As soon as I stepped off the train in Kharkiv, my blood pressure kicked up a notch.
I’m not somebody who typically gets anxiety while traveling, but as I followed the crowd down the platform towards what I hoped was the exit, my insides started to freak out. Stomach tightening, shallow breathing, and the panicked thought that I never should have come.
(Just looking for some suggestions on what to do and where to eat in Kharkiv? Scroll down to the bottom of the post for all my recommendations!)
Really, there was no reason to. I love lazy weekends in Kyiv. Staying up late to watch Netflix, sleeping in in my cozy bed, making brunch the next morning and not caring about the dishes. It’s a quiet life, to be sure, but weekends in Kyiv are a delight. Or maybe I was getting a little bored – or at least a little restless, because I had decided a weekend of solo adventuring was exactly what I needed and I bought myself train tickets to Kharkiv.
But if that was what I needed, why was I freaking out?
Spending a weekend in Kharkiv was supposed to be an easy travel win for me – even though it was the first solo weekend I’d done in Ukraine. Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second biggest city, a former capital, and a university town. I’m used to the Cyrillic alphabet. I have data on my phone. I kind of understand the people – I know how they’ll react when I tell them I don’t speak Russian, I know when to get out of their way, and I know that while they’ll all look askance at a girl sitting alone at a bar no one will say anything. I thought I was prepared for my little adventure away from Kyiv.
But I felt totally off balance as I wandered through the train station and made my way to the metro. A trio of guys was walking behind me, laughing and joking, and I slowed to let them pass. And it hit me that what was freaking me out – or at least part of it – was that it’s so easy for me to blend in here but so often I feel intensely out of place. And to be displaced but not have anyone notice can be a wonderful camouflage – or it can make you feel incredibly isolated.
I was ready for the metro signs in Cyrillic, the bitterly cold weather, the need for sign language over speech. Turned out I wasn’t prepared for my own alone-ness.
There was no escaping that now. And it was, in fact, something I had come to Kharkiv seeking. Time off by myself, without the distractions of routine to soothe me. So I found my hostel, dropped off my bag, and turned around to head back out the door.
I was starving, so food was first on the agenda. I was drawn to a bustling Georgian restaurant, groups of friends clustered on communal tables devouring plates of dumplings. But maybe it was too busy. And it looked a little upscale. There was a cheap wok place next door where I could slide in and out more inconspicuously. I almost bee lined for it.
But then I realized, hell no. When did I become someone who was scared to walk into a busy restaurant? When did I get so consumed by what others thought of me? And why would I choose cheap fast food noodles over Georgian cheesy bread?!
So I walked into the Georgian restaurant, asked for a table – and when I was told the wait would be thirty minutes I headed next door for disappointing wok noodles. Hunger trumps everything.
The thing was, I was alone, and it was making me sad and afraid. I could easily hide away all weekend if it made me happy. I could skip everything I had planned to do, stay in the warmth away from people. I could Netflix all weekend. No one would judge me because no one would ever know. But reading at coffee shops and sampling new cocktails also sparked me with happiness. Adventuring, even in small ways, is a great source of comfort for me. There was no getting away from being alone. But it didn’t have to be accompanied by fear.
So from that point on the question became, could I be both lonely and joyful at the same time?
It became a ping pong game. I hit up an adorable coffee shop the next day for breakfast, a delightful morning when I read, wrote, and perfected the Ukrainian art of not devouring my cake in seven minutes. Then it was off to another café, for lunch and more coffee. Some Like It Hot felt like home with its comfortable seating and jukebox tunes. Do I take too much solace in food? No such thing.
Then I went searching for the cable cars of Kharkiv, dubbed one of the best in Europe. They certainly are fun, though the best/most terrifying part of the trip was being shoved onto and pulled off of the moving car.
Next was the ecstatic joy of opening the door to my room, the Marilyn Room, at the boutique hotel I had decided to splurge on. Claw foot bathtub? Yes, please and thank you.
Of course, the peaks of excitement were set against the backdrop of me wandering around the city by myself, trying to ignore the cold and my isolation. My phone buzzed with communication from the outside world exactly once, a friend checking to see if I wanted to go to the movies. Well that would have been nice, I thought.
Instead I pushed myself to go out alone. I decided to hit up Fabrika for cocktail hour, in part because I knew the cocktails would be phenomenal and also because it’s easier to drink alone when you go early. You have space to make yourself comfortable, the bartenders aren’t as busy so it’s easier to chat, and fewer people are around to wonder why you’re reading at the bar.
I went for an early dinner at the Georgian restaurant that had been too busy the night before. Most tables were communal tables with benches, reminiscent of a medieval hall. I, however, was set up at one of the few high top tables on a stool. Here, the worst part of solo travel struck – it was far too much food for just one person to order both khachapuri and khinkali, so I had to sacrifice the cheesy bread. (The goblet of wine I was served was impressive, though.) And for a while, I was perfectly content to sit alone at the communal table, write, and wait for my dumplings. Until a couple sat down next to me.
To be honest, I find it stressful to sit next to most Ukrainian couples. The level of PDA here rivals anything I’ve seen in Paris, bordering on distracting. I’m pretty sure I once saw a teenager lick her boyfriend’s cheek. But whatever, I’m a pretty affectionate person myself. I was happy to mostly ignore this couple, sharing my table with them – until the guy turned his chair so that his back was totally towards me.
Nothing reminds you that you’re alone like being shut out of the communal table.
I devoured my khinkali and drained my goblet as quickly as femininely possible, then paid my check and left. It was a little too early to go back to the hotel and it was getting a little late for drinking alone. Not quite ready to give up on Kharkiv, I went for a chilly walk towards downtown, determined to check at least one more destination off my list.
So, at 9:00pm on a Saturday, far later than I’d normally hit up a bar solo, I was shimming myself into an empty space at the bar of Red Door Pub. The Red Door Pub has a boisterous energy, a great stop for craft beer aficionados. I tried to read, though I ended up getting distracted by the extreme sports that they were televising behind the bar. About ten minutes after I got there, a guy who was clearly a regular squeezed himself into the crowded bar next to me. I considered seeing if he spoke English, but I think both of us were more interested in the dirt bike racing.
Arriving back at the Mirax Boutique Hotel was a relief. A bath, my bathrobe, and Brooklyn 99 helped ease the anxiety of being alone. I relished the privacy – there have only been a handful of other times in my life that I’ve had my very own hotel room. I stayed as late as I could the next morning, enjoying the room service breakfast before I braced myself for the cold.
There are a few sights to see in the city, though I quickly realized that a spring weekend in Kharkiv might be required to fully appreciate them. Happy to retreat to the warmth, I stopped at the 1654 Café – where you can toast your own bread at your table! I was totally charmed by its hipster retro décor and the stellar shakshuka.
And then the couple next to me started a selfie photo shoot.
So I headed back to Fabrika. Because if there’s one place I’ve found being alone is celebrated with both melancholy and joy, it’s at a cocktail bar.
So solo travel might not be my preferred method of adventuring, but it’s a necessity sometimes. How do you deal with anxiety on the road?
Where to Stay in Kharkiv
Sumska Street is the spine of Kharkiv, and if you stay anywhere along it you’ll be close to the action. I’d recommend focusing your search close to Svobody Square or Konstytutsii Square. It’s about a twenty-minute walk between the two, though you can also take the metro. Check out the prices for Kharkiv hotels before you go to get the best deal.
What to Do in Kharkiv
For me, Kharkiv has two major draws. One is Gorky Park and the cable car. The cable car was built in Soviet times as commuter transport – now, they’ve spruced it up with bright colors and assistants to help you jump on and off. When I was last there, it cost 30 UAH for one-way, which takes about 15-20 minutes. On Google Maps, search for “Cable Way Low Station” to find the jumping on point.
The other amazing draw of Kharkiv is the Soviet architecture. People often think of Soviet architecture as hideous, but there are many lovely buildings in Kharkiv that you can only recognize as Soviet because of the hammer and sickle engraved on them. Yep, Kharkiv is one of the few places in Ukraine where you can see remnants of its Soviet history. Keep your eyes open as you walk around.
If the more Constructivist and Brutalist architecture is your thing, check out my friend Megan’s guide to Soviet Kharkiv. She’ll take you on a fantastic tour of mind-boggling buildings.
Check out Katherine’s blog if you’re interested in life as an expat in Kharkiv. She and her husband arrived in Kharkiv for a short eight month stay, but they ended up living there for three years!
Where to Eat and Drink in Kharkiv
The most important thing first – where to drink. Luckily, I did some tough research for you and visited seven of the most popular cocktail bars in Kharkiv.
Definitely hit up Café 1654. I recommend their ‘humshuka,’ but the entire menu looks delicious. Some Like It Hot is one of my all around favorite cafes no matter the time of day. Central Café is so cozy, I end up going more than once every time I visit Kharkiv.
While I enjoyed Georgia my first visit to Kharkiv, on my second trip I was so blithely ignored by the staff that after ten minutes of waiting I got up and left. I walked across the street to another Georgian restaurant, Jon Joli, where the service was enthusiastically friendly and the khachapuri was excellent. I’ve heard great things about Paris, but I haven’t been yet.
Coming to Ukraine? Check out all my advice for traveling in this awesome country on my Ukraine travel page!
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Just to remind everyone how cheap it is in Ukraine, I kept rough track of my expenses for my weekend in Kharkiv (minus the things I bought because I straight up forgot to pack them — you’ll be a better traveler, I’m sure). The current exchange rate is approximately 25 UAH to 1 USD.
Food (including craft cocktails, excessive brunching, and copious amounts of coffee): 790 UAH ~ $30
Transportation (including the Kharkiv cable cars, a first class train ticket Kyiv-Kharkiv, and a second class train ticket Kharkiv-Kyiv): 775 UAH ~ $30
1 night in an 8 bed hostel dorm room: 130 UAH ~ $5
1 night in a boutique hotel with breakfast: 891 UAH ~ $34
Total cost for my weekend in Kharkiv: 2,586 UAH ~ $100