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

Capital of 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, Kyiv 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 in her signature braids?

What to do in Kyiv

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, Ukraine

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

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

Ulitsa Khreshchatyk

Kyiv’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. Luckily, I discover an underpass.

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 and ATMs are everywhere, despite this being one of Europe’s poorest countries.

Shevchenko Park

I wander (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 be 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.

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.

I can’t decide which of the two cathedrals I prefer. Michael, the Archangel, Prince of the Seraphim – or Sophia, Priestess of Divine Wisdom.

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra – Monastery of the Caves

Cathedral of the Dormition

Early next morning I’m in the courtyard of Kyiv-Pechersk 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

This is August, prime holiday season in Europe. Lavra is the principal sight in Kyiv; 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. The only sounds are the belfry’s chime, the fountains’ soft rustle and the wind whispering through the trees.

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 is tastefully hidden inside a room with an open door, yet 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.

The heady scent of roses emanates from a small bed; elsewhere apple trees and sunflowers vie 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 Dnipro floats by lazily.

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.

Suddenly, 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 1,000 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 open and I’m pelted with 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.

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 (including me) 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.

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.

St Andrew’s Descent

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.

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.

Artists sell their work. 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.

Before coming to Kyiv, I heard stories of assorted scams, attempted robberies and various other horrors. Well, I never felt unsafe and I’m not even particularly vigilant, as my friends will attest. Nothing bad happened to me. In fact, just the opposite. After I left a cafe, a teenage boy came running after me, handing back my wallet which I had stupidly left behind.

Towards the bottom of St Andrew’s Descent

So that was my time in Kyiv. 24 hours well spent, I think.

What else?

Kyiv has much more to offer, of course. Flights can be had 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 Kyiv Opera and Ballet Theatre

I would also like to 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. Children (9 – 15) still work as train drivers and conductors.

unesco logo

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