In October 2017 I visited the site of the most infamous nuclear power disaster in world history, the Chernobyl Power Plant in Ukraine (formerly part of the Soviet Union). This included the famous ghost city of Pripyat and other sites within a 30 kilometer exclusion zone that is permanently off-limits for most people.
Over the last decade Chernobyl has emerged as a disaster tourism destination, with around 20,000 people visiting per year. It is a very doable visit, but there aren’t many good resources for planning a trip. This post is about the logistics you need to plan and what you can expect to experience if you visit. At the end there are more resources for you to learn about the history of Chernobyl and tourism there.
How to do it
Chernobyl tours depart from Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv (or Kiev), a two hour drive away. It will be at least 10-12 hours for a day trip, so plan to spend the night in Kyiv before and after your tour. It is a beautiful and relatively undiscovered city that is worth a few days itself.
Tour group required
Visiting the exclusion zone is regulated by the government and can only be done with a licensed tour group. Be sure to book at least 30 days in advance so the agency has time to file the required paperwork for you. There are several companies to choose from. I used SoloEast, one of the oldest Chernobyl tour companies, and was very happy with the entire experience.
My tour was a small group of about ten people in a comfortable mini-bus. It was good size for maintaining an intimate feeling, getting in out and of sites easily, and having some flexibility to follow people’s interests. There are also large motor-coach tours with 30-plus people, but those looked to be much less enjoyable. Do your research, and read reviews on sites like TripAdvisor.
Consider an overnight tour
I took a two-day tour staying overnight in the exclusion zone, and was very glad I did it. We saw more sights, were able to go at a leisurely pace, and had the flexibility to cater the itinerary to the group’s taste. This included three separate visits to Pripyat and lunch at the actual Chernobyl Power Plant canteen serving the workers who monitoring and dismantling the complex.
More on staying overnight in the exclusion zone below. Be sure to confirm your tour booking a week or so in advance. Longer tours are available for research and educational trips. Smaller groups can book private tours. The tour companies can talk to you about specific needs and interests. Most companies are responsive via email.
Don’t forget your passport
Government and military authorities will check your passport and the tour company’s paperwork very carefully. Be sure to triple check your passport number when booking your tour, and keep your passport on you at all times. If your passport number doesn’t match or you forget it, you will not be permitted inside the exclusion zone. And you will be left waiting at the checkpoint for 8-10 hours until your group finishes its tour.
When to go
Spring and autumn are the high seasons for visiting Chernobyl spending several hours hiking around outside. Ukraine has hot, humid summers and cold winters. I was there in late October, and the autumn foliage was beautiful. Temperatures were about 50F during the day, which made for a nice, cool hike. Since this is the normal shoulder season for travel, you’ll get better deals on flights and hotels. However, on the weekends the main sites and the cafe can get quite busy.
A two-day tour will likely be Friday-Saturday or Sunday-Monday, giving you a less-busy weekday to explore the more popular sites. On a Saturday in October I saw at least 5-6 other small groups and 3-4 large groups on big buses.
What you will see
All tours will likely stop at the top 3 destinations in the exclusion zone:
1. Pripyat: The famous ghost city with the apartment blocks, amusement park, schools, etc. Most of the photos you see online come from Pripyat. You will likely see the spots of the most famous photos like the hospital, gas masks in the school, and amusement park. Many of these scenes have been staged, but there are still opportunities to find spots that are relatively undisturbed.
2. Chernobyl Town: The small town that is still inhabited by a couple thousand people working in the exclusion zone doing cleanup and research. Radiation safety rules require two-week rotations inside and outside the zone. Chernobyl town has a cafe and small hotel, a couple of hostels, and a small convenience store. Your tour will stop here for lunch and any other meals included on the trip.
3. Chernobyl Power Plant: All tours let you stand outside the plant’s walls for a brief visit to the New Safe Confinement building that was constructed in 2016 to cover the destroyed reactor, and eventually allow for its dismantling. Depending on your tour, you might have lunch in the canteen serving the plant’s workers, especially on a two-day tour. It’s a traditional Ukrainian meal with pork and borscht.
Depending the length of your tour, the interests of the group, etc. – you might get to see a few additional sites. These sites seem to be less visited and closer to the state it was left when area was evacuated.
Duga-3 radar array: A giant, horizon-dominating metal structure that was a long-distance radar receiver for detecting nuclear missiles coming from the US. Depending on your guide, you can climb the array and explore the adjoining control room and other Soviet military facilities.
Cooling Towers: Two of the large, distinctive nuclear towers were under construction at the time of the disaster. Your tour might visit the larger one, especially on a longer tour.
Jupiter Factory: The former electronics factory on the edge of Pripyat is relatively less disturbed and looted than most of the city. In addition to many post-apocalyptic industrial buildings, there are also many military and industrial vehicles.
Going inside the buildings
It is officially illegal to go inside the buildings in Pripyat or any of the other abandoned sites. However, it seems to be widely done. If this is important to you, correspond with your tour company before booking. Also try to book with a small group of 10-12 people. The giant motor coaches with 30 people have less flexibility for getting off the beaten path (yes, there is a beaten path, even in Chernobyl!).
After more than 30 years of being reclaimed by nature, many buildings are starting to collapse and/or become too unstable to enter. An experienced guide will know where to go and where to avoid. However, always be careful where you step and test any precarious-looking floor boards before putting your full weight on them. There is some speculation that in another 5-10 years most of the buildings will be too dangerous to go inside.
The tallest apartment blocks in Pripyat are about 16 stories tall. It’s worth the climb to the top for the views of the reactor’s New Safe Confinement building, the Duga-3 radar array, and the surrounding forests. Keep in mind that these abandoned buildings do not have safety railings around the roofs. There are many dangerous things like open elevator shafts, holes in the floors, and collapsing stairs.
The Radioactive Puppies
As nature reclaims the exclusion zone, wildlife is flourishing. Deer, foxes, bears, etc. Are all thriving in the zone. Recently the Internet freaked out about the radioactive puppies of Chernobyl, a semi-wild population of dogs that have at least some level of radiation. They likely pick it up in their fur by rolling in contaminated soil.
The dogs hang out around Chernobyl Town, the hotel/cafe, and most of the military checkpoints. Many have ID tags in their ears, so I assume researchers are monitoring them. The soldiers and locals didn’t hesitate to pet the dogs, and neither did I!
Gear and safety
Prepare like you are doing on an all-day hike. Long sleeve shirt and long pants are required by government regulations. Layers are helpful in cooler weather – even if the temperatures are low you will do a lot of climbing and get hot. Wear shoes suitable for climbing over broken glass, uneven terrain, etc. I did it in a pair of Clark’s desert boots that were not proper hiking boots, but still performed quite well. Use sunscreen and bug spray in warm weather.
Bring a day pack with water, snacks, extra camera batteries, and a backup phone battery. A small first aid kit for cuts and scrapes is a good idea, as is making sure your tetanus vaccination is current. Lunch could be anywhere between 11am and 2pm, as the itinerary and availability of cafe seating varies greatly. Your guides will drive you between sites, and you’ll be out of the bus anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours at a time.
Your tour will probably stop at a convenience store on the way out of Kyiv for one last chance at modern toilets and snacks.
All of the places you will visit have been cleaned and re-mediated to the point where radiation is relatively low. The ambient background radiation level is actually lower than the main square in Kyiv’s city center. Stay with your guide on the main paths, avoid sitting or leaning on anything (including the ground), and you will be fine. There are many “hot spots” with higher levels of radiation that are well marked with warning signs.
You will pass through a radiation detector when leaving the 10km and 30km checkpoints. If you’ve followed instructions you will have no problem passing the check. At worst you might need to clean dust/debris off your clothes if a higher level is detected. In rare cases an article of clothing may have to be left behind. Your guide will carry a Geiger counter, and you can rent your own for around $20.
Your total radiation exposure is estimated to be equivalent to one or town trans-Atlantic plane flights. Do you let fear of radiation keep you from flying?
Internet, with patience
Yes, you can Tweet from inside a radioactive wasteland, but photos will take a very long time to upload, if at all. Much of the exclusion zone has mobile coverage in the areas you will be visiting, though there are many gaps. Ukraine on the whole is still on 3G speeds as of 2017. WiFi speeds are also generally slow.
There is WiFi at the cafe in Chernobyl town where most visitors stop for lunch. Your tour van or bus might have WiFi when it’s in an area with decent mobile coverage. If you stay overnight there’s a good chance your lodging will have WiFi, though it will be slow.
There are limitless opportunities for amazing shots. This was one of the few times in recent years when I wished I still carried something other than a phone camera. With the limited internet situation, you will not be able to mass upload photos to the cloud or Internet until you are back in Kyiv. Bring back-up media if are concerned about losing data on your camera.
Be prepared to be without modern toilets for several hours. Modest toilets are available at the checkpoints, at the cafe in Chernobyl town, and at your lodging if you stay overnight. The abandoned city of Pripyat has two very primitive outhouses available near the entrance. Bring your own paper. Be OK with going in the woods.
Chernobyl town has a modest hotel with a cafe, plus a couple of hostels. Your tour company should make all of the arrangements and payments. I visited during the high season, so a hostel was the only available option. Most lodging is double, so you will likely have a roommate if traveling solo. If staying in a hostel, come prepared with your own soap, travel towel, toilet paper, etc. – just in case.
Bring a small bag or day pack suitable for a couple hours away from the tour van. When staying overnight, a medium-sized backpack should also be OK. Pack super light. Suitcases will be cumbersome in a small group tour, and may not be allowed by your tour company. Leave them with your hotel in Kyiv.
Food and booze. All food and beverages are brought in from outside the exclusion zone, and you are not allowed to eat any berries or produce growing there. The cafe at the hotel has a small bar. If you are staying at a hostel, the town’s one convenience store has a small selection of snacks, bottled water, beer, and vodka. Bring cash Hryvnia, as neither place is likely to take credit cards. There is a curfew of about 8:00 pm, and tourists are never allowed to walk around the town without their guide. Make sure you buy provisions before curfew.
“Dark tourism” or “disaster tourism” comes with some ethical questions that you should consider. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/features/is-dark-tourism-ok-chernobyl-pripyat-disaster-sites/. In the case of Chernobyl, many people died in the disaster and years after. Tens of thousands were displaced. The long-term health effects continue to impact the people of the surrounding area, including the capital of Kyiv. Do not take the trip lightly.
My personal experience was that many of large abandoned sites had a reverent or almost sacred feeling. The zone is generally very silent, adding to the somber, spiritual vibe.
A few hundred people have returned to their villages and farms in the exclusion zone. They are primarily elderly people who did not adjust well to being resettled in cities and want to live out their days in their family homes. They are referred to as self-settlers or re-settlers. The government tolerates this, and provides them some basic services like a pension and a weekly mobile market to buy supplies and groceries. However, they live very isolated lives far from their families. Most re-settlers are doing some farming or gardening to supplement what their pensions and family members in Kyiv can provide.
My tour visited an elderly woman living alone in a remote area of the exclusion zone. While the situation seems ripe for exploitation, our guide knew the woman personally. We all chipped in a few dollars to purchase some staples like sugar and flour to bring to her. She was delighted to see us and brought out a bottles of homemade pickles and her own homemade, honey-infused vodka. It was delicious! (But keep in mind it is technically against the rules to eat or drink anything produced inside the one) She was pleased to have visitors since her family wasn’t due to visit again for several weeks.
Resources and Information
McClatchy DC: Ruined Chernobyl nuclear plant will remain a threat for 3,000 years (4/24/2016)
By former KC Star journalist Matt Schofield.
Movies and documentaries
The Babushkas of Chernobyl, documentary about the women who have moved back into the exclusion zone to live out their days in their old villages and farms.
Chernobyl’s Cafe, documentary about the small cafe and hotel that recently opened to serve the military, cleanup workers, scientists, and tourists in the zone.
The Chernobyl Diaries, an awesomely bad horror movie about tourists stranded overnight in the exclusion zone.
I made this playlist of YouTube videos with info about visiting, about the nuclear accident, etc.