Odessa might seem like it's a bit off the beaten path, but you'd be surprised how its geographically in the middle of it all and just a few hours away from many sources of departure.
So, perhaps one the first questions which comes to mind when you decide to come to Odessa, is what way will you choose? And I guess that all depends on where you're starting from, and how do you most enjoy traveling? Here are some of the ways of traveling to Odessa.
Travelling to Odessa by Airplane.
During the early post-Maidan period, lots of major carriers cancelled their services to Odessa. Nowadays however, with the closer association to the EU, there are now many flights coming again from Prague, Germany and other points in Europe, and at very affordable prices (the tickets might even be subsidised by the EU, they are that low!). If you're coming in from further afield, then more than likely you will be "hubbing" through to here, more than likely through Krakow's lovely airport in Poland.
Odessa's airport is located just outside the city limits, and is not one of the world's largest or most modern transport hubs. The airport used to be really run down, and you would get a ride or walk from the plane to collect your bags and just walk on in without a passport check. But now things have changed, there is a more modern process, but it is quick and easy.
The journey from the airport to the centre by taxi takes about half an hour, I've heard it can also take up to an hour if you decide to go by marshrutka (a mini bus, which costs 7 UAH, and I've never heard of anyone western doing this). There is a hotel at the airport for those who get stuck there, luckily your author has never been in such a situation.
Speaking of "situations", the situation with taxi drivers who hang out front are the same as at the railway and bus station. The curbside service is aimed at those who don't know their way around a strange new town, and therefore the prices will be very high. So it is probably best to have someone local arrange a taxi for you, or just try to negotiate a price and reject anything over 300 UAH because you're really being ripped off. There are non-bank-branded ATM machines in the arrival lobby, I'm not sure their fees, but a friend recently used it without any gouging. Get Uber or Yandex apps just to not have to deal with this behaviour.
Travelling to Odessa by Train.
I'm a big fan of Europe's network of train routes, and rail travel is really the only way of arrival which you will plunge into the atmosphere of the city from the get go, because it basically arrives right in the centre.
The grand Soviet style railway station is located right in the centre of the city which is highly convenient both for those departing from Odessa and those arriving for the first time. It is impossible to lose your way; all the incoming trains come in to the end of the tracks, right in front of the railway station building, with exits to the city to the left and right.
More often than not as soon as travellers emerge onto the platform, they find themselves approached by entrepreneurial drivers looking for passengers amongst the predominantly regional people who arrive by train. As you exit the train, take a moment to take it all in, the sights and sounds, if you're lucky, you'll get to listen to the song of Leonid Utesov "Near the Black sea". From the first chords you will understand that you have come to a very unusual city indeed.
Travelling to Odessa by Bus.
Let me tell you right off, that arriving to Odessa by bus from far flung parts of Europe can be an arduous journey that can leave your body in twisted pain. But it is cheap, the cheapest way in fact.
Some of the bus lines ply a regular route from Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, through Slovakia and Poland to cross near Lviv at Chop and then onwards down to Vinnitsa and finally, Odessa and beyond. You can do this for under $100 typically, and you will suffer for those savings, but you'll gain a great view of the Ukrainian countryside and the option to bring large bundles of your stuff with you, because by bus its the best way to move yourself across the borders with lots of luggage.
The bus station is located not too far from the centre, on a tram line and the Marshrutka (mini bus) taxis come through, and they're only 7UAH, but don't try hauling tons of suitcases on that… no, your cheap sore butt will need to book a taxi, or take your chances with the many waiting taxi vultures on the main road out front.
Getting around in Odessa.
Boasting of an efficient public transportation service which was voted the second best in Europe in the year 2003 (how we don't know, maybe some of the famous Odessan corruption was in play?), getting around in Odessa can be done with ease and pleasure.
There are a variety of modes to get around Odessa – trams, buses, metros, taxis, bikes, ferries and good old walking - you can choose the one which you like best.
Odessa is easy to navigate by public transport, once you quickly get the hang of it. It's a well-planned and laid out city, and has a reputation of being extremely tourist friendly, but not in that Dutch meaning of the world. Visitors do not encounter too many problems, other than locals who can't be bothered with them, and for finding your way around town, the line networks for buses, trams and trains are all-comprehensive and have a wide reach at a low cost.
Typically, the timetables, routes and stops are prominently displayed at all stops, for the convenience of the traveler, but no one pays them any attention, least of all the drivers.
Odessa is officially divided into four districts, but the city's inhabitants use many more names to designate parts of the city: Moldovanka, Slobodka, Peresip, Poskot, Arkadia and many, many others. Due to the porous limestone substrate under the city, well tunnelled with many catacombs, there are no metros in Odessa, even though the Soviets did make plans to build one starting in the 1960s. But none-the-less, many forms of overland transportation exist: trolleybuses, buses and trams (3 UAH for tickets) and marshrutkas (mini buses, 7 UAH). Tickets for public transport are sold directly by the conductors, and you pay when exiting after requesting your stop. There are no ticket punchers on the buses or trams.
Odessa has a well-developed taxi service that puts Uber to shame for price and quickness. You can book any taxi service by phone (some speak English even), or mobile apps, and find out the cost of your trip in advance by giving the operator your destination. If you are on a business trip and need a receipt for the journey, bear in mind that almost none of the city taxis will offer you this service and will look at you like you're an idiot.
Out of pity, some might scribble the price and a signature on some generic receipt book page, but rest assured, this is not a valid tax receipt anywhere. There is sometimes an extra charge if you need your taxi driver to help you carry your things, but most younger drivers are very helpful and will put in your luggage if only to move you along so they can get the next fare, which they are typically scanning a variety of phones and tablets for while not paying so much attention to the road. You will also usually have to pay for waiting time if the wait exceeds more than 10-15 minutes (give or take a few minutes).
Your average taxi ride should cost no more than 60-120 UAH, so offer a fixed price if you're hailing a cab on the street in that range. If too many of them shake their heads no and drive off, up your offer a little. And don't be like the idiot tourists taking 500 UAH taxi rides from Arkadia to the city centre… Also, there is no change in fee depending on the number of passengers. You're paying for the car, not the seats.
Despite the wide choice of taxis, there are always many so-called kastrylshiki (literally 'saucepan folk') private car drivers who earn a little money on the side by taking passengers. These unofficial taxies, typically old Ladas driven by even older men, are very popular in Odessa.
Often times it can just be your average civilian on his way to work, deciding to make a little extra gas money. You stand at the roadside where it is convenient to stop and hold out your hand down low. When you flag down a private car, it is customary to say where you are headed and the price you are willing to pay, and do so quickly. If they agree, then get in, and pay when you exit the vehicle. This way, in Odessa, you can get to almost anywhere central or on the edges for 35-70 UAH.
When it comes to taxis, Odessa has no dearth of them. You can call one in advance, or just hail one down on the street. There are numerous taxi stands around the city. The fares can be on the higher side, but that is prevalent throughout the world. Tipping, though not a custom, is graciously accepted if offered.
Travelling to Odessa by Sea.
Not too many people anymore come here by cruise ship to stay, most visit and move on. With the theft of Crimea, many of the cruise lines have started to skip the Black Sea. Even if you aren't planning to travel by sea (perhaps to Georgia or Turkey, as it seems many of the ships traverse the Black Sea to other cities also on its shores), it is still worth to visit the sea-port. A huge unsightly concrete and glass structure, it was built to Western standards, incorporating the latest technology and with regard for service requirements, but yeah, that was back in about the 1980s. It really doesn't look much different now, and would be at home somewhere like Cincinnati or Luton.
There are several tourist agencies located inside the terminal. But of course the most beautiful here is the yacht club in the Marina, where you can take a boat for several hours and feel the salt on your faces. Tickets can cost 70-100 UAH for the ride to Arkadia and back (as well as select other destinations), and it is well worth it. There is an underground Exhibition Center located on the site of the terminal, and, near to the sea, a small, modern-looking Church of St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors as seen in the photo above.
Trams are a favourite in Odessa.
Trams are a favourite mode of transport in Odessa with the very elderly, because it costs just 3 UAH. But with all the old people, be prepared to give up your seat the moment you sit down in it. Running on rickety old tracks (that are slowly being upgraded in preparation to join Europe), you can reach your destination in no time and take in the beauty of sights and sounds of this enchanting city. Using the tram for transport, is a quintessential Odessa experience, so don't forgo it.
Buses are another favorite here in Odessa, and are hugely popular amongst tourists simply because of their vast network, speed and not to mention the dirt cheap ticket prices. You can also get to nearby suburbs by these Odessa buses.
Trains are efficient and economical for the Odessa region. They run to various parts of the town, and originate from the heart of Odessa, at the Central Railway Station. Though trains on most lines stop operating by 11.30pm at night, it is still a fast and efficient way to get around the region at a good price.
Discovering Odessa on foot or on a bike has a charm of its own, and you will find a lot of locals adopting this method to get around town. The city is safe and compact, and is pretty negotiable by foot. Take in the feel of Odessa city, as you stroll around amidst the picture perfect scenery and landscape.
Biking around town has its own fan following, and Odessa has nearly 900 kilometers of paved bike paths encircling the town to make the experience pleasurable, as well as a frequent Critical Mass bike rides. You can rent a bike by making a deposit at the numerous city bike racks (in summer) and shops (all year round) in Odessa, and you can be off on your tour!
All in all, Odessa is a wonderful city to visit and discover, and the experience is enhanced manifold by the brilliantly chaotic public transportation system, its the perfect way to get lost, while finding yourself!