As the cultural and political focus of life in Ukraine, Independence Square stands on the northern flank of Khreschatyk, Kiev’s major thoroughfare, and its appearance has changed with the fortunes of the country. Today it is lined with an impressive array of grandiose villas dating mostly from the 19th century, which were built when the city was one of the most important in Russia and now house – among others – the Central Post Office and the Trade Union Association. It is the venue for all the city’s major parades and public celebrations but was scene of civil unrest in 2004 as the focus of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and again in 2014.
Among the fountains, the 61-m (200-ft) white-marble Independence Monument looms over the middle of the square and celebrates Ukraine’s breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991; it was designed by Ukrainian architect Anatoliy Kushch and placed in the piazza on the 10th anniversary of independence.
More than 40 million people from across the world have visited Kiev Pechersk Lavra, a UNESCO-listed golden-domed Orthodox Christian monastery that is the holiest place of pilgrimage in Ukraine. Translating into English as the ‘Monastery of the Caves’, Pechersk Lavra has its origins back in 1051, when an Orthodox monk founded an underground sanctuary in a cave; many monks gravitated to this subterranean hermitage and eventually began to construct an over-ground church. The caves where the hermits lived were subsequently used for burials and many mummified remains can be seen today by guided tour. From the 11th century onwards the monastery played a central role in Ukrainian life; it was here that the first national printing presses was used and many famous scholars passed through its doors. A fire destroyed the original complex in 1718 and the monastery, its cathedral, church and refectory were all rebuilt in Baroque style with gilded domes and portraits of the saints.
The National Opera of Ukraine was founded in 1867 at a time when the country was part of Russia and loomed large on the world cultural stage. It was originally housed in the City Theatre, but that burnt down in 1896 and was replaced by today’s vast, gloriously ornate Neo-Renaissance concert hall, which was designed by German-Russian architect Victor Schröter and reopened in 1901. By the 1920s the National Opera was one of the most prestigious in Russia, performing great works by the likes of Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov while attracting famous opera stars from across the world. Having survived both world wars, the National Opera House was restored in the 1980s and its acoustics, stage equipment, rehearsal rooms and dressing rooms were much improved. The concert hall is lavishly decorated on the interior, with a colonnaded foyer dripping in chandeliers and molded ceilings; its plush gilt and red auditorium can seat 1,300.
The Odessa Opera and Ballet Theater is the oldest theater in Odessa, originally opened in 1810. The original building was destroyed by fire in 1873 and was rebuilt in 1887 with elements of neo-Renaissance, Baroque, rococo and classical baroque elements. Niches on the top floor of the façade display busts of Mikhail Glinka, Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Griboyedov and Alexander Pushkin. The main entrance is decorated with stucco molding depicting dramatic and comedic episodes. The theater’s large, horseshoe-shaped hall is decorated with gilded stucco figures and designs and features unique acoustics that allow even a whispered voice to reach any part of the hall.
In its early days, to keep theater patrons comfortable during the summer months, workers would lower ice and straw to the basement below the hall, from where cool air would then rise up through vents beneath the seats.
The People’s Friendship Arch was constructed in 1982 and was originally intended as a symbol of unification between Ukraine and her Soviet overlords as well as the 60th anniversary of the founding of the USSR. Constructed of titanium and spanning 50 m (164 ft), it stands on a viewing deck with panoramas over the River Dnieper and was the work of architect I N Ivanov. Describing an arc – which is illuminated in the colors of the rainbow by night – across the skyline, the monument arches over a Socialist-Realism bronze sculpture by sculptor Aleksandr Skoblikov of Russian and Ukrainian workers holding up a unifying flag and a granite frieze detailing Ukrainian Cossacks pledging allegiance to the Russian Tsar in 1654, when the two countries first united. Ironically the uneasy accord between the two countries ended less than a decade after the monument was constructed with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Officially known as the National Museum of Ukrainian Architecture and Culture, the Pirogovo Open Air Museum is the largest open air museum in Europe. Covering 1.3 million square meters, it reproduces the traditional ways of living in different regions of Ukraine and is a great way to understand the way Ukrainians lived a hundred years ago. The museum is located just south of Kiev, next to the Holosiyivskiy forest and near the village of Pirogovo. Founded in 1969, it includes examples from all of the historical ethnographical regions of the country, as well from throughout the 16th through 20th centuries. Buildings include windmills and watermills, a traditional sauna, village administration buildings, a church school, a priest’s mansion, cafes, huts and barns. Items on display include agricultural items, household articles, musical instruments, ceramics, clothing and icons.
The National Philharmonic of Ukraine first performed in Kiev in 1863 at a time when the city was flourishing as a trading city and playing an important role in the Russian Empire; by 1881 the orchestra had its own home, a mammoth concert hall built in stately style by Kiev architect Vladimir Nikolaev, who managed to create almost perfect acoustics, despite the diminutive size of the stage and its elegant auditorium. During the early years the National Philharmonic flourished and great names such as composer conductor Sergei Rachmaninoff and Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin played there. Somehow, despite all the political upheavals and enforced closures of the 20th century, the hall has survived; it was restored following a flood in the 1980s and reopened in 1996 with upgraded facilities and improved acoustics. Today with a mixed repertoire of classical, chamber and choral concerts, folk music and jazz, it is a permanent home to the Kiev Symphony and Chamber orchestras.
Perhaps one of Kiev’s most beloved royal structures in Kiev, Richard’s Castle was constructed as an homage to the 12th century English king and leader of the Third Crusade who represents bravery, chivalry and honor. The neo-Gothic-style of architecture is a nod to another nearly identical building in St Petersburg. According to local folklore, the architectural plans may have been stolen by the castle’s contractor, Dmitry Orlov.
Travelers who venture to this fabled site will likely learn that the building’s mystery doesn’t end with its construction. That’s because it’s rumored to be a haunted. Since 1912 residents have called Richard’s Castle the “Haunted House” since the sounds of ghosts crying are said to still be heard here at night.
The Mamaeva Sloboda Open Air Museum replicates a traditional Cossack settlement of the 17th and 18th centuries in the heart of Kiev. With nearly 100 buildings spread out over 9.2 hectares, the museum offers visitors a glimpse of Ukrainian architecture and a look into the Ukrainian way of life, starting with the Cossack three-domed wooden church that stands in the center of the museum. As visitors make their way through the grounds, they will also see the estates of a church warden, blacksmith, potter, fortune teller and several Cossacks, each with multiple structures such as storehouses, stables and barns. Visitors also have the opportunity to sample traditional Ukrainian dishes at the museum restaurant, to ride Cossack horses, to feed farm animals and to learn more about Ukrainian customs, rites and handicrafts.
The Jewish Museum in Odessa, Ukraine opened in November 2002. Though small, with an exhibition area of only 160 square meters, the museum features an impressive collection of more than 7,000 photographs, newspapers, books, documents, musical instruments and pieces of art from Odessa’s Jewish community, which was once the third largest in the world. Items have been donated by local leaders, ordinary citizens and members of Odessa’s diaspora. Highlights include fragments of gravestones dating back to the 1770s, pages from Jewish newspapers as far back as 1869, photographs of leading Jewish cultural figures and a collection of religious garments and objects. One exhibition room is dedicated to Yiddish culture during the Soviet period and another remembers victims of the Holocaust. The museum also offers classes in Jewish tradition, history, literature, art and design, as well as Hebrew language classes.