For practical advice how to visit Rivne, how to get there and what to do, please scroll to the bottom of the post. For my impressions on this petite Ukrainian city, read on.
I woke up from my doze as the minibus took a sharp turn, the streetlights outside giving the Soviet era apartments a brutal yellow shine. After four and a half hours, we had made it to Rivne – at least I was pretty sure, all of it happening quicker than I could check Google Maps – and when the door opened I jumped out onto the sidewalk with confidence I didn’t quite feel.
The plan was to catch a taxi at the Rivne bus station. But even though it was just across the street, I didn’t see it, struggling to recover from my disco nap, and so I just started walking towards the center.
I had decided to visit Rivne mostly to see the Tunnel of Love, blocking out a whole weekend to explore the city itself. Another travel blogger had recently dubbed Rivne one of the coolest Ukrainian cities they had been to, but to be honest, the walk from the bus station to the Rivne city center seemed pretty average. Low-rise apartment blocks and shuttered (though probably not closed) lotto shops.
As I passed a man loitering outside yet another Shevchenko Park, shouting into his cell phone at 1am, I wondered if I had made a mistake.
When I woke up the next morning, I felt apprehension hanging over me still. I intended to visit the Tunnel of Love in the afternoon, but first I had some work to do. I hauled myself out of bed and tried to find a good café for working over coffee in a city that seemed to only have drink-and-dash canteens.
And this when I realized very quickly – Rivne is not like other Ukrainian cities I have visited.
And I have visited a lot. Not a comprehensive list, for sure because this is a huge country with solid but sometimes slow transportation, but even Ukrainians are impressed when I rattle off my travel history. But Rivne is nothing like anything of them.
Because Rivne doesn’t have any hipster cafes.
Ok, I know this seems like a laughable statement. But Ukraine’s hip café scene can rival anything from Brooklyn or Brixton (I mean, I’m guessing here, Londoners). I’ve traveled from industrial Kharkiv in the east to cutesy Chernivtsi in the west, and I’ve always been able to find a café rocking its Instagrammable style. Hipster cafes are the embodiment of modern popular culture. And Rivne seems totally disinterested.
To be honest, it threw me for a loop at first. Café hopping and cocktail sampling ground me a little as I travel around Ukraine, a country where I don’t speak the language, can’t understand street names, and struggle to place phone calls correctly. It’s stressful to show up in a new town after midnight, unable to find your hostel, and the first two numbers you try are wrong. Traveling in Ukraine is an effort, and hipster cafes offer a respite.
So when I realized that Rivne was not the kind of town where I could seek shelter in those places, I felt the urge to forgo it all. Skip the Tunnel of Love, even though I was mere kilometers away, and hide out in the hostel watching Netflix all day. I was tired, dammit, of living in this country for over a year and still being an outsider, of feeling my ‘otherness’ so acutely all the time, of being embarrassed by my ignorance and helplessness. Can’t a girl get a break, ever?
But then I got over myself.
And hallelujah that I did, because on my walk to get the bus to the Tunnel of Love, I caught sight of a few vendors set up selling produce across the street. I detoured, walking past babushkas perched on tiny plastic stools, plastic bags of mushrooms in front of them, and meandered into one of the most amazing outdoor markets in Ukraine.
You could literally buy anything, from roses to meat grinders, pickles to lingerie. Several people had set up water-filled metal buckets, generators pumping air into them. I peeked in to see live fish wiggling around. A foot-long guy made a leap for freedom, causing me jump so far away I’m pretty sure I revealed myself as a visitor. I made it even more obvious when I ducked into the Soviet-style round market building, full of smoked sausages and piles of jewel-tone candies and stacks of jarred honey, and started taking photos.
You know what was amazing about the market? I didn’t see one ridiculous spinner! No hipster cafes, no cheap toy-of-the-moment, no taxi-ordering apps. This was as close to off-the-beaten-track Ukraine as I had gotten yet.
And then, with the wander through the market, something in my attitude shifted. The feeling of being unmoored in a new place swept out, and the calmness of swimming in curiosity swept in.
I moved on, found the marshrutka that would take me to the Tunnel of Love (and unfortunately had to pay the driver twice because he forgot he came to me already and I don’t have enough Ukrainian or Russian to explain that), and settled in for the journey. The ride from Rivne to Klevan was the picture of pastoral Eastern Europe. Goats chomping on the side of the road, a horse and cart tied to a telephone pole, a dozen houses clustered around a tiny Orthodox church on a hill. The enchantment of being deeply unconnected took over. On the forty-five minute marshrutka ride, life became simpler. I didn’t scroll through my mind-numbing Facebook feed, or scan Twitter for the latest on the drama between Trump and Kim Jong-Un, or worry about how I was visiting one of the most romantic spots in Ukraine… alone.
When we got to Klevan I spotted the plain white sign pointing the way to the Tunnel of Love and clambered off at the next stop, the driver helpfully but vaguely waving down a side street. A handful of other people had gotten off the bus with me, but I let them outpace me (the parents with two young girls were hurrying like they knew they had limited time before the meltdown time bomb on their hands exploded). I mean, why rush when there are dogs peeking over the fences, men herding flocks of geese, and roosters strutting their stuff? How often do I get to see locals comparing their mushroom harvests, kids sprinting out of corner stores with bread in hand, and all the Ladas I want to buy rumbling down the dirt road? I could take my time. I would.
If there are any hipster hotspots in Rivne, I never found them. But I did find a Soviet-era park, where dozens of butterflies flitted around poorly-maintained beds of marigolds. And not one but two restaurants that brew their own beer. And ‘pop-up’ flea market in Shevchenko Park that was really just a dozen men selling old military medals and motionless clocks. And a new-agey café that had a tea menu the size of a magazine. And a rickety-looking amusement park that I really hope is permanently closed.
I’m sure it won’t be long before hipster cafes start springing up all over Rivne. It is, after all, close enough to the Tunnel of Love it will draw in the imminent tourists heading that way. But for now, while you can, enjoy Rivne for what it is–
Not a place for your Instagram photo shoot.
How to Get to Rivne from Kiev
The best way visit Rivne from Kyiv is by bus or mini bus (or marshrutka). You can just show up at Evrovoyazh Vokzal, the Kiev bus station near the central railway, and find the next one leaving for Rivne. Or, if you’d like to have your plans settled in advanced, you can buy bus tickets online.
There are also trains from Kiev and Rivne, but options are limited and they are quite slow.
The road between Kyiv and Rivne is in pretty good condition, so if you are the adventurous type who likes to drive in Ukraine, it’ll be one of your easier journeys.
What To Do in Rivne
Hands down my favorite thing about Rivne was its sprawling market. I’m sure it’s only at peak activity on weekends when the weather is warm, but since it’s on the way to the train station I would definitely recommend stopping by.
The Hill of Glory is also worth a visit. A Soviet era monument to soldiers killed during World War II, the obelisk itself is impressive mostly because of its size. But walk around the back and you’ll find half a dozen tanks languishing in the grass.
Rivne, like all other Ukrainian cities, has a Shevchenko Park. It’s a pleasant place to wander, especially once the shashlik guys get their fires going, and you can check out whether the amusement park is operational and hazardous.
Rivne can be used as a base to explore the rest of the region. Check out my post on how to visit the Tunnel of Love. But besides the famous train tracks, there are other attractions nearby, castles and churches and nature. You can get to many of these places by marshrutka, but if you have a car it’s even easier to pack a weekend with little excursions.
Where to Eat in Rivne
I stopped in Dvir only to try their house beer, but the menu made me regret not coming for dinner.
Three Slona also brews their own beer and has a carnivore-friendly menu. I would have had more than one pint if I wasn’t en route to the bus station after.
Taistra Potion is the café/maybe-travel-agency with the impressive tea menu, for travelers who are less interested in coffee.
Chaplin Café was the closest I got to finding a hipster restaurant. While their menu seems like they’re trying a little too hard, it’s a convenient place for a lemonade and a bite if you’re on the way to the Hill of Glory or killing time before getting the bus.
Where to Stay in Rivne
I stayed in Rivne Hostel, which is right in the center of the city. For about $6 a night, it is a great option for travelers on a budget. There is secure storage, comfortable beds with individual outlets and reading lights, and the bunk beds don’t squeak! The bathroom has a bit of a wonky set-up, with the toilet in one room and the sink, shower, and mirror in another, but it wasn’t too annoying. Otherwise, you can check out the best prices for Rivne hotels.
How to Get Around in Rivne
The city isn’t that big, and walking is good for your health. But there are also marshrutkas and buses you can ride for a few hryvnia. Also, there are taxis, unobtrusively marked with a green light in the window if they’re available.
Prices in Rivne
This country is ridiculously affordable right now, but Rivne is by far the cheapest Ukrainian city I’ve visited. My first breakfast, which included an omelet, two cappuccinos, a chocolate croissant, and tip was four dollars. Here are my total Rivne expenses:
2 nights accommodation in Rivne: 300 UAH ~ 11 USD
Total food budget: 532 UAH ~ 20 USD
Marshrutka to the Tunnel of Love: 54 UAH ~ 2 USD (It’s only 18 UAH each way but I paid twice on the way out because the driver forgot he already collected the fare from me and explaining that is just way beyond my language skills.)
Transport to and from Kyiv: 376 UAH ~ 14 USD
Total budge for my Rivne weekend: 1,262 UAH ~ 47 USD
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