Kyiv has a bad reputation. It is the city of violent protests and the capital of a country in war. No wonder not a lot of people are considering Kyiv as a holiday destination. But what people are not seeing because of all the negative news, is that Kyiv is awesome. This is a vibrant, trendy and beautiful city which deserves much more positive attention. I could think of so many reasons why you should visit Kyiv. This city has amazing architecture, a long interesting history, a dream collection of churches, great cafe culture, and street art. I am telling you: you will not regret visiting Kyiv.
This blog post is written for every first-time traveler to Kyiv. You have booked your city trip and now you are looking for the best things to do in this city. Well, look no further. I got you. These are the top 5 places you need to visit when you are in Kyiv.
Looking for more tips? Read my comprehensive Kyiv guide with 20 things to do.
By the way, I am writing Kyiv and not Kiev. The correct name for the city is Kyiv, following the Ukrainian pronunciation of the city name. Kiev comes from the Russian word for the city.
A short background about Kyiv
Kyiv is one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe. It was founded in the fifth century and had a strategic position on the trading routes between east and west. In the ninth century, the city was the capital of the Kyiv empire, the predecessor of current Russia. Sadly, the Mongolian Invasion in 1240 destroyed Kyiv. In the following centuries, Kyiv was ruled by neighboring empires (Lithuania, Poland, and Russia). Kyiv has always had a special meaning for Russia. It is the place where you can find the roots of the Russian orthodox church. Because of this history, the Russians have always felt a deep sense of a Russian-Ukrainian friendship. A term the Ukrainians interpret slightly different these days. As one of my fellow Ukrainian volunteers said: “It’s a friendship with a whip behind the back.”
1. Exploring charming Podil
Podil is one of the oldest and most charming neighborhoods of Kyiv. This part almost feels more like a village than as a part of a big city. Houses in this area are painted in cute pastel colors and the streets are full of fun souvenirs and vintage markets. The appearance is almost the same as I’ve seen in Lviv, only Podil has more hills and descents. The most well-known hill is the Andreas Descent that crawls its way to Kontraktova square in the heart of Podil. When you are in Podil, a must-visit is the Saint Andrew’s church. A building that is wrapped up like a fancy Christmas present. It’s also a building with a story. According to legend, the bells are missing in this church because people believed that the sound of the bells would wake up the river Dnieper and would flood Kyiv.
Entrance fee St. Andrew’s church: 20 UAH.
2. Humor in Landscape Alley
One of the most fun things to do in Kyiv is visiting Landscape Alley. This a city park full of crazy gigantic animals made out of mosaic. For example, take a seat on the bunny bench, walk along the 3D cat wall and spot the many zebra heads all around you. This park is designed for children, but in reality I saw more grown-ups than children playing here. It’s something you wouldn’t expect when visiting Kyiv. Pretty cool, right?
3. Impressive Maidan Nezaleznosti
Maidan Nezalezhnosti (translation: Independence square, ofter referred to as Maidan) is the center of Kyiv and with the recent history in mind this is one of the most interesting places in Kyiv, and therefore earns a place on this list. Most people remember Maidan from the Euromaidan protests in 2013 and 2014. These were pro-European protests that ended tragically with the deaths of more than 100 people. One of the most tragic places is ‘Sniper Hill’ on the left side of Maidan. Here you can still see the bullet holes of the snipers who had the orders to shoot on the protesters from the roofs. People never saw the bullets coming.
4. Silence in the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra
A visit to Kyiv is not complete without going to the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery. It is not in the city center, but you can easily get there by metro (metro station Arsenalna). The Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is the center of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine and is therefore one of the holiest places for many believers. When visiting the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra you can feel this deep respect. People are shuffling around with their heads down, whispering prayers and kissing the hands of the priests. It’s impressive to see this kind of religious rituals from up close. I was especially impressed when I made my way done the long underground prayer halls where believers come to honor the many monks who have passed away. The constant cool temperature in the caves keeps the bodies from decomposing. For me, this was a truly special experience.
Entrance fee Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra: 80 UAH.
5. Counting golden domes in ancient Kyiv
Cannot get enough of those beautiful onion-domed churches? Neither can I. In the city center of Kyiv you can two more important churches. One of the biggest and oldest churches in Kyiv is the Saint Sophia’s Cathedral. It is built in the 11th century to compete with the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople (Hagia Sophia in current Istanbul). The version in Kyiv was not only a church, but it also had a library and was the place for the court to meet their international guests. Right across the Saint Sophia’s Cathedral you can find a second cathedral: Saint Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. This church is only 16 years old because the original eighteenth-century church had been demolished by the Soviets. I’m a real fan of the Saint Michael monastery. The blue color was so gorgeous and the frescoes at the entrance are amazing.
Entrance fee St. Sophia’s Cathedral: various prices. 20 UAH for the premises, 60 UAH for the bell tower.
Entrance fee St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery: free.
Extra Tip: Free Walking Tour
If you are limited in your time, you might want to consider taking a Free Walking Tour. It’s free, they speak good English and it covers four of the places mentioned in this article (except for the Pechersk Lavra). The tours run every day at 12.00 (noon) and 16.00. If these tours don’t fit your schedule, then you can always take the metro. It’s super cheap (8 UAH) and most signs are in English. And some stations are even beautifully decorated.
Have you been to Kyiv? What are your favorite places?
This article is written in 2015 and has been updated in 2020.