Overview and History
Odessa is the largest city on the coastline of the Black Sea and was once the third largest city in Russia, after Moscow and St. Petersburg. Her nicknames are "the Pearl of the Black Sea", "Odessa Mama" and "Southern Palmira."
The name probably comes from the earliest recorded inhabitants, a Greek colony called Odessos which disappeared around the fourth century AD. Here's a lightning overview of Odessa's rulers, from the beginning. First there were the ancient Greeks, then miscellaneous nomadic tribes, the Golden Horde of Mongolia, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Crimean Khanate, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, the U.S.S.R, and finally Ukrainian independence in 1991.
The founding of the first city in this location dates to 1240 AD and is credited to a Turkish Tatar named Hacibey Khan. Its name at that time was Khadjibey. The first fortress was built in the fourteenth century, when Odessa was already becoming a major trading center. The fortress served to protect the harbor. Khadjibey became part of the Ottoman Empire in the early sixteenth century. Its fortress was rebuilt by the Ottomans and named Yeni Dunya, around 1764 AD.
The eighteenth century saw Odessa change hands from Turkish to Russian control. Russia captured Odessa in 1789 under the command of Jose de Ribas, a Spaniard who became a Russian admiral and played a major part in the victory. Jose de Ribas gets the credit for founding the modern city of Odessa -- his name is remembered in the most prominent street through the heart of Odessa -- Deribasovskaya Street.
In the treaty of Jassy in 1792, Turkey gave over control of a wide swath of land encompassing modern-day Ukraine and Odessa. The city was rebuilt to be a fort, commercial port and naval base. During the nineteenth century Odessa attracted immigrants from Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Armenia and all over Europe, enjoying its status as a free port.
Odessa was bombed by British and French weaponry during the Crimean War of the 1850's. After the destruction was repaired, a railroad joined Odessa to Kiev in 1866 and the city rapidly developed as the main export center for grain production. It became a center of Ukranian nationalism at the turn of the 20th century and in 1905 Odessa was the scene of a worker's uprising, led by sailors from the battleship Potemkin. During the uprising hundreds of citizens were murdered on the staircase that has come to be called "the Potemkin Steps."
During WWI Odessa was bombarded by the Turkish fleet and after the Bolshevik Revolution the city was occupied by the Central Powers, the French and the Red Army. In 1922 Odessa was unified with the Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic. There was terrible suffering in the famine which took place after the Russian revolution in 1921.
Odessa was taken by German forces in 1941, and almost 300,00 civilians were killed. It remained under Romanian administration during WWII until its liberation by the Soviet Army in 1944. The city went through another rapid growth period after WWII, with industries of ship-building, oil refineries and chemical processing. The city became part of newly-independent Ukraine in 1991 after the fall of communism.
By air, the International Airport of Odessa is where you'll arrive and it's linked to the city by buses. Passenger ships from Istanbul, Haifa and Varna connect with the port. The Marine terminal is at the bottom of the Potemkin steps. When you get to the top you'll be greeted by the Duke of Richelieu, one of the city's founding fathers. This staircase also forms an optical illusion; looking down from the top, the steps are invisible and the side walls of the staircase appear to run parallel. Don't be fooled.
The main railway station is in the southern part of the city and it's connected with trams and buses, as usual, to get you around.
People and Culture
Odessa has a big graffiti scene as you can see here. Lots of concrete walls in empty places...
Things to do, Recommendations
The Opera House is the oldest and most famous in Odessa, built in 1810 with rich decorative rococo style. Here's a look at the Opera Theater at night. The Palais-Royal is adjoined to the Opera Theater and is also worth a trip to see.
On the "must-see" list, Deribasovskaya Street is the very heart of Odessa. Its unique character lasted even when adherence to Soviet-design styles was strictly promoted -- so here you can find amazing architecture, outdoor cafes and restaurants, cobblestone streets and no vehicle traffic.
Here's a look in the Passage shopping mall and hotel in the city center, a cool place to walk around.
Visit the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral, the largest Orthodox Church in the city. It's been newly reconstructed after its destruction by Bolsheviks in the 1930's.
Architectural curiosities: go and find the one-wall building when you run out of things to do. This would be first on my list, actually. Here's another mixup of architectural styles to have a look at.
Finally, go and visit Empress Ekaterina, one of the main founders the city, at her monument.
Text by Steve Smith.