Do you ever experience culture shock? After 44 countries, I didn’t think I would anymore. Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, proved me wrong. This formerly communistic city has a wealth of amazing architecture, art and culinary surprises. Here are some of the amazing activities in Kyiv I thoroughly enjoyed, and a few more that are still on my bucket list when I return.
Where is Kyiv (and Ukraine)
Ukraine is located in Eastern Europe southeast of Poland and is the largest country on the continent (excluding Russia). The capital city of Kyiv is the 7th largest city in Europe (4th if you exclude cities in Russia and Turkey). I certainly wasn’t expecting that when I arrived, and I didn’t plan for it either. I only had a week in the country, which wasn’t nearly enough time to even see Kyiv and Odesa (the two cities I visited), and I left far too many things behind for my next visit.
You might have heard travel warnings about Ukraine. They apply almost entirely to the eastern portion of the country where there is currently a civil war. That’s a long way away from Kyiv and won’t affect your travels. In fact, I found Ukraine to be quite a friendly and happy country, although several of the locals told me that sometimes it was hard to see a smile in the smaller villages around the country.
Flying to Ukraine isn’t the cheapest. The cheapest flight from Edinburgh (my home base) is over $200 round trip. Instead, buses from surrounding countries are a great budget option. I traveled from Cluj, Romania via Chisinau, Moldova. My bus to Chisinau was about $25, and I got a ride to Odessa with Blablacar for about $12.50. Traveling within Ukraine is extremely cheap, although not always the most comfortable rides.
Click on the map below to add it to your Google Maps as a quick reference for the attractions listed in this article.
I love art, and Landscape Alley was probably my favorite part of Kyiv with its unusual sculptures and designs. Originally constructed in the 1980s and getting an upgrade in the late 2000s, this park near the city center is a path lined with some of the more unique sculptures I’ve seen. Some of the centerpieces include 92-foot-long caterpillar-cat, an Alice in Wonderland playground where the mushrooms seem to have a different effect than making her taller, and a series of arches made by the urine streams of multi-colored boys.
Read the full article I wrote about Landscape Alley on Perceptive Travel.
Saint Andrew’s Church
This gorgeous Baroque church was originally constructed in the mid-1700s. Renovations were ongoing when I was there, restoring the artwork and reinforcing the foundations which started to slide down the side of the hill, cracking the church. Saint Andrews has been named one of the four architectural landmarks of Kyiv, and for good reason. I look forward to returning to Kyiv someday and seeing it from inside, but from without it was still one of the most beautiful buildings I saw in the city. It’s unique as the only church in Kyiv without a bell.
Just across the street are the ruins of the Church of the Tithes, which has been built and destroyed several times for more than a millennium; most recently by the Soviet regime in 1928. A small to-scale reconstruction sits nearby, while the city is actually considering rebuilding the original church.
Saint Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery
A couple minutes down the road from Saint Andrew’s is a church that looks like it came right out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. The monastery was originally commissioned back in the early 1100s but, like most buildings in Kyiv, was razed more than once. The current construction opened only 19 years ago in 2018! The outside is designed in the Baroque style, while the interior replicates the original Byzantium decorations and artwork.
Saint Sophia’s Cathedral
There are seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ukraine. Saint Sophia’s Cathedral is one of the three churches composing the site in Kyiv. Built originally in the 11th century, it also follows the tradition of being built, destroyed and rebuilt over and over. Since the 1980s, several church factions have tried to claim ownership of the cathedral, resulting in a ban from any church conducting religious services on the premises. Instead, it is open as a secular museum of Ukraine’s Christianity.
Independence Square is the heart of Kyiv. There are some interesting monuments in the square, including a distance clock (showing how far it is to all world capitals except Berlin), and the Independence Monument of a Slavic Goddess (which used to be a statue of Lenin). Every evening there is a fountain show with American music playing over loudspeakers. With so much art and liveliness there, it was a little hard to think of the square being the location of a deadly riot only three years earlier.
The Motherland Monument
This statue from 1991 stands 335 feet tall above the Dnieper River and is part of the Museum of the History of Ukraine in WWII. Surrounding the massive statue are dozens of smaller sculptures and reliefs depicting scenes from the war. The Museum of the History of Ukraine in WWII (that’s a mouthful) contains several lots containing tanks, planes, artillery and other relics of the war. Some of these have small entry fees (less than $2). Altogether they would take a couple hours to explore, but on my tight schedule I just got photos from the outside. There is also a gargantuan torch called the Eternal Flame nearby, but the cost to keep it lit is way beyond what the city can cope with, so it’s only set ablaze for major national holidays. Interesting fact: the tip of the sword on the Motherland Monument was cut off as it surpassed the height of the tallest cross on the nearby Lavra monastery.
Arsenalna and Other Metro Stations
I was really surprised to find that some of the more unusual attractions in Kyiv were underground – its metro stations. Arsenalna Station is one of the deepest stations in the world, and riding up or down the escalator takes a full five minutes. Zoloti Vorota Station is possibly the most beautiful design with vaulted ceilings, marble columns and chandeliers. Perhaps the best part of the metro system is the cost of the rides – 5 Ukrainian hryvnia each, which comes out to roughly $0.19! If you want to see the artwork in the stations, you can just ride from one to the next with the same ticket, as you only pay to enter the metro system. I didn’t have a lot of time but could have easily spent a few hours one day doing that.
Kyiv isn’t the only city with amazing underground stations. Check out this article on Kharkiv Stations.
The Golden Gate (not a Bridge)
In the 11th century, there were three entrance gates to Kyiv. This one was named after the Golden Gate of Constantinople, although it might not look anything like the original construction as there are no extant images of its older design. It certainly seems out of place with the rest of the communistic architectural structures and Baroque churches in Kyiv. The current design seems to be controversial as to what it should have looked like. I’d say it appears Byzantium, even though Ukraine was never part of the Byzantium empire (only its religion), and I’m certainly not an expert on that architecture.
While you’re at it, make sure to see “Horse,” the hedgehog statue nearby.
Kiev Pechersk Lavra and the Church of the Saviour at Berestove
The other two churches composing Kyiv’s UNESCO World Heritage Site are located beside each other south of the city center. Just a few minutes down from Arsenalna Station and within view of the Motherland Monument, the Larva is listed by Tripadvisor as Kyiv’s top attraction. I only saw the church from the outside and missed a tour of the museum and the catacombs beneath. After all, the law of the traveler essentially dictates that you always leave things behind so you have a reason to return.
Perhaps you wouldn’t consider a cafe listed as an attraction, but this one is worth the visit. You need to eat after all, and Druzi is so much more than just food. There are board games available, good music and an excellent WiFi connection if you need to upload your photos from all the previous attractions. The food was surprisingly good, and I ended up eating there for several meals during my stay. There are several locations to choose from. One is in a perfect location just a couple minutes from Independence Square, while another is further south and has really cool swing chairs to sit in. Expect to spend under $5 for a good-sized meal. There’s even a buzzer on the table when you’re ready to order.
Activities in Kyiv I Missed But Are Worth Visiting
Gorodetsky (Horodecki) House
Known as the House with Chimaeras, this Art Nouveau structure is covered with gargoyles and other animals (an art style known as chimaera decoration). Built in 1902, it seems to be one of the few buildings in Kyiv to have survived through all the wars and revolts over the past century. It’s a shame I missed it as the location is just a few streets away from Independence Square.
Castle of Richard Lionheart
It seems I actually managed to walk past this “castle” without recognizing it for what it was. Slightly unassuming from the outside, I might have just been distracted by the view of Saint Andrew’s Church at the top of the street. The building actually has nothing to do with Richard the Lionheart, but beyond that I’ll just have to find out the rest when I return for a full tour of the city.
National Botanical Garden
I usually love seeing botanical gardens, so I was a little peeved with myself when I saw that I had missed Kiev’s massive gardens just south of the Motherland Monument. There are actually two botanical gardens next to each other with a total expanse of over 350 acres, not to mention a small third gardens in the center of town just south of the Golden Gate. I certainly wouldn’t have complained about the $1.45 entrance fee into the big gardens.
Also located just a few streets away from Independence Square, this gorgeous baroque palace certainly deserved a visit. Constructed in 1752, it is the official ceremonial residence of the President of Ukraine. Perhaps I should have done more research before my visit (although the real story is I was scheduled for a tour but my email crashed before arriving and plans fell through).
Kyiv Free Walking Tour
A great way to see the city is on a free walking tour. Kyiv Free Tours will take you to points 1-5 and 8 on this list. For the rest, there are other tours available, or you can utilize the fantastic metro system. Buses in Kyiv are just as cheap, although they can be a little hard to navigate as very few signs in the country are translated into English. In fact, Ukraine was one of the hardest countries for me to travel to in terms of a language barrier. Even finding people in the city who spoke English was difficult. All the more reason to take one the of walking tours as the guides are fluent in English. They can translate the signs and give you other information which would otherwise be unavailable without being able to speak Russian.
This list is in no way complete, as there are hundreds of other museums, churches, castles, monuments, historic locations, bridges, artworks, restaurants, parks and random attractions that are worth visiting. Feel free to include your suggestions in the comments below.
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Kiev and Ukraine are underrated destinations that are only now drawing the attention that they deserve. These are indeed some unique places. I was particularly fascinated by Landscape Alley and also the Metro stations which are so enchanting.
Thanks. I couldn’t agree more. I think Kiev should be high up on anyone’s European itinerary.
Haven’t been to Ukraine yet but Kiev looks like a cool place to visit! Why did you experience a culture shock there? Your selection of main attractions looks cool, probably the landscape alley and exploring the metro stations would also be my favorite ones. And I agree that free walking tours are a great introduction to the city.
That’s a good question. Sometimes it’s hard to put into words, but I’d just say Kiev was nothing like what I expected. As an “out-of-the-way” European country, I thought it would be a lot smaller and less developed. Maybe similar to the Balkans. What I found was a really fascinating, bustling city with more styles of architecture than I could ever count, delicious food and some of the cheapest prices in the world. I didn’t have a lot of preconceived ideas before I arrived, but I don’t think I could have imagined what I found.
I had no idea Kiev was so big! I find it so hard to see a city in a few days, I like to chill out in cafes too and take my time – but with limited time this is a great summary of what there is to do. The statue in independence square reminds me of the Angel of Independence in Mexico City – I love how the old communist states redesign the old statues!
Thanks. I definitely see the resemblance to the Angel of Independence statue! There are actually a bunch of great cafes and places to eat in Kiev I forgot to mention. I’ll have to write an article about that too.
Such a long list of interesting things to see! Not a single one I would want to skip.
Guess even a week’s time would be insufficient! The cathedral and monastery looks magnificent against the blue sky.
The more articles I write about Kiev, the more I see that I missed. As the biggest city in Europe, you can only imagine there’s a lot to do! I can’t wait to go back.
I visited Kiev about a decade ago and this was a good reminder of all I had forgotten. The Druzi sounds like the perfect travels hang out.
I’ll admit, I probably spent too much time in Druzi working on the blog. Should have been seeing the city, but it’s just such a relaxing cafe to sit in with delicious food. Glad I could help you reminisce.
I can see what you mean! Fantastic architecture, lots of Russian influence. And your tips about cheap ways to go to Kiev are much appreciated. If and when we go, probably an app for translating would be useful!
You’re very welcome. It’s a great city and country to visit if you’re on a budget, but you still have to avoid a few things to save your money (like the expensive flights). Hope you can make it there soon.
I have never really considered Kiev in my list of places to visit somehow but I can see there are pretty cool things to see there. I was there for a short stopover in December and I remember when I stepped out, it was freezing! I guess if I go, it’ll have to be in the summer months!
The country has a huge range of temperatures (not like Scotland). It’s also two very different experiences, with people either wearing giant parkas or shorts and t-shirts. I should get there in the winter sometime myself to see what it’s like, although I don’t think the walking tour would be as nice when it’s freezing.
Wow, I love the fact that you mention art at metro stations. I always feel art should be a part of our public spaces and not just sit in museums and art galleries. Honestly, I knew nothing about Kiev till I read this post of yours, so thank you for introducing me to a new city.
I couldn’t agree more. I love seeing street art and musicians in cities I visit. It really does uplift the society.
I had no idea that Kiev was such a large city! I would have expected Soviet era concrete architecture but St.Michaels Monastery and St. Sophia’s Cathedral look like they belong in Austria while the Golden Gate looks like something you’d find along the Silk Road.
There is a lot of Soviet architecture too. In fact, it just might be the city with the most diverse architecture I’ve been to, even more so than Budapest and Bucharest. I’ll have to get another post written about some of the other interesting buildings I saw there, including the incomplete government buildings across the street from the monasteries.
Personally I’m still unsure if I will include Ukraine in my travel plans – my wife and I have been thinking about it a lot. Your closing statement, that it has been one of the hardest places to visit due to the language barrier, isn’t that encouraging either. Still, Kiev looks nice enough in the sunny summer weather. I particularly like the ‘Landscape Alley’ public art park.
The language barrier does make it hard, but not insurmountable. And the city is more than worth the trouble. I wish I could have inspired you more to go. It was honestly one of my favorite cities I’ve traveled to, and I can’t recommend it enough.