Just over seven months in from the brutal, unprovoked invasion of much of Ukraine’s east and south (about 20 percent of the country’s territory) by Russia, the tide has turned, seemingly decisively, in the defenders’ favor, barring a catastrophic development such as a decision by dictator Vladimir Putin to use a battlefield nuclear weapon.
Before the war, Ukraine received some 10 million visitors a year (it was 20 million before Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 without a shot being fired), and indeed, it was once the continent’s eighth most touristically popular country, with most visitors coming from elsewhere in Eastern Europe but also from Germany, Israel, and Turkey.
These days tourism has unsurprisingly cratered, yet it’s still considered safe to visit the uninvaded 80 percent of the country, which has suffered minimal or in many cases no major effects from the war, and where daily life goes on more or less unabated. However, it’s also true that hundreds of historic and heritage sites have been damaged; advisories against travel here have been issued by the US State Department (dated July 13) and the British Foreign Office; and air travel has been suspended (though it’s still possible to enter by land from Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia). [Author's note: Russia's bombing of locations in Kyiv closer to the city center on October 10 in retaliation for the damage wrought to the Kerch Bridge between Crimea and Russia on October 8 may presage additional dangers to Ukrainian cities as Putin becomes more desperate.]
But whether you decide to travel soon – or probably better once the war is over – it's well worth it not just as a way to support this beautiful country and its brave but traumatized citizens, but also because of its outstanding cultural, historic, and scenic riches (including seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites), along with a thriving medical tourism sector providing high quality at relatively low prices. And clearly, in the years to come tourism will be key to helping Ukraine get back on its feet.
So with all that said, here’s an overview of the wonder which await:
I visited this city many, many years ago (as a student way back in the summer of 1982, to be precise, when Ukraine was still in its final stretch as part of the Soviet Union), and though I remember it as typically Communist-era drab, even today I remember being impressed by a number of places and experiences throughout the capital, now with a population of almost three million and home to nearly a thousand churches, monuments, cultural institutions and other fascinating places worth of visiting. And the effects of the war have been fairly minimal. So here are the top musts.
Check out iconic public spaces and monuments like the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (the downtown square which is both a meeting point and occasionally a center for political gatherings; the Rodina Mat (Mother of the Nation, top), a titanic titanium statue of a sword-wielding female warrior (if it looks pompous, that’s because it is – a prime example of overbearing Communist brutalism, inaugurated by Leonid Brezhnev in 1981); there’s a pair of viewing platforms – one 91 meters up – and in the base a World War II museum.
The year of Kyiv’s founding is commonly given as 482 CE (though some archaeological findings indicating it actually dates back to the 6th or 7th century). But its oldest extant historical sites date back to the 11th: St Sophia’s Cathedral (finished in 1031, with 18th-century Baroque additions), the Kyevo-Pecherska Monastery (top, aka the Monastery of the Caves, similarly, inaugurated in 1089 and mostly rebuilt in the 18th century), the Mykhaylivs’kyi (St. Michael's) Golden-Domed Monastery, (dating back to the mid-11th century and again, enlarged and remodeled over subsequent centuries), and the Zoloti Vorota (Golden Gate, the main entrance into the city, built in the early 11th century, though what we see today is a somewhat controversial reconstruction).
Another notable landmark of more “recent” vintage – built in 1744 – is Mariyinsky Palace, the ornate Italianate-Baroque official ceremonial residence of the country’s president, open to guided tours and right next door to the neoclassical Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) building, built in the late 1930s.
Another definite must is the park – on the outskirts and reachable via metro – surrounding Babyn Yar (also rendered Babi Yar) ravine, where in 1941 Nazi soldiers massacred some 34,000 Jews. Today the site is home to more than a dozen memorials, and it’s an emotional experience indeed to visit.
Top museums, meanwhile, include the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, the National Art Museum of Ukraine, and in the small town of Pyrohiv on the outskirts, the National Museum of Folk Architecture and Life of Ukraine, Europe’s largest open-air ethnographic museum.
And of course there’s a vibrant dining, cultural, and nightlife scene (even including a gay club!). One great area to head to is historic Podol, also a hub for lots of artisans and shops.
Bottom line: You certainly won’t lack for fun and fascinating things to do in Ukraine’s capital.
Though this Russian-majority Black-Sea peninsula invaded and annexed by Russia (albeit peacefully) eight years ago may be the least likely to return to Ukrainian sovereignty any time very soon (and we do not encourage travel here before that happens), several places in Crimea which are worth noting. The capital and largest city Sevastopol (above, pop. 510,000), at Crimea’s southwestern tip, was founded as a Russian imperial navy base in 1783 and is a pleasant city home to a number of interesting museums (many of them about military history); handsome neoclassical architecture and 19th-century mansions; the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Khersones, a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded in 422 BCE; and a lively waterfront nightlife district called Artbukhta (Artillery Quay).
Another city worth a visit is Yalta, on the opposite coast a bit over an hour from Sebastopol and most famous for the post-World-War-II conference that divided up Europe spheres of influence among the Allies (held at early-20-century Italianate Livadia Palace, built for Czar Nicholas II and open for visits). Other landmarks include the Anton Chekhov House-Museum, where the famed 19th-century playwright penned The Cherry Orchard, and a short drive west of town, Vorontsovsky Palace, an early-19th-century pastiche of Scottish castle and Arabian fantasy. It’s also the largest of the beach resort cities and towns all up and down the coast.
Elsewhere, one of the Crimea’s oldest extant landmarks is Hansaray, in the town of Bakhchysaray, just under an hour north of Sebastopol. This romantic palace was built in the 16th century for the Muslim Tatar khans who ruled the peninsula for centuries before Russia annexed it in 1783. Nearby there’s also a fascinating khanate-era honeycomb of caves and structures called Chufut-Kale, and in the resort town Sudak – a couple of hours up the coast from Yalta – the Genovese Fortress, a redoubt of the Republic of Genoa dating back to the 14th century, is a once-impregnable complex impressively perched on a massive seaside cliff.
You can get more information in English at TravelCrimea.com.
Ukraine’s second largest city (pop. 1.4 million), in the northeast just over six hours from Kiyiv, was founded in 1654, but many of its landmarks are of more recent vintage, with exceptions such as the Orthodox Dormition Cathedral (built in 1688 and added to in subsequent centuries, such as an early-19th-century belltower that’s still the city’s highest structure at 90 meters). Others include the candy-striped, neo-Byzantine Annunciation Cathedral (finished in 1888), and Derzhprom (at 207 feet tall the first modern skyscraper built in the Soviet Union, in 1928).
Today, also minimally touched by the war, Kharkiv is a major cultural as well as industrial center, with more than ten theaters; various art galleries and cultural spaces; and some 20 museums. Notable examples include the Kharkiv Historical Museum, founded in 1900 and dedicated to Ukrainian history, culture, and ethnicities; and a pair of museums at Kharkiv National University, one devoted to natural history and the other to archaeology. Yet another, quirkier one of particular note is the 21-year-old Museum of Sexual Cultures, the first of its kind in Eastern Europe.
Out west near the Polish border and a seven-hour drive and six-hour train ride from Kyiv, the country’s sixth largest city (pop. 718,000) was founded as such in 1250 (though the area had already been settled for at least 800 years), and has thus far remained unscathed by the war. Lviv has been called by some Ukraine’s prettiest city, with a fairytale, UNESCO World Heritage old town including lovely Jewish and Armenian quarters; a lively café/bar scene (check out the famous P’iana Vishna, the Drunken Cherry); and centered around a main square called Rynok (Market Square); climb the tower of the 19th-century city hall (if you can handle the 408 sometimes creaky steps) for fantastic views out over all of it.
Several top landmarks: The 18th-century baroque-roccoco Svyatovo Yura (St George’s) Cathedral; the Armenian Cathedral, dating back to the 14th century, with a gorgeously colorful interior that’s especially atmospheric, even eye popping; the grandiose, 14th-century Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (commonly known as the Latin Cathedral); the Lviv State Theater of Opera and Ballet, inaugurated in 1900 and which offers a guided tour as well as world-class performances if you’re here in season, generally fall and winter; and if you have time, the ruins of the Vysoky Zamok (High Castle), Lviv’s highest point, more impressive for its great views over the city (accessible through a pretty park).
There are also several good museums, the most significant of which is the Lviv National Museum, housing the National Gallery, with a large collection of art and artifacts from the 12th to early 20th centuries. There’s also a Museum of Ethnography and Crafts housed in a gorgeous palace; the “Prison on Lontskoho Street” Museum, documenting the grim Soviet past; and the Museum of Folk Architecture and Rural Life, out near Vysoky Zamok, one of Europe’s largest open-air museums of its kind, with some 150 buildings – the oldest from 1749 – brought in from around Ukraine.
More info at Lviv.travel.
Also spelled Odesa, the “Pearl of the Black Sea” is just over a five-hour drive from Kyiv (just over seven by train) and was founded as a city in 1794 during the reign of Catherine the Great, though its roots extend back to an ancient Greek colony and later medieval Slavic settlement. Today it’s a popular summer resort destination (its best known beach is called Lanzheron) with a population around a million and typical of many port cities, a mix of different cultures.
Among the top local cultural/historical attractions: the neoclassical, Orthodox Spaso-Preobrazhenskiy (Transfiguration) Cathedral on Sobornaya Square, founded in 1794 and rebuilt in 2005 after Stalin had it torn down in the 1930s; the Opera and Ballet House, considered one of the world’s most beautiful theaters, constructed in 1884 by Viennese architects with an Italian baroque façade and a grand, Renaissance-style entrance; underground catacombs, tunnels originally mined for limestone used to build the city in the early days, with a museum documenting its history (including its use during World War II by partisans against the Nazis).
Streets not to miss: pedestrian shopping thoroughfare Derybasivska; picturesque Deribasovksaya, lined with cafés (and while here, check out the Pasazh, a magnificent 19th-century covered passageway); and cobblestone Primorsky Boulevard, framed by tall trees and lined with magnificent buildings. And leading down from that boulevard to the sea, one of the city’s most famous landmarks is the Potemkin Steps, constructed as the main entry to the city center, the Primorsky district, and much photographed and filmed (most famously in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic Battleship Potemkin).
Speaking of museums, there are several good ones, such as one – at nearly 200 years one of Ukraine’s oldest archaeology museums, which specializes in the Black Sea region. Another showcases the apartment where Russia’s most celebrated poet, Aleksandr Pushkin, lived for 13 months in exile. And the Odessa Fine Arts Museum, housed in a neoclassical 19th-century aristocratic palace, displays an impressive collection of Ukrainian and Russian art.
The nightlife here is also buzzing, both downtown and on the waterfront (particularly in summer, when a seafront cluster of bars, cafés, restaurants, and rollicking, Ibiza-style clubs called Arkadia is quite the hotspot).
And by the way, a cool day trip out of Odessa is the medieval Akkerman Fortress, aka the Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi Fortress, a 13th-14th-century bastion built, like the Crimea’s Genovese Fortress, by the maritime Republic of Genoa.
More info: OdessaTourism.org.
The Ukrainian section of the Carpathian Mountains (above), in the country’s far west, offers impressive soaring mountain landscapes with fantastic adventure and ecotourism, including hiking, biking, boating, and horseback riding along with spas with both hot and cold springs. There are plenty of historical landmarks out here, too, such as 10th-century Palanok Castle and the eight wooden Eastern Orthodox and Greek Catholic tserkvas (churches), built from the 16th through 19th centuries and granted UNESCO World Heritage status. And of course come winter, in these mountains skiers and snowboarders will find fine powder at resorts such as Bukovel, Slavske, Verkhovyna, and Vorokhta.
Chernihiv (pop. 285,000) in the country’s north center, just over two hours’ drive from Kiyiv, is one of its oldest cities (indeed, this region is also the site of some of Europe’s most ancient human settlements), dating back to Kyivan Rus (late 9th to the mid-13th century), and is still home to lots of medieval architecture as well as plenty of impressive landmarks of more recent vintage.
Up north near the border with Belarus, tour operators based in cities including Lviv, Kharkiv, Kiyiv (two hours away), and Chernihiv had for the past 11 years been taking visitors to the old nuclear power plant of Chornobyl (site of the infamous 1986 meltdown disaster during the last gasp of the USSR, and better known to many as Chernobyl) and the nearby, now abandoned city of Pripyat, but as of the Russian invasion these have been suspended until further notice.
And finally, a word about the four four oblasts (provinces) illegally annexed by Russia just last week in the easternmost region known as the Donbass: Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia. They’re all pleasant cities and regions with their share of museums, churches, monasteries, parks, and myriad other landmarks and attractions. But none of it is what I’d call “bucket-list” material – and it’s a good thing, too, because for obvious reasons these areas are off limits to travelers for the foreseeable future.
To cap it all off, I love this video about U.S. travel vlogger Ryan Shirley’s top ten favorite spots in Ukraine – with several of the above destinations plus several others I didn’t get to cover.
Enjoy, and slava Ukraini! 🇺🇦
Get information on all this and more at Ukraine.ua.