On my most recent trip to Kiev, I knew that one of the main things I wanted to do was visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

It’s perfectly safe to visit today, with security checks in place, as well as restrictions regarding how much time you can spend in certain areas due to the level of radiation. This was one of the coolest days of my entire summer in Eastern Europe, but it was also just really, really sad.

I visited the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone with SoloEast Travel, which is one of just a few large tour companies that run tours every day to Chernobyl. I absolutely recommend them—my tour was simply really well done. We got picked up from Maidan in the center of Kiev, and divided into small groups with our own guide in each van. Our tour guide was Nadia, who spoke superb English and was all-around a great guide. It was a little over 1.5 hours getting from Kiev to the first security checkpoint for Chernobyl, and they showed a documentary about the disaster on the drive.

The nuclear reactor at Chernobyl failed on April 26th, 1986. It was an unprecedented global disaster, and the worst nuclear disaster in history . Soldiers from all over the Soviet Union were shipped in to work on the site. Some people were only allowed to shovel debris for 10 seconds before being sent back in, due to the high levels of radiation.

We needed to have our passports checked in order to enter the exclusion zone, but everything was quite straightforward. Make sure to wear long pants and long sleeves (or bring a jacket), as it’s required for entry into the zone. And trust me, after you see the size of the mosquitoes in the zone, you’ll want to be covered up. (They still ate me alive anyway.) Also, wear good shoes. You’ll be walking on piles of broken glass all day.

It’s also very important not to leave your tour group, as it’s illegal to wander around. Apparently there are people called “stalkers” who sneak into the zone and hide/live in there for the thrill. And sneaking in is super illegal, so just make sure you stay with your group.

Our first stop of the day was a village off the main road through town. This was our first taste of the creepy abandoned buildings we’d be seeing for the rest of the day.

Most of the day was made up of driving, getting out of the van, taking photos, walking around, then getting back on the van and driving somewhere else. I never felt rushed though, and our guide always made sure we had time to take the photos we wanted.

One of the most famous memorials in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are the signs of all the towns that were destroyed in the disaster. They are all lined up in a row, and you can walk down and see all of them. It’s very poignant and sad, and really puts the effects of the disaster in perspective.

Next, we entered the town of Chernobyl. It’s a real town, with people (who work in the exclusion zone) living there and everything.

We had lunch provided for us on the tour at the hotel in Chernobyl. If you book a 2-day tour to Chernobyl, this is where you’ll stay overnight. The food wasn’t anything special (soup and chicken with potato wedges), but was definitely a nice break to get out of the van.

We drove around the town of Chernobyl on our way out. One of my favorite things we saw was the memorial to the firefighters, and the rest of the emergency services crews that gave their lives to let the rest of the world live. It was very touching and poignant.

Our next stop was this “secret” giant metal thing, officially called the Duga over-the-horizon radar system, originally built by the Soviets. The thing is absolutely massive, and was only opened to tour visits since 2013.

After that, we went to one of the most famous spots in the Chernobyl zone: the kindergarten. You can tell a lot of the items have been staged, and put in specific spots. It was still a creepy and sad place to visit. You can easily imagine what it was like when the kindergarten was open and full of kids.

Next, we went to see the actual power plants. There were actually 6 different nuclear reactors in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, with two only partially completed. The disaster occurred at reactor #4. You can see reactor #4, with its brand new, shiny sarcophagus (also called a safety dome, radiation shield, safe confinement, giant arch, etc.), which was put over the reactor in November 2016. It replaced the original sarcophagus that was built to cover the reactor and contain the radiation immediately after the disaster.

Reactor #5 was still under construction at the time of the disaster, which stopped immediately and was never continued or taken down. You can still see the rusted materials and construction cranes near it.

One of the weirdest stops of the tour was stopping by the river and seeing the giant catfish there. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any good photos of the catfish. But they were super giant and creepy. Our tour guide Nadia had bread for us to feed them with, so we saw quite a lot of them.

The closest we got to the main nuclear reactor (#4) was within 250 meters. We were only allowed to be outside of the van for 10 minutes due to radiation levels, but it was plenty of time to see the memorial outside. We also had to be quite careful with taking photos, as taking photos of some of the security cameras, entrances, and checkpoints are not allowed. Our guide always told us if there was anything we couldn’t photograph.

Next, we headed to my favorite part of the tour: the ghost town of Pripyat. This is one of the most famous places in the zone, as it was quite a large city—population nearly 50,000 prior to the disaster. It was evacuated the day after the Chernobyl disaster, on April 27th, 1986.

Pripyat is like a city frozen in time, and taken over by nature. Like an overgrown urban jungle. It is creepy and cool and sad and fascinating all mixed in one.

The grocery store still has shopping carts. There are still signs for vegetables and beer above empty freezers.

The amusement park is one of the most famous sites in Pripyat. The ferris wheel in particular is featured as one of the landmarks of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. My favorite part were the bumper cars. The amusement park was never actually used—it was set to open on May Day (May 1st, 1986) just a few days after the disaster on April 26th.

We also walked through the overgrown football stadium/soccer field, and saw the bleachers.

One of my favorite parts was seeing the swimming pool. It’s obviously empty of water now, but filled with debris and trash. You can walk all the way around it, and see the old bathrooms/locker rooms.

Another of the most notable landmarks in Pripyat is School No. 3. You can still see old books, bulletin boards, desks, and notebooks.

The “gas mask room” is one of the most famous. It is creepy and cool and sad all together.

I’m not sure if it was officially allowed (EDIT: it was definitely illegal according to my guide) but at the very end of our tour we climbed up to the 16th floor of an apartment building in Pripyat, to see the views of the town and the surrounding area.

The apartment building was fascinating enough on its own. There was still wallpaper on the wall. Plenty of torn up couches were still in the hallway. You could walk into people’s bathrooms. There were mailboxes on each floor like a normal apartment building.

The views from the roof were incredible. It was absolutely one of the best things I’ve ever done.

After that, we passed through the security checkpoints and left the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone—all visitors need to be gone by 6:00pm. We were dropped off in Kiev after the drive back, again at Maidan.

This tour was absolutely amazing, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. SoloEast Travel one-day tours start at $79 USD per person, but you will need to purchase insurance through them for an additional $10 (making the actual total $89 USD). You pay part of a deposit through booking, and can pay the rest on the day of your tour by cash or card. It was pretty pricey for Ukraine, but absolutely worth the money. I definitely recommend going with them! You can visit their website here. Also a special thank you to our guide, Nadia, who didn’t mind holding out all the “before vs. after” pictures for photos!

Visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is fascinating and creepy but also unbelievably sad. So many people’s lives were destroyed. If you’re visiting Kiev, this is one thing you simply must do.

Have you been to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, or another abandoned area? I’d love to hear about your thoughts!