Kiev, Ukraine: 5 Things To Know Before You Go

couple in Kiev, Ukraine carrying small monkeys

I surprised William with a trip to Chernobyl a while back and whilst I’ve made a video about that separately, I never got round to telling you about Kiev, where we stayed. Kiev is the capital of Ukraine and where you’ll likely fly into. It’s about two hours drive from Chernobyl.

We’ve always liked going off the beaten track a little bit, so whilst we haven’t yet visited classic places such as Rome, or Paris for a romantic break, we thought nothing of packing our rucksacks to go and explore lesser-known Ukraine. 

Chernobyl was a whole experience in itself and I will follow up the video with a full overview of THAT experience, but for now, here’s a few things we thought we should pass on if you want to experience Kiev. 

We absolutely loved it and are hoping to go back at some point to explore more; we never seem to have enough time to squeeze the experience out of a place!

1. You Can’t Take Currency With You

The Ukrainian Hryvnia is a closed currency, which basically means that you won’t be able to get any from your local Bureau de Change before you go. We couldn’t, and I was super paranoid because I like carrying at least £50 in local currency wherever we go, just in case. However, when you’re there it’s easy to grab some from the airport ATMs – off the top of my head I don’t think the fee was too much at all. After this, you can find ATMs all around the city, and many places will take debit and credit cards. Depending on where you ask, some places will also take Euros. Another tip: if you’ve got cash spare before you leave, you may as well spend it because you likely won’t be able to change it when you’re back in your country. FYI, as of June 2020, £1 is 33.21 UAH.

2. The Food Is Awesome

I have a rule that when I’m in a different country, I try to eat as much local cuisine as possible. To that end, we sought out little local boutique restaurants for our meals. Sometimes, especially when there are dodgy English translations, it’s hard to know what you’re ordering, but to be honest, it was so cheap that you can order a selection of things to try. The best thing I tried were these little boiled dumplings filled with meat and soaked in butter (Varenyky). The amount of different cheese, pastries and sweets on offer was insane and I wished that I couldn’t get full up so I could carry on. The worst I had was this stew which on top wasn’t bad – it was rich meat and cheese, but underneath was this thick, bland wallpaper paste that I later discovered was cornmeal (Banosh) – vile. We also both tried the local Borscht – a beetroot soup that we both absolutely haaaated but everyone seems to eat so much of it that we must be wrong.

Woman standing in front of 1970 Chernobyl welcome sign

3. Hire A Guide 

We’re arrogant little buggers and prefer to be left on our own when we’re travelling, doing some research beforehand and going to find landmarks and figuring things out ourselves. Whilst this is good in some respects, we sometimes don’t get the most well-rounded experience. This was super true in Kiev. We went to visit Kyiv Pechersk Lavra which was a monastery in some underground caves. It was an incredible experience but we didn’t have a CLUE what we were looking at or what we should be doing. Everything is in the Cyrillic alphabet as Ukraine is not as geared towards tourists as other countries. This is a great thing on one hand as everything feels unsullied and authentic, but on the other, it can be difficult to get around!

Two moments that stick out in my mind are when we entered a church and began to look around, but were told off for walking on the carpet by someone – god knows why! Secondly, women were wrapping up modestly to go into the caves (as you would when you visit a Thai temple for example), but some weren’t. I just looked helplessly at a woman and she wrapped a scarf round my legs (I was wearing jeans and a big coat) and sent me in. I’m sure there’s a good reason, but it didn’t make sense to us – having a guide that day would have been great and if we did it again, we’d get one.

4. People Will Be Surprised You’re There

Lots of people we met, especially people drinking in bars and waiting staff appeared shocked and surprised we were visiting, especially when we told them we’re from London. After watching a band in a bar one night, I asked if they were on Instagram so I could keep up with their journey as they were bloody good. They were so excited that we were going to be FOLLOWERS from LONDON we were a bit taken aback. I’m not sure really why this is, so if someone knows, let me know! We went to Kiev pre-HBO Chernobyl, so with the worldwide interest garnered from that, I’m not sure if this will have changed. 

Another thing we noticed is that people were really interested in asking about the UK and London especially. I think the reason for this is that whilst it’s easy for us to visit the Ukraine, the UK has a  disproportionately strict visa policy towards allowing Ukrainian residents to visit us. 

5. It’s Cold!

After underestimating Berlin in February, I came prepared to Ukraine with thermals. However, getting out of the taxi during a blizzard and trying to find our hotel was a SHOCK. We did go in February though, so with temperatures hitting about -7 to -10 for us, either go later in the year or go prepared!

Couple standing in front of Chernobyl ferris wheel

Finally…is Kiev safe?

People ask this question quite a lot of us, and I’m going to go with yes. I never felt unsafe once whilst out there. For the most part, people are either very friendly or ignore you completely. We did see some police presence (and obviously military in Chernobyl) but nothing worrying. As always when visiting another country, it is best to be courteous, kind – and if you’re not sure – ask with a smile and bang out the old Google Translate.

Have you been to Kiev or do you want to go?

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