Do you ever experience culture shock? After 44 countries, I didn’t think I would anymore. Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, proved me wrong. This formerly communistic city has a wealth of amazing architecture, art and culinary surprises. Here are some of the amazing places I saw in Kiev, and a few more that are still on my bucket list when I return.
- Where is Kiev (and Ukraine)
- Landscape Alley
- Saint Andrew’s Church
- Saint Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery
- Saint Sophia’s Cathedral
- Independence Square
- The Motherland Monument
- Arsenalna and Other Metro Stations
- The Golden Gate (not a Bridge)
- Kiev Pechersk Lavra and the Church of the Saviour at Berestove
- Druzi Cafe
- Attractions I Missed But Are Worth Visiting
- Kiev Free Walking Tour
- Planning to Visit Ukraine?
Where is Kiev (and Ukraine)
Ukraine is located in Eastern Europe southeast of Poland and is the largest country on the continent (excluding Russia). The capital city of Kiev is the 7th largest city in Europe (4th if you exclude cities in Russia and Turkey). I certainly wasn’t expecting that when I arrived, and I didn’t plan for it either. I only had a week in the country, which wasn’t nearly enough time to even see Kiev and Odessa (the two cities I visited), and I left far too many things behind for my next visit.
You might have heard travel warnings about Ukraine. They apply almost entirely to the eastern portion of the country where there is currently a civil war. That’s a long way away from Kiev and won’t affect your travels. In fact, I found Ukraine to be quite a friendly and happy country, although several of the locals told me that sometimes it was hard to see a smile in the smaller villages around the country.
Flying to Ukraine isn’t the cheapest. The cheapest flight from Edinburgh (my home base) is over $200 round trip. Instead, buses from surrounding countries are a great budget option. I traveled from Cluj, Romania via Chisinau, Moldova. My bus to Chisinau was about $25, and I got a ride to Odessa with Blablacar for about $12.50. Traveling within Ukraine is extremely cheap, although not always the most comfortable rides.
Click on the map below to add it to your Google Maps as a quick reference for the attractions listed in this article.
I love art, and Landscape Alley was probably my favorite part of Kiev with its unusual sculptures and designs. Originally constructed in the 1980’s and getting an upgrade in the late 2000’s, this park near the city center is a path lined with some of the more unique sculptures I’ve seen. Some of the centerpieces include 92-foot-long caterpillar-cat, an Alice in Wonderland playground where the mushrooms seem to have a different effect than making her taller, and a series of arches made by the urine streams of multi-colored boys.
Read the full article I wrote about Landscape Alley on Perceptive Travel.
Saint Andrew’s Church
This gorgeous Baroque church was originally constructed in the mid-1700’s. Renovations were ongoing when I was there, restoring the artwork and reinforcing the foundations which started to slide down the side of the hill, cracking the church. Saint Andrews has been named one of the four architectural landmarks of Kiev, and for good reason. I look forward to returning to Kiev someday and seeing it from inside, but from without it was still one of the most beautiful buildings I saw in the city. It’s unique as the only church in Kiev without a bell.
Just across the street are the ruins of the Church of the Tithes, which has been built and destroyed several times for more than a millennium; most recently by the Soviet regime in 1928. A small to-scale reconstruction sits nearby, while the city is actually considering rebuilding the original church.
Saint Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery
A couple minutes down the road from Saint Andrew’s is a church that looks like it came right out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. The monastery was originally commissioned back in the early 1100’s but, like most buildings in Kiev, was razed more than once. The current construction opened only 19 years ago in 2018! The outside is designed in the Baroque style, while the interior replicates the original Byzantium decorations and artwork.
Saint Sophia’s Cathedral
There are seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ukraine. Saint Sophia’s Cathedral is one of the three churches composing the site in Kiev. Built originally in the 11th century, it also follows the tradition of being built, destroyed and rebuilt over and over. Since the 1980’s, several church factions have tried to claim ownership of the cathedral, resulting in a ban from any church conducting religious services on the premises. Instead, it is open as a secular museum of Ukraine’s Christianity.
Independence Square is the heart of Kiev. There are some interesting monuments in the square, including a distance clock (showing how far it is to all world capitals except Berlin), and the Independence Monument of a Slavic Goddess (which used to be a statue of Lenin). Every evening there is a fountain show with American music playing over loudspeakers. With so much art and liveliness there, it was a little hard to think of the square being the location of a deadly riot only three years earlier.
The Motherland Monument
This statue from 1991 stands 335 feet tall above the Dnieper River and is part of the Museum of the History of Ukraine in WWII. Surrounding the massive statue are dozens of smaller sculptures and reliefs depicting scenes from the war. The Museum of the History of Ukraine in WWII (that’s a mouthful) contains several lots containing tanks, planes, artillery and other relics of the war. Some of these have small entry fees (less than $2). Altogether they would take a couple hours to explore, but on my tight schedule I just got photos from the outside. There is also a gargantuan torch called the Eternal Flame nearby, but the cost to keep it lit is way beyond what the city can cope with, so it’s only set ablaze for major national holidays. Interesting fact: the tip of the sword on the Motherland Monument was cut off as it surpassed the height of the tallest cross on the nearby Lavra monastery.
Arsenalna and Other Metro Stations
I was really surprised to find that some of the more unusual attractions in Kiev were underground – its metro stations. Arsenalna Station is one of the deepest stations in the world, and riding up or down the escalator takes a full five minutes. Zoloti Vorota Station is possibly the most beautiful design with vaulted ceilings, marble columns and chandeliers. Perhaps the best part of the metro system is the cost of the rides – 5 Ukrainian hryvnia each, which comes out to roughly $0.19! If you want to see the artwork in the stations, you can just ride from one to the next with the same ticket, as you only pay to enter the metro system. I didn’t have a lot of time but could have easily spent a few hours one day doing that.
Kiev isn’t the only city with amazing underground stations. Check out this article on Kharkiv Stations.
The Golden Gate (not a Bridge)
In the 11th century, there were three entrance gates to Kiev. This one was named after the Golden Gate of Constantinople, although it might not looks anything like the original construction as there are no extant images of its older design. It certainly seems out of place with the rest of the communistic architectural structures and baroque churches in Kiev. The current design seems to be controversial as to what it should have looked like. I’d say it appears Byzantium, even though Ukraine was never part of the Byzantium empire (only its religion), and I’m certainly not an expert on that architecture.
While you’re at it, make sure to see “Horse,” the hedgehog statue nearby.
Kiev Pechersk Lavra and the Church of the Saviour at Berestove
The other two churches composing Kiev’s UNESCO World Heritage Site are located beside each other south of the city center. Just a few minutes down from Arsenalna Station and within view of the Motherland Monument, the Larva is listed by Tripadvisor as Kiev’s top attraction. I only saw the church from the outside and missed a tour of the museum and the catacombs beneath. After all, the law of the traveler essentially dictates that you always leave things behind so you have a reason to return.
Perhaps you wouldn’t consider a cafe listed as an attraction, but this one is worth the visit. You need to eat after all, and Druzi is so much more than just food. There are board games available, good music and an excellent WiFi connection if you need to upload your photos from all the previous attractions. The food was surprisingly good, and I ended up eating there for several meals during my stay. There are several locations to choose from. One is in a perfect location just a couple minutes from Independence Square, while another is further south and has really cool swing chairs to sit in. Expect to spend under $5 for a good-sized meal. There’s even a buzzer on the table when you’re ready to order.
Attractions I Missed But Are Worth Visiting
Gorodetsky (Horodecki) House
Known as the House with Chimaeras, this Art Nouveau structure is covered with gargoyles and other animals (an art style known as chimaera decoration). Built in 1902, it seems to be one of the few buildings in Kiev to have survived through all the wars and revolts over the past century. It’s a shame I missed it as the location is just a few streets away from Independence Square.
Castle of Richard Lionheart
It seems I actually managed to walk past this “castle” without recognizing it for what it was. Slightly unassuming from the outside, I might have just been distracted by the view of Saint Andrew’s Church at the top of the street. The building actually has nothing to do with Richard the Lionheart, but beyond that I’ll just have to find out the rest when I return for a full tour of the city.
National Botanical Garden
I usually love seeing botanical gardens, so I was a little peeved with myself when I saw that I had missed Kiev’s massive gardens just south of the Motherland Monument. There are actually two botanical gardens next to each other with a total expanse of over 350 acres, not to mention a small third gardens in the center of town just south of the Golden Gate. I certainly wouldn’t have complained about the $1.45 entrance fee into the big gardens.
Also located just a few streets away from Independence Square, this gorgeous baroque palace certainly deserved a visit. Constructed in 1752, it is the official ceremonial residence of the President of Ukraine. Perhaps I should have done more research before my visit (although the real story is I was scheduled for a tour but my email crashed before arriving and plans fell through).
Kiev Free Walking Tour
A great way to see the city is on a free walking tour. Kiev Free Tours will take you to points 1-5 and 8 on this list. For the rest, there are other tours available, or you can utilize the fantastic metro system. Buses in Kiev are just as cheap, although they can be a little hard to navigate as very few signs in the country are translated into English. In fact, Ukraine was one of the hardest countries for me to travel to in terms of a language barrier. Even finding people in the city who spoke English was difficult. All the more reason to take one the of walking tours as the guides are fluent in English. They can translate the signs and give you other information which would otherwise be unavailable without being able to speak Russian.
This list is in no way complete, as there are hundreds of other museums, churches, castles, monuments, historic locations, bridges, artworks, restaurants, parks and random attractions which are worth visiting. Feel free to include your suggestions in the comments below.
Planning to Visit Ukraine?
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.