What to do in Kiev

What first springs to mind when you hear the name Kiev?

Capital of the Ukraine? You’re right, of course. Some might think of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, one of the worst nuclear accidents in history. If pop culture is your thing, Kiev might mean the venue of the 2005 Eurovision Song Contest. Into politics? Perhaps the Orange Revolution of 2004 comes to mind? Images of the swollen, pockmarked face of former President Viktor Yushchenko after he suffered dioxin poisoning at the hands of political enemies? Or perhaps the beautiful former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who always seems to be sporting braids?

what to do in Kiev

What to do in Kiev

I’m here to see the unusual, beautiful golden domes. I only have a babysitter for a day and a half, so with only 24 hours in town, there’s no time to waste. After leaving my little overnight bag in the hotel, I immediately hit the city’s wide avenues, eagerly looking upwards.

Independence Square

Independence Square, Kiev

My hotel is located right across the street from Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square. The heart of Kiev is full of banks, shops, cafes and restaurants, pretty fountains, a waterfall even – and the tall Independence Column. Archangel Mikhail, Kiev’s patron saint, looks out on his city from the top of the column.

Independence Column, Kiev Independence Column, Kiev

One of the many fountains symbolise the founders of the city, the legendary Libed and her three brothers Kie, Schek and Horiv.

Kiev

Ulitsa Khreshchatyk

Kiev’s pretty main avenue is very busy. It’s pedestrianised during weekends, and traffic is even busier then, I’m told, as absolutely everyone is out walking. I don’t know – hopping between cars like a crazy game of Frogger, I find that hard to believe. Then, luckily, I discover an underpass.

Khreschatyk street, Kiev

The underpasses double as underground shopping centres, with a curious mix of hawkers selling cigarettes individually from camping tables, and high-end boutiques. In fact, the selection of luxuries is astonishing. As is the ATM-to-humans ratio; somewhat disturbing considering this is one of Europe’s poorest countries.

Shevchenko Park

I wander aimlessly (but always looking up), past the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv and Shevchenko Park, full of joggers, chess players and people sitting on benches, reading books. I do a mental time travel, pretending it’s 1915. That young man sitting over there could well the the famous novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita, by many considered to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

St Sophia and St Michael

Rounding a corner, I glimpse my first golden dome between the chestnut trees. It’s St. Sophia. On UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites, this 11th-century cathedral has thirteen shining domes and a tall blue bell tower.

St Sophia’s Cathedral, Kiev St Sophia’s Cathedral, Kiev

Just down a short street, the heavenly blue St Michael’s Cathedral is not as tall, but just as gorgeous—with bright, vivid murals and more golden domes.

St Michael, Kiev

I can’t decide which of the two cathedrals I prefer. Michael, the Archangel, Prince of the Seraphim – or Sophia, Priestess of Divine Wisdom. Pondering this for a while, it dawns on me. Sophia and Michael simply belong together. And the little street between them is the silver thread connecting their souls. (How’s that from a sober, secular Scandinavian?)

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra – Monastery of the Caves

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra – Monastery of the Caves, Kiev
Cathedral of the Dormition

Early next morning I’m in the courtyard of Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra (also called Kievo-Pecherska Lavra) – Monastery of the Caves. Golden domes abound! When the Cathedral of the Dormition was restored after having been “razed to the ground by an explosion of terrible force” in 1941, it took nine kilos of leaf gold to gild its domes and crosses, according to my book Kiev: Architecture History.

Entrance to the monastery is through Trinity Gate. From 1106, it’s adorned with images of saints and topped with a cross.

Trinity Gate, Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra – Monastery of the Caves, Kiev
Trinity Gate

This is August, Europe’s prime holiday season. Lavra is the principal sight in Kiev; hordes will no doubt soon rush in. But for now, I’m the only one here, apart from five pigeons pecking on a sticky bun that has miraculously escaped the sweeper. All I hear is the belfry chime, the soft rustle of the fountains and the wind whispering through the trees.

CIMG2287

Like St Sophia, Caves is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I don’t know if UNESCO has rules about on site ATMs, but this monastery has one immediately inside the entrance. It’s tastefully hidden inside a room with an open door, but impossible to miss.

A large compound, more than 11 hectares, this is very much a living monastery. Along the Upper Lavra, monks’ dormitories line the courtyard.

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra – Monastery of the Caves, Kiev

The heady scent of roses emanates from a small bed; elsewhere apple trees and sunflowers vy for space. Around every corner, another golden dome gleams in the early morning sunshine. A young man with a baby stroller negotiates his way down a steep street paved with ancient stone slabs, leading to Lower Lavra. Further down, the river Dniepr floats lazily by.

A green sign says KABA, and I’m soon drinking strong Ukrainian coffee by the Exhibition Hall, gazing at vendors laying out their wares: embroidered table clothes, blouses, souvenir icons and books are for sale. Apparently, there’s nothing wrong with doing business on holy grounds here either. I think someone might have a word or two to say about this practice, though. An episode comes to mind of him entering the temple area and driving out all who were buying and selling there. Something about overturning the tables of moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves, isn’t it? But what do I know; this particular part of the gospels may be modernised by now – as opposed to, say, views on homosexuality. But I digress.

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra – Monastery of the Caves, Kiev

All of a sudden everything seems to wake up. The courtyard quickly fills up. I hear guides speaking in Russian, Portuguese and Dutch. All around, monks are working. One is painting window lattices, another washes a wall. Yet another is pruning a pink azalea whilst talking on his mobile. And yet another, exhausted from taking out the rubbish, plonks his large frame on a bench with an audible sigh.

It’s time to see the main attraction, the Caves – a necropolis for the saints of the ancient state of Kievan Rus. People have come to the Caves on pilgrimages for more than 1000 years. In one of the churches above the caves, people are queuing to receive blessings or advice from two grey-haired monks in black robes and beards. They look quite patriarchal. I spot the young father once more, now carrying his sleeping child, patiently awaiting his turn in the queue.

Without warning, the locks of heaven opens and I’m pelted with buckets of rain. People don’t seem to mind much; some dig out umbrellas, but most just get on with their business. Everywhere, people are making the sign of the cross and kissing relics. To enter the churches, women have to cover their heads, while men, curiously, have to uncover theirs.

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra – Monastery of the Caves, Kiev

Inside yet another church, people are buying candles and donning black robes. Perhaps this is the mysterious caves, at last? I latch on to a Russian group. My Russian is limited, so I just tag along, doing what everyone else does. Briefly, I wonder why everyone buys two candles. Then I get it. Descending the narrow stairway to the caves, a candle is extinguished by a rush of air. I keep lighting one with the other.

The narrow, white-washed catacombs feels serene. Along the walls are mummified monks in glass caskets, dressed in green and gold robes. Mostly just the robes are visible, but here and there a mummified hand protrudes, darkened by the years. I, being morbidly curious, lean over every casket, looking for body parts.

Others have more reverent errands. Teenagers, loud and playful on the outside, now humbly kiss the relics. One woman kneels before a casket, kissing it and muttering a prayer. As the tunnels are rather narrow, about 1 ½ metres wide, the rest of us wait patiently while she completes her ritual. No one seems to mind. To my surprise, I don’t either. It takes some winding down, some peace and quiet, to appreciate the atmosphere down here with these dead monks – men who devoted their lives to something they believed in. That’s not a contemporary concept, and all the more deserving of respect, perhaps. It’s very touching.

St Andrew’s Descent

St Andrew's Descent, Kiev

Andriyivski uzviz means St. Andrew’s Descent, indicating how this quaint, twist-and-turn cobblestone street should be negotiated. There’s even a funicular so you don’t have to do St. Andrew’s Ascent. My advice is to wear trainers, but Ukrainian girls wouldn’t give two red cents for that piece of good sense. It looks rather strange to watch them wobble down the cobbles in 7-inch heels. On the other hand, I don’t see anyone falling.

St Andrew's Cathedral, Kiev

The Descent has often been equated with Montmartre in Paris. It’s certainly a charming street, old and picturesque, filled with galleries, cafés and museums, including the house of Mikhail Bulgakov. Also, the Descent has its own museum, the quaintly named Museum of One Street. But the stunning St. Andrew’s Cathedral is the chef d’oeuvre, the masterpiece.

Artists sell their work and street vendors peddle matroshkas and various wooden artefacts, Che Guevara T-shirts and much more. Halfway down, I stop at the cosy Chumatskiy Dvir and have a delicious grilled forest-mushroom sandwich. A café cat stretches languidly on a chair, not caring one bit about my attempts to get her attention. When I get up to leave, she tags along.

Kiev cat

Before coming to Kiev, I heard claims of assorted scams, attempted robberies and various other horror stories. Well…, I never felt unsafe and I’m not even particularly vigilant, walking down a dark alley or two. After I left a cafe, a teenage boy came running after me, handing back my wallet which I had stupidly left behind.

In short, nothing bad happened, except having to crowd like a tinned sardine in the bus going to Kiev Boryspil airport.

So that was my time in Kiev. 24 hours well spent, if I do say so.

St Andrew's Descent, Kiev
Towards the bottom of St Andrew’s Descent

Kiev has much more to offer, of course

Flights to Kiev can be bought for next to nothing, so chances are I’ll come back for a closer look at the Ukrainian capital. If I do, this is what I want to explore:

  • The House with Chimeras, for a look at interesting architecture and freaky sculptures
  • Vladimirskaya Gorka, a park with old pavilions, believed to be a spiritual place with magic at work
  • The art museums (both the Ukrainian and the Russian one), and the war museum
  • The Kiev Opera and Ballet Theater

I will probably also get out of town and visit Babiy Yar, a ravine where 60 000 people were executed during World War II, and of course Chernobyl.

If I bring my daughters, I will probably also check out the Children’s Railway, an educational remnant of the country’s Soviet past. It’s not a model, but a narrow gauge railway for real train travel. This is where teenagers learnt the professions of the railway. Today, it’s more of an entertaining outing, I expect, but children (9 – 15) still work as train drivers and conductors.

This is an excerpt – a long one – of my article Golden Kiev on Boots’n’All.

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unesco logo

Kiev: Saint-Sophia Cathedral and related monastic buildings, Kiev-Pechersk Lavra is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.

42 Responses to “What to do in Kiev”

  1. Italian Notes 26 June 2011 1810 #

    I never knew Kiev had so much to offer. And those goldes domes are amazing.

  2. Sherry 26 June 2011 2119 #

    I’m really liking all those buildings with the eminent Russian influenced architecture. The golden domes must have been quite a sight for you! Kiev was not a destination I would have even thought about, but now it certainly seems appealing with a lot of potential.

  3. Andrea 27 June 2011 0619 #

    You’re always in such interesting places! I love how the buildings are so colorful

  4. Christy @ Technosyncratic 27 June 2011 0628 #

    Wonderful overview of Kiev, and great photos! You’ve inspired me to add this to our list of must-see places for our next year of traveling. :)

  5. robin 27 June 2011 1133 #

    You really do have the most distinctive itineraries of anyone I know. Very interesting insight here into somewhere completely unknown to me.

  6. The Travel Chica 27 June 2011 1255 #

    Shevchenko Park sounds like the perfect place to wander aimlessly, one of my favorite travel activities :-)

  7. David Bennett 27 June 2011 1414 #

    Your list of the things that Kiev brings to mind is great. It was like a pageant of history walking past.

    My first thought after thinking that I would like to go there – is how expensive is it?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 27 June 2011 1443 #

      @David – It wasn’t very expensive at all. Eastern European prices (and not like Prague, which isn’t that inexpensive anymore, but more like the Baltic states). There’s a budget airline – WizzAir which flies from Oslo for a pittance. I just checked their site and it appears they also fly from London (Luton) for around GBP 50 one way.

  8. Anne-Sophie Redisch
    Anne-Sophie Redisch 27 June 2011 1446 #

    Thanks for your lovely comments everyone :) Kiev is absolutely worth visiting! And I’m fairly certain other parts of the Ukraine is as well. Like Odessa. And Yalta on the Crimean peninsula.

  9. Abby 28 June 2011 0214 #

    Wow! Kiev looks fascinating — and the gold on those buildings doesn’t look real.

  10. Cam @ Traveling Canucks 28 June 2011 0410 #

    The churches are stunning, would love to visit someday soon!

  11. Christina 28 June 2011 1454 #

    I had no idea Kiev was this amazing! Thank you for including all those pictures – wonderful architecture!

  12. Tina T. 28 June 2011 1820 #

    Really enjoyed following in your footsteps through Kiev. I’ve never even considered visiting, but I will now.

  13. Kim 28 June 2011 2023 #

    Wow, Kiev looks beautiful!

  14. Suzy 29 June 2011 1730 #

    That’s pretty strange how there are ATMs everywhere! I love the golden domes and architecture. I had no idea churches in Kiev would have such architectural interest.
    Suzy recently posted..Suzy Stumbles Over Travel: Week of June 27, 2011

  15. Leigh 29 June 2011 1900 #

    What a great rundown of what you can accomplish in 24 hours. I LOVE your pictures of the golden domes – they’re just as I imagined. Wish I could hop a flight and explore for a day without extreme jet jag. I’m loving your blog.
    Leigh recently posted..Slovenia – 8 Reasons to Visit

  16. Grace 30 June 2011 2054 #

    This is a good comprehensive list Sophie. I like that somebody was nice enough to return your wallet. That rarely happens nowadays.
    Grace recently posted..Travel Gear Review: Women’s travel shoes do not have to look frumpy

  17. A Lady in London 1 July 2011 1853 #

    Great post, Sophie! I have always been curious about Kiev. Your photos and writing make me want to visit!
    A Lady in London recently posted..Lady in Giverny

  18. Anh Nguyen 2 July 2011 0534 #

    The first thing that comes to my mind is that I need to go there, esp after reading your post! Have a good weekend!

  19. Lisa 3 July 2011 0536 #

    I love the architecture. The Cathedral of the Dormition is gorgeous. What a great city to explore.
    Lisa recently posted..Three Funny Travel Experiences

  20. Shivya 3 July 2011 1013 #

    Ukraine’s quite an unusual destination. Beautifully described and shown. I hope I can make it there someday :)

    I’d also love for you to share your Kiev experience on our offbeat travel community on Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/NotYourUsualTravel
    Shivya recently posted..Travel tales from Spiti: The legend of the moving monasteries.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 3 July 2011 1502 #

      @Shivya – Ooh, sounds like an interesting group, right up my alley. I’ll have a look now :)

  21. crazy sexy fun traveler 3 July 2011 1555 #

    Looks like an interesting place :)
    crazy sexy fun traveler recently posted..A CRAZY ASS WALKING THROUGH TULUM RUINS

  22. Jason 7 July 2011 1659 #

    Nice photos and a nice introduction to a place I’ve never been. I love the architecture, as well.
    Jason
    Jason recently posted..Bolivian Biodiversity

  23. Julia 8 July 2011 1151 #

    Great city, great architecture, and great review ;) Definitely I must visit it!
    Julia recently posted..Facts before buying soma carisoprodol

  24. Robert G 12 July 2011 1104 #

    I’m so glad you wrote this beautiful article about Kiev. I was just there last fall and it was hard to find information before I went. Wish I had read this then. I thought Kiev was a beautiful city.

  25. Erich 20 August 2011 0158 #

    The Ukraine has always fascinated me. Just wanted to say thanks for this very informative and entertaining article.

  26. Nancie 14 September 2011 1012 #

    The architecture is amazing!
    Nancie recently posted..A Preview to Travel Photo Thursday — Your Chance to Win A Prize

  27. Jenny 3 October 2011 1623 #

    Great city, interesting architecture as someone already spoke!
    Jenny recently posted..I got started to blogging!

  28. AdorableLand 26 October 2011 2142 #

    Greetings from Ukraine! Kiev is one of the best cities in Ukraine. There are really a lot of things to do in Kiev. Ukraine is in need in such a good promotion like your post. Thank you.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 26 October 2011 2154 #

      @AdorableLand – Happy to help. I really enjoyed visiting Kiev :)

  29. Andrew Graeme Gould 23 January 2012 1558 #

    Wonderful architecture and history, and obviously so much to see and do in general for traveller and photographers. Speaking of photography, you have some very beautiful images here!
    Andrew Graeme Gould recently posted..Coquimbo, Chile: Fishing for machas

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 January 2012 1441 #

      Thanks, Andrew. Kiev was surprisingly interesting (surprising, because I didn’t know any better) – and well worth a much longer stay.

  30. Yee Mei 4 May 2012 0607 #

    Beautiful photos.
    I always go to “branded” destinations. Paris and Rome, in Europe. Of course they are beautiful cities, but there must be many beautiful cities and landscapes which are not on the typical tourist routes.
    Everything looks so pristine and well cared for.
    Beautiful
    Yee Mei recently posted..sueanne wrote a new post, Need a Full Time Babysitter at Taman Jurong

  31. Oleks 16 August 2012 2102 #

    Great post about Kiev, thanks!
    A small adjustment: it’s just “Ukraine”, unless you usually write “The Norway” of course.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 17 August 2012 1436 #

      Noted :)

  32. Michelle 2 October 2012 1747 #

    Hello! So delighted to find your blog and a post about an off the beaten path destination. Photos and descriptions are great. Those churches are stunning. Headed there soon for a week for the elections and hope I have time to see some sights. Last time I was there was in 1990 as a Russian student and only remember the caves and monastery. Surely they’ve cleaned up the city since then. Can you respond to this with your food experience?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 3 October 2012 1542 #

      Thanks, Michelle :)
      My brief visit to Kiev was not exactly of the culinary kind, and it’s been a few years, so I’m afraid I’m no good when it comes to Ukrainian food.

  33. Nadya 22 July 2013 1537 #

    Hello Anne! I searched the internet for information about the Hundertwasser House in New Zealand found nothing but a post about toilet brought to your blog !. since I live in Kiev, then wondered what was written about my city, thanks for inspiring travelers to come and see the city and thanks for an interesting blog. :)The next time gladly drive you by car to airport

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 July 2013 1011 #

      Thanks for your kind words, Nadya. I really enjoyed Kiev – and there’s heaps more of Ukraine I’d like to see.

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    [...] Ukraine Anne-Sophie Redisch presents What to do in Kiev posted at Sophie’s World, saying, “What first springs to mind when you hear the name [...]

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