I’ve seen a influx of views on this post, given the news of an unprovoked Russian attack on Ukraine. Please keep the people of Ukraine in your thoughts and prayers as they endure unspeakable violence in their fight for their sovereign and democratic home country.
I encourage you to donate, as you are able, to provide immediate support to Ukrainians.
In looking for flights to visit a friend in Georgia in the Summer of 2019, I stumbled upon cheap airfare to Tbilisi with a layover in Kyiv, Ukraine. While the layover could have been only 5 hours, I decided to extend it with a 3-day “layover” in Kyiv to explore the city.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when visiting Kyiv, Ukraine. I’d never been to a country this far east in Europe. Also, as someone who keeps up with politics, there wasn’t a lot of good news the USA was hearing coming from Ukraine in 2019, especially with their tenuous relationship with Russia and its ongoing attempted annexation of eastern Ukraine as well as its annexation of Crimea.
Of course, the experiences you least expected certainly do surprise you in wonderful ways. What really made this stopover special was getting to spend time with a college friend who now lives and works in Kyiv. I was lucky enough to stay with her and be a part of her daily life for three days. Among many things, I got to take a barre class in Russian, met her colleagues, had drinks at some of the best bars in Kyiv, and got the chance to meet and talk with locals.
The best part was that I was there on her birthday weekend, which was so serendipitous! As a way of celebrating, her colleagues got together with her on the Friday and Saturday night that I was there. It gave me a lot of quality time to learn more about the city and hear stories about living in Kyiv.
A few things you should know about Kyiv & Ukraine:
In the U.S. we pronounce/spell Kyiv and Ukraine wrong…
In the U.S., we often spell the Ukrainian capital, K-I-E-V, which is derived from the Russian language name for the city. However, we should actually be spelling it K-Y-I-V, which is derived from the Ukrainian language name. This is actually part of a campaign by Ukraine, called #CorrectUA, to educate others on the preferred spelling.
Second, it’s pronounced KEEV, not KEY-EV. To note: this is still anglicized as this is the Ukrainian pronunciation of the city. (Sounds more like KREEV.)
Kyiv NOT Kiev
Keev NOT Key-ev
As for Ukraine, we often put “the” before the country’s name. However, it’s not “the Ukraine” it’s just “Ukraine.”
Ukraine NOT the Ukraine
The flag, is yellow and blue, symbolizing the blue sky above and the golden grains below. You will sometimes see a coat of arms on the flag, which is the Princely State Symbol of Volodymyr the Great, the first Grand Prince of Kyiv.
In Ukraine, they speak both Ukrainian and Russian. To me, it seemed that most of the informal communication, like “yes,” “no,” and “hello,” was spoken in Russian. But more substantive conversations were had in Ukrainian.
As you may know, Ukraine is a former Soviet Union satellite country. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a communist regime, there were some very hard times in Ukraine which shaped it to be the country it is now. Ukraine officially declared itself an independent country on August 24th, 1991, with over 90% of Ukrainian citizens voting for independence.
Like many other post-soviet states, Ukraine saw a rise in business Oligarchs as the country transitioned to a market economy. With the rapid privatization of state-owned assets, those with the ability to invest more were given preference over others, leading to undue power and influence. The wealth of these oligarchs is obscene. In fact, it was particularly obvious in Kyiv, where people flaunted their wealth with expensive cars they couldn’t drive (it was always the fancy cars that you would see the bad driving with) and designer clothes galore.
Most of the people are very young and there is a 2:1 ratio of women to men. I found it fascinating to notice how feminine the women dressed, wearing high heels that looked like they belonged on a runway, and not on the unevenly paved streets of this city. I was in awe!
Interestingly enough, one area that really stood out was the smell, and, in a good way! It was a floral, almost rose-like smell. It was super pleasant and surprising. I was somewhat convinced Kyiv had fragrance they gave to everyone to wear in order to spread the scent around the city. While it may be the abundance of flowers in bloom, I also smelled it even in non-garden areas. I still haven’t figured it out, but think about how many other cities can you say smell good all the time…!
There are lots of highlights to see in this city. Some of the most obvious ones are the golden-domed churches and monasteries contrasted by the stunning painted stone walls. There are also the cocktails in the speakeasies, the traditional Ukrainian food and an abundance of gardens, among many others.
Below you will find a list of places to see based on the neighborhood.
Volodymyr’s Cathedral – A beautiful yellow church which serves as the mother cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Golden Gate – The entrance to the ancient city of Kiev, the capital of Kievan Rus’, in the 11th century.
Taras Shevchenko Park and the Botanical Gardens – There are lots of parks in this city! This one is named after Tara Shevchenko, who is widely considered the Father of Modern Ukrainian Literature. As follows, the most prestigious university in Ukraine is named after him and sits next to the park.
Interestingly, you can see some areas of the murals that have been replicated vs. restored.
St. Sophia Cathedral – Make sure to get a ticket to go inside this 11th/17th century cathedral.
St. Sophia Bell Tower – This is part of the St. Sophia Cathedral premise. You can get tickets to go up and see a view of this hilly city.
St. Michael’s Monastery – A gorgeous blue monastery. The original cathedral was demolished by the Soviet authorities in the 1930s, but was reconstructed and opened in 1999 following Ukrainian independence in 1991.
St. Andrew’s Church – a striking teal colored church on the top of a hill.
Shopping on Andriivs’kyi Descent – A great place to pick up souvenirs.
Chernobyl National Museum: This is a good option if you are not going to make it out to Chernobyl for a day trip. (Pro-tip: get an English audio guide as all the information is written in Ukrainian).
Further out in Kyiv:
Pirogovo Open-Air Museum – Learn about Cossack culture, which is the beginning of East Slavic/Russian culture. Take an uber or taxi to get here.
Kyivo-Pechers’ka Lavra Church
National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War
Grishko Central Botanical Garden
They have an incredible cocktail culture here and speakeasies galore. In fact, the speak easy we went to, Laggerhead, was fantastic and I would say a must do.
Speakeasies: Laggerhead, Barman Dictat, Hendricks
Bars: Alchemist, Havana, Escobar
Lots of good breakfast options.
- Honey’s (get the eclairs)
- Milk bar
- Blue coffee cup
- Morning street markets (usually open on weekends)
Always good to try some uniquely Ukrainian snacks. In fact, Drunken Cherry and Lviv Chocolate are both from Lviv, which is a very proudly Ukrainian area of Ukraine.
- You need to seat yourself and hold your credit card up to get people’s attention at restaurants.
- Walking around is easy, though there are a lot of hills.
- I suggest staying in old Kyiv.
- Uber is very cheap and a good option for traveling distances.
- The subway is another good option for getting around the city.
- Ukraine International Airlines is great and cheap.
- Get a taxi at the taxi stand when you arrive.
- Exchange some money, but know that most places take credit cards. Make sure you have a chip and or “tap” option on your card.
- Spa services here are wonderful and cheap, with the exchange rate from US to UAH. I got a gel manicure for $20, what?!
Overall, I loved Kyiv and would highly recommend it to anyone. Especially if you are interested in dipping a toe into visiting this part of the world. I felt incredibly safe the entire time I was here and was blown away by the incredible sophistication and culture here in Kyiv.