Since its time as the capital of the Kyivan Rus empire over a millennium ago, Kiev has stood as a social and economic center for the region. No stranger to foreign control, the city was razed by the Nazi army only to be rebuilt with extravagant Stalinist pomp by the Soviets. After Ukraine gained its independence from the USSR in 1991, Kiev reemerged as a proud capital and cultural center. The streets now buzz with energy, even as the cost of living rises and the government struggles to institute promised reforms.
Most of Kiev’s attractions and services lie on the west bank of the Dniper River. The train station, at MR: Vokzalna on the western edge of the city center, is three Metro stops from Khreshchatyk, Kiev’s main avenue. Khreshchatyk runs from Bessarabska Ploshcha to European Square through Independence Square, the city’s patriotic center and the favorite relaxation spot of locals. Three blocks uphill from Khreshchatyk is Volodymyrska, which runs past the Ukrainian National Opera, Zoloti Vorota, and the St. Sophia Monastery. The area surrounding the square, known as the Upper City, was the site of ancient settlement in Kiev. At the end of Volodymyrska, St. Andrew’s Church sits atop winding Andrew’s Rise, Kiev’s famous historical street. This in turns leads down to the monument-filled Podil district. Along the west bank of the Dniper, Khreshchatyk Park covers the slope that runs from the city center to the water’s edge. The Kyiv-Cave Monastery, full of churches and museums, is a 10 minute walk from MR: Arsenalna. The area across the river, near MR: Livoberezhna, became part of Liev in 1927 and is now a residential area.
Kiev bursts at the seams with museums and parks. First time visitors usually devote a few days to wandering Khreshchatyk and Volodymyrska, enjoying the city’s sights and historic buildings. More seasoned travelers spend time exploring the many hidden avenues and monasteries that make the ancient city so engaging.
Short on time, but want to see in the best in Kiev? Here are our top three picks. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Kiev has a large selection of restaurant and markets, as well as an army of street vendors who sell cheap snacks. Popsicles are a local favorite, and the shawarma is particularly delicious. Kiev is replete with streetside cafes, many of which sell Ukrainian staples such as borscht and vareniki. Cafes in the city center tend to cost more than similar establishments in outlying areas. Kyiv has a myriad of Western and Eastern restaraunts, with plenty of Chinese, Italian, and Russian restaraunts all over town. The most popular are traditional Ukrainian cafeteria-style eateries—these are usually quite cheap. When you go in, point at your food, get a big glass of beer, and enjoy.
New, fancy restaurants accommodate tourists and the few Ukrainians who can afford them, while stolovayas (cafeterias)—remnants of Soviet times—serve cheap, hot food. Pierogi-like dumplings called vavenyky are ubiquitous and delicious. Vegetarians beware: meat has a tendency to show up in so-called “vegetarian” dishes. Finding kosher foods can be daunting, but it helps to eat non-meat items. Fruits and veggies are sold at markets; bring your own bag. State food stores are classified by content: hastronom (packaged goods); moloko (milk products); ovochi-frukty (fruits and vegetables); myaso (meat); khlib (bread); kolbasy (sausage); and ryba (fish). Kvas is a popular, barely-alcoholic, fermented bread drink. Grocery stores are often simply labeled mahazyn (store). Beer can be drunk publicly but hard liquor can’t. The distinction is telling—“I drink beer,” goes one Ukrainian saying, “and I also drink alcohol.”
The last Sunday of May brings Kiev Days, when drama, folklore, jazz, and rock performances are staged all over the city. If you’re in town between late spring and fall, don’t miss Dynamo Kyiv, one of Europe’s top soccer teams. Hot summer days are perfect for a boat ride down the Dniper or a trip to Hydropark, an amusement park and beach on an island along the left bank of the Dniper. The beach has showers, toilets, and changing booths.
Kiev’s nightlife scene has developed considerably, with a lot of new bars and discos, many of which are owned and run by expats. Although homosexuality is not widely accepted in Ukraine, Kiev’s GLBT scene continues to grow. Though many gay men simply dance with each other at the city’s mainstream clubs, GLBT clubs remain popular. Theses clubs tend to favor gay men: they make up the numbers, the drag shows are geared toward them, and “VIP” back rooms cater to them. In the summer, the gay scene centers on the Hydropark; follow the mob to Youth Beach.
National literature first flowered in the 19th century. Taras Schevchenko, Ukraine’s most revered literary figure, emerged from the Romantic movement of this era of ignite nationalist fervor with his poetry. A period of realism gave rise to the work of Ivano Franko, who wrote drama, poetry, and short stories. The early 20th century saw an outburst of artistic activity. Major literary movements overtook one another rapidly; the Modernism of Lesya Ukrainka have way to Realism in prose and Symbolism in verse. Another new movement, Futurism, inspired one of Ukraine’s greatest poets, Mykola Bazhan, Mikhail Bulgakov, author of the famous satire, The Master and Margarita, hailed from Kiev but wrote in Russian.
In addition to a history of church choral music, Ukraine boasts a rich folkloric tradition. Historical songs called dumy are sung a capella or feature folk dulcimer. In classical music, Ukraine’s most notable pianist is Svlatoslav Richter (1915-1997). In 2004, Ruslana Lyzhichko won the Eurovision song contest by infusing pop music with folk techniques from the Hutsul people of the Carpathian mountains. As a result, the pan-European contest was held in Kiev in 2005, partially contributing to the suspension of visa requirements for EU citizens.
Byzantine art has a great influence on early Ukrainian art; mosaics, frescoes, domed buildings, illuminated manuscripts, and above all, iconic paintings mark the centuries between the advent of Christianity and the introduction of more western forms in the 17th century. Taras Shevchenko’s paintings typify the realist trend of the 19th century. Following experimentation with avant-garde forms during Ukraine’s brief independence in the early 20th century, Socialist Mikhailov, managed to subtly critique Soviet oppression.
A delightful folk art form is the Ukrainian easter egg, called pysanky. The eggs are painstakingly decorated with beeswax and multiple treatments of dyes; they feature intricate geometric patterns and styles that differ according to region.
One of the most widely celebrated festivals is the Donetsk Jazz Festival, usually held in March. The conclusion of the 20th century brought the Chervona Ruta Festival, which occurs in different Ukrainian cities each year, celebrating both modern Ukrainian pop and traditional music. The Molodist Kyiv International Film Festival, held in the last week of October, sets the stage for student films and film debuts.
A rudimentary knowledge of a few customs can make or break a trip to Ukraine. Several gestures that are considered positive in other cultures have a different meaning in Ukraine. A shaken fist and a pointed index finger can be very offensive. At the Ukrainian dinner table, hands are usually kept on the table. Tipping in restaurants is minimal; never more than 10%. When taking a taxi, bargain the price down and do not give a tip. When on trains, give up seats to the elderly and women with children. In churches, men should wear long pants, and women should cover their heads and shoulders.