Out of all the cities I love in Eastern Europe – and I love many of them, dearly! – Kyiv is my favorite. I first visited the capital of Ukraine exactly ten years ago, in winter, and fell in love immediately. Maybe I’m biased; while my family comes from Austria, my parents choose to live in Kyiv, after all – but the city has a certain kind of charm that others, especially those that have a Soviet past, distinctly lack.
When I came back this time around, I couldn’t help but think back to that very first time I explored the city – how different everything had been! It’s hard to imagine now, but ten years is a long time and much has changed: many of the Soviet-style buildings have changed into modern-day commercial centers and shops, the restaurant scene has definitely more variety to show off than it did all those years ago, and the city has put a new focus on home-grown talent and creatives. Kyiv’s beauty remains the same, however – fierce winters, vibrant springs, and lovely summers make for an exciting city trip all year round.
Kyiv is definitely a city to be watched, and not just for the Eurovision Song Contest that will take place here this May. Let me show you around a little bit – here’s the Travelettes Guide to Kyiv!
What To See
Kyiv Pechersk Lavra
If you want to get a good overview of the city, as well as an impression of just how beautiful those orthodox churches can be, head to Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, better known as the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves. It is, in fact, not a single church, but rather a whole complex of them, including a bell tower and large, underground cave system that you can explore on guided tours.
If narrow spaces and very few sources of light (actually, candles, which is quite the adventure when you do this in winter, with everybody wearing fluffy coats) are not really your thing, don’t worry, Pechersk Lavra is still worth a visit. Pass through the Gate Church of the Trinity and marvel at the intricate details, stand in awe at the golden interior of the Uspensky Cathedral, and head up to the bell tower for magnificent views.
Oh, and if you want to take pictures, don’t forget to buy an extra “photo-ticket ” for your camera – or hide your equipment when going through the Gate and pretend you bought a ticket if someone inside asks. They don’t usually check to see it.
Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, Ivana Mazepy 21
Open daily from 6AM to 8PM
Mother Motherland & The Singing Fields
If your first stop was Pechersk Lavra, you will have already seen this next one from afar: the Mother Motherland monument, standing tall and protecting Kyiv with a sword that’s just a teeny tiny bit shorter than the highest point of the nearby monastery. Although it appears to be closed most of the time, it is technically possible to go up to the very top of Mother Motherland. I’ve personally never been able to do this, since not even Google is a reliable source for opening times here, but I hear the views are great. Still, visiting Mother Motherland (and the adjoining, open-air Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II) is a fixed point for me every time I come to Kyiv – you should try it, too.
The nearby Spivoche Pole (Singing Fields) is worth a second look, as well – the park sprawls almost all the way down to the river Dnieper and offers some well-needed calm and quiet away from the bustling city life.
Mother Motherland, Ivana Mazepy 44
Technically open daily from 8AM to 6PM, but it changes often
Khreshchatyk & Maidan
There is no way that you could miss Khreshchatyk on your trip to Kyiv – it’s the city’s largest street, and the very center of local life. The busy street can be overwhelming on weekdays, when cars are driving on the many lanes, honking loudly (by which I mean annoyingly). Come here on Sundays or public holidays, though, and see it turned into a pleasant pedestrian zone.
While you’re strolling along Khreshchatyk, you’re sure to come across Maidan, distinctly noticeable because of the imposing Independence Monument, a victory column which is over 60 meters (200ft) high. It’s the very square that was the focus of the early 2014 Ukrainian Revolution – to commemorate the sad events of Euromaidan, the street just to the left of the Independence Monument has been turned into a memorial for the people lost during those tragic days.
If you’d like to find out more about Euromaidan and the Ukrainian Revolution, you can start by reading “Ukraine Diaries – Dispatches from Kiev” by Andrey Kurkov. This book, along with many others, is available in English at Bookling, the (only, as far as my research has shown) English language bookstore in Kyiv.
I remember the first time I visited Besarbsky market, at age 13, maybe better than anything else from that long-ago trip to Kyiv. Even though I’ve since been to many markets around the world, this one remains special to me – it was the first time I saw the towering piles of fruit and vegetables, meat being offered without any kind of refrigeration, and old women loudly selling their ikra, caviar; all those little things that are so different from markets I’m used to at home.
While Besarabsky Market is not the best place to actually do your grocery shopping at (it’s one of the most expensive markets in the city), it’s a good spot to try local specialties in the many booths and coffee shops that surround it – make sure to try Vegano Hooligano for delicious vegan treats.
If you’re on the hunt for Ukrainian delicacies to take back home with you, but want to have a little fancier packaging, try the top floor of newly-remodeled shopping center TsUM – it’s made up of very modern shops that specialize in different kinds of food.
Besarabsky Market, Bessarabs’ka Square 2
Open Tuesdays through Sunday from 7AM to 8PM; Mondays from 7AM to 5PM
People’s Friendship Arch
At the other end of Khreshchatyk, you will find a towering arch, impressive in its height, but rather plain and kind of Soviet in appearance. No surprises there, since the arch was actually built during the times of the USSR to commemorate the friendship between Ukraine and Russia. The imposing monument has since become a bane in the eyes of many locals, and there have been calls to have it removed.
Think of it what you will, it’s definitely an impressive sight – and the viewpoint just behind it, looking out over the river Dnieper and the Podil district, more than makes up for the giant, often painful, reminder of times past in the middle of the city.
People’s Friendship Arch, Parkova Doroga
Kyiv’s Golden Gate stands right in the middle of one of my very favorite districts in the entire city – Zoloti Vorota, as the gate (as well as the nearby metro station) is called, is surrounded by cute little designer shops and charming cafes. The gate itself dates from the 11th century and acted as one of the main entrance points to the city, back when it was the capital of Kievan Rus’. It’s a good starting point to explore the area – climb up the steps to the very top to have a good look around and learn more about the history of the city you’re discovering in the little museum on the ground floor of the structure.
Golden Gate, Volodymyrska Street 40?
Open daily from 10AM to 6PM
Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery and St. Andrew’s Church
I think it’s no overstatement to say that basically, all of Kyiv’s churches are pastel-colored dreams; in fact, I think that most of them share a lot of similarities with large-scale cupcakes. Two of the most striking examples are St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery (what a great-sounding name!) and St. Andrew’s Church. They stand right across from each other in the center of the city and seem to be trying to outshine the other – St. Michael’s with its blue exterior and golden insides, and St. Andrew’s with its beautifully ornamented green onion-domed towers. It’s hard to decide which one is more impressive – so better to check out both of them, just to be on the safe side.
St. Michael’s, Mykhailivska ploscha: Open daily from 8AM to 7PM
St. Andrew’s, Andriivs’kyi uzviz 23: Open daily from 10AM to 6PM
Andriyivskyy Descent & Podil
Connecting the upper part of town with the Podil district, the Andriyivskyy Descent is often described as “Kyiv’s Montmartre”. Now, if you’ve been to Paris already, you know what to expect – if not, here’s a little hint: Think art. Lots of it. The winding street takes you down past street artists, beautifully painted houses, and gorgeous murals, until you reach Podil, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Kyiv. Podil boasts lots of nice little cafes and shops to explore, as well as an old funicular that will take you back up to where you started if you’re too tired to walk after a whole day of exploring.
Andriyivskyy Descent is at its best when temperatures are warm and people actually enjoy being on the streets. If you’re here in winter, stop by anyway to look at the cute architecture, warm coffee shops, and gorgeous murals.
What To Do
National Opera of Ukraine
The famed opera and ballet performances of Russia extend beyond the nation’s borders – I’ve listened and watched many of them in several countries of the former Soviet Union and found them all astounding. It is no different in Kyiv, which hosts some great spectacles in its National Opera House. You can check out the upcoming performances on their website, and even reserve tickets, without really having to speak Ukrainian or Russian. There are subtitles (in Cyrillic) during the plays, so if you’re a total newcomer to the language, it might be best to choose something where you already know the plot – or make sure you google it beforehand.
National Opera of Ukraine, Volodymyrska Street 50
Open daily from 11AM to 7:30PM
PinchukArtCentre & The Arsenal
Kyiv is known for its bitter winters, so on days where you feel like you cannot set foot outside without your nose falling off due to the freezing cold, it might be a good idea to visit a museum. My two favorite are PinchukArtCentre and the Arsenal; both show contemporary art. Actually, go here even when the weather is fine outside, it’s worth it – and don’t forget to head up to the beautifully designed cafe on the top floor of PinchukArtCentre, One Love Coffee.
PinchukArtCentre, Velyka Vasylkivska / Baseyna street 1/3-2, “?” Block
Open Tuesdays to Sundays from noon to 9PM
Art Arsenal, Lavrska St, 10-12
Open daily from 11AM to 8PM
Free Walking Tour or Mural Walking Tour
As with any new city I visit, I try to check out the local Free Walking Tour. Kyiv offers one, as well, which will get you a good first overview. If you really want to get into detail and find out something a little bit more intriguing, join one of the Mural Walking Tours. They are usually on offer for a small fee and show you some of the many murals that grace Kyiv’s walls. You can discover amazing artworks this way – and learn more about the artists and stories behind the pretty images. Highly recommended!
Where to Eat & Drink
Besides the beautiful location, overlooking the river Dnieper, Kompot is famous for, well, Kompot. The beverage is made by boiling fruit in water, adding lots of sugar, resulting in a sweet, delicious drink that will help you keep your cool in hot city summers, or warm you up from the inside in those freezing cold winters that are so common in Kyiv.
Kompot, Poshtova Square
Open daily from 8AM to 11PM
Blue Cup Coffee Shop
If you’re wondering whether Kyiv has a hipster population, head here and you’ll find your answer. Blue Cup Coffee Shop is a well-designed, small but cute coffee shop that serves delicious coffee in a very convenient location – it’s just off Khreshchatyk street. While you’re there, have a go at one of the many treats on display – they taste just as good as they look.
Blue Cup Coffee Shop, Pushkinska Street 5
Open daily from 9AM to 10PM
Make sure to stop by what is probably my favorite cafe in all of Kyiv, Na Stanislavskogo. It is kind of hard to find if you’re not looking for it, the reason being that the entrance is actually below street level – but once you’ve made it inside, it’s the best place to relax, have a cup of coffee, and snack on the sweet or salty pirogi.
Na Stanislavskogo, Stanislavs’koho Street 3
Open daily from 9AM to 10PM
Botan is a cozy place to take a little rest at when you’re exploring the area around Andriyivskyy Descent and Podil. It offers a small selection of books to browse through, which is something that easily makes me fall in love with any coffee place. I’m a book worm, so I might be biased, but the coffee is tasty too, so Botan is definitely a place to keep in mind to get your daily fix of caffeine.
Botan, Vozdvyzhens’ka Street 9-19
Open daily from 10AM to 11PM
Lvivsky Pljacky might be a pain to pronounce (or spell, for that matter), but the little bistro/cafe will easily stay in anybody’s memory for their homemade strudels. The workspace of the bakers is actually conveniently placed just in front of the display window, causing passers-by to stop and observe for a little while before continuing on their way. You can order sweet or salty strudels, with some vegetarian options available.
Lvivski Pljacky, Bogdana Khmelnitskogo Street 14-12
Open daily from 8AM to 11PM
Vagabond Cafe & Vintage Corner
It might not look like much from the outside, but Vagabond Cafe & Vintage Corner serves the best vegan food in town. The inside is small and cozy, with tiny tables and chairs perched along the big window fronts. The interior is entirely made up of vintage furniture and accessories, and most of what you see is actually for sale. The menu is short, but carefully curated, with options changing every so often.
Vagabond Cafe & Vintage Corner, Hryhoriya Skovorody Street 7
Open daily from 9AM to 10PM
If you’re on the hunt for authentic Ukrainian food, look no further – Garbuzik has you covered. The little restaurants offers traditional Ukrainian fare, complete with the rustic interior to complement the dishes. Start with a plate of zakuski (starters), which, if you eat meat, should definitely include salo (cured fatback ), accompanied by some vodka. As a main dish, try the varenyky (dumplings), pirozhki (filled buns), or the deruny (pancakes with sour cream), all of which come in veggie as well as meat versions. If you’re visiting around Christmas time – which, on the orthodox calendar, is on the 7th of January – make sure to try Kutia, a sweet dish served around the holidays.
Garbuzik, Khoryva Street 2
Open daily from 9AM to 11PM
Kartata Potata is a good choice for the well-designed interior alone, but the dishes definitely are worth trying, as well. Here, you can find Ukrainian dishes with a modern touch, as well as international cuisine. Before you head out, don’t forget to stop by their little shop – it offers specialty foods as well as beautifully made maps and souvenirs to bring back home.
Kartata Potata, Pushkinska Street 1-3/5
Open daily from 8AM to 11PM
My favorite part about travelling to the East, particularly to countries of the former Soviet Union, is actually finding the best Georgian restaurants. I have an undying love for Georgian food, and while you can find it in some bigger cities in the world, nowhere in the world is it as good as here (and Georgia itself, of course). In Kyiv, you have several good options, Mama Manana being one of them. Shoti is another one, although they have a more modern take on the traditional dishes, so if you want the real deal, head here and enjoy.
Like with Ukrainian food, start with a platter of starters (be sure to order at least one dish which includes eggplant and walnuts), continue with Khachapuri and Khinkali, and finish the feast with Churchkhela, the “Georgian Snickers”. Georgian food is very veggie-friendly, but if you’d like to add meat, go for shashlik.
Mama Manana, Velyka Vasylkivska Street 44
Open daily from 11AM to 11PM
Where To Shop
store482 and Vsi Svoi
While I’m not much of a clothes shopper, I do love checking out local designers and sustainable fashion whenever I travel. store482 and Vsi Svoi both showcase Ukrainian designers. While store482 is a little smaller and cozier than Vsi Svoi, both have a range of products on offer – from shoes to accessories to coats, you can basically find anything you need. Head here if you’d like to bring back a souvenir that you’ll wear for many years to come. Bonus points if you manage to pronounce the name of that second one correctly!
store482, Yaroslaviv Val Street 10
Open daily from noon to 8PM
Vsi Svoi, Khryshchatyk Street 27
Roshen might as well be synonymous with chocolate in Ukraine – it really seems like anything that is remotely connected to chocolate (or cakes, or candy, for that matter) has the Roshen name on it. To top it all off, most of the Roshen stores are decorated much like you’d imagine Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory – so need I say more to convince you to go there?
Roshen, Khreschatyk Street 29/1
Open daily from 8AM to 10PM
There are several other Roshen stores in the city, so keep your eyes open for them if you’re strolling through the streets!
Laska Charity Store can seem a bit haphazard when you first enter, but there’s actually a concept behind the shop that neatly makes sense of the varied offer: everything you can buy has either been donated or made by young, Ukrainian designers. The things on offer range from books to candles to clothes to pet toys, but they are all carefully curated and lovingly put on display. There’s even a little bar where you can have a coffee if browsing through the store gets too exhausting…
Laska Charity Store, Vyacheslav Lipinsky Street 3
Open daily from 11AM to 9PM
Where To Stay
Full disclosure, I have never spent a single night in a hotel in Kyiv since my parents actually live there and I always just stay with them. To be able to give you a few tips about where to stay in Kyiv anyway, I asked locals and frequent visitors to the city alike to give me some pointers. From what they told me, 11 Mirrors is the place to stay if you’re looking for a conveniently located design hotel (the first and – so far – only one of its kind in Kyiv); Alpha Vita is another nice option. If you’re looking for accommodation that is a little friendlier to your budget, check out Dream House Hostel – I’ve been to their adjoining cafe/bar myself and if the rooms are half as cozy and cute, you’ll be in good hands.
Tips & Tricks
- Many shops and cafes (and sometimes, museums!) only open at noon, so take your time in the mornings to stroll around the city before planning anything else.
- Make sure to absolutely try the cakes – yes, they’re a bit heavy on the calories, but trust me: the former Soviet Union is the corner of the Earth is where the world’s best cake bakers come from. My recommendations would be medovik (honey cake) or Napoleon.
- Make your afternoon cafe stop perfect and order one of the many teas to go along with your cake. Teas are usually made with fresh ingredients and honey and come in huge quantities.
- Have a look at the beautiful metro system – it’s one of the deepest and prettiest in the world. To get a good sense of just how far down the metro reaches, go to the Arsenal station; for the most beautiful one, check out Zoloty Vorota.
- If you’re looking for great souvenirs, the Awesome Kyiv or Awesome Ukraine books might be for you. They point out characteristics and the country in a very straight-forward and interesting way.
- Another good idea for a souvenir is to buy local beer – Lvivske is a popular brand. Since the war, they have made special editions featuring Obama and Merkel, with what some might call slightly passive-aggressive description texts. Not only will you get a taste of local breweries, but of the current political mindset (read: exasperation) as well.
- If you can, avoid using Ukraine International Air when you go there – while their flights are usually smooth and safe, their ground service and customer management is disastrous. I have yet to take one single flight with them that is not overbooked (meaning that I actually didn’t get to catch it at all, but was booked a seat on the day after) or hopelessly delayed. There are easier ways to get to Kyiv – use them.
- This last one is not so much a tip than a note: Kyiv can be spelled Kiev or Kyiv; both are correct. Kyiv is the Ukrainian transliteration, while Kiev is the Russian one, so depending on which word you use in writing and who you are writing to, you can show a strong political message. Kiev is still internationally more in use, although since Euromaidan, there has been a big movement to make Kyiv the universally accepted version.