Voted by Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2011 as one of 10 budget-friendly destinations in 2011, Ukraine is big, diverse and largely undiscovered. It is one of Europe’s last genuine travel frontiers, a poor nation rich in colour-splashed tradition, warmhearted people and off-the-map travel experiences. The word 'Ukraine' means 'land on the edge', an apt title for this vast slab of Eurasia in more ways than one.
In this excerpt from Lonely Planet's new-look guide to Ukraine we recommend the top sights and experiences for visitors.
1. Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra, Kyiv
Image by marktristan
Discover mysteries of Eastern Orthodoxy and descend into catacombs to see mummies of muchrevered saints on an excursion to the holy of holies for all eastern Slavs. Founded as a cave monastery in 1051, the lavra is filled with golden-domed churches, baroque buildings and orchards. Religious ceremonies take place in lavishly decorated, icon-filled interiors, accompanied by beautiful choir singing and attended by crowds of pilgrims and monks. There are great collections of Scythian gold, micro-miniatures and more in museums located on the premises.
2. Carpathian Landscapes
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By and large Ukraine is as flat as a topographically challenged blin (pancake), which makes its bumpy bits all the more special. Ukraine’s slice of the Carpathian arc barely reaches over 2000m, but its soothing wooded slopes, rough stony trails, flower-filled upland pastures and wide, snaking valleys make this prime hiking, biking and skiing territory. Needless to say, the Carpathians are home to Ukraine’s highest peak, Mt Hoverla, a fairly easy trek from nearby villages, as well as several ski resorts.
3. Lviv’s Ploshcha Rynok
Image by Vasiliy Efimenko
Lviv is the pulsating heart of Ukraine, and the main square, pl Rynok, is the bustling heart of Lviv. Plonked in the middle is the huge ratusha (town hall), around which mill clutches of camera-toting tourists and quick-footed locals. The aroma of freshly milled coffee beans wafts across the square from the city’s legendary cafes, and summer tables tumble out across the Habsburg-era cobbles as old Soviet-era trams rumble past. Take a seat, order a coffee and watch it all roll by.
4. Andriyivsky Uzviz, Kyiv
The apostle Andrew is said to have climbed this steep ascent to erect a cross and prophesise the rise of Kyiv. Today it’s the haunt of artists, who install their canvases on this cobbled Montmartre-like street, which – in true decadent style – Kyivites call Andrew’s Descent. Packed with souvenir stands selling all sorts of junk, the uzviz has heaps of Bohemian charm and is great for people-watching. Here Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov wrote The White Guard, perhaps the best novel about Kyiv and its people; his house is now a museum.
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Ringed by the dramatic gorge of the Smotrych River, there are few more eye-pleasing spots in Ukraine than this Podillyan town. A stroll from the new bridge takes you through the cobbled quarters of this once divided community, past beautifully renovated churches, crumbling palaces and forgotten pieces of the once beefy defences, to the town’s impossibly picturesque fortress, surely one of the highlights of any visit to Ukraine. And the best thing? Outside high season you may have the place entirely to yourself.
6. Pyrohovo Museum of Folk Architecture, Kyiv
You can safely claim you’ve seen all of Ukraine after a visit to Pyrohovo – a large chunk of countryside just outside Kyiv filled with traditional wooden architecture representing all parts of the country. Whole churches, windmills, shops and houses were brought here from their original villages, providing a wonderful backdrop for folk festivals, which frequently take place on the grounds. Here Transcarpathia is walking distance from the Poltava region, although it might be a strenuous walk, as the area is huge indeed.
7. Odesa’s Nightlife
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By day Odesa’s museums, parks, beaches and, of course, the celebrated Potemkin Steps provide ample distraction, but it’s at night that the city really comes alive. With its imaginatively styled dance temples and chill-out zones just steps from the Black Sea, Arkadia Beach is the place to strut and pose until the wee summer hours. But Odesa also has a stomping alternative scene, with several hip venues serving up cool ales to the sound of guitar-happy indie bands and local DJs.
8. Bakhchysaray’s Crimean Tatar Culture
Back from a 50-year exile, Crimean Tatars are busy turning their capital Bakhchysaray into what its name means – garden city. Their family-run guesthouses provide some of the best (and cheapest) accommodation in Crimea, while their Asian-influenced food is now served across the peninsula. Ancient crafts, such as embroidery and filigree, are being revived by small cooperatives. Tatars are wonderful hosts, on a mission to spread the word about their unique culture. Prepare to consume large amounts of mouth-watering sweets while listening to their stories.
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With its traveller-friendly places to stay, two fascinating museums and effortless access to the surrounding forested hills, Kolomyya is one of the best bases from which to scale the heights of the Carpathian Mountains. The town’s central Pysanky Museum, housed in a giant Easter egg, is the obvious highlight, but aimless wandering also bears fruit in the shape of some twirling art nouveau architecture from the town’s Austro-Hungarian days.
1o. Sheshory (ArtPole) Festival
Think Woodstock meets Burning Man and you have Sheshory, an annual three-day gathering in mid-July of musicians and artists from all over Eastern Europe. For the first few years the event was held in the Carpathian village of Sheshory, but has since gone walkabout, and now the action takes place in rural Podillya. If your experience of Ukraine has been mostly scowling receptionists and shop assistants with dyed hair, the hippy spirit of the Sheshory festival comes as a very pleasant surprise.
11. Sofiyivka Park, Uman
Image by И. Максим
Forget boxes of chocolates, bouquets of roses or even diamond rings – how about wowing your loved one with a gift measuring 150 hectares, complete with grottoes, water features and an entire town’s worth of architectural follies? That was the grandiose way one 18th century Polish magnate chose to express adoration for his wife, Sofia, and the legacy of his devotion is this amazing landscaped park intended to resemble the countryside of Sofia’s native land. Her response – an affair with his son.
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Once the far corner of the Roman Empire, Crimea was rediscovered by medieval Genovese traders, who came here to link up with caravans bringing silk and spices from the Orient. Their trade outposts were protected by mighty fortresses, most of which were razed by Mongol hordes. But at least one remains intact. Imagine yourself surrounded by knights, doges and silk merchants when you climb the Consul’s Tower and look down the vertiginous cliff from the wall of Sudak fortress, waiting for white sails to appear on the horizon.
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The Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve is Europe’s largest wetland, located in a huge delta in Ukraine’s far southwest where the Danube dumps its cargo of water and silt into the Black Sea. Few make the effort to reach this far-flung chunk of fertile Ukrainian territory (few Ukrainians have been here), but those who do are rewarded with some astoundingly beautiful scenery, colourful birdlife, memorable days out on the water and serene evenings in drowsy Vylkovo, nicknamed the ‘Ukrainian Venice’ thanks to its network of canals.
14. Crimean Cave Cities
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It was not breathtaking views but the need to hide and protect themselves from blood thirsty nomads that prompted ancient Crimeans to carve dwellings out of limestone atop high plateaus. Goths, Alans, Feodorites – these long-forgotten peoples come to life when you hear the story of Mangup-Kale, preferably after you’ve hiked to the top of the plateau. Another cave city, Chufut-Kale, the Jewish fortress, remains the Zion of Karaites – a small Turkic group that has managed to preserve its unique culture and religion, rooted in Judaism, for centuries.
15. Watching Football
Preparing to host European Cup football in 2012, Ukraine has been sprucing up its stadiums or rebuilding them from scratch. Even if you are not here for the cup, it’s worth joining the crowds of fans to watch leading Ukrainian teams, such as Shakhtar Donetsk or Dynamo Kyiv. The pride of Ukraine is the brand new Donbass Arena in Donetsk. At the time of writing, reconstruction of the Olympic arena in Kyiv, the scheduled venue of Euro 2012, was in full swing. Stadiums in Kharkiv and Lviv were also bracing for the challenge.
16. Train Journey on Ukrainian Railways
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A quintessential experience anywhere in the former USSR is an overnight journey on the rails. Most trains have sleeper carriages with either four-bed compartments or open dorms, meaning you soon get to know your fellow travellers. Food is shared, stories told, drinks passed round, and the foreigner (you) at this impromptu party is the centre of attention (prepare for some odd questions). Finally beds are rolled out and you are left to drop off to the clickety-clack of wheel on track as the carriage sways through the darkness.
17. Colourful Markets
In the market for a 5L jar of gherkins, a Lada gearbox, a kilo of pig fat or a bottle of fakebrand perfume? You’ll probably fi nd them all, plus almost everything else under the sun, at Ukraine’s amazing bazaars. They’re the best spots to source seasonal fruit and veg, and if you’re looking to pack a picnic, these are the places to get supplies. Towns large and small have sprawling markets, but the biggest and best can be found in Odesa, Kharkiv, Kyiv and Chernivtsi.
Further reading: more Ukraine articles here to help you get the most from your trip.