So Kyiv (according to Ukrainians and the British government) or Kiev (according to most British people and the BBC) is not top of everyone’s list of short breaks to take. However, it can be a very rewarding few days away, and whilst bad for Ukrainians, the weak Hyrvnia means it’s very good value for money. A single ride on the excellent metro system for example is just 4 Hyrvnia, at present about 12 pence.
It’s just a 3 and half hour flight away, and once there, everything you could want is right within reach, from museums to shops to the beach. Here’s a few highlights if you are spending a few days there.
The most surprising thing for the majority of visitors to Kyiv is that you can lay back on a sandy beach and go for a cooling dip in the Dnieper River. There are two main islands in the river that people use for swimming- Trukhaniv Island, which is still quite wild and forested, and Hidropark, which has a full range of facilities as well as just beaches. If you want to go kayaking, play volleyball, go the gym in the open air or play tennis, the Hidropark is your place.
Trukhaniv has a few spots around the bridge, as well as little changing booths and drinking fountains, but less and less as you venture further onto the island. The water is a rather off-putting river green, but clean, and very refreshing in Kyiv’s hot summer months. You can also get a Zip Line straight across the river if you don’t want to walk across the bridge.
Kyiv’s Monasteries and Churches
Kyiv managed to get through the Soviet era with a strong Orthodox community still intact. Many monasteries and churches had been damaged or destroyed through policy or war, so some of them have been rebuilt in the 2000s, but they are still well worth visiting.
The cave monastery is by far the most famous site in Kiev, and is one the holiest site for the Ukrainian, Belarussian and Russian Orthodox churches. The caves date back to late 11th Century, and have the remains of many naturally mummified priests and saints in them. They are free to visit, but you will need to buy a beeswax candle at the entrance to light your way. Photography is not permitted, so it is hard to know what to expect before you go, but it is a truly unique experience, following the single file tunnels and watching people cross themselves and pray before their saints.
Other churches include St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery and St Sophia’s, which became a museum under Stalin and had remained that way. Also in Kyiv are St Andrew’s and St Vladimir’s. If you go, expect them to be busy with worshippers, praying hard in front of icons and often kissing and touching relics throughout.
Kyiv’s Museums and Monuments
Kyiv really has so much to see, from statues and memorials to full blown museums that you can spend all day in. This list is far from exhaustive, not least because Kyiv for some reason has many museums dedicated municipal works, such as a Water Museum and a recycling museum, that may not appeal to many tourists.
Kyiv had an embattled time during WWII, and many museums and memorials are due to this. The Ukraine Museums of the Patriotic War is a thorough and moving exhibition covering the occupation of the Nazis through to the retaking of the city by the Soviets. Whilst the text throughout the displays is in Ukrainian only, there is an overall explanation of each room in English and German. Displays are unusually arranged and quite affecting. Moving items include a pair of gloves made from human skin.
The museum also contains the entrance to the Rodina Mat, the enormous Motherland statue that can be seen for miles around. Outside exhibitions consist of tanks, planes, missile carriers and other hardware to look at and occasionally clamber around on.
Near this extensive museum are the memorials to the Holodomor (Great famine) of 1932-3 and the memorial to the unknown soldier and the Soviet War in Afghanistan.
The Ukraine government has a policy of removing all Communist statues and place names and the most recently announced to be removed is Friendship Arch, a few minutes (uphill) walk from Independence Square in the centre of Kyiv. At the moment it’s so big it seems inconceivable it could ever be removed, but that’s the plan. Built to celebrate the unification of Russia and Ukraine, it’s understandable it’s a touchy topic at the moment. But whatever the sentiment, the views across the East bank are beautiful.
Independence Square itself is worth visiting a quick long around as well, with it’s distinctive statue of Berehynia, the Protector of the Home, recognisable to anyone who saw the Maidan protests in 2004 or 2014 on tv.
Round the other side of the hill from the Maidan is a statue of St. Vladimir, who baptised the whole city in 988 in the Dnieper in a mass conversion to Christianity.
The Golden Gate is a rebuilding of one of the original gates of Kiev from the 11th Century. However, it was rebuilt in the 1980’s, at a time when no one agreed on what the gates would have looked like,s o there is little historical value in it. The statue at it’s side is of Yaroslav the Wise, son of St Vladimir, and he is still talked about today as the last just ruler of Kiev.
St Andrew’s Descent has a couple of pretty specific museums on it, namely that of the Museum of One Street, which is a history of St Andrew’s Descent itself and the people who lived there, and the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum, celebrating the author and his works.
My favourite museum is in the grounds of the Lavra. It’s a hang over from the Soviet days, when the Lavra was a state museum instead of a religious complex, but it’s wonderful. It’s the Museum of Micro-Miniatures. One man has created all the displays, and they are simply incredible- shoes on a flea, a chess set on a pin head and a fully rigged sailing ship just 3.5 mm long as some of the exhibits. Don’t worry, microscopes are provided!
Finally, while a little way from the city centre, although easily accessible by metro line 3 (the green one) to Dorohozhychi, Babyn Yar is a ravine where the Nazis killed over 30,000 Jews in just three days and dumped their bodies. By the end of the occupation, over 100,000 people were thrown into the ravine. There is now a park there, with various statues scattered throughout to different groups of people.
About fifteen minutes walk on the other side of the tube station is Syrets Park. This was a concentration camp with an amazing story of how the last few prisoners fought back, and some survived to tell the story of what happened at Babyn Yar, after the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence before retreating. The park is now a pleasant family day out and in the summer includes a small train run entirely by volunteers from 9 to 15 years old.