After a few busy months around Western Europe focusing on 9 cities during my 100 Cities project, I took a flight from Barcelona to Odessa, Ukraine for my 10th and final stop before leaving the continent. In 2015, Ukraine had been a great surprise and I fell in love with the country. After spending time in citie like Kiev and Lviv, I made sure to come back this trip and decided Odessa would be the spot. It was also time to slow down after the more fast paced and crowded cities of Western Europe, so Ukraine was perfect timing.
Odessa is Ukraine’s third largest city by population and its most popular summer destination. A major seaport, it also has a long stretch of beaches along the Black Sea that attract people from all over. Sometimes called the “Pearl of the Black Sea,” or even the “South Capital” in its Soviet Union days, Odessa was all I missed about Ukraine and more. The authenticity, mood, character, raw beauty mixed with a little roughness, and slightly surreal atmosphere that is unique to the country. For street photography, it’s a lot of what I look for in a place. Mix all this with some beach life that possesses even more of that distinct character, and you get a city that’s hard to beat.
So here are my first impressions of Odessa, from my personal Street Photographer perspective…
7 First Impressions of Odessa
(From a Street Photography Perspective)
1. Interesting beaches and beach life
Odessa has some of the most interesting beaches for street photography that I’ve experienced. The stretch of beaches go on forever and provide an endless number of smaller beaches that can be very different in look, construction and atmosphere. It gives a great street photography walk that could last all day, while providing a diverse mix of photo opportunities. In addition to the different look of the beaches, from wood decks and concrete to white sand and resorts, the people themselves provide even more character.
Here are the 3 beaches I’d most recommend visiting with your camera:
Arcadia is the largest and most developed beach in Odessa. It’s the most commercialised of Odessa’s beaches, but provides plenty of activity. During the summer, you’ll find people here from day to night since it’s also a top spot for nightlife. It is a 15 minute taxi or trolley ride from the city center, though, so it makes for a longer walk from the center compared to the other beaches.
Lanzheron is probably my favorite beach in Odessa. It’s the closest beach to the city center, you get to walk through Park Schevchenko to get there, and you a get a mix of smaller beaches to walk, each with their own unique Odessa atmosphere. Around the Dolphinarium, people lay out on wood decks, swim in the sea down the steps and fish on the concrete piers. If you keep walking south, you’ll find a mix of concrete, sand and restaurants. In my opinion, this stretch provides the most character that makes Odessa’s beaches so unique for street photography.
Otrada lies below Lanzheron and is worth the continued walk. It provides a stretch of beaches that give a blend of Arcadia and Lanzheron in atmosphere. You’ll find bars, beach chair service and more character to capture.
2. Check out the courtyards
One of my favorite parts of Ukraine, and some other Eastern European countries, are the apartment courtyards. Ukraine might have the best ones, though, with Odessa containing as good as you’ll find in the country. These courtyards enclosed by the apartment buildings are filled with atmosphere. Women folding clothes, children playing, cats running around, and the sun peaking in giving some nice light.
Sidewalk gates lead to these courtyards so you’ll walk by them wherever you go. They’re secluded from the street, but many times the gates are left open. Some are just parking lots or rubble, but many are secret gardens and other areas made for some photography. It’s a fun and charming aspect of the city to explore when you want to move off the street, especially when you spot some activity going on.
3. Plenty of Parks, including an amusement park
Walking around Odessa, you’ll find some nice parks and squares. They range in sizes, but in the city center, Starobazarnyi Garden Square and City Garden are two of my favorite. You’ll find plenty of life for photography here among the green. You’ll find food stands and attractions for children mixed in too. But if you want a really big park, then head in the direction of Lanzheron Beach until you hit Tarasa Shevchenka Park.
Shevchenka Park overlooks the Black Sea and is filled with endless paths, grass, trees and more. If you spend time exploring, you’ll find everything from rest areas and viewpoints to merchant stalls and an outside gym. Being by the port, you’ll see sailors walking around throughout the day, sometimes even practicing their line-up routine. Not only is it a great area to walk before hitting the beach, it’s also joined by Odessa Luna Park. This park is actually a small amusement park with no entrance fee. While not big, it brings color and an older, interesting atmosphere. Amusement parks can be great for street photography with their backgrounds and scenes they attract. This one is no exception and worth walking through when you’re in the area.
4. Unique authenticity, character and atmosphere
Ukraine has become one of my favorite countries in the world for street photography. It’s full of authenticity, character and mood. There’s a beauty with roughness around the edges that comes from the scenery and the people that makes it not only photogenic, but enjoyable to shoot in. Nothing feels fake, yet it can have a surreal feeling to it all. Odessa is as good a showcase of what I like about Ukraine as any, but with its own uniqueness mixed in.
The low buildings, some crumbling with character, the courtyards and cobblestone streets, the street vendors and cafes, the mix of colors and mood, the more relaxed vibe of the streets, and the beaches that add their own mix of atmosphere. Some of it feels back in time, but with an authenticity that you won’t find in many other European cities. There’s a lot to see, feel and capture just walking the city in Odessa that you won’t experience anywhere else.
5. Privoz Market contains endless interest
Other than the beach, my favorite street photography spot in Odessa is probably Privoz Market. Not only the market, but also the surrounding area, which has some street markets spilling over, along with streets containing even more interest.
Privoz Market itself is the largest food market in Odessa. It was built almost 200 years ago and has since joined up with the city’s first bazaar, as it continually grew. It’s a unique, slightly strange market to describe. Parts feel like an old department store, other parts like an open air market, and other parts that just need to be experienced. And you can find almost everything for sale here. As one merchant put it to me, “you can find everything from condoms to atomic bombs.”
It has atmosphere, light, color, characters and everything you could want in a market in Ukraine. One of the best for street photography.
6. Temperature changes overnight, bikinis to coats
I was in Odessa at the start of September just as summer ended, but I felt like I got to experience two completely different seasons. When I say it went from bikini weather to coat and glove weather overnight, I really do mean overnight. The first few days, the beaches were full of barely clothed people getting their dose of vitamin D in the sun. Then I woke up and it felt 30 degrees colder and the beaches were empty. Now everyone wore scarves, not shorts.
The city changes quite a bit, but I enjoyed both “seasons.” I’d want to experience more of the summer next time to be able to photograph more of its unique beach life, but it keeps plenty of interest once the cold comes. Even the now quiet beach gives reason to walk with your camera. Some people still come out and it gets a slightly eerie vibe. The main city doesn’t change too much, other than less tourists and more clothes. So come in the summer, but don’t stop from coming other times too.
7. Compact, dense mix for street photography
Odessa isn’t a huge city. It feels compact and walkable, but fits such a dense variety of sights and life that makes it great for street photography. Odessa feels old with its history and scenery, while being developed enough without losing its authentic charm. You can enjoy the pedestrian streets, old courtyards, city life, parks, and markets in the city, and then take a walk to the beaches to enjoy the distinct Odessa atmosphere that fills them. Not many cities pack this much variety of character for street photography in a walkable space like Odessa.
One thing to note, though, is that while it is very walkable, there are few road signs. So you have to pay attention. I ended up using landmarks and buildings to get around more than signs.
One of my favorite cities in one of my favorite countries
While many might prefer the European charm of Lviv, Odessa would probably get my highest recommendation in a country that I already put towards the top for street photography. There’s not much more to say that hasn’t already been said (other than the fact Ukraine is also the best value going in the world right now). Street photography and Odessa go so well together that I plan on coming again this year. And I’d recommend anyone else to give it a visit too.
If any of you have been to Odessa before, tell me about your experience and impressions of the city and country in the comments below! And stay tuned for more on Odessa, including some of the best Street Photography shots I captured while there.
(from a street photographer’s perspective)