I visited Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine in October 2017 as part of a visit to the Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zone. I had little prior knowledge about it, but was pleasantly surprised to discover a beautiful city that I hope to someday return to for a proper exploration.
Kyiv is a beautiful city. It’s very walkable. The people are warm and welcoming. Ukraine is still a developing democracy, and the people seemed to determined to persist despite some big challenges. Here are the highlights of my experience in the city. Some of the better city guides are linked below.
The square or maidan is the main center of the city, and the site of two important series of protests where Ukrainians successfully acted to assert their desire for democracy and anti-corruption in the post-Soviet era. The first was the Orange Revolution in 2004. The second was the Euromaidan movement in 2014-15. The most recent one brought down the corrupt government, but resulted in 100-plus civilian deaths. Be sure to take some time understand the importance of Euromaidan and the people’s desire for closer ties to Europe. Check out the series of small memorials along Heroyiv Nebesnoyi Sotni Alley, where the Heavenly Hundred where shot from the bridge above.
Murals and street art.
Street art and large-scale murals are very popular in Kyiv. This app tracks the pieces and provides information about the artwork and the artist. The largest murals are on the left bank, across the Dnipro River from the city center, on the sides of the old Communist high rise apartment blocks. Several are wishing walking distance of 2-3 Metro red line stations.
Underground pedestrian passages and shopping
Many major street intersections have underground pedestrian passages for crossing the street. These underground areas have small shops, coffee stands, and even food courts. They seem very popular for locals running errands on their daily commutes. In can be disorienting and confusing to figure out which exit to use to emerge on the correct side of the street, but after some trial and error it becomes easier.
The Left Bank
Across the Dnipro River from the city center the Left Bank doesn’t have any traditional tourist sites or destinations. However, it is a good opportunity to see how many residents live the old Communist “micro-districts” of high rise apartment blocks, as well as an increasing number of new luxury high rises. Take the Metro red line out a few stops past the river and walk around. You’ll get a preview on the taxi ride in from the airport.
I stayed in this old Soviet hotel with great Communist-era architecture. While the interior is a bit dated, it’s well-appointed and the service is good. Most rooms have balconies. Ask for an upper floor with view of the river. The restaurant doubles as a nightclub, and can be loud if your room is on a lower floor. There is a good continental breakfast. Expect to pay around $50/night. It’s about a 35 minute walk from Independence Square.
Other places to walk
An old bridge over the Dnipro has been re-purposed as a pedestrian bridge, which is a good place for views of the river and city. There are many trails to walk on the hillside between the city and the river.
Food and Drink
English menus seem to be fairly common. Restaurant service is very European – severs will leave you alone. You’ll need to wave them over if you need something, especially the check.
Syndicate Brewery has excellent beer and an excellent burnt end burger that rivals KC BBQ. Patrick Pub has a big range of traditional and modern food, including good seafood.
Silpo is a local supermarket chain that is totally modern and has good options prepared sandwiches and other things to go.
The metro is fast, safe, and convenient. It has classic soviet subway cars, and some stations are impressive works of art and architecture. It still uses old plastic subways tokens for €5 per trip. It’s easiest to buy them from the ticket counter, but self-service machines are available and somewhat usable. The new contactless card requires purchasing from a ticket booth where no English is spoken. Signage includes the Roman spelling of stations, and the on-board announcements are in both Ukrainian and English.
Taxi drivers can be aggressive, especially exiting the airport. Uber works really well, especially since you and the driver unlikely to speak the same language. UberX tends to be a little rough around the edges. It’s worth spending a little bit more on UberSelect, especially since the exchange is so favorable.
The airport is a 30-45 minute Uber rider for ₴350 (€10 or $12). Uber pickup – exit the terminal, turn right, and way a few hundred feet to the entrance/exit to the surface parking lot outside the airport terminal building.
There are three mobile networks selling SIM cards at arrivals (3G only). Turn left after leaving baggage claim and look along the back wall. ATM machine is opposite.
English is generally not spoken. As a former part of the Soviet Union, Russian is widely spoken. However, the government is now trying to promote Ukrainian. So language is a bit of a touchy subject. The culturally appropriate thing seems to be to start out with Ukrainian and let the locals choose which language to continue.
Both Ukrainian and Russian use the Cyrillic alphabet, not the Roman alphabet of English and most European languages. Some signs have Roman transliterations, but it helps to spend time in advance learning the basics of the Cyrillic alphabet so you can decode street signs and such. Use Google Translate to look up some basic phrases like “hello, thank you, toilet”, etc. and save them as favorites. You can also download the Russian and Ukrainian languages for offline translation.
Ukraine is involved in an ongoing conflict with Russia in the eastern part fo the country, but the danger is far from Kyiv. There is a very visible presence of police and military around the city, but they are generally low-key about it. Military recruitment posters were common throughout the city. Military-style fashion is popular with a lot of guys, so it looks like there are a lot more police and soldiers walking around than there really are.
There were some peaceful anti-corruption demonstrations happening while I was there, but the only worry they caused was traffic congestion due to police cordon around the area.
Crime seems very low. Many people, including families, were hanging out in dimly lit parks well into the night.
Mobile data is still 3G across the whole country. Hotel and other public WiFi can be very spotty. Be sure to download an offline map of the city.
The local currency is the Hryvnia (₴ or UAH) and the exchange rate is very favorable to American and Western European visitors.