I wasn’t sure what to expect before I got to Kiev. The Ukrainian capital has been on my bucket list for a while but I prefer to discover a city when I’m there rather than meticulously research it beforehand. After all, the best way to slow down time is to allow for surprise and novelty.
Without doubt it’s one of the best cities I’ve been to recently and if you’re thinking about going do it now rather than later.
With a population of around three million (though likely more including the unregistered) Kiev is the seventh largest city in Europe beating the more famous cities of Paris, Rome, Vienna and Barcelona.
Ukraine is the eighth largest country in Europe by population but would have been more had it not been for invasion, war, occupation, famine, a nuclear disaster and multiple revolutions over the years.
To put it bluntly, Ukraine has been through some shit over the years and Kiev was often the epicentre for it.
Its most recent revolution, known as The Revolution of Dignity, took place in the city just a few short years ago in 2014, the effects of which are still playing out today.
Millions of people from the city and further afield flocked to Kiev’s Independence Square to protest at – and ultimately overthrow – the government after failing to deliver on its promise of a more tighter integration with Europe and less with Russia.
Many Ukrainian patriots were killed during The Revolution of Dignity and you can learn more about it by taking one of the free walking tours in the city or by watching the 2015 Netflix documentary, Winter on Fire.
Kiev is a European city that has yet to be homogenised but it soon will be
As Ukraine aligns more with Europe it will start adopting European law, practices and the homogeneous culture we see today. For now, though, it retains its individuality.
There’s no Starbucks on every corner but it has a huge coffee culture. Street signs are mostly written only in Ukrainian and although the locals are au fait with speaking English it’s not to the extent of, say, Berlin.
On top of this, the cost of living is a lot cheaper than back home. To give you an idea, a coffee that costs £2.60 in London is the equivalent of 90p in Kiev, a pint of the local beer will cost you £1.20 and you can get a main meal, dessert and soft drink at a decent restaurant for around £11.
You can also legally do things you can’t do in most parts of Europe. Want to shoot Glocks, AK-47s, pump action shotguns and an assortment of other firearms at the local shooting range? Not a problem in Ukraine.
There are an assortment of shooting ranges in the surrounding areas of the city and an equal amount of companies who will take you to them. All legal and all with high safety protocols.
If, like me, you grew up in the 80s and early 90s when the action movie genre was at its peak you’ll enjoy the experience. Which, by the way, you can book through TripAdvisor.
If you want to do it, this is the company I used which I also recommend.
During communism many Eastern European cities suffered the bulldozing of old beautiful buildings in favour of mass produced tower blocks. Bucharest is a good example of this.
Thankfully, Kiev has retained much of its old buildings with their distinctive and stunning style of architecture. Many of which are now independent shops, bars, restaurants and apartments
I noticed only one of these buildings has been hijacked by McDonald’s but as the international cash flows in no doubt more will eventually follow.
Where else can you visit a nuclear disaster site?
Thanks to the HBO series more people than ever have heard of Chernobyl, where in 1986 the worst nuclear accident in history took place at the local nuclear power plant.
The Chernobyl disaster killed hundreds of people at the time and thousands more years after due to radiation exposure.
I found out during the trip that it could have been much worse had it not been for the soldiers, firefighters and miners who prevented the nuclear spill from turning into an explosion. Most of them paid with their lives either at the event or sometime after.
Had it have blown up it would have made all of Europe uninhabitable. It’s unfathomable to image the evacuation of an entire continent let alone the deaths it would have caused but that was what they were dealing with.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a two hour drive from Kiev and in recent years has become a tourist attraction as radiation levels have decreased and the area is now considered safe.
It’s forbidden to travel and enter the exclusion zone by yourself but you can go with the official tour company like I did. It’s almost like it’s another country because there are border checks and you have to present your passport before you can pass.
Walking around Chernobyl and the nearby city of Pripyat is a surreal experience and, once again, one more reason why there’s never been a better time to be alive. The things we have the opportunity to experience today compared to previous generations are unprecedented. I mean, I did a tour around Chernobyl FFS.
You have two options when doing the tour. You can visit all day which means setting off from Kiev at 8am and arriving back at 8pm the same day or you can do a two day excursion where you stay overnight in a Chernobyl hotel.
The latter option you see more of the place but I chose to do it in the one day which was enough for me.
The HBO series has boosted ticket sales to Chernobyl which will no doubt push the price the up. Personally, I never watched it as I prefer to visit in person rather than watch some drama about it. Likewise I never watched Netflix’s Narcos but I’ve been in Pablo Escobar’s house in Medellín, Colombia.
Go to Kiev now or forever be damned
When I first went to Thailand in 2008 a long-time traveller there told me it was better to visit ten years previously because it was cheaper and there were less tourists. In his view, back then it was more authentically Thailand.
No doubt some hardened traveller would claim it was even better ten years before that. But alas, I admit, each time I go to Thailand it feels less like the place I first visited them years ago. Each time I go back it’s filled with more Western comforts and higher prices reflective of them.
The same will happen to Kiev and Ukraine in general as it integrates more with Europe. Maybe not to the extent as Thailand but prices will rise, global brands will swamp the high street and the infamous British stag do will move further east from its native Prague and Krakow to Kiev.
And people like me will tell you that you should have visited earlier when you had the chance.