I just returned from a short trip visiting three countries in five days: Slovakia, Czech Republic & Ukraine. Firstly, I flew to Bratislava with Ryanair, where I have been several times before for the Polyglot Gathering. I then visited Brno in the Czech Republic before flying on to Kyiv. I took advantage of Ryanair’s new route to come home directly from Kyiv to Manchester.
We don’t hear much about Ukraine in the UK travel magazines or in newspapers. I therefore wasn’t sure what to expect. I had heard it was underrated but that was pretty much it! So I had 48 hours to spend in Kyiv and booked myself into a small hotel in the old part of the city.
As soon as I arrived in the evening, I was very impressed. The streets were very clean with no litter. The taxi drove past Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) with its huge, colourful fountains and stunning architecture.
At first light, I stepped out of the hotel to find that the surrounding area was mainly cobbled streets, old buildings and it was a delight to casually wander around this area. The first stop I made was at the 18th century St Andrew’s Church. It was designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who also designed the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. The exterior is a very similar colour to the Winter Palace, which I visited last year. The inside was closed for renovation work but you can still buy a ticket to access the viewing platform.
St Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral is an outstanding, sky-blue coloured building in central Kyiv. Originally dating from the 12th century, it was mostly destroyed in the Soviet Era and rebuilt recently. The 18th century bell tower escaped demolition and inside has a museum which tells the story of the history of the Cathedral. This site still a monastery today and unfortunately you can’t take photographs inside. However, I still recommend going inside to see the wonderful mosaics. Most of these mosaics are the originals that were removed from the Cathedral before demolition and returned after the reconstruction.
Independence Square is a joy to visit by day or night. With its 6 fountains, beautiful flowers and overlooked by the huge Independence Monument, this a great place to stop for photographs. Right next to Independence Square is Khreshchatyk Street. This long, wide street is full of a variety of cafes, restaurants, shops and magnificent architecture. It makes a fabulous stop for lunch.
From Khreshchatyk Street I walked on to the Golden Gate, another one of Ukraine’s UNESCO sites. Dating back to the 11th century, this was the main gate to Kyiv. Although throughout the last centuries, the gate had suffered several attacks, its remains were uncovered in excavations in the 19th century and eventually restored. There is a lovely small park surrounding the Golden Gate.
St Volodymyr’s Cathedral is the mother cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and was built in the 19th century to commemorate 900 years of Orthodox Christianity in Kyiv.
St Sophia’s Cathedral is Kyiv’s oldest standing church built in the year 1037. The bell tower was built later, in the 18th century. The site is a UNESCO site and you can purchase tickets either just to access the grounds, the bell tower or to go inside the refectory and cathedral. The cathedral was damaged throughout the centuries and then reconstructed. Today’s building combines work from various periods throughout history. Inside you can see mosaics and frescos dating back to the 11th century.
If you have time to go out slightly from the centre, the Kyiv Pechersk Larva Monastery is well worth a visit. Situated in the outskirts of the city, it’s a key attraction for tourists to Kyiv and also a UNESCO site. Known as the “caves monastery”, it consists of gold-domed churches and underground passages with mummified monks. This 11th century monastery is also a pilgrimage site.
Popular day excursions from the city include Chernobyl, the Tunnel of Love and the underground bunkers from the Cold War era. These are bookable in advance on sites such as Viator.
48 hours is really not enough time to experience all of Kyiv. I didn’t manage to visit the parks, Maryinski Palace, any of the many museums or more of the beautiful churches. From what I did experience though, I believe that Kyiv could certainly be considered as the most beautiful city in Europe and that’s after having visited 50 other countries and many more cities!
Language: In Kyiv, both Ukrainian and Russian are widely spoken. In fact, I even heard people having a conversation in both languages! English didn’t seem to be widely spoken in my experience. In my hotel, I was dependent on communicating in my basic Russian as there were no English-speaking staff. Other tourists were communicating with staff using a translation app. If you need English-speaking staff, I would suggest booking a large, more international hotel as mine was very small. I also took a Ukrainian phrasebook. I could understand some key words in Ukrainian just from my knowledge of Slovak. If you travel to other areas of Ukraine, the language situation might be different so I’d suggest you read up on this before you go. This article explains the situation very well. Although Russian resources are plentiful, it didn’t used to be easy to find good resources to learn Ukrainian for the English-speaking market. Thankfully, that is changing. Nowadays you can buy courses for Ukrainian from Language Boost, Teach Yourself and Routledge Colloquial as well as a grammar book. There are several phrasebooks and smartphone apps for travellers too.
Currency: The Ukrainian Hryvnia is the currency of Ukraine. I couldn’t get this currency before I left the UK. I’d recommend at least changing some when you land at the airport. Once I walked towards central Kyiv, there were many exchange places, even in places such as clothes shops.
Wifi: Although I had wifi at my hotel, I had to switch off data as the charges with my UK network would have been huge. This didn’t cause me a problem though as free wifi was everywhere in central Kyiv. Most bars and restaurants offer it too. Buying a local SIM card is an option and there are many mobile phone shops in and around Khreshchatyk Street. To find my way around, I use the smartphone app City Maps 2 Go. You download the city map when you have internet access and then you can use it without internet access as long as you have a phone signal. This app has worked for me all over the world.
I booked my flights independently using Ryanair.
I normally look for hotels or apartments using Booking.com as many of them do not require a prepayment and are flexible with regards to amendments and cancellations up until a few days before travel. By using my link, you will receive a 10% refund on your accommodation costs.
Another site I regularly use for hotels is Hotels.com. They also have many hotels offering flexible options. I once had to cancel a hotel at a non-refundable rate but they helped me obtain a refund as I needed urgent surgery and the hotel still had a week to rebook another customer. I have therefore been happy with their service.
For insurance, I have been using Flexicover to buy annual policies for over 10 years. In that time, I have had to claim twice for last minute illnesses resulting in cancellations and the service has been efficient. You can also arrange to pay extra and cover pre-existing conditions.
To learn Ukrainian or Russian with a teacher on Skype, I recommend Italki.com .Once you’ve paid for your first lesson they give you $10 of vouchers to use on another one.