Ukraine has always been a fascination of mine. Perhaps it’s the lure of the unknown or perhaps it’s proximity to the world’s worst nuclear disaster that sparked my imagination. All I know, however, is that for as long as I can remember I wanted to go there and see it in all its raw, ex-Soviet, flesh.
Kiev itself remains one of Europe’s best kept secrets. Rich in history, it remains relatively untouched by tourism. Yet on the back of Europe’s best kept secret, just 100km down the road lies it’s worst; Chernobyl.
Far from being a nuclear wasteland, the first thing I noticed when I got to Kiev was just how green and spacious it is. I was expecting a rather demur, rather drab city with a really repressed feel about it and I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
It seems wherever you look there is an abundance of trees and plants almost masking the gigantic concrete buildings that are lining the wide open streets.
The next thing you notice is the sheer size of Kiev. It’s fair to say this is a massive city with a lot of history behind it. Dating back to around 500AD, Kiev has seen many kingdoms come and go. Today, there are approximately three million people living in, and around, Kiev making it the busiest city in Ukraine.
Another thing I noticed was the number of churches and cathedrals the city possess. It seems that on every turn you come across a new one. It’s hardly surprising however, given the fact that in a recent survey over 67% of the Ukrainian population identified as from one strand of Christianity or another.
These are far from your normal churches either and are stunning in both their architectural style and the wonderful array of colours they are painted in.
Behind the green curtain of nature that is beautifying the city, Kiev is a real throwback to the USSR days. Huge looming buildings of varying importance are on show all over the capital and tower above the cities streets in sometimes an oppressive fashion.
The city has witnessed some extremely hard times as have many with that Soviet-side to it with recent examples of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution still prominent especially around the Maidan Nezalezhnosti – or Independence Square. Here some of the bloodiest battles between civilians and police occurred resulting in over 100 deaths!
Yet despite this, recent, chaotic history, Kiev is now a very peaceful city. Still not quite being on the European travellers must-see list is also a major plus, as it is keeping costs relatively low, whilst also not having a huge influx of fellow travellers to deal with.
This is changing, however, and year-on-year there is an increased number of visitors to the city; partly helped by relaxed visa regulations for foreign visitors.
This increase could also be linked to hit TV shows, such as the mini-series Chernobyl, that painted a fascinating tale for international audiences and has driven the number of thrill-seekers visiting Ukraine up.
A final point to note. If you are travelling to the Ukraine from the UK you cant get the local currency (Ukrainian Hryvnia) before you leave. UK banks don’t like it, so you have to get all your currency when you arrive in Kiev.
Getting to Ukraine has never been easier. No longer do UK tourists require Russian-style visas to enter the country; something the Ukrainian authorities saw sense in getting rid of post their success attracting visitors during Euro 2012 where the Ukraine shared hosting duties with Poland.
As you’d expect, the easiest way to get to Kiev is flying and in recent years, more and more routes have opened up. A number of flight providers now travel between London (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stanstead, Luton and London City) and Kiev Boryspil International Airport; some 35km to the east of Kiev city centre. Flight times are around three and a quarter hours.
As I’ll always do with this blog, I will give flight details for the same month I travelled to a location. In this case, that was during May.
There are a number of airlines that travel to the Ukrainian capital. Ryanair, Wizzair and UIA are three of the main ones that cater for a variety of budgets. It’s possible to fly from London to Kiev for as little as £97 return per person with Ryanair.
When I travelled to Ukraine, however, I went with UIA (you can’t miss them as they are painted bright yellow and blue). While they are a little bit more expensive, they also, for me, had better departure times meaning I could maximise my time in Kiev. At today’s rates for UIA you’d be looking at approximately £215 per person for a return journey between London Gatwick and Kiev.
The flights themselves are relatively unremarkable. I experienced no major issues at all and could take hand luggage with me into the cabin.
Where to stay
There are many options for hotels and AirBnB throughout the centre of Kiev catering for all different price structures. I can only speak about one accommodation in Kiev as during my time in the city I stayed in the Hotel Alfavito which is based slightly to the south of the main city. Getting into the main heart of the city is easy, however, with the metro station Palats a short 200m walk from the entrance.
The hotel itself is reasonable. It claims to be a four star establishment but feels more like a three star. The rooms are quiet basic and the views from the windows are less than inspiring. From my window all I could see was the opposing building and some rather large chimney stacks for local factories. Not a view to take your breath away.
Another area that I was slightly disappointed about was the lack of breakfast included in the room price. Breakfast is available at Alfavito but you have to pay extra (and quite a bit extra) for it. In my experience it’s far easier to go out and buy breakfast on the go rather than pay through the nose for the standard hotel fare.
Cost-wise, I’d say the hotel was mid-range. For a standard double room for three nights in May you can expect to pay around £93 a night; totalling around £280 for the stay.
The staff at the hotel were professionally friendly, but there was no real warmth behind the words. They were polite and helpful but there is no real desire to go the extra mile to enhance your stay. You are just a room number to them.
This may all sound incredibly negative and compared to a number of hotels I’ve stayed in worldwide it is far from the best. However, as a base for activities in the city it is fine. Just perhaps not somewhere I’d return to should I find myself in Kiev again.
The easiest way to get around Kiev is through the use of its simple metro system. Don’t expect any bells and whistle on this Soviet-era transportation system but it does have a number of interesting points.
First operated in the 1960, the Kiev Metro is restricted to 52 stops spread across just three lines. With such a sparse metro system in operation, there are in fact only three stations across the network that you can change lines so bear that in mind when making a journey. Fortunately, each of these crossover stations are quite centrally located so won’t cause you too much of an issue.
You buy your journeys from a small kiosk located near the entrance of each metro station. Journey tokens, it should be noted, are very very cheap. Amusingly, I found that each of these kiosks appeared to be operated by the same surly middle-aged woman who wouldn’t sell me multiple journey tickets and instead insisted I buy each time I travelled.
The next thing of note is that the Kiev Metro itself is something of a tourist attraction. One of its stations (Arsenalna) is the second deepest metro station in the world sitting 346 feet below the surface! This impressive feat is only beaten by the ever-competitive North Korean’s whose metro is a whopping 360 feet below the surface. This depth also allowed for the stations to act as bomb shelters had the Cold War taken a nasty turn.
The stations themselves are quiet clean and pretty quiet. I never experienced any issues travelling on the metro at any time of day or night, but it’s always worth remaining guarded of your belongings as is the case in any city.
A number of the stations also have Soviet-inspired murals located on them which add a different element to metro travel and are well-worth a look should you stop at one such station.
Kiev itself has a number of wonderful sites and attractions for visitors to get their teeth into. Some of them are more obvious than others – such as the aforementioned churches and cathedrals – while others take a bit longer to root out.
So for this blog I’m not going to focus on those sights above ground as the best things to see. I’m going to go for a much deeper and darker side of Kiev that, if you didn’t know it was there, you’d never be able to experience.
That brings me to Another Kiev. For those not familiar with urbexing, it’s a shorthand way of saying urban exploring. This can take many forms, but often sees participants gaining entry to unused or deserted locations. Often not for the faint-hearted or those with a nervous disposition.
For me, it’s an exciting way to see parts of places that have either been forgotten or lost to time. A version of time travelling back to a different world. That’s what Another Kiev provides and that’s why I booked onto their combo tour; exploring a drain tunnel system and underground river as well as a nuclear bunker under the city.
It’s important to note that when you make your first contact with Another Kiev they are very keen to ensure you have a good level of fitness and are not subject to claustrophobia. Once you’ve ticked those boxes, you’re good to go.
All important equipment is provided for the €40 fee per-person, however, it’s important that you wear clothes that you are happy to, how shall we say, get a little on the dirty side.
My tour started outside Dnypro metro station right by the side of the river. Once there you meet your guide – my guide was called Max – who provides expert information and safety advice for the whole trip. As soon as everyone in the day’s tour group had arrived we’d hopped up on the side, removed a drain cover and were descending into the labyrinth of tunnels under the city’s streets.
It may not seem like the ideal tour for everyone but it really is fascinating. Walking through these small, dark tunnels you feel a million miles away from life above ground. It’s also a great place to get some really cool photography so don’t forget to take your phone with you when you go below.
After we exited the drainage tunnels we got in a taxi and went to our next location which was somewhere within the centre of Kiev itself. Here we were asked to wait while Max gained access for us to the nuclear bunker. Then we were in and going down the concrete stairs into this Cold War-era hideout. It was like stepping back in time. After a small jump through a hole in the wall, we were in underground offices still filled with desks, gas masks and documents from the time. Pictures of Lenin still hung on the wall, and you could almost hear the conversations that could have taken place had a war started. The bunker I was in was an extremely eerie place, but it’s important to note that at no point did I ever feel in danger.
For those with an adventurous streak, Another Kiev is worth the time and effort.
Now perhaps the main draw for people to Kiev. Chernobyl. The zone itself is a 30km restricted entry. You cannot visit it unless you are on a pre-approved tour. And even then there are strict regulations.
For this trip I went with the well-reviewed Chernobyl Tour. Some basics before you go. Firstly, you’ll need to carry your passport with you on the day you travel as the company have had to register each person entering the Zone that day. No passport, no tour, no exceptions.
Secondly, clothing. You need to wear long sleeved shirts and long legged trousers. No t-shirts or shorts are allowed. Also shoes must not be open toed. Afterall you don’t want any of that pesky radiation in the dust to get onto your skin now do you?
Finally, money. You pay a deposit upfront but the final balance is payable on the day you travel to the Zone in Ukrainain Hryvnia or Euros. For a single person it’s about €90 for the whole trip.
The meeting place for this trip was the same for everyone. Visitors are asked to meet at Ivana Ohienko street, build. 6 (old names of the street is Lukashevicha, Kirpy, Polzunova), which is located 300 meters to the right of the exit of the Yuzhniy (Pivdenniy, South) terminal of the Central Railway station. The bus leaves at 8am sharp, so don’t be late!
Once you’ve arrived, paid the remaining money owed and shown your passport, you are good to travel to the Zone.
The drive itself to Chernobyl is reasonably uninspiring. As you leave Kiev, you’ll be shown footage from the disaster on the on-board TV and given a brief bit of history to the disaster from your guide. The drive takes around an hour and half to complete, depending on traffic.
As you approach the Zone, one thing you do realise quite quickly is that it doesn’t have the feel of an abandoned nuclear disaster area. There are loads of tour buses these days and even small pop-up shops just outside the check point which are great to pick up those gimmicky souvenirs like a glow-in-the-dark fridge magnet!
The next step of your visit will see you go through the checkpoint. For this you have to exit the bus, walk through a radiation detector and then on-board your bus. And that’s it; you’re in the 30km Exclusion Zone! A surprising fact about the 30km Zone is that its estimated to be home to 197 Samosely living in 11 villages as well as the City of Chernobyl. So ,uch for it being an exclusion zone.
Once inside your first stop will be to one of the abandoned villages that make up the exclusion zone. Here you’ll see a variety of old houses in various states of decay – most now engulfed by the vegetation which is reclaiming the land. Be careful where you walk here though as there are many places that have broken glass and nails lying around. The last thing you want is a radioactive nail going through your foot. Also keep an eye open for radiations signs (like that pictured below) and DON’T venture beyond those points. The radiation is most prevalent in the mossy, wet undergrowth so really do not tempt fate and wander too deep into the wooded area.
At this stage it is OK (at the time I went at least anyway) to explore some of the houses and inside you’ll be able to see reminders of those that used to call this area home. One such building where this is especially true is when you arrive at the abandoned kindergarden of Kopachi which is littered with old dolls and teddy bears waiting for their owners to return.
The next stop along the trip will be to the city of Chernobyl itself. This is not where the reactor is and in fact, looks almost modern. Here there are guards posted and military personnel going about their business. It’s clear that even in the Zone itself there are those maintaining certain areas for work purposes.
There are a couple of bits worth seeing here. Firstly, check out the impressive mural on the side of the exterior of a museum commemorating the Chernobyl nuclear disaster depicting an exploding reactor core. Secondly take a walk down the corridor of signs that show just how many villages had to be abandoned due to the 1986 disaster. It makes for quite a sobering experience.
Once through the villages, you’ll move on to the secret soviet object radar DUGA-1 and the secret town of Chernobyl-2 which provided the efficiency of antennas and horizon tracking of the launching of ballistic missiles.
Shortly after this stop you’ll re-board the bus and head towards one of the two main sites in the zone; the sarcophagus and the New Safe Confinement (“Arch”) around the exploded Reactor 4.
This is in the heart of the 10km exclusion zone and you can surprisingly get to within 300m of the sarcophagus itself. Stays here are limited in time as the radiation is still extremely strong, however, you’ll notice that there are a number of people who appear to be working around this area.
Soon after this stop you’ll make your way to get lunch. This stop takes you to a canteen near the reactor and it’s the same canteen that the liquidators for the disaster used. Don’t expect great food here. Let’s just say it’s edible at best.
After lunch you’ll move onto the second of the two big hitters in Chernobyl; the city of Pripyat.
For those of you that don’t know, the city was named after the nearby Pripyat River. Founded on February 4 1970, as the ninth nuclear city (a type of closed city) in the Soviet Union, it served the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. By the time it was abandoned it had a population of almost 50,000 residents.
The city here was perhaps the biggest draw for me. One thing that is slightly disappointing (albeit totally understandable) is that you are no longer allowed to enter any of the buildings as they have become far too unstable. That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t plenty to see and do.
Things to not miss here include, the old hotel Polissia, the Palace of Culture Energetik, the former swimming pool, the town square with it’s spooky artwork (that has been added by certain visitors), the Pripyat football stadium, the old theatre and supermarket and of course the unused funfair.
When people think of Chernobyl the image of the huge yellow ferris wheel is probably one of the first things that spring to mind. During a visit you can get up close and personal with this relic from history. One thing you’ll notice – should you have access to a dosimeter is that the ferris wheel itself is still incredibly radioactive. On no circumstances touch it! Stand near it and take photos but don’t lay your hands on it. That you’ll regret.
Just to the side of the ferris wheel is the bumper car (or dodgems) that remain where they sat from the 1980s.
After leaving the city you’ll head towards the exit of the exclusion zone – where you’ll be individually tested for excess radiation. On route you’ll make a couple of extra stops to look at a statue made by the firefighters who helped manage the disaster as well as seeing some of the actual robots used to help clean up the area. Again you cannot touch these as they remain highly radioactive.
For me a visit to this city was a fascinating experience. It’s like an entire outdoor museum. A visit to Chernobyl is something you’ll never forget.
Where to avoid
As with any major city there are always parts that you avoid and Kiev is no different. Most of the city, during the day time in my experience is relatively safe although it’s always best to be conscious of where your belongings are at all times. At night, when the streets are dark, it best to take extra precautions on this front. Stay in well lit areas and along the busier parts of the city. While I experienced no problems here myself, I didn’t venture too far off the beaten track at night.
If you have limited time in Kiev then you are going to want to get in as much as possible during your stay. The obvious thing to do (albeit not in the city) is go to see Chernobyl; so some of the city’s other sights may have to take a backseat.
One such sight that is good to see, but not a must in my opinion, is the Friendship of Nations Arch located near Tsentral’nyy Park. This arch was built in 1982 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the USSR and the 1,500th anniversary of Kiev city.
It’s an impressive structure of its sheer size, however, if you are time-poor in Kiev then perhaps it’s best to view this arch from one of the many vantage points down the Dnieper River.
Another sight to give a miss to is that of the Monument to the Money Frog.
Situated near the Friendship of Nations Arch in Kreschaty Park, this odd statue of a frog sits with its mouth open. As with many statues in cities around the world, this is another opportunity for people to rub a certain part of it for good luck. In this case, visitors can rub the inside of the statues mouth. It’s really not worth trekking all the way to this park for this statue.
Great places to eat
From my experience, eating in Kiev is an unusual affair. Let’s be honest, on the whole very few people are travelling here for its culinary treats! On the plus side, however, a substantial meal for two is unlikely to break the bank, so eating and drinking here is extremely affordable.
One thing of note is that in some restaurants, you end up with food you did not necessarily order. When you question this, in my experience, you simply get a shrug of the shoulders and then told to eat it. If you’re not fussy with your food then this ends up being more amusing than a problem, but for those with certain intolerances, it could be an issue.
During my stay in the Ukrainian capital, I sampled a number of small eateries, but two really stuck out to me and for a long-weekend style trip, these are well-worth trying to get in to.
The first is the Georgian-cuisine restaurant Mama Mahaha. This popular restaurant on the main road, Velyka Vasylkivska near the national football stadium, is a real gem that provides a wide range of tasty, filling food.
A real plus point is that they cater well for English-speaking tourists and English menus are available upon request.
The best things to try here are one of the various meats on stick dishes (and there are plenty to choose from) and the Khinkali which is a form of large Georgian dumpling. These taste-filled parcels are not to be missed! Make sure you also order a bottle of wine to accompany your meal which is serviced in traditional Georgian-style; which roughly equates to wine being drunk from a bowl!
Finally make sure you save enough room for one of the Mama Mahaha’s famous Khachapuri. These are large, cheese-filled breads that have to be tried to be believed. Usually in the centre of these Georgian treats sits a cooked egg which, for me, just tops off how delicious this food is.
The second place I really enjoyed was the rather hipster-like cafe named Literaturne Kafe Imbyr. Located, again near the national football stadium on Zhylianska Street, this is the perfect spot to escape the hustle and bustle of the busy street-life of Kiev.
As a vegetarian / vegan restaurant, meat is totally off the menu. This really shouldn’t detract passioante carnivores from its doors however, as this wonderful restaurant has many treats worth savouring.
Within its walls, this quaint restaurant is nestled amongst the rows of books that line its walls and provides a very easy escape from reality. Here you can get your head down in a good book while also enjoying a light salad or pasta dish alongside a hot drink or cocktail.