Please follow the link to read my guide to the city of Kyiv, “Eastern Europe’s Best Kept Secret”, in Travel Addict magazine.
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EASTERN EUROPE’S BEST KEPT SECRET
Ukraine is the largest wholly European country, but it is also one of the continent’s least visited parts. The few people who do travel to this former Soviet satellite to the west of Russia find that its capital, Kyiv, has some of Europe’s most beautiful buildings and original entertainment – and undoubtedly its most hospitable people.
From Kyiv’s Boryspil airport there are shuttle buses to the city for 25 hryvnya ($3), or an abundance of taxis that usually charge around 250 hryvnya ($30) for the 40-minute trip. Once in the centre of the city, visitors can get around by using the metro, trams and buses, which are cheap and very efficient.
The four neighbourhoods in the centre of Kyiv each offer insights into a different part of Ukrainian life: the history of Arsenalna, the style of Khreshchatyk, the beauty of the Golden Gates and Podil’s places to eat.
ARSENALNA: LOVE AND THE LAVRA
The Arsenalna district is covered by sweet-smelling chestnut trees and punctuated with dozens of landmarks. The most celebrated of these is the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra (the Kyiv Cave Monastery), Ukraine’s most well-known symbol of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It was built in the eleventh century during the rule of Prince Volodymyr, when Kyiv was the centre of the Kievan Rus’ Empire. Volodymyr’s sons later moved east to expand Rus’, until it became what we now call “Russia”.
Behind the Pechersk Lavra stands the Rodina – Mat’ (Motherland) statue. The giant silver statue, of a woman defiantly clutching a sword and shield, dominates the banks of the DnieperRiver. She represents Kyiv’s contribution to a more recent empire: the museum beneath her is dedicated to those who lost their lives defending the Soviet Union during the Second World War. It makes a solemn but fascinating detour, especially if you climb up the statue’s feet to take in the panoramic view of the city’s left bank.
Ukraine’s modern ambitions also thrive in Arsenalna. The ten minute walk from its metro station (the deepest in Europe) to the Lavra monastery takes you past international restaurants, as well as the tiny café Alfredo – with room for only two people – and a De Beers boutique.
Further along Ivan Mazepa street (named after the seventeenth century Cossack leader) is Park Slavy (Victory Park), where couples enjoy picnics in the evenings. The view fromVictory Park stretches from the light blue metro trains that slide over the river, to the thin yellow strip of beach at Hydropark, to the new office buildings and apartment blocks of Livoberezhna, to the hazy outline of Lisova bazaar on the horizon – the very easternmost edge of the city. On one day every January, to celebrate an Orthodox holiday, many people in Kyiv brave the ice and sub-zero temperatures to take a dip in the Dnieper.
Another of Arsenalna’s attractive parks is MariinskyPark – beside MariinskyPalace – where there are also impressive views over the city. Every other weekend, football fans can peek down through the trees to watch Dynamo Kyiv play at the Lobanovsky Stadium – although with tickets costing just 20 hryvnya ($2.50) it is just as easy to go to the stadium itself, to feel the fans’ energy up close.
In summer 2012 Ukraine will host several matches of the European football championships. In expectation of the many thousands of fans that will arrive for the event, several new hotels are being built in Kyiv, and its existing ones have been improved. The city has accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets, from the luxury Intercontinental Hotel on Velyka Zhytomirska street to the cheap but comfortable Uavoyage Hostel on Pushkinska street. The Arsenalna district is home to one of Kyiv’s best hotels, the Salyut (Ivan Mazepa street).
KEEPING COOL ON KHRESHCHATYK
Kyiv’s main street, called Khreshchatyk, is the most fashionable part of the city. Like Arsenalna it is also lined with chestnut trees. At weekends Khreshchatyk is closed to traffic; its cafés hang up flower baskets and set up patios on the street, where people can watch as jugglers, musicians and stilt-walkers weave through the crowds. Between cafes there are plenty of places to buy ice cream, and fountains – a feature of the city, along with its trees – to sit by while you eat them.
The people of Kyiv are unique in many ways, not least their sense of fashion. In warm weather men squeeze into tight t-shirts that are multicoloured, ripped or sequinned, and sometimes all at the same time. Businessmen wear casual cream suits and pointed white shoes. Women dress just as stylishly in sunglasses and stilettos, and turn the aisles of supermarkets into catwalks. Glamourous bags are compulsory; bras are optional.
Those brave enough to try to copy the Ukrainians’ style can browse the clothes and accessories in the designer stores along Khreshchatyk, or in the Metrograd and Globus shopping malls. In addition to clothes, Globus is full of books, films and music.
At one end of Khreshchatyk is one of Kyiv’s most important landmarks: Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). Here in the winter of 2004, tens of thousands of Ukrainians gathered to form the Orange Revolution, a protest against a corrupt election. The Revolution achieved greater political freedom for Ukrainians, which has put them on the path to European Union membership in the future.
Six years on, Independence Squarestill beings people together. On most Saturday nights there are free music concerts on Maidan.Ukraine’s music scene is defined by its novelty pop, but there are some talented rock groups, such as Okean Elzy, S.K.A.I and Druha Rika.
Kyiv has bars for all palates. Its twenty-somethings often hang out in Babai bars (there is one on Independence Square and one on Pushkinska street). Babai is the Ukrainian word for the monster that frightens disobedient children, but the kids here sip their mojitos long after bed-time.
If the concerts and bars don’t tire you out, try some of Kyiv’s nightclubs; Ukrainians love to party, and most places stay open until 6am on most nights. One of the most fashionable is Shokolad (“Chocolate”), a trendy lounge bar on Saksahanskoho street; lovers of house music go to Ikon, and D’Luxe has rooms for all musical and fashion tastes. Other local favourites include Forsazh (Harmatna street), Prime (Nauki avenue) and Arena City (Basseina street).
Language and customs:
Many younger people in Kievspeak English, but older generations only speak one of Ukraine’s languages, so it is helpful to memorise a few phrases in Russian or Ukrainian to make moving around the city easier. Hello in Russian is “Zdravstvuite!” (Zd-ravst-vui-tye!); please is “Pozhaluista” (Pa-zhal-sta) and a simple way to buy something – like a souvenir, or a drink from a shop – is to look at it and say “Mozhna?”, then “Spasibo” (Spa-see-ba; ‘thank you’). Goodbye is “Do svidaniya!” (Da svi-dan-iya!).
Ukrainians are friendly towards tourists, but can be rude if their customs are not respected. Visitors should remember that seats on buses and metro trains must be given up to elderly passengers, and people should not speak too loudly on the street. Visitors should be as careful as they would be in any other European city, and should not travel on their own at night.
BEYOND THE GOLDEN GATES
At different times of the year you can expect to find photography exhibitions, refreshment kiosks or camel rides in Taras Shevchenko Park. The park is a short walk up the hill from Khreshchatyk, and is a good place to relax before exploring the Golden Gates. Kyiv’s ‘Golden Gates’ district is where you will find the city’s most attractive architecture. The Gates themselves – Zoloti Vorota in Ukrainian – were the entrance to the city during the Rus’ Empire.
A short walk from the Golden Gates is Sofiyska Ploshcha (St. Sophia’s Square). In one corner stands St. Sophia’s Cathedral, built over twenty years in the eleventh century, whose turquoise domes and golden cupolas are another symbol of Kyiv. From spring to autumn, visitors can climb to the top of its bell tower to see a magnificent panoramic 360° view of the whole of Kyiv.
At the other end of the Square stands St. Michael’s Monastery, whose cupolas and brilliant blue domes are even more impressive than those of St. Sophia. Next to the monastery, Andriyvsky Uzviz (St. Andrew’s Descent) is a steep cobbled street lined with souvenir stalls selling traditional Ukrainian crafts. The Uzviz is the place to stock up on gifts, such as matryoshki dolls.
Living on the edge:
From the connected metro stations of Teatralna (‘Theatre’) and Zoloti Vorota visitors can reach exciting places further from the centre of the city. Metro tokens cost 2 hryvnya (25 cents) and its three lines are easy to follow. Those searching for an authentic Ukrainian experience can jostle through Lukyanivska food market, and haggle with traders for dozens of sorts of spices, fruits, vegetables and fresh meats. Another action-filled way to spend an afternoon is ice skating at the Bilshovik leisure centre in the Shulyavska district.
Kyiv also offers many places where visitors can socialise. In Lybidska in the south of the city there is an English-speaking Church group called ICA, where the city’s international community gathers every Friday and Sunday to worship, make music and share stories.
PODIL: KYIV’S CULINARY QUARTER
Although Kyiv does not have as many foreign communities as Prague, Moscow or Budapest, each of the ones that have settled here is represented by some of Eastern Europe’s most original ethnic eateries. For example, several of Kiev’s migrants from Georgia run restaurants, such as Kazbek (Lesi Ukrainki street) and Hinkali (Shota Rustaveli street), where guests are treated to vibrant Caucasian hospitality, live music, and world-famous Georgian dishes.
The Podil district, at the bottom of St. Andrew’s Descent, is Kyiv’s culinary quarter. Visitors can get to Podil by taking the metro to Kontraktova Ploshcha (Contract Square), but they can also work up an appetite by hopping on the funicular behind St. Michael’s Monastery and riding the chair lift down the hill to Poshtova Ploshcha (Post Office Square).
There are dozens of places to eat in Podil. Food is an important part of Ukrainian life, and often reflects Ukraine’s ties with Russia. The countries share most of their most popular dishes, such as pelmeni (a type of ravioli filled with meat or mushrooms), blinchiki (sweet or savoury pancakes), vareniki (dumplings with cabbage or mashed potatoes inside), and ikra (salmon caviar). All of these traditional Ukrainian dishes can be found at Puzata Hata on Sagaidachnoho street, where guests can also watch the sun set over Podil’s rooftops while listening to the latest music.
Other parts of Ukraine:
There is much more to see in Ukraine beyond Kyiv. From Podil you can take a tram ride through a forest to the small town of Pushcha Voditsa, where in the summer families sunbathe by the side of a lake and cook shashlyki (barbecues). The town of Lviv, in the far west of Ukraine near the country’s border with Poland, is a beautiful place to spend a weekend – especially in winter, when its elegant streets are covered in snow. Overnight trains to Lviv leave from Kyiv’s central train station every evening and arrive early the next morning.
Ukraine is often dismissed as uninspiring, but nothing could be further from the truth. Kyiv is Europe’s greenest capital city, and visitors in the mood to explore are sure to find that there are many more colours here than that.
> Read my other posts from Ukraine here, and more of my published writing here.