Kiev, Ukraine is a city on the edge. With the eastern part of Ukraine with it’s troubled past and even current events, Kiev will surprise you. The Ukrainian capital will leave you breathless if you are into religious history, incredible buildings and architecture and hip neighborhoods. Kiev is full of surprises and you will want to book a return trip.
Kiev is one of the oldest cities on the continent. It can even be argued that the city is the first in Eastern Europe to establish a de facto government and capital of the Slavic people. The city’s official history stretches as far back as the 5th century, but archaeological evidence has established that settlements here go even further back than that. Located on the banks of the Dnipro River, the city reached a golden age between the 10th and 13th century and the capital’s influence led to cultural and religious foundations for both the rest of the country and others such as Russia and Belarus. In the 13th century, Kiev was overrun by the Mongols, then became part of the duchy of Lithuania, then liberated by Cossacks who signed it over to Russia. Officially by 1775, the city was part of the Russian Empire with brief periods of independence after the First World War. Finally, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kiev has reemerged as the capital of independent Ukraine.
With all of this being known, it’s easy to say that Kiev is a place with a long past. For generations, people associated themselves with Russia, while others didn’t, then almost overnight, became Ukrainians again. But its emergence as an independent country just 30 years ago, the city is both new and modern while still holding onto traditions of its past. While Russian is sometimes spoken on the street, many youths are also learning English and will be more than happy to help a visitor. The people of the city are hospitable with more and more other ethnic minorities populating the city, Kiev is also diverse as it discovers its place as a modern European capital. Check out some of the best things to do in Kiev.
Explore the Labyrinthian complex of the Pechersk Lavra
It is one of the most important sites in the Eastern Orthodox Religion. It survived the Mongols, two world wars, the Soviet Union, and it still stands to this day after having been built in the 11th century. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pechersk Lavra is a complex of gold-domed churches, ornate bell towers, and underground cave systems. The Pechersk Lavra is made up of different parts and it can take a few hours to see it all with the oldest part being the subterranean cave structure. Monks were canonized and mummified here and if you’re looking to explore the caves don’t be claustrophobic because the tight winding space is only lit by candlelight.
Dwarfing the other monuments in the Pechersk Lavra is the Great Lavra Bell. Built in 1731, the bell tower is not only a beautiful example of architecture but is essentially one of the many symbols of the city. At one point it was one of the highest-standing bell towers in the world culminating in a recognizable and quintessential gold dome.
Finally, the jewel in the Pechersk Lavra crown is Saint Sophia’s Cathedral. Dating back to the 1000s, it is the oldest cathedral in the country. The cathedral was commissioned by Prince Yaroslav the Wise in 1037 and who’s sarcophagus is on display. Take your time strolling inside as the sheer amount of medieval frescoes and mosaics that have survived the centuries make it a truly interesting thing to see.
Learn about the History of Ukraine in World War II
If you’re coming from the west it’s easy to understand the world’s biggest conflict through the lens of the western powers. The Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II aims to provide some perspective from the view of the Ukrainian and Soviet sides. At the time of the conflict, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and in Kiev alone, over 11,000 soldiers from the city died along with over 200 workers. Along with its death toll, cities and towns are also featured here in the “alley of the hero cities” which is dedicated to Soviet cities that offered stiff resistance to the Nazi invaders.
The museum is massive with over 300,000 different objects and artifacts along with 18 different galleries cataloging the war in its entirety. Weapons, uniforms, personal diaries, and stories sit alongside tanks, artillery, and aircraft.
Outside of the museum, another one of the city’s more iconic landmarks. The Motherland Monument. Erected in 1981, the Motherland Monument is a huge 203-foot high statue commemorating the Soviet victory after WWII. Made up of individual blocks of steel the monument holds a sword in one hand and a shield bearing the Soviet insignia in the other. There is also an observation deck offering some pretty incredible views.
Relax on the Beach
In the winter, Kiev gets cold and wet but during the summer months when the snow melts and the sun is out, Kiev can get pretty hot. Being in the middle of Eastern Europe and landlocked, you might assume there are no beaches in the city, but you’d be wrong. Sitting on the Dnipro River there are a ton of little islands and beachfront sections in the river giving Kiev quite an extensive beach scene. Parks, food stalls, gyms, volleyball, are not uncommon scenes on the beaches. Swim in the river or simply enjoy the shining sun.
The main recreational zone is called the “hidropark” and if you’re looking for some fun, that’s the spot. Originally built by the Soviets, the area can be heard as far away as the metro with pop music being blasted from one of the many bars nearby. Hidropark is a party but venture a bit further into the beach and you’ll discover some quieter areas along with a gym, sports zones, and varieties of beach weather that be clothed or nude, and even gay or straight.
If you’re looking to relax and maybe learn a thing or two while still hanging out on the beach and the Dnipro island, check out the Skvorechnik on Trukhaniv Island. The name “Skvorechnik” comes from the island’s little raised wooden huts resembling a birdhouse. Skvorechnik is a strict chill-out zone. It’s alcohol-free and a place where you can learn to weave a basket, attend a yoga class, zen meditation, or attend a talk on green topics and sustainability. There’s also a pretty good vegetarian cafe.
Check out the Museum of Unnecessary Things
If religious sites and museums about war are a bit too serious, the Museum of Unnecessary Things leans a little more on the silly and weird side of museums in the city. The museum gives new life to otherwise pieces of garbage. After all, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The museum opened in 1943 and has since been collecting all sorts of esoterica, antiques, unique pieces, and yes, even sometimes junk. Over a million objects have been on display over the years from old boots to rusty tools and a wide variety of Soviet-era kitsch. Despite its ever-growing collection, the museum does have some interesting treasures such as the world’s first vacuum cleaner, an early gramophone, and a prototype model of a walker. For the traveler on a budget, you’ll be happy to know that the museum is free
Dine like a revolutionary in at Ostannya Barikada
Getting a traditional meal is something every tourist visiting a new country should do. And at Ostannya Barikada you’ll get just that. But this restaurant is more than a place to get Ukrainian food, the whole place is an experience in itself.
Walking through Independence Square today looks like almost any major city square. But after pro-independence movements in the 90s then again in 2013-2014, the streets around here were essentially a battleground. Since then Ukrainian nationalist sentiments have emerged more than ever before and that’s where Ostannya Barikada comes in. Located in a ‘’secret bunker’’ beneath the square, you’ll need to know the password before you enter.
On the outside, the restaurant looks like a normal cafe (and they do serve some of the best coffee in Kiev). You can get a coffee, a pastry, or maybe a beer and wonder what the hubbub is. But say the password “BORITESYA E POBORYTE” and you’ll be let in through a secret door to the restaurant. The restaurant itself is effectively a museum dedicated to the Ukrainian revolutions with two bars and different rooms with pictures and genuine artifacts. The place hosts a variety of political leaders, talks, meetings, and even broadcasts live on radio when there are opinion leaders having talks here.
Of course, if you’re a tourist and not looking to step on any political toes, the food can’t be beat. Everything, literally everything served here is straight from Ukraine. The steaks come from Ukrainian bred cows, the single malt whiskey comes from Ukrainian grain, the cheeses, craft beer, and vodka, all come from local producers. For those with a sweet tooth, indulge in a little apple marshmallow tart.
Take a Stroll down Andriyivskyy Descent
If Independence Square is the heart of the city then Andriyivskyy Descent is one of the arterial veins. Andriyivskyy Descent is arguably the city’s most iconic and picturesque street, even to the point where it’s nicknamed the “Montmartre of Kiev”. The street slopes down from the Upper Town to the Podil Quarter on the banks of the Dnipro. A funicular runs from the bottom up but the best way to see the street is to put on some good walking shoes and climb the cobblestones upward. Of course, it wouldn’t be worth exploring if there weren’t some interesting things to see and do.
Starting at the bottom from Podil, the area is one of the hippest and youthful spots in the city. Originally the center of commerce and where merchants lived, the neighborhood is now home to cool cafes, hipster restaurants, and Kiev’s most prestigious university. Check out the 18th-century statue of Samson or start working your way up and gander at all the 19th-century houses and architecture lining the street. One of those houses belonged to famed Russian writer (though born in Ukraine) Mikhail Bulgakov, whose house now remains as a museum.
On the south side of the street is a green space that has been turned into a surreal wonderland of art. Dozens of public sculptures sit with whimsical themes such as a 100-foot long Cat centipede, an elephant fountain, and animal-shaped benches.
If all the sites and scenery of Andriyivskyy Descent are not satisfying enough, there is also a museum called the “One Street Museum” that showcases life and stories associated with the famed street. It’s even designed to recreate the atmosphere of the street in the early 20th century. Miscellaneous artifacts, clothes, housewares, postcards, newspaper clippings, and antiques can be looked at while people learn about important residents and events that make Andriyivskyy Descent such an important spot.
Our Final Word
Kiev is a city with a long, very long history and despite the changes the country has seen and gone through even up until recently, the people are friendly, kind, and definitely are proud of their past and their bright future. The cradle of Eastern Europe awaits, so make sure you don’t miss out on these amazing things to do here.