Sprawling across two river banks, Kiev has duality woven into its fabric. Delicate churches top the hills of the right bank, while concrete beehives clump up left of the river. Murals explode with color on bleak Soviet housing blocks. The biggest monastery in the region is a short ride away from a pagan hotspot. Nothing’s uniform about Kiev, not even its name: while Westerners keep using the Russian version, Kiev, the locals insist on its Ukrainian spelling, Kyiv. And the time to be in this twofold city is now. Kiev is shedding its old skin and emerging as a quirky European capital with techno raves in abandoned factories, a love for coffee bordering on obsession, and hipsters of a whole different breed.
Like the rest of the former USSR, Kiev is thought to be nothing short of Siberia. In reality, though, it’s not much colder than the East Coast of the United States and significantly warmer than eastern Canada. That said, winters are gray and gloomy, and autumns can be rainy, so the best time to visit is from April to September.
Spring in Kiev is absolutely stunning, with blossoming fruit trees and beautiful shades of green everywhere. Rainfall gets unpredictable in April and early May, but there’s usually plenty of sunshine, and the temperatures climb up to 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit. May and June hit the sweet spot, with lush parks, gentle sun, and the summer slowly gaining force. Later, in the peak summer months, Kiev can get heat waves of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so keep that in mind when planning your trip.
As a still-not-touristy city, Kiev doesn’t have a peak season, per se. Sure, more people visit in the spring and summer months, but you won’t have to elbow your way through the crowds to see the major sights.
The local currency is the Ukrainian hryvnia (“hriv-nee-ya”), and the exchange rate is ₴36.92 per 1 USD. Currency exchanges are aplenty in the city center, as are ATMs, but there’s no need to carry a lot of cash on you. Pretty much everyone will accept your credit card — except for street vendors and the occasional eatery. Most restaurants and shops, and even the Metro, are equipped with contactless payment terminals, so you can pay with your smartphone using Apple Pay or Google Pay.
Tipping is where cashless payments get tricky. Some restaurants will add the tip to your bill if you specifically ask them, but in most cases, you’ll need petty cash to leave a tip. In restaurants, 10 percent of the bill is standard, 20 percent or more is generous. Coffee shops and street food stalls usually have a tip jar. Anything between two and 20 hryvnia will work for those. For hotel and delivery staff, 10 to 20 hryvnia should be enough; for hairdressers, masseurs, and other wellness and beauty professionals, start with 20 and leave more if you have a significant bill.
Because of its long history with Russia, Ukraine is bilingual, but its official language is Ukrainian. In Kiev you’ll hear both Ukrainian and Russian, which can be confusing if you’re trying to learn either.
Fortunately, metro navigation is doubled in English, and many bars and restaurants have English names and menus. Most younger locals speak some English, which means you should have no trouble ordering food or asking for directions. With older Kievans, it’s hit or miss, so don’t get your hopes up when buying cherries from a babushka in the street.
For those times of dismay, learn a few useful Ukrainian phrases (even if you say them to a Russian-speaking local, they’ll easily understand you and appreciate the effort):
Kiev has a clean, uncomplicated Metro system that will get you almost anywhere worth going for eight hryvnia (less than 50 cents). The easiest way to pay for a Metro ride is with Apple Pay, Google Pay, or a Visa/MasterCard that supports contactless payment. Keep an eye out for yellow turnstiles when you enter a station, hold your smartphone or credit card next to the sensor, and you’ll be charged automatically.
If there is no Metro where you need to go, there are also trolleys, trams, and marshrutkas (small buses). While trolleys are fairly well-maintained, trams and marshrutkas tend to be old, stuffy, and perpetually packed. You might be better off getting an Uber: it’s widely available and cheap by Western standards, with an average ride being $4-5. Alternatives include the Ukrainian Uklon (which, many will argue, has better cars and nicer drivers) and the European Bolt. There are also legions of offline taxis, whose drivers will besiege you when you exit the airport, but they’ll try and rip you off when they see you’re a foreigner.
Despite the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Kiev is peaceful, and as safe as any big European city. Violent crime is low, gun violence even lower. All central parts of the city are safe to walk at night, but if you somehow end up in a sketchy neighborhood like Borshchahivka or Solomenka, it’s better to get a cab.
The usual safety precautions you take when you travel apply here as well. Don’t carry a lot of cash or expensive jewelry; watch your wallet and phone in crowded areas; choose banks over street ATMs and currency exchanges. Being a foreigner makes you a prime target for scams, from a taxi driver charging you double to a new acquaintance at the bar spiking your drink, so watch out for those.
As far as safety for people of color and LGBTQ visitors goes, Kiev is unlikely to be any trouble. It’s not as progressive as say, Berlin, so you might get stares as a gay couple or a trans person, but hate crimes are rare here.