We did! A lot of people were surprised when we told them Ukraine was on our list of countries to visit. It isn’t really on the regular tourist route around Europe, but perhaps that is what intrigued us even more. Visiting Ukraine also changed a lot of our preconceptions of this fascinating country.
Before we left, we read up that the visa rules had changed for Australians, and that you could now get a visa on arrival IF you entered the country through Borispol Airport in Kiev, or the sea port in Odessa. If you’re Australian and want to know more, click here: Embassy of Ukraine in Australia
This actually changed our itinerary a fair bit as it was a much cheaper option to do the visa this way, so we decided to fly into Kiev’s Borispol Airport. We knew that we still had to be prepared for the application, with all of our accomodation and travel booked (similar to the Russian visa), as well as evidence of having enough money to leave the country. So we were well and truly prepared with print outs of everything.
We arrived around 1pm, and proceeded to Passport Control. Once explaining we wanted to get a visa, we were directed to a door that seemed to be Immigration, but it wasn’t clear (no signs or anything)…
Basically, the Visa on Arrival process is in place and functioning, but they still seem to be a little unsure about how exactly the process should work. All in all it took 2 hours (most of it with us sitting and waiting for the guy to complete the paperwork).
The strangest part was that they asked for 20 EURO or 21 USD cash payment per Visa. On the Australian consulate in Ukraine website it says that you can pay with Ukrainian Hryvnia, but that is definitely not the case (or at least it wasn’t on this occasion). We weren’t prepared for this, and actually had to be escorted through the airport by a soldier to withdraw cash, and then escorted again to have it exchanged into USD. Seems pretty silly, but it was a good introduction into the logic of things in Ukraine.
Finally we got through, but because it had taken so long, our bags had been taken to the long term luggage storage room, and then the airport transfer that we had organised through our hostel was more expensive because he had waited for 2 hours – so be prepared for all of that hassle.
We later found out it could’ve been a lot worse though, as we met another Aussie who had arrived around 9pm on a Sunday night. As the Immigration office only operates in office hours, he had to essentially sleep in airport jail until they opened again on Monday morning! Definitely consider that when booking your flights if you’re opting for Visa on Arrival.
Honestly, we didn’t feel any huge safety concerns on our visit to Ukraine. We chose to only go as east as Kiev, avoiding any areas closer to the unrest along the Russian border. Just keep up to date with the political situation in Ukraine before you travel – it seems to be ever changing. Whilst we were there we actually saw photographs of the main square of Kiev only 2 years before we visited, depicting major protests and bombings.
We were more aware of pickpockets in Ukraine than in other countries we had visited, as it is known to be quite a poor country and we were constantly warned by Ukrainian people – however we never had a problem. That being said, we felt like we “stood out” as tourists more so than in other countries. Our cameras seemed big and obvious, and we therefore definitely took less photos.
Otherwise, just be street smart and keep your wits about you – as in any country you visit.
- Photo prices: For most tourist attractions in Ukraine, they will charge you a photo fee, as well as an entry fee. It’s often 3x the price of entry, so choose carefully which places you wish to take photos. It’s even more to film!
- Language: Like in Russia, Ukraine uses the Cyrillic alphabet. The country also seems to speak a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian. We found that in Lviv, everyone mainly spoke Ukrainian. In Kiev a majority of people spoke Russian but in Odessa everyone spoke Russian!
- Black Sea Beaches: As Australians, we found Black Sea Beaches a little different – still getting used to the idea of paying to visit a beach or paying to rent an umbrella. The Black Sea itself was very warm in June, and was full of a fine green weed which everyone just swam through! It was almost like swimming through fine green hair!
We caught trains and overnight trains from city to city throughout Ukraine. The express train between Kiev and Lviv takes about 5 hours, and 2nd class is pleasant, modern and comfortable. The overnight trains however are a different story. Similar to Russian trains, the sleeper cars are well and truly designed for winter, with great heating but no air-conditioning, and minimal windows that open. The 11 hour trip from Lviv to Odessa was very hot! It is a great way to save money though (combining accomodation and travel!), and is particularly cheap in Ukraine. The Man is Seat 61 is a fantastic website, with extensive information on train travel all over the world.
To get from Odessa to Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, the best option is a bus (about 5 hours). It is easiest to opt for one that travels around Transnistria, as you can avoid the multiple border crossings, and potential difficulty there. It sounds like a fascinating place though, and we’d like to go back to check it out (despite the Australian Government warning to ‘reconsider your need to travel’ there). Also make sure you ask for an air-conditioned bus. We just assumed it would be, it wasn’t and again minimal windows could open – it was disgustingly hot.
Kiev (or Kyiv, as the locals call it)
- Check out: Kiev is huge! Walk up Andriyivsky Uzviz one of the oldest streets in Kiev, lined with markets and good views over the city. Once at the top, follow the street around until you come to St Sophia’s Cathedral, the city’s oldest standing church. Climb the bell tower for 13UAH, but be careful not to “accidentally” ring the bell (like Phoebe did). The Park of Eternal Glory has fantastic views over greater Kiev, as well as various monuments to celebrate those “who gave up their lives to protect their motherland”. Further along the same road (Lavrska Street), you will reach the Caves Monastery (Kyiv Perchersk Lavra). It is an amazing Monastery complex of above ground churches and underground caves which now house the bodies of various saints. The tunnels are narrow – roughly 1.5m wide by 2.5m tall and very hot. On the day we visited it was packed with pilgrims stopping to pray at and kiss the saints, so it’s not for the claustrophobic! Definitely note that women are expected to cover their head, and wear a floor length dress or skirt. Phoebe had pants on, and was given a skirt to wear over the top. If you walk further again on Lavrska Street, you will come to the Mother Motherland Monument (a huge sword bearing statue) which stands 102m high, and is VERY hard to miss. The statue stands above the Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II, which we cannot recommend more highly. In particular, check out the exhibition “Donetsk Airport… Hell’s Lane”. It is an incredible snapshot of the recent and continuous history of war within Ukraine, and really struck a chord with us. Chernobyl – absolute must do! Easiest and pretty much only way is through a tour company, as there is a lot of bureaucracy and red tape around visiting. Book early to save money and guarantee a trip – it was hard for us to secure a spot because we booked only 2 days in advance and as a result we had to pay more.
- Eat at: Druzi Cafe – actually happened to be located at the bottom of our hostel, so great location, great vibe, and great cheap food. Actually probably the best part of the hostel. Bakeries – delicious, and super cheap! We pretty much lived off Bananas and pastries.
- We stayed at: Dream House Hostel – great reviews and a cool website lead us here. Was in a great location too. It was cheap, so we opted for a 4 bed room for something different. Unfortunately shared our room with guests who thought it was fine to turn the overhead light on at 3am for 20 minutes whilst they got ready for bed. The kitchen was also small for the size of the hostel, and was pretty uncared for. The fridge looked and smelled like it hadn’t been cleaned out for months. The bathrooms were pretty gross – one morning splashed with vomit. Lovely.
- Check out: Lviv Town Hall Tower – is a cheap entry fee and once you get to the top, the view over Lviv is fantastic. It’s right in the middle of town, so a good vantage point. An interesting place to visit is Lychakiv Cemetery – absolutely huge, with graves scattered throughout overgrown gardens. Full of Polish grave and Ukrainian graves, which are all very beautiful. Some are works of art in themselves. The cemetery also has a large war section, with graves from different wars, as well as the recent graves from the fighting in Eastern Ukraine. Rynok Square is basically the middle of town, and there is so much going on around this area. Great place to start your day from, with many streets filled with souvenir shops etc. running off in every direction.
- Eat at: Lviv is famous for coffee, beer and chocolate, so you have to check out all three. Cafe Centaur is on one of the squares in the middle of Old Town. Make sure to order Lviv style coffee – comes in a plunger, and basically tastes like coffee with spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, etc. Delicious! Lviv Handmade Chocolates – these chocolate shops are actually all over Ukraine, but they’re made in Lviv. In the Lviv shop you can see the whole process of them making and storing it. You can pick out a large variety, and they basically fill a paper bag. They taste amazing. Kumpel is a great place for beer. It’s a micro brewery restaurant, and serves the most amazing handmade Austrian sausages, which you order by how many grams you’d like. We had a tasting plate of beer, before picking our favourite to have with lunch. Highly recommended. Another MUST-DO beer experience is Pravda (Beer Theatre). It’s a 3 storey restaurant with all levels built around a floating stage on the middle floor. The night we went a big band played – great tunes, great beer. There is currently no English menu, but the waiter was very helpful, and suggested a variety of meals which turned out to be excellent. Another great place to eat is Green – a vegetarian cafe which was very popular, and very tasty. We both felt like we were craving some fresh food, and it well and truly delivered. Supermarkets were great in Lviv – had a wide variety, and lots of fresh vegetables. You could even buy a pizza from the supermarket, which they make fresh, on the spot for about $3 AUD. Also make sure to try Borsch whilst you’re in Lviv. You can find it at most Ukrainian restaurants. Josh even had it served inside a bread bun!
- We stayed at: Hostel Bazikalo – located slightly out of town (a 30 min walk of 10min tram into the Old Town), but very cheap and great quality. We actually booked a private room with an ensuite which was huge and only cost us $20 AUD per night! Was a very good place for some down time, and the staff were so ridiculously nice and helpful. We definitely recommend staying there.
- Check out: Our last stop in Ukraine was Odessa, which we were looking forward to for some beach time. We visited in mid-June, and it was VERY hot. There are lots of beaches along the black sea, but most are part of a resort where you have to pay for lounges, umbrellas etc… Otrada Beach has a small patch of beach where you can lie on the sand without umbrellas obstructing your view. It definitely seemed to be the pick for locals as well. The southern end of Dolphin Beach was a good option too – it seemed to be the dog beach, so there were less people and more dogs which is always a win. We came here early to avoid the crowds and it was great. Arcadia is a super touristy area – kind of like a mini Cancún – filled with clubs along the beaches, water parks, and shopping. It is worth a visit, but everything is slightly more expensive and very crowded. The public beaches here are limited, and so absolutely packed. There is plenty to see in Downtown Odessa with lovely parks, including City Garden, and the Opera and Ballet Theatre. Make sure to take a walk to the Potemkin Stairs too, which have a good outlook over the sea ports.
- Eat at: Friends and Beer is a great pub in downtown Odessa. Had good beer and good food. Remember that in most places in Ukraine, beer is cheaper than water so definitely take advantage of that! Kompot was a great little cafe which we had breakfast at – good omelettes and coffee. It’s actually a chain in Odessa and Kyiv apparently, but it has great and reliable Ukrainian food. We self-catered a fair bit in Odessa, and discovered Vareniki – basically big Ukrainian dumplings (similar to Pierogi). We bought them frozen, and cooked them in a pasta sauce. Simple, filling, and delicious.
- We stayed at: Babushka Grand Hostel which was like staying in your Grandma’s apartment. It is run by an elderly lady and her husband, and they definitely try to make you feel as though you are staying at their home (which, it seems essentially you are!). It is about a 30min walk to the beach, and we had some odd people in our dorm, but the girl on reception during the day was super friendly and helpful.
A Final Word
We found Ukraine absolutely fascinating. It is amazing to spend time in a country with such a volatile current political situation. The people seem so proud and desperate to be Ukrainian, but on the other hand lot of people in the country still have close affiliations with Russia (which is understandable seeing as the country was only Soviet rule for the best part of the 20th century). But in saying that we never felt unsafe, and instead felt like we should encourage more people to visit and support the Ukrainian people – not only because it’s a country with such a rich modern history but because there’s an abundance of things to do and it’s incredibly cheap.