The center of Slavic culture, independent Ukraine is a burgeoning and alternative destination. With proud people that are definitely unlike Russians, its unique history stands head and shoulders above the rest of the region. Kiev is the glowing capital, but the expansive interior and Black Sea coast are other main draws.
Most people come to Ukraine for Kiev. It has most of the important sites and landmarks and is a place of incredible domed churches and vast squares. St Sophia Cathedral and the Caves Monastery are in all the glossy brochures, plus the city boasts great museums, an intriguing historic district, river tours, and beaches. Riding the cliffside Funicular railway is a must, and the best shopping for Soviet memorabilia and the latest fashions can be found here, as well.
Other highlights include the old town of Lviv, the Black Sea coast of Odessa, the intriguing peninsula of Crimea which has wineries, mineral spas, upscale resorts and a big countryside for hiking. The Carpathian Mountains are popular for trekking in summer and skiing in winter, while boating in Kiev and Vylkovo is fun anytime of the year.
June and September/October are the nicest months to visit anywhere in Ukraine. Temperature spikes are less severe, nights are not too extreme, there is little rainfall, less crowds, and hotel rates tend to be lower September onward. May and October can also be quite pleasant on the coast as most events are in May.
Currency: The Hryvnia (UAH)
Official language: Ukrainian
Beautiful buildings went up in Kiev in the 10th and 11th centuries, including St Sophia’s Cathedral (with fabulous frescoes), the Caves Monastery, the Golden Gate of the old town, and St Michael’s Monastery. This was the Golden Age for Ukraine, which saw it become a major religious, as well as cultural center. It declined under the Mongols, and was also taken by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for four hundred years, and then finally Russia. The Ottoman Empire controlled the Ukraine coast in the 1500’s.
Visitors will find that all towns sport Soviet-style buildings and vast statues —Lenin mainly—along with Stalin, Pushkin, and noteworthy historical figures such as Taras Shevchenko. Most of the sites are in Kiev, including the grand Mariyinsky Palace of 1750, though non-touristy Lviv also has an old town and its Armenian Cathedral dates back to the mid-1300’s. Kiev’s Podil district—the Lower Town, where Andrew’s Descent is—has an entirely different look, where workers’ homes hail from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The capital city, Kiev, is as multicultural as they come, with significant Polish, Armenian, and Jewish communities. Although Ukrainians are quite friendly and Kiev is certainly easier-going than Moscow, some visitors may find them to be closed off and a little rough around the edges. Likening local folks to Russians is a major faux pas here and not advised when swilling vodka in a bar.
Ukrainians are very proud of their heritage, as evidenced by the flag-waving on Independence Day and Kiev Day. Trade fairs are popular events, and on Sorochinsky Yarmarok visitors can see people don traditional garb for merrymaking. Dress is casual, while higher end dining in the capital often requires formal attire, and women are to wear a hat or scarf when visiting Orthodox churches.
Ukraine is big on the arts and every town has at least one theater (Kiev with many), along with innumerable galleries. Its museums cover all genres, while some of its arts and crafts are known the world over. Ukrainian craftspeople churn out fabulous jewelry and ceramics, along with handcrafted dolls, decorative eggs, and beautiful embroidery.
Summer—June to August—is the hottest time in Ukraine, with daily averages around 70°F. Highs in July can be well into the 90’s (and 100’s), with not much respite at night. This is especially true in the north where Kiev is, with temperatures on the coast less intense.
You do not need a visa to enter Ukraine for tourism purposes for visits of up to 90 days in any 180 day period, but must be able to provide proof of valid health insurance and sufficient funds for the duration of your stay. You must receive the visa in advance at a Ukrainian embassy or consulate.
There are metered taxis and private (‘gypsy’) cabs in Ukraine towns and cities. The metered ones are official and are noted by their black and yellow roof signs, but even they don’t always use the meter, especially in Kiev during busy times. Either type can be flagged down on the street, but you should always agree on a price before setting off. Prices are fair for most visitors, and since the smaller towns have fewer choices for public transportation, a taxi can save a lot of time.
Water taxis arrive in Odessa from various ports in the Black Sea, though travel by ferry is not the norm beyond this region. Within the Ukraine, there are popular cruises along the Dnieper River, running between Kiev and Odessa, as well as cheap boat tours of the river in Kiev itself.
Train travel within Ukraine is preferred over bus, particularly for long distances. Ukrainian Railways are government-run, and although old and slow, typically are reliable and cheap. There are three classes of cabins: two-berth lux, four-berth second class and six-berth third class. All main cities are served by the rail and tickets can be purchased online. The main train station is near Vokzalna metro station in Kiev, but Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk also have metros.
Before you leave on your holiday, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:
Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)
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