Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Ukraine
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. The slender column is topped with a bronze sculpture of Archangel Michael, who is the patron of the city; it looks spectacular when floodlit at night. Below ground is the subterranean Globus Shopping Mall – lit by the glass domes that dot the square – and a metro station; the area is surrounded by hotels, restaurants, pavement cafés and late-night bars, making it one of the most popular meeting places in the city.
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’, Kiev-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 adorning the exterior; a 30-hectare estate surrounding the complex overlooks the River Dnieper. The fortunes of Pechersk Lavra waxed and waned with the political upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries, but in 1988 the monastery and caves were returned from state control to a newly thriving community of monks.
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 museum celebrates religious holidays in a traditional manner thanks to three orthodox churches on the grounds. Each weekend, visitors will find a variety of activities taking place, from markets to crafts classes to traditional Ukrainian singing and dancing.
The OdessaNational Academic 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. Although it was renovated in 2007, the theater sits upon precarious ground and is in danger of eventually collapsing.
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. Today the award-winning National Opera performs a repertoire of Verdi, Ravel, Paganini and Chopin among many others, and the National Ballet is also in residence here. Going to the opera in Kiev is a dressy affair; anyone wearing jeans, shorts or sneakers will be refused entry.
In 1941, one of the largest shooting massacres of the Holocaust took place at Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev. Over the course of just two days, some 34 thousand Jews were brought down to the ravine in groups of 10 and murdered by SS troops and local collaborators.
The site of this atrocity is now a peaceful public park dotted with memorials. The oldest memorial was erected in 1976 to memorialize Soviet prisoners of war. In 1991, the Menorah Monument was built to recognize the Jewish victims of the massacre, and in 2001, another monument was dedicated to the children murdered at Babi Yar. Other memorials commemorate murdered Ukraine nationalists, Orthodox Christian priests, concentration camp prisoners, and gypsies.
St. Sophia’s is Kiev’s oldest Orthodox cathedral, commissioned in 1037 by the scholarly Prince Yaroslav the Wise to give thanks for a military victory that lead to peace in Ukraine and a period of great cultural flowering. With 13 domed cupolas, all topped with green and gold, the cathedral was built next to his palace and had an interior of incredible lavishness, covered with Byzantine frescoes, mosaics and gilded ornamentation. As well as being a place of worship, it acted as a political meeting place for diplomatic negotiations and hosted the first school and library of the fledgling Kyivan Rus, a loose political federation of today’s Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Much added to and altered over the centuries, the complex survived fires and political unrest; the magical turquoise, white and gold bell tower was added in 1752 and the cathedral exterior underwent a Baroque facelift in the mid 19th century. Under Soviet occupation the cathedral was nearly torn down and replaced with a memorial park but miraculously those plans were scrapped. Amazingly the original 11th-century interiors and frescoes have remained largely intact and among the Biblical scenes portrayed on the walls are portraits of Prince Yaroslav’s family as well as secular images of jugglers, musicians and acrobats.
Now UNESCO World Heritage-listed, St. Sophia’s and its grounds are one of Kiev’s most impressive visitor attractions; a small museum of Ukrainian history is found in the 18th-century refectory, where highlights include models of the medieval city and fragments of mosaic from the cathedral.
The fairytale Baroque beauty that is St. Andrew’s stands near the top of meandering, hilly Andriivs’kyi uzviz (in English ‘Andrew’s Descent’), which is one of the oldest and most attractive streets in Kiev. The church is one of the few public buildings in the city that has escaped damage during two world wars, Soviet occupation and recent civic unrest; it was completed in 1754 to a commission by Russian Empress Elizabeth, who was daughter of Peter the Great, and the design of Late Baroque master craftsman Bartolomeo Rastrelli. He hailed from France but spent much of his working life in Russia building opulent palaces for the Tsar’s family, including the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Much of the church’s charm is on the exterior; it is a multi-colored confection of five green spires flecked with gold and gleaming white and turquoise walls. It has a stately flight of marble steps leading to the main entrance and inside all is white and gold, with a startlingly scarlet iconostasis (Orthodox altar screen) covered in paintings of Biblical scenes.
Celebrated as one of the world’s largest and most impressive aviation museums, aircraft enthusiasts will find plenty to get excited about at the Oleg AntonovState Aviation Museum. Since opening its doors in 2003 on the former Educational Air Base of KIIGA, the museum has rapidly expanded its collection and is now home to an incredible 90 aircrafts, including cargo planes, bomber planes, nuclear missile carriers, helicopters and drones.
The aircrafts, most of which were used by the Soviet Air Forces or Ukraine's Air Forces, are displayed over a 20-hectare plot and visitors are able climb onboard, peek into the cockpits and even fiddle with the controls. Notable highlights include the Tupolev 104, the world's first jet airliner; a Be-6 flying-boat, one of only two in the world; a Sukhoi Su-24 supersonic bomber and a Tu-22 nuclear war carrier.
Also known as the Pharmacy Under the Black Eagle, the Pharmacy Museum in Lviv is also the city’s oldest pharmacy. Founded in 1735 by a military pharmacist, it is still an operating drugstore today and continues to mix its “iron wine,” which can be bought as a souvenir. The museum opened in 1966 and now features a collection of more than 3,000 pharmaceutical items, including instruments, medicine bottles, prescriptions, pharmacy-related books and, most notably, an 18th century pharmaceutical scale on display in the Trade Room. The scale is attached to one-meter high figures of the God of Medical Treatment and his daughter, the Goddess of Health.
The second room, known as the Material Room, showcases the collection of ancient medicines and pharmaceutical instruments, as well as ancient machinery used for making pills. The third room of the museum tells the history of pharmacy dating back to ancient times and the fourth room recreates an old pharmacist’s laboratory and features a collection of rare medicinal plants from all around the world.
More Things to Do in Ukraine
St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery was commissioned by Prince Sviatopolk in 1108 to house the relics of St Barbara; it was Byzantine in style and survived centuries of political turmoil in Ukraine, expanding and acquiring a lovely Baroque façade before being razed by the USSR under Stalin in 1936. In 2000, almost a decade after independence from Russia, it was spectacularly brought back to life with a painstaking reconstruction of its intricate sky-blue and white plasterwork façade topped with seven glittering gold domes, along with the refectory and bell tower. Named after the patron saint of Kiev, St Michael’s lost many of its treasured mosaics and frescoes to Moscow but most of these were returned after fraught political wrangling in 2004. A community of monks returned to the monastery and today it is thriving once more.
Entrance to the monastery is through the exotic 18th-century bell tower, which houses a small museum relating the demise and reincarnation of the building; views from the top of the tower take in the River Dnieper and the rooftops of Kiev’s old heart. The church interior gleams with Baroque icons, its wall again smothered with original frescoes and mosaics. A monument to the ten million Ukrainians who starved to death in the Soviet-induced famine of 1932–33 stands by the exit to the grounds.
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. A small fairground and a few beer stalls are sometimes found at the foot of the monument.
On April 26 1986, Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine exploded, releasing tons of extremely harmful radioactive chemicals into the air. The explosion contaminated dozens of European countries, and elevated radiation levels were also recorded as far away as Canada and the United States.
The town closest to the explosion was Pripyat, situated just a few kilometers away. The residents were forced to evacuate (a little too late) and over the years it has been suggested that thousands of deaths were caused as a result of the explosion. Many more have been left with illnesses brought on by the radioactive chemicals.
The long-term 30-kilometer exclusion zone is still in place today, and Reactor No. 4 can only be accessed as part of a short-term organized tour. Most tours include knowledgeable guides and a visit to the ‘ghost town’ of Pripyat, with its abandoned buildings and eerily decaying amusement park.
The grand opening of the amusement park in the northern Ukrainian city of Pripyat was set for May 1, 1986, but sadly the catastrophic nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl just a few miles away on April 26 put an abrupt stop to that. In the panic-stricken aftermath of the disaster, the park opened for a few hours on the following day to entertain Pripyat’s population of 50,000 people — many of whom worked at the Chernobyl power plant — before they were all evacuated from the disaster zone.
Along with the city, the amusement park has remained empty ever since, standing as a stark reminder of the worst nuclear disaster of modern times; its rusting Ferris Wheel in particular has come to symbolize the tragedy of Chernobyl, with stuffed animals left as memorials in its dilapidated yellow boat-shaped seats. The merry-go-round is at a permanent standstill, the graffiti-covered bumper cars are decaying and, after 30 years, nature is beginning to reclaim the park, with mosses, trees and shrubs growing up through cracks in the concrete.
Although the park still contains minimal levels of radiation, its concrete areas are clear and it is open for brief guided visits. It has become an eerie tourist attraction included on itineraries in the 18.75-mile (30-km) Chernobyl exclusion zone, which is considered safe enough for two-day tours and includes visits to Reactor 4, the crumbling concrete high-rise apartment blocks of Pripyat and the abandoned villages of Kopachi and Zalissya. Passports are required for entry into the exclusion zone at the checkpoints.
Better known as the Museum of Folk Architecture and Rural Life, the Shevchenkivskiy Hai Open Air Museum outside of Lviv is one of the largest open air museums in Europe. Set near Shevchenko Park northeast of the city, it is comprised of more than 100 buildings from the past three centuries, including six wooden churches. Most notable is the Church of St Nicholas from the Kryvka village, which features a 17th century iconostasis and is considered an architectural gem of great cultural importance.
The museum attempts to recreate the traditional atmosphere of villages from different regions around western Ukraine, including Bukovyna, the Transcarpathians and the lands of the Boykos, Hutsuls and Lemkos – eight different regions are represented altogether. It includes more than 20,000 objects, from furniture and clothing to ceramics and jewelry to a collection of 130 painted Easter eggs known as pysanky. On weekends, visitors can enjoy demonstrations of blacksmithing, baking, pottery, doll making and woodcarving.
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 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, the National Philharmonic is permanent home to the Kiev Symphony and Chamber orchestras. It has a colonnaded and galleried concert hall that is surprisingly intimate in size. Seats that are tucked behind the columns are positioned within view of giant screens so the audience can follow the action on stage.
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.
Outdoor enthusiasts and white water daredevils should venture out to Ivana-Frankivsk Oblast, where one of Ukrain’s most impressive and powerful waterfalls runs through scenic mountain landscapes. Known as a destination for kayakers and rafters, Probiy Waterfall attracts those seeking a shot of adrenaline. While the rugged terrain and raging waters are not for the faint of heart—there have been reports of people falling from nearby rocks—it’s still the perfect place to spend an afternoon in the country.
Less adventurous travelers can wander over a quiet bridge near the ravine, comb through stalls selling local items and traditional foods, tuck into a quiet café, or hike into the foliage of this incredibly beautiful escape. There’s even a nearby zip line to entice thrill-seekers who prefer not to take it easy.
Travelers paying a visit to Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, the oldest town in Ukraine and among the 10 oldest in the world, often come to see the Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi Fortress (Akkerman Fortress). The Ukraine’s largest fortress (and also its best preserved medieval castle) was built between the 13th and 15th centuries by the Moldavians, Genoese, and Turks.
Situated atop the ancient ruins of Tyr, the fortress’s walls stretch for over a mile (2 kilometers), and visitors are free to walk along most of them. From a viewing platform near a high point, it’s possible to gaze down at the city and the Black Sea beyond.
The Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex(Kiev Olympic Stadium) is the premier sports venue in Ukraine and the second largest in eastern Europe. Located on Cherepanov Hill in Kiev, the complex’s history dates back to 1923 when it was known as the Red Stadium of Trotsky. Originally designed with an eye toward hosting the Olympic Games, the complex underwent extensive renovations prior to Ukraine hosting the final of Euro 2012. The renovation added a roof over the seating areas, a new press box and luxury boxes and a 13-story Sheraton Kiev Olimpskiy Hotel. With a seating capacity of more than 70,000 the complex regularly hosts major football matches and has hosted concerts by international stars such as Shakira, George Michael, Madonna and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Tours of the complex include the changing rooms of the FC Dynamo Kiev football team, the players’ tunnel, the stadium bowl and the second tier of the stadium, which offers great views of the surrounding area.
The Jewish Museum of 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.
Possibly the finest art museum in Ukraine, the LvivNational Art Gallery is home to more than 60,000 pieces of art from all over the world. Its history can be traced back to a Polish museum started in 1907 and expanded with additional collections in 1914 and 1929. Significantly, it features a large number of pieces by Polish artists that were acquired during World War II, giving it the most impressive collection of Polish art outside of Poland. The gallery has been in its current location, in the renovated palace of Count Potocki, since 2005.
Art is displayed in the gallery throughout thirty halls that are divided by epochs and art movements. In addition to Polish artists, it includes works from leading Dutch, Flemish, French, Italian Austrian, German, Russian and Ukrainian masters from the 14th to 18th centuries. Two particular highlights are Georges de la Tour’s “Payment of Dues” and Tiziano Vecellio’s “Portrait of a Man,” but works by Rubens, Bruegel, Goya and Caravaggio are also featured.
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