From Krakow to Lviv

<< 2007-09-19 20:35 >>

Krakow railway station

We really wanted to visit Lviv during our 2006 holiday in Ukraine (photos), because of the praise heaped on it in the guidebook, and in travel reports in various newspapers. Getting there from the Crimea would have taken ages, however, given the state of the Ukrainian railways, so we skipped it. Since then we've kept trying to find ways to get there, and eventually we decided to spend a week of holiday on the trip. This meant we could travel in via Krakow, since there are direct flights there from Oslo.

The question was: how to get to Lviv from Krakow? My first thought was to rent a car in Krakow and simply drive there. This wouldn't be expensive, and Google Maps says it's just 350 kilometers to Lviv, so the drive should be straightforward. I've driven on Polish roads before, and while they are narrow and winding, they are OK to drive on.

A bit more research turned up problems, though. Various reports on the web and elsewhere said it could take anywhere from 30 minutes to 9 hours just to cross the Polish/Ukrainian border, and most reports seemed to indicate about 4 hours. Then people were reporting that the roads in Ukraine were not so good, and one person even wrote that they'd found the surface missing from 10 kilometers of road due to repair works, which left hundreds of cars stuck in the resulting mess. And then it turned out the rental company wouldn't actually allow us to drive the car into Ukraine.

So we decided to take the train instead. It takes 9 hours, which implies an average speed of 39 kilometers an hour. Train travel in Eastern Europe can be very relaxing, however, provided you get a decent seat, so we decided to just consider it a day off. Buying the ticket in Krakow turned out to be easy (rather unlike previous experiences in Ukraine), and getting on was also easy, once we figured out that the platforms were 200 meters from the station itself.

The train itself was old-fashioned, but fine, and we shared a 6-person compartment with two Iranian-born American brothers. One of them lived in Krakow, and the pair were going to Lviv to invest in property. That's probably a good move, but to me it seemed like it would be difficult to bring off in a single day in a country you don't know. They were very nice and talkative, and we spent pretty much the entire 10-hour trip talking to them. They told us quite a bit about Poland, Iran, etc etc.

Adjusting the wheels, Polish/Ukrainian border

The train actually travelled quite fast, so we were on the border after a mere 3 hours. The train tracks in Poland and the former Soviet Union have different widths, however, and so the distance between the wheels had to be adjusted. This was done by lifting the cars up, and fiddling around underneath them, which they actually managed to spend a full two hours on. (You may have heard that Stalin made the Soviet Union choose broad gauge-tracks in order to make invasion from the west harder, but this turns out to be untrue, because that decision was actually made in 1842, long before he was born.)

Eventually our car, the only one in the train going to Lviv, was moved to a different track and we were ready for the border control. The Polish border control actually took a while, and the guards took the passports of the Iranian brothers, then returned them much later, just before we moved on. Why they didn't want our passports I have no idea.

However, we were still not done, because now it was time for the Ukrainian border control. First came one kindly older lady, who just glanced at our passports and moved on. Then two uniformed guards who took a little longer. None of these wore the obligatory peaked nazi-style cap which all border guards in present/former dictatorships seem to carry, so we knew we weren't done. And sure enough. Three more guards arrive, wearing the caps and carrying a laptop. They spent a long time processing us, and asking questions (seemingly looking for inconsistencies) but eventually let us go through.

The end result was that we spent 4.5 hours crossing the border. With another 1.5 hours to get to Lviv, that means half the trip was spent on the border. Small wonder there are so few tourists in Lviv.

Hotel George, Lviv

We got off in Lviv well after midnight, into what must be the prettiest railway station I've ever seen. It was still full of sleepy-looking people waiting for their trains. We went out of the station to find a taxi, and found lots of them lined up. I went up to one of the first, and said "Hotel George?". This completely failed to engage the interest of the driver. Eventually, some local came over and took the taxi, leaving me baffled in the middle of the road.

It was at this point we realized that we were in Ukraine, and that Ukraine is not like the west. We'd spent the entire train journey chatting with the Iranians, and so we'd not had time for the mental switch-over that Ukraine requires. You can't just walk up to a taxi here and ask it to drive you somewhere. That would be too easy. Instead, you need to jump through lots of pointless hoops, and then you can drive off in a taxi.

So, we regrouped on the pavement with all our luggage, the guidebook, a pen, and paper. My girlfriend tried to figure out the taxi system, while I try writing out the name and address of our hotel in Cyrillic. What I don't realize then is that I'm making a total hash of this, because the square where the hotel is is named after the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz (Mickiewicz Square), who of course is called Mytskevych (Ploshcha Mytskevycha) in Ukrainian, and if you write Cyrillic you write Ukrainian, and not Polish.

Anyway, armed with this we try again. There seem to be four groups of taxis. From left to right: taxis with their engines and lights off and no drivers, taxis with drivers but apparently not looking for passengers, lower-grade taxis, and higher-grade taxis. We try the taxis-with-drivers-but-waiting first, but are rebuffed. Then some locals try it, and get the same treatment. At this point you'd think we'd focus on the lower-grade or higher-grade taxis. We don't. They all left while we were struggling with the address in Cyrillic.

Still, there's lots of locals waiting for taxis, so we don't give up. After a while, a taxi drives up. Two locals and I converge on it, and start asking the driver to take us. The locals in Ukrainian, me in some broken mix of Russian, Ukrainian, and English. The driver goes off with a local. After a few repeats of this experience we start to see a pattern.

So, we decide to divide up. My girlfriend goes over to the high-grade taxis; I stay with the lower-grade ones. Within a few minutes my girlfriend has a taxi, and we drive off.

Lobby, Hotel George, Lviv

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Don Simon - 2010-04-19 09:49:19

I am looking to do a similar trip in July, so this has been a massive help to me! Thankyou!

Peter B - 2010-06-27 05:54:22

Good article and very useful for anyone thinking of making the journey to Lviv. I live in Krakow 2 minutes walk to the railway station, so I'll pick you up on your comment on the platforms being 200 metres from the station. The station is east of the platforms and right next to the platforms, although there are many, so they stretch away. The furthest platform is probably about 100 metres from the station. It is quite easy to get lost and lose your sense of direction, so perhaps this is what happened to you.

alvina - 2010-09-16 13:41:43

I will be flying to Kyiv this Saturday, September 18th. Will be in Lviv for 3-4 weeks. Have traveled to Ukraine many, many times. I need to return home via Lviv to Krakow. Make a stop in Berlin for a few days, then fly to Atlanta. Have had some horrid experiences at the Ukraine/Polish border, but it has been a while. I'm planing on taking the train to Krakow from Lviv. The border is a hassle traveling by bus or car, even if conditions have improved. Once my cousin Heinrich and I were returning from Lviv by car and we sat 11 hours on the Ukrainian side of the border. We were approached by these con artists trying to get money from us to move us up in the line. Turns out that the Poles had closed the border and did'nt give a flip.

Anyone out there: have you taken the train from Lviv to Krakow lately? I have no language problem.

CHATTOU - 2011-06-01 23:32:51

Can you give me some advice, i will be in KRAKOW on JUNE 6 2011. And I must take the train from KRAKOW for LIVIV to see somes friends in LVIV. I just meet her by internetn never been in LVIV. Can you give some advice about LVIV and i plan to go and visit KIEV. I have 12 days for visiting UKRAINE.

I have times, soo i want only take train from KRAKOW to LVIV. And fater that, i will take train from LIVIV to KIEV, just my first experience in UKRAINE.

Steven H. - 2011-07-27 11:21:11

So, just got off the train from Lviv to Krakow. It was absolutely fine. A Polish train, which, contrary to the comments at the top of this article, are NOT better than Ukrainian trains. I have no prejudice, as am British/Canadian. The Ukrainian train system is excellent, in terms of the trains themselves, which are generally clean and spacious, even fairly luxurious in first class sleeping accomodation, as well as very inexpensive. It was 600 hryvna first class private sleeping cabin for two, which was very modern and clean, with complimentary tea, coffee, water, sheets and more. The trains run beautifully on time. The only nightmare is actually purchasing a ticket, since there is a very soviet-era system remaining, which requires one to queue, sometimes for hours, at train station cashiers windows (which are specific to type of passenger and destination), and which are subject to a ridiculous number of closures for "technical breaks", each day (something like 15 ten minute, 5 twenty minute, and 2-3 one hour breaks per window!!!). The ticket staff are unhelpful as bridge trolls, which is a generally acknowledged fact by the Ukrainian people. As far as driving is concerned, the roads are very variable. Most are quite acceptable, with some being excellent. A few are very very poor indeed- actually dangerous. The main highway from Kiev to Odessa is SUPERB. Best road I've ever driven on, honestly. I am told that there is a similar road between Kiev and Czop (Chop). The roads from Uman to Kaminiez-Podolski are adequate, and the roads in the Crimea mostly perfectly fine. The roads leading in towards Lviv, however, I found to be atrocious, with thousands of deep damaging potholes, and ashphalt piled high at the sides and in the centre, like hard liquid. Also of note- while the large truck drivers are generally courteous, and competent, their lights do not always work properly at night, and amongst the other drivers, there are some VERY dangerous idiots out there. The drivers of smaller trucks and vans are often VERY bad, and many cars do not have proper lighting- either too much or too little. I would estimate 10 percent to be seriously incompetent, and 5 percent need to be publicly flogged! The latter are almost always drivers of larger modern cars, who seem to feel that they are immortal, or at the least don't give a damn if they kill themselves and others around them! This is especially true in terms of their overtaking. BEWARE. Do not drive in this country, especially on the smaller roads, unless you are confident and experienced. Also be aware that while the signs are generally fairly good, they can be erratic, and they are almost all in cyrillic, which can be hard to understand if not used to it. Also, the distances are very large, so be prepared to be very tired, often driving tired at night, as it can be hard to estimate the time any particular journey will take. About half the cars in the country are older model Ladas. Mostly the drivers of these are better than the others, perhaps because they feel they have more to lose in an accident? Be prepared to see some really bizarre things as well. In one case, the driver of a smaller truck had decided to change his tire, despite there being a good soft shoulder to the road, right in the middle of the paved road! But he was being careful, by his lights, I suppose. He had put his little hazard triangle out- about 3 meters from his rear...

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