I spent far too long in Kyiv for two reasons; firstly, I was waiting to go on a tour to Chernobyl and secondly, I was sick the entire time I was there and so moved pretty slowly.
So, what did I do in Kyiv? Well, I didn’t do everything – there are stacks of museums that I didn’t make it to but then I was a little ‘museumed out’. I decided to limit myself to ten things I did, and that I would recommend – I thought I’d give that a try.
1. Free Walking Tour.
I did a free walking tour on my arrival day. There are two walking tours available in Kyiv – one at 12pm, which takes you around the old part of town, and one at 4pm which shows you the ‘modern’ part of town and involves parks and a bunch of interesting government buildings. I took the second tour and I’m glad I did as most likely I wouldn’t have seen a number of the places I did on my own. I thought it was just going to be me for a while, until an older Syrian man turned up. And so we were three, including the lovely and very knowledgeable guide Victoria.
We started off at the globe in Independence Square and wandered through Kyiv for a few hours, seeing everything from the old palace of the Empress Maria of Russia to the building of the Cabinet of Ministers with its odd concave entrance, designed to prevent attack. We walked through a lovely park that winds up beside the current Parliament, although the building was blocked off. We also visited the Lover’s Bridge, covered in the ever-present love-locks, and I pretended to have tea with a statue in a little arcade.
If you visit Kyiv, I highly recommend the free walking tour. It’s a great way to see parts of the city you might not do otherwise, as well as get tips from locals about where to eat, drink, party and so on.
2. The Friendship Arch – Арка Дружби Народів
The Arch of Friendship, constructed in 1982, symbolises the friendship between Russia and Ukraine and looks suspiciously like a steel rainbow. Apparently it’s not the most popular monument as to some people it represents Ukraine’s ongoing dependence on Russia at a time where many people, especially the young, are looking more to the West than to Big Brother. Regardless, I found it rather interesting and thought it was worth seeing. The view from the other side of it wasn’t too bad either.
3. The House of Chimeras – Будинок з химерами
Also known as the House of Monsters, this Art Nouveau building is definitely a must-see in Kyiv purely for its uniqueness. It was built by architect Vladislav Gorodetsky in 1901-1902 and is apparently built entirely of cement. This wasn’t a popular building material at the time and Gorodetsky’s construction of such a house made of cement was in part a publicity stunt. It is decorated with sculpted animals, mostly exotic, and mythical beasts – Gorodetsky was a big-game hunter. It’s both hideous and fascinating, and it’s location – directly opposite the President’s Office – seems unusual for such a strange house. It’s now used for all sorts of official government business.
4. Independence Square – Майдан Незалежності
Independence Square is the heart of modern Kyiv, and was given its current name post-1991, when Ukraine received its ‘independence’ from Russia. In 2001, to commemorate ten years of freedom [or to make life harder for the people protesting against President Leonid Kuchma there], the square was ripped up and remade, filled with new fountains and statues and a strange archway. From a tourist perspective it’s the centre of town, with just about everywhere that you would wish to go reachable from here – two metro lines cross here also, so you’re within a short distance of basically everything. What I really liked about this square was the fact that I could walk almost all the way back to my hostel from here without going above ground – that’s right. Below Independence Square, and running west along Kreshchatyk St there’s a rather long shopping mall that led almost to the hostel I was staying at, near Olympiska Station. I quickly learned to take the underground route to Independence Square as it was much, much warmer that way!
5. St Sophia Cathedral – Собор Святої Софії
St Sophia Cathedral is the heart of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, and it’s been around for a while now – the first foundations were laid in 1037 CE. This church was of enormous importance for the Kiev Rus, and established Kyiv as the centre of Orthodoxy in the region.
Apparently it was designed to rival Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and if this was truly the case then it was a complete and utter failure. Sure, it’s nice enough, but it doesn’t even come close. I found it quite disappointing – while it was old, it wasn’t actually all that interesting. Part of that may be due to the fact that a bus load of Japanese tourists and a group of Ukrainian visitors were somehow exempt from the ban on photography while I was not. I discovered that there’s no point trying to argue with the Stalinist guards who work there over the hypocrisy of this. And it’s not like they paid extra to take photos as that wasn’t an option.
There wasn’t much that really called for a photograph, but it’s the ridiculous discrimination on the grounds that – and this is actually what the guard lady told me when I asked why they could take photos and I couldn’t – ‘They’re Ukrainian’, and when I pointed to the Japanese group ‘They’re Japanese’. Yes, that’s Ukrainian logic. Different rules definitely do apply based on where you come from.
It’s quite expensive to visit the cathedral, and in my opinion it’s not worth it. It’s 40 hryvnia – to enter the cathedral, and you have to pay another dollar to enter the grounds first, and again if you want to climb the tower. While the church is historically important, if you’re on a budget I’d advise to enjoy it from the outside – there are plenty of beautiful churches in Kyiv that are free to enter.
The bell tower is worth the tiny ticket price as the view from the top is marvelous. St. Sophia looks far better from above than below – and you can’t tell how grubby the white-painted exterior is.
There’s not too many stairs to climb – the tower isn’t really that tall. Plus, it has pretty bells inside. Surprise!
6. The Kyiv Pechersk Lavra – Києво-Печерська лавра
This is one of the holiest sites in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and consists of two parts – the Upper and the Lower Lavras. The Lavra was founded as a cave monastery in the early 11th century CE, and it attracts thousands of pilgrims every year. The cave monastery, along with St. Sophia Cathedral, is the spiritual centre of Russian Orthodox Christianity.
The Lower Lavra contains some small churches and beautiful gardens, as well as the main attraction – the caves in which lie the mummified remains of various monks and saints.
Going down there with pilgrims is an experience. It’s important to remember that this is a holy site and respectful behaviour is essential. Women must cover their hair and wear a skirt that reaches at least their knees. If you are wearing jeans, you can borrow a black wrap-around before entering. You also need to buy a candle – they’re hardly expensive. Taking the candle to light your way, you head down a few steps [the church is built into the side of the hill] and find yourself in a cool, narrow passageway. Orthodox monks guard the intersections, restricting the areas that tourists can visit. Pilgrims can visit a greater area. I entered behind two elderly women and a girl about my age. Once we reached the glass coffins in which the monks’ bodies are entombed, those elderly women showed that they could still move pretty quickly. They rushed over to the first coffin, touching their forehead and then lips to the glass above the head, and then moved to repeat the same above the feet, whispering prayers as they went. They dashed from side to side of each small enclave to pay their respects to every monk. The only light is that of the candle each person holds, and I was grateful that there was not too many people – with headscarves wrapped loosely over heads that could be disastrous. This went on throughout the small part of the cave system I was granted access to, and watching how the locals behaved was almost more fascinating to me than the sight itself.
The Upper Lavra, a few minutes walk north of the caves, requires a ticket and costs a whopping 50 hryvnias extra if you wish to take photos. I’d expected, given the exorbitant photo fee, that the churches and buildings within the Lavra would be more impressive. They were quite pretty, but not worth paying extra for the photographs unless you’re really keen. Plus, as no one actually checks that you have a photo ticket when you’re taking photos it would be easy to get away with not paying the fee – I’m pretty sure that most people do this, as I didn’t see anyone else pay the extra fee and I saw everyone there taking photos. Despite having done the right thing, I did feel a little bit ripped off. There are a few grand churches and a small but interesting museum. There isn’t much in the way of English information anywhere, so it’s a matter of ignorant appreciation.
7. St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery – Михайлівський золотоверхий монастир
St. Michael’s is a monastery five minutes walk northeast from St. Sophia’s, and the church itself is surrounded by well maintained gardens and high walls. I found it more interesting than St. Sophia’s despite being historically of far lesser significance. It’s also blue.
During the Soviet period the monastery was demolished with all the delicacy usually associated with refined demolition tools like dynamite. All the important and pretty artefacts were removed prior to destruction and sent to places like St. Sophia’s, where the old floor mosaics were hidden from tourists, and Moscow. The Nazis stole all the artefacts that had remained in Kyiv, as they liked to do; they were seized by the US after the war and then ‘returned’ to Moscow.
The destruction of the monastery was deemed a heinous crime following Ukraine gaining independence in 1991, and in 1997 rebuilding began. So what is now there isn’t very old, but that’s not what counts to the Orthodox of Ukraine. It’s all about the preservation of cultural heritage, and this has seen many of the mosaics that had been held in Moscow to be returned to Kyiv, if not to the church itself.
Plus, the monastery looks quite pretty under stormy skies. That’s a selling point in my book!
8. Andrivivsky’s Descent – Андріївський узвіз
This lovely cobblestone street leads downhill from St. Andrew’s Church in the ‘upper’ town to the commercial district of Podil. It’s very popular with tourists as it houses the largest souvenir and artisan market in Kyiv – as well as being a good way to get from one part of town to another and generally just looking pretty. Due to all the construction work around Kyiv, when I visited the street consisted only of the footpath for the most of it, with most of the road itself boarded off as they relay cobblestones and do other beautifying things to it. At the top there’s a few aisles of cheap tourist knickknacks from souvenir t-shirts to Obama and Homer Simpson matryoshka dolls. As you head downwards, the selection broadens to include artists’ wares, watercolour paintings, handmade jewelry, hand-embroidered linen and delicate lace. You can watch little old ladies knitting peacefully, a cat on their lap as they ignore those passing by. Little shops sell Soviet memorabilia and antique watches, while at the very bottom people have all the junk they can find laid out on old blankets.
No doubt the street will be far more attractive – and easier to get through – once the restoration work has been completed, but in the meantime it just means you get more closely acquainted with the locals as you push and wriggle your way up or down the hill. And even if you’re not in the market for crafts or souvenirs, it’s worth visiting just to check out what’s on offer. Apparently the numerous cats sleeping on piles of hand knitted socks or in boxes under tables are not actually for sale – although patting them is a good way to start up a conversation with a previously bored-looked old woman.
9. St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral – Патріарший кафедральний собор св. Володимира
I visited this cathedral on my way to buy a train ticket out of Kyiv, and found myself witnessing a young couple’s wedding. The church was open for all – it’s not like back home when you hire out the church and fill it up with well-wishers. It seemed more like an intimate family gathering, with relatives standing behind the couple who stood before the priest, and other strangers were wandering in and out to pray or just visit.
The church itself is easy to spot, being painted a lovely deep yellow. The interior is magical, with detailed frescoes and lots of gold. They’re big on gold, and candles. During the Soviet period prior to the Second World War, the cathedral served as a museum of atheism. After independence, the cathedral was returned to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyivan Patriarchy, rather than the Moscow Patriarchy. As you might have guessed from the fact that a wedding was taking place, St. Volodymyr’s is still active and has regular services.
10. Chernobyl Museum – Українськии національний музей Чорнобиль
I visited the Chernobyl Museum the day before my tour to the site itself was scheduled – I figured I should find out as much as I could about the place before going there. I paid extra for the audio guide, as none of the information is in English. It was interesting, and the audio guide delves into the stories of people who were working at the plant at the time of the meltdown. It was fascinating in a disturbing and quite frightening way – I didn’t know that it was the safety test being conducted that led to the disaster, nor did I know that Ukraine and the Soviet Union managed to cover it up for DAYS before Sweden reported increased radiation in the atmosphere and demanded an explanation. It’s safe to say that I learned a lot.
The museum is well set up, aside from the fact that it’s often hard to find the case matching the next audio guide number as they don’t appear to be in any logical order. Some of the exhibits were quite effective in the emotional reaction they evoke. If you are visiting Kyiv, whether or not you plan to attempt visiting Chernobyl itself, this is one museum that you shouldn’t miss. Thankfully, it’s also the kind of museum that you don’t come across too often.
This wasn’t all I did in Kyiv – there are plenty of other places to visit, churches to admire and monuments to see.