Kiev, Ukraine was always a place that I wanted to visit. Having traveled much of Europe already, I always had a strong curiosity of Eastern Europe. When I mean Eastern, I mean really East ala not a part of the European Union East. Ukraine just seemed like a fascinating place in a constant tug of war between Soviet Russia and Western Europe. Safe to say, my long weekend trip to Kiev and Chernobyl will not be my last.
I absolutely loved my time in this wonderful capital. There is so much history in this city it boggles the mind. There is a beautiful contrast between Medieval style buildings and the best of Soviet style architecture. The city is full of energy and you can feel the enthusiasm of the youth being expressed in the vibrant restaurant, cafe, and cocktail scenes. Best of all, the prices here are some of the cheapest you’ll find in Europe so you’ll have a good time in a beautiful city without breaking the bank. I didn’t have nearly enough time to visit all the places I wanted to but living in Frankfurt, it is an easy and cheap two hour flight so I will be back without a doubt.
Is it Kiev or Kyiv?
For most of the world, we learn about Ukrainian’s capital as Kiev. This is in fact the Russian translation of the word which is not used in any part of the capital. The correct spelling of Kiev as a translation from Ukrainian is Kyiv. You’ll see that everyone in Ukraine uses this spelling and it is the correct one. For the purpose of this post, I use both but make no mistake it is Kyiv!
How to get around Kiev
Getting around the city is very easy with the subways. At 8 Hryvnias a ticket, this will be your cheapest option by far. For those that can spend a tiny bit more money and want to get around faster, just use one of the many ride hailing apps the city has to offer.
Uber is the most popular app in Kiev, followed by Bolt which was hugely popular when I was traveling around the Baltic countries. I pretty much only used Uber to get around. My fares for a short to medium distance ride would range from 50 and 80 Hryvnias ($2 to $3). From the Airport, I paid abut 300 Hyrvnias ($12) and this was almost 40 minutes of driving. Safe to say that if you take ride hailing everywhere you go, you will not be breaking the bank!
Kiev is an architectural wonderland
But when walking the streets of Kiev, it feels like nowhere else in Europe—its architecture is equally as diverse in style as it is compelling and playfully designed. One step, art nouveau, next step, Ukrainian Baroque, turn your gaze, Soviet Modernism. This list could continue—there are over 30 unique architectural styles in Kiev’s metro area alone.
I was expecting largely to see Soviet style buildings but aside from tearing down St Michael’s monastery a few times, they didn’t really destroy much else leaving all of the beautiful medieval buildings in tact.
Kiev Restaurant and Cocktail Scene
In the not so distant past, hungry tourists were limited to a handful of hotel restaurants with appalling service and tasteless food. Thanks to innovative entrepreneurs from Ukraine and the rest of the world, visitors can now choose from a vast range of options of local and international cuisine that rivals many Western European cities. I’ll admit I had little to no expectations of the dining scene in Kiev but I was very pleasantly surprised by all the offerings. During my short time in the city, I mostly stuck with Ukrainian food, both traditional and modern takes on it, and absolutely loved it.
The prices at some new, trendy restaurants in the centre are rising accordingly, but an evening dining out at most places will still cost less than you would expect to pay for the same level of service and quality at home. Equally appetising moderately priced and budget options are widely available in all parts of the city. As I visited in the summer, many of the cafes and restaurants had outdoor seating perfect for people watching.
Kapana is one of the highest rated restaurants in Ukraine. It’s a modern (but not overly modern) take on Ukrainian cuisine. They offer tasting menus as well as a la carte dining. I kept it simple here by getting the Variniki (dumplings) which I could eat every day, as well as the Chicken Kiev. I also tried their locally brewed green beer which is infused with herbs to get it a green color.
The best part of this experience was definitely the price. The tasting menu is only €22 which is 4 courses. I opted just for the variniki and Chicken Kiev which was about €15.
Pervak is another classic Ukrainian restaurant serving all the local delicacies. The exterior and interior are built in the traditional sense. The restaurant itself is huge with different rooms decorated in different themes and the waitresses all wear the traditional dresses. The food is quite good here, and it’s a spot for locals and tourists alike. The prices are probably higher than most places but even so, it is quite cheap by Western standards.
At the recommendation of our walking tour guide, the best place to sample Chicken Kyiv is actually at a restaurant called Chicken Kyiv. I guess they do not want any confusion for diners at this restaurant! This was one of my first meals in Kyiv and I had to order all the delicacies. This means Borscht, variniki, and of course the Chicken Kyiv.
The variniki are absolutely delicious. They are similar to the pierogies in Poland but also slightly different. They are smaller and the dough is thinner. Regardless, I was in dumpling heaven and ended up ordering another plate of it.
The Chicken Kyiv is a bit like chicken cordon blue but the inside stuffing is cheese and parsley as opposed to cheese and ham. I’m not sure if it is actually a Ukrainian dish but my waiter was really firm on it, probably because I’m a tourist. Regardless, this chicken was deliciously tender, juicy and flavorful. For about €4 and €3 for the variniki, this place is a great deal. This is one of the most upscale places in the city from the looks of it so I can imagine you can find these dishes for even cheaper.
In recent years, Kyiv has seen lots of trendy new cafes opening on its busy sidewalks and in hidden courtyards. There are now enough top-notch places around the city to cater for the needs of coffee-craving locals and visitors alike, with cosy ambience, high-quality products and excellent choice of brews and snacks. Whether you’re in the mood for for hip indie spots or romantic retro hangouts, Kyiv has it covered.
Over the years, Kyiv has scene a huge boon in breakfast and brunch themed restaurants. If you want to take a break from of Varynyky and Borscht (although why would you??), make sure to sample some of the fantastic brunch themed options the city has to offer.
My favorites were Favorite Uncle, Milk Bar, Yolk, and The Life of Wonderful people.
Cocktail bar Scene
Like many up and coming cities around the world, the cocktail bar scene has seen a huge surge in popularity. Kiev is simply cocktail heaven. There are so many top notch cocktail bars all around the city. Whether you want a modern swanky vibe, or an underground speakeasy, all your wishes will be met.
The best part? The cocktails which by no means are affordable to the locals, are very affordable by international standards. I went to Nikka Bar in the city center for a few cocktails one night. Decked out in Japanese decor, the ambiance and decor of this place screamed cocktail bar. They even had a cozy outdoor area with a Japanese Torii. I had some old fashioneds which were absolutely fantastic. At €5 each, it is a complete steal.
Visiting the Zoloti Vorota Subway Station
The subway station in Kiev is an absolute must visit for all travelers. Even if you’re not a fan of mass transportation or if your home town’s system gives you nightmares, you need to come here. Kiev’s subway station is the deepest in the world extending some 105m into the ground. They were constructed so deep during the Cold War to withstand any sort of bombs hitting.
The subway station itself is absolutely beautiful. The details, murals, architectural design is something else. Soviet construction usually elicits a negative thought with images of dark square buildings with zero character. Whatever effort the Soviets did not put into constructing their residential apartment buildings, they put it all into their subway stations.
There are of course numerous subway stations to visit but the most iconic is definitely the Zoloti Vorota station (Golden Gate). In order to visit the track, you’ll need to buy a subway ticket for 8 Hryvnias (about 30 cents). I didn’t actually ride the trains (although they did look nice) but merely just to walk around the station and admire the beautiful detailing.
The subway station is also immaculate and there was no garbage anywhere. Being from New York City, without a doubt we have a 3rd world subway system compared to Kiev. People were telling me Moscow is even better so can’t wait to visit Russia!
All the beautiful cathedrals
Kiev has some of the most spectacular Orthodox churches I’ve seen. As someone that has traveled much of Europe and seen countless churches and cathedrals, it can get repetitive. However, I never tire of seeing Orthodox churches. The churches in Kiev have colorful exteriors and stunning domes that perfectly blend Western style churches with Islamic Mosques. The interiors are all outfitted with incredible murals that soak up every corner of the church.
Saint Sofia Cathedral
Saint Sofia Cathedral is undeniably the most well-known. It was built in the centre of Kiev in the 11th Century by the son of Volodymyr Yaroslav the Wise. Nowadays, the cathedral represents the beating heart of “Sofia of Kyiv”, one of the largest museum centres in Ukraine. For those that visited Istanbul, you’ll be familiar with the stunning Aya Sofya that was once a church but converted to a Mosque during the Ottoman Empire. The Saint Sofia church was modeled after its Byzantine counterpart and meant to rival it as well.
To visit the cathedral, I paid 100 UAH to enter the premise and go inside the cathedral. I paid another 60 UAH to visit the belltower which affords fantastic views of the city.
St Volodymyr Cathedral
Although not one of Kyiv’s most important churches, St Volodymyr’s Cathedral arguably has the prettiest interior. Built in the late 19th century to mark 900 years of Orthodox Christianity in the city, its yellow exterior and seven blue domes conform to standard Byzantine style. However, inside it breaks new ground with art nouveau influences.
St Michael’s Monestery
St. Michael’s Cathedral is located opposite St. Sophia’s Cathedral. The original, built by Prince Sviatopolk in 1108, was destroyed by the Soviet regime in the 1930s for having “no historical value” like many other beautiful buildings during communist times. The reconstructed cathedral was completed in May 2000. Its sky blue exterior and glittering golden domes add a stunning layer to a cityscape that has become a mix-mash of crumbling ancient and newly reconstructed. A sobering reminder of Stalin’s inhumane policies stands to the right as you exit the church grounds.
This is a monument to the victims of Holodomor (starvation) which was a famine orchestrated in part by the Soviet leadership in an attempt to squash the peasantry, as many as 10 million Ukrainians perished from 1932-33. IWe learned about this on our walking tour and it was the silent genocide that very few people know about.
St. Andrews Church
Famous Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli was the mastermind behind this attractive Baroque church that greets the throngs at the top of Andriivs’kyi uzviz. Built in 1754, it’s one of the rare buildings in Kyiv that has managed to avoid serious damage or reconstruction. The elegant silhouette of its one large dome and five lesser cupolas are easily visible from Podil and beyond.
Walking tour, including the revolution tour
There are a few companies that do free walking tours throughout the city. I’m a big fan of walking tours when visiting a new city because it’s a great way to explore the city with locals and learn about the city in a relaxed and budget friendly manner.
Kiev has two main companies that I could find doing walking tours. As Kiev is a big city and there’s so much history, there are multiple tours being offered like the Old Town, the Medieval quarter, the modern town, and my absolute favorite, the Revolution tour. This tour went over the details about the recent Ukrainian revolution that happened in Kiev, and is primarily concentrated around the Maidan, or Independence Square of central Kiev.
Our guide Denis was an absolute treasure and really made this tour special. In fact, this is probably one of the most memorable walking tours I’ve ever done.
The Ukrainian Revolution
As you probably already know from news over the past few years, Ukraine had a revolution of sorts in 2014-2015. n 2013, Ukraine became the center of attention in international politics due to major protests taking place in Kiev with the objective of overthrowing the then current government of Pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Four years after the violent conflict in Southern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea to Russia, the political, economic and social situation in Ukraine is far from stabilizing. Because international media outlets do not include current updates on the situation in Ukraine, this blog will briefly summarize the conflict in Ukraine and provide current information related to its economy, security and politics.
The Ukraine crisis is both important and complicated. First, Ukraine is an Eastern European country, and has one of the biggest land masses on the European continent. It has a population of 45 million people. It borders Russia on the East and Europe on the West. “The country has been pulled from both sides for centuries, and according to historical archives, Russia has spent more than two centuries trying to acquire it for its own.” .
The situation worsened in 2013, when former President Viktor Yanukovych rejected an economic deal with the European Union and accepted a $50 billion bailout from Russia to save the country from economic collapse. It seemed to many Ukrainians that their “country had been sold to Russians”. That was when major demonstrations started to occur with most of the protests taking place in the country’s Western region. “Ukraine’s history between Europe and Russia has also left Ukraine culturally and politically divided which has resulted in an identity crisis”.
Touring the Maidan
The revolution occurred in and around the Maidan. Like all protests, upset civilians began with peaceful protests that were initially tolerated. One bad incident later, and all hell breaks loose. Well perhaps it is not as simple as that but you get the idea. Peaceful protests turn violent and a real conflict emerges between the civilians and the authority. The Maiden was transformed into a home base for the Rebels with constant fighting against the police and the forces of Yanukovych.
Our guide Denis was an active participant in this revolution and camped out in the Maiden over the Ukrainian winter of 2014! He told us stories of him and his mates fighting the police with whatever weapons they could find. Guns were very hard to come by so they had to make do with household goods like rakes, kitchen knives, and pans. One of his friends even had a vintage sword that he brought into battle. He also witnessed many people killed during the fights as well as shot by snipers that were positioned in surrounding hotels. The stories he told were quite insane. The craziest part is that the conflicts were no more than 5 years ago, and the Maiden has been completely restored following all the damage that had ensued.
All in all, the tour started at 10:30am and lasted 1.5 hours. This was an absolutely fantastic tour.
Enjoy the views from the Intercontinental
If you’re looking for rooftop views of the city with a drink, look no further than the rooftop bar at the Intercontinental. They have 360 degree views of the city from their outdoor terrace. You can see St Andrews church and St Michaels Monastery on one side, the Maidan and St Sofia’s Cathedral on the other.
The drinks here are however crazy expensive. For an Aperol Spritz, I paid about €14 which is absolute insanity when drinks literally everywhere else in Kiev are a fraction. Yes I know you always pay the premium to have drinks on a rooftop but this was too much. Nevertheless, the views are totally worth the visit. Next time, I will just stick to a beer!
Make a visit to Chernobyl
If you’re looking for a day trip from Kiev, look no further than the famous Chernobyl. Yes you can actually visit and tour the site of the nuclear disaster from the mid 1980s. I spent the whole day touring the nuclear reactor and the town of Pripyat where some 50,000 people were evacuated in a matter of hours.
As far as day tours go, this is probably one of my all time favorites. If this is something you’re keen for, make sure to read my Chernobyl and Pripyat post which details how to book a tour and exactly what to expect!
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