If you’re looking for general recommendations about what to do when you visit Odessa, Ukraine, including food, bars, and beaches, please scroll to the bottom of the page.
It was 9:58am, and I had just run across town in a desperate attempt to catch the day’s first screening at the Odesa International Film Festival. In a total amateur move, I hadn’t double-checked the location of the movie I wanted to see. There were only two theaters screening during the fest, so I had a fifty-fifty chance of being lucky.
Well, don’t take me to a casino.
But despite technically being too late to buy a ticket, I managed to finagle my way into the first screening of Free and Easy, a Chinese film. I had just rolled into Odessa a few hours before on the overnight bus, so maybe I should have skipped it and caught a couple hours of sleep. But you don’t come to film festivals to sleep. I scooted into a seat as the lights were going down, and I settled in for my first real film festival experience.
I’ve been to film festivals before, but I had gone solely to preview my own film. This time, I was going to the Odessa International Film Festival in order to cram as many films into three days as possible. I carefully curated a list of films that I wanted to see, organized my list of must-eat destinations, and packed a cocktail dress for the one party I was going to.
Why is the Odessa International Film Festival so great? Like many film festivals, it’s showcases films you wouldn’t have a chance to see otherwise, whether they’re Chinese art house films, Ukrainian documentaries, or film fest darlings making the rounds. Also, it’s crazy affordable. Film festivals in the States can easily cost you $10+ a screening. In 2017, the screenings at the Odessa film fest were 80 UAH – about $3. Lastly, Odessa is an incredibly fun city. When your brain needs a break from all the arty-ness, you can hit the beach, snag a fancy cocktail, or stroll Odessa’s historical center.
So how many films was “as many as possible”? I manage to cram six films into three days and still enjoy Odessa, which I think is pretty good. Here’s what I saw and what I thought.
Directed by: Jun Geng
“When a traveling soap salesman arrives in a desolate Chinese town, a crime occurs, and sets the strange residents against each other with tragicomic results.” [from IMDB]
A dark comedy from China, I knew that Free and Easy was going to be my biggest gamble. In part because the program synopsis was so cryptic (more than the above logline), and in part because comedy is so cultural. And I do feel like I missed a lot, that I didn’t quite grasp the deadpan comedy of the performances. The director, Jun Geng, plays a lot with silences and empty spaces. The frozen town is practically empty, as if everyone is in hibernation except for the handful of characters we meet. The setting was perhaps the most fascinating element for me, a tundra ghost town that inspired nearly every man and woman to become a con artist. Probably only for the devotees of world art house films.
Directed by: Maysaloun Hamoud
“Three Palestinian women living in an apartment in Tel Aviv try to find a balance between traditional and modern culture.” [from IMDB]
Having been to Tel Aviv twice this past year – and as a woman dealing with gender expectations in multiple cultures – I was probably the ideal viewer for this film. And from its opening scene, powered by its heart-thumping soundtrack, the film threw you right into the hypnotic culture of Tel Aviv. In many ways, the story was predictable. Nearly every conflict that you could anticipate between modern women and traditional culture rears its head. But the performances are so authentic and the soundtrack so immersive, that it rarely felt tired or trope. This is the film I most wanted to dissect with fellow film goers.
“Pierre, a 75 year old widower, discovers online dating websites. Using the profile picture of Alex, his grand daughter’s boyfriend, Pierre meets Flora. Charmed by his elegant conversations and intimate confessions, she asks him on a date, face to face. Excited by this unexpected adventure, Monsieur Pierre asks Alex to go in his place.” [from IMDB]
This is a charming romantic comedy that lights up with the cheeky humor of the French. You can imagine the love triangle that ensues, but the film’s delicate humor keeps the expected plot twists fresh. Pierre Richard’s performance makes the film. I found Alex a bit tiresome after a while, but unlikeable characters are sometimes crucial to the story. Of course, Flora is too perfect, an unrealistic character without flaw. But I don’t think she is the point anyway. In fact, her saccharine character facilitates one of the funniest scenes in the movie, so I’ll roll with it. A movie I’d gleefully re-watch with friends.
Directed by: Georg Genoux, Lisa Smith
I knew that I wanted to see some Ukrainian films at the Odesa Film Festival (obviously), and School #3 was high on my list. In 2014 a town in Donetsk was caught in the crossfire of Ukrainian forces and separatist forces. This documentary revisits the town as it tries to rebuild, getting the brutally honest reflections of thirteen teenagers struggling to make sense of an international conflict that’s intruded on their lives.
The conflict in Ukraine is multi-faceted, and I’m not going to act like I know what’s going on or what should be done. But I do believe in listening to as many stories as possible, and these are incredible stories from kids exploring the sober reality of being trapped in a conflict zone – all while having to navigate the agony of being a teenager.
Directed by: Sergey Bukovsky
“Is this film about a mother? About an actress? About a woman’s fate? What happens when a son directs a film about his mother, an actress?” [from IMDB]
The Leading Role gave me a lighter look into Ukrainian life. A documentary by a Sergey Bukovsky, a famous Ukrainian director, about Nina Antonova, Soviet-era actress, wife of a famous Soviet director, and Sergei’s mother. Everyone in this story is a household name in Ukraine, and I know that I missed some of the cultural connections. I think Bukovsky complains a bit too much in the film, but Antonova is completely charming, especially in the scene where she’s trying to find her late husband’s old Soviet medals. It’ll hit you in the feels and make you want to call your mom.
Directed by: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
“In a story depicted in oil painted animation, a young man comes to the last hometown of painter Vincent van Gogh to deliver the troubled artist’s final letter and ends up investigating his final days there.” [from IMDB]
Loving Vincent has become a festival darling, a trippy ‘animation’ masterpiece made from 65,000 oil paintings by 125 artists. The story is part investigation into van Gogh’s death, part mournful letter that mental illness was so misunderstood. The whole project is a feat of staggering proportions.
However, the swirling nature of the oil paintings was a strain on my eyes and I sometimes felt dizzy. The saving grace was that the frequent flashback scenes were in black and white, the tones less visually jarring. Loving Vincent is a spectacular display of artistic technique. It reminded me of learning about film theory at the technology’s birth – would film be a vehicle for spectacle or story? The accomplishment of oil painting a movie is remarkable (and the fest organizers made sure to recognize the Ukrainian artists who contributed to the film) – but this is a film I would recommend others to see, for the art, rather than re-watch myself.
Overall, I had a fantastic time during my Odessa weekend. Getting to see a diverse collection of films, at a fraction of the price that US festivals charge, was a thrilling experience for me, a film school grad. And getting to see Ukrainian films was especially special. If you are in Ukraine over the summer, I highly recommend visiting the Odesa International Film Festival.
Pst, Amy, aren’t you misspelling “Odessa?” Nope. “Odesa” is the transliteration from Ukrainian, “Odessa” is the transliteration from Russian (as I understand it. This is perhaps the most confusing of the transliteration cases). I tend to use the “Odessa” spelling because that is what most international travelers use in their online research, but I do try to mix it up.
Why Visit Odessa Ukraine
From its very beginnings, Odesa has been city of odd combinations, slightly lax rules, and a strong understanding of how to party. It was built by immigrants, beloved by writers, and rent with tragedies. Definitely put Odessa on your Ukraine itinerary, but manage your expectations. Every time I go to Odessa I feel like I both get closer to understanding the city and also watch her slip a little further away.
What to Do in Odessa
Arcadia: Arcadia is the beach boardwalk destination of Odessa. It has water parks and beach clubs and people you can rent those terrible hoverboard things from. The Odessa beach clubs are actually very affordable – you can get a chair at Ibiza Beach Club on the weekend for about eight dollars (additional things like a locker costs extra). In the morning there are a lot of families and locals, but by the afternoon the crowd starts shifting and the partiers come to lounge. At night, Arcadia is the place to come party. I’ve never been myself, because clubbing isn’t really my thing, but if you go please be alert. I’ve read lots of reviews of tourists being ripped off in the Odessa beach clubs.
The Odessa Cable Car: I’m a big fan of cable cars, and the one in Odessa that runs down to Vidrada Beach is cheerily painted with cartoon characters and run by babushkas. Like the cable car in Kharkiv, you have to leap on and off while it moves at full speed. The Odessa cable car takes you down to a stretch of beaches quieter than the ones at Arcadia, so if you’re looking for a more low-key beach day, check them out. You can find the cable car on Google Maps by searching “Kanatna Doroha.”
A Walking Tour: Odessa’s history is so fascinating, I’d definitely recommend a walking tour to get the inside scoop. Having a local explain the importance of the Potemkin Stairs, Bul Prymorsky, Derybasivska Street, and Passage really enriched my understanding of Odessa.
The Odessa Opera: The Odessa opera house is a magnificent building, inside and out. Its façade is one of the symbols of the city, and the interior is gilded in gold and opulence. You can take tours, but it’s ridiculous cheap to attend performances – you can get tickets for less than ten dollars. Though, if you don’t understand Ukrainian, I’d suggest attending a ballet performance. My family and I saw a performance of Turandot, performed in Italian with Ukrainian subtitles. While we were mostly clueless about what was happening, the singers were world-class.
Privoz Market: Privoz Market is pure chaos, so if you like that sort of thing when you travel you should definitely stop by. You can find literally anything the local Ukrainian buys, from tile cleaner to chicken hearts. It’s sensory overload, in the most hypnotic way.
The Odessa Catacombs: Used by smugglers, freedom fighters, and adventure-seekers, the Odessa catacombs are now a major tourist draw. I haven’t been, but you can check out fellow expat Kris and Kate’s blog for a sneak peek into an Odessa catacomb tour.
The Fitz: My favorite Odessa cocktail bar, The Fitz is straight-up class in a party town that sometimes gets a little sloppy. The menu is organized according to inspiration from different geographic regions. My favorite drink on the menu is the New Delhi Sour, a rum cocktail with mango puree and masala syrup.
Port: I adore Port for its unpretentious student wine bar vibe. Local wines are served in typical kitchen glasses, and young people breeze in and out on their way through life’s early dramas. Also, it’s surprisingly quiet for its center location.
Nalyvky from Lviv: This local Ukrainian liquor producer had a stand outside the main festival theater, so I ended up stopping by and chatting with the duo that was running it. They made me a couple of cocktails and gave me Odessa recommendations. I’m not sure if this liquor is originally from Lviv or Odessa or both, but there’s a shop in the center of Odessa where you can drop in for a tasting or to buy a bottle. The liquors range from sweet to bitter, happily leaping from chocolate to horseradish. Makes a great Ukrainian souvenir, if you can resist cracking the seal.
Odessa Restaurants and Cafes
Ah, Odessa restaurants. You should be so good! You should be at the top of the game, tourist destination that you are. But I’ve found the Odessa food scene disappointing, in large part because of bad service. More than one server has made me feel like an inconvenience and a burden, just for walking in and looking for a table. So my recommendation list is small, because I am only listing places that wowed me all around. As always in Ukraine, it’s best to make a reservation, just to be on the safe side.
Bernardazzi: Bernardazzi, hidden under the Odessa Philharmonic, elevates everything to a certain level of posh – even me, as soon as I walk in the door. It’s a bit on the pricey side, so I usually only stop in for coffee in the courtyard. And to pop into the coolest bathroom I’ve ever seen (I know, it’s a weird thing to say. Just go with it.)
Dacha: A dacha in Ukraine is a country house, and it’s very typical for families who live in the city to have a humble dacha where they escape to on weekends and over the summer. Dacha in Odessa is one of the loveliest restaurants I’ve been to here, with a sprawling garden spotted with tables that are delicately screened by the vegetation. Best of course in the summer, but there is a spacious house for indoor dining.
Kompot: Kompot is a great place for a hearty, filling breakfast, or for chowing down on Ukrainian comfort food for lunch or dinner. My mom got baked pelmeni and I stole nearly all of them.
Molodost Bar: Molodost Bar is supposed to evoke nostalgia for the 90s, but it reminds me of a southern diner. Perhaps because I was immediately attracted to their skillet offerings and paid zero attention to anything else. My sausage and potato skillet was top-notch, something I’d happily eat again for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Moloko Bar: Moloko (milk) Bar bills itself as a health food store on Google, but my family all got waffles. Hey, if you burn it off in a walking tour after, it’s not so bad. I got grilled cheese, which ended up being literally a waffle-grilled piece of cheese, and I didn’t regret it one bit.
Maman: Maman has an appetizing menu, with kotlety (stuffed meatballs) and some kind of divine rolled khachapuri. The food is satisfying, but it’s elevated by the serenity of the garden hidden out back – it’s the best way to dine, slipping away from the noise of Odessa to a courtyard garden.
Looking for a place to stay? Check out the best hotel prices in Odessa, Ukraine, before you go!
If you have other recommendations on what to do in Odessa, please leave them in the comments below!
In an effort to demonstrate just how crazy affordable Ukraine is right now, here’s my Odessa weekend budget shook out:
Total Expenses: $207
Accommodation (3 nights): $68
Travel tickets (overnight buses from/to Kyiv): 760 UAH // $49
City travel (taxis, trams, and cable car to the beach): 218 UAH // $8.40
Food and drinks: 1627 UAH // $63
Film tickets (6 screenings): 480 UAH // $18.50
You might end up spending a little more, as I was taken out to dinner several times and relied a lot on public transport, but as you can see it’s easy to have an affordable, high-quality weekend in Odessa.
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