Yet another gorgeous yet overlooked Eastern bloc outpost, Ukraine is Europe’s largest country and home to some 45 million people, with a thousand years of history and mostly visa-free entry. There must be some fun things to do in Ukraine, right?
Exhibit A: $2 bottles of vodka.
I rest my case.
But seriously, I had a great 2 months in Ukraine, and visited all sorts of places, from cosmopolitan cities with fancy shmancy nightlife to bucolic villages with cows in the backyard. I toured the site of the World War II Allied conference between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, and found myself in a massive outdoor rave in an open field way out of town. Fun times were had by all. Mostly by me. Many of which involved multiple bottles of $2 vodka.
I mean, when it’s only $2 a bottle, what’s stopping you? Responsibility?!?! HA!
Fun facts about Ukraine!
- It’s not “the” Ukraine. I wondered about this for a long time, wondering how they refer to it in their own language, until I learned that in many Slavic languages there’s no word for “the” anyway. They just say whatever they’re talking about.
- It’s not Russia. Make this mistake and they’ll slap you in the face. Though its history alternates between independence and foreign rule, either by Poland-Lithuania, Imperial Russia, and the USSR, Ukraine has had its own language and culture the whole time.
- It was once the most powerful state in Europe. Well, its predecessor state, anyway. Kievan Rus, the ancestor of modern-day Ukraine, had its heyday in the 10th and 11th centuries, covering half of Eastern Europe. It took the Mongol horde to bring them down.
- It built one of the world’s first computers. MESM was up and running way back in 1950.
- It built the world’s biggest plane. The Antonov An-225 Mriya was designed to carry the Soviet space shuttle Buran.
- The trains are amazing. In fact, they may very well be the greatest form of transportation in the universe.
- They have $2 bottles of vodka. Need I say more?
So now that you’re super excited to visit, let’s take a look at how much fun it’s gonna be:
Top 10 things to do in Ukraine
(according to me!)
1) Enjoy the million onion domes of Kiev
I always wanted to go to Kiev. You know why? Because it sounds cool. Kiev. Isn’t that a cool name for a city? It sure is. Is that a shitty reason to visit? Well yeah. Fuck you.
Kiev can be pretty gorgeous, with onion-domed churches and monasteries all over the place, and some busy pedestrian plazas and thoroughfares surrounded by what I want to say is…baroque architecture? Classical, maybe? Whatever.
You can keep yourself busy visiting the sites and attractive walkable areas of the city by day, and enjoy the upscale Kiev nightlife in the evening. Have a few drinks ahead of time, though. Not that drink prices in the clubs are bad, but drink prices in grocery stores are great.
Kiev is on the rise, too. Just a few years ago the hostel count was 3. It’s now at 50 something. So read up on the capital and go have a party.
2) Lazily wander through old-town Lviv
Kiev gets all the attention, but Lviv has all the charm. If you find yourself stuck in Ukraine far longer than you expected, you’re probably in Lviv. It happened to me. The old town center, with its centuries-old architecture, cobblestone streets, and pedestrian-only plazas, is the kind of place you can sightsee in a few hours, and comfortably get stuck in for days or weeks. Climbing the tower in the center of town will give you a panoramic view of the whole city, though a few other hilltops are fun to climb as well.
Lviv is also a major center of Ukrainian culture. While Kiev is filled mostly with Russian speakers, those in Lviv proudly speak Ukrainian. If you’re a language-deficient foreigner who can’t understand anything, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference anyway, but you’ll notice how different Lviv feels from other Ukrainian cities. You coud easily mistake it for being Polish, and indeed it has been several times throughout its history.
3) Soak up the history and sunshine in the Crimea
Update: So Crimea has pretty much been annexed by Russia at this point, and I don’t think it’ll ever go back to Ukraine. It’s a hugely politically charged situation, and everyone’s mad at everyone else; but I decided to leave this Crimea info here, in an article about Ukraine, to illustrate why this tiny little peninsula is such a big deal to everyone.
This is without a doubt a must-see stop in Ukraine. Do not miss the Crimea.
This tiny peninsula has been the site of bitterly contested territorial struggles, meaning the Crimea hosts a vast wealth of historic sites, from Sudak’s Genoan fortress, Bakhchisaray’s Tatar palace and cave monastery, Alupka’s Vorontsov Palace (Churchill’s home during the Yalta conference), and Yalta’s Swallow’s Nest, Masandra Palace, and the Livadia Palace, where the famous Yalta Conference took place between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, where the leaders drew up the plans to divide Europe after the end of World War II.
The Crimea is also home to enormous numbers of vacationing Russians and Ukrainians, and the beaches get packed in the summer, with parties (particularly Kazantip), live music, and vodka. Lots of vodka. You may very well stick around a little too long in the Crimea because you’ll be too hungover for morning sightseeing. But you probably won’t mind. The beaches are more rocky than sandy, but oh well.
It’s definitely a good idea to see these sites as part of an organized tour. Endless tour companies operate in the more popular beach destinations, and take visitors all over the region. You can visit these sites yourself, but you’ll need to figure out transportation to and from these places, and tours are fairly cheap anyway. They’ll probably only be in Russian, but whatever. Also, you’ll notice that older Russian women wear heels when climbing mountains. Fun times!
4) Have some castle adventures
You might not think of Ukraine when you picture medieval castles and sword-filled battles, but that’s because you had a terrible history teacher. This region has been contested more times than the lottery.
Western Ukraine is especially filled with castles. Some of the most accessible are those at Kamianets-Podilskyi, where the fortress sits atop a massive ravine (and is the site of many wedding ceremonies), and Khotyn, just a short bus ride away, both located near the city of Chernivtsi. There’s also the aforementioned fortress at Sudak in the Crimea, but there are many more, as well as former residential palaces. If you have the time and you can’t get enough, you can explore quite a few of these sites with very few other foreign tourists to annoy you as you try to enjoy the atmosphere.
5) Party in Odessa
The summertime parties in Odessa’s Arcadia district put Cancún and Ibiza to shame. Massive clubs and endless bars play host to seemingly tens of thousands of impeccably dressed Ukrainian party people. What’s more, no one on the planet outside of former Soviet countries seems to have any idea this is the case.
This is changing as Ukraine becomes increasingly accessible, but since quite a few of the visitors to Odessa stick around the Irish pub instead of making their way to the further reaches of party town (it’s 8 km away from the center), chances are it won’t feel touristy for another decade or two.
Oh wait, Odessa has some tourist attractions as well. Like some stairs. HA!
Just kidding. Odessa is actually a pretty cool city, and it’s fun to walk around its relatively quiet streets, or visit the beaches.
6) Hike in the Carpathians
The Carpathian Mountains stretch through several Eastern European countries, and offer outdoorsy types plenty of great hiking opportunities, though the infrastructure is more accessible for day hikers, who can stay in town and hike during the day. In fact you can often stay in the spare room of random villagers instead of paying for a hotel. When I showed up and found out the place was full, the guy just called over to his neighbor and I stayed there instead. On the downside, the lack of spare keys required some logistical acrobatics. Good thing the window was open.
7) Get irradiated at Chernobyl
You know what the locals said when I told them Chernobyl has become one of the top tourist attractions in Ukraine?
I’ve noticed Eastern Europeans have a way of saying things quite directly. It’s pretty funny sometimes.
But who would want to visit a nuclear disaster site? Nobody’s going to Fukushima as a tourist. Nobody visits Chicago to trace the origins of the Chicago Fire. Nobody visits Los Angeles to check out the earthquake scars.
Though I guess there’s Pompeii…
Still, Chernobyl’s eerie silence, as well as the accompanying town of Pripyat, which was entirely evacuated and stands as a time capsule of 1980s Soviet life, with children’s toys still littering the streets, have an unmistakable allure. Much like Pompeii, in fact. The disaster itself, and the town frozen in time, are terrifying and fascinating at the same time.
Visiting Chernobyl costs hundreds of dollars. You’ll need a day pass and transportation, which likely means you’ll want to organize through a tour company, many of which operate from Kiev. You can even take a before and after Geiger counter reading of yourself.
Oh, and red wine reduces the toxicity of radiation poisoning. Cheers!
Speaking of getting trashed…
8) Enjoy the hell out of $2 vodka
Did I mention they have $2 bottles of vodka? I did? Well, I just want you to make sure. You don’t want to forget a thing like that. You can get a bottle of vodka for $2. Yes, that’s what I said. That figure is indeed correct.
If you want good vodka (Nemiroff is darn good), it’ll be $3. A liter might be $5. Have fun with that. I’m sure you will.
In the bars and clubs, you’re often expected to purchase an entire bottle of vodka for you and your friends, along with an equally-sized mixer of some kind. Now don’t get too frightened here, but as you may know, club drink prices are higher than store prices. This will cost you $8.
And if you want to be cultured instead of just get trashed, the Ukrainian word for vodka is actually horilka. The chili pepper and honey horilka is a Ukrainian specialty.
9) Enjoy the latent homoeroticism and sadomasochistic undertones of a traditional Ukrainian sauna
What could possibly be more sexually attractive than a room full of naked and obese Slavic men sweating their brains out in the sauna whilst intermittently flogging themselves with a bundle of sticks? Why, the aggressive manhandling that is the full-body traditional in-sauna massage, of course!
Traditional Ukrainian saunas involve a swelteringly hot steam bath, in which the participants smack themselves with branches to increase circulation, followed by a dive into a cold pool. In winter, they often just roll in the snow. Then they go back into the steam bath and do it all over again.
When you emerge, you will literally be high.
10) Observe the awkward encounters of arranged marriage meetings
Yes, this is a thing. In Odessa it’s particularly visible. The Irish pub, just down the street from the hostel, always had a few foreigners speaking English to a girl who was very obviously translating for another girl. If you think this is weird, well, you’re incredibly correct.
Ukrainian girls have a reputation for being incredibly beautiful, and Westerners have a reputation for having more money. It’s the perfect storm.
Now I don’t particularly have a problem with service-assisted expeditious romance, but it’s entirely different when the girl doesn’t speak the same language, and is being whisked away from her homeland and family to the other side of the planet. These girls quite often just want a better life, but isolation is a major symptom of an abusive relationship. It’s pretty clear the girls are only doing it to better their station in life, and the guys are doing it because they can’t get a girl. They may very well have good intentions, but dammit, this is weird.
I expect that as Ukraine becomes increasingly developed (and it’s been on the rise for years), this particular awkwardness will gradually fade away. I’m pretty sure you can’t get mail-order Italian brides, for example. Soon those lonely gentlemen will have to figure out a better way to impress the ladies than simply being foreign and affluent.
Flex your muscles, guys. Your personality muscles.
Damn you and your endless things to see, Ukraine!
You know what’s annoying? Writing this post about all the places I visited in Ukraine makes me want to go back to Ukraine. Fuck you and your nostalgia-inducing charms, you vile travel vixen you. I have other places to visit, Ukraine! Damn you!
Even after the 2 months I spent there, I still missed out on quite a bit. I saw plenty, but just looking over the massive list of all the top tourist attractions in Ukraine reminds me how much more you’d have to see to “see it all.” I barely made it to the east. There were a million more castles I could have visited. More festivals to enjoy. More bottles of vodka to empty. More life to be lived.
I’d say go there now before it changes, but I get the feeling Ukraine is going to stay off the main backpacker circuit for a while. Tourism will ever be on the rise, of course, but I think those who venture this far east will find more untouched beauty than they might have expected. Ukraine is huge, too, so it can absorb quite a few visitors before it even begins to feel “discovered.”
Za zdorovya, Ukraine. See you again someday.