Weekend in Kiev
Be dazzled by glittering church domes, wide boulevards and glamourous nightlife. (Martin Moos/LPI)
First-time travellers to Eastern Europe often struggle where to go: Moscow or Kiev. While Moscow lures with Russia’s rich history, spy stories and gruesome geopolitics, Kiev seems to hold a silver medal earned in the post-Soviet competition for tourists.
While both capitals deserve a trip, there are three reasons why Kiev should come first on your agenda. Most Western tourists do not need a visa to Ukraine while Russian embassies abroad will grill you with questions before stamping your passport. Secondly, Kiev is three times cheaper than Moscow. And last, but not least, its eclectic mix of Soviet history and European vibe in people and architecture offers a soft introduction to Eastern Europe before you venture north to see Lenin's mausoleum.
Founded in 862, Kiev is renowned for its beautiful - sadly often crumbling - buildings and streets. In the centre, the architecture ranges from neo-Baroque, turn-of-the-century mansions to sporadic Soviet-built boxes losing their tiles. Modern glass high rises occasionally demonstrate that Kiev reached the 21st Century, but luckily not often enough to forget that you are in the cradle of Slavic culture.
The capital is small enough to walk around the centre, yet big enough to be interesting. Start off on Khreschatyk Street, the city's main artery, where pedestrian traffic replaces cars for the weekend. Elegant, neo-classical buildings lined by chestnut trees were rebuilt after World War II as they were completely destroyed by the retreating Red Army in 1941.
For breakfast, stop into Passage, an alley off the small, glitzy street, Khreschatyk, right before you hit Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square. The public space propelled Kiev to international fame during the peaceful Orange Revolution protests in the winter of 2004 amid the rigged presidential vote. At the far end of Passage, sit down for what is arguably the best cappuccino in Kiev in the elegant Wolkonsky café. Like in many Ukrainian upscale food venues, the menu is a concoction of European dishes. Order a traditional Ukrainian breakfast of syrniki, small pancakes made of curd cheese served with jam or sour cream. It makes the locals get up before noon for a perfect start of the weekend.
Independence Square is more a political symbol for Ukrainians than a site of architectural pride. Defaced by modern shopping malls, it pours into six old streets where stunning neo-classical mansions mix with an odd bunch of Soviet apartment blocks. Wear a pair of comfortable shoes for the climb uphill on Sophiyivska Street and stop at a nice café, Pobeda (14 Sophiyivska Street; 380-44-220-0015), stylized as an old-fashioned Soviet home. Waitresses in Soviet chequered dresses serve good meatballs with buckwheat (a popular Ukrainian garnish), or varenyky, dumplings with meat, mushroom or any number of other fillings.
The golden domes at the end of this street belong to St Sophia's Cathedral, the 11th-century Orthodox gem. Its tranquil grounds, enveloped in greenery and ancient frescoes, can beguile you into getting a book out and spending the rest of the afternoon here. But it is best to move east now toward another magnificent blue cathedral, St Michael's Monastery (leave it for your next trip), down Desyatynna Street, past the imposing Ministry of Foreign Affairs, until you stumble upon the cobble-stoned, winding St Andrew's descent. The road is a chaotic mix of arts and crafts stalls, another beautiful church, few art galleries and more restaurants. Past matryoshka doll stalls, you will find many original Ukrainian souvenirs to take home, from maces - the symbol of power of Ukrainian military rulers - to hand-embroidered towels and shirts.
At the bottom of the street, Kiev's oldest district, Podil, is the place to watch locals. White-washed mansions no higher than four floors, students from the respected Kiev-Mohyla Academy and street markets amid decrepit Soviet homes sum up the whole experience of being in Kiev: a bit eclectic, somewhat Soviet and still struggling between West and East.
Buffet-style, fast food chain Puzata Hata, or Burly Hut (24 Sahaidachnoho Street), is where Ukrainians grab their lunches and dinners. It is affordable and authentic so do not expect to hear a word of English there. You will have to trust your eyes and smells.