The Ukrainian city of Kyiv (more commonly referred to in the West as “Kiev”, although that’s actually the Russian word) isn’t exactly at the top of many peoples must-visit list, but I’m here to tell you that if it’s not on yours, you should go ahead and put it right at the tippity top, right this second.
A few reasons, just to get started, just to whet your appetitite: it’s insanely cheap, the food is fantastic, and the architecture is breathtaking in all its massive brutalist Soviet glory. Also the cheapness. It is aggressively cheap. My goodness. You could live like a queen there!
Kiev was fascinating. I’ve never been anywhere like it. This was my first visit to any Eastern European country, and also my first visit to a former Soviet Bloc country, so my eyes were wide open and I was ready to experience any and everything. (See also: our day at Chernobyl, which I’ve already written about here, but go have a read if you’re interested).
In terms of language, I wasn’t sure what to do. I spent a few weeks prior to the trip working on Ukrainian on my Duolingo app, practising how to say “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, etc, only to show up in Kiev to find out that lots of people speak Russian (duh, Ashley). However, it’s such a politically volatile time in the country – remember, Crimea was annexed by Russia not too long ago; a war is currently happening – and this added a different layer to the visit. Never one to shy away from trying to speak a bit of the language, however badly, in order to show the locals that I respect their customs, I didn’t know what to do. In the end, I made the executive decision to be an ignorant tourist speaking only English rather than be a dickhead speaking the language of the oppressor. It worked out! This lack of a shared language also led to me thanking a driver at one point by saying “thank you” and him shouting at me with a huge grin in response “please!” It was great.
A really interesting part of Kiev is how insular it is. Even as this huge, growing cosmopolitan European city that hosted the Eurovision Song Contest just one year ago, inviting all of Europe to its doorstep, much of it is still really inaccessible to people who aren’t from there. This isn’t surprising for the most part – cities are made for the people who live in them! – but it’s little things that make it feel like you really are not in (generally hugely accessible)Europe anymore. What I’m getting at is, I wouldn’t say Ukraine is particularly….hospitable. The people seem to tolerate you being around, and every one just rubs along nicely, but it is not a smiley, happy sort of place – even in places that are customer oriented. There is very little effort to translate anything, anywhere, into any language besides Russian or Ukrainian, even at restaurants catering to tourists or at museum exhibitions. I’m not saying they should, let me be clear! But they don’t, and I think that’s really something.
Fun example of this – Jon and I being asked point blank to leave ten minutes before a museum that we’d paid to get into closed, after being followed around from room to room. As we went from one room to the next, they’d turn the lights off behind us! There was no discernible reason for us getting kicked out (no one else was there, no event set-up was happening, etc). It was funny, but strange. Can’t picture that happening at the Louvre!
Another example – A couple of gents walking together near our group when we were walking around the Duga radar shouted at us “where are you from?!” pretty aggressively. We were a bit worried why they were asking, but when they found out we were from England (….I didn’t mention America) they just wanted to show us how strong they were (neither spoke much English at all). Then they shouted “Russia bad, Ukraine good!” while we walked away.
I guess what I’m saying is that Ukrainians say what they mean, and don’t pretend to be nice for no reason, and I really like that.
Eating in Kiev
If you’re into meat and potatoes, I’ve got great news for you.
Kiev wasn’t hugely vegetarian friendly, if your definition of “friendly” means offering a diverse range of foods. There were definitely veggie options everywhere we went, but they were usually a couple of potato-based dishes. Specifically varenky ( aka dumpling) and potato pancake-based. Delicious, no doubt! And there are a variety of dumpling fillings to keep things interesting (my faves were mushroom, sauerkraut, and potato, respectively – essentially a potato stuffed with potato). Local Ukrainian cheeses were also available at most places we went during our short visit, and lots of pickled vegetables in different forms. I was hoping to try some borscht, but it seems that the tasty purple soup is often made with…..veal. Womp. I would have liked to get more a feel for the veggie scene in the city but 3 days isn’t much time, particularly when you’re travelling with 3 adventurous meat eaters!
Oh, and there are loads of kiosks along the main boulevards that do very cheap and delicious coffee and ice cream. Do yourself a favour and get some. Also very nice vodka can be had for cheap, often sold in different flavored shots, and it essentially costs 50p or something crazy like that. It’s lovely. Great souvenir for your trip as well!
Spotykach – we went here on our first night, drank vodka out of a ceramic fish, and sampled a bunch of stuff from the menu, which serves up tons of traditional Ukrainian fare. The decor inside is Soviet kitsch, and you can tell it’s probably a big pull for tourists (that being said, we were the only people there for our 7pm dinner on a Tuesday!). However, it’s tourist-friendliness is super helpful, because the staff speak fairly good English and there’s a translated menu – more than you’re going to get in a lot of other restaurants.
Pervak Kiev – we also really enjoyed our meal at this place. Again, traditional Ukrainian dishes of dumplings, kiev, cheese, salo (a sort of pork…butter, I guess), vodka and wine, and the ambience was very nice. I wish our stay at coincided with at least one weekend evening, because this place seems like the kind that is very popular on a Friday or Saturday. We were there on a Tuesday and it looked like this…
Interesting things to do in Kiev
A smattering of things fit in our little itinerary. As anyone who has read here knows, I’m a fan of wandering, and like to have a few “cornerstone” things to visit – big attractions that I would be disappointed to miss – and then lots of flexibility otherwise. Kiev was probably the least organised I’d ever been on a trip like this. Thanks to our poor dog getting very sick and then dying just a few weeks before our trip, we’d been uncertain if we were going to make it anyway, and to be honest I just wasn’t at all interested in researching what to do in the city while my pup was facing his mortal demise.
That being said, I feel like we managed to reach several of the big hitters and get in a good feel for the (huge, massive, very large) city while we were there.
The National Art Museum of Ukraine is the place we got kicked out of in my story above, but it was fascinating. I would 100% suggest making time for it. It’s not too big, and having the opportunity to see Ukrainian art that reflected the movements through art history that was being created elsewhere around the world at similar times (but that has never really been exported to museums elsewhere around the world) was just magnificent.
The People’s Friendship Arch is massive (honestly, I’m running out of words for “really big”) and was unveiled in 1982 to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the USSR and the celebration of the 1,500th anniversary of the Kiev city. 1500 years! It’s near a great overlook of the Dnieper River running through the city, and also on the edge of a leafy green park.
World War II Museum – also very recently known as The Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War. It’s intense, so prepare yourself. There’s a regular museum inside the foot of the monumental 200 foot tall Motherland Monument, but much of the museum is actually along a mile long stretch outside of the museum, with various statutes, vehicles that were used in the war, and a massive fountain with yet another statue in it.
This is an actual Nazi gargoyle thing, complete with bullet holes, and it’s just…in a room, on the floor. Intense, I told you.
Independence Square – Sound familiar? The central square in Kiev used to be known as Soviet Square, and has historically been home to demonstrations, protests and rallies throughout history. However on a day to day basis it’s just a cool little spot with a great fountain, a few cafes, and lots of people milling about, catching up with friends and enjoying the atmosphere.
Also that middle building up there houses a McDonald’s in the bottom. Wild.
Founders of Kiev Monument – worth a walk by. Right on the river! You can reenact the scene from Titanic like Penny and I did if you want.
Pejzazna Alley/Park Landscape Alley – This art alley was constructed over a decade ago and consists of a nice little walkway along the upper edges of a bowl-shaped park. It’s got a lot of quirky art – creepy mosaic girl child on a pile of pillows, a series of peeing boys in primary colors, Le Petit Prince and some Alice in Wonderland themed creations, and more. It’s fun, although the walkway has definitely seen better days. Penny also almost got attacked by a stray dog when we were around here, so watch out for the lone dogs!
Churches & Cathedrals & Monasteries – we didn’t actually go in any of these, but definitely would have done if we’d had more time. They’re a big draw for visitors.
So altogether, Kiev was fascinating, tasty, great value and such an interesting experience. Y’all should go, if you can. Bring some vodka and lacquered eggs home, and wear your walking shoes!