No one, local or expat, seemed enthusiastic about my plans to spend a weekend in Dnipro.
My Ukrainian students looked at me askance when I told them about my upcoming trip. They shared their doubts and skepticism, and I serenely rebuffed them. Dnipro is not a Ukrainian hot spot, that’s for sure, but that’s part of why I wanted to visit. I felt like I had checked off many of Ukraine’s must-sees for tourists. I wanted to see the rest of it, and I wanted a challenge.
But surely Dnipro had some hidden charm too, even if the locals didn’t appreciate it.
“Dnipro isn’t on the typical tourist trail, probably for good reason,” a fellow expat cautioned. The language barrier in Dnipro would be different than when I traveled in western Ukraine and definitely different than it is in Kyiv. Dnipro is mostly Russian-speaking, and Lara said it was common for locals to still use old Soviet street names, even after de-communization.
Dnipro definitely sounded like a contrast to my weekends in Lviv and Odessa, and I was eager to get a different flavor of Ukraine.
Still, getting off the train from Kyiv, I didn’t know what I was in for. I expected it to be a mish-mash of everything. Soviet and European and hipster. Instead, as I eagerly looked at the windows of the marshrutka from the train station to my hotel, all I saw was… normalcy.
It was disturbingly hot so I hid in the comfort of cafes for most of the day, but as the sunset I headed to the river. Dnipro boasts the longest embankment in Ukraine, and a slightly cynical local once told me it’s kept modern and clean by politicians frantic to prove they can do something for the city. The walk along the Dnieper River was pleasant, in so far as baking in one hundred degree weather can be enjoyable.
Across a walking bridge you can escape to Taras Shevchenko Park, and find one of the oddest little amusement park I’ve ever seen. Many of the twenty-so attractions, including the arthritic ferris wheel, looked worryingly ill-kept. Still, that didn’t stop a father from rousing a lethargic teenage cotton-candy seller, who had been listening to music with earbuds in. The teenager unplugged and crossed over a one of those water-skimming hamster wheel attractions, roping in one of the inflatable balls for the man’s daughter. The pool was about the size of a backyard pool, the surface cluttered like when you didn’t properly winterize it but haven’t gotten around to cleaning it up yet. The daughter looked thrilled.
At the end of my first twelve hours in Dnipro, I was puzzled. In a city founded by Catherine the Great, turned into a space race manufacturer by the Soviets, it seemed unremarkably bland. It wasn’t not as Soviet as I had expected, nor as reclaimed. I felt like there had to be more there, I just had to unearth it.
The next day I devoted myself to Dnipro’s culinary scene, which mostly involved me over-caffeinating myself to find shelter from the heat. Dnipro definitely has its hipster blooms, a cake shop in a stalwart 1950s concrete building, a cafe with a mural of the Futurama cast wielding coffee paraphernalia, a ramen shop that was both divinely tasty and Insta-perfect.
But while I sat at the bar of a lux cocktail bar I found myself getting frustrated. I love a café with a sense of style, but if I had wanted to pretend I was in Brooklyn I could have stayed in Kyiv. By now I was starting to seriously doubt that Dnipro had any of the ‘hidden charm’ that I had assured my students was there. Maybe not every Ukrainian city was going to be a winner.
I texted one of my friends who had come down to Dnipro a month or so before. You really liked it, yeah? Do you have any suggestions?
He wrote back, I liked it mainly because I got to climb a bridge and climbing stuff is fun.
An honest answer, but not a particularly helpful one.
So I turned to a friend who had lived there for almost a year as part of the Fulbright program. Her blog about expat life in Dnipro reflects some of the confusion I was feeling – but in a way that manages to make a little sense of it. Glass-paned modern buildings sparkle next to faded elegance of near-ancient architecture. Leafy boulevards cross with broken cobblestone streets. Soviet apartment blocks stare across the street at posh clothing boutiques. It’s a mix-and-match approach that perplexes me, having only been in the city thirty-six hours, but with time she managed to find something close to a pattern in the weave.
The next day I met up with two locals, students who had just returned from a year-long exchange program in the States. We wandered around the city and suffered through the heat wave, swapping stories, mostly about America. They had been surprised by their host families’ patriotism. They asked me where I liked to go shopping. They missed Buffalo Wild Wings and Starbucks. I told them I missed donuts.
I said I was having trouble figuring out Dnipro’s “thing,” which confused them. When you roll into other Ukrainian cities, it’s pretty easy to understand their angle. Their perspectives on themselves. Lviv is picturesque, historic Europe. Odessa is the sophisticated or slightly seedy party town, depending on your venue. Kharkiv is stalwart and practical, shaded by its Soviet past but forging into the future. But Dnipro is not any of those things.
So I asked them how they would describe their city. One of them said, “Contrast,” and the other said, “Home city,” and their complementary answers finally snapped the pieces together for me. Maybe the joys of Dnipro are hidden in her eclectic nature. Maybe to visit Dnipro is to be perplexed by it, while to live here is to embrace it.
The three of us stopped at the Swan Fountain, which is just a straight jet of water coming out of the river, and my new friends struggled to find something to say about the city’s one touristy attraction. My fancy illusions of Dnipro’s haughty charms faded. Maybe sometimes a city just isn’t that impressive.
“Coffee?” I suggested, and my buddies eagerly agreed. We hurried off to Coffee Life, which isn’t Starbucks exactly, but it’ll do if you’re in Dnipro.
Have you ever visited Dnipro? Or maybe another city that you couldn’t quite get the hang of? How do you try to figure out the sense of a place when it seems a bit confused?
What to Do in Dnipro
Dnipro’s embankment, the longest in Europe, is a big draw for both locals and tourists. On Monastyrskyi Ostriv there are beaches were you can hang out and even play volleyball. There are also beach clubs and spas, but I didn’t check any of those out.
I also enjoyed wandering through Lazaria Hloby Park. It has a little pond and an atrocious concrete outdoor theatre. Dnipro is a bit infamous for its abandoned spaces and leftover Soviet architecture. If you want to learn more, check out Lost Lara’s adventures in Dnipro urban exploration or Megan Starr’s in-depth article on Soviet Dnipro architecture.
Dnipro was, until 1987 (at the earliest), a closed city – in part because it manufactured some of the Soviet Unions rockets and missiles. You can see a few examples of their craftsmanship by checking out Rocket Park.
Also keep your eyes open. There’s some pretty funky street art in the weirdest places.
Where to Eat in Dnipro
This is going to sound really strange, but Ukraine really has ramen figured out. I stopped by Black Sheep, even though it was literally 99 degrees, for some tasty ramen and heavenly pineapple lemonade.
3/4 KRFT is a bit out of the way, but I’m glad I stumbled upon it. I’m not exactly sure what I ate, since the menu wasn’t in English and the waitress basically just gave me three options. All I know is that it was pork and that I demolished it.
Schrodinger’s Café has American-style baked mac and cheese, which nearly made me weep with happiness.
DoubleDecker Cake and Coffee has pretty stellar cake and a very hip space to chill in. I went there a surprising number of times in just three days.
Where to Drink in Dnipro
I hit up Beer Bank on the suggestion of my friend Megan, who has traveled Ukraine extensively. Literally some of the strangest beers I’ve ever seen offered. If you want to find Ukrainian microbrews, stop here. I found one bottled not by a company, but by a person.
Old Pal Bar is where you should go for a classy cocktail in Dnipro.
Zavodna Mavpa has a cozy English living room feel and an extensive cocktail list. The place was dead empty when I visited, but traveling in August is always a bit hit and miss. The staff was so friendly, they even offered me a cocktail to go!
High Hill Café, though small, whips up a tasty cappuccino and plays some of the best music in town.
I Feel Espresso Bar has a very cool vibe and plenty of seating, a chill place for a cup of coffee and a sandwich.
Where to Stay in Dnipro
Google Maps marks the happening area of downtown Dnipro well, with Dmytra Yavornytskoho Avenue acting as the backbone. Check out the best prices for Dnipro hotels before you go. Or, if you want to try renting an apartment, use my Airbnb referral code for a discount off your first stay.
If you’re coming to this lovely country, remember you can check out all my Ukraine travel tips from my life here as an expat!
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