UKRAINE IS CURRENTLY RECEIVING thousands of visitors as they co-host the Euro 2012 Football Championship with Poland. Kiev will see the heaviest influx — not only because it’s the capital, but because it now has the largest soccer stadium in the country, with a capacity of around 83,000.
I took every opportunity I could to visit last year while living in one of Ukraine’s other great cities, Odessa. Here’s a glimpse of the golden capital, once again through the lens of my iPhone.
Ukrainian is the official language of Ukraine, but Russian is just as common to hear and see written on signs while in Kiev. Or is it Kyiv? While their alphabets are noticeably similar, the languages most definitely are not the same. Kiev/Киев = Russian spelling and Kyiv/Київ = Ukrainian spelling.
Kiev's Central Railway Station
The older trains in Ukraine are typically slow with journeys between major cities taking anywhere from 6-12 hours, often overnight. There are usually three classes you can choose to travel in: platskart being the cheapest without a compartment, coupe, which is a four-person compartment, and SV, a two-person compartment and the most expensive. High-speed train routes between Kiev, Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Lviv were recently opened ahead of Euro 2012, cutting journey times by almost a quarter.
St. Sophia's Cathedral
St. Sophia's is the oldest cathedral in Kiev, dating back to the 11th century, and was built to rival the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It is one of five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ukraine. Climb the 72m bell tower for a pretty awesome view of the cathedral grounds and city.
Hedgehog in the Fog
One of the most beloved monuments of Kiev -- the Hedgehog in the Fog -- sits not far from St. Sophia's Cathedral in a small square at the intersection of Reytarska and Zolotovoritska. This little guy is the hero of the 1975 Soviet cartoon bearing the same name, often recognized as one of the most important animated films of all time.
Kiev is huge, its hectic street traffic making the metro the easiest way to get around. The city has some of the most decorative and deepest stations in the world. Arsenalna Station on Metro Line 1 takes the depth lead at 107m.
Marshrutkas are privately owned minibuses and another popular way to get around town. A word of warning: Be prepared for straight-up chaos if hopping on during peak hours. You'll be packed in like sardines with people yelling in every direction to either pass their money to the driver or request a specific stop.
On the bus
In Kiev, you pay when you get on the marshrutka -- a ride costs 1.50 hryvnia. If you happen to get stuck in the back without the exact amount, just pass your cash to the front and watch as the correct change slowly but surely makes its way through the crowd and back into your hands.
The average pension in Kiev is $140US/month. It's not uncommon to see elderly people, especially elderly women (or babushkas), out on the streets selling what they can to try and make ends meet.
Rodina Mat is the most famous lady in Kiev and has been since her construction in 1981. This 62m titanium statue of Mother Motherland stands proudly atop the Museum of the Great Patriotic War and can be seen from many places throughout the city. A walk around the surrounding area and into the museum will leave an impression; its exhibitions and memorials do an excellent job conveying how heavily Kiev and its population suffered during WWII, when nearly 40% of the city was destroyed.
The Dormition Cathedral is just one of the many beautiful places of worship inside Kievo-Pecherska Lavra, the second UNESCO World Heritage Site in Kiev. Essentially a Mecca for Orthodox Christian pilgrims from around the world, the Lavra contains a sea of golden churches and bell towers, a few museums, and a pretty extensive system of caves housing the remains of monks and other important religious figures that can be toured by candlelight. This is by far one of the most popular and important attractions in Kiev, and Ukraine as a whole.
Holodomor, one of the darkest periods in Ukrainian history, happened between 1932 and 1933, when millions of Ukrainians died as a result of a manmade famine. Whether this should be considered an act of genocide by Stalin is still a hot debate; many even compare it to the Holocaust in terms of lives lost -- nearly 4 million. This memorial lies not far from the Lavra and serves as a reminder that regardless of who is to blame, its victims should never be forgotten.
St. Andrew's Church
This Baroque church was built in the 18th century by Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Just behind lies Andriyivsky Uzviz, or Andrew's Descent -- a cobbled hill that connects the upper part of Kiev with the riverside district of Podil. It's a touristy spot to shop for handicrafts and souvenirs.
In the summer months, escaping down to the banks of the Dnieper is an excellent choice -- just not during the football championships. Foreign embassies in Kiev recently received a warning from the city that swimming will be strictly prohibited to prevent drunken injuries or drowning among visiting fans. As one of the longest rivers in Europe, the Dnieper flows from central Russia to the Black Sea.
There's borsch, and then there's Ukrainian borsch. This beet root soup is wildly popular throughout Central and Eastern Europe but it hails from Ukraine, making it "the place" to enjoy a bowl or two. Mix in a good helping of smetana (sour cream).
Cheap Big Mac
In early 2012, The Economist's Big Mac index found the Ukrainian hryvnia to be one of the most undervalued currencies in the world, with a Big Mac costing approximately $1.84US.
Cost of living
While still cheaper than many European cities, Kiev is the most expensive city in Ukraine. The price of vodka recently increased to around $4US for a half liter. This is in comparison to $0.50 for a loaf of bread, $0.75 for a half liter of domestic beer, $1 for a liter of milk, and around $2 for a pack of cigarettes.
I always enjoy taking a peek inside St. Volodomyr's. The big yellow cathedral sits just opposite Universitet metro station and in my opinion has the most beautiful interior of them all: gleaming gold icons, white marble iconostases, and original mosaics produced by Venetian masters.
Tours to Chernobyl
have once again resumed, making it possible to take a day trip from Kiev to see the site of the world's worst nuclear accident and the neighboring ghost town of Pripyat. For those who would prefer to learn more about the catastrophe without the 4-hour roundtrip journey and exposure to above-normal levels of radiation, the Chernobyl Museum near Kontraktova Ploscha is an informative alternative.
Kreshatik runs through the heart of Kiev and is a place you're most likely to find yourself at least once while visiting. Lots of shopping, restaurants, bars, and clubs line this boulevard, which becomes a pedestrian zone on the weekends and major holidays.
One of the best places to watch a sunset in Kiev is up at Peyzazhna Alley, where there are views of Podil, St. Andriyivsky, and the Left Bank. You can also find a unique collection of interesting sculptures and art installations along the stretch that begins at the Natural History Museum.