Author’s Note: I visited Kiev months before Covid hit, I’m just getting around to posting it now. As is my norm, I write the posts shortly after returning, and then procrastinate for a range of 2-18 months before going through my photos. Sorry, not sorry. By now, most of you know how much I love travel and adventure. Until Covid-19 hit, living in England has provided us with an easy springboard to the rest of Europe, particularly since we live about 50 minutes from London Stansted airport. From London Stansted, there are so many cheap (as in under $100 roundtrip) flights on Ryanair and EasyJet to mainland Europe. Having access to affordable travel makes me consider places I never knew I wanted to travel to, and lucky for me, my husband goes along with it! I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that food also plays a role in where we travel to. After visiting Krakow, Poland, we fell in love with Polish food – pierogies, dumplings, and comfort foods like hearty soups and potato pancakes with stew. We also had amazing food in Riga, Latvia (omg the best market ever!)- that pretty much sealed the deal. Eastern Europe has some incredible, affordable, food! And we like to eat, so… I read that the Ukraine not only has amazing food, but the city is relatively affordable compared to the rest of Europe. Thus began my fascination with planning a trip to Kiev. When I found tickets for $50 roundtrip, the plan became a reality! Little did we know, we’d be traveling there the same week the “collusion” story broke. So many opportunities to make a joke about with the agent at customs, but my better judgment told me not to.
My only regret from my trip to Kiev, is I needed one more full day there. If I had to do it over again, I would’ve taken an extra day or waited until the flight schedule matched my travel needs. The flight schedule from London Stansted was somewhat limited, and I didn’t have choices for flight times. I had Monday off from work, so I was trying to maximize my three day weekend without taking an additional day off. I also wanted to travel to Kiev before it got too cold; I figure any country that used to be part of the Soviet Union, is probably not the best place to travel in the winter. We arrived in Kiev in early afternoon on a Saturday, and left on Monday, early in the afternoon. This meant we only had one full day in Kiev; as a result, we didn’t get to do the day trip to Chernobyl (which takes about 12 hours), which is why I wished we had another day. At the time of booking, I thought I’d be ok with skipping this attraction, especially since I had concerns about the safety. However, I’ve since watched the HBO mini-series, Chernobyl, and I’m 100% fascinated by the disaster and the response from the now defunct Soviet Union. Now I’m wishing we had the time to go to Priypat; just something to consider if you’re planning a trip to Kiev, as Chernobyl is only about 60 miles away! I thought I would be ok with skipping it for the sake of time, but if I had to do it over again,I would’ve made it a priority. OH, and definitely watch the Chernobyl miniseries- it’s so informative and sucks you right in! Spoiler alert: there’s a scene with the locals’ pets; if you’re an animal lover like me, do yourself a favor and DON’T watch that part. My only criticism about the mini-series is they used British actors instead of Ukrainian and Russian. Couldn’t they have at least attempted Eastern European accents? I did love that the actor who played Layne in Mad Men, was in Chernobyl, so cheers to that. But still, give me the Russian accents!
My immediate impression upon arriving in Kiev, was how completely foreign I felt. Throughout the whole weekend, we only met/saw/heard one other American (which was completely refreshing at the same time). I’m totally ok with that; I like to go to new places to learn about other cultures and experience things that are foreign to me. However, I wasn’t prepared for how different it would feel, simply because everything is written in the Cyrillic Alphabet. This is not a criticism, just an observation. Kiev could have been any big city, but not being able to even attempt decoding what is written was a new feeling. I’m used to seeing foreign languages on signs and attempting to interpret them, but when you see letters and you have no idea what the letter is even named? That was a new experience for me; in Greece things are often written in English as well, and I do have some knowledge of the Greek alphabet. This was completely foreign – which was also very exciting! I also don’t look like I fit in; Eastern European women have gorgeous porcelain skin, beautiful eyes, and perfect bone structure. So short and stout, freckled me, could not pass as Ukrainian. I hate to perpetuate stereotypes, but the women are very beautiful.
Ukrainians are also very friendly, and spoke a good deal of English, making it easier for us to order at restaurants and ask questions. Most places had either picture menus, or English menus. And if they didn’t – we just guessed and it all ended up being delicious. Please don’t let the language barrier/alphabet be a dealbreaker; it most definitely isn’t one! Here’s another interesting observation: even though it was in the mid 60s and sunny that weekend, many people were bundled up in winter coats and leather jackets. I saw more fur coats there than I’ve ever seen in my life – and it was a sunny, fall weekend! Surely it gets cold for real there? I mean, the Ukraine was once part of the Soviet Union; a country not exactly known for the weather. This was confusing to me, but we were happy to enjoy the weather, even if the locals were dressed for a blizzard. After all, Brits put their convertible top down, and break out the tank tops when the weather hits 50, with or without sun!
We arrived at Kyiv Boryspil airport in early afternoon. The Ukraine is NOT part of our Vodafone roaming plan, which covers almost all of Europe. We bought a cheap SIM card in the airport to use for navigation. We paid around $10 for a couple GB of data which was all we needed for a weekend trip. After that, we took a taxi from the airport to city center; I can’t remember the exact cost, but it was pretty reasonable considering how far it was. The ride from airport really highlighted what a large city Kiev truly is! Kiev is the capital of the Ukraine, and has almost 3 million people. A former Soviet city, both Ukrainian and Russian is widely spoken in the city. We arrived at the city center, and had slight difficulty finding our place, because the entrance was through a restaurant. We stayed at the City Apartments, which were extremely cheap. Despite the name apartment, it was just a single room with a bathroom. Our room was clean, but the smoke from other rooms nearby seemed to come in to our room. The location was perfect; right on a large square and near the metro. The Independence Monument is one of the first things you see when you exited our apartment.
The first thing we did, was set out for some food! I was so excited to have Ukrainian food, as the food in Eastern Europe is always so good. We didn’t have much of a game plan, and really just wandered looking for a place. It took too long to find a lunch place, as we weren’t in a touristy area. Eventually, we stumbled upon a cafeteria style fast food Ukrainian restaurant, called Puzata Hata . I’m pretty sure this place was the Ukrainian equivalent of Golden Corral, but I was hungry and eager for local food. Nothing was in English, so we’d just point at things that interested us. I’m not sure what we ate, but it was all really good! We tried a soup, a chicken dish, and some dumplings. The food was really cheap too. After that, we explored the city without much of a plan other than seeing a bunch of the magnificent Orthodox Cathedrals. We wandered past the University of Kyiv and saw the Red University Building, which is a symbol of the University and higher learning. There were so many memorials and statues, that I wish I could’ve translated to learn more about them.
The first Cathedral we stopped at was St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral (Vladamir). Isn’t Vlad such a Russian name? No surprise there’s a Cathedral named after him. I wish we could’ve gone inside because the outstanding is absolutely incredible and so vibrant. Compared to some other Cathedrals I’ve visited in Europe, it’s relatively new. It was built in 1852 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the baptisms of Kievans. The Church was closed at one point and became a museum. After World War II it was reopened; at one time, it was the only Orthodox Church in the USSR that tourists could enter. The bright yellow color makes it unlike any cathedral I’ve ever seen.
After visiting St. Volodymyr’s, we set out for St. Sophia’s Cathedral. The city is fairly spread out, and I’m not sure we did the best job planning, but we did see a lot! I had a hard time getting pictures of St. Sophia’s from the main square. First, it was hard to fit in. Then, I struggled to take a photo that wasn’t crooked. I’m by no means a professional and have had zero training; I’m just out there having fun and taking pictures of beautiful buildings. St. Sophia’s was almost closing by the time we arrived, and we only had time to do one thing, so we choose to buy a ticket for the tower instead of going inside. I’m glad we had the chance to get a ticket for the tower because the views (and photos) were stunning! We caught sunset as well, which added to the beauty. There are also amazing views of St. Michael’s Monastery, from the tower. I highly recommend the tower climb because the photos you get are incredible. Of all the Orthodox Cathedrals in Kiev, St. Sophia was my favorite.
Since St. Michael’s Monastery is close to St. Sophia’s we headed there before finding a place for dinner. The Monastery grounds are beautiful, and the Cathedral is the most stunning shade of blue! We could hear singing and music inside, so we were hesitant to peek in. However, we walked around the grounds and attempted to take photos in the dark. I had hoped to go back in daylight but never made it; if I return to Kiev, I’d like to go back and also go inside. The color on the outside was just stunning, even in the dark.
All that walking had worked up an appetite, and we were excited for some authentic Ukrainian food. I’ve never been disappointed by Eastern European food; it’s a lot of flavor and also comfort food. We were eager to try some local dishes, so we headed to Korchma Taras Bulba, which was not far from where we were staying and they had good reviews. I later learned this place was a chain, but that didn’t take away from the experience. The setup is designed to look rustic and traditional, complete with dancing and singing wait staff in Ukrainian garb. They have quite a variety on the menu and the prices are quite inexpensive. I had stuffed cabbage and vareniki, which is a lot like a pierogie. The vareniki was sweet and almost dessert like; it was so good I wanted to order more! You need to order this if you go! We were not only happy with our food, but pleased with the whole experience. I’d definitely recommend this place.
Sunday was our only “full day” in Kiev, unencumbered with travel. Everything we were doing was pretty spread out so we decided to take a bus to our first stop. I’m not sure what happened because we were fairly certain we were reading the bus schedule correctly, but the bus never came. After wasting 30 minutes, we set out to walk to the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, or Lavra Caves. On the way we passed a memorial to the Ukrainian uprising (or Euromaidan) that took place in 2013-2014. The protests began in November 2013, sparked by the Ukrainian governments decision to keep ties with Russia close instead of joining the European Union. Honestly, I don’t know enough about this event, and wasn’t able to learn as much as I’d liked due to limited English at the memorial. I don’t want to share the wrong information, so check it out if you’re in Kiev; it’s right near Independence Square.
After a brief stop at the memorial, we walked to the Lavra Cave complex, enjoying the sunshine (something we don’t get much of in England). I’m honestly not really sure what the whole site was, but it was pretty incredible! I’ve never seen so many gold domed roofs, a striking contrast to the bright white buildings. The Monastery Complex is rather large, and there was an outdoor market going on while we were there (with incredible Ukrainian Donuts for the equivalent of 10 cents each!) It is easy to spend several hours wandering the complex and taking pictures. We decided to go in the caves, a decision I later regretted because I get extremely claustrophobic. The admission is fairly cheap, and you also buy a candle to see in the dark. Women need to have heads covered and they sell coverings if you don’t have a scarf or bandana. For me, there was too much open flame from the candles in too close a space! I kept worrying my hair would catch on fire, so we didn’t stay in the caves long. It was also so crowded it was hard to see the shrines and catacombs. We did go inside one of the Cathedrals and it was stunning on the inside, with so much gold! It’s definitely worth going in.
After spending the morning at the Lavra Caves, we headed to a nearby park. The highlight of the park is the large Statue to the Motherland, where there is a large tribute to Mother Russia. Within the park were museums, the Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War and the Local Conflicts Museum. I’m honestly a big history nerd and would’ve loved the chance to go inside, but we had other plans and my husband wasn’t quite as interested. Within the park, there were old Soviet tanks and military trucks on display, which was interesting. We enjoyed the views from the park, and as it was close to the Lavra Caves it made sense to visit. However, if you are short on time, this could be skipped. On the walk, we spotted Mariyinsky Palace, which was quite beautiful. We didn’t realize what it was at first, and thought we might be able to visit. We learned it was the official residence of the President of the Ukraine; not a place we could just peek inside for a quick visit. Maybe next time!
As mentioned, we spent ALOT of time walking. We did end up hopping in a cab at one point to get closer to our next stop, St. Andrew’s. I’m 99.9% sure we were ripped off because we were told one price when we hopped in the cab, and then another price when it came time to pay. He also didn’t have a meter running, so that’s our bad. It honestly wasn’t a crazy price; things are much cheaper in the Ukraine, and we didn’t feel like arguing, but just be careful when taking a taxi! I much prefer Uber for this reason, but there’s another story about that later. We were dropped off in town and had a late lunch, which was overpriced and underwhelming, so I won’t even comment on it. After that we headed to the bottom of St. Andrew’s Street, or Andriyivski Uzviz. This area of Kiev is often to compared to the Montmartre District of Paris due to the steep cobbled street and all the artisan shops along the hill. I wish I had the chance to see more of the street and shops, but it was wall to wall people walking up the street as there was a festival going on. We were greeted with a beautiful view of St. Andrew’s at the top. All around the Cathedral were art vendors, and we spent quite some time admiring their work. You are also treated to a nice overlook of the city from up on the hall. We wandered around the hilltop a bit, before heading to the festival for a bit. I’d definitely head up St. Andrew’s if you’re in Kiev! For our last big meal in Kiev, we actually went to an Italian restaurant that was pretty good. I could eat Eastern Europe food all day, but my husband was craving something different and I was happy to oblige.
Our last morning in Kiev was rushed, but worth it. We had just enough time to make it to the Chornobyl Museum when they open, and then rush back to the apartment to grab our things and head to the airport. It was easy to the take the metro to the museum. However, we only had around an hour, which was not enough time. The story of the disaster at Chernobyl was fascinating, and getting to see and learn about the real people who tried to save others was so interesting! This museum appeared to present the facts, which is somewhat different than the Soviet narrative as the disaster unfolded (which included denial, scapegoating, etc). This museum definitely held our interest; at one point we decided to “divide and conquer”. We each go to separate displays, read what we could, listen to the audio guide, and then regroup to give each other 30 second summaries. There was no way we could fully absorb everything in the short amount of time. Between the audio guides, and the translations on items, English only speakers have no problem learning quite a bit in this museum. As mentioned, our visit to Kiev didn’t allow enough time to take the day trip to Chornobyl and Pripyat, but this museum helped make up for it. Definitely visit if you have time; it’ll make you want to learn more about the disaster! I could have easily spent 3 or more hours there – you get sucked in learning about the people involved, especially the heroes who tried to save the plant.
Here’s a tip…. research the airports in cities you’ve never been to. We took an uber to the airport; our driver was very friendly and polite, but was unaware of the best way to the airport. We ended up in so much traffic! (Not that researching the airport could prevent that). We cut it close, arriving to the airport about an hour before our flight (I like to get there two hours early at least, and panic about missing my flight if we dont’!) When we arrived his Uber app said our payment didn’t go through. We didn’t receive a notification about successful payment on our end. We ended up having to pay him cash because it wasn’t working, but sure enough the charges went through the next day. We ended up paying twice for the same cab ride, and was never able to resolve it. As it turns out, we were also dropped off at the wrong terminals. The multiple terminals are also far apart, and there was no time to wait for the next shuttle, which was coming in 20-30 minutes. We ended up running a mile to the next terminal, with our bags, and made it safely to our flight. From now on I will research the airport and see if they are spread out. Some airports have different terminals for the discount airlines. Kiev was definitely an experience, and a city you should consider if you’ve been to the major cities in Europe and you’re looking for a unique city to visit.