Ukraine may be big on the map, but for tourists, it remains undiscovered. With most people flocking to Russia, Ukraine is a considered to be off the beaten path for most travelers.
With the Chernobyl disaster in the history books, Ukraine has started to become a draw for dark tourism. Yet, the country is looking to showcase more than just its infamous nuclear disaster. Well outside of the three safety zones of Chernobyl is an entire country to explore.
Ласкаво просимо – Welcome to Ukraine
Excluding Russia, which sits in both the European and Asian continents, Ukraine is Europe’s largest country and it is host to a diverse landscape and population. The borders of Ukraine stretch for thousands of miles with deep forests and a rich coastline along the Black Sea awaiting brave explorers. In the cities, Orthodox churches and lively squares are the centers of attraction.
While many people consider Ukraine to be a closed off and even foreboding destination, the truth is far from traveler’s grim imaginations. For a population that has been through the ringer of tragic events and history, Ukraine has emerged warm-hearted. The people are more than hospitable to guests and many are eager to interact or share their country’s history with visitors.
Constructed along the Dnieper River, Kyiv is the capital of Ukraine and its largest city. However, the importance of Kyiv extends far beyond Ukraine and the city has been a hub for East Slav civilization and culture for centuries. Many historians even agree that from Kyiv, Easter Slavic people were able to migrate all the way to Alaska. Yet, much of history remains in the books and Kyiv is looking towards the future. With past revolutions having ended, the city has become hip with new cafes and urban art pieces.
- Culture and Language
- Visa Requirements
- Spending Budget
- How to Get Around
- Top Cities to Visit
- Points of Interest
Culture and Language
Ukraine’s history dates back thousands of years with evidence of Neanderthals present at archeological sites. However, the country’s history is more well-known for being a part of the Kievan Rus’ in the Middle Ages and under the control of the Soviet Union in the World Wars.
Once influenced by the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, Ukraine’s longest period in modern history saw the country controlled by the Russian Empire. Throughout most of the 1700’s, Russia placed strict limits on the spread of Ukrainian culture and its language. Short-lived control by Austria saw many Ukrainian people placed into concentration camps for supporting Russia. But Austria’s reign wasn’t powerful enough to resist Russia and in the latter half of the 1700s, Catherine the Great helped Russia re-secure control of most of Ukraine.
Russia’s control over Ukraine lasted throughout the 20th century and the two World Wars, as well as the Cold War. The Nazi invasion of Poland and Ukraine led some Ukrainians to see Hitler as a path to freedom from Russia. However, not all Ukrainian people saw Hitler as a positive influence, and this made Ukraine a unique battleground. There were groups of people who fought against both Hitler and the Soviet Union.
With Hitler defeated, the Soviet Union regained control of Ukraine, but they did give the country a few new liberties. Some of these included Ukraine joining the United Nations with the Soviet Union. However, the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War gave Ukraine full freedom and in 1991, the country was declared an independent state.
However, freedom didn’t equal prosperity. Since its independence in 1991, there have been two revolutions and one Russian invasion in Ukraine. Tensions are still high in the Donbass region, where there is currently crisis and an ongoing war. Widespread corruption and a weak economy still plague Ukraine today.
The political issues within the country have led to the people having a tough and rather uninviting character, but with a little bit of time, travelers will unlock Ukraine’s true heart. While most locals are weary of strangers, travelers should take the time to try to get to know the locals. After initial hesitation, many Ukrainians are willing to let down the walls and get to know international travelers.
Communicating with locals may be hard, but to break the ice, you might want to learn a few Ukrainian greetings. Ukrainian is the official language in Ukraine with 67.5% of the population speaking this East Slavic language. Almost 30% of the population in Ukraine speak Russian and the rest of the population speaks a mix of foreign languages.
English is still not commonly heard or spoken in Ukraine, as it is not often taught in schools or used in the media and government. However, with tourism to some area of Ukraine on the rise, a small percentage of the population are English speakers.
Contrary to popular belief that getting into Ukraine is difficult, tourists can easily access the country without needing to obtain a tourist visa prior to their arrival. Ukraine offers visa free travel for tourists who will stay less than 90 days in a 180-day period. However, you will need to provide legal documents and proof of health insurance, sufficient funds, and a return ticket.
US travelers will need a US passport that is valid at the time of entry or exit from Ukraine. One blank page is required to receive your entry and exit stamp. There are no currency vaccinations, but any currency valued at more than €10,000 Euros must be declared in writing upon your entry or exit from Ukraine.
For your safety, the US government does not endorse travel to the Crimean Peninsula due to a high military presence. If you choose to visit Crimea, US citizens must enter through mainland Ukraine. It is illegal to enter Crimea any other way, which means that traveling to the area by air, sea, or the Kerch Strait Bridge will lead to you being denied entry into mainland Ukraine. You will also be banned from entering Ukraine for five years. The US Embassy cannot provide any assistance to citizens who choose to visit Crimea.
Along with Crimea, other areas that US tourists should avoid or take extreme caution is visiting are Donetsk and Luhansk. These areas have ongoing armed conflict. Just like Crimea, the US Embassy cannot provide emergency services to US citizens who are in the Donetsk or Luhansk areas.
With tourism still building in Ukraine, most people consider the country to be an inexpensive destination. However, that conception can be misleading as some costs of the trip are more affordable than others. Tours are very expensive in Ukraine and budget travelers will need to travel on their own if they want to cut costs. However, it isn’t always safe to travel solo and for some excursions, paying the price of a tour is required.
To help you estimate and balance the cost of a trip to Ukraine, you need to create a spending budget. The most important costs on your trip will be airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation. Additionally, some tourists will book tours to explore Ukraine.
Traveling to Ukraine is very expensive and the cost of airfare will take up a huge portion of your budget. The average cost of a flight from the US to Ukraine is $1,000 US dollars, but some airlines charge as much as $2,400 US dollars for a flight. A good deal on an airline ticket would cost about $800 US dollars and you would likely be traveling in the tourist off season.
The cost of a flight to Ukraine is more expensive in the high season, which runs from May to September. With the most popular months being May, June, and September. Some tourists may travel in the shoulder season, which runs just a few weeks before May and after September to help reduce costs. Travel to Ukraine in the off season is rare as most people want to avoid the country’s frigid winter temperatures.
After you’ve booked your flight, you will need to reserve or make arrangements for your accommodation. Budget travelers will be happy to know that hostels are very affordable in Ukraine. Most dorm rooms will cost $4-13 US dollars per night with the higher prices being in the big cities. Private rooms in hostels cost about $18 US dollars or $22 US dollars per night in large urban areas.
However, some travelers prefer to have more privacy, which means they will be looking for budget hotels. A double room that includes breakfast in a mid-range hotel will cost $29-$55 US dollars per night. If you’re looking for the best and want what locals call a European standard hotel, you will have to pay $75 US dollars per night at a minimum. Some locations are more expensive and charge up to $125 US dollars per night.
When you aren’t eating breakfast, you will need to add the cost of food to your spending budget. With rich soil and a long history accumulated throughout the years, Ukrainian cuisine is known for using many vegetables and meats in its traditional dishes.
Borscht is one of Ukraine’s most popular dishes, which was once made with over 30 ingredients. Now, the dish mostly uses fresh beef stock and a variety of vegetables and plenty of beets to create a delicious soup. It is served with pampushki, which are potato fritters. One dish that made Kiev famous is chicken Kiev. This dish uses fried chicken and combines it with butter for an exquisite taste.
Potatoes are a favorite ingredient in Ukraine, and they are cooked into soups and fritters. Deruny are potato pancakes that are eaten at any time of the day. They are sometimes served with meat, onions, and mushrooms. Ukrainians also love pork fat, which they call salo. Salo combines slices of pork fat with rye bread and herbs.
Vareniki are Ukraine’s version of dumplings, which are filled with a variety of vegetables and meats. They can also be made sweet by using cherries or currants as fillings. Often, vareniki is served with sour cream, which is standard in Ukraine.
Finally, in the summer months, you may want to try Ukraine’s cold soup called okroshka. This dish uses kvass or kefir to give the soup a sour taste. With sausage, cucumbers, and radishes, this soup packs a lot of flavor into each bowl.
When you need to eat but stay on budget, you should turn to local places. Cafeterias are popular in Ukraine and they serve delicious meals for a bargain price. Most meals in a cafeteria cost less than $3 US dollars. However, sometimes you want a decent sized meal to fill your stomach and give you energy to explore. A three-course meal at a local restaurant is still offered for affordable prices with most establishments asking for about $15 US dollars.
If you’re in the bigger cities and you want to experience the best that Ukraine has to offer, you should expect to pay about $25 US dollars for a meal. The nicer establishments will most likely be in large cities, which makes them more expensive.
For people who would like to drink while in Ukraine, most alcohol comes at a very affordable price. Local beers cost less than $1 US dollars and imported beers cost less than $3 US dollars. In tourist areas, you might have to pay more for drinks, especially hard alcohol. In the big cities, the cost of alcohol also goes up and you should expect to pay about $4 or $5 US dollars per beverage.
Once you’ve gotten past arranging your flight, you can see that most costs in Ukraine are very affordable. Budget travelers can visit Ukraine on less than $20 US dollars per day, which is impossible in other European destinations. However, most people feel more comfortable spending about $75 US dollars per day. A luxury vacation to Ukraine can be expensive and you should expect to spend more than $100 US dollars per day.
How to Get Around
Unlike affordable accommodation, food, and drink options, the cost of transportation in Ukraine is quite high. While there are affordable options like the train or bus, some people prefer to hire a private driver and translator.
Trains and Buses
For budget travelers, you will need to get around Ukraine using the train and bus system. Trains are more reliable than buses and better for long distance journeys. However, all travel in Ukraine is slow, so don’t expect to get anywhere quickly. Most train rides in Ukraine will cost less than $10 US dollars.
Unlike trains, buses are often double the price if you are going long distances. This means that what costs about $10 US dollars for an overnight train ticket costs $20 US dollars on an overnight bus. For this reason, trains are often the go-to method of transportation. But some buses are worth it. If you are traveling short distances between two cities, most bus tickets will cost about the same as a train, $10 US dollars.
Within cities, most offer public transportation in the form of buses. However, some of the larger urban areas do have a metro. These tickets are very affordable and most cost less than $0.10 US cents per ride.
For tourists who want a complete transportation package and the convenience of a private car, drivers and translators can be hired for $20-$35 US dollars per day. This is the most expensive way to get around Ukraine, but for some travelers, the best way for those who are concerned about safety.
If you have booked a tour of Ukraine, transportation will likely be included in the cost. However, be aware that tour companies in Ukraine may charge a pretty penny. While some tours are all inclusive for a series of days or weeks in Ukraine, others may be targeted at exploring a specific area within the country. These tours can range in price from a few hundred to several thousand US dollars.
Top Cities to Visit
There is a lot to see and do in Ukraine, which can make it hard to narrow down a travel itinerary. While Kyiv is a popular destination, there hundreds of cities that you can visit in Ukraine. Here are the top cities to visit in Ukraine.
More commonly spelled Kiev by outsiders, Kyiv is the capital of Ukraine and its number one tourist destination. The city is one of Eastern Europe’s oldest establishments, which has gone through both Russian and German occupation. Under a new revival, Ukrainians are bringing back their Eastern Slavic traditions and breathing new life into this busy city.
As a cultural hub for Ukraine, Kyiv is known for its beautiful architecture, art, theater, music, and hipster cafes. Plenty of nightclubs offer entertainment to travelers who are looking to have some fun in the big city. For an insight into Ukrainian culture, you can visit the museums and Orthodox churches.
Another historic city that makes the list is Lviv, which became a city in 1240. With 5th century architecture, museums, and monuments, Lviv is a great place to stroll the streets to immerse yourself in the local culture. Just like Kyiv, café culture is strong in Lviv and there are many quaint places nestled in the narrow streets.
Known as the “Pearl of the Black Sea”, Odessa is Ukraine’s top beach resort area. The Art Nouveau architecture is beautiful and with plenty of shops and clubs, tourists will never bore of Odessa’s energy. As the go-to holiday spot for national and international tourists, the beaches get busy in the summer as everyone wants to relax in the sand. To round it out, Odessa is also known as being the Ibiza of Ukraine with its numerous and lively nightclubs.
Nicknamed “Little Vienna” because of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s influence on the area, Chernivtsi is picture perfect. The cobblestone streets will lead you to cool cafes, bookshops, and restaurants. Parts of an old blackened fortress still stand from the Mongol invasions, while other major discoveries date back to Neolithic times.
Chernihiv’s establishment is not well-known with the date even being lost to time, but the first mention of the city has been dated to 907, which makes it one of Ukraine’s oldest cities. The city is most famous for its medieval architecture, which has been preserved and restored throughout the years. Catherine’s Church stands out from the city skyline with its green and gold domes.
Sitting on the doorstep of the Southern Carpathian Mountains, Rakhiv is the ideal mountain town for nature lovers. Visitors to Rakhiv use the city as a last stop before heading off into the wild mountains for a day of hiking. The town is small, but its lively energy is infectious, and you’re guaranteed to have a great time exploring the town center. Rakhiv sees the largest number of tourists during the month of September, which is when the town holds their annual Hutsul Brynza Festival to honor the local shepherds.
Points of Interest
It’s safe to say that Chernobyl has become one of the country’s most famous tourist attraction, but there are many other points of interest throughout Ukraine. Here is a breakdown of Ukraine’s top points of interest and an overview of how to visit the infamous Chernobyl Power Plant.
Pripyat and Chernobyl
Since 2011, Pripyat and Chernobyl have been a tourist attraction in Ukraine. The country officially opened the Exclusion Zone to tourists who were eager to catch a glimpse of the decaying remains of Pripyat and the infamous Chernobyl Power Plant. While Chernobyl has always attracted and been at the center of a new phenomenon called dark tourism, not many people can say they’ve visited this radioactive area.
Since 2011 various video games and TV shows have helped spark interest in visiting this nuclear disaster site, but it wasn’t until 2019, when HBO released their miniseries Chernobyl that a tourist boom occurred.
While safety is still debated about visiting Chernobyl, taking a tour of the area is at your own risk. The government is cautious and for this reason, you can only enter the Exclusion Zone with a registered tour company. Tours to Chernobyl are expensive and tourists pay up to $500 US dollars to be guided into the decaying town and to Reactor Number 4.
If you choose to visit the site, you should try to bring a protective mask and gloves with you. It is dangerous to stir up dirt, which is where radiation is still present, so you need to tread carefully. Most tours also provide Geiger counters to help you avoid the most radioactive areas. For your safety, you should also wear old clothes and shoes that you will be willing to dispose of after you have left the Exclusion Zone.
Unlike Chernobyl, Ukraine isn’t all doom and gloom. Sunflowers are one of the country’s largest export products, which means that there are hundreds of large sunflower fields all over the country. Visitors can find fields during their travels and while most people don’t need permission to take a photo, you should be careful to stay on the edge of the fields to ensure you don’t cause any damage or get lost in the flowers.
Located in Dubno, this old fort is a big attraction for tourists who want aren’t afraid to get dirty. With old tunnels, you can explore the fort and take a peek at its many passages into the earth. A beautiful exterior is great for photographers and the entire area historically significant for those who love to learn about the past.
Tunnel of Love
If you happen to be passing through the town of Klevan, you might want to visit the Tunnel of Love. While it may sound like a cheesy amusement park ride, this is a stunning site where nature has overgrown old railroad tracks. Trees line the tracks and create the tunnel, which in the summertime, radiates a vibrant green color. People flock to this area and it is one of the most photographed spots in all of Ukraine.
Get Out and Go
While Ukraine is a mystery to most of the world, it is a destination that shouldn’t be skipped. With a dark past and plenty of historic sites, the country balances its tragic past with a bright future. The numerous cities and towns are eager to welcome guests who want to explore one of Europe’s last “undiscovered” locations. Whether you’re intrigued by Chernobyl or Kyiv, Ukraine is filled with sightseeing opportunities that will take your breath away.