Please note: this article was originally written in 2020. I’m updating this in 2023 to state that — for obvious reasons — you should not be travelling to Ukraine at this time. If you are in Ukraine, you should leave immediately.
I thought about taking this post down, but in the end decided to leave it up as a record of what I love most about Kyiv. On my previous visits to Ukraine, I was struck by how incredible a city it is, full of so much beauty to discover. I long for an end to this abhorrent war and I stand with the people in Ukraine.
The capital of Ukraine, Kyiv is adorned with wondrous architecture, revolutionary squares and the enchanting Dnieper River. As one of the cultural hubs of Eastern Europe, the city can’t wait to broaden your perspective.
Kyiv features a string of vibrant cobblestone streets that have stood in place for centuries. They’re now home to trendy restaurants and an exceptional third-wave coffee scene. The streets will guide you to historic monuments and incredible Baroque cathedrals encased in ornamental frescoes.
The capital places its past on display for all to see, both the good and bad. But in combination with the friendly local community, you’ll be wondering why you didn’t visit sooner.
Wander St. Michael’s Monastery
Complete with its striking golden domes, exploring St. Michael’s Monastery is one of the best things to do in Kyiv. Surrounded by open, paved grounds, the bright blue building has. a striking presence which stands out from various viewpoints around the city.
The stunning Byzantine architecture first appeared in the Middle Ages with several advancements added in during the 18th century. However, the beautiful structure was destroyed in the 1930s. Over six decades passed until St. Michael’s Monastery was recreated. The designs stayed faithful to the original Byzantine style. With the embellished bright blue walls and colorful murals on display. Add in the domes and large white arches and it’s easy to see why it’s one of the top photography spots in the city. The monastery is free to enter, but keep in mind that it still is fully functional to this day. Behind St. Michael’s Monastery, is a beautiful park where you can continue through to explore either the Friendship of Nation’s Arch or St. Andrew’s Church.
Explore St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral
Those who know of this cathedral prior to arriving in Kyiv, will immediately notice it as they wander around the city. St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral’s bright yellow facade and dark green accents is a dramatic sight. The Eastern Orthodox church makes use of the best elements of Neo-Byzantine architecture, with a series of ornate bell towers and grand arch windows.
You’ll be happy to know that it only gets better. The actual star of the cathedral is its resplendent interior. Using similar colors to the facade, the yellows fade to stunning golden frescoes, gilded beam posts, and walls covered in eye-catching art that tells a never ending story.
From within St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, you can gaze up at the tremendously tall ceilings to the domed structures filled with natural light streaming through the windows. It’s a beautiful natural contrast to some of man’s most brilliant work.
Visitors will need to be well dressed to enter, with woman requiring a headscarf.
Experience the Kyiv Museum of Folk Architecture and Life
Just south of Kyiv, the Museum of Folk Architecture and Life is a fascinating outdoor museum that explores the culture of Ukraine’s countryside. Since the museum was founded in the 1960s, it has grown its collection of amazing artifacts to over 70,000 pieces.
They’re all now part of a well-curated space where you can wander through with ease while building up your repertoire of interesting facts. Along the way, you’ll discover over 300 buildings that represent the lifestyle and architecture of six major regions around the Ukraine. All of which are authentic, and have been removed and rebuilt on these grounds.
It’s not just homes either. Visitors can explore various churches and workshops from around the country. The latter showcasing craftwork through the eras, from pottery to blacksmithing and weaving. It helps to complement the range of folk art presented around the museum, that includes ceramics, period fashion, woodwork and embroidery.
Visit Mezhyhirya Residence
Kyiv has no shortage of ancient history that takes you right back to the Middle Ages. But for some recent history, very recent in fact, take the time to visit Mezhyhirya Residence. It was here, for over a decade until early 2014, that the former leader of Ukraine lived.
Viktor Yanukovych was the former controversial leader of Ukraine, one that was ousted after rejecting ties to the European Union and instead aligning the country with Russia. Violent clashes in Independence Square ensued, with the leader eventually rushing into exile and finding relative safety in southern Russia.
The Mezhyhirya Residence is a stunning country-style estate on the banks of the Dnieper River. Guided tours of the home are available that will help showcase the greed and the out-of-touch nature of Yunokovych in the years leading up to his exile. Along the way, you’ll find anything from an equestrian club and ostrich farm to a golf course and hunting grounds. All in a place of leadership, as Ukraine struggled with poverty and hunger.
Admire St. Sophia’s Cathedral
In a city of amazing churches and monasteries, it’s hard to pick which one stands out the most. But there’s something captivating about St. Sophie’s Cathedral. The UNESCO World Heritage Site immediately draws you in.
The cathedral was designed and built in the 9th century. It was inspired by the Hagia Sophia, a renowned church in what is modern-day Istanbul. Her lush green grounds and glistening red brick paths work perfectly with the white and green facade. Around St. Sophia, you’ll discover a world of intricate tapestries, mosaics and frescoes. The attention to detail will stick around in your memory.
Unlike some of the famous religious sites in Kyiv, you’ll have to pay a fee to enter St. Sophia’s Cathedral. This element, however, helps to disperse the crowd, allowing a more tranquil experience as you gaze upon the ancient murals and gilded frescoes that line in interior structure.
Before heading off, climb to the top of the bell tower where you’ll be afforded wonderful views of Old Kyiv and St. Michael’s Monastery.
Day Trip to Chernobyl
In April 1986, the town of Pripyat, Kyiv, and Ukraine changed forever. The incident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was the worst nuclear disaster in history. Afterwards, exclusion zone was created with a 19-mile (30km) radius covering over 1000 square miles (2,600 sq. km).
Thrill seekers have ventured into the exclusion zone over the years. They’ve showcased a harrowing environment and the ghost down of Pripyet, which was replaced by the purpose-built city of Salvutych. Now, with tours available to the gnarly site, Chernobyl has quickly become a popular tourist destination.
On this day tour to Chernobyl, dress to the nines in hazmat gear as you visit the old power plant before wandering down the haunted streets of Pripyat. Your licensed guide will also take you to a radar station at the secret military base and the Grand Memorial. You can also arrange for private tours.
Skip the day trip and visit the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum
If you aren’t up for a whole day in an otherworldly environment, then you can learn all about Chernobyl right here in Kyiv. The relatively small museum will take an hour or two to fully explore. While the museum’s audio guide will be a welcome companion as you make your way between each exhibit.
From the first moment, you’ll be transported back in time to the lead up to the catastrophic event. Learn about the succession of moments, of human and technological error that led to the evacuation of thousands and an untold number of deaths.
The Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum opened in 1992 and as it is still living history, the exhibits change and evolve to reflect the passage of time. Importantly, you’ll discover not just a chronology of events but also the cultural impact on the country as a whole.
Zipline Across the Dnieper River
Kyiv isn’t just architecture and the harrowing tale of Chernobyl. Among it all is a vibrant culture and a tight, welcoming community. As a traveler, you’ll have no problem balancing both and, most importantly, have fun. One way to let your hair down in Kyiv is to zipline across the massive Dnieper River.
Beginning at the Arch of Diversity, strap up and calm the nerves as you await the long, but also fast, journey. The zipline will take you 203 feet (62m) above the surging river. The length from one side to the other is almost 1750 feet (532m), but such is your traveling speed that you’ll arrive on Trukhaniv Island in only 40 seconds.
Thankfully, it’s long enough to admire splendid views of the city and the river, which began its journey in Russia and will continue on all the way to the Black Sea. After making it back to the starting point, kick back under the Arch of Diversity, which is one of the best spots in the city to take in the sunset.
Stand Under the Motherland Monument
At an incredible 335 feet (102m) above the ground, the Motherland Monument aka the Rodina Mat Statue is a jaw-dropping sight. Standing tall and proud, Rodina Mat holds her sword and shield high for everyone to see.
It evokes a sense of pride and wonder, even in those with no connection to Ukraine. Making it a similar experience to those that have made their way around New York Harbor and gazed upon the Statue of Liberty.
Although you can wander around the base of the monument and gain a great appreciation for Rodina Mat, you can also walk inside and make your way inside her head. From the viewpoint atop the statue, you’ll have incredible views of the city and the surrounding grounds.
Afterwards, take some time to explore the park, home to the Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War. Here, you can visit several historic Soviet buildings, while spotting an array of tanks, planes and memorials.
Go to the Unusual Museum of Toilet History
Have you ever thought about hygiene in the context of human history? Probably not. But Kyiv is home to the beguiling Museum of Toilette History, where you can explore how your ancestors did their business through many eras.
This unique museum experience can be a little humorous,. But since we all use the bathroom, it never fails to be relevant. The museum is home to one of the largest collections of toilets in the world. All within an old 19th century fortress,
As you walk around the museum, you’ll come across latrines and lavatories from all around the world. Discover how toilets looked over 5,000 years ago, or uncover the Egyptian limestone latrine. Not to mention the dozens of hilarious toilet signs along the way.
Wander Down Khreshchatyk Street
It’s been said that in the summer, you can walk through Kyiv without ever leaving the shade of the horse chestnut trees. The leafy boulevards that snake through the city make for effortless walking with plenty of hidden gems to be discovered. But to get a true feel for the spirit of Kyiv, you must wander down Khreshchatyk Street.
Spanning the length between the European and Besarabska squares, the street is a cultural gem. It’s lined with ample shopping from independent stores to up-scale boutiques, chic cafes slinging third-wave coffee and mouthwatering restaurants. Put two and two together and you can see why it’s one of the top (and most expensive) shopping streets in all of Europe.
After suffering irreparable damage during WWII, Khreshchatyk Street was revitalized with the help of Neoclassical architecture. The thoroughfare is closed to traffic on Sundays and public holidays, making the last day of the week the best time to visit. Mingle with locals as you jump between shops and cafes, along with markets and the Maidan.
Take Your Coffee to Independence Square
In the winter months that connect 2013 and 2014, the Euromaiden protests took place. It was a wave of public demonstrations as a result of Yanukovych’s design to align the country with Russia, dismissing the European Union in the process. The protests at Independence Square quickly turned fatal and over 100 civilians died.
Today, Independence Square is ground zero for local culture, a place where Kyivans have a voice and a place to commemorate the past and look to the future. Also known as Maidan Nezalezhnosti, you’ll find the historic site along Kreshchatyk Street. Here, you’ll spot six ornate fountains, landmarks and several statues. They are all a poignant reminder of the city’s past, yet help to create a beautiful spot to enjoy your morning coffee among what is often a vibrant atmosphere.
Highlights of the ornaments include the 200 feet (61m) tall Monument Column along with statues of Kie, Schek, Libed and Horiv, the founders of Kyiv, in one of the fountains.
Shop at Besarabsky Market
Alongside Besarabska Square at the end of the city’s famous shopping street, Besarabsky Square is a lively indoor market. Selling everything from fresh produce and cheese to caviar, nuts and spices, the market answers all your wishes while being typically colorful.
Travelers will enjoy the adventure (and challenge) of Besarabsky Market. Here, the produce doesn’t have marked prices and haggling is necessary. For a memorable visit, work on some basic Ukrainian or employ the help of locals along the way.
Otherwise, simply walk the many aisles of the fabulous market admiring the burst of colors along the way. This includes being star struck by the dozens of pickled vegetables in jars, arranged like a work of art. You’ll find plenty of local restaurants around Besarabsky Market, along with the traveler-friendly Billa supermarket. Another market to explore is the Zhitniy Market in the quirky neighborhood of Podil.
Embark on a Walking Tour
There are so many layers to Kyiv, from its atmospheric markets to its ancient cathedrals and monasteries. Between them both is a complex history of war and political power plays. So why not join a local expert and enjoy an in-depth exploration (and discussion) of Kyiv?
The city has no shortage of walking tours, many of which depart from Independence Square, giving you a central starting point. One of the top experiences on offer includes the Ancient Kyiv Walking Tour. This private group experience explores the cultures and history of Kyiv from its foundation in the 9th century to the influx of Christianity. Learn about the original inhabitants, the Kievan Rus and some of the top attractions in the city from St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral to the Golden Gate.
Another fantastic walking tour is Artistic Kyiv. Explore the history of the city and its amazing architecture through the eyes of an artist. Visit Mystetskyi Arsenal, historic mansions and prominent political buildings.
Get to Know the Local Cuisine
Although heavy, Ukrainian food may be the biggest surprise on your travels through the nation’s capital. The flavors and ingredients may seem contradictory at first, but the end result is a wonderful (and garlicky) blend. Some of the traditional eats in Kyiv include salo, a cured lard perfectly paired with Ukrainian bread and Varenky, a type of local dumpling. But the top dish has to be borscht, a meat broth complemented by garlic fritters.
A fun way for travelers to enjoy authentic local cuisine is to make their way to Puzata Hata. While it’s rare that we would recommend a chain restaurant, the ease of access to authentic eats and zero language barrier makes it the perfect starting point on your culinary journey. At Puzata Hata, you simply look at all the food and pick the ones you won’t, no words needed. Plus, it’s very affordable.
But rather than go at it alone, join this Gastro Tour that explores the culinary traditions of Ukraine. Visit three restaurants, the Besarabsky Market and try homemade liqueurs as you sample the best eats in the city.
Walk Down Andriyivskyy Descent
Standing alongside Kreshchatyk Street as the most famous in Kyiv, Andriyivskyy Descent begins in the Upper Town and slopes down to the Podil district. For obvious reasons, most travelers choose to begin at the top of the hill, marked by the stunning St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Before walking down the half-mile (800m) cobblestone street.
As you descend the hill of Zamkova Hora, you’ll enjoy the exquisite pastel-hued buildings on either side. Let the bright brick path guide you by souvenir stalls, local restaurants and the sweet scent of budding flowers. Keep your eye out for murals painted alongside the old buildings as the street transitions from Old Kyiv into the burgeoning hipster neighborhood known as Podil.
Aside from shopping for wares and mementos, stop by the One Street Museum. The quirky abode houses a range of odd antiquities, from postcards to scripts from the 1600s. It makes for an amusing stopover on your journey down what’s known as the “Montmartre of Kyiv”. Soon enough you’ll be in the right place to experience Podil.
An old merchant’s quarter on the banks of the Dnieper River, Podil, was all but eliminated in the early 1800s due to an uncontrolled fire. The district was rebuilt using a grid system, and now, having survived any damage from WWII, it’s ironically one of the older parts of Kyiv.
Today, Podil is flooded with chic cafes and at the forefront of the city’s excellent coffee scene. Youthful and vibrant, Podil is a cultural epicenter, with unique attractions that separate it from much of the city. One of these is the giant Ferris wheel right off of Andriyivskyy Descent. Another is the funicular that will take you to St. Michael’s Monastery.
If you ever were to move to Kyiv, Podil would likely be your base. It has an air of modernity while keeping in line with local architecture. It’s a wonderful place to explore on a whim, a town to live in and enjoy. But if you are short on time, then join this local walking tour. Discover local landmarks, squares and churches while learning about its merchant history.
Visit All the Churches
There are over 800 churches in Kyiv, with at least a dozen that are internationally significant. We’ve touched on a few already, from St. Sophia to St. Volodomyr, while barely scratching the surface.
At the beginning of Andriyivskyy Descent, St. Andrew’s Church is as beautiful as any in Kyiv. Standing on a hilltop, the Baroque church was designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, a Russian architect. St. Andrew is one of the patron saints of Kyiv, with the gorgeous designs showcasing his prominent place in society.
Visitors will quickly fall in love with the mix of white and light blue that guides your eyes to the ocean blue dome structures that are accented by gold. Inside you’ll find a red wall of saints and gilded frescos on par with any in Kyiv.
Another must see is Pechersk Lavra, which is alongside St. Sophia’s Cathedral. Pass through the embellished gate to discover the Monastery of Caves. First your eyes will be drawn to the Great Lavra Belltower, which stands at just shy of 330 feet (100m). Inside the cathedral, you’ll uncover a maze of caves developed in the 11th century. Explore the crypts and tunnels where over 100 religious figures have been buried.
On this thorough and private sightseeing tour, see the best of the city’s cathedrals and other highlights, including Mariinskiy Palace.
Get Your Art Fix at the National Art Museum of Ukraine
The cities’ many unforgettable cathedrals showcase the best of religious art in Ukraine. But for exceptional contemporary Ukrainian art, you must head to the National Art Museum. The gallery was created towards the end of the 19th century and, interestingly, was the first museum in the country.
Since Bohdan Khanenko established the National Art Museum, it has grown to house a complete collection of Ukrainian work across multiple genres. With pieces dating back to the 12th century, visitors can learn about prominent local artists and Ukrainians that have gone on to forge wonderful careers around the world.
Highlights from their permanent exhibition include a polychrome wooden relief of St. George, icon paintings from the Middle Ages, and a stunning collection of Baroque art. Visitors will also discover a range of sculptures and works from the avant-garde era.
Relax at Hryshko National Botanical Garden
With flora and trees from all around the world, the Hryshko National Botanical Garden is the place to kick back and relax in Kyiv. The garden was established in 1936 and is near to the Motherland Monument.
With the help of the National Academy of Sciences, the gardens remain lush and blooming throughout the year. Over 13,000 types of flowers, shrubs and trees help represent the world and all the seasons. However, if you’ve arrived in the spring, you can expect an even greater burst of color and aroma.
With your picnic basket filled with goods from the Besarabsky Market, lay down your blanket and admire the scenery over some local cheese. The expansive park has many open spaces to enjoy, but aim to find a spot with views of the Dnieper River, for the perfect afternoon under the Ukrainian sun.
Admire the Golden Gate
In the height of the Middle Ages, modern day Kyiv was the capital of a different nation. The city was the center point for a collection of Slavic states that were spread far and wide between the Baltic and the Black Sea.
As it ruled over Kievan Rus, the city needed a thorough fortress in which to welcome visitors and protect the city from those who wished to do harm. The centerpiece of this fortress was the Golden Gate. It marked the southern entrance to Kyiv and stood for centuries until it was destroyed in the 1200s.
To mark Kyivs 15000th birthday, the gate was revitalized after being a historic ruin for 700 years. Today, you can explore Golden Gate, an admirable structure featuring four tiers and extensive woodwork. Next to the gate is a sculpture of Yaroslav the Wise, who was the Grand Prince of Kyiv during the height of the Kievan Rus era.
Experience the World’s Deepest Metro Station
There aren’t too many places around the world where a metro station would be a must-visit. But Kyiv is just that kind of city and it’s home to Arsenalna, the deepest train station on earth.
After paying for your metro ticket, you’ll cross the barrier and embark on an exceedingly long escalator ride 350 feet (106m) below the ground. The ride will last a wonderful five minutes, just to the first section. From there, continue on for the same amount of time to reach your platform.
While there are no ornamental designs and frescoes, standing on the record-breaking platform is one of those weird must-do’s on all traveler’s bucket lists.
Watch an Opera
If you’re a fan of the opera, you must enjoy a night at Kyiv’s National Opera House. Within an enchanting building, befitting of such a location, you can enjoy a range of enthralling shows from Rigoletto to Romeo and Juliet.
The theater first opened in 1867 and also includes ballet performances. The classic architecture remains, but after a major fire, the interior features modern and up-scale amenities.
Despite being easy on the eyes and home to exceptional performers, a night at the opera or ballet won’t blow a hole in your pocket. In fact, quite the opposite. This budget-friendly cultural experience is one of the best things to do in Kyiv at night.