If Kyiv (or Kiev) is not on your travel bucket list then you may not have been paying attention.
In the late 80s and early 90s, we watched as a 40 year-cold-war came to an end. The Iron Curtain came down. The Soviet Union collapsed and the Soviet sphere of influence disappeared. For the first time since the 40s tourists were allowed to travel to countries, they had only heard about. Many of these countries and cities have become top 25 tourist destinations such as Budapest and Prague. Others are just as spectacular but don’t receive the same attention, or the same amount of tourists. Foremost among these under-the-radar, post-cold-war destinations is Kyiv, Ukraine.
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As far as the population within city limits, Kyiv is the 7th largest city in Europe. It was founded around the 6th century AD. Over the next 400 years, it grew in power until it was the most powerful European civilization around the 10th through the 12th centuries. The kingdom finally collapsed with the invasion of the Mongols. It was the Kyivan Rus empire that managed to prevent them from driving into the heart of Europe, but the victory was costly and the empire never recovered. It is the history and architecture from this period and the Soviet Era monuments that make Kyiv a special place to visit.
For travelers going to The Ukraine, everything should be centered around the Maidan. The Maidan to Kyiv is like Times Square in New York City. The Maidan is not only the main tourist center of Ukraine It is also the political center where most of the government offices are centered in a short radius around the plaza. All the subway lines intersect underneath the Maidan, making it the transportation hub also. During times of political turmoil, all these factors make the Maidan a haven for protests, such as the recent 2013-2014 Winter-on-Fire revolution.
Where Recent History Was Made
For people who follow world events, the allure of the Maidan cannot be overlooked. During the Winter On Fire Revolution, the majority, of the world, watched as protesters in the Maidan overthrew their government. People who look closely will recognize the large pillar with the angel on top and the arch on which is the arch Michael, When I was there, I saw the memorials which had been set up around the square, dedicated to the protesters who lost their lives. Should the current conflict, in the east, snowball into something much greater, future history books will mention this is where it all started.
Old World Churches
St. Sophia’s Cathedral, an 11th-century church, has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. However, many portions still remain intact. In one corner someone has chipped away the reconstruction of the room to its original 11th-century materials. The interior is decorated with magnificent mosaics and frescoes, created by Byzantine masters. The only place where pictures are allowed, is on the second floor, in front of a mosaic made out of eggs. Originally it was an Orthodox church, in the present day it is not used for religious services.
St. Michael’s is another church located just minutes from the Maidan. St. Michaels is a functioning orthodox monastery only a few blocks away from St. Sophia’s Cathedral. Elements of St Michaels date back before the Mongol invasion. It has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times since its construction in the eleventh century. It has numerous bells in the tower. All of the bells have been rung at the same time only twice. Once when the Mongols invaded and the second time during the Winter-on-Fire revolution in 2013 and 2014.
St Andrews, another Orthodox church is much more modern than the other two churches. It was designed and built in the mid-1700s. Unlike St Michael’s and St. Sophia’s, St Andrews’s domes are dark green. Its location sits halfway down the hill, overlooking the Podil district of Kyiv. It was originally built to be a private church for the Russian Empress, Elizabeth.
Pechersk Lavra is a large Orthodox Christian monastery located in Kyiv. The walled complex covers more than 2 and a half million square feet. There are numerous gold-domed religious structures, including a bell tower that is visible from many parts of Kyiv. The biggest attraction is the caves beneath the complex, where several saints rest in a mummified state.
Most of the time when you approach Kyiv from Borispol airport, you are greeted by the Rodina Mat. The Rodina Mat is also known as The Motherland Monument. It is a 203 ft tall stainless steel statue. In one hand the statue holds a sword and in the other hand, it holds a shield that displays the state emblem of the Soviet Union. Measurements, including the base, make the statue a total of 335 feet tall, taller than the Statue of Liberty which is a total of 305 feet tall.
The Rodina Mat is only one part of a greater monumental area. It is the biggest attraction at the Museum of The History of Ukraine in World War II, Kyiv. The entire Museum features Soviet-era tanks, rocket launchers, and boats that were used during WWII. Large 3D murals spring to life and give visitors an insight into the Ukrainian people before, during, and after WWII. One of the best photo ops in the area is the two tanks crossing barrels. The tanks are continually painted in different colors and are available for people to climb on or pose for pictures.
Things to do
Tour Chernobyl and Pripyat
A ninety-minute drive, outside of Kyiv, is one of the most tragic stories to ever take place during the Soviet Era. On April 26th, 1986 a nuclear power plant exploded and released large quantities of radioactive particles into the air. There have only been two disasters of this level to ever take place. The other was Fukushima, Japan in 2011. Much of the success Japan had in containing their meltdown was what was learned from Chernobyl.
Pripyat was the closest city to the power plant. Today, it could be considered the world’s largest ghost town. Photos of Pripyat have been circling the internet lately and people’s interest in Pripyat has increased. You are not allowed to visit Pripyat on your own, but there are several guide services with most prices starting around $150. The price includes transportation from Kyiv, a guided tour of all the most important parts, and lunch.
Tours do give you the option of renting a personal Geiger Counter. I wouldn’t recommend renting one because the guides have them, or someone in the group will rent one. Before you depart Kyiv, a guide will show you the radiation level inside the city. During the tour, you will often be shown the Geiger Counter readings. With the exceptions of a few small hot spots, tourists are subject to more radiation in their homes, than they are in Chernobyl, and even the hottest spots in Chernobyl, have less radiation than one would experience on a typical flight. To ensure the tourist’s safety, a series of checkpoints are set up to check the tourists for radiation.
Chernobyl is, near the top, for interesting tourist destinations. However, don’t wait until the last moment to schedule your tour, because all visitors need to be pre-screened and approved by the Ukrainian military.
Like most large European cities, Kyiv has a very vibrant nightlife. Nightclubs and bars are within walking distance of most major hotels and the Maidan. The Vodka Bar is in the center of Maidan and is located underneath a large pillar.
Like most former Soviet States, Kyiv has a large emphasis on the arts. There is almost always a ballet, or opera showing in the Taras Shevchenko National Opera and Ballet Theatre of Ukraine. The theatre is not only beautiful on the inside but also on the outside. If you are staying in the Maidan area, it is within walking distance.
Hotels in Kyiv are really expensive. Most of the things you will want to see and do are within walking distance of the Maidan, which is the city center. The hotels in this area rent for as much as $350 a night. I have had great luck using Airbnb. The most recent time I was there, I found an immaculate apartment for $100 a night. Great apartments, in the area, can be found for as little as $35 a night. This is one destination where you want to skip the hotel.
If you do choose a hotel, stay in the Hotel Ukraine. It has been fully remodeled and features a beautiful view of the main city center. It was originally built in 1961 on the spot where Ukraine’s first skyscraper was built. It has received many awards such as “Best Hotel in Ukraine”, and “Leader of the Industry”.
Kyivans and Ukrainians, in general, are a peculiar people. For years, the Ukrainian women have been swept away by foreign men. Often considered as one of the countries with the most beautiful women, mail order bride services target Ukraine more than any other country. Many women approach western men with a degree of skepticism.
At first glance, the people of Ukraine seem cold and unwelcoming. This is most likely a result of growing up and being raised in a Soviet State, where your best friend could be spying on you. They like to keep to themselves and it gives westerners the appearance of coldness. However, if you can be open and friendly, you will learn that the Ukrainians are a very kind and welcoming people. Just don’t expect them to be friendly first.
One of the best things about vacations is going someplace where other people haven’t, and finding your own destinations. Some destinations are so diluted, that people don’t ask questions or want to hear stories. Kyiv is not one of those destinations.
To learn more about Kyiv listen to episode 581 of the Amateur Traveler podcast Travel to Kiev, Ukraine: