I arrived in Kiev on a cold, rainy day at the end of February. Over the next three months, I watched as last flurries of snow tease at the end of winter, the lilacs burst out to announce spring, and the slow awakening of sidewalk cafes out of winter hibernation. Three months in Kiev, and when I got on the train to head to Budapest, I got uncontrollably weepy. Kiev had changed from a destination to a home. It’s hard to think, what I could recommend for someone breezing through Kiev, except, Stay longer! But I know that’s not possible or typical for many travelers, so I got to work, sifting through my experiences to curate a rather personal list of how to spend 48 hours in Kiev.
(A quick note: In my posts I choose the spelling “Kiev” as that is what most travelers use when researching. However, the transliteration from Ukrainian is “Kyiv,” an important distinction to note.)
Day 1 in Kiev
Ukraine isn’t big on breakfast like the States are, but you need to get up early and eat something hearty, because you’ve got a full day ahead of you. Hop on the metro and head down to Arsenalna, Europe’s deepest metro station. The first stop on your whirlwind 48 hours in Kiev is the holy site Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra. Established in the 11th century, gilded with lots of bling, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most important religious sites for Slavic Orthodox Christians.
But the main draw here is the catacombs. The monks who resided at Lavra used the cold storage method of burying their deceased brothers, and now there’s Mummy IX: Resurrection of the Monks waiting to happen under Lavra’s foundations. I recommend getting a candle before your tour. It’s dark down there.
Before you leave Lavra, make sure you stop at the Museum of Microminiatures. This is one of my favorite weird museums in the whole world. Created by artist Mykola Syadristy, these tiny works of art are so small you need to look through a magnifying glass to see them. He created a chess set so tiny it fits on the head of a pin. And his delicate gold ship is so well-crafted even modern machinery can’t recreate it. Why did Syadristy decide a worthwhile use of his time was polishing strands of hair and crafting rose sculptures in them? I don’t know, but I don’t judge.
But now, it’s lunchtime. You should make it a priority to tuck into Ukraine’s traditional food, so for lunch I’m recommend borscht and vareniki. There are a few local places you can stop at on the way back to the metro, if you’re starving, but if you can wait I would recommend Varenichnaya #1 (Palats Sportu metro stop). Their tasty traditional fare is complimented by the bright, homey interior. And if you’re inclined to try traditional Ukrainian vodka, this is the place to do it.
To make sure you don’t fall into a food coma after your heavy Ukrainian lunch, the rest of the afternoon is spent walking. Khreshchatyk Street is the spine of downtown Kiev, with lots of shops and restaurants in the area. On Sundays they close it to cars to make it pedestrian-only, making it a fun people-watching promenade. Stop at Lviv Handmade Chocolate for dessert (especially if you don’t have time to visit Lviv on this trip). You’re walking all the way to Maidan, Kiev’s Independent Square. Maidan is like New York’s Times Square, complete with costumed characters. It’s where Ukrainians gather to celebrate and protest. I imagine there’s something powerful about standing up for what you believe under the eyes of the Founders of Kyiv statue. Maidan is where the most recent revolution started, and the trauma from those deadly protests is still palpable.
Take a right to walk along Heroyiv Nebesnoyi Sotni. The street is lined with memorials to those who died in 2014. I’ve heard some of the trees are still scared by sniped bullets. It isn’t an easy walk, but it’s an important one. There’s a lot of doubt and frustration still clouding the Ukrainian political system, but as an American who is disillusioned with her own government, it was inspiring to see that ordinary people still can effect change through extraordinary heroism.
Turn towards the river and head to Mariinsky Park. Here you get a peek into 18th century Russian imperialism, complete with pale blue walls and baroque decoration. Unfortunately you can’t go inside, but you can get a sweeping view of the Dnieper River from the park. If you need a pick me up, stop and get a cappuccino from a barista serving out of a hatchback.
Time to meander back towards the center of town for dinner. Next to Golden Gate, a monument that marks the old walls of Kiev, is Tres Branche. Yes, I’m recommending a French bistro for dinner. Its sophisticated and affordable menu quickly made it one of my favorite restaurants in Kiev. It’s colorful and intimate inside, but if it’s warm enough get a sidewalk table for people watching.
With tickets as low as 50 UAH (um, that’s about $2), I must recommend going to the National Opera of Ukraine. The opera has a different performance every night, from opera to ballet to concerts. If the performance is in Ukrainian, you might be lucky enough to get English subtitles.
After the show, it’s time for a nightcap at Kiev’s speakeasy, Parovoz. Walk into the movie theatre and down the stairs for one of Kiev’s most creative cocktail bars. If you’re feeling up a second round and can go for a refreshing walk, Lost & Found is my favorite craft cocktail bar in Kiev, just a bit outside the center. Run by an American-Ukrainian couple, the atmosphere is friendly and the cocktails are delicious.
Go to sleep. You’re tired.
Day 2 in Kiev
Ready to get back at it?
The first stop this morning is the ousted President Yanukovych’s former estate, Mezhyhirya. Now dubbed a ‘museum of corruption,’ what was once a closed compound is now open to visitors. When Yanukovych fled the country in 2014 and activists took control of the estate, the Ukrainian people were free to wander through the house and grounds. And they did, full of curiosity about the splendor Yanukovych’s corruption had brought him.
Now, the house is closed, but the sprawling grounds are reason enough to visit. From the ostrich farm to the golf course to the pirate boat where Yanukovych would hold meetings (not kidding), the estate is a mind-bending contrast to the Ukrainian pensioners who can barely afford their utilities. You will need to take public transportation or a taxi to get out to Mezhyhirya, but it’s definitely worth the hike.
I forgot my memory card when I went to Mezhyhirya so I have no pictures (arrrghh!), but here’s a BBC clip from right after Yanukovych was ousted. It’s amazing to see the protestors and Ukrainians wandering around the lavish estate.
For lunch, I’d suggest another round of borscht and vareniki, or go with the dish of the city, chicken Kiev. Chicken stuffed with garlic butter and then fried or baked, yum! Many resturants have a ‘business lunch,’ an affordable two or three course meal that’s served quickly so you can get back to work (or sightseeing!). Or, if you’re looking for something to grab on the go, look for the sidewalk stands selling bread and pastries. The warm flakey gooey Georgian cheesey bread was my favorite afternoon pick-me-up — I never said you were going to lose weight in Kiev.
You’ll have a chance to walk some of it off. Time to check out St. Sophia’s Cathedral, one of Kiev’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I’ve seen a lot of churches in my time, but the 11th-century frescos inside St. Sophia’s are truly spectacular.
Right down the street from St. Sophia is St. Michael’s Monastery, my favorite building in Kiev. Established in the 12th century, St. Michael’s has been destroyed many times over the years, most recently in 1937 by the Soviets. During the protests of 2013, when police brutality first started in Maidan, the injured and scared protestors sought shelter at St. Michael’s. The monastery became a sanctuary during the following months of protest. As the conflict intensified and the police got more violent, bell boy got permission to ring all the bells in the tower to alert the city to the insidious danger – the first time all the bells had been rung since the Tartars invaded. In 1240.
A short walk behind St. Michael’s is Andriyivskyy Descent, one of the most picturesque curvy streets in Kiev. On a warm weekend day you’ll see dozens of vendors set up with handicrafts and souvenirs. One any day of the week there are several permanent booths with the standard Slavic knickknacks and old Soviet memorabilia. You can even find some cheeky political souvenirs.
Depending on how much time you spend fresco-gazing and shopping, you might have time for the Ukrainian National Chornobyl Museum. If you don’t have time to visit the site itself, the museum will give you an intimate glimpse into the 1986 nuclear disaster.
Dinner is on Andriyivskyy Descent at a popular modern Ukrainian restaurant. Kanapa serves classic dishes and new favorites with flair. Borscht comes in a cabbage bowl and bread is paired with an edible garlic butter candle. Kanapa is no secret, though, so it might be worthwhile to make a reservation.
After dinner, if you can manage the climb back up Andriyivskyy Descent, there’s a nightcap waiting for you at Whisky Corner. With 751 kinds of whisky, this bar isn’t messing around. The route between Kanapa and Whisky Corner will take you past St. Sophia’s and St. Michael’s again, so you can see the stunning buildings lit up at night.
And over your nightcap, you can start planning your return trip to Kiev.
Check out my suggestions in this ’24 Hours in Kiev’ video I made on Snapchat!
Other Suggestions for Kiev
I created the above 48 hours in Kiev guide based on what I think gives a good representation of the city’s history and culture. But there’s loads more to do!
Food and Drink
For coffee, you can always pick up a quick cup to-go from a coffee truck or coffee snail. Also, there are these amazing coffee buses converted into cafes scattered around the city. My favorite is the London double-decker parked at L’vivs’ka Square. Blue Cup Coffee is a hip café just off a side street of Khreschatyk Street. One of my favorite places for a cappuccino and a cookie.
If you want to change things up from traditional Ukrainian food, Il Molino has decent pizza, Kanareyka is a whimsical place for a low-key romantic dinner, and Lyubimy Dyadya (meaning “beloved uncle”) has kick-a Mediterranean food. And if you’re more of a party animal, check out my list of favorite places for craft cocktails in Kiev.
Museums and Culture
Kiev has tons of great museums. I haven’t been to the Great Patriotic War Museum yet but I’ve heard excellent things about it. It’s worth checking out if you’re into WWII and military history. It’s also right underneath the imposing and slightly odd Soviet-era Motherland statue near Lavra. You can also spend hours and hours (and basically no money) at the Pirogov open air museum and the National Botanical Garden.
Kiev has a pretty strong street art game. The city recently commissioned several artists to create gigantic murals all around the city. Take a walk along Peizazhna Alley for some of Kiev’s quirkiest art.
Get my advice for visiting the whole country on my Ukraine travel page! From Lviv to Kharkiv, the Carpathians in summer and winter, I’ve got you covered for when you visit Ukraine.
General Kiev Tourist Information
The Kiev metro is very easy to use. Tokens cost 4 UAH and can be purchased from a machine or employee at the station. You use the token to get in and need nothing to get out. I used this Kiev metro app to help me get around town.
Taxis can be very cheap in Kiev. The best way to get a taxi is by calling or using an app. I used Uklon most of the time to call a taxi (update: we now have Uber too!). Elite Taxi is also a good service for visitors. Both Elite Taxi and Uklon give you the price estimate when you make the arrangement. If you keep your Uklon driver waiting, you will be charged additionally.
I felt very safe in Kiev, but as with any big city be on the alert for scams and pickpockets. I had a friend who unfortunately fell victim to a common scam, but keep your wits about you and you should be fine. I never worried about violent crime in Ukraine.
Most people in Kiev speak Russian. It’s always a good idea to learn a few key phrases before you go. Depending on if you stick to the tourist areas or get off the beaten track, you will probably find an English-speaking Ukrainian in bars, restaurants, and cafes 60-75% of the time. Many young people know conversational English, and anyone who doesn’t is still so polite and friendly – people were constantly apologizing to me for not knowing English, while I was trying to apologize for not knowing Russian. But I’ve learned cappuccino is the same in almost every language.
This is my last post about Ukraine for a while. Have I convinced you to come visit? For those travelers who’ve been to Kiev, any suggestions you would add?