Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe, what’s happening in one part of a country isn’t necessarily happening in another. The West, South and North of this Eastern European country are relatively safe and you can easily travel independently as I did in 2014. It was the adventure of a lifetime…
Visiting a country on the brink of war
In November 2013 I finally made the decision I wanted to visit Ukraine, it had been on my hit list for at least five years but I’d never had the opportunity to make the trip. Three days after I booking my flights the country was thrown into chaos.
Thankfully I didn’t visit until April 2014 so the situation in Kiev was relatively calm. Although initial protests were peaceful the situation quickly deteriorated and spread from the capital to many parts of the country. After the success of Ukraine and Poland hosting Euro 2012, the country was looking forward to promoting itself as a place for tourism. They upgraded roads, airports and hotels, sadly now it seems like this will all go unnoticed.
Ukraine is a huge country that is almost five times the size of the UK, what’s happening in one part doesn’t necessarily mean it’s happening in another. I visited the North, South and West of the country which turned out to be one of my best travelling experiences and my trip to Ukraine would in fact be the best time to visit the country for various reasons.
Where to visit?
I visited Ukraine independently and planned the entire trip myself, researching thoroughly before deciding upon the places I wanted to see.
I eventually opted for an itinerary of Odessa, Kiev, Lviv, Chernobyl, Pripyat and Rivne. All of these cities had experienced some anti-Government protests so I admit I was a bit nervous. It also didn’t help that when my flight landed in Kiev the passport control officer asked where I was due to visit and simply smiled and said “Good luck” …thanks?!
However, we needn’t have worried, Ukraine turned into the most amazing adventure and travel experience.
The capital of Ukraine, Kiev really surprised me. I had no preconceptions of what to expect, I thought it might just be another ex-Soviet city but it wasn’t. It had character, charm and many hidden gems to discover.
Odessa is a port city where Ukraine means the Black Sea. It has exchanged hands many times and although it’s a Ukrainian city the majority of people speak Russian, so it’s handy to know a few phrases.
- Chernobyl / Pripyat
Most people don’t realise Chernobyl in Ukraine, however you can now take a tour of the site of the 1986 disaster. I’ve written about my experiences here separately, click here to read them.
This is a very odd place to have listed in a place of “Must sees”, however it was simply my night stop to enable me to see “The Tunnel of Love”. There isn’t anything touristy to see here, but I had no other choice of places to stay.
- Klevan “The Tunnel of Love”
Wherever I travel I must always have purpose. I had several places in mind where I wanted to visit, mostly way off the typical tourist map, including the “Tunnel of Love” in Klevan which is almost half way between Lviv and Kiev. Even our taxi driver got lost and stopped to ask at least 5 locals how to get there, thankfully it was absolutely worth the wait.
Lviv is in the West of the country, very close to the Polish border. It certainly has more of a European feel, this is echoed by seeing all the EU flags plastered everywhere.
When I arrived at Lviv train station I opted to take a local tram, unfortunately I misunderstood and thought I could buy a ticket on board but after just one stop I was kicked off and interrogated by three butch men. They couldn’t speak any English and fined me an amount which was equivalent to the grand total of £3, so it wasn’t the end of the world.
The historic city of Lviv is an UNESCO World Heritage site, my best advice is to lose the map and simply start wandering. It has a real cafe-culture and reminded me a lot of Prague with the historical buildings.
Several years ago there were a few options for internal flights in Ukraine, however there is currently only one. Ukraine International Airlines are the only option if you wish to fly from one Ukrainian city to another.
I wasn’t particularly impressed with the airline, mostly due to the fact they cancelled three of my flights and therefore I only ended up taking one flight with them. It shouldn’t put you off though, if you want to fly you simply have no other options!
At the moment and probably for the foreseeable future you cannot fly to Donetsk or Luhansk as the airports have been totally destroyed by fighting in the East of Ukraine.
- Local Trains
A much cheaper option than flying, local trains are not only a unique experience they’ll also provide you with the opportunity to meet some Ukrainian’s who’ll be more than intrigued why you’ve decided not to fly.
I took a variety of trains whilst in Ukraine including an overnighter from Odessa to Kiev, this was one of my traveller highlights. I opted to travel “first class”, which simply meant there were two beds to a compartment as opposed to the four in standard! Our train attendant was certainly not very friendly, but after asking for a coffee I wasn’t expecting to receive a bottle of whiskey, some sugar and a lemon?! Very random.
A key piece of travel advice I can suggest is make sure you not only know the English station name but also the Ukrainian and Russian names as very few people will speak any English and it’s unlikely they’ll help you any further.
To plan your travels visit the Ukrainian train website, you’ll only be able to book certain trains online, other’s can only be purchased whilst you are in the country.
How much does Ukraine cost?
When I visited Ukraine in early 2014 the Ukrainian Hryvnia currency value was at it’s lowest level ever making our entire trip an absolute bargain!
At the current exchange rate (February 2015) £1 GBP will get you 45 UAH.
Approximate cost of essential travelling costs;
- Kiev metro ride £0.10p
- Bottle of wine from a supermarket £1.00
- One night’s stay in a 4* Lviv hotel £30
- Flight from Kiev to Odessa £60
To sum things up… a trip to Ukraine will be one of the cheapest you’ll ever experience!
What you waiting for? Go visit!
After receiving advice from friends, colleagues and even from online forums that I should not visit the country as it was currently too dangerous, I’m very happy to say that I proved them wrong. That’s not to say potential things could have happened, one week after visiting Odessa there was a huge fire where many people died sparking huge riots. It’s such a tragic shame to see how such a fascinating and amazing country being torn apart.
My hope it that the country will resolve it’s social and political issues in the very near future. I encourage everyone to visit the country, even now. I say this with passion after all my incredible experiences, what you waiting for… go discover!
Visit Astana for yourself
I highly recommend a visit, to book your stay go to Booking.com and search for Ukrainian properties.
If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.