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Ukraine is the princess of Eastern Europe, mysterious and inviting yet vastly misunderstood. She pulls you in with energy and beauty, encourages you to look beyond the initial impression, and then leaves you at an al fresco cafe down a cobbled side street. A dazzling trilogy of the eclectic cities of Kyiv, Lviv, and Odessa will dominate your photographs.
City view of the historical city center in Lviv.
Ukraine is a destination where bright colors carpet spring landscapes and exuberance fills the streets; where cafe-lined alleyways lead to gold-laden churches and fairytale buildings cling to the mountaintops. Culture thrives in this eastern piece of Europe, much of it proudly distinct from Russia and the Soviet era. Cityscapes provide a window onto the old and new, far-flung landscapes roll past the train windows, and a stylish new generation stays true to the traditions of old. Welcome to one of Europe’s most misunderstood and beguiling nations.
The cities dazzle. First Kyiv, a city of historical wonder and revolutionary hope, a capital with seemingly boundless energy. The domes of famous Orthodox cathedrals are merely the starting point as grand lanes take you on a journey through the past and present. Then Lviv, undisputed cultural hub, where you watch the world pass by from mazy old town lanes. Odessa is the final part of Ukraine’s iconic trilogy, waiting with its facade of faded imperialism, a city of decorous architecture that’s only made more evocative by the passing of time.
In less than three decades of existence, Ukraine has already battled through two revolutions and Russian invasion. The Crimean Peninsula was one of the country’s premier hotspots, with surreal mountain architecture and long beaches along the Black Sea. Unfortunately, this region annexed by Russia is now off bounds, as are the Donetsk and Lugansk regions that make up Eastern Ukraine. Both the U.S. State Department and U.K. Foreign Office advise against all travel to these regions (as of 2018).
Khreshchatyk Street, Independence Square Monument of Independence.
As such, tourism remains focused on the triad of electric cityscapes, with each offering its own feeling and atmosphere. But like all good travel, the journey is always memorable. In Ukraine the distances are long and the landscapes wild. Ukraine is the largest country in Europe after all (excluding Russia which straddles two continents). Trains provide a window onto this world, and a chance to sit back and roll across mountains and pastures. From Odessa to Kiev the Dnieper River delivers another dreamy window, with luxury cruises taking you along a web of waterways.
The people are proud, as is usually the case in a new nation. Many conflate Ukraine with neighboring Russia, so the locals are quick to instill a truer impression, sometimes over a bowl of borshch (soup) and good vodka. Even when you are exploring historical Russian monuments, particularly those in Odessa, there is a sense of how they are Ukrainian rather than Russian. And even though the country’s attractions are photogenic, you will be leaving with profound memories of the atmosphere more than anything else.
Kyiv and Central Ukraine
Pink skies light up Kyiv at sunset.
Cityscapes collide in Ukraine’s enigmatic capital. There is past glory seen in the cathedrals and churches, explored on imperial lanes that scream of grandeur. Soviet-era blocks fill suburbs, many of them given a fresh coat of colorful paint. You will really need three nights to get a sense of it all not just the attractions but also the time spent on regal squares and contemporary cafe terraces. Kyiv may not have Lviv’s cute charm, but its streets are easy on the eye and filled with beauty. It all adds up to a capital city that is becoming one of Europe’s surprise hits.
Sacral paintings cover the inside of Vladimir’s Cathedral, frescoes and mosaics contrast the striking green and white exterior of Saint Sophia Cathedral. Baroque churches and neoclassical designs meet you on the same street, while the wealth of history continues at palaces and parks. There are golden gates, the unmissable motherland statue, and all the people watching you can imagine on Khreshchatyk Street, a pedestrianized area that comes alive with street performers during the weekends.
Beyond Kyiv, you can make day trips to Chernoble and its new museum, along with the Pryohiv open-air museum. The capital is also a starting point for river cruises, and you will see soothing open landscapes when traveling into the city by rail or river.
Lviv and Western Ukraine
Dominican Cathedral, Lviv, Ukraine.
Ukraine’s undisputed gem, Lviv is a bewitching city in the far west of the country. Countless empires and occupiers brought their style here, leaving behind a treasure chest of architecture, which was not affected by either world war. Now a World Heritage Site, Lviv is a timeless journey into old Central Europe. The architecture enchants; however, it is the ambience that makes the experience.
Cafes are part of the culture, and they fill the old part of town, places to watch the world pass by over a very continental style of coffee. Strolling around is part of the fun, with statues on corners and alcoves revealing city secrets. The whole of Western Ukraine is more aligned towards Western Europe than it is Ukraine, and you will witness this everywhere you travel in the region. It is indeed far from any preconceptions of Russia. Travel beyond the city and Kamianets Podilskyi is one more example of a Western leaning medieval past. National parks and Carpathian mountains are also found here, possible to visit on day trips from Lviv.
Odessa and the Black Sea Coast
An ancient Akkerman fortress at Belgorod Dnestrovsky, Odessa.
Black Sea waves lap gently against golden beaches. Faded 18th-century architecture harks back to a time of tzars. Cossack traditions remain alongside those of Crimean Tatars. Founded by Catherine the Great and packed with majestic architecture, Odessa is Ukraine’s grand city on the coast, a little rough around the edges but always a lot of fun. While the imposing boulevards have not been kept in premium condition, this does add to the local charm. You can tell you are walking the lanes of history and can appreciate the age of all the imperial sights. Crimea remains off bounds, however, Odessa helps provide a glimpse of life and culture from the annexed peninsula.
Take a walk to a 19th-century palace, explore museums of Russian classical art, and then disappear beneath the ground. Grottoes are packed with priceless art pieces while the catacombs once housed the Romanian army as well as smugglers and thieves. The superb Museum of Archaeology gives a good understanding of the Black Sea region while the beaches become lively places in the summer. There is energy to Odessa, and even though the facade is faded, there is plenty of local vibrancy to keep you entertained. Unfortunately, given developments in Crimea Odessa is the only one of Ukraine’s Black Sea destination that can be visited, so it is rare that a stop ventures beyond the city.
Visit the Carpathian Mountains for stunning greenery.
Rising along the border with Poland and Romania, the Carpathians feel like Europe’s wild west, except they are more a frontier to the east. Stone shepherd houses stand in green meadows, rivers twist through thick forests, snow clings to rolling peaks, and there is a postcard view at every turn. For outdoor adventures will enjoy hiking and cycling trails leading you to a series of spectacular caves. Rafting is possible on the Prut River, a languid journey that can be complemented by one of the old narrow-gauge diesel trains that still ply the mountains.
A Train Across Ukraine
Train through the Carpathian mountains.
One of the good Soviet-era legacies is the railway system, a network of lines that connect towns and cities. The trains cover great distances, trundling across fields of purple blossom and rolling mountain escarpments. They are not fast but there is a sense of faded grandeur as you take a first-class sleeper compartment to Kyiv or roll into Odessa after a meal in the restaurant car. Far more relaxing than driving, a Ukrainian train provides a window onto the vast landscapes of Europe’s largest country. Especially when days in the city are packed with attractions and experiences, trains provide a time to sit back and melt away. You might consider entering Ukraine on a train journey from other parts of Eastern Europe, with direct services into Kyiv from other eastern capitals such as Warsaw and Budapest.
Dnieper River Cruises
Dnieper River cruise, Ukraine.
The Dnieper is a snake of a river, with long meandering bends and the general impression of calm. It twists south from Kyiv towards the Black Sea, terminating next to another of Eastern Europe’s great cities, Bucharest. As befitting the river, cruise itineraries are tranquil, with daily excursions to accompany the journey. It is typically four days of luxury cruising to Odessa, plus another three through the Danube Delta into Romania. Add in time to discover Kyiv, and you have a serene 12-day vacation, mixing city with rural landscapes. As the river turns southwards, you stop to explore folk traditions and Cossack history, a horse show evoking how the people once ruled this vast, untamed land. Then it is onwards through Odessa and the suggestive landscapes of the Delta completing a unique way to experience Ukraine.
So many stories emanate from the decaying nuclear power station at Chernobyl. They speak of tragedy yes, but also of bravery and heroism, telling the tales of people who saved lives and prevented even greater devastation. Visited on day trips from Kiev, and only accessible to people on a guided tour, the nuclear site also preaches messages of hope. You will come to understand what happened and why, as well as discover personal narratives that make Chernobyl all the more real. Strangely, there is now something beautiful about the disused power plant, unadorned as it decays above a decaying landscape.
Pryohiv Open-Air Museum
Windmills turn, and wooden churches stand proudly on the fields south of Kyiv. They form a vast open-air museum that recreates the history from Ukraine’s different regions. The churches and windmills are real, some of the hundreds of buildings that have been moved to Pryohiv piece by piece. Inside various museum buildings, you discover carpets, ceramics, textiles, and glassware, amongst more artisanal items from yesteryear. Summer and fall is a great time to visit, as blacksmiths and weavers are amongst the craftsmen turning Pryohiv into a hive of activity. This is also the place to be on any regional or folk holiday, with theatrical performances and sometimes-raucous open-air celebrations. Most people do not have the opportunity to explore widely in this vast country; a day in Pryohiv provides an excellent overview of an eclectic land.
The most popular time to visit Ukraine is spring and fall.
The widely considered best time to be in Ukraine is during spring or fall. The country has a wonderful bloom, blossoms carpeting the trees, so much energy as the days grow longer and people return to the outdoors. Fall has different colors, admired on journeys across the country. May, June, and September are arguably the very best months with good weather, long days and the chance to experience a local festival.
July and August are hot, with the Black Sea Coast sweltering beneath the sun. These are busy months for Russian and Ukrainian tourists, with the beaches becoming extremely crowded. Travel can be arduous in these months, especially if you are covering vast distances and trying to connect more remote destinations.
Ukraine Bukovel ski resort.
Visit Ukraine, and there are two sides to tourism. The developed infrastructure and accommodation in the city, then the faded Communist-era tourism elsewhere in the country. Outside the major cities, much of the accommodation remains state-run, and it is very little in the luxury bracket. It is an entirely different picture in Kyiv, Lviv, and Odessa. Think imperial hotels of faded grandeur, slick business hotels for the 21st century, and always a large degree of choice over where you stay.
The grandeur has been updated, so those chandelier-dominated restaurant rooms are complemented with contemporary bathrooms and facilities. While it looks an ode to imperial history from the outside, it is something more in keeping with modern Ukraine on the inside. Many of these hotels are on a relatively large scale and cater well for families. The same can be argued for smaller boutique hotels that are cropping up across the country, particularly in the redeveloped areas of Kyiv and Lviv. There has also been a surge in contemporary business hotels, and while the clean lines may attract some, they are not quite as charming, certainly not when traveling with children.
Be aware that Ukrainian star grading isn’t as robust as elsewhere in Europe, so a five-star hotel in Lviv may not be considered a five-star establishment in Paris. While it’s certainly possible to travel and stay outside the trilogy of cities, you’ll need to reduce your expectations when it comes to accommodation.
Colored houses in Kiev, Ukraine.
Always check your national government’s travel advice before planning a trip to Ukraine. Political instabilities are affecting travel in specific regions, particularly on the Crimean Peninsula and in Eastern Ukraine. Check the US State Department’s travel advice for Ukraine before departing on your vacation.
Ukraine is not part of the European Union or the Schengen travel area. Citizens of the U.K., Canada, and all EU nations can travel visa-free for 90 days in Ukraine. Your passport must be valid for six months beyond your date of departure, and you must present proof of onward or return travel. Carry a print out of your flight tickets to confirm this. Note that some nationalities, such as Australian and New Zealand require a visa on arrival for travel for up to 15 days. Certain documents are required for this.
Sofiyivsky Park , Uman, Ukraine.
Ukraine is safe and welcoming. The places you are likely to visit are nothing like the media narrative that has been presented in recent years. Although parts of Ukraine are under foreign occupation and there has been war in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, visits to elsewhere in the country are almost always hassle-free. Both the nation and its people are keen to present a different image, one that is true to regional traditions and a rich future.
Traveling with a guide helps overcome any communication barrier at hospitals and clinics. The quality of medical facilities exceeds what most visitors expect, finding an English-speaking doctor is relatively easy. As with elsewhere in Europe, facilities are less advanced when you leave the cities.
While the country has a reputation for organized crime, will not be targeted unless you have a covert plan to start opening casinos. In general, the Ukrainian cities are as safe as their Western European counterparts, usual precautions still apply, but you should not feel worried on the streets, even after dark. Although the police appear rough and tough, they do not target foreigners for bribes, as is often the case in Moscow. Just make sure you carry your passport with you at all times as this is a legal requirement.
Traditional clothes, Lviv, Ukraine.
The Ukrainians are remarkably open people. They have gone through a lot in the last three decades, so it is doubtful that you will cause offense, other than perhaps getting too deep into a political conversation – this can occur because it is an interesting topic and Ukrainians will speak passionately about local and international politics. While the churches are a symbol of their Orthodox Christianity, religion is mostly something for private conversation rather than public. You will be expected to dress modestly when visiting churches and cathedrals.
Slavic folk traditions continue to be celebrated across the country, most visibly during festivals that take place during summer and fall. Strange guitars and surreal chanting are one manifestation, with ornate weaving and handicrafts another. The Cossacks are another ethnic group holding a certain mystery, their impressive horsemanship part of the show when you visit the plains towards the south of the country.
Food and Drink
Traditional Ukrainian foods.
Spend just a week in Ukraine and you will need to loosen the belt a little. The people like to eat and they love big portions, which become even bigger when hosted by a Ukrainian. The food is heavy, thick chunks of meat – mostly pork – along with potatoes and whatever are in season. Mains are often preceded by a bowl of bubbling borsch, the ubiquitous symbol of Ukrainian cuisine, and accompanied by thick slabs of heavy bread. The country is somewhat of a breadbasket for feeding Europe and produces an enormous amount of wheat, which ends up adorning every dining table you ever sit at.
Outside the main cities, there is only one kind of restaurant, a simple affair serving up filling but mostly mundane local dishes. The major cities have always had upmarket restaurants, which served foreign businesspeople and high-ranking government officials during the communist era. These remain in operation, but the highlight of Ukrainian dining is the upsurge in contemporary restaurants, like those found in breweries, themed around the revolution, or specializing in bringing regional dishes into one kitchen.
There is truth to the stereotype that Ukrainians like to drink. Frothy local beers and high-quality vodka are most common on the menu, drunk by some people from breakfast time onwards. However, while a proportion of locals drink a lot, public drunkenness is heavily frowned upon. It is a sign of bad taste to be stumbling around in a country where the ability to carry your drink can be revered. Do not get too carried away when you get the inevitable invitation to share drinks with the locals.
Traditional music in Ukraine.
Although Ukrainian is not an easy language to learn, you should be able to grasp a few basics from your guide. Travel near any border, and you will hear another language, such as Romanian, Polish or Hungarian. Older generations widely speak Russian, however, since 1991 there has been a push to teach English. If you know how to speak Russian it is best not to use it; the political situation means most people will refuse to communicate with you.
In the cities, many young people can speak English and can hold a conversation. Having a guide is always helpful for translation purposes as the Ukrainian people are usually very keen to talk with you. Like all the written language, signs are in Cyrillic. This can be a challenge in restaurants, and when taking public transport, so it is worth familiarizing yourself with the alphabet.
The currency in Ukraine is the Ukrainian hryvnia.
ATMs are widespread across Central and Western Ukraine. Banks swiftly adopted both Visa and Mastercard although it is more difficult to use American Express to withdraw currency. Chip and pin card payments are commonplace in high-end establishments. Such services are less reliable in the south and east of the country, including around the Black Sea Coast. U.S. dollars and euros can be exchanged easily and can sometimes be used instead of Ukrainian hryvnia.
Tipping is not part of culture although it is now commonplace in tourist-focused establishments, especially city restaurants with English menus. Check the bill as restaurants like this may already include a 10% or 15% service charge.
Picturesque mountain landscapes are found throughout Ukraine.
Ukraine is a delightful place to travel, and its challenges are quickly negated on a handcrafted tour. Getting around and getting to know the country is easy when you are in the hands of the experts. Zicasso connects you with the best Ukrainian tour operators. Their intimate knowledge creates an inimitable experience.