In the beginning there was Kyiv. Long before Ukraine and Russia existed, the city's inhabitants were already striding up and down the green hills, idling hot afternoons away on the Dnipro River and promenading along Khreshchatyk – then a stream, now the main avenue. From here, East Slavic civilisation spread all the way to Alaska.
Today, history continues to unfold. As revolution has come and gone, and as war in the east smoulders, Ukraine's capital has rebelled yet again, only this time culturally. A creative wave has swept over the city, embodied by urban art, vintage cafes and 24-hour parties. Seemingly overnight, Kyiv has become hip.
It's also cheap. You can eat at superb restaurants and drink at hidden cocktail bars for a fraction of what they would cost in the West. Kyiv's time is clearly now – or until the next revolution rolls around.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Kyiv.
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.
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.
As you journey into Kyiv from the airport, at some point this giant statue of a female warrior will loom up on the horizon and make you wonder, 'What the hell is that?' Well, it's Rodina Mat – literally 'Nation's Mother'. Inaugurated by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1981, it was the second and last Nation's Mother monument erected in the USSR. Today it houses the excellent Great Patriotic War Museum in its base, and has a pair of viewing platforms.
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.
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.
Izolyatsia is a self-described platform for cultural initiatives and contemporary culture occupying an old shipyard in north Podil. Originally from Donetsk, it's a refugee of the war in the east. The galleries here showcase top-notch international and local artistic talent. All manner of workshops, discussions and presentations take place on any given day, and on weekends you might find concerts, flea markets or full-blown festivals in its sprawling outdoor courtyard.
It's hard to characterise this beachfront hippie haven on Trukhaniv Island. It derives its name from the smattering of raised wooden chill-out huts that dot the grounds. While you can rent these out, Skvorechnik is about much more than birdhouses. It's like a mini Burning Man festival – an alcohol-free zone of singalongs, yoga, zen meditation, massage, dreamcatcher-making classes – well, you get the idea. Of course there's also a beach and a busy vegetarian cafe keeping people fed and fuelled.
This museum's 'Western Art' wing houses Kyiv's most impressive collection of European paintings, with Bosch, Velázquez and Rubens among the many masters represented. The 19th-century house alone is worth the price of admission, with its frescoed ceilings and intricately carved woodwork. The separate 'Eastern Art' wing, in an equally stunning mansion (1878), has Buddhist, Chinese and Islamic art.
Kyiv's main drag is named after a river, which these days runs underneath, enclosed in an underground pipe. Getting gussied up and strolling Khreshchatyk is Kyivans' number one pastime. Don't hesitate to join them for a few laps, pausing occasionally at one of the many streetside cafes and kiosks that line the boulevard. It's at its best during weekends, when the section south of Maidan Nezalezhnosti is closed to traffic and various events and contests take place.