From its serene beaches to its captivating history, Ukraine will have you charmed before you know it. To make sure you feel the love, here are our top 10 recommendations of what to do when you're there.
Sun worshipping is very popular amongst Ukrainians, to the point where the Black Sea's beaches are sometimes standing room only during the peak season of June to August. The best beaches are found on Crimea's south coast, a thin strip of land between the sea and the looming mountain range beyond. It's been a popular holiday spot for over 200 years due to its combination of Mediterranean climate, white-sand beaches and myriad secluded coves that stretch from Foros to Gurzuf, with Yalta being the central spot for accommodation.
The two best areas for hiking in Ukraine are Crimea and the Carpathian range, distinct in both terrain and character. The sunny Crimean coast, its cliffs overlooking the turquoise sea, rocky coves and cypress forest, is ideal for short treks and for hikers of all abilities. In the Carpathian mountain range - a mass of unruly mountains with dramatic vistas - you can hike for days between traditional villages, where horse and cart is still the main mode of transport. Outdoor Ukraine and Sergei Sorokin offer hiking and mountain biking excursions, while Adventure Carpathians organise specialised treks.
For a post-apocalyptic experience, head to Chernobyl. The nuclear plant at the heart of the disaster is surrounded by an exclusion zone consisting of two circles - 10km and 30km from the plant. Tour companies such as New Logic drive you into the zone, which seems to be frozen in time since the evacuation of 1986. You pass through deserted, eerie villages and overgrown, barren landscape. If the sheer desolation weren't enough, for dramatic effect, visitors are issued special jumpsuits and boots, with the guides checking them over with a Geiger counter during the tour.
The banya is a cultural institution, traditionally divided into separate sections for men and women and consisting of a parilka (very hot steam room) where you lie sweating on a wooden berth while a friend beats your back with a bundle of birch branches. You then take a dip in a pool of cold water in a separate room and come back for more. The end result of this vigorous experience is you emerging completely cleansed and relaxed.
Nightlife in the big cities is lively and varied, and nowhere more so than in Kyiv, Odesa and Kharkiv. In the capital, check out the exclusive clubs, heavy on attitude and prices, hear the latest rock bands, or bounce the night away on a boat-cum-rave on the Dnepr river. In Odesa, nightlife revolves around the clubs, bars and underground jazz joints in the historical centre of town, as well as the all-night pounding discos on Arkadia Beach. Kharkiv, a large university town with nightlife to match, is home to Ukraine's leading independent music scene.
Lviv, with its attractive melange of baroque, renaissance and art nouveau architecture and friendly vibe is the complete antithesis of the post-Soviet industrial cities of the east. You can spend days admiring the highlights, which include the central Rynok Square, surrounded by wealthy merchants' homes dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, the Armenian cathedral and the Moorish old Jewish hospital. The best panoramic views of the city are to be had from the High Castle park on northeast side of town. The symbol of the city is a lion; look for it carved into facades, on doorknobs, keystones and gates.
The Kievo-Pescherskaya Lavra (Caves Monastery) in Kyiv was built in the 11th century and consists of a cluster of churches above a network of caves in which monks spent their lives in prayer. It's Ukraine's holiest and most popular religious site, attracting half a million pilgrims per year. For a less chaotic experience take a day trip from Kyiv to Chernihiv, Ukraine's 'open air museum' and Unesco World Heritage Site, with its unparalleled concentration of original monasteries and golden-domed churches. The Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Saviour (1036) is the star, its interior hazy with incense.
In western Ukraine, the stone fortress town of Kamyanets-Podilsky - a Unesco World Heritage Site - sits on a rocky outcrop, surrounded by a deep gorge that encircles it almost completely, with the clear waters of river Smotrych flowing far below. Apart from superb sunsets from the castle itself, Kamyanets-Podilsky impresses you with its cosmopolitan character; the Turks, Russians, Jews, Armenians, Poles, Romanians, Greeks and Azeri who have settled here since the 11th century have all left their mark architecturally and culturally, and losing yourself amidst the 'museum city's' streets is a real joy.
If you find yourself in a countryside village on the 6 July, join in Ivana Kupala, a popular pagan festival widely celebrated across the country. In the evening, couples scour the woods for medicinal herbs, while unmarried women weave head-wreaths before lowering them into a river with a candle in the centre; if the wreath floats, it means they'll get married. The emphasis of the festival is on cleansing rituals; during the night, participants immerse themselves completely in lakes and streams. Afterwards, couples hold hands and leap over bonfires, the fire allegedly curing all that ails them.
A visit to a good produce market will overwhelm you with sights, tastes and smells. Go early in the morning, when the produce is freshest and the housewives and grandmothers come out in force, enticed by the market sellers offering a taste of their wares. Abandon your concept of hygiene and join in by handling the cottage cheese and sipping kefir (sour yoghurt drink) from a communal cup, or stroll through the butchers'-hall, pungent with the smell of meat and festooned with pigs' heads.