Spending your 2022 summer holidays in Odessa
Although Odessa is a city in a country (Ukraine) ravaged by civil war, at the time of writing it is a perfectly reasonable place to visit and enjoy your summer vacation or any other purpose you may have for visiting there. Just be aware of the following rules
Odessa is a city in Southwestern Ukraine, known for its beaches and nightlife and particularly popular with Russians on their summer vacations for the same reasons and due to its fine summer weather. It is an exclusively Russophone city.
Odessa is the capital of Odessa oblast, a large region of Ukraine that is divided into two parts. Very roughly, those two parts are the area to the north of Odessa; and Budzhak, the modern incarnation of the historical region of Bessarabia, that hangs down to the south from Odessa and borders Romania and Moldova.
The region of Odessa oblast north of Odessa is affected by war and leads towards western Ukraine, that is embroiled with refugees. The Budzhak region by contrast has no incidents of war whatsoever.
Budzhak can be entered more or less illegally from Romania at either Izmail or Reni, both in the Danube delta, the southernmost towns in Budzhak. If you do this, which may involve hiring your own motor boat, bring plenty of insect repellant! There are a lot of flying insects and bugs down there.
Flying into Odessa Airport is not possible; its runway is full of craters due to the war.
However overland travel to Odessa (other than from the southern Budzhak towns of Reni and Izmail) is fairly straightforward.
The easiest way from the west is to fly into Chisinau and then take a taxi to the Palanca tri-point in southern Moldova, about three hours; then to cross one of two borders on foot (Palanca East and Palanca West) then to have a local Ukrainian vehicle collect you. We have described this in a first earlier article and a second earlier article. The reader contemplating such a journey might also be interested in this article.
You may be searched comprehensively at Palanca East but less so at Palanca West. You may or may not have your passport scanned or stamped. Things seem pretty arbitrary down there. Provided you travel on foot and with a good story; and provided you are not a Ukrainian or Russian male of fighting age (18-60), you should be across the border in 20-30 minutes including miscellaneous potentially intimidating but mostly harmless questioning.
Do not inform people who appear to be Ukrainian border guards that you are going to Odessa for a vacation, or they may turn you back. Think up some other story..
At the time of writing we understand that there remain no fewer than two pubic buses a day between Chisinau and Odessa in each direction, although we have not attempted to take them and we do not know how you take them. We imagine that travel by bus (which crosses the border at Palanca East) may involve significant delays at the frontier as you wait while everyone, and their belongings, are searched.
From Palanca to Odessa the journey by car is about an hour. The journey may involve passing some curious checkpoints (e.g. ones where the soldiers are not wearing badges showing their national allegiance) but you should not expect any problems. A market rate for. A taxi or car for the journey from Palanca to Odessa is 50EUR. Be sure to arrange it in advance, or you may easily pay twice as much to the local sharks at the border.
Odessa is a large ramshackle city of over a million people whose suburbs bear a remarkable affinity to an African slum. Do not wonder round it outside the centre unescorted or at night.
Odessa has two centres: an Austro-Hungarian beautiful centre built around the Potemkin Stairs; and a beachside area called Arcadia, a few kilometres to the south. You can travel between the two by walking; the ubiquitous marshrutkas (private minibuses); or taxi.
The currency in Odessa is the Ukrainian Gryvna. Cash machines work with western debit and credit cards and many places accept payment with western credit cards It is probably unwise to pay in a shop or hospitality venue with a debit card due to card replicating frauds. Prices are somewhat higher than in the rest of Ukraine; as a tourist destination, they always were. It is still cheaply priced by international standards, particularly given the beauty of the centre of the city.
Odessa is notorious for rip-offs and scams, in particular on the part of its taxi drivers. Always have your hotel call you a reliable taxi.
At the current time most or all tourist facilities in Odessa seem to be open, including restaurants, bars, nightclubs and beaches.
There is no obvious shortage of food or other unpleasant impediments to a comfortable stay.
A prudent visitor would probably choose accomodation proximate to the Potemkin Stairs; hygiene standards are superior to those in Arcadia.
Expect to be accosted by roaming refugees while in central Odessa or in Arcadia. However they are very unlikely to attack you. They are just bored and short of money.
You may well hear the whistles of laser guided shells and/or cruise missiles with inertial guidance mechanisms, but in general these are nothing to worry about unless you find yourself in the habit of hanging around suburban munition dumps and other contra-indicated locations.
Be aware that Odessa port is partially blockaded by landmines and at the time of writing is subject to an unusual United Nations-mediated regime of access of vessels to and from the port. Stay away from the port; nothing good can come out of being there. Likewise stay away from Snake Island and other military assets. It is not currently clear to us which side in the war controls Snake Island. Either way you have no business there.
Take increased attention to your physical security, particularly at night and/or while drunk at beachfront bars and nightclubs in Arcadia; but paranoia is not required.
Travel north to Uman from Odessa, up the highway and back, remains unproblematic.
Travel east to Nikolaev is contra-indicated. The drive itself should be fine (if you do it during the day; do not attempt the drive at night) but upon arrival in Nikolaev you will realise you have made a terrible mistake. It looks and feels like a devastated warzone and you will not feel safe there.
Conversations with local people in Odessa can be rather paranoid and peculiar. Avoid them. Remember that the city is crawling with both Ukrainian and Russian KGB-types.
It is not straightforward to get around Odessa without elementary knowledge of Russian but some people do speak English, particularly in the tourist and hospitality fields. You will not meet many foreigners. Most of the journalist / refugee assistance workers have left.
Acceptable conference and other similar facilities are available at the better hotels.
All things considered, Odessa remains at the rime of writing a mostly harmless if slightly unusual destination to visit. Your greatest frustrations (and they are far from insurmountable for the determined) are in getting in and out.
Map showing geospatial relationship between Odessa and Arcadia