern Europe, I had never considered spending 24 hours with the best things to do in Odessa. All I knew about Odessa is that the famous “baby carriage falling down the stairs” scene from the film Battleship Potemkin was filmed here.
But I’m so glad I ended up giving Odessa a try. It’s a beautiful city with fascinating history and architecture. And if you hate cities, after just a short trip out of town you can disappear from civilization and enter the mysterious world of the Mole People. Sound appealing? Then follow me!
Best Things to Do in Odessa
What to Pack?
The weather in Ukraine can be rainy. So the two most important things you’ll need to bring are an umbrella and some rain boots. My favorite travel umbrella is the Repel Teflon Waterproof Umbrella. It is strong enough to stand up to the sometimes-quite-strong winds of Ukraine.
For rain boots, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them out and about without feeling like some gauche American with gross feet.
Finally, if you’re not from Europe, you need a universal adapter if you’re going to plug in electronics. European electrical outlets don’t work with either American or UK plugs. I suggest the NEWVANGA travel adapter. It’s usable with any electrical outlet in the world, so you won’t need to keep buying new adapters. I always carry two with me, just in case something happens to one.
Things to Do in Odessa
Morning: Odessa Archaeological Museum
Let’s begin our tour of The Best Things to do in Odessa with a little history. A local recommended this place to me because I told him that I liked museums. The Odessa Archaeological Museum was founded back in 1825, so it’s basically a historical attraction itself. There aren’t a ton of museums in Odessa, but the Odessa Archaeological Museum has the advantage of English signs for those of us who are not fortunate enough to speak Ukrainian. Most of the staff doesn’t speak much English, but they are friendly, helpful, and good at communicating with hand gestures.
Keep in mind that you’ll have to check any bags, but the staff will watch your things for you. Frankly, I would be scared for any thief who tried to steal something from the tough-looking little Ukrainian old lady at the luggage check. And now that the logistics are taken care of, allow me to share…
three fun facts: odessa archaeological museum
1) how old is odessa?
Not as old as this poor fellow above! I guess Ukraine has been through so much in its history that it’s not so squeamish about looking at human remains. But in fact Odessa the city isn’t as old as most European cities. It was founded in the 1790s, which means my hometown of New York City is older. Of course people have been living in the region for thousands of years, even if they weren’t calling it Odessa yet.
A good portion of the museum is dedicated to the lives of the prehistoric inhabitants of Ukraine. As with most prehistoric people, it’s hard to know much about their thoughts and feelings since they didn’t keep written records. Apparently they had rather complex burial rituals. The way this guy was buried doesn’t look that complex to me, but maybe that’s why I’m not a Master of Ancient Ukrainian Burial Rituals.
I was more interested in the fact that the prehistoric people of Odessa were adept at rhino butchering. How sad that we can walk around Odessa today and not see even one rhino! I’m sure their meat is a delicacy.
2) where does the name odessa come from?
The name Odessa comes from the Greek city Odessos. (Odessos is now the modern Bulgarian city of Varna. Those Greeks got around!) You might think there’s no connection between Greece and Ukraine, but you’d be wrong. The Odessa area was a Greek settlement for centuries. Many of the most valuable artifacts in the Odessa Archaeological Museum are Greek.
However, the Greeks did not give the city the name Odessa. This was bestowed on the city by Russian empress Catherine the Great when the city was founded after the Russian army took over the area. But you won’t find any information on this in the Archaeological Museum. Given the current political situation, any historical connections between Ukraine and Russia are an extremely sensitive question in Ukraine. Basically never bring up Russia in Ukraine to be on the safe side.
3) is there a secret treasure room?
How convenient for you to ask, Internet Stranger! There is indeed a secret treasure room! I wasn’t sure if picture taking was allowed inside, and I didn’t want to risk getting yelled at in Ukrainian, so I didn’t snap its contents. But I can tell you that the Secret Treasure Room is full of rare coins. I was most excited about the money from Tsarist Russia and pre-Civil War United States.
The only problem with the Secret Treasure Room is that you can never be sure when it will be open. I found out about it because one of the docents came up to me and asked if I wanted to see the secret treasures. Ordinarily I would assume that any stranger who came up to me and offered to take me to a “secret treasure room” was planning to murder me and sell my internal organs on the black market. But in this case I thought it was worth the risk to follow her. How often does one get to see a trove of secret Tsar Gold?
24 hour treat: kompot
We’ll definitely need some fuel for our next outing, which is quite an excursion. So let’s get lunch at a local cafe called Kompot. Kompot is famous for its real fruit jams. (The word Kompot refers to an Eastern European fruit drink.) And I do think their jam is one of the The Best Things to do in Odessa.
But I was most excited by all the dishes on the menu that I had never seen before. There was a lovely light green borscht made with sorrel and zero beets. I didn’t even know it was possible to make borscht without beets!
I accompanied my green borscht with some forshmak. This sounds like an uncomfortable sex act that someone made up on Urban Dictionary to me, but it’s actually a Jewish appetizer made with chopped herring.
Odessa used to have a huge Jewish population. At the end of the 19th century, 35 percent of the city was Jewish. But because of the anti-Semitic violence of the first half of the 20th century (pogroms as well as the Holocaust), the Jewish population is much smaller today. I started this paragraph just wanting to eat some delicious fish and now I’m depressed. Eastern European history can really take it out of a person.
Best things to do in Odessa
Afternoon: Odessa Catacombs
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the most impressive attraction of all the The Best Things to do in Odessa is the insane network of catacombs that thrive underneath the city. In fact these catacombs are much bigger than the more famous catacombs of Paris.
The Odessa catacombs are mostly man-made by miners. The limestone that they dug out of the catacombs was used to build houses in Odessa back in the day. Nowadays there are no miners, just adventurous young Ukrainians who like to explore the underground world beneath their city.
Obviously I don’t recommend going to explore the Odessa catacombs on your own! That’s a good way to get lost and die! Instead, book the very affordable Wild Catacombs Tour. (The tour that leaves at 1 PM is best for this itinerary.) Even though I was the only person who booked the tour that day, it still went ahead. The guide, who was from Transnistria, did tell me he “thought I’d be a man”, and I’m sure I’ve never met a man named Stella, so that surprised me. But he got over the fact that I’m a girl pretty quickly.
The entrance to the catacombs is outside the city, so your guide will escort you from the city center to the entrance by local bus. It’s cheap and a good way to get some local flavor. Once you’re there, it will be easy for you to learn…
1) who uses the catacombs today?
My guide told me that the catacombs are very popular for young people who like to explore. He said that he sometimes spends an entire weekend inside the catacombs wandering and finding its secrets. I have seriously never met a person in my life who was as committed to being underground as this guy, unless you count Killer Croc from Batman.
There are also local kids who like to come down to the catacombs and party. (You can see the rocks set up like beds and beer bottles in my photo above.) Man, the kids at my school thought they were so tough if they went to party under the Brooklyn Bridge. I can’t imagine any of us spending our weekend partying in Ukrainian catacombs.
Sadly, my guide told me that some locals use the catacombs as a garbage dump. So just be prepared, while most of the catacombs smell fine, every once in a while you’ll come across something stinky.
2) any historical facts?
During World War II, Ukrainians used to hide here to avoid both the Nazis and the Soviet Red Army. If I had to pick two groups of people I’d hide in some catacombs to avoid, it would probably be those two groups. Can’t Ukraine ever catch a break? Some of the Raiders of the Lost Odessa Catacombs like to search for hidden artifacts from World War II. (Mostly what they’ve been able to find are these bullets.)
My guide told me that Baptists also used to hide in these catacombs to avoid religious persecution. Some of them scratched religious texts into the walls and they still remain there today. Just learning that there were Baptists in Ukraine at some point blew my mind. How did they even get there? But apparently Ukraine has historically had one of the largest Baptist populations in the world, after the United States.
3) any ghost stories?
Of course! What would a self-respecting catacomb be without ghost stories? This shrine is left to a mysterious figure called the White Hunter. My guide told me that the White Hunter was left by some friends to die down in the catacombs. He was understandably displeased, so in death he seeks his revenge.
The guide did make it clear he wasn’t sure this was true, but we took a moment of silence just in case. If there’s one kind of creature I would not like to anger, it’s a Ukrainian Ghost Man. I mean, any people that can withstand Nazis and the Red Army must make pretty tough ghosts.
The Best Things to do in Odessa
Late Afternoon: Explore Odessa
By the time the guide escorts you back to Odessa, most of the attractions will be closed. But you can continue your 24 hours in Odessa by exploring the city on your own! You can start with the most beautiful building in Odessa, the Opera House.
24 hour treasure
The best monument I saw out of all the The Best Things to do in Odessa is this golden chair. This chair honors the satirical novel The Twelve Chairs, written by two Odessa natives named Ilf and Petrov. The book is in print in English, though I can’t find it on Kindle.
Mel Brooks made a truly hilarious and underrated film of the movie in 1970 starring Frank Langella and Ron Moody. Watch it here if you want a real treat. It is insanely quotable! My favorites are: “Oh, God. You’re so strict.” and “Epilepsy, my friends, epilepsy. The same disease that struck down our own beloved Dostoyevski. Give, give. From the bottom of your hearts.” (These quotes are a lot funnier if you’ve actually seen the movie.)
The coolest building in Odessa is this Flat House. It looks like the house has only one wall, but in fact it’s triangle shaped. No one knows exactly why it was built this way. In fact no one seems 100 percent sure who built this house. Because of all these mysteries, some people in Odessa call it the Witch House.
No self-respecting film fan can spend 24 hours in Odessa without going up and down these steps. They are the exact steps from the 1925 silent movie Battleship Potemkin. This film, by legendary Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, is often called one of the greatest films of all time. In its most famous scene, a baby carriage falls down these steps while its mother looks on in honor. Most Americans are more familiar with Brian de Palma’s quotation of this scene in the shoot out in The Untouchables.
In any case, going up and down these stairs will give you bragging rights and help you work up an appetite. We’re almost ready for…
The Best Things to do in Odessa
Evening: Dinner at Vareniki Cafe Alpina
Of course we can’t end our 24 hours in Odessa without some proper local cuisine. The food at Vareniki Cafe Alpina isn’t fancy, but it is affordable and tasty. Since I had experienced the madness that is green borscht earlier that day, I played it safe with an appetizer of red borscht.
The specialty of the house is dumplings, so I got these tiny pelmeni filled with meat and a glob of sour cream on the side. Eating this made me feel as hearty as a Ukrainian peasant hiding out from both Nazis and the Red Army under a bunch of catacombs. I wasn’t exactly clear how pelmeni are different from vareniki. I just knew that both of them were dumplings.
But apparently the difference is that pelmini are almost always made with raw meat inside. With vareniki you can use vegetables and the filling is cooked beforehand. However, I think I need more data to truly understand the difference. I’ll just have to force myself to eat all the dumplings in Eastern Europe until I understand their true nature. Poor me!
24 hour treat: odessa craft beer
Instead of dessert, I opted for some tasty local craft beer as a treat. I simply could not resist the duck mascot wearing a suit. As ZZ Top always says, every girl’s crazy for a Sharp Dressed Duck. Craft beer is legit everywhere now. I believe if you visited the moon, you’d find them brewing craft beer out of moon hops.
That’s the Best Things to do in Odessa!
What would you do with 24 hours of the best things to do in Odessa? When will Ukraine catch a break? And does that craft beer duck have legs and know how to use them? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours with the best things to do in Odessa.