Declaring independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine is the largest country entirely within Europe. Although a fairly young nation, its capital Kyiv has a history that spans over a millennium – making it one of Eastern Europe’s oldest and most cultural significant cities. Years ago, I promised a travel-loving Ukrainian friend of mine that when I finally did take a day trip to Ukraine (I imagined to Lviv or Odessa), he could come too. But after he passed away unexpectedly, writing about his hometown felt like a good way to honour him and remember the time we spent there together. Serhii, this is for you.
At a glance:
Ukraine / Україна (Ukrayina)
Capital: Kyiv (Київ (Kyiv) in Ukrainian)
Currency: Ukrainian Hryvnia (UAH)
Area: 603,628 km2
National Day: August 24th
National Anthem: Державний Гімн України (Derzhavniy Himn Ukrayini) – State Anthem of Ukraine, also known as Ще Не Вмерла України І Слава, І Воля (Shche Ne Vmerla Ukrayini I Slava, I Volya) – The Glory and Freedom of Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished
Highest Point: Говерла (Hoverla) – 2,061 m (6,762 ft)
Famous for: borscht, Chornobyl disaster, folk-art
- Andriy Shevchenko (footballer)
- Mila Kunis (actress)
- Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko (heavyweight boxing brothers)
- Andriy Danylko (sparkly drag queen Verka Serduchka)
- The origin of the name Ukraine is disputed, with some suggesting it comes from the Old Slavic word ‘okraina’, meaning ‘borderland’. In English, the country used to be known as ‘The Ukraine’, shortened from ‘The Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic’ – nowadays though, ‘The Ukraine’ is considered incorrect and offensive.
- A traditional embroidered shirt worn by both men and women, the vyshyvanka surged to international attention in the mid-2010s – even though Ukrainians had been wearing them since at least the 6th century BC! Thanks to their rise in popularity, World Vyshyvanka Day is now celebrated annually on the 3rd Thursday of May!
- With vast swathes of rich black soil and a temperate climate, Ukraine is the perfect place for growing food crops like wheat, earning it the nickname ‘the breadbasket of Europe’. Many Ukrainians also believe that the country’s flag with a blue band over yellow represents the sky over the country’s wheat fields.
- In August 1942, a show football match was organised between the Kyiv team Start and the occupying Nazis. After Start won the match 5-3, it’s claimed the players were executed on the pitch for refusing to lose. The exact aftermath of the infamous Death Match is hotly disputed, especially as the story was embellished for propaganda purposes and achieved almost myth-like status.
- Debuting in 2003, Ukraine is currently the only East European country to have won the Eurovision Song Contest twice. Both its winners, ‘Wild Dances’ by Ruslana in 2004 and ‘1944’ by Jamala in 2016, won with at the time record-breaking scores: – 280 and 534 points respectively. As of 2021, Ukraine also remains the only country at the contest to still hold a 100% qualification rate for the final.
The sole official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, though Russian is also widely spoken. An East Slavic language, Ukrainian shares many similarities with both Russian and Belarusian, and all 3 are mutually intelligible to an extent. During the Soviet period, the use of Ukrainian was restricted while Russian as the de-facto language of the USSR flourished – indeed, Kyiv and several other major Ukrainian cities were once predominantly Russian-speaking. Since independence however, the government has fiercely promoted the use of Ukrainian and the demographic has shifted significantly. Younger generations are increasingly learning English, but here are some Ukrainian phrases for you to try out.
|Goodbye||До побачення||do po-ba-chen-nya|
|Please||Будь ласка||bud las-kah|
|How much does this cost?||Скільки це коштує?||skil-kir tse kosh-tu-ye|
|Do you speak English?||Ви розмовляєте англійською?||vir roz-mov-lya-yeh-te an-hliys-ko-yu|
|I don’t understand||Я не розумію||ya ne ro-zu-mi-yu|
|Why is this elevator not working?||Чому цей ліфт не працює?||cho-mu tsey lift ne prats-yu-ye|
Kyiv Boryspil International is 29km east of the capital, while the smaller Zhuliany is just 7km southwest of the city. A range of public transport options connect both airports to the city centre including buses, trains and trolleybuses, with trains from Boryspil taking approximately 45 minutes into Kyiv’s Pasazhyrskyi Station. From there, take the metro to Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Zoloti Vorota and start exploring the Ukrainian capital!
What to do:
Once one of the main entrances through Kyiv’s fortifications, construction on Zoloti Vorota or the Golden Gate began in 1017, though the structure seen today only dates from 1982. Spending centuries in ruins, rebuilding the gate was somewhat controversial as no images of the original survived to base the reconstruction on – but the imposing brick tower remains a favourite meeting place with locals. Just under 10-minutes’ walk away, Maidan Nezalezhnosti is very much the modern heart of Kyiv and has become a flashpoint for political protests in recent years. At the centre of the square, the large white and gold Independence Monument was erected in 2010 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence. Heading down from Maidan, at only 1.2 km long Khreshchatyk is one of the shortest, but also one of the widest major boulevards of any European city. Lined with grand Neo-Classical Stalinist architecture, the ever-busy street is a great place to feel the bustle of Kyiv with plenty of restaurants and high-end shops – just remember it’s regularly cited as one of the most expensive shopping streets not only in Ukraine, but the world!
Kyiv is famous for its churches and parts of Sobor Svyatoyi Sofiyi date back to the early 11th century, making it the city’s oldest church. The first site in Ukraine to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, marvel at the sheer age of its detailed frescoes, or head up the gorgeous Baroque-style bell tower for a lookout across the rooftops of Kyiv. At the far end of the street, you’ll spot the golden domes and bright blue façade of St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery. Originally founded in the early 1100s, the monastery was torn down by Soviet authorities in the 1930s and its treasures scattered to museums. Rebuilt in 1999, its vividly coloured interior is well worth a detour. A short stroll away from the monastery, the steep cobbled Andriyivskyy Descent was once the home of merchants and craftspeople. Today, it’s often styled as the ‘Montmartre of Kyiv’ thanks to the neighbourhood’s relaxed old world atmosphere, all presided over by the ornate turrets of the striking 18th century Andriyivska Tserkva. Browse the many souvenir stalls and cafés located here or visit the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum at the writer’s childhood home – it was the inspiration for the setting of his novel The White Guard.
Heading through the hilltop parks that overlook the sprawling River Dnieper, the unveiling of the smooth titanium arcs of the People’s Friendship Arch coincided with the 60th anniversary of the USSR and 1500 years since the founding of Kyiv. Built to commemorate the unification of Russia and Ukraine, some refer to the arch as a yoke of oppression that should be dismantled. Across the city, the National Museum of the Holodomor Genocide is shaped like a white candle and opened in 2008 to commemorate the victims of the man-made famines that affected Soviet Ukraine throughout the 1930s. Its collection of statues and Hall of Memory, where people light candles to remember the victims, form a sombre and emotional tribute. Further down the street, the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra is considered the spiritual heart of Ukraine and revered as one of the most important Orthodox sites in Eastern Europe. Founded in 1051, the peaceful and historic site has plenty to explore with several impressive churches, a bell tower and even a system of claustrophobic caves under the hillside which house the relics of mummified monks.
Leaving the Lavra behind, for those wishing to learn more about the Second World War in Ukraine, the Muzey Istoriyi Ukrayini U Druhiy Svitoviy Viyni provides a comprehensive, if traumatic picture. One of the largest museums in Ukraine, it has over 300,000 items in its collections looking at life under occupation, partisan resistance and the more recent conflicts in Eastern Ukraine since 2014. The museum also forms part of a larger open-air Memorial Complex honouring those that fell that includes tanks, imposing monuments and the Flame of Glory, which is only lit on national holidays. Towering some 62 metres over the museum, according to local legend the steel Batkivshchyna Maty or Motherland Monument was originally supposed to be even bigger – it was only after pressure from the church that the statue’s sword was clipped to ensure it didn’t stand taller the Lavra’s bell tower. Though incredible to look up at from the ground, if you’re feeling exceptionally brave you can arrange to go up to a narrow viewing platform on the statue’s shield where you can experience a truly breath-taking panorama of the city.
An incredible and vibrant city, Kyiv has stood resolute and watched the centuries turn. Each one still echoes within its streets and has left their mark – leaving traces of beauty and severity, prosperity, glory and grief… the Ukrainian capital is a truly remarkable place that will not fail to both astound and move anyone who comes here. Indeed, memories made in Kyiv won’t ever be forgotten.
This is dedicated to the memory of Serhii Yushko. How can I summarise years of friendship in just a few words? I don’t feel like I can quite do it justice, but I’ll try:-
Thank you for all your kindness and for always being so willing and enthusiastic to share your beautiful homeland and its culture. Thank you for all the conversations, all the support and all the laughs – I’m really going to miss you. Rest in peace, друже мій
For a more in-depth guide to planning day trips, as well as sightseeing tips and trivia for 30 European countries, Europe in a Day – Day Trips to the Continent is available exclusively on Amazon for Kindle and also smartphones, tablets and computers with the free Kindle Reading App.
Want to discover more of Europe? Check out more day trips below!