At the Crossroads of Europe & Asia

Cosmopolitan Kiev: A Travel Guide to Ukraine’s Dynamic City on the Dnipro

Kievthe capital of Ukraine and the mother city of all Eastern Slavic peoplesis one of Europe’s most underrated travel gems. Despite decades of struggle from wars, loss, and political turmoil, Kiev has reemerged as an exciting, eclectic cityscape that displays a proudly independent culture distinct from its post-Soviet counterparts. 

Ukrainian pride is displayed everywhere in Kiev. Photo credit: Jered Gorman
Ukrainian pride is displayed everywhere in Kiev. Photo credit: Jered Gorman

Today a modern hub of three million, this intriguing destination is a heady mix of ancient monasteries, monumental Soviet architecture, up-to-the-minute cafes and bars, and numerous art galleries and workshops — all bursting with positively palpable energy. There’s something for everyone to explore, whether you want to dive into the city’s unique and colorful history or revel in its lively artistic scene.

Here are some of our favorite ways to explore Ukraine’s exciting and engaging cultural capital. 

Get an Introduction to Kiev at Independence Square


Independence Square, Kiev’s central square on Khreshchatyk Street, is filled with fountains and glass domes. Known as the Maidan, this open and welcoming plaza is the city’s most popular gathering point, where people come to stroll, enjoy the nightly fountain show, and catch outdoor weekend concerts.

An aerial view of Independence Square in the heart of Kiev. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
An aerial view of Independence Square in the heart of Kiev. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

In recent years, Maidan has been the scene of not only festive but feisty Ukrainian events, including the pro-independence protests of the early 1990s and the Orange Revolution in 2004. In February 2014, thousands of people camped and demonstrated here to protest then-president Yanukovych’s decision to strengthen ties with Russia instead of the EU. The protesters successfully unseated Yanukovych and restored the Constitution of Ukraine in what is now called the “Euromaidan,” or “Revolution of Dignity.”

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Despite the ever-present reminders of revolution, Maidan’s atmosphere remains celebratory and convivial, and the square is almost always busy with pedestrians, street vendors, and performers, particularly on weekends.

Stroll the Cool Shops Along Kreshchatyk Street


From the square, take in the main street of the city, Khreshchatyk, which is lined with neoclassical public buildings, cafés, and lots of upscale shopping. On weekends and holidays, Khreshchatyk is closed to traffic and becomes a pedestrian thoroughfare, dedicated to shopping, strolling, and people-watching.

Kiev’s popular Khreshchatyk Street is packed on weekends and holidays, when it’s closed to traffic and becomes a pedestrian-only thoroughfare. Photo credit: Jered Gorman
Kiev’s popular Khreshchatyk Street is packed on weekends and holidays, when it’s closed to traffic and becomes a pedestrian-only thoroughfare. Photo credit: Jered Gorman

Check out some of the huge underground malls teeming with high-tech shops, or the classic TsUM department store filled with some of the finest designer goods in the city. Or stand in line with the locals for a sampling of the famous perepichka — a savory Ukrainian sausage wrapped in deep-fried dough — from the beloved Kyivska Perepichka kiosk on the corner of Kreshchatyk and Khmelnytskoho.

A mini market sets up shop around Khreshchatyk Street. Photo credit: Jessica Clark
A mini market sets up shop around Khreshchatyk Street. Photo credit: Jessica Clark

Hit the Highlights in Kiev’s Old Town


Brimming with beautifully reconstructed churches and glittering golden domes, Kiev’s Old Town, also known as the Upper Town, is where Eastern Slavic civilization all began. The great medieval empire of Kievan Rus was established here in the 9th century, which eventually spread and became the cultural cradle for three modern-day nations — RussiaBelarus, and Ukraine.

Today, this swath of Kiev’s central core contains some of the oldest and most important landmarks in the city, and you could easily spend a full day here admiring ancient ruins and gracious baroque architecture.

The Golden Gate (Zoloti Vorota) is one of the only remaining city gates of ancient Kiev. Photo credit: Jessica Clark
The vibrant colors of St. Michael’s Monastery in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo credit: Mariana Noble
The baroque bell tower at St. Sophia’s Cathedral. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
Kiev's St. Sophia's Cathedral shines on a beautiful day. Photo credit: Jessica Clark
Also featured in the cathedral is a painted egg mosaic of St. Sophia. Photo credit: Joanna Millick
  • The Golden Gate (Zoloti Vorota) is one of the only remaining city gates of ancient Kiev. Photo credit: Jessica Clark The Golden Gate (Zoloti Vorota) is one of the only remaining city gates of ancient Kiev. Photo credit: Jessica Clark
  • The vibrant colors of St. Michael’s Monastery in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo credit: Mariana Noble The vibrant colors of St. Michael’s Monastery in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo credit: Mariana Noble
  • The baroque bell tower at St. Sophia’s Cathedral. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes The baroque bell tower at St. Sophia’s Cathedral. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
  • Kiev's St. Sophia's Cathedral shines on a beautiful day. Photo credit: Jessica Clark Kiev’s St. Sophia’s Cathedral shines on a beautiful day. Photo credit: Jessica Clark
  • Also featured in the cathedral is a painted egg mosaic of St. Sophia. Photo credit: Joanna Millick Also featured in the cathedral is a painted egg mosaic of St. Sophia. Photo credit: Joanna Millick

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If you want to hit the Old Town’s highlights, first visit the Golden Gate (Zoloti Vorota), one of the only remaining city gates of ancient Kiev. From there, step inside Kiev’s oldest church, UNESCO-listed St. Sophia’s Cathedral, with its striking original frescoes and mosaics from the early 11th century. Then walk down to brilliant blue St. Michael’s Monastery, named after the patron saint of Kiev.

Amble Around Andreyevsky Uzviz & Posh Podil


Andreyevsky Uzviz (or Andrew’s Descent) is a small, winding cobblestone street lending lots of charm and character to the city. The history of the street goes back 2,000 years, and formed the shortest route between the aristocratic Upper Town and the old tradesmen’s quarter, Podil. During the 19th century, this part of town was proudly dominated by some of the city’s most prominent artists and writers.

Andreyevsky Uzviz — also known as Andrew’s Descent — is one of Kiev’s most charming thoroughfares. Photo credit: Jered Gorman
Andreyevsky Uzviz — also known as Andrew’s Descent — is one of Kiev’s most charming thoroughfares. Photo credit: Jered Gorman

The area still retains its old bohemian vibe, and is a wonderful place to stroll and shop. The main street is filled with galleries, gift shops, restaurants, cafés, and artists’ co-ops and studios, while down in Podil you can find some of the trendiest boutiques, restaurants, and cocktail bars Kiev has to offer.

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Be sure to make time for photo ops at the blue-domed St. Andrew’s Church near the top of the descent. It’s said to have been founded on the spot where Andrew the Apostle planted a cross and foretold the building of a great Christian city. Designed in the baroque style by architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli (the same architect that designed the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg), the 18th century church offers spectacular views of Podil and the Dnipro River.

The stunning baroque St. Andrew’s Cathedral dazzles in gold and blue (Kiev.) Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
The stunning baroque St. Andrew’s Cathedral dazzles in gold and blue. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Marvel at the Monastery of the Caves


The UNESCO-listed Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra, or Monastery of the Caves, was Kievan Rus’ first monastery, founded in 1051. The monks dug caves and underground labyrinths, living and studying in them, and their mummified bodies still line the walls. Here the historian-monk Nestor compiled much of the earliest known history of the Slavs, The Tale of Bygone Days, and passed on the crafts of icon-painting and building.

The Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra, also known as the Monastery of the Caves. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
The Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra, also known as the Monastery of the Caves. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

The complex, built on nearly 70 acres of grassy hills overlooking the Dnipro River, encompasses several ornate gold-domed churches, as well as one of the largest museum collections in the city. Be sure to explore the underground catacombs where the bodies of mummified monks still remain behind glass-encased tombs.

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Also on the monastery grounds is Kiev’s second great Byzantine church, the Dormition, or Ascension, Cathedral. Built from 1073 to 1089, the Dormition Cathedral was the model for the early 12th century churches of Russia’s Golden Ring towns.

Sample Kiev’s Soviet Era Sights


While Kiev is known for its medieval monasteries and splendid baroque buildings, numerous old Soviet relics can still be seen that have been woven into the city’s cosmopolitan fabric.

Kiev’s “Crossing of the Dnipro” Monument is dedicated to those who fought and died during the 1943 Battle of the Dnipro, which reclaimed the city from German forces. Photo credit: Jessica Clark
Kiev’s “Crossing of the Dnipro” Monument is dedicated to those who fought and died during the 1943 Battle of the Dnipro, which reclaimed the city from German forces. Photo credit: Jessica Clark

Overlooking the Dnipro near the Monastery of the Caves is the 330-foot stainless steel Rodyna Mat, the “Nation’s Mother” statue, holding aloft a sword and shield. One of the last Nation’s Mother monuments to be erected in the Soviet Union, the Rodyna Mat was inaugurated in 1981 by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev a year before he died. An elevator can take visitors to the top of the statue’s shield for impressive views of the Kiev skyline.

The “Nation’s Mother” Monument, or Rodyna Mat, stands 330 feet tall over the Kiev skyline — just several feet taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York. Photo credit: Jessica Clark
The “Nation’s Mother” Monument, or Rodyna Mat, stands 330 feet tall over the Kiev skyline — just several feet taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York. Photo credit: Jessica Clark

The 35-acre park where the Rodina Mat can be found is part of a memorial to those who fought in WWII. The complex includes an open-air museum of tanks, artillery, and helicopters; a flower-scattered Eternal Flame; and an indoor National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War. The complex changed its name in 2015 when parliament outlawed the Soviet term “Great Patriotic War.”

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Binge Out at the Bustling Bessarabsky Market


Those traveling throughout Ukraine soon come to discover that its people are passionate about good food. For some of the best culinary goods in town, Kievan chefs and foodies head to the Bessarabsky Market, which has stood in the same spot since 1912.

Kiev’s Bessarabsky Market has been a fixture for foodies since 1912. Photo credit: Peter Sukonik
Kiev’s Bessarabsky Market has been a fixture for foodies since 1912. Photo credit: Peter Sukonik

Named for the Bessarabian merchants who once lived and worked in this part of town, this massive indoor market is filled with stands bursting with colorful fresh produce, local meats and cheeses, caviar, and jar upon jar of pickles and preserves. Vendors are happy to hand out samples, and you can also find a variety of stalls selling classic Ukrainian dishes like borscht and varenyky.

Stalls inside Bessarabsky Market are piled high with fresh produce and preserved goods (Kiev.) Photo credit: Peter Sukonik
Stalls inside Bessarabsky Market are piled high with fresh produce and preserved goods. Photo credit: Peter Sukonik

Pay Your Respects at the Chernobyl Museum


Kiev’s sobering Chernobyl Museum explains the combination of human error and design flaws responsible for the 1986 explosion and fire at Chernobyl’s Reactor #4, only 62 miles from Kiev. The reactor, put into commission only three years before, exploded and burned during a shutdown, blowing tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere.

A guide leads visitors through the sobering exhibits at Kiev’s Chernobyl Museum. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
Part museum, part memorial, the Chernobyl Museum documents the immediate aftermath and lasting impact of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents (Kiev.) Photo credit: Gerhard Bartsch
The museum's entrance is lined with street signs listing the names of all the villages affected by the Chernobyl disaster (Kiev.) Photo credit: Gerhard Bartsch
A photo display shows some of the young children who died during the Chernobyl disaster (Kiev.) Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
Photos of the men who lost their lives containing the nuclear meltdown at Kiev's Chernobyl Museum. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
  • A guide leads visitors through the sobering exhibits at Kiev’s Chernobyl Museum. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes A guide leads visitors through the sobering exhibits at Kiev’s Chernobyl Museum. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
  • Part museum, part memorial, the Chernobyl Museum documents the immediate aftermath and lasting impact of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents (Kiev.) Photo credit: Gerhard Bartsch Part museum, part memorial, the Chernobyl Museum documents the immediate aftermath and lasting impact of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents. Photo credit: Gerhard Bartsch
  • The museum's entrance is lined with street signs listing the names of all the villages affected by the Chernobyl disaster (Kiev.) Photo credit: Gerhard Bartsch The museum’s entrance is lined with street signs listing the names of all the villages affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Photo credit: Gerhard Bartsch
  • A photo display shows some of the young children who died during the Chernobyl disaster (Kiev.) Photo credit: Douglas Grimes A photo display shows some of the young children who died during the Chernobyl disaster. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
  • Photos of the men who lost their lives containing the nuclear meltdown at Kiev's Chernobyl Museum. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes Photos of the men who lost their lives containing the nuclear meltdown at Kiev’s Chernobyl Museum. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

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The interactive exhibits at the museum offer a modern recreation of the events of that day, and show the path of the radiation and the mass evacuations that eventually relocated over 300,000 people from Ukraine to various parts of the former Soviet Union. The nuclear accident and its subsequent cover-up marked the beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Learn the Intricate Art of Ukrainian Egg-Painting


Groups of 10 or more can take the opportunity to learn traditional Ukrainian egg-painting, or pysanka. Literally translated as “egg-writing,” this traditional craft has been elevated to an art in Ukraine. Each pattern has a different meaning, some of them dating back to pagan times.

Painted eggs decorate a Kiev fence. Photo credit: Luba Rudenko
Painted eggs decorate a Kiev fence. Photo credit: Luba Rudenko

During the class, an artist will lead you step-by-step through drawing the pattern, coating the egg in hot wax, and dipping it in an array of brilliant dyes to create a vivid, multi-colored pattern. Come away with your own decorated egg.

An egg painting demonstration in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo credit: Joanna Millick
An egg painting demonstration in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo credit: Joanna Millick

Discover the Decadence of Yanukovych’s Mansion


About 9 miles outside of Kiev is one of the city’s newest tourist attractions, Mezhyhirya, the former private estate of ex-president Viktor Yanukovych. Set on more than 340 acres of land and costing millions of dollars to create, the luxurious compound gives visitors a peek into the lavish lifestyle of the ousted Ukrainian leader.

Ousted president Yanukovych’s former estate outside Kiev, Ukraine. Photo credit: Luba Rudenko
Ousted president Yanukovych’s former estate outside Kiev, Ukraine. Photo credit: Luba Rudenko

Mezhyhirya is centered around Yanukovych’s personal residence, known as the “Honka.” The four-story mansion is extravagantly decorated with wood paneling, gilded fixtures, and crystal chandeliers, and showcases some of the ex-president’s most decadent items including gold-plated monogrammed golf clubs, personalized bottles of brandy, and a replica of the piano used in the music video for John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

The wood paneling alone on the mansion staircases cost around $200,000 USD. Photo credit: Gary Krosin
The wood paneling on the mansion staircases. Photo credit: Gary Krosin

The compound also houses a private zoo, 3D movie theater, a rare-breed dog kennel, private golf course, a classic car and motorcycle collection, and a full-size galleon floating on a man-made lake, which doubled as Yanukovych’s own private restaurant. Many of those living in a country with a per capita income of approximately $8,300 take a dim view of these excesses.

Yanukovych's private estate is centered around his personal dacha, known as the “Honka.” Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
One of the many rooms inside Yanukovych's mansion. Photo credit: Gary Krosin
The mansion reveals Yanukovych's taste for luxury, including this custom-built bowling alley. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
Yanukovych had a separate garage specially built to house his personal vintage car collection. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
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A view of the Dnipro River from the mansion. Photo credit: Gary Krosin
  • Yanukovych's private estate is centered around his personal dacha, known as the “Honka.” Photo credit: Douglas Grimes Yanukovych’s private estate is centered around his personal dacha, known as the “Honka.” Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
  • One of the many rooms inside Yanukovych's mansion. Photo credit: Gary Krosin One of the many rooms inside Yanukovych’s mansion. Photo credit: Gary Krosin
  • The mansion reveals Yanukovych's taste for luxury, including this custom-built bowling alley. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes The mansion reveals Yanukovych’s taste for luxury, including this custom-built bowling alley. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
  • Yanukovych had a separate garage specially built to house his personal vintage car collection. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes Yanukovych had a separate garage specially built to house his personal vintage car collection. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
  • A view of the Dnipro River from the mansion. Photo credit: Gary Krosin A view of the Dnipro River from the mansion. Photo credit: Gary Krosin
  • The lush, park-like grounds surrounding Yanukovych's mansion. Photo credit: Gary Krosin The lush, park-like grounds surrounding Yanukovych’s mansion. Photo credit: Gary Krosin

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Travel with MIR to Ukraine

MIR has more than 30 years of travel experience in Ukraine and has an affiliate office in Kiev. We have a roster of contacts that can take you to places that you didn’t even know you wanted to go. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.” 

Experience cosmopolitan Kiev and Ukraine on MIR’s small group tour Belarus, Ukraine & Moldova, or on the private itinerary Essential Ukraine. You can also create your own independent Ukrainian exploration with the help of our custom and private specialists.

PUBLISHED: April 29, 2020


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