Kyiv (or Kiev) is the capital and the biggest city of Ukraine. Commonly known as the ‘City of Domes’, Kyiv will not fail to surprise and entice you with its gold-coloured charm.
Arriving on a sunny day in June, the first thing that struck me about Kyiv was its beauty. I’ve been to a lot of European cities, and few compare to Kyiv’s offerings. I could easily have spent weeks here finding new things to do and see.
Visually speaking, it brought back memories of my time visiting its bigger and more contemptuous neighbour, Russia. Think of St. Petersburg or Moscow with its eclectic architecture and massive Soviet monuments, only greener, calmer and more European. But given the fraught history between the two countries, I’m not sure how much I should lament their similarities and instead move onto talking about all the different things you can do in this severely underrated European city in 3 or 4 days.
Day 1: Central Kyiv and St. Sofia’s Cathedral
I think getting to know a city is best done by foot, so that’s exactly how I chose to explore Kyiv on my first day.
– Make your first port of call the strikingly bright and beautiful St Volodymyr’s Church. It’s yellow-painted facade is unlike any other in the city. Also nearby is Shevchenko Park, a lovely feast of landscape gardening and sculptural designs. Since my hotel was located nearby I noticed it’s also a place where couples enjoy to come at night – romance beckons!
– A short walk from St Volodymyr’s Church is the National Opera House and the Golden Gate. The latter is a reconstructed medieval gateway that was the entrance to the capital city dating back to 1037.
– St. Sophia Cathedral is Kyiv’s oldest standing church dating back to the 11th Century. Make sure to pay the extra fee to climb the bell tower, the views are nothing short of magnificent.
– Painted in bright blue, St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral is hard to miss – so make sure you don’t! Nearby St. Michael’s is Uzviz (literally “Descent”), a narrow, steep winding street filled with artists and their paintings. For this reason the area has a Parisian feel and compared to Montmartre, though that might be a stretch.
– Mariyinsky park is the oldest and most beautiful park in Kyiv. It’s full of winding paths, bridges, flower gardens, panoramic views of the city and is also home to Mariyinsky Palace. It’s a lovely place to watch the sunset.
Dinner: If you’re into seafood, look no further, Barkas specialises in it. The menu offers a wide range of fish that can be found locally and in the Black Sea. It’s hard to go wrong with your selection but the ‘Barkas fish soup’ for starters is a must! I found the food so satisfying I ate here twice.
Day 2: Kyevo-Pechersk Lavra – the unique Monastery Complex
On your second day, breath-taking churches and massive Soviet monuments will besiege you.
– To get to the monastery, hop on the metro to Arsenlna Station. It’s a 15-minute walk and en route you’ll find one of the best examples of Brutalist architecture at the Salute Hotel. I fell in the love with the design which was constructed in 1984 by architect Abraham Milesky.
– On the hills above the Dnipro River, the setting of the monastery’s tight cluster of gold-domed churches couldn’t be more scenic. An important centre of Eastern Orthodox Christianity since its foundation in 1051, the Kyiv Pechersk Lava is a historic monastery and probably Ukraine’s most famous monument. It attracts millions of visitors — tourists and pilgrims alike — every year. It contains a large number of architectural monuments (including the Great Bell Tower, one of the most remarkable elements of Kyiv’s skyline) and the Dormition Cathedral. The most incredible part is the large network of underground caverns and corridors, apparently built around the cave in which Saint Anthony of Kyiv settled in the 11th century.
– Hidden among the monasteries is the Museum of Microminiatures. Just like the exhibits themselves, this is a tiny museum but it holds the world’s tiniest sculptures, so small you’ll need a microscope. Don’t miss the world’s smallest chess set made from gold and fits on the head of a nail.
– While Communist street names and symbols were outlawed from Ukraine in 2015, some monuments were allowed to remain. Thankfully, The Motherland (or Rodina Mat) was one of them. Built in the 1970s and reaching 62-metres high, it now forms part of the Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II. And as you make the walk over to this statue, you’ll pass through a breezeway with incredible bas-relief sculptures of war victims, soldiers and resistance members.
Dinner: After reading Lonely Planet describing Tsarske Selo ‘a purely bodily delight’ I was curious to give this place a go. I was not disappointed. Located by Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra, it’s the perfect place to unwind after a day of spiritual sightseeing. The exterior and interior are both surprisingly pretty, made in old Ukrainian style with wooden cabin-style walls and pristine white tablecloth. I should add this place is quite pricey for Ukrainian standards and the portions aren’t big, but worth it if you’re hoping for tasty, authentic food matched with a charming atmosphere.
Day 3: Chernobyl Museum, Khreschatyk Street & Botanical Gardens
After you’ve visited the main attractions, it’s time to get to know the city better through some lesser known museums and a stroll around the shopping streets.
– In the morning head to Hryshko Botanical Garden. It’s a real oasis of peace in the heart of a huge, bustling city. Gorgeous greenery stretches far into the distance, bordered on one side by views of the Dnipro River and of the Left Bank. It also boasts over 13,000 different kinds of trees, flowers and other plants from all over the world. You could easily spend the whole afternoon here if the weather is good.
– Take the Furnicular cable car to Podil and visit the Chornobyl Museum. It’s hard to convey the full horror of the world’s worst nuclear accident, but the Chornobyl Museum makes a valiant attempt.
N.B. That’s not a typo – I’m not sure why it’s not called the Chernobyl Museum…
– Though I don’t travel to go shopping, I was surprised and quite delighted to find out that Kiev has more than a few things to offer my wardrobe at Khreschatyk Street. This wide, elegant boulevard stretching 1.2 kilometres is often called the Champs-Elysees of Kyiv and also here lies Maidan Square and the People’s Friendship Arch, a huge Soviet monument dedicated to the unification of Russia and Ukraine in 1654.
Day 4: Explore further afield
Got a few more days to spare? Here are some suggestions:
– Day Trip to Chernobyl.
– Cruises on the Dnieper river.
– If the weather is on your side head to the beach at Truhaniv Island.
– Or you could easily spend a whole day looking for street art. Here’s a post of the what I found in Kyiv.
Where to stay
Splurge: The Opera Hotel is ideally located in the heart of Kiev’s cultural and historical districts, this boutique hotel is within walking distance of the Opera House, St. Sophia and St. Vladimir churches.
Budget: The Ibis Kiev City Centre hotel is big but offers excellent value for money. You’ll have everything on your doorstep, including a wide range of good restaurants, Peremogy Square, the National Opera House and easy metro access.