Essential Ukraine

  • 2 Weeks

This exhilarating sweep though Ukraine's must-sees takes you from the bustling national capital to the tranquility of Uman’s Sofiyivka Park via the central European delights of Lviv.

The quintessential Ukrainian experience starts in Kyiv, the cradle of Slavic civilisation. Three days are just enough to absorb the mix of gold-domed Orthodox churches, monumental Stalinist architecture and raucous nightlife.

An easily organised guided tour can take you to Chornobyl to see the sarcophagus now in place over the reactor and the ghost town of Pripyat.

Back in Kyiv, catch an overnight sleeper train to the former Habsburg city of Lviv. With its Italianate buildings and Austrian-style cafes, it’s a cosy contrast to the Soviet capital.

From there it’s a simple ride south to Kolomyya, a great base from which to explore the Carpathian Mountains and perhaps climb Mt Hoverla. A short journey from here brings you to dramatic Kamyanets-Podilsky, where the medieval Old Town perches atop a tall rock in the middle of a river loop.

Next head to Odesa, famous for the Potemkin Steps and weekend clubbing at Arkadia Beach. On your way back to Kyiv, stop off in Uman to see the exquisite Sofiyivka Park.

Lviv & the Carpathians

  • 3 Weeks

A trip through West Ukraine highlights the country at its folksy best, from the coffee shops of Lviv to a trio of castles with long and turbulent histories. In between rise the wooded slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, a brooding sweep of peaks, home to the colourful Hutsuls.

Launch your loop around Ukraine’s far west in Lviv, a now quite touristy eastern outpost of central Europe with a strong cafe culture and some gobsmacking architecture that make it one of Ukraine’s top stops for any visitor. Outside the city centre the Lychakivske Cemetery is a must-see. The city also has some of the country’s best dining and the most celebrated beer in Ukraine, the subject of a modern new museum.

If you can tear yourself away from Lviv’s European charms, hop on board a slow train south to low-key Mukacheve, where one of Ukraine’s most dramatic hilltop castles awaits. From here it’s into soothingly forested mountain country, the Carpathians to be exact. Ukraine’s wedge of the Carpathian arc is etched with long broad valleys, and a great place to start your exploration is Rakhiv. Here you can have your first brush with Hutsul culture and head off into the hills for some exhilarating hiking and biking, before picking your way north along the newly paved road linking resort villages, ski centres and hiking bases en route.

Eventually buses will deliver you to the up-and-coming city of Ivano-Frankivsk; with its cafes, squares and relaxed vibe, it's the only city in Ukraine that comes near Lviv for atmosphere.

After that head south and call a halt at quaint Kolomyya, a superb launch pad for more hikes. The town also has two intriguing museums, including the famous Pysanky Museum housed in a giant Easter egg. A side trip to Kosiv provides more Hutsul culture.

Consider short stops at energetic Chernivtsi, to visit the psychedelic university building, and the spectacular Khotyn fortress on the banks of the wide Dnister River, before you next unpack your bags in the show-stopping island town of Kamyanets-Podilsky. One of Ukraine’s must-see attractions, the town is as historically fascinating as it is dramatically situated in a loop of the Smotrych River.

From K-P, a long bus ride across giant fields of sunflowers and sugar beet via off-the-beaten-track Ternopil delivers you to picturesque Kremenets, another town boasting a superb fortress as well as an eerie Cossack cemetery.

Kyiv to the Black Sea

  • 10 Days

East Ukraine isn’t on many itineraries these days but have no fear – the war with Russia is confined to a small area in the far east, leaving the rest of the region undisturbed. This 10-day journey takes in the best of the East, including spa towns, the Black Sea coast and several big cities.

This venture into the less-frequented east begins with a quick jump north from Kyiv to atmospheric Chernihiv, with its amazing Unesco-listed collection of monasteries and cathedrals. Most make this a day trip from the capital, but staying the night gives more time to appreciate the wonderful collection of ancient church buildings.

Unless you’re up for some slow and complicated train journeys, backtrack to the capital and jump aboard an express train heading east – first stop, the spa town of Myrhorod, where you can take the waters and wander the spa park by the sluggish River Khorol. Gogol was born nearby, and the town and surrounding area feature in many of his tales. Get off the beaten track in these parts by spending a couple of days on the Gogol Circuit, which visits many sites associated with the author. Local guesthouses can put you up for a few hryvnya.

Reboard the express for the short trip to Poltava, a pleasant, park-dotted place and the scene of a key battle in Ukrainian history. Designed as a kind of mini St Petersburg, this grand city contrasts with the surrounding bucolic scenery and is well worth half a day’s exploration. The final stop of the express is Kharkiv, a huge student city. Essential viewing here is the world’s second-largest city square, which is dominated by the mammoth, Stalinist-era Derzhprom building.

From Kharkiv it’s a smooth roll south to another of Ukraine’s eastern megacities – Dnipro – still a major centre for Ukraine’s rocket and aviation industries (so be careful what you aim your camera at!). Take a stroll by the Dnipro River before continuing south to Zaporizhzhya, an ugly industrial city but also the location of Khortytsya Island, where the Ukrainian Cossacks once gathered at the sich (fort). This is the best place in the country to learn about the Cossacks, their way of life and their influence on the country’s history.

Your final stop is the seaside city of Odesa, a lively port frequented by both bucket-and-spade holidaymakers and hardcore clubbers who flock to its beachside nightclubs. Kyiv is six hours by express coach or an overnight train journey.