Ukraine has been in the news a lot recently, with Russia taking over Crimea and a passenger plane being shot down in Ukrainian airspace, not to mention the revolution last year. They say all publicity is good, but this kind of news is certainly keeping tourists from the country.
However, our ten days in Ukraine showed us a country that was just going about its business; a pleasant place with friendly people who are angry about how corrupt their nation is. There’s plenty to see and do, and we didn’t feel unsafe at all during our time there.
We only visited Odessa and Kiev, and we spent a lot of our time working, so we can’t talk about Ukraine as a whole. However, we certainly got a taste for the country and are keen to return when I no longer need a visa!
Before you go
Make sure to check if you need a visa or not. US, UK and EU citizens don’t, so Craig was fine, but New Zealanders do. Citizens of many countries require an invitation letter or tourist voucher, which makes the process that much more difficult, but New Zealanders and Australians don’t require this.
You can apply at a Ukranian embassy at home or while you’re travelling, and the cheapest option takes two weeks to process — it was double the price for a fast service (same-day or overnight). Bring proof of travel insurance, the address of where you’re going to stay, a passport photo, and your flight details if you have them.
We also highly recommend learning to read Cyrillic script. Get an app for your phone or copy out the letters and their equivalent in Latin script, and practice as much as possible. Many things are written in English, but a fair amount is in Ukrainian or Russian only, and if you can at least understand the sounds of the words, you’re halfway there.
There are direct flights to Kiev from London and a host of other European destinations; ours were surprisingly affordable. You can also travel overland from many countries, including Russia, Poland, Romania and Moldova. To travel between the airport and Kiev, you can take public transport, but taxis are affordable: we paid 250 UAH door to door. Don’t just hop in any taxi, though, have someone call for you, or call yourself if you speak Russian.
Both Odessa and Kiev have good public transport systems, though Odessa is small enough to walk around. Kiev has a good metro system; one ride costs 4 UAH (the currency is called the hrivna, pronounced greevna) and you purchase tokens from a ticket counter or a machine before going through a turnstile.
There are also many options for travelling within the country; train seems to be the most popular among locals and method we chose. We went with an overnight train that had three classes, and since a first-class private cabin with two beds only cost 400 UAH (US$18) per person, we decided to travel in comparative luxury. Second class cabins have four couchettes, and third-class is open plan, with four beds on one side of the aisle and two on the other. It’s cheap, but I prefer to be able to lock my door. It’s possible to book online, but we decided to buy our tickets in person at the train station; be aware that credit cards were not accepted, despite the Visa sign on the window.
What to see in Odessa
Odessa is a beautiful city, charming with its faded grandeur. The city itself is the main attraction, so make sure to have time to wander around to see its buildings and parks. We loved the flat house, the mother-in-law bridge, and the City Gardens. The Potemkin steps require a visit, made famous through a scene in the movie Battleship Potemkin; apparently many of the events in the movie are based on historical fact, but the scene on the steps is fictional. Wander around to the Marine Terminal after going down the steps, and if you’re feeling lazy, you can go back up by funicular.
Whatever you do, don’t miss a visit to the opera. Ticket prices cost less than a cup of coffee in many places, so there’s no excuse! Just seeing the opulent interior is worth the entrance fee, but you also get a high-class performance into the bargain. We saw a fantastic ballet, but all sorts of plays and concerts are put on there. You could also visit the Odessa Philharmonic for another beautiful experience; tickets start at 80 UAH.
The place to eat is Deribasovskaya street, with its miles of restaurants and street-food stalls. We loved Kompot, a local mini-chain which serves local food at fair prices and is named after a local fruit drink they serve.
If you like markets, you’ll love Privoz market, which is one of the biggest in the former USSR. It has everything from meat, to clothes, to fruit and vegetables, and was a great place to stock up for our overnight train trip.
There are also a wealth of museums; we didn’t visit any this time, but you can choose from art museums, a literature museum, a maritime museum, an art gallery or two, an archaeology museum or a museum of the cinema. Or stay local and visit the Odessa region museum.
We were excited to go to the beach while in Odessa, and there are at least six to choose from, including party spots and nudist beaches. The weather wasn’t right for swimming while we were there, though, so we just visited one that was close to our hotel.
We were amazed by the beauty of Odessa’s churches, and more than one person told us “just wait until you’re in Kiev.” They were right. The religious buildings in Kiev were spectacular, from the sprawling Lavra monastery, to the elegant St. Sophia cathedral, to the blue and gold of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral.
We always enjoy cities with metro systems — so much easier to navigate than bus routes! All of the stations are signposted in Latin as well as Cyrillic script and it’s ridiculously cheap. There are three lines, and interchange stations each have two names, one per line. We used the funicular a couple of times, too, as it was on our route: one ride costs 3 UAH and it runs from Podil (by the river) to the upper city.
On our wanders around the city, we visited the main sights: the Mother Motherland monument, the Friendship Arch, Maidan square in the centre of town, Khreshchatyk Street, and a whole bunch of churches and monasteries.
Possibly the highlight of our trip was the visit to the Kiev Pechersk Lavra (cave monastery) which is commonly called “Lavra”. It’s a sprawling complex of buildings, built around a network of caves that were dug out by priests hundreds of years ago. Entrance fees vary according to which buildings you want to enter, and we paid extra to be able to take photographs.
It’s definitely worth heading to the bottom of the hill to have a look in the caves, where you’ll find the mummified bodies of several priests on display. Most of them are covered with heavily decorated shrouds within their glass coffins, but here and there a hand is visible. You’ll have to buy a thin candle for 1 UAH and women must cover their head and legs (skirts and shawls are available for this purpose). It’s a bit of a fire hazard but definitely an unforgettable experience.
St Sophia and St Michael’s
These two impressive churches are located within view of each other across a large square. We paid 10 UAH to enter the grounds of St Sophia, and it’s also possible to pay extra to enter the church and climb the bell tower. St Sophia is no longer a functioning church, and is a UNESCO world heritage site for good reason.
Eat and sleep
There’s a full range of accommodation options in Kiev, from hostels to five-star luxury. We found a good deal on booking.com for a boat hotel (yep, a boatel), which was an interesting experience! We ate at small local restaurants, and particularly enjoyed going to Pusata Hata with our Ukrainian friends.
While we don’t recommend visiting Eastern Ukraine at the moment due to the conflict with Russia, there’s no reason to put off a trip to Odessa or Kiev. Both of these cities have a lot to offer in terms of architecture, food, and a warm welcome from local inhabitants. So check if you need a visa, and go!
Would you like to visit Ukraine? Have you ever been? Leave a comment below.