If there was one place this summer that stole my heart, it would be Kiev. I don’t know what exactly it was—the laid back atmosphere, the surprising beauty of the city, the passionate people who love their country, or the fact that it was insanely affordable. But something about Kiev clicked with me, and I fell madly in love. Walking from the Metro to the hostel, I immediately knew that I would like the city. And that rarely happens. It happens even less when I’m walking around in an unknown neighborhood with my big backpack on late at night! This city is amazing. Here is my guide to Kiev!

Things to See

There is a lot to do and see in Kiev. But so much of the beauty of the city is slowing down and enjoying it. You can probably “do” Kiev in 2 busy days. But you should have at least one more day to visit Chernobyl (more below!). That being said, I had 4 full days, almost 5 full days, and felt like that was a great amount of time. I didn’t feel rushed, I could take a break and have a nice lunch during the day, and I could go back to places again.

Your first stop on any trip to Kiev should be Independence Square, or Maidan Nezalezhnosti (or sometimes even just Maidan). This large square is the heart of the city, with the Independence Monument, built in 2001, at its center. Maidan Nezalezhnosti is famous around the world for its role in Ukrainian politics, specifically the Orange Revolution protests in 2004, and the Euromaidan (Ukrainian Revolution) protests of 2013-2014.

There is a large memorial to those who died in the fighting in 2013-2014 near the Independence Monument. The trade unions building, which was used as headquarters for the protesters during the 2013-2014 protests, was burned during the fighting (which resulted in many deaths). Today, the building is covered with the slogan “Freedom is our religion.” This is one place you simply can’t miss in Kiev.

St Sophia’s Cathedral is one of Kiev’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The cathedral was founded in 1011, during the age of the Kievan Rus’, the kingdom/federation that stretched across wide areas of Eastern Europe during the 9th to 13th centuries. The most impressive part by far are the frescos and mosaics inside the church. It’s absolutely stunning. Admission costs 30 hryvnia for students (60 for adults), but you can pay extra and visit the bell tower if you like.

St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery was my favorite church in Kiev. Originally built in the 1100s and seriously damaged during the Mongol invasion in 1240, St. Michael’s was demolished by the Soviet government in the 1930s. Following Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the monastery was rebuilt and opened in 1999. The beautiful gold domes and blue walls of the monastery are extraordinary. Don’t miss this beautiful church!

Pechersk Lavra, or the Monastery of the Caves, is another one of Kiev’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s also one of the holiest places in Ukraine and the Eastern Orthodox Church. This is a giant monastery complex comprises 144 different buildings, was founded in 1051, and is full of history and beautiful churches. There are several main cathedrals, and many smaller buildings with exhibits. There are also great views out over the River Dnieper from the Lavra.

The most popular are the underground caves, where you can see the relics of many saints. Make sure to buy a candle before you go through, so that you can see more—and take the prayer route, as you’ll see so much more (just make sure to be very respectful). You will need to be dressed appropriately to go see the caves—women need to wear long skirts, long sleeves, and cover their hair, and men will need to cover their legs and shoulders. They have apron-type skirts available before you enter the caves. Admission to the complex is 35 hryvnia for students.

Rodina Mat, or the Motherland Monument, is one of the symbols of the city of Kiev. The statue is absolutely huge—it’s 62m (203ft) high, with the entire structure including the building below coming in at 102m (335ft). The sword alone weighs 9 tons! You can pay extra and go up to the observation deck in the head. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the statue today as it dates from the communist Soviet era and has a hammer and sickle (the emblem of the Soviet Union) symbol on the shield. Some people don’t find this appropriate, as Soviet and communist symbols were made illegal in 2015. The exception to this rule is if they are monuments of World War II (also known as the Great Patriotic War), like Rodina Mat. Either way, it’s one monument you must see in Kiev.

At the base of the Rodina Mat statue is the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War. The museum is comprehensive and covers many different aspects of Ukraine’s role of World War II. While everything in the museum exhibits is in Ukrainian (and Russian I think), there are information sheets in English for each different room. Admission is 20 hryvnia for students.

If you’re near Rodina Mat and Pechersk Lavra, you can’t miss a visit to Arsenalna Metro station. This Metro station is the deepest in the world!

The Holodomor Memorial is a poignant reminder of the genocide through forced starvation perpetrated against Ukraine by the Soviet Union. Ukraine produced 25% of all agricultural output in the Soviet Union, and in order to break Ukrainian resistance to Soviet authority and collectivization (among other things), the government confiscated everything and entire villages starved to death. 4.5 million Ukrainians died during the Holodomor of 1932-1933. There is a small museum at the base of the memorial. Most of the museum is in Ukrainian, although the excellent film with survivor interviews does a loop in English.

If you’re looking for souvenirs, shopping, and people watching, head to Andriyivskyy Descent. The cobblestone, winding street is packed with people during the day, and connects two major historical neighborhoods of Kiev. If you get the chance, pop into St. Andrew’s Church, one of the major landmarks on the street.

The Golden Gate used to be one of the main gates to the 11th century capital of the Kievan Rus’, Kiev. It was completely rebuilt by the Soviet authorities in 1982, although we’re not sure what the original gate would have looked like. Today, it houses a small museum and has a statue of Yaroslav the Wise (the grand prince and leader of Kievan Rus’ during its peak) out front.

One of my favorite parks in Kiev was Taras Shevchenko Park, which is located across from the university. The park is named for Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian poet, writer, and artist, who is credited with being the foundation of modern Ukrainian literature, and in part the Ukrainian language.

I was lucky enough to be staying in the Podil neighborhood (see below!), which I absolutely loved. The area is poppin’ at night! People are out and about, the main street becomes partly pedestrianized, and there’s almost always live music going on in the main square. There’s also some great street art in the neighborhood.

The Chernobyl Museum is also located in this neighborhood—if you want more background on the Chernobyl disaster, definitely visit. Make sure to get an audioguide, as there is essentially nothing in English in the museum.

By far one of the most unique experiences of my time in Kiev was visiting the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor Zone on a daytrip with SoloEast Travel. It was a truly incredible experience. You can see my full post (including all of my favorite photos) here.

Kiev is also home to some truly beautiful architecture throughout the city. I loved wandering the streets, and looking at and photographing all the buildings. Make sure to look up when you walk so that you don’t miss any gems!

Eating

If you only eat at one place in Kiev (or hell, one place in all of Ukraine), it should be Puzata Hata. I discovered this place in Lviv, and it was the thing I was most looking forward to on this trip to Ukraine. It’s a cafeteria style restaurant of traditional Ukrainian food. You can go around to the different stations and get whatever you like, and then bring your tray to the register to pay. I recommend getting borscht and the varienki (dumplings). The food is delicious and SO CHEAP. When I say cheap, I mean 2 big bowls of borscht, 2 plates of varienki, one beer, and one kvas (a non-alcoholic Coke-type of drink) cost 140 hryvnia, or about £4.40 (GBP), or $5.50 (USD). My favorite place!!!

There are also two great Georgian restaurants that I loved in Kiev! John Jolie (Джон Джоли) on Petra Sahaidachnoho St. (near the Poshtova Ploscha Metro station) had excellent khachapuri adjaruli. Khurma (Xурма) on Volodymyrska St. (near the Golden Gate) was another Georgian place I loved. Georgian food was absolutely one of my favorite parts of this trip, and I highly recommend eating some if you find yourself in Eastern Europe (or former Soviet states).

The Basics

Kiev is the capital city of Ukraine. The city has a population of about 2.8 million, while Ukraine has a population of 45 million. The official language is Ukrainian, although you will find that lots of people speak Russian. Most people in tourist areas will speak some English. Most signs will be in the Cyrillic alphabet. The official currency is the Ukrainian hryvnia (UAH), which plummeted following the Euromaidan protests and war in Eastern Ukraine in 2013-2014. It’s an incredibly affordable destination—the cheapest place I’ve ever visited. Ukraine is not part of the European Union and not a member of the Schengen zone. The city is often spelled Kyiv or Kiev (Київ in Ukrainian or Киев in Russian).

Getting Around

Kiev is a city built on hills. While some areas are easy to walk around and in between neighborhoods, other parts involve steep climbs uphill. I definitely recommend wearing good, comfortable shoes if you plan on walking around the city. Kiev has a Metro system with three lines. Metro rides cost just 5 hryvnia (15p GBP or 19 cents USD!). You buy Metro tokens from either the ticket window or a machine, and then put your token into the turnstile to enter the Metro. The airport shuttle from Borispol is insanely expensive (80 hryvnia) considering the general cost of transport.

Where I Stayed

I stayed at Dream House Hostel in the Podil neighborhood, which I absolutely loved. It’s a big, professional hostel, and they know how to do things. The location was excellent—the neighborhood was so great, and not far from a Metro station. The staff were amazing and helped us organize BlaBla Cars and more. The 6-bed dorm room I stayed in was small but not cramped, and had medium-size lockers. They have a huge, fully-equipped kitchen, laundry facilities, and a café next door. I’d absolutely stay here again! You can see my full review here.

I fell madly in love with Kiev, and it quickly jumped to the top of my European favorites list. The city has such a great vibe and exciting atmosphere, and I absolutely loved my time here. I already can’t wait to go back!

Have you been to Kiev before? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments!