Kiev, Ukraine - The best city nobody knows
For most of us in the west, Ukraine is little more than a struggling former USSR country now at war with Russia and still working to contain the world's worst nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. Why on earth would anyone want to visit the capital, Kiev, as a tourist? Well, as I discovered, there are so many reasons to visit this wonderful city of three million people, that you would be better asking yourself why you wouldn't visit.
That is not to say it won’t be a bit of a shock to the system when you first arrive. Although generally modern and well maintained, this is not a place designed for tourists. Few people speak English, signs are mainly in Cyrillic and westerners are a rarity, even in the ‘international’ hostel I was staying in. Indeed I spent my first night drinking Vodka with a Ukrainian computer programmer from the Donbas region. He came to Kiev when the war started, leaving behind his PhD and now lives in the hostel as a long-term resident. And, without wanting to reinforce stereotypes, my god he could drink a lot of vodka! It was an interesting start to my trip...
Wandering around Kiev the following day, I immediately noticed how relaxed it is. Far from the images we see on the news of molotov cocktails and riot police, this is a sleepy city. People don’t walk, they stroll. On the escalators in the metro they stand, or even sit and read. They congregate in squares and parks, not for revolutions but to relax, drink and chat. There is none of the London rush, anger and self importance here, it really is a very nice place to be, even after drinking copious amounts of Ukrainian vodka the previous night!
Kiev is also a beautiful city. There are medieval gold capped churches everywhere, while a mixture of communist brutalism and classical central European architecture line large boulevards and cobbled side streets. And the city is greener than any other I have visited. You can’t walk far without passing through a park, and the picturesque Dnipro river, which runs through the middle of the city, diverges around a collection of islands in the center, providing endless woodland, sandy beaches and recreation areas in the very heart of the city.
But, perhaps the most enticing aspect of all is just how cheap it is for anyone arriving with a Western currency. Not just cheaper, but cheap. A ride on the clean, efficient metro costs just 10p. A large bottle of real Ukrainian vodka is £2, a draught beer 40p and 20 cigarettes are an astonishing 70p. When you’re hungry a delicious hearty Ukrainian meal with drinks will set you back all of £3. On a London salary this place will allow you to live like a king.
Of course for most Ukrainians it’s far from cheap. The average wage here is around £160 per month and 25% of the population are below the poverty line. Even in Kiev where much of Ukraine's wealth is concentrated you can see the signs of people struggling to get by. Many of the taxis are so old and battered they wouldn't be allowed on the road in Britain, flea markets pop-up randomly on street corners and old ladies sell small bunches of flowers outside the Metro stations. If you go out into the suburbs you will see the endless communist-era housing estates that are in desperate need of some TLC, and in which so many of Kiev's residents live. But despite this, you rarely get hassled for money, nor do you see many people begging; everyone is trying to make what small money they can by doing something. I get the impression that Ukrainians are a very proud people.
At this point I know what you are thinking; The people are poor and there is a war on, surely it can’t be safe?! Well, as a paranoid Londoner, I have to admit that coming to Kiev I was a little concerned too. Yet, in the two weeks I have spent here, not once have I felt threatened, or seen anything that would cause me concern. People are generally helpful and friendly, particularly the younger generations, who tend to speak some English. Although it’s not an atmosphere of openness like you might find in say Glasgow or New York, it is generally welcoming. Indeed tell someone you’re from London and chances are you will receive an amazed smile, followed by a puzzled expression; “Then why are you here in Kiev?!”. For many here it is unimaginable that someone from the place they dream of living would ever want to visit their city. But for me, Kiev has an atmosphere that you can’t find anywhere in London. There's none of the pretentious 'glamour' or self importance here. Kiev is not considered one of the world’s 'great' cities, so nobody here acts like they are from one. The city has nothing to prove, and it's better for it.
Of course revolutions and war have had an impact on the city. The place is very nationalistic, you can’t go far without seeing the blue and yellow of the national flag; painted on the sides of buildings, hanging on ribbons wrapped around railings, on people's clothes and even lighting up the cities bridges at night. But, it’s not the threatening nationalism that we are used to in Britain. Instead you can sense the pride so many Ukrainians now feel in finally being able to unite behind their collective identity, something that has been denied them for millennia. And when you discover the valiant, divided and long suffering history of Ukraine, you realise it’s a wonderful thing to see unfolding in front of you.
It would be hard to write about Ukraine and not mention the other thing it's famous for in the West: beautiful women. And it’s certainly no myth, the women here are stunning. Every man seems to be walking down the street with a supermodel on his arm, while nights out can feel like being at a fashion show after party. But there is more to this than meets the eye. Ukraine is a deeply conservative country and despite the short skirts and sexy glamour everywhere you look, traditional gender roles are very much alive; women tend to search for a husband who will provide for her while she raises a family. Yet because of the widespread poverty in the country Ukrainian women will tell you there simply aren't enough eligible bachelors to go around. This creates strong competition among women and a huge pressure to look good. Women walking around in 6” heels, a gorgeous evening dress and fully styled hair at 10am on a Tuesday is quite normal and it is no surprise that it is young women who are most likely to speak English. Perhaps this is why many Ukrainian women decide to look for their fairytale abroad.
Ultimately, all of this adds up to a fascinating and intriguing place for any Westerner. I very much doubt you can find a city quite like Kiev anywhere else in Europe. And there is so much more to it that I could write about; the fantastic night-life, the palace of the former President Yanukovych in Mezhyhirya, the quirky outdoor museum with entire replica villages, the tours of the Chernobyl exclusion zone that run from the main station, or the world's deepest metro, which at some stations takes 8 minutes on escalators to reach the platform.
But there is no need, because you can see it all when you come here yourself! Ukraine Airways flies from Gatwick to Kiev daily for £150 return, a double en-suite room in a great hostel is £18/night and you can comfortably budget as little as £20/day spending money. That has to be the cheapest city break anywhere in Europe. If that doesn't convince you, then perhaps the sunny September 30+ degree temperatures will!
Just because somewhere isn't a known tourist destination, it doesn't mean it won’t be a great place to visit as a tourist.