This was the answer from most people I’d told in passing of my trip to Ukraine. After all, it’s not exactly known for anything other than being the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history – and that’s not exactly a tourist draw.
While I’d love to tell you the country is an unknown wonder that is just waiting to be discovered – it turns out I don’t really have a lot of love for Kiev after returning. That being said, a trip to Chernobyl makes a weekend in Ukraine worthwhile. And if you do find yourself in Kiev, here’s what you should do.
Just, for god’s sake, don’t call it the Ukraine. Like I do every time I talk about it***.
* READ MORE Everything you need to know about Chernobyl and how to get there
* A day in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone
* Pristina: Europe’s youngest (and coolest) capital
* Living in Japan: Ground zero in Tohoku after the tsunami
You CAN get a tourist visa on arrival, if you’re from 33 countries that allow you to do so (check on the website).
You CANNOT know exactly when the person who is supposed to process said tourist visas will turn up to work for the day. My plane arrived at 8am, and the dozy person manning the desk didn’t arrive until 9.30am. At one stage, a tour guide from a visiting group from China simply jumped behind the desk and started processing them himself.
You CAN get just about physically assaulted by said dozy tourist visa woman as she shouts at you for being too slow and shoves you in the arm repeatedly to enter your credit card details, and you reply that maybe you don’t want to ever come back to Ukraine if this is the way you are treated, and a faceless man behind a partition will yell “Good! We don’t want you people back!”
You CAN pay the princely sum of USD100 for a visa in what might be the greatest rip-off in history.
You CAN exit the airport approximately three hours after you arrived, bruised, confused, but a little amused, and wonder why the hell you decided to come here again.
What to do in Kiev
Basically – Kiev doesn’t have the discerning features of say Krakow, or Budapest – but it’s a quaint city nonetheless – with plenty to fill three or so days.
Saint Sophia’s Cathedral
This is supposedly Kiev’s greatest attraction – which admittedly disappointed me at first look on TripAdvisor as I’d fairly well done my dash of churches at this point. On saying that, a jaunt up the bell tower is certainly worth it – even withstanding the fact that it doesn’t exactly feel structurally sound should a strong gust blow up – as you’ll get panoramic views out over the centre of town.
It’s a measly UAH60 to go up – and you’ll pay an extra UAH80 for entrance into the grounds of the church. Because of the aforementioned church fatigue, I opted out of wandering around the church (it was also snowing and I wanted to go back to my hotel to bed at 4pm in the afternoon), but I’ve heard it’s stunning inside.
St Andrew’s Church
You’d think the church fatigue would have meant the second item on this list wouldn’t be another place of worship, but this is five minutes up the road and well worth a look.
Its picturesque locale on the side of a hill overlooking the Dnieper River means it’s an amazing spot for panoramic pictures over some of the older districts of Kiev – but the church itself is currently under renovation so you can’t actually go inside.
Nonetheless, the blue and gold-gilded facade makes for a beautiful picture from the park across the road.
St Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery
Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Kiev Monastery of the Caves)
Alright, alright – for someone who is well and truly over churches, I don’t seem to be able to keep away from them. I’d actually stumbled on this one on the way to pick up my bags and head for the airport to go home, and it was the reason I had to pay a 10 euro late fee to the gremlins at the Ukrainian International airline desk – and surprisingly, I hold no ill feelings. Mostly because this complex is spectacular.
Set on 28 hectares of grassy hillock above the river, this is another complex with a bell tower worth scaling, for expansive views over the city and the waterways. While that’s basically all I did (due to aforementioned time constraints) it was absolutely worth the UAH60 (UAH30 to get in, and UAH30 to climb the bell tower as the woman mistook my makeshift winter outfit as that of a poor student’s).
You’ll pay to enter most of the other buildings – but the cathedral is free and beautiful. Apparently the caves are also worth a look if you have the time, as you can organise a guided tour while you’re there, as is the miniatures museum.
Just about every city in the world has a central square, or even an Independence Square, but few are wrought with such recent significance and devastation. In 2013, this is where fighting broke out in the revolution – and the tributes to that time, and those who were killed are left for all to see on boards around the central column.
It’s worth taking an hour or so to read through the story of what went on, not only because its still so fresh, but because it could be one of the only information boards about a revolution that details how it all began on Facebook.
National Opera of Ukraine
It’s all but a glorified mound in the middle of the city that has absolutely no business being called a ski field – but how freaking amazing is it that you can go skiing in the middle of Kiev?! This tiny ‘ski field’ is one of four in the general Kiev area, but it seems to be the closest to the city and the one with the more advanced run. There are two slopes – one slightly steeper than the other; the former with admittedly a decent incline.
What to eat in Kiev
Just don’t go here if you’re looking for authentic Ukrainian fare, you’re from a Middle Eastern country and this is your only meal out. Musafir is a cheap and cheerful local joint, with waitstaff dressed in traditional garb and menu items that barely cost $2 a piece.
Unfortunately, if like me, you’re looking to eat exclusively like the locals you’ll probably be alarmed at the kebabs and hummus on the menu and wonder why you didn’t just stay in the UAE. Nonetheless, the Chebureki (UAH30 ish for one) is fresh, stuffed with filling and incredibly well-portioned, so you definitely won’t need the manti you ordered (UAH15 for one!), but will shove it in anyway. The manti for me was the highlight here. Order 7.
If cheap and cheerful is what you’re after – well, this is half your place because it’s certainly cheap, but Ukrainians aren’t exactly cheerful.
This is a canteen-style chain you’ll find all over Kiev – and if I could have gone back here every day for the rest of my life, I would have. On my huge plastic tray, I ended up with a plate of dumplings (UAH35), a bowl of borscht (UAH25), chicken Kiev (UAH40), pork with cheese and tomato (UAH51), and not a single piece of greenery or condiment that would make this even half resemble a meal.
Worse yet, I was so excited wandering around from station to station, the entire tray went stone cold. But it was still one of the best meals I had in Kiev – and it cost me about $5. Better still, this is another place that just ignores the concept of English and has signs only in cyrillic. So who knows if that mince dumpling was actually mince.
This is a well-known haunt due to its prominence on Google and TripAdvisor, but after popping in to Last Barricade and refusing to pay $8 for dumplings, you’ll be comforted online prominence hasn’t inflated prices here.
Sure, it’s gaudy, with waitresses sauntering around in traditional Ukrainian dress – that most notably relies on putting the ‘girls’ on full display – but the restaurant certainly stacks up to its reputation.
Inside, it’s all leafy greens, stone walls and caged birds chirping – and from the moment shots of complimentary shots of vodka arrived at my table as a starter – I was sold. Luckily, the fried pork on potato pancakes (UAH92) was a decent feed, too.
Clearly, as the place to see, and be seen in Kiev, I obviously wasn’t quite up to par wandering in in my yoga pants and adidas sweater, but I was welcomed in as if I didn’t look gormless and underdressed nonetheless.This is about as Melburnian as coffee houses come in Kiev – and while you’ll pay about three times as much for a coffee here than you will on the street (UAH60 for a flat white), trust me when I say it’s worth it. They do a damn good cauliflower soup (UAH85) and not ordering one of the whoopie cookies in the display case overflowing with ridiculous-looking desserts is one of the great regrets of my life. I still lie awake at night thinking about them.
Where to stay in Kiev
Ever the champion of the cheap hotel that I am, of course I managed to find a place that cost the equivalent of about $35 a night – and it didn’t appear to be a brothel! Fire Inn is supposedly in an old fire station building, and it’s a beautiful old facade from the outside. The inside is notably more shabby, though the rooms seem new and recently renovated – if a little rough around the edges. Noting online feedback that the walls were a bit thin, I asked for a quiet room and barely heard a thing.
The major downside was the bed – as the harsh springs attacked your body if you lay in certain places. But considering it had a kitchenette with a jug, microwave, fridge and a few amenities – you’ll be hard pressed to find as good value in such an excellent location. The centre of town is five minutes walk, and – unless you need to walk in the other direction, which is down a hill and not advisable in the middle of winter with the amount of ice (I discovered this after skating down like Bambi) – there are plenty of restaurants within a 1km radius.
This is candy land for cheapskates, and also a wondrous world where I quite literally spent three or so hours just staring at chocolate. Roshen is a well-known brand across Ukraine, and has several outlets, and the giant one on Khreshchatyk Street is fantastic.
Blocks of chocolate won’t cost more than UAH20 for the absolute top range, and the infamous Kiev cake is UAH120 – and weird, but worth taking home to ply others with. I walked out with basically another suitcase full of goods for about UAH200.