I usually only write about a place when we’ve left it. We’ve been in Kiev (Kyiv as Ukrainians prefer it) for 3 weeks and have another week remaining. But we’ve had quite a few readers asking about Kyiv (and Ukraine in general) so I figured I would do an “impressions” post. I’ll write more in depth about Kyiv in coming weeks.
Note: Ukrainians appreciate that their capital be named “Kyiv”, not Kiev. More on that here. I’ve debated which to use and have used both in the title because I want readers to know what I’m writing about. But I’ve switched to ‘Kyiv”in the text of this post.
We didn’t know what to expect from Kyiv. It doesn’t seem to be well represented by travel bloggers and all we really knew before coming here was that it’s a big city, it’s quite modern (having been basically levelled during World War II), and that it has some impressive churches.
The above is all accurate.
We didn’t expect a very hilly, very green city. Kyiv is actually quite an attractive city and is walkable with large boulevards and wide sidewalks. The right bank (where the downtown core and the city’s highlights are) is lined by parks looking over the huge green expanse of islands separating the right bank and the left bank (which is mostly residential). You can walk all day along the hilly parks that line the Dnieper river, looking at the city on one side – which is a hodgepodge of architectural styles – and across the other side at the river and the left bank beyond. So it’s a very green, very hilly city.
We weren’t prepared for the wealth we’ve seen in Kyiv. There are lots of fancy stores, glitzy shopping centers, huge modern high rises, and lots of people driving big SUVs. There are many well-dressed women, many sporting those Daffy Duck lips. Vanity is “in” in Kyiv. There are lots of very fancy restaurants in Kyiv. Maybe too many. We prefer the down-home restaurants that we went to in Lviv. We’ve found an air of pretentiousness in the restaurants in downtown Kyiv (maybe we just haven’t found the right ones yet). We’ve found food stores with the best food and wines from across the world. This is a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city where you can find anything you want.
We were told in Lviv that the people in Kyiv are not as friendly. We didn’t expect much. After all, people in large cities are generally not as friendly as those in smaller cities. BUT – we’ve found people actually quite nice in Kyiv. We haven’t had any unfriendly experiences and whenever we’ve had interactions with people they’ve always been pleasant. We’ve found Ukrainians in general to be open, tolerant and helpful. We’ve been in Ukraine now a total of 7 weeks and Ukrainians have been near the top of the list as far our favorite people on our travels. We would have never expected that being that it’s sandwiched between Poland (where we really didn’t have good experiences) and Russia (who’s people have a reputation as cold and stone-faced). It just shows that you have to travel. Sometimes places are not what you expect.
As a tourist destination, Kyiv’s tourist highlights are incredible. Stupendous. We haven’t spent much time in Orthodox Europe – Belgrade and Skopje being exceptions – and the Orthodox churches in Kiev have been much more impressive than anything we’ve previously seen. Everything is grand in Kyiv, not just the churches but the monuments and museums. We’ve been incredibly impressed by some of the things we’ve seen here.
War and Safety
Some of our readers have been curious about what it’s like being in Kyiv with the “unofficial” war with Russia going on in the east. The only signs we’ve seen are lots of soldiers and security personnel. When we took the train from Lviv to Kyiv about half the train was filled with soldiers going east. In Kyiv, government buildings are blocked off and guarded by soldiers. But maybe it’s always been like that. Outwardly at least, Kyiv seems relaxed and very safe*.
* Note: people always ask about safety. In over 4 years of travelling full-time, much of the time in Central/Eastern Europe, we’ve never had an incident. We’ve never felt unsafe walking around at night (although we’re always careful. We stick to where people are and usually aren’t out past midnight). Same holds true to Kyiv – we’ve walked around at night and have never felt unsafe walking around the city center.
Comparing Kyiv to other European capitals
Before coming here I thought Kyiv would maybe bring back memories of some of the Balkan capitals: Zagreb, Belgrade, Sarajevo or Skopje. Cities with a gritty charm. No. Development-wise Kyiv is far ahead of any of these cities and doesn’t have the more recent scars of war evident in the Balkans. Architecture is very different. Maybe Prague or Budapest? No. Architecture and topography in both cities are far different. In fact we can’t think of any city that has similarities with Kyiv. Which is another reason to visit – if you’ve only travelled in Western Europe you’ll find Kyiv very different than anything you’ve ever seen.
Lviv and Kyiv have been our highlights of our last 4 months in Central/Eastern Europe (which included Poland and Moravia, the Czech Republic’s easternmost region). We’re actually a bit sad to leave Ukraine. But we’re planning to come back sometime next summer and to see much more. This was just an introductory trip. Ukraine has become one of our favorite countries.
Related: See our Detailed Guide to Kyiv here
Related: Why “Off the beaten path” places are sometimes the best places to Visit
Related: The 10 Most Beautiful Metro Stations in Kyiv (Kiev)
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Hi Frank & Lissette, thank you for sharing your impressions on Kyiv.
I loved my visit a while ago, and loved hearing about your experience here!
What’s happening there right now is beyond awful, and I’m praying for the Ukrainian people this is over imminently.
Thank you for sharing
Anita @ No Particular Place to Go
Wow! Looks like Kiev is putting its best foot forward. With a river running through it, hills and spectacular landscapes it really is impressive and your pics show some incredible churches. (I always find it ironic that as a self-professed agnostic I always gravitate to churches, big and small, when I’m traveling. ?) Looking forward to finding out more about the city and the people in your next post. But, as I said in a previous comment, your posts about the Ukraine have moved the country way up on my list of places to visit!
I’m a total non-believer Anita, I think it’s all bullcrap. But what would we do without all the incredible religious buildings/monuments in the world? Imagine Chiang Mai or Bangkok without the temples, they’d be absolutely no reason to visit. That goes for most European cities too, the highlights are usually these incredible churches that in some cases took 100 years to build. It would be sad to think of a world without all these sites.
I was one of those readers who were waiting for your impressions about Kiev. The city looks not badly.
Now, it would be interesting to hear your comparison of Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
By the way, neither Peter the Great nor his architect Domenico Trezzini have never seen Stockholm, but I have seen. Nothing in common.
Putting the pressure on us to go to Russia Victor?
Ha! Thanks for the clarification.
Why not, Frank? Maybe not all Russia, but two cities are worth of visiting: Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
It’s been in our plans Victor. We’ll get there one of these days.
What a pleasure to read such a great article impression about Kiev from the experienced travelers as you, Frank & Lissette! And what is special about it, you usually stay in countries from 3 weeks and more, not 2-3 days as usually people do. So you have that full overview on the place you stay at. You discover not only sites but local culture, people’s mentality, lifestyle, habits. It is really amazing! Thank you very much for spreading the good word about Kiev and Ukraine! Blessings from Kiev!
We will be back one day and might want to have an in-depth tour. Will contact you if we do 🙂
Thank you for your kind words.
only heard good things about this city. Looks beautiful, as does most of the Ukraine. 🙂
Andy, you’ve committed the cardinal sin of calling it “the” Ukraine. I know I’ve done it a few times and it gets Ukrainians upset (“the Ukraine” dates back to Ukraine under Soviet rule). I still get it wrong sometimes, most of my life I’ve heard “the Ukraine” and it’s still in the back of my head. Anyway, just so you know so that you don’t get Ukrainians angry at you 🙂
It IS beautiful and the people very nice.
Thank you for your post. I live in Kiev, and always welcome an ourdise view of my country and my city. I’m so glad you liked my beloved Kiev and its people.
Yes, my favourite part of Kiev is the right bank hills over the Dnieper, with the parks stretching for kilometers. And Lavra is an exceptional place, both from the point of view of sightseeing and picture taking and the history of Christianity in Eastern Europe.
Another thing that I would recommend is to climb the stairs from Andreevsky Spusk (guess you know the street) up to the hill called Zamkova. Trust me, you will not regret it. The views are amazing. The Podol area downhill is also a nice place to explore and take pics. Old churches, old buildings, old narrow streets with relatively low traffic. But SUVs would definitely be parked on the pavement – parking space shortage is a huge problem here in Kiev, so downtown walks are better to be planned for weekends.
I also like an area called Rusanovka, which is on the left bank and is actually an artificial island (or rather peninsula) with canals, bridges and parks. You can see beautiful panoramas of the right bank, get lots of fresh air, walk through the park to the beach, and the overall feel of the place is very nice.
Another nice non-downtown spot is located in a residential area called Obolon – Natalka Park. It’s on the river bank, and you walk a couple of kilometers along the embankment, with nice waterfront views and pleasant surroundings. Lots of places to have a meal at, too.
And there’s an open-air Museum of traditional architecture and life in Pirogovo. It’s a bit of a drive from the city, and you feel as if you are in the country-side. Scattered over a vast picturesque area are the genuine samples of traditional country homes, with crafts and household items and artefacts from different regions of Ukraine.
If you don’t have enough time left to see these places, come again! IMO, Kiev is at it’s best in spring – late April – mid May, or else mid October.
I agree with the comment by Spanish guy saying that the gap between the big SUVs/Beverly Hills housewives type of ppl and “normal people” is huge. Normal people do not go to Good Wine etc. stores or fancy restaurants and posh boutiques. Which I guess is the same in any country. But the thing here in Ukraine is, though, that this gap between the two groups is much wider, and there’s almost no middle class. Well, there is some in Kiev and other big cities, but – again as Spanish guy rightfully said – “Ukraine is a country with a very difficult economic situation and with very low salaries (at least if we are talking about the average salary)”.
And yes! Vanity is big thing here…
BTW, visit a local fast food restaurant chain Puzata Hata – that’s a place where “normal people’ come to grab a meal. But mostly they cook and eat at home, heh.
I don’t agree with the commentator from Odessa saying “I strongly feel that being curious about Russia after visiting Ukraine is indeed a mistake”. I, for my part, strongly feel that it’s indeed not! Why is it a mistake to be curious about another country after visiting Ukraine, I wonder? Just hilarious, ahaha. And another thing he wrote – “don’t expect it to be anything like Kiev or Lviv” And why should it be like Kiev or Lvov? Of course they are different! And that’s what makes it interesting, eh?
And Frank, re. Russians being cold and stone-faced – it’s mostly a stereotype. There may be some cold and stone-faced people any place in the world – even in Kiev, haha!
And in New York. And in Madrid. And I’m sure there are some in Moscow, too! But you can’t be 100% sure until you find out for yourself
Thank you for your comment. We actually did today just what you recommend – walked down Andreevsky Spusk (Andriyivskyy Descent for some) and explored Podil for the whole day. I thought there were no trams in Kiev but we saw our first today. What you’ve mentioned about parks: I think it is what has surprised us the most about Kiev. There are so many parks. You would be surprised how many cities don’t. And that makes Kiev a very attractive, very liveable place.
Pirogovo is actually on our list for the next few days. We’ve had a few other people that have mentioned that we should visit.
Thank you for your points on the economic discrepancy. Even we, as Canadians, are amazed by the people we see in the “Good Wine” area. It is comparable to an area like Westmount in Montreal. We do pick up a few things there but stick to some of the necessities that we can’t find elsewhere – we don’t need to buy an 80 rph bottle of organic kidney beans 🙂 Some of their wine is quite reasonable priced though and they have a few health food things that we haven’t found elsewhere. But yes, it is definitely chichi.
Puzata Hata. A friend of ours mentioned that on our Lviv post. Good to know. We haven’t eaten out much in Kiev, mostly because we have a very comfortable Airbnb apartment with a good kitchen…and it always requires an UBER drive down the hill to get anywhere. We’ve been surprised what a hilly city it is.
Thank you for your mention on Russia. We’re of course curious, especially after seeing some of the great Orthodox churches and Soviet-era monuments here. Something you don’t see in many places.
And everyone has their own ideas, experiences and opinions. What I may like you may not. So you’re 100% right – you can’t be sure until you find out for yourself. If everything was entirely as per expectations then travelling would be boring 🙂
Thank you again Lena for your tips and feedback!
Thank you for nıce comment Lena , maybe you would be my guıde ın Kıev
Thanks for sharing your overview of Kiev. It is an underrated city. One of my favorites in Europe.
Thanks Ric. “One of my favorites in Europe” is not something you hear much about Kiev. I love coming to a place that doesn’t get talked about much and being totally surprised. That’s what travel is all about.
Welcome to Ukraine! It warms my heart to find travelers saying such nice things about my country.
Seeing that you’re impressed with baroque churches, have you had chance to check out two small ones, Pokrovska and Mykoly Prytyska, in the Podil area? Those are not as famous as some in Lavra, but in my opinion they do represent a high point in a local baroque style and are even more exceptionally beautiful.
I strongly feel that being curious about Russia after visiting Ukraine is indeed a mistake. That’s not trying to say which is better and which is worse (I’m Ukrainian, but I’ll try to be objective here), you might like Russia a lot, but just don’t expect it to be anything like Kiev or Lviv. Moscow has some similarities with Kiev landscape-wise, and in Stalinist era architecture, but it has two things Kiev doesn’t: it’s imperial and it’s rebuilt on oil money. So it looks more like a weird mix between Budapest and Dubai. And Saint Petersburg is totally different from both, if anything, it’s like a bootlegged copy of Stockholm or something. Most importantly, because of different cultural and political climate, people and the vibe of street life are just very different (again, it’s not saying better or worse). When it comes to people, Baltic countries have the closest vibe to Ukraine, especially Latvia and Lithuania. If you’re impressed by Lviv so, might be good idea to check out Vilnius, Kaunas and Riga. But Baltics don’t have any city as big as Kiev, so it again stands unique.
Seeing that you’re planning to visit Ukraine more, I recommend you not to miss Kharkiv. If you call Lviv underrated, you might really be impressed by Kharkiv which is as beautiful (only not as ancient), and totally not popular with tourists, even Ukrainian ones. At least Lviv is an established weekend destination for Ukrainians… It’s closer to troubled Eastern zone but is totally safe. Personally, I reside in Odesa and recommend visiting it as well, it’s a chaotic sea port but with a strong charm and many great day trips around (Askania Nova reserve, Bilhorod Dnistrovsky citadel, towns of Ismail and Vilkove on Danube, to name a few essential ones). If you’re impressed with Orthodox architecture, next point after Kiev should definitely be Chernihiv (and countless small towns which can be reached as a day trips from there). But generally, western Ukraine is obviously more advanced when it comes to tourism, more people speaking English etc., so after Lviv you should definitely check out Chernivtsi (Bukovyna region) and the whole Zakarpattia region. Hope those tips will be of some use to you!
Thank you very much for the very nice and helpful comment.
Interesting hearing your opinions on Moscow and St. Petersburg. “a bootleg copy of Stockholm” – I don’t think you’ll be making Russian friends here 🙂 . But still, we’re curious and will one day get there…
But coming back to Ukraine is in our more immediate future and I appreciate your tips. A few people have mentioned Kharkiv to us. Lutsk is another place people have recommended. A Canadian we met recommended Odessa as well (saying it has some similarities to Montreal). Thank you.
Thanks also for your other church suggestions – we might visit them if we have some time over the next few days.
I agree 100 per cent with you… I was very impressed with Kiev, especially because I didn’t expect too much. It’s interesting that talking with locals and telling them my impressions about the city, many of them were surprised that I liked their city (I remember many saying “Kiev is nothing special…”) and asked me how it’s possible that a Spanish person likes Kiev… if in Spain “there are many beautiful cities like Barcelona or Sevilla” (these were their words).
I was also really shocked with the amount of wealth that you can see in the streets (I read somewhere that Kiev is the city in the world with most Porsches Cayenne), in a country with a very difficult economic situation and with very low salaries (at least if we are talking about the average salary). Definitely the gap between oligarchs and “normal people” it’s huge… I remember even seeing fancy Porsche’s (surrounded by Ladas) in really small towns in the countryside.
Regarding Russians, due to my work I have met many… and I had really good experiences (especially with the “normal people”… dealing with Russian oligarchs and their families it’s another word). In the beginning they seem cold (many of them are not used to smile to people who are not their friends or family), but after they became extremely hospitable and kind. I’m curious to visit Russia… maybe next year, after my trip to the Caucasus (another area that I’m looking forward to visit because I like these areas between west and east with so many history and different cultures, a bit like the Balkans).
Great comment Spanish Guy! We have a place close to us called “Good Wine” where we often do our shopping. Actually we were there today. Wow. Just an incredible selection of stuff, very high quality, great wines as well (I go low end, 200 hryvnia, that’s $10 Canadian – and for that I can get a nice South African or Chilean wine. Great stuff).
Anyway, people that go in there are definitely upper class, with huge fancy cars. And the women are like the Beverly housewives, with their superior airs and duck lips. I guess it’s a big city and status means a lot.
You mentioned Russia. I had written in the original draft of this post that visiting Kiev has made us curious about seeing Moscow and St. Petersburg. With the present political situation, Lissette said I should take that out – why get anyone upset? But we’ve seen so many incredible Orthodox churches and Soviet-era monuments and buildings that we’d like to see more. That’s a reflection of how much Kiev has impressed us more than anything else…
We’ve also got the Caucasus planned for next year 🙂