A friend of mine was eager to escape the quotidian stress and this of course ignited the cosmopolitan in me. So we thought “yea, London: musicals, shopping! Then we checked our account balances and joked around that Ukraine seems to be more in our pre-yuletide budget range. Naturally, the headlines in the western media concerning the Russian war on Ukraine made us somewhat prejudiced and hesitant, but our urge to explore got the better of us – and oh boy am I glad it did!
We ended up spending four eye-opening, delightful and tasty days in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, without burdening our wallet too much. I’d like to share my experiences with you in the hopes of crushing at least a few prejudices against Kiev. The Ukraine is a big country. The prevailing conflict is far away from the capital and not once during our trip did we feel unsafe. People were mostly friendly, apart from the arrogant-ish slavic treatment and slow service, which can also be found in other slavic cultures.
The direct, 2-hour Ukrainian International Airlines (UIA) flight from Helsinki to Kiev (and back) went smoothly. The plane and its interior were somewhat outdated (among other things you could distinguish the pixels on the safety cards) but the refreshments onboard were affordable and the service friendly. However, the UIA airport services were very poorly organized and ineffective. We ended up standing in line at the check-in desk for an unreasonable amount of time at both departure points.
The city in itself is enchanting. Just walking around, inhaling the stalinist and orthodox architecture and the breathtaking scenery is worth clambering up the steep hills, very steep never-ending hills. Note to self: when in Kiev, think twice before taking a shortcut through the park as “park” is equivalent to steep-ass slope. For this reason, the city map is also more of a guideline as the distances can be misleading. What seems like just a quick walk around the block can turn out to be a 60-minute cardio workout.
The local currency is hryvnia. In order to spend some hryvnia (UAH) you first have to get a hold of some. At least in Finland currency exchange offices and banks don’t trade Ukrainian currency due to the conflict in east Ukraine. Sooo… don’t rely on ATMs. Some of them work, most of them don’t, despite the clearly marked Visa and MasterCard logos. Cash is king, my friend. Bring some euros or dollars, just in case. There are several exchange offices around the city, so as long as you bring some cash, you’re in the clear. However, don’t exchange too much. When I finally found an ATM that spoke english and didn’t refuse my card, I withdrew 3.000 hryvnias which is about 107 euros (note that the maximal withdrawable amount was 4.000 hryvnias), and I had a hard time spending it all in four days. And believe me, I really tried to spend it. Most restaurants accept credit cards, however, smaller boutiques and cafés frown when you pull out your plastic money.
With around 3 million inhabitants, Kiev is a big city. To avoid blisters and save time, taxis are a good choice to get around. We read up on the taxi system in advance and always asked the hotel or restaurant to call us a taxi to our destination. This way we got the car’s license number and a price estimate in advance, and the driver always knew where we wanted to go (the language barrier was hard to penetrate at occasions). An even more affordable way to get around is the metro. For a mere song the three metro lines will take you all around the city. It’s crowded, it’s dirty but it’s cheap. A single ticket is 4 hryvnias. For reference 1 hryvnia is about 0,036 euros, so basically one ticket is less than 15 euro cents. The never-ending escalator ride down to the cars is an experience in itself, so definitely worth a visit even if you just choose to go one stop.
Speaking of affordable, we were still a bit bummed over missing the musicals in London so we checked out the culture selection in Kiev. Naturally we chose a Spanish opera preformed in French by Ukrainian artists with Ukrainian surtitles (Carmen). A bit of a challenge, I must admit, even though I am fairly fluent in French. We got the best seats (absolutely spectacular seats) for a mere 300 hryvnias, so less than 11 euros. I mean it’s the opera. In Finland the price would be the same 300 but the currency euros. Given, in Finland we would understand the surtitles and my non-French-speaking friend would probably not fall asleep during the first act…
Still on the subject of affordable, Kiev is a true paradise for foodies on a limited budget. Everything we ate was delicious. One of the best experiences was without a doubt the 12-course dinner at a restaurant named Kanapa. The whole menu including wine went for just 30 euros plus tips. I mean it just can’t be so, right? 12 courses. And wine. But it was so and it was one of the most excellent dinner experiences I have ever had. Overall the Ukrainian kitchen understandably has a lot of Russian influences. Don’t hesitate to try new things even though you might be unfamiliar with Russian flavors, you might be pleasantly surprised.
So you can probably imagine that the hotel was, well yes, affordable as well, despite the jacuzzi. Of course this was in December, which is probably the cheapest period to travel to Kiev. The weather wasn’t the best. It was snowy, the streets were slippery and the wind icy – nothing a determined Finn can’t withstand. The temperature was around -2° to + 2° C. The snow clearance didn’t meet the same standards as we are used to in Finland. So if you’re traveling in the winter, even though you’re just staying a few days, bring an extra pair of shoes because your feet will get wet. The majority of the sidewalks were paved. This together with the loose snow was a very dangerous combination. I myself tried various telemark-landings, some of which would have rendered any old ski-jumper jealous. This being said, the city was oh so beautiful covered in snow. I can’t wait to see it covered in green.
I’ve pointed out that Kiev offers great value for money concerning wining and dining, however, a shopping destination it is not. Certainly, you’ll find most of the international brands but the price is the same as in most western European cities, if not higher. In stead of shopping, I recommend using a few hryvnias on museum entry fees. It was ridiculously cheap, a little less cheap if you wish to photograph, but still ridiculously cheap. I was particularly impressed by the Great Patriotic War Museum (which we know as WWII), both the interior and the exterior. It’s probably the best-organized museum I have ever visited. I enjoyed it enormously, although all the signs and information was only available in Ukrainian. It’s located right next to the unique monastery complex Lavra, which is included in UNESCO world heritage list. Definitely worth experiencing!
So to sum it up, here are some pros and cons:
|+ attractive price level||– language barrier|
|+ breath-taking scenery||– slavic “rudeness”|
|+ impressive architecture||– mountainous city|
|+ high-quality museums|
|+ great value for money|
|+ quality food|