The Russian invasion of Ukraine involves attacks agains a number of major cities and many areas of the country are extremely dangerous. Foreign nationals who have not left the country should register their presence with their home government. For those internationally wishing to offer aid, we believe supporting local organizations that are already on the ground is the best way to quickly get help to people in need.
Big, diverse and largely undiscovered, Ukraine is one of Europe’s last genuine travel frontiers, a nation rich in colourful tradition, warm-hearted people and off-the-map experiences.
Big & Diverse
Ukraine is big. In fact it's Europe’s biggest country (not counting Russia, which isn’t entirely in Europe) and packs a lot of diversity into its borders. You can be clambering around the Carpathians in search of Hutsul festivities, sipping Eastern Europe’s best coffee in sophisticated Lviv and partying on the beach in Odesa all in a few days. Ukrainians are also a diverse crowd: from the wired sophisticates of Kyiv’s business quarters to the Gogolesque farmers in Poltava, the Hungarian-speaking bus drivers of Uzhhorod to the Crimean Tatar cafe owners just about everywhere, few countries boast such a mixed population.
Despite their often glum reticence and initial distrust of strangers, travellers to the country quickly find out that Ukrainians are, when given the chance, one of Europe’s most open and hospitable people. Break down that reserve and you’ll soon be slurping borshch in someone’s Soviet-era kitchen, listening to a fellow train passenger’s life story or being taken on an impromptu tour of a town’s sights by the guy you asked for directions. Much social interaction takes place around Ukraine’s hearty food, always brought out in belt-stretching quantities. Learn a bit of Ukrainian and you double the effect.
A diverse landscape obviously throws up a whole bunch of outdoorsy activities – from mountain biking and hill walking in the Carpathians to bird spotting in the Danube Delta, from cycling along the Dnipro in Kyiv to water sports in the Black Sea. But if the idea of burning calories on hill and wave has you fleeing for the sofa, rest assured that most Ukrainians have never tried any of the above, but love nothing more than wandering their country’s vast forests, foraging for berries and mushrooms or picnicking by a meandering river.
As we have now all sadly realised, history didn't end around 1989, and that's doubly true in Ukraine. Having only appeared on the map in 1991, the country has managed two revolutions and a Russian invasion already, and fighting in the Donbas is ongoing. History ancient and recent is all around you in this vast land, whether it be among the Gothic churches of Lviv, the Stalinist facades of Kyiv, the remnants of the once-animated Jewish culture of west Ukraine or the ubiquitous Soviet high-rises.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Ukraine.
The interior is the most astounding aspect of Kyiv's oldest standing church. Many of the mosaics and frescoes are original, dating back to 1017–31, when the cathedral was built to celebrate Prince Yaroslav's victory in protecting Kyiv from the Pechenegs (tribal raiders). While equally attractive, the building's gold domes and 76m-tall wedding-cake bell tower are 18th-century baroque additions. It's well worth climbing the bell tower for a bird's-eye view of the cathedral and 360-degree panoramas of Kyiv. Named after the great Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, St Sophia's Byzantine architecture announced the new religious and political authority of Kyiv. It was a centre of learning and culture, housing the first school and library in Kyivan Rus. Adjacent to the Royal Palace, it was also where coronations and other royal ceremonies were staged, treaties signed and foreign dignitaries received. Each mosaic and fresco had its allotted position according to Byzantine decorative schemes, turning the church into a giant 3D symbol of the Orthodox world order. There are explanations in English of individual mosaics, but the one that immediately strikes you is the 6m-high Virgin Orans dominating the central apse. The Virgin Orans is a peculiarly Orthodox concept of the Virgin as a symbol of the earthly church interceding for the salvation of humanity. Having survived this long, this particular Orans is now thought indestructible by Orthodox believers. (Unesco was slightly less certain, adding the cathedral to its protective World Heritage list in 1990.) Less obvious, but worth seeking out, are two secular group portraits of Yaroslav and family, one on either side of the central nave. Prince Yaroslav himself was buried here, but his remains are believed to have been smuggled into the US by a collaborationist priest, who left Kyiv with the retreating German army during WWII. The Ukrainian government is engaged in negotiations about their return. The prince's empty tomb can be found on the ground floor, in the far-left corner from the main entrance. Other highlights of the cathedral include the cast-iron tile floors, which date from the 18th century; an awesome model depicting Kyiv at the time of the Kyivan Rus; and art galleries upstairs containing ancient icons and fragments of original frescoes rescued from nearby St Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery before the Soviets demolished it in 1937. Additional museums on the cathedral grounds are of little interest. Just before the bell tower lies the ornate tomb of Kyiv Patriarch Volodymyr Romanyuk. Religious disputes prevented him from being buried within the complex. In front of the cathedral complex on pl Sofiyska is a statue of Cossack hero Bohdan Khmelnytsky.
Tourists and Orthodox pilgrims alike flock to the Lavra, set on 28 hectares of grassy hills above the Dnipro River in Pechersk. It's easy to see why tourists come: the monastery's cluster of gold-domed churches is a feast for the eyes, the hoard of Scythian gold rivals that of the Hermitage, and the underground labyrinths lined with mummified monks are exotic and intriguing. For pilgrims, the rationale is much simpler: to them, this is the holiest ground in the country. A lavra is a senior monastery, while pecherska means 'of the caves'. The Greek St Antony founded this lavra in 1051, after Orthodoxy was adopted as Kyivan Rus' official religion. He and his follower Feodosy progressively dug out a series of catacombs, where they and other reclusive monks worshipped, studied and lived. When they died their bodies were naturally preserved, without embalming, by the caves' cool temperature and dry atmosphere. The mummies survive even today, confirmation for believers that these were true holy men. The monastery prospered above ground as well. The Dormition Cathedral was built from 1073 to 1089 as Kyiv's second great Byzantine-inspired church, and the monastery became Kyivan Rus' intellectual centre, producing chronicles and icons, and training builders and artists. Wrecked by the Tatars in 1240, the Lavra went through a series of revivals and disastrous fires before being mostly rebuilt, with its prevailing baroque influences, in the 18th century. It was made a museum in 1926 but was partly returned to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) in 1988. Things may change as a result of an ongoing inter-church crisis in Ukraine, but at the time of writing, the part of the complex known as upper lavra, where major sights are located, was run as a state-controlled museum. Further down, the lower lavra, which contains the cave complex, was controlled by Moscow patriarchate. It runs a separate tourism bureau, where you can book a cave excursion for a donation. When you are done with the upper lavra, exit through the back entrance and you'll find yourself face to face with the bureau.
Built of wood in the 10th to 13th centuries, then redesigned and rebuilt in stone by Italian military engineers in the 16th century, K-P's fortress is a mishmash of styles. But the overall impression is breathtaking and the view from the Turkish Bridge leading to the fortress would certainly make a short list of Ukraine's most iconic front-page vistas. The fortress is filled with museums and cafes, and in the summer concerts frequently take place in its vast courtyard. The fortress is in the shape of a polygon, with nine towers of all shapes and sizes linked by a sturdy wall surrounding the courtyard. The New East Tower (1544) is directly to your right as you enter the fortress and contains a well and a huge winch stretching 40m deep through the cliff to bring up water. On your right, stairs lead downwards to the debtors' hole, where locals behind in loan repayments were kept until their debt was covered. Next to the debtors' hole is the Papska (Pope's) or Karmalyuk Tower (1503–17), which was used as a prison. The wax figure inside is Ustym Karmalyuk, a loveable rogue who, legend has it, was so handsome that women tossed strands of hair down to him. He eventually accumulated enough hair to make a rope and escape one of his three incarcerations here between 1817 and 1823. Walk toward the back of the courtyard and look for a white building on the right. This houses a fantastic museum that romps through the history of K-P and Ukraine over the last century in a jumble of nostalgia-inducing exhibits. The Euromaidan Revolution is covered by a symbolic eternal flame with names and photos of victims. Behind the fortress to the west are the remains of the largely earthen New Fortress.
Odesa's elegant facade, this tree-lined, clifftop promenade was designed to enchant the passengers of arriving boats with the neoclassical opulence of its architecture and civility, unexpected in these parts at the time of construction in the early 19th century. Imperial architects also transformed the cliff face into terraced gardens descending to the port, divided by the famous Potemkin Steps – the Istanbul Park lies east of the steps and the Greek Park west of them. At the boulevard's southeastern end, you'll spot the pink-and-white colonnaded City Hall, which originally served as the stock exchange. The cannon here is a war trophy captured from the British during the Crimean War. In the square in front of City Hall is Odesa's most photographed monument, the Pushkin statue. The plaque reads 'To Pushkin – from the Citizens of Odesa'. Continuing along the boulevard, at the top of the Potemkin Steps you'll reach the statue of Duc de Richelieu (Памятник Ришелье), Odesa's first governor, looking like a Roman in a toga. Underneath the eastern section of the boulevard, the Istanbul Park was reopened with much pomp in 2017 after a thorough Turkish-funded reconstruction that turned it into a rather manicured patch with welcoming benches, sunbeds and an impressive sandstone grotto looming in the middle of a fountain. At the northwestern end of bul Prymorsky stands the semiderelict Vorontsov Palace. This was the residence of the city's third governor, and was built in 1826 in a classical style with interior Arabic detailing. The Greek-style colonnade behind the palace offers brilliant views over Odesa's bustling port. Both were under reconstruction at the time of research, along with the Greek Park underneath the western section of the boulevard.
University buildings are often called 'dreaming spires', but Chernivtsi's is more like an acid trip. This fantastic, Unesco-listed red-brick ensemble, with coloured tiles decorating its pseudo-Byzantine, pseudo-Moorish and pseudo-Hanseatic wings, is the last thing you'd expect here. The architect responsible was Czech Josef Hlavka, who was also behind Chernivtsi's Former Armenian Cathedral, as well as large chunks of Vienna. He completed the university in 1882 for the Metropolitans (Orthodox Church leaders) of Bukovyna as their official residence. The Soviets moved the university here. The wings surround a landscaped court. To the left as you pass the gatehouse is the Seminarska Church (Семінарська церква), reconsecrated in 1991 after four decades as a food store – students can get married here for free. Straight ahead stands the former main palace residence of the Metropolitans (Палац-резиденція метрополитів), housing two remarkable staircases and a fantastic, 1st-floor Marmurovy Zal (Мармуровий зал; Marble Hall). Other highlights include the Red Hall (Червона зала) and the extensive dendropark behind the building. As a public facility you can wander the buildings at will but the best rooms are usually locked. Best is to join a tour – official guides put together groups at the gates – but if there's no one around, the guides' office is in the church. The university is about 1.5km northwest of the city centre.
Don't leave town until you've seen this amazing 42-hectare cemetery, only a short ride on tram 7 from the centre. This is the Père Lachaise of Eastern Europe, with the same sort of overgrown grounds and Gothic aura as the famous Parisian necropolis (but containing less-well-known people). Laid out in the late 18th century, it's packed full of western Ukraine's great and good. Pride of place goes to the grave of revered nationalist poet Ivan Franko. Other tombs belong to Soviet gymnastics legend Viktor Chukarin, early-20th-century opera star Solomiya Krushelnytska, composer Volodymyr Ivasyuk and some 2000 Poles who died fighting Ukrainians and Bolsheviks from 1918 to 1920. There's also a memorial to the Ukrainian insurgent army (UPA), which fought for independence against both the Nazis and the Soviets, and a section for the victims of Stalin's famine in the 1930s. However, the most moving part of the cemetery contains the fresh graves of local soldiers and volunteers killed in the war with Russia in Ukraine's east, many of the plots bearing the photos of their often youthful occupants. A good strategy is to combine a trip to the cemetery with a visit to the Museum of Folk Architecture and Life. The cemetery is one tram stop past the stop for the open-air museum.
Be it celebration or revolution, whenever Ukrainians want to get together – and they often do – 'Maidan' is the nation's meeting point. The square saw pro-independence protests in the 1990s and the Orange Revolution in 2004. But all of that was eclipsed by the Euromaidan Revolution in 2013–14, when it was transformed into an urban guerrilla camp besieged by government forces. In peaceful times, Maidan is more about festiveness than feistiness, with weekend concerts and a popular nightly fountain show. All streets in the centre seem to spill into maidan Nezalezhnosti, and with them spills a cross-section of Kyiv life: vendors selling food and souvenirs; teenagers carousing under the watchful gaze of winged-angel statues; skate rats and snake charmers; lovers and bums. Yet the echo of revolution is omnipresent. Makeshift memorials on vul Instytutska serve as a sombre reminder of those slain in Euromaidan. Images of burning tyres and army tents from that fateful winter will forever linger in the Ukrainian conscience.
Fresh from a controversial renovation, which changed its original outlook, the Potemkin Steps lead down from bul Prymorsky to the sea port. Pause at the top to admire the sweeping views of the harbour. You can avoid climbing back up by taking a funicular railway (3uah) that runs parallel. Or, having walked halfway up, you can sneak into a passage that now connects the steps with the reconstructed Istanbul Park. In the film Battleship Potemkin, a woman yells at a tidy line of soldiers as they take aim. An officer commands: 'Fire!' It takes many painful seconds for her to collapse and release a pram with a baby inside, which starts slowly tumbling down the steps – these very steps. All of that never happened during the real battleship Potemkin mutiny, but the genius film director Sergei Eisenstein made the world believe it did.
Looking from St Sophia's past the Bohdan Khmelnytsky statue, it's impossible to ignore the gold-domed blue church at the other end of proyizd Volodymyrsky. This is St Michael's, named after Kyiv's patron saint. As the impossibly shiny cupolas imply, this is a fresh (2001) copy of the original (1108), which was torn down by the Soviets in 1937. The church's fascinating history is explained in great detail (in Ukrainian and English placards) in a museum in the monastery's bell tower. Heading around the left of the church to the rear, you'll find the quaint funicular that runs down a steep hillside to the river terminal in the mercantile district of Podil. Although in summer trees partially obscure your view, this is still the most fun public-transport ride in town.