🇱🇻Visiting Riga, Lativa

I visited Riga, Latvia in October 2017 as part of a visit to the Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zone. I discovered a beautiful city that I would love to return to and explore more, along with the rest of the Baltic states.

📸 More photos in this gallery.

Riga Cathedral

Riga is small, walkable city with a well persevered Gothic Old Town surrounded by a river and a canal ring with a string of lovely parks. Most of the sights and destinations are within walking distance of Old Town. 

The city is full of architecture, culture, parks, nightlife, and history. It has a bit of a reputation for stag and hen party trips from the UK, but overall is very laid back. 

Safety is not an issue. Riga is clean, safe, and family-friendly. The people are friendly and helpful, if a bit shy when sober.

Canal ring around Old Town

Riga is an accessible place to start if it’s your first time in the former Soviet Union or a Soviet satellite country. The culture, cityscape, and vibes are very European – but with a US Midwestern feel. The Occupation Museum near the canal is a great way to learn about life under the Soviets, and the Nazis before them.

Further afield, the Centrs is surrounded by old Soviet-style apartment blocks that Riga is now reclaiming and modernizing

Monument to Russian poet Alexander Pushkin in one of the canal-side parks.

Art Deco

Art Deco Museum

Just outside the Old Town is the newer Centrs district and the Art Deco District. Riga is known for having the world’s largest collection of buildings in this style. The Art Deco museum is a great small museum worth a visit to learn more about the city’s architecture.

View from Old town across the river to western Riga

Food and Drink

Lido Latvian restaurant has several locations around the city, including the Old Town. Authentic local food served cafeteria-style. Kitschy atmosphere but popular with the locals. Great value. 

Black Balsam is the Latvian liquor. It’s super bitter and super strong, but I did enjoy the version with black current. 

Riga Central Market
The largest public market in Europe is an old Nazi-era complex of Zeppelin airship hangers that can easily take up a full day’s worth of wandering around. The buildings are stunning and the number of vendors is enormous.

Riga Central Market (Google Street View)

Each hanger is devoted to a different food (meat, veggies, fish, etc.). There is a maze of merchandise stalls surrounding the hangers, including a big section selling second-hand Soviet kitsch. Many of the farmers and smaller food stall vendors speak limited English, but pointing and gestures will get you by.


More things to see and do

Easy Wine and Easy Beer
Self-serve bars for sampling many local, European, and international beers and wines.

SemeraH Hotel Metropole and De Commerce Gastro Pub
Hotel and pub near in the Old Town

Taverna Kirbis (Pumpkin) 
In the vegetable and produce hall.

Narvesen
Convenience store chain

The Armoury
Bar in the Old Town, with guns.

Omas Briljanta Istaba
Bar, live music, and food in the Old town

Cafe Britt Shop
Coffee in the Art Deco district

Gan Bei
Japanese restaurant in the T/C Gallerija Centrs shopping mall

Caffeine
Coffee in Centrs.

Tiger
Gift shop in Centrs.

Aspara Tea House
Lovely little place in the park on the south end of the canal.

 

One of the many, many small parks around the city

Resources


Money, Language, Transport

Latvia is on the euro, but prices are much lower than the average European city.

English is widely spoken. Learn a few key phrases in Latvian to be respectful of the locals.

Most of the things for visitors are within walking distance of Old Town or Centrs districts. Buses, trams, and bike share are readily available. The airport small and well-designed, close to the city. Taxify is the most common taxi and ride share app.

 Trams
Bike share at the Cathedral

🇩🇪 Visiting Berlin

Brandenberg Gate

📸 More photos in the Berlin Gallery

I spent a week in Berlin in late October 2017 and quickly realized I should have visited much sooner! It’s a great city with lots to do but a laid back vibe and a very diverse, tolerant populace. My visit coincided with record-breaking wind storms that made it difficult to experience the famous beer gardens, parks, and outdoor markets – so I definitely want to return in the summer.

I based myself at Hotel Jurine on the western edge of Prenzlaurberg in former East Berlin. It’s a small, family-owned hotel tucked into a residential neighborhood next to a Lidl grocery store (a corporate cousin of Aldi). Several bars, restaurants, and REWE supermarket are to the north and east. Several trams and U-Bahn trains are nearby, as is Maurpark – a large public park and weekend market where the Berlin Wall used to be. The Brandenburg Gate is 25 minutes by public transport or 15 minutes to bike.

Do These Things

Stasi Museum East Germany’s Stasi secret police was among the most brutal and repressive of the Communist countries. The headquarters complex is now a museum explaining one histories most extensive surveillance states. The tram ride there includes typical examples of the German version of Soviet apartment blocks.

DDR Museum Experience life in East Germany with exhibits about culture, work, home, technology, and more. Walk through a typical East German apartment. This was super packed with tourists when I visited, but it was worth it.

Templehofer Feld The former Templehof Airport is now a giant public park where you can roam around the old runways. The old terminal building is an impressive example of 1930s Modernist and Nazi architecture. Many food and drink vendors are available when the weather is nice. In 2017 a large section of the tarmac was being fenced off to provide modular, temporary housing for some of the million-plus Syrian refugees welcomed into Germany recently.

Reichstag The building housing the Bundestag (German Parliament) was burned during WWII and sat abandoned for decades behind the Berlin Wall. Now it features a striking modern glass dome above the restored historic building. You can literally look down on the parliamentary chamber and keep an on eye on the politicians. Beside being one of the world’s most meaningful monuments to democracy, the dome and roof have great views over the city places like the Brandenburg Gate, Tiergarten Park, and Spree River.

Markets like Wochenmarkt Winterfeldtplatz Local Saturday market in Shoneberg. There are many flea markets (flohmarkt) and weekly food markets (wochenmarkt) across the city, with the one at Mauerpark the most varied and well-known. They are great places to buy things as varied as clothing, take-out food, souvenirs and fresh food for picnics – plus great people watching and local flavor.

Hackescher Markt Market and public square in Mitte, with shops and restaurants. Galleries and nightlight in the surrounding neighborhood.

Others

  • Märkisches Museum – local city history
  • Amplemann shop – kitschy gifts celebrating the famous East German pedestrian traffic signal lights
  • Wikipedia Monument in Slubice, Poland
  • Sony Center in Postdamer Platz – impressive shopping area with an American-style movie theater (I saw Bladerunner 2046)
River Spree
River Spree

The Wall

The Berliner Maur or Berlin Wall is mostly gone and the two halves of the city have been almost completely woven back together. Only a few sections of the wall remain. In its place are a several art installations and markings on the sidewalk indicating where the boundary between East and West used to be. “Maur” is German for “wall” and is an indication of something wall-related, like the Maurpark.

East Side Gallery / Berlin Wall
East Side Gallery / Berlin Wall

One way to get your bearings is to look at the pedestrian traffic signals. Former East Berlin streets use the distinctive Ampelmann lights for walk/don’t walk.

East Side Gallery The largest bit of remaining wall is along the Spree River and features several murals and works of graffiti art related to the Cold War and the East German regime.


 Food I didn’t do much restaurant sampling on this trip, but did find a few highlights worth checking out:

  • Dolden Mädel Braugasthaus: Beer bar with large selection and good German pub food. Mehringdamm, Kreuzberg.
  • Melt: Cafe and creperie, Friedrichshain
  • Coffee Fellows / Coworking Berlin: on Danziger Str. in Prenzlauer Berg
  • Impala Coffee: on Schönhauser Allee in Prenzlauer Berg
  • Ziervogels Kult-Curry: Typical Currywurst join on on Schönhauser Allee in Prenzlauer Berg

Day Trip to Poland

An hour-long train ride to Polish border are the twin towns of Frankfurt (Oder), Germany and Slubice, Poland, on either side of the Oder River. The lovely towns are good for a day of walking and sightseeing. Slubice is home to the Wikipedia Monument, and several shops catering to Germans looking for cheap cigarettes and liquor.

Wikipedia Monument in Slubice, Poland
Wikipedia Monument in Slubice, Poland

Articles and resources


River Spree
River Spree

Logistics

Language English is common in the tourism, retail, and service sectors. However, as with anywhere, you are much better received if you can initiate any transaction or conversation with a few words in German. Spend some time in advance studying a map to look at the names of neighborhoods, attractions, and train stations. German words are quite phonetic, so it’s relatively easy to figure out.

Money Berlin is quite affordable for being a major global capital. Lodging, food, and entertainment are all very reasonable. Cash is still common in Germany. Many smaller cafes, shops, and restaurants do not take credit or debit cards, so be sure to carry €20-30 when you are out and about and research ahead of time for more expensive purchases.

Getting Around Berlin is a sprawling city and destinations can be further apart than they appear on the map. The entire city is very walkable, but public transit or bicycling are important for traveling between neighborhoods. Plan ahead to visit things in the same or nearby neighborhoods, or allow lots of time to travel across town. Public transport is affordable and ubiquitous. The U-Bahn (Underground) is the subway system in central Berlin and the S-Bahn is the surface train network that covers a wider area. Trams (modern streetcars) are common throughout former East Berlin, and line numbers starting with M are 24 hour trams. One ticket or pass works on all modes of transport, but you must stamp it in a validator machine before boarding. There are no gates or turnstiles, so plain clothes transport police will sometimes ask to see your validated ticket. The mobile ticketing app is called “FahrInfo Plus”.

East Side Gallery / Berlin Wall
East Side Gallery / Berlin Wall

📸 All of my Berlin photos

 

 

🇩🇰 Copenhagen Quick Hit

Canal from Højbro bridge

I stopped in Copenhagen for a very quick sampling of the city on the Chernobyl/Kyiv/Riga/Berlin adventure. The weather was cold and rainy, so I stuck to indoor activities in the city center area. Here are few highlights of a city I hope to return to for a proper visit.

Cabinn City Hotel
Danish chain of affordable, cozy, utilitarian hotels. This one is on the edge of the city center, near the Tivoli Gardens and central train station. It has the feel of a hostel but with private micro rooms. It’s a Danishly efficient layout with just enough room to crash after a day exploring the city, and common areas to mingle with other travelers. Great breakfast buffet for $10.

Taphouse
Great place to sample dozens beers from all over Europe and hang out with the locals. Flights and happy hour options are good values. Near the Town Hall.

Restaurant Ida Davidson
5th-generation family restaurant featuring the famous smørrebrød Danish open-face sandwich. Good mix of locals and tourists.

Bronx Burger Bar
When you reach the point in a long trip where need a taste of home.

Torvehallerne market
Cozy indoor market with a variety of local produce and products. Also home to the excellent Coffee Collective.

Round Tower
Walk up the circular ramps for a good view of the city, on a clear day!

GL Strand Art Center
A small, canal-side center with a rotating program of exhibitions and films. I stumbled upon an awesome Stanley Kubrick exhibition!

Tårnet on the roof of Christianborg Palace.
Another good roof-top view of the city, this one on top of the Danish Parliament.

Arnold Busck book store and stationary
A nice respite from the cold and rain on Købmagergade, a pedestrian shopping street.

Logistics

Transport from the airport is quick and efficient, either trains or Metro. The city is walkable and of course very, very bikeable.

English is widely spoken as most of the Danes are fluent or close to it.

Denmark is not on the Euro, and the Kroner coins take some time to get used to. Yes, it is expensive, but there are free attractions and good deals of food, drink, and lodging if you take time to do research.

Compact en-suite room at Cabinn City Hotel
View from the Round Tower
View from the Round Tower
Stanley Kubrick exhibit at GL Strand art center
At the GL Strand Art Center
View from Christianborg Palace, Parliament
View from the Danish Parliament
Købmagergade
Købmagergade shopping street
Parking lot at the Dutch Parliament
Parking lot at the Danish Parliament
Storkespringvandet - Stork Fountain
Stork Fountain

 

Copenhagen Central Trail Station
Central train station

☣️Visiting the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster Site

On top of 16 story apartment block

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.

📸 More photos in the Chernobyl gallery.

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.

My post about visiting Kyiv.

See all of my photos over on Flickr.


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.

 
IMG_2902
Memorial in front of The New Safe Confinement that now encloses he 1980s sarcophagus and the destroyed Reactor #4.

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.

Other destinations

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!


Logistics

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.

Radiation

Hot spot registering 2.20
Hot Spot with 22 on the counter vs normal background radiation of 0.1

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.

Photography

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.

Toilets

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.

Staying overnight

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.


Ethics

Dark Tourism

“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.

Re-settlers

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

Further reading

SoloEast tour company

McClatchy DC: Ruined Chernobyl nuclear plant will remain a threat for 3,000 years (4/24/2016)
By former KC Star journalist Matt Schofield.

Washington Post: In Ukraine, a radioactive nuclear ghost town near Chernobyl is a hot destination (7/27/2017)

Wikivoyage Travel Guide to Chernobyl

More: All of my Chernobyl bookmarks

Movies and documentaries

This list of 6 films is a good place to start.

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.

YouTube playlist

I made this playlist of YouTube videos with info about visiting, about the nuclear accident, etc.

IMG_3171

🇪🇺 Year in Cities 2017

Main square of Pripyat, the ghost city

Chernobyl, Ukraine *
Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine *
Berlin, Germany *
Riga, Latvia *
Copenhagen, Denmark *
Frankfurt (Oder), Germany *
Slubice, Poland *
Washington, DC
Wichita, KS
Fort Collins, CO
Columbia, MO (twice)

2017 was a very big travel year with the bucket list trip to Chernobyl, which included six new cities in Europe. The highlight was drinking vodka home made by a babushka who returned to live on her farm in the nuclear exclusion zone.


*New city

All the cities I visited this year, inspired by Jason Kottke. What cities did you visit this year?

🇺🇦Visiting Kyiv, Ukraine

"Freedom is Our Religion" - Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square)

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.

Independence Square
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.

Hotel Salyut
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.

hotel salyut
Soviet-style Hotel Salyut. (Photo: TripAdvisor)

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.

Transport
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.

Language
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.

Safety
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.

MISC

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.