Uzhhorod: Ukraine’s Laid-Back Gateway to the West

Uzhhorod’s train station (vokzal)

When I got off the train, I noticed that something was odd. Not even the Cyrillic signs on the platform could alter my first impression. Having visited a number of cities across Ukraine before, I felt that in Uzhhorod, the capital of Ukraine’s Transcarpathia province, I was greeted by a world much more familiar to me than in places like Kyiv, Odesa or even Ivano-Frankivsk. As I walked through the station hall towards the bus station, I heard people talking not just in Ukrainian, but also in Hungarian and Slovak.

Perhaps, I should not have been surprised. On the map, Uzhhorod is much closer to Vienna than Bregenz – just 438 kilometers, as the crow flies! Unlike Kyiv, located hundreds of kilometers further east on the other side of the Carpathian mountains, this part of Ukraine is not even separated by a mountain range from the Schengen zone. To the west, Uzhhorod directly borders Slovakia, twenty kilometers to the south is the main border crossing with Hungary. I soon realized that people here are both culturally and politically oriented towards the West.

In the minds of most Austrians, however, it couldn’t be more remote. If you ask a random person in Austria if they have heard about Uzhhorod before, they will most likely give you a strange look. The few people in Austria that have heard of Uzhhorod gained their knowledge from a dull, but somehow legendary scripted reality show on Austrian television where disgusting, sex-hungry old men travel to Eastern Europe to date much younger women. My intentions were quite different, though. I was more interested in the everlasting beauties of this city – the abundant classic cars from the Soviet era and the architectural heritage from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and earlier centuries.

One of many Lada Shiguli – one day you’ll be mine!

Let me be honest, I had to google Uzhhorod myself before I came here, so let me give you some background about this city in a nutshell. Uzhhorod was founded by Slavic settlers in the 9th century, taken over by Hungarian tribes in the year 895 and was part of the Kingdom of Hungary for many centuries. As the city was mainly populated by Hungarians, Uzhhorod was known by its Hungarian name Ungvár until the early 20th century. The city flourished in the 19th century, when factories were opened and a railway line was built. In 1872, Ungvár was connected to Chop, which has remained an important railway hub until today. Many beautiful buildings were constructed in this era of economic growth under Emperor Franz Joseph I. Ungvár had a significant Jewish population which made up around 30% of the total. Hungarians formed a large majority in the city. After World War I, Transcarpathia was awarded to Czechoslovakia by the Treaty of Trianon. Uzhhorod, as it now became known, became part of the new Czechoslovakian region of Subcarpathian Rus. The city changed hands again in 1938, when it was given back to Hungary after the First Vienna Award. Uzhhorod was called Ungvár once again. In March 1944, German troops entered the city. Two months later, in May 1944, almost the entire Jewish population was deported to Auschwitz and eradicated. In 1944, the Red Army of the Soviet Union took over control and many Hungarians were deported to labor camps and killed. Stalin incorporated Uzhhorod and Transcarpathia into the Soviet Union. Eventually, Ukraine became independent in 1991 and Uzhhorod is now one of the country’s 24 provincial capitals. Even after all the historical upheavals, Hungarians still form a significant percentage of the population in and around Uzhhorod.

The old town is a bit too far to walk from the train station, so I tried to find a marshrutka or taxi to take me to my hotel. Unfortunately, Uber was not available in Uzhhorod. There were no bus maps, signs or anything that would help me find my way towards the city center. People here clearly do not make their living with tourism. I approached some random person on the street who did not know a single word of English but we both tried our best to communicate. He pointed towards the taxi stand and as I started walking towards a rusty old Lada 1300, he followed me and helped negotiate a fair price and explain the location of my hotel. The taxi fare was lower than I had expected and amounted to UAH 50 (around € 1.70).

What to see and do in Uzhhorod

It was still too early to check in at my hotel, so I left my bag at the reception and started exploring. The hotel was conveniently located right next to Uzhhorod Castle, one of the main attractions, so I decided to start my walk around town right there.

Uzhhorod Castle

Uzhhorod Castle
Inside the Castle

This huge citadel on a hill just east of the old town is Uzhhorod’s oldest building and might be its biggest attraction. While archeological excavations have uncovered traces of settlements dating back to at least the 9th century, today’s structure was built between the 13th and 18th century in a variety of architectural styles and using different materials. The city’s name itself refers to the castle, both in Ukrainian and Hungarian, meaning “Castle on the river”.

In the 13th century, Charles I of Hungary gave the castle to the noble family of Drugeth who developed the site over the centuries. When the Kingdom of Hungary fell apart in 1526, the castle became the site of multiple sieges and fights. During the Hungarian uprising against Habsburg rule (1703-1711), Uzhhorod Castle was the center of rebels including Francis II Rákóczi.

The colors of the Hungarian flag were ubiquitous here

After the defeat of the rebels in 1711 up until 1762, the castle was turned into a garrison of the Austrian military. Later, it became a seminary of the Greek-Catholic episcopate and kept that function all the way until 1945. For two years, the Soviets who had just gained control over the city, started liquidation of the Greek-Catholic church and used the castle as military barracks. Soon after, in 1947, the Transcarpathian Museum of Local History was installed. Today, the castle is open to the public and serves as a tourist attraction.

Kapitulna street

A side street of Kapitulna street near the castle
Greek-Catholic Cathedral

Kapitulna street is a cobblestone street that connects the castle with old town. Walking downhill towards the pedestrian zone, I passed the bright yellow Greek-Catholic Cathedral with its two steeples. Originally built as a Baroque church in 1646, Empress Maria Theresia granted the Greek-Catholic Church the right to take over the building. In 1848, it was renovated and transformed into Neoclassical style. Under Soviet rule, the church was allocated to the Russian Orthodox Church. When Ukraine gained independence in 1991, it was returned to the legalized and restored Greek-Catholic Church.

I continued downhill, walking past some fine buildings that were badly in need for renovation. Some of them date back to the times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, others were built later on. The cobblestone streets with their numerous and sometimes enormous potholes might no longer be ideal for traffic, but convey a touch of nostalgia. 

Walking down Kapitulna street
One of the one-story houses built around 1900

The pedestrian zone around Korzo street

Coffee vans can be found all over Ukraine

When I reached the end of Kapitulna street, I stumbled across a coffee van, a frequent sight in Ukraine. In Ukrainian cities, you can always find some random person who parked their van or trailer on some square and sells espresso, cappuccino and other varieties of coffee. I would not mention this if it was not something unusual, at least for me, coming from an EU country. In Austria, it would be almost impossible to open up such a business due to our strict trade food safety regulations. Prices are usually much lower than in cafés, but the quality of the drinks also varies sometimes. To give you an idea, an average price for an espresso in Uzhhorod was UAH 9 (€ 0.30) when bought on the street and UAH 20-25 (€ 0.70-€ 0.80) in cafés. Cappuccinos were usually around UAH 15, and UAH 25-30, respectively.

Street cafés are everywhere in old town
The lamplighter Uncle Kolya

Korzo street is Uzhhorod’s pedestrianized main street with a number of cafés, restaurants and shops. There is also a fun sculpture of a lamplighter called Uncle Kolya on the corner of Korzo and Voloshyna street, which has become a popular photo motif. Close to the sculpture, on Voloshyna street, I walked inside Church of St. George, which gives you the impression that you have already crossed the border into Hungary – everything was written in Hungarian! If you pay attention to details, you will soon realize that the hundreds of centuries under Hungarian rule have left a trace, even though the city has been ruled by Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and finally Ukraine after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire! Ungvár is not only written on tourist magnets, it still lives in the soul of old town.

This random building on Korzo street could just as well be found in Hungarian small towns
Monument to painter Ignatiy Roshkovych on Teatralna square

The pedestrian bridge

People feeding birds on the pedestrian bridge

A pedestrian bridge connects the northern and southern parts of town, which are separated by Uzh river. It is located between Teatralna square and Sándor Petőfi square. Being the only bridge in the city center, it is frequented by many people day and night. There are a couple of nice street cafés nearby which turned out to be a fantastic place for people watching! Once again, it became obvious that tourism does not play a role here. English menus were practically inexistent and waitresses, although really welcoming and friendly, seemed to struggle quite a lot with foreign visitors. My knowledge of Croatian somehow proved to be more efficient getting my message across – Slavic languages seem to have a lot more in common than I thought.

The pedestrian bridge in Uzhhorod’s old town
Uzh river runs directly through old town

The Synagogue

The former Synagogue

Jews have lived in and around the city since the 13th century, but their community did not grow until the late 19th century, when Jewish immigrants came to the region to escape pogroms and an unfavorable standard of living. At the turn of the century, Ungvár had a large Jewish community that represented around 30 percent of the total population. The synagogue was built in 1904 using red marble and combining Byzantine and Moorish architectural styles. Above the main entrance, there was a huge Star of David.

Following the tragic events during World War II and the annexation of Transcarpathia to the Soviet Union, the synagogue was transformed into a concert hall and all Jewish symbols were removed. Today, it hosts the Uzhhorod Philharmonic. Even though all religious symbols have vanished, the former synagogue still stands and remains to be one of Uzhhorod’s finest buildings.

It took until 2012 that a plaque was installed outside the building, commemorating the 85,000 Jews deported and killed in the Holocaust. In 2016, a Holocaust monument was installed on the square next to the building.

The Synagogue building now hosts the Philharmonic
The Holocaust Memorial

Street Art

I continued my walk along Uzh river towards the People’s Council building, stopping here and there to take pictures. I also encountered a few walls decorated with street art:

Street Art and just another cute Lada!
The Municipal Library
Another art work on the outside walls of the Municipal Library

After dark

Walking around after dark was not an issue

At sunset, I returned to the riverside cafés and pubs and called it beer’o’clock. A pint of local Ukrainian beer sets you back around UAH 20-30 (€ 0.70-1.00), so there is no excuse not to try one of their locally brewed beers! I walked back to my hotel throguh dimly lit alleys, but never felt unsafe. In general, safety was never an issue – old town Uzhhorod is probably safer than comparable small towns in Western Europe. As always in Ukraine, people were really friendly and helpful, so there is nothing to worry about as long as you keep your common sense.

Enjoying a beer in one of the riverside pubs

Conclusion

I stayed in Uzhhorod for one night, spending around 24 hours in town. While this amount of time should suffice to see the major sights of this small town, I would recommend staying a few more days to explore the Carpathian mountains and other nearby places, including Mukachevo’s impressive Palanok Castle which I have not visited yet. If you do not have so much time, it is still more than worth stopping over in Uzhhorod, as it is ideally located halfway between Budapest and Lviv.

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