I’ve just got back from two weeks in my favourite city of them all… Kiev, Ukraine. It might not seem like the most obvious choice for my favourite city considering that I must have been to hundreds of different places all across Europe, and there are others that I love, but Kiev stands head and shoulders above the others as the best of them all.
What’s so great about Kiev? Well, it would be quicker to list what isn’t great about it, because it’s basically just bursting with awesomeness. I love the difference in culture – there’s just enough of a hint of European-ness for me to feel like I could possibly fit in and have a life there, but so many cultural differences that there’s something new to experience every day. I love the food, the super cheap prices, the hundreds of restaurants, cafes and bars to try, the fact that there is something new to do every single day and it’s impossible to get bored… Seriously, if you haven’t been, then it’s time to book a flight right now!
But anyway, the purpose of this post today is to give you some hints and tips on getting along in this crazy city and making the most out of your time there, assuming you’re a clueless foreigner like me.
Arrive like a local
Kiev has two international airports – Boryspil and Zhulyani. Zhulyani is very close to the city, and hopping in a taxi only costs around 70 uah, or £2, so I recommend that you just go for that. However, Boryspil is where most of the budget flights land, and it’s much further away. Whilst a taxi is still affordable by European standards, it’s much better, and very easy to just walk outside (ignore the persistent taxi drivers) and hop on the bus to the city. It’s usually labelled SkyBus and looks similar to a small coach. It waits right outside the door to the airport and is very easy to find. A ticket costs only 60 uah, or £1.50 and takes 1 hour to arrive in the city.
Travel around the city with ease
Kiev has loads of transport options and they all cost almost nothing. The Metro (метро) covers the whole city, and it’s pretty easy to use. Look for the big green ‘M’s everywhere and head on down. Once down there, you need to find the cash desk or каса and purchase a green token. These cost 4 uah each. It’s so little money I’m not even sure what it is in pounds or euros. The map of the metro is fairly clear and easy to understand and names are also printed in Latin characters (English) so you can figure things out pretty easily. If you don’t fancy the metro or you’re not near a stop, you can try the Marshrutka (see pic above!), or the crazy local buses, which are cramped and very old, but only cost 3 uah (aka nothing). Just make sure you keep some little hryvnia notes free to use the public transport.
Get your head around the currency
The Ukrainian currency is called hryvnia, pronounced ‘hreevna’ or ‘greevna’ depending on how Russian you are. One British pound is around 35 uah, and a euro is around 28. You can withdraw hryvnia all over the place from ATMs (Банкомат), but be sure to only use those of recognised banks, and/or to only use cards in reputable shops. Card-cloning is rife, unfortunately. People will try to rip you off as soon as they hear your foreign accent, so try to be aware of average prices for taxis and items you might buy in the market. Make sure you can convert rates quickly in your head to avoid being quoted a crazy price.
Figure out the language
The official language of Ukraine is, of course, Ukrainian. However, it’s only widely spoken in the West of Ukraine. Kiev is much more Russian, and people mix the two languages, but generally speak mostly Russian. Be aware, though, that signs are often written in Ukrainian, either out of patriotism or a desire to confuse Russians, who knows.
If you plan to visit any part of Ukraine at all, I strongly advise that you try to get to grips with the absolute basics. I.e. learn to read Cyrillic. Although some restaurants will give you a nice English menu and signs might also be shown in English too, they also might not be. If you want to head anywhere off the beaten track every, and make your life easier, learn to read and write the Russian/Ukrainian alphabet at least. Whilst it might look tricky, it can be learned in an afternoon and is not hard at all, but will make a big difference to your life.
Secondly, numbers. After reading some basic words, this is the second most useful skill. At least be able to count to twenty, or you’ll be pretty bemused by prices and it will be harder to buy things in markets and be sure of what you’re paying.
I also advise learning super-basic tourist phrases such as hello/good day, please, thank you… and how to ask for the bill or order coffee and food. That’s about all I can do in Russian, but it’s already a help.
Dress like a Ukrainian
Ukrainian dress sense is one of the funniest things for me. Girls all look absolutely immaculate all the time, even in the supermarket. Perfectly styled long hair, manicured nails, skyscraper heels, makeup, jewellery and a designer bag are a must. I’m a very low maintenance (or is that lazy…?) girl, but when I’m in Ukraine I take advantage of cheaper prices for beauty treatments and get my nails and hair done, and bring out my favourite pair of heels to ‘keep up’ a bit. Of course there’s no need to do this, and not all girls dress like supermodels every day, but it certainly is a common trend and it’s fun to copy it just for the time you’re there.
The same doesn’t apply to men though. Tracksuits, caps, trainers and denim jackets are the uniform of the Ukrainian man.
Get out of Maidan!
Maidan square and its neighbouring street Khreschatik is really the heart of Kiev, and in fact all of Ukraine. It’s the most iconic place in the city and at the centre both geographically, politically and culturally. Of course you should go there, visit the sculptures and fountains and see some of the demonstrations, markets and events that go on there. But I really don’t recommend spending much time or money in that area. The restaurants there are chains and generally overpriced, and there is nothing particularly special to do or see once you’ve had your fill of the square and the main street with its posh boutiques.
Explore the city, hop on the metro and find some new places. There are so many I don’t know where to start. Every journey out of the centre is a new, amazing discovery. There’s the river with its crowded beaches, parks, shops, restaurants, statues, cathedrals, monasteries and 100 more things to see and do. There is as much to do in Kiev as in London or New York.
My favourite district (so far) is Obolon, in the North, which I discovered just because I went there to find the famous beer pub where you can sample 5 different beers for 60 uah. Obolon has a lot of old, Soviet style houses and little aluminum and plastic shacks selling coffee and SIM cards, but it also has the best mall (or in fact two malls) in all Ukraine, called Dream Town, loads of pubs and restaurants (quite high-end ones generally) and a beautiful embankment where you can rent boats or kayaks, relax on the beach, take a stroll, buy ice creams and smoke shisha in the luxurious riverside restaurants.
Know where to eat tasty and awesome food
Ok, this one’s easy as there are countless amazing places to eat and they would probably never run out. But here are some tips anyway.
Don’t expect to find ethnic cuisines like Chinese or Indian. They’re not popular and are very hard to find. Instead, sushi, Georgian food, Italian cuisine and Ukrainian traditional food are the most popular and common foods to find around. I don’t really get the sushi trend, as it’s very expensive and nothing special, but they really seem to love it.
If you want the real Ukrainian experience, there are plenty of great restaurants offering authentic cuisine. Ukrainian food is mostly typical Eastern European fare: potatoes, cabbage, dumplings (aka varenyky), lard (salo), pickles, sausages and soups such as borsch (beetroot soup) and okroshka (a cold, white soup with a vinegary taste and little pieces of ham and vegetables). All served with plenty of the ubiquitous ‘smetana’ or sour cream. The chain restaurant Katiusha is a good bet, as is the classic self-service restaurant Puzata Hata. If you want to go upmarket, I love Petrus which has a nice outdoor terrace and serves incredible fried Carpathian mushrooms for a starter. It’s a very good place to try varenyky as well.
If you’ve had your fill of varenyky and cabbage, then I really recommend trying Georgian cuisine. It’s very popular in Ukraine and I know why – it’s freaking delicious. I’ve eaten in Georgian places all across Ukraine and always been delighted by the food. I have to shout out here to my favourite of all time – Khinkali, near to Gulliver Shopping mall. There are dozens of Georgian places in Kiev, many of which are good, but Khinkali is my all-time favourite that I go back to time and time again. In fact, it’s part of what keeps me going back to Kiev so often.
Georgian cuisine is something like a mix of Eastern European and Turkish/middle Eastern. Plenty of lamb or beef kebabs, grilled meat, pomegranate seeds, dolma, roasted or grilled vegetables, fish and dumplings (khinkali) with various fillings. Not to forget my favourite of them all, khachapuri – a delicious bread with cheese and egg filling. Khinkali (as mentioned above) does the best khachapuri in my humble opinion, but there are many other places to eat Georgian, notably the new, and super-trendy, kid on the block Mama Manana – although be sure to book ahead.
I also recommend checking out some of the places around Obolon. There are plenty of posh (and slightly more expensive) restaurants up there, many of which are great (I think I tried almost all of them). One of the best is the Moldovan restaurant there, Casa Mare. Again it’s not cheap, but it offers a delicious taste of Moldovan cuisine with dozens of options, and the best service I’ve come across.
But be prepared for Ukrainian-style service
You might think that restaurants are pretty much the same everywhere, but each country has its own quirks in what’s considered the right way to do things. One major thing that I always notice is that waiters hover like vultures, waiting to snatch away your plate or cup at the very second you take your last bite/sip. This is considered good service there, but I find it quite strange, and be warned to hang on tight to your food if you’re not actually done yet. They also don’t always bring your food at the same time, often they’ll bring one person’s meal a full ten minutes before anyone else’s. It just doesn’t seem to matter to them. So, if this bothers you, you can ask for everything to be brought at the same time.
I hope I’ve given you enough info for you to be ready for your trip to Kiev! Do you want to visit? Or have you visited and you can add some more tips – write them in the comments and let me know.