After regaining independence in 1991 with the fall of the USSR, Ukraine has often struggled to find its own voice, divided between the decades spent under Soviet domination and European influence. The opening of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to tourists in 2011, plus the recent uptick in interest thanks to the HBO show, has led to an increasing number of tourists to Ukraine, and its capital city of Kiev. The city saw more than 850,000 visitors in the first half of 2018 according to official records. But the charm of this city of three million stretched along the Dnieper River is its historic architecture. Kiev’s skyline has been no stranger to this dichotomy, and the eclectic compound of buildings from different styles include classical, Baroque, and Art Nouveau, and socialist modernism. The skyline has turned Kiev into an exciting European destination. Here are the must-see structures for both European architecture enthusiasts, and those with Soviet curiosity.
1. Kiev Monastery of the Caves
The Kiev Monastery of the Caves was founded in 1051 AD and has been the center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity ever since. Nowadays, the facility works as both a monastery and museum containing many buildings of interest including the Great Lavra Bell Tower, with its classical-style construction that was the highest free-standing bell tower between 1731 and 1745 at 316 feet tall. You could easily spend hours walking through the captivating square and visiting all its cathedrals and churches. The most striking is the Dormition Church, which was originally built in the 11th century and destroyed in 1941 during World War II. Who destroyed the church is still unknown, since both Germans and Soviets blame each other for its destruction. The church reconstruction began after Ukraine regained its independence in 1995, taking two years to complete.
You can also see the wall fortification, which is as prominent from the inside of the complex as from the outside gardens down the hill. Finally, as its name promises, there is a cave system. These narrow corridors are not for the claustrophobic type. They are about eight feet high and just under five feet wide, and are generally full of tourists and worshippers alike. These underground passageways take you through chapels, living quarters, and catacombs that despite the crowds, are a dark contrast to the bright architecture above ground.
Where: Lavrska St, 15, Kyiv, Ukraine, 01015
2. Saint Sophia Cathedral
Saint Sophia Cathedral, the best example of Byzantine architecture in the city, was built in the 11th century. After centuries of looting, the cathedral had decayed quite a bit and it was only in 1633 that major reconstruction began. It was decided to keep the Byzantine interior and redo the upper part of the building in the Ukranian Baroque style. Inside the complex, you can walk through its garden and see inside the cathedral mosaics and frescoes that date back to its original construction date. You may find your knees weak when visiting the bell tower, perhaps the most vertigo-inducing spot in Kiev. Climb up the stairs and walk through thin balconies that provide incredible views of the city, the cathedral’s entire complex, and St. Michael’s church across the street.
Where: Volodymyrska St, 24, Kyiv, Ukraine, 01001
3. Maidan Nezalezhnosti
Also known as Independence Square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti is one of the main squares in Kiev. Since the 1990s, this central location has become a place of political protests including the Euromaidan occurence in 2014 that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych from office. During the Soviet period, the structure was reconstructed a couple of times before taking its current look in the reconstruction of 2001, which included new monuments and the striking glass dome in the fountains. In this square you can really feel the vibe of the city and it is a great place to do some people-watching — kids play in the water fountains and locals sell everything from old stamps to coins, pins, and other souvenirs.
4. Golden Gate
Located in the park of the same name, the Golden Gate was the main gate of the fortifications of Kiev in the 11th century. In 1832 the remains were excavated and conservation work started. In the 1970s a museum of the gate was added, but a major reconstruction of this building done in 1982 proved to be controversial since the original structure had been dismantled in the Middle Ages and there were no images that showed its original look. Many historians claim it should be torn down and leave only the original remains. Inside there is a museum about its construction and you can see the ruins of the original gate. In the top of the gate, there is a chapel that can be visited as well with a really simple yet beautiful style. Be sure to step outside to the balcony to see the stunning views of the city.
Where: Volodymyrska St, 40А, Kyiv, Ukraine, 01034
5. House of Chimaeras
Located in a government area a 15-minute walk from Independence Square, this Art Nouveau building constructed in 1901-1902 proves, to many visitors at least, hard to see. This is due to the security involved — because of the proximity to the Presidential Administration Building, you’re likely to encounter security forces milling about. Be sure to carry your passport with you to get a better view of the incredible chimaeras, which are decorative concrete animals on the top of the structure. A visit to the equally interesting interior can be arranged for some Saturdays by booking a tour in advance.
Where: Bankova St, 10, Kyiv, Ukraine, 02000
After World War II, the Soviet Union’s socialist realism took over and functional, gray, neoclassical buildings were created on a large scale. It wasn’t until the ‘70s that architects were able to have an individual style which led to the Soviet modernism era. This gave the city some of its most notable facades, and although there are many scattered throughout Kiev, the following are the most impressive ones:
1. Kiev’s crematorium
Also known as Memory Park, the crematorium was created between the years 1968 and 1981. This still-working crematorium was a controversial project because of what the crematoriums symbolized after WWII. Precisely to avoid this association, this white concrete building takes a curvy unique and bizarre shape straight out of a sci-fi movie with a sole intent to take the mind of the mourners away from grief. A visit to this architectural oddity is probably unlike anything you may have seen.
Where: Baikova St, 16, Kyiv, Ukraine, 03039
2. Institute of Scientific Research
This UFO-shaped building was built in 1971. The design’s original purpose was to be a hall with a perfect system of sound and light transmission, so the flying-saucer shape was determined for purely practical needs — not just to look cool. Like many buildings of the Soviet era, it’s a bit run down, but that hasn’t taken away from its appeal. The ISR is still one of the city’s most peculiar structures.
Where: Antonovycha St, 180, Kyiv, Ukraine, 03150
3. Hotel Salyut
This building, constructed between 1976 and 1984, was originally designed to be a skyscraper. But problems within the Communist Party led to a lack of funding, and the construction was literally cut in half. It’s a visible mark of the former Communist vision that almost was, and a quick visit to its lobby and restaurant feels like traveling back in time.
Where: Ivana Mazepy St, 11-Б, Kyiv, Ukraine, 01010
4. Mother Motherland
A visit to this 102-meter tall statue, part of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War and inaugurated in 1981, makes the perfect final stop on an architectural tour of Kiev. It’s far less mentioned and even less frequently visited than others on this list, but equally impressive is its brutalist gray concrete WWII memorial located in the same complex. The great size and angular shapes can be overwhelming, a feeling that isn’t helped by the coronating “Fire of Glory,” which was supposed to be an eternal flame but is now only lit on special occasions.
Where: Zapecherna St, Kyiv, Ukraine, 02000