Stretching from the wild Carpathian Mountains in the west to endless steppe landscapes of the east, Ukraine is Europe’s travel frontier. Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union, the country has remained off the radar of most travellers and while this is slowly changing it remains thrillingly unspoilt by mass-tourism. From the country’s rich ancient history to the life behind the Iron Curtain, this travel guide will show you the best of Ukraine.
Marvel at Kiev metro’s socialist realist splendour
Second only to Moscow in its grandiosity, Kiev’s communist-era metro system is one of Eastern Europe’s hidden gems. Constructed following Kiev’s near total destruction during World War Two, the metro system is built in the gilded style favoured by Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union. The most impressive station is the cavernous Zoloti Vorota, which is translated as ‘Golden Gates’ and is located near the medieval monument of the same name. The station is lit by a series of wrought iron chandeliers and is decorated with mosaics relating to Ukraine’s role as the cradle of East Slavic civilisation and the triumph of the proletariat.
Other highlights are the space age Slavutych station, which is bedecked in glinting chrome, and the mosaicked Olimpiiska station, which was built to commemorate the 1980 Summer Olympics and has chandeliers modelled after racing bikes.
Visit a haunting nuclear ghost town at Chernobyl
As one of the world’s most unlikely tourist attractions, a tour of Chernobyl is a haunting trip into a town frozen in time. Following the 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, a vast swathe of northern Ukraine’s was evacuated leaving behind countless abandoned towns.
The most chilling site is undoubtedly the city of Pripyat, which was once home to 50,000 people and today is a ghost town of decaying Soviet-era buildings, overgrown children’s fairgrounds, rusting Ladas and abandoned radar stations. While it would be easy to spend hours wandering through Pripyat’s empty streets, tours of Chernobyl’s radioactive exclusion zone are limited to nine hours for your own safety.
Get dazzled by Ukraine’s spectacular ecclesiastical history at Kiev
Way back when Moscow was little more than a village in the wilderness of Muscovy, the Kievan Rus emerged as the most powerful force in East Slavic culture. To highlight their immense power, the Kievan princes sought to emulate the splendour of the Byzantine Empire by building Eastern Europe’s most spectacular ecclesiastical architecture. Start at the dazzling St Sophia’s Cathedral in Old Kiev, which was built in the early 11th century and contains some of the earliest known examples of Orthodox frescoes and icon painting.
Further south, sitting astride a series of grassy knolls above the Dnieper River, is Kievo-Pechersk Lavra, whose collection of golden onion-domes can be seen glinting in the sun all the way from downtown Kiev. The Lavra, which means senior monastery, was built in the mid-11th century and contains an unforgettable labyrinth of catacombs that house the mummified remains of Orthodox saints.
Sample the Habsburg charm of Lviv’s Old Town
If your first taste of Ukraine is its sprawling capital Kyiv, then the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Lviv will be a shock. Standing apart from Ukraine’s eastern reaches culturally, linguistically, ecclesiastically and historically, Lviv has more in common with the chocolate box architecture of Krakow or Prague than with the brutalism of the Soviet Union. The best way to see this is by exploring the city’s charmingly ramshackle clutch of fin-de-siècle Habsburg-era public buildings, such as the impressive opera house, and baroque Catholic churches, including the iconic St George’s Cathedral. The heart of the old town is Ploshcha Rynok, a pastel-hued square lined with medieval townhouses that are at its most evocative during Ukraine’s sweltering summers when the sounds of open-air cafes and buskers fill the air.
Immerse yourself in Odessa’s buzzing nightlife
Founded by Catherine the Great in the 18th century and quickly becoming home to a cast of subversive characters from across the Russian Empire, Odessa has always had a bohemian reputation. During the Soviet era, the Black Sea metropolis was part of the popular Red Riveria where holidaymakers from across the vast country would come to unwind and today it is home to some of Eastern Europe’s most thrilling nightlife. To get immersed in the city’s freewheeling club scene, head to the Arcadia promenade, where bars and nightclubs spilling out onto the sub-tropical shores of the Black Sea.
After you have exhausted Odessa’s nightlife, explore the city’s iconic attractions, including the Potemkin Steps, which were immortalised in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic Battleship Potemkin.
Travel back to the Middle Ages at Kamyanets-Podilsky Fortress
Used variously by the Kyivan Rus, Lithuania, and Poland, Kamyanets-Podilsky Fortress is one of Ukraine’s most historic locations. While the fortress has origins dating back to the 10th century, Italian military engineers constructed the gothic brick structure that stands today, during the 1500s. Today, the fortress is a wonderful place to lose yourself in the ambience of the Middle Ages, as you can climb any number of its imposing watchtowers, take a guided tour around its outer walls and take part in thrilling archery competitions. While the fortress is undoubtedly Kamyanets-Podilsky’s star attraction, a stroll around the town’s charming old town is also an enchanting experience.
Hike in the unspoiled Carpathian wilderness
A world away from the never-ending steppe landscapes of Ukraine’s east, the Carpathian Mountains contain some of Europe’s most jaw-dropping peaks. Start your Carpathian adventure is in the Carpathian National Nature Park, which has countless trails through alpine meadows and up the forested slopes of Ukraine’s highest summit, Mount Hoverla. Peppered throughout the national park are traditional Hutsul villages that reverberate with the beguiling sounds of church bells and the clip-clopping of horse’s hooves on cobbled lanes. To sample authentic Hotsul culture head for the charming town of Kosiv, which holds a regular folk market where you can buy anything from locally produced speciality foods to traditional musical instruments.
Get enthralled by the space race in Dnipro
During the Soviet Union’s heyday, Dnipro, then named Dnipropetrovsk after a Bolshevik revolutionary, was known for one thing: building space rockets. Located in downtown Dnipro, Rocket Park is an open-air museum celebrating the city’s immense contribution to the space age. The park is peppered with towering spacecraft built at the local Yuzhmash factory and contains a recently opened SpaceHub, which details the city’s rich history of exploration in humankind’s final frontier.
Learn about World War Two at the Motherland Monument
Towering above Kiev is the iconic Motherland Monument, which is one of the world’s tallest statues at 102 metres. Depicted holding a gigantic sword and shield, which still bears the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle, the monumental statue commemorates the victory over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War (1941-45). The vast scale of the monument symbolises the unimaginable losses faced by Ukraine during the conflict. Today, elevators can even whisk visitors to the top of the statue to get a bird’s eye view of Kiev. What is more, the base of the statue contains the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, which is a dream for military history enthusiasts.
“Over the past decade, Ross Cameron has traveled extensively across Europe, Southeast Asia, North America, North Africa, and the post-Soviet space. As someone who has a real passion for these regions of the globe, he is able to offer an expert opinion that highlights the best off the beaten track destinations.”
Image details and licenses
Golden Gate: https://flic.kr/p/24MM7k9 (Jorge Franganillo, CC BY 2.0), Zoloti Vorota Metro Station: https://images.app.goo.gl/mH37SKLBBSdvQpb66 (Amy, CC BY-SA 3.0), Slavutych station: https://images.app.goo.gl/oyHCZEYkDoTYmrmp8 (Amy, CC BY-SA 3.0), Potemkin Steps: https://flic.kr/p/6VrLKM (Dmytrok, CC BY-ND 2.0), Carpathian National Nature Park: https://images.app.goo.gl/ee7UXok5xYbyn5Es9 (Haidamac, CC BY-SA 4.0), Dnipro: https://images.app.goo.gl/zG9JWREDFPuHrBf68 (Dmitri Perfilov, CC BY 3.0),