It’s strange how one doesn’t really appreciate the place they live in until they leave. Ever since I moved to Spain to pursue my bachelor’s degree, returning home, to Kyiv, for the holidays, has become a special thing – and a chance to view the city that had been my home for some seventeen-odd years as an outsider.
Where to Live?
Living in the city center of Kyiv provides for the best opportunity to see the most in the least amount of time. My childhood was spent near the Park of Glory, a beautiful architectural endeavor filled with various greeneries of the local sort and topped off with memorials to the heroes of World War II and the Holodomor, a (sometimes questioned) genocide that had taken the lives of millions of Ukrainians in 1932-1933. Perhaps this is not the most historically cheerful location, but it definitely is pretty, and a good place for a relaxing walk or even a picnic.
In terms of hotels, Kyiv doesn’t have a lot to offer. Accommodation usually falls into two categories here: either ridiculously expensive, like the chic and pretty overpriced InterContinental, or cheap and affordable (but whose pictures online may not reflect the reality), like the various hostels that had opened for the Euro 2012 championships and had managed to stay afloat despite the crisis. In any case, there is something for everyone; and if living in a hotel is not your thing, then it is quite possible to rent an apartment for a couple of nights for an affordable amount of money. One piece of advice I can give to any foreigner coming in to Kyiv for the first time: book in advance. Don’t go along with the people who rent out their apartments at the train station or the airport, because you will find yourself facing unexpected additional fees and you’re practically buying a cat in a bag, so to speak.
Where to Eat?
Ukrainians love to eat out. It’s a thing we all do, and though most of our dinners and lunches aren’t a big deal – we just get together with our friends and such – sometimes we love to splurge on something special.
When my friend from the U.S. came to visit me in Kyiv, he marveled at how cheap the food was. Fair enough, compared to the rest of Europe, mid-range and cheap eateries are very affordable even in the capital. If you want more or less authentic Ukrainian food for a fair price, Katyusha and Puzata Khata are your places. These are both chain restaurants with convenient locations and broad menus offering traditional Ukrainian and Russian dishes. Overall, a nice big lunch could cost you as little as 8-10 dollars.
If you want fine dining, though, go on Tripadvisor and select the ones at the top of the list. Ukrainians love fancy foods with names they can’t pronounce, and there is this thing, this slight obsession with seafood, particularly sushi, good steaks and tiny little portions that don’t fill you up. Needless to say, it’s not the food that fills you up, it’s the experience.
If you’re a mid-range diner like myself, then I would suggest going to one of the many cafés and trying out their menus. Examples include Aroma, which is a Starbucks-style coffee shop with lots of things on the menu to try out (not just soggy brownies), Italian restaurants such as Il Molino and Vero Vero, and Georgian restaurants like Nikala. One thing I have to warn you about: there is a huge number of sushi places in Kyiv because of the weird boom in popularity Japanese food experienced here a few years back and you will need a local to point out where the good ones are because most of them substitute their avocados with cucumbers. Don’t even ask me what kinds of stuff I’ve found in my rolls.
What to See?
Ah, the big one.
Well, if you’re only in Kyiv for a couple of days, I would start with the basics.
Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the seminal main square of Kyiv – and Ukraine, by extension. This is where everything goes down: protests, concerts, you name it. Both the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan took place here, and the square, though unassuming compared to its European counterparts, remains bustling with history and constant activity.
Khreshchatyk. The shortest main street in the world, Khreshchatyk is definitely not Oxford Street or 5th Avenue, but it does have its appeal. The street is nice to enjoy on weekends, since it is closed for cars, and people can just dawdle around, sipping their coffee on the various terraces and enjoying the fumes of the city center.
Podil. Podil is an entire district of Kyiv, located lower than the rest on the bank of the Dnipro river. This neighborhood is quaint and slightly run-down, but this is also where all the artistic stuff happens. Various street food festivals, wonderful little shows, and small restaurants with great food are seated between various historical buildings in different states of disrepair.
Churches. Kyiv has a huge number of churches, as the place where Orthodox Christianity had spread from when Prince Volodymyr first got baptized back in the days of the Kyivan Rus. Any Orthodox church is an experience in itself if you’ve never seen one, but the big ones are the Mychaylo, Sofia, Volodymyr and Lavra monasteries in the city center. Word of warning: women have to cover their heads when going inside. Also, if you are sensitive to strong smells, try to not stay in for a long time, since the smell of the oils they burn in there might make your head spin.
When to Go?
Ah, that’s a good question. Well, as someone who had just finished school three and a half years ago, I would automatically say the summer. In reality, though, Kyiv has a lot to offer in any season of the year: there’s skiing in Protasiv Yar in winter, there’s various outdoor festivals in the spring and summer, and the fall offers the opportunity to go to theaters and museums and enjoy art from the inside.
The best time to go, then, depends on what you want to see and what experience you want to have of the city. My advice?
Go more than once.