With Eurovision coming up, I thought it might be handy to write a guide to Kiev public transportation for our thousands of out-of-town visitors. But then I thought, Oh man, is there anything less sexy to write about than public transportation? It’s true, in most cities public transportation is fairly straightforward. Buy a ticket, wait patiently, file in to the bus/tram/train in an orderly fashion.
But not in Kiev.
It’s not that Kiev public transport is bad. It’s just… full of character. And for the uninitiated, it can be intimidating. While I mastered riding the metro and ordering taxis fairly quickly, it was months before I set foot on a bus. Visitors, especially ones who come for just a few days, don’t have the time to figure it all out – but using public transportation can make your trip so much better and less stressful.
So here we go – an unsexy but pain-free guide to Kiev public transportation. Good luck.
Walking in Kiev
Being from New York City, I have the default of walking everywhere. In the center, Kyiv is a very walkable city, to the point that I’d argue walking is the best way to see the main sites. And it allows for the best people watching – how else will you spot the woman selling meat from a cardboard box in an underpass or the mind-bending but intriguing street art?
You will, however, get a bit of a workout if you walk around Kiev. The city is built on several hills, so be prepared to feel it in your calves the next morning. And the sidewalks are not always in the best condition, with the occasional missing cobblestone or unmarked pothole, so please be alert. (And if you’re coming here in winter – good luck. Try to bring shoes with sticky rubber soles.)
Is Kiev safe to walk around in? Especially at night?
The only problem I’ve had walking home at night was when I was using my phone and walking and tripped over a random half-step in the sidewalk. Scraped up my cheek and broke my glasses – but amazingly preserved my phone. Tuck and roll. However, always take precautions and be on alert. Like in any big city, there are pickpockets and scam artists. I’ve never run into any myself, but I know people who have. If someone drops a wad of cash in front of you, don’t pick it up to return it to them. It could turn into a scam where they accuse you of having stolen it from them, and an “undercover policeman” appears out of nowhere to assist in the dispute. He might ask to see your wallet to make sure you haven’t stolen anything else, and after they leave you find it several hryvnia lighter.
I mention this not to scare anyone, but just to remind people to be on alert. If you’re coming to Kiev for Eurovision, there’s a chance petty crime will be on the rise, just like it would at another other giant international event. Zip up your backpacks, don’t leave your belongings unattended, and just pay attention.
Wheelchair accessibility in Kiev
Unfortunately, Kiev is not such a wheelchair accessible city. Few metro stations have elevators, there are frequent underpasses that are fitted with steep ramps, and cars like to park on the sidewalks. (I once saw a mom chewing out the driver of a SUV because she couldn’t get her stroller past his behemoth of a vehicle.) Getting around Kiev in a wheelchair seems like a challenge – and not the empowering kind.
Using the metro in Kiev
The metro in Kyiv is efficient, clean, and crazy cheap. It currently costs just 4 hryvnia ($0.15) to ride and is great for getting to, from, and around the city center. You can buy single-use tokens or a plastic refillable card from the token lady (not her official title). Currently the tokens are on ration, so you can only get two at a time, and there are rumors that they’ll be phased out altogether. The Kyiv metro does not operate 24/7. The last trains run at around midnight and start up again just before six in the morning. Signs are in Ukrainian and English,
Humble brag: We’ve got the deepest metro station in the world (Arsenalna) and one of the prettiest (Zoloti Vorota).
The key to a stress-free metro experience in Kyiv is to understand the informal foot traffic laws. Rush hour can be Mad Max intense, as hundreds of people surge on and off the metros. It’s very common for people to get ready to disembark a station early, clogging up the exit and making it tough to reach the door. Be bold with your “izvinite” and “vybachte!” At stations where you can switch lines, there are certain staircases that you can and can’t use, so pay attention to the ‘passage open’ and ‘passage closed’ signs. People will constantly try to cut in front of you. You have to decide if you’re going to elbow them out or just find that zen center inside of you to accept this cultural quirk. On the escalators, stand on the right as people will charge up and down on the left.
Oh, and don’t run for an idling metro. This ain’t New York City. If those doors close on you, they don’t just bounce back.
It’s very common here, more so than anywhere else I’ve been, to vacate your seat for seniors (even if they’re just barely so), women, and young children. In the two weeks I had a cast on (because, again, I had fallen on the icy Kyiv sidewalks), I received more courtesy than in the four months prior.
Catching a taxi in Kiev
Never does my out-of-townness show like it does when I’m trying to negotiate with a cab driver – which is why I rarely do it. While you will probably only be ripped off a little bit if you try to get a taxi on the street, in general it’s just not that common of a practice.
Luckily, in the age of eternal connectedness, Kiev’s taxi scene is easy to navigate. With both Uber and Uklon, you can arrange a taxi with minimal embarrassing miming and zero haggling. Occasionally the driver will call you to confirm the pickup, but I just say “Zdravstvujtye! I only speak English!” Fortunately the words taxi, minutes, and no problem are fairly similar in English and Russian, so we tend to get by fine.
I’ve also used Elite Taxi, which you order by phone. They have an English-speaking dispatcher who will give you a price estimate before sending your cab.
Riding the tram or bus in Kiev
Knowing how to use Kiev’s bus and tram system has made my life so much easier. However, it was a bit intimidating my first few times around – mostly because you have to buy your ticket from a real live person.
When you jump on a tram or electric bus, you don’t typically go to the bus driver to pay. Instead, you find (or they find you) a red vest-wearing ticket controller who probably seems more of the world in a week than I have in my whole life. They will know you’re from out of town, and they will judge you (not unkindly) for it. You pay them the three or four hryvnia for the ticket, which then has to be validated. Either the ticket master (not their official title) will use their own ticket-puncher or you will have to find a ticket-puncher on a hand railing or pole, usually near the door, and struggle with this ancient contraption on your own while the ticket master watches curiously. End of process.
On a side note, Europe, I hate the validation system. How about just, when I buy a ticket, I buy a ticket? Why does this have to be a two-step process?
Surviving a marshrutka in Kiev
My students always giggle when I talk about marshrutkas, in part because there’s no translatable word for them. Marshrutkas are mini-buses that zoom around the city, accessing the hard-to-reach nooks and crannies of Kyiv. There is rarely a reason for a visitor to take one, and I’d recommend hard against it.
Because they are terrifying.
Why? Take your pick of reasons – because the drivers all think they’re Evel Knievel, hurtling through inner city traffic at highway speeds. Because the people who ride the marshrutkas have no time for your touristy cluelessness. Because every pothole hit will send you flying towards the ceiling, and a sharp crack on the head is the last thing you need.
If you do decide to battle your way onto a marshrutka, be prepared for a complete lack of personal space. You have to pay the driver, which means money gets passed back and forth from the back to the front. The marshrutka should pull into metro stations automatically, but for other stops you may have to ask. And since talking to bus drivers is one of my biggest travel fears, I just stay away from marshrutkas altogether.
To be fair, I may be projecting a little bit. Marshrutkas can be extremely convenient. I’ve taken them between Ukrainian towns and in other cities with (relative) success. Just, if you decide to brave them here in Kyiv, step on board with bravado.
If you’re reading about Kiev public transportation, I’m going to guess you’re planning a trip to Ukraine (most people don’t read about metros for fun)! You will have a blast – check out all of my suggestions on my Ukraine travel page, and ask me any questions you have.
And why can’t I seem to make up my mind about spelling it Kiev or Kyiv? It’s complicated. Basically, I spell it ‘Kyiv’ because that’s how the people who live there spell it and I want to respect that. I spell it ‘Kiev’ because that’s how people who don’t live there spell it and I need to show up in Google searches.