In Kyiv, a Stylish and Surprising City

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Dear cities of the world: I warn you, it’s dangerous for me to visit you immediately after a city I love. You may not be judged fairly.

So many cities have suffered this fate. Tulum couldn’t hold a candle to Caye Caulker. I would have loved Charleston more if it hadn’t come immediately after my beloved Savannah. And I’ll always regret not giving Luang Prabang the attention it deserved, but how could I when all I could think about was turning around and getting back to Vang Vieng?

I was due to arrive in Kyiv (formerly Kiev) after three idyllic days in Odessa. Odessa blew me away — I was expecting to enjoy it, but I had no idea I would fall for it quite so hard.

So if this were an ordinary visit, I would have tolerated Kyiv and wished I was back in Odessa. To my surprise, that wasn’t the case at all! I enjoyed Kyiv quite a bit. I didn’t fall in love with it the way I did with Odessa, but it turns out that much of what I loved about Odessa was actually what I loved about Ukraine. Like the dirt-cheap prices. Ukraine is cheaper than anywhere else I’ve been in Europe, often on par with Southeast Asia.

Kyiv is also huge, which pleased this city-loving girl. Population-wise, Kyiv is the seventh largest city in Europe. I find comfort in large cities — they let me move around anonymously with minimal attention, and one of my greatest joys is to treat a new city like I’m a longtime resident.

I was hosted by JayWay Travel and their local partner JC Travel on this trip (see the Essential Info box for more information) and they arranged for me to have a wonderful tour guide named Olga, who showed me the best of the city in a few hours. Yes, my guide in Odessa was also named Olga; no, they were not the same person. Meeting multiple Olgas in Ukraine made me smile, though!

One last thing I’ll say is that I did not luck out with the light on this trip, which made photography difficult. Sometimes, I’ve been unbelievably lucky (Kraków’s light was so good, I nearly wept) but Kyiv was bright, and doing most of my exploring in the middle of the day did not help. That’s okay. I think I did the best with what I had.

Here’s the best of Kyiv! I hope you enjoy it.

The first thing that struck me about Kyiv was its many gold-topped churches. As we drove in from the airport, I gasped whenever we passed a gilded cathedral! This one is St. Michael’s Church.

St. Andrew’s, a green onion-tipped church, is another stunner. I had to take a picture of this one and send it to my friend with a new baby named Andrew!

There’s a surprising amount of green space in the city. I love this overlook by St. Andrew’s.

The opera house is one of the grandest structures in town. I wish I had had time to see an opera.

This sculpture outside Golden Gate is an homage to Pantyusha, one of Ukraine’s most famous cats. He lived in one of the nearby restaurants and was a neighborhood favorite with the locals. Sadly, Pantyusha died in a fire in 1997 and the neighbors raised enough money to have this sculpture built. Rub his ears for good luck.

One of my favorite things about Ukraine was the omnipresent coffee carts. They were on wheels, in tiny kiosks, or outfitted into the back of cars. Wherever you were, there would be one within eyesight, and they made espresso-based drinks to order for less than a dollar!

My favorite was definitely Coffee Mafia.

Some of the architecture echoed the beauty I had seen in Odessa.

I loved the playful use of color throughout the city.

But Kyiv is also home to ugly communist architecture, especially in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, one of the centers of the city. Here giant concrete buildings dwarf the delicate churches.

I hated these buildings — but some of my Chernobyl buddies loved them. It’s all about what you’re into.

“FREEDOM IS OUR RELIGION!” blared from the other side of the square.

This is how you say Kyiv in Cyrillic!

I had to try the city’s most famous dish, Chicken Kyiv! I tried it at O’Panas, a highly recommended traditional restaurant located in Taras Shevchenko Park. It’s basically the Ukrainian Tavern on the Green, despite its Irish Pub-sounding name.

To be truthful, I wasn’t a big fan of the dish. I found it to be dry. Give me borscht and vareniki any day.

This sign doesn’t lie. I ate borscht at least once per day, every day!

One cool thing to do in Kyiv is to head underground. Like many former communist cities, Kyiv has a network of underground malls and passageways that are worth exploring. I love this capture of this thoughtful woman.

The subway is DEEP underground — it takes forever on the escalator!

Awww. I wonder who got the flowers from this guy. I wonder how happy she (or he) was.

There are lots of tiny coffeeshops underground. Olga brought me to one and insisted it was one of her favorites, and far cheaper than above ground. I think we paid around 40 cents for a nice latte and got some candies to go with it as well!

If you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you know how my afternoon cafe break is essential. I found several cool cafes in Kyiv, but my favorite was The Blue Cup. It was right around the corner from my hotel.

Look at that luscious whoopie pie! And that beautiful latte, I remember clearly, cost about 95 cents. In a gorgeous, stylish cafe. Ukraine is insane.

I also like to seek out independent bookstores wherever I go, but I didn’t find any with English language books. It gives me comfort just to be around the smell of books, though.

In Odessa, I was surprised that the women didn’t look like my image of Ukrainians — they tended to be short, curvy, and dark. In Kyiv, though, the women fulfilled the stereotype of tall and blonde in tight dresses and pants.

Just look at the height of those heels!

But even the women who broke the Ukrainian mold looked stylish. I loved how well this woman matched the wall.

Kyiv was bright. Kyiv was playful. Kyiv was fun.

Where I Stayed: Theatre Apart Hotel

I spent three nights at the Theatre Apart Hotel in the A5 Suite. These are a collection of apartment-style suites located in buildings surrounding a courtyard in central Kyiv, not far from the opera house.

The location was fantastic — I was in walking distance from so many central attractions and there were several terrific restaurants and cafes within a five-minute walk. And the room gave me everything I needed — a comfortable bed, a table with chairs for working, a full kitchen, and a bathroom complete with a jacuzzi tub big enough for four people.

It wasn’t perfect, though. It’s in an old building with an ancient-looking elevator. There wasn’t a stand for the shower nozzle, which might be annoying to Americans who are used to having both hands free while showering.

But between its central location and $39 per night price tag, I thought it was fantastic value. I’d totally stay there again.

The Takeaway

I really enjoyed my time in Kyiv. In fact, I’d go so far as to put it on my favorite list of European capitals, alongside Paris, Berlin, Ljubljana, Amsterdam, Helsinki, London, and Tirana! (Strange list, I know.)

Between the beauty of the city and how unbelievably cheap Ukraine is, I highly recommend making a visit to Kyiv in the future. I bet you’ll love it as much as I did.

Essential Info: In Ukraine I was a guest of JayWay Travel, a boutique Central and Eastern European travel company, as well as their local partner JC Travel, for a custom itinerary they built for me with hotels, transfers, and tours. They do custom trips so whatever you’re looking for, reach out to them. It was so nice to not have to worry about transfers, and my guides were wonderful. Contact them directly for tours or other bookings.

I stayed at the Theatre Apart Hotel, which I enjoyed and would recommend. My suite, A5, starts at $39 USD per night.

Some restaurants I recommend are O’Panas for a traditional experience in the park, The Blue Cup for coffee and pastries, Druzi for international lunch fare, and Cafe Borsch for cheap Ukrainian food. Most do not have websites.

While the subway system in Kyiv is cheap and extensive, I mostly got around by Uber. It’s so remarkably cheap that most trips cost me around $2, and having a SIM card meant that it was always easy to call one when I needed one.

There is a significant language barrier in Ukraine, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared. In Kyiv lots of people in restaurants and hotels speak a bit of English. I do recommend learning Cyrillic, which is pretty easy to do. It will make your life so much easier when you can read what’s in front of you, as many words are similar to English.

I visited Ukraine in May, which was perfect. The weather was pleasant in Kyiv, it made for an easy trip to Chernobyl, and Odessa was beautiful without all the crazy party crowds that arrive in summer.

Don’t visit Kyiv without travel insurance. Whether you get appendicitis and need to be hospitalized, or your phone gets stolen, or an injury means you need to cancel all or part of your trip, travel insurance will help you out. I use and recommend World Nomads as travel insurance for trips to Ukraine.

Many thanks to JayWay Travel for hosting me throughout Ukraine. They paid for my hotels, airport transfers, and tours; I paid for flights, meals, and everything else. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you been to Kyiv? Does it look like your kind of city?