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.
After a quick bite, explore the metro, one of those rare Soviet things built to last. The language barrier will get worse here as there are hardly any maps, let alone signage in English. Get your thinking cap on and start matching Cyrillic names with what you see on the map. Luckily, Kyiv metro is nothing like Moscow's branched out forest. There are only four lines. Go down at Poshtova Ploscha (Postal Square) and get off at the next stop, Maidan Nezalezhnosti - the revolution square where you started this morning.
Conquering the metro shall continue the next day unless, of course, you want to try your negotiation skills with local cabbies. It is far more adventurous and cheaper to venture down to Khreschatyk station and get out at the next stop, Arsenalna. After a 15-minute walk across this less touristy, yet still historical, part of the city, you will wind up at the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. Dating back to the 11th Century, it has accumulated enough stories of miracles and pain to become known as the second Jerusalem among the Orthodox Christians. This is a vast monastic complex where three hours will fly by like it was three minutes. After taking in the breathtaking views over the Dnipro and exploring iconic churches and museums, make it to the monks' caves before they close at 4 pm. In these bewildering, badly lit underground cells more than a hundred mummies of ancient souls have survived centuries without any special treatment. Clerics watch for the proper dress code but will provide suitable attire if you show up bare-kneed.
After this journey down the spiritual past, walk toward a protrusion of the more recent history. The World War II museum occupying sprawling grounds next to the Lavra. It impresses visitors with its outdoor collection of tanks and intimidating stone soldiers the size of houses. The indoor part of the complex is heavy on archival material and is only good if you know the language.
To digest the weekend, settle down for a Ukrainian meal in Opanas restaurant in a small park. Located in the downtown's backyard, it is more popular with locals than tourists. Built in the image of a Ukrainian thatched-roof hut, it stands opposite another intellectual landmark, Taras Shevchenko University. The venue serves fantastic borsch, an arguably Slavic invention, and amazing potato pancakes. To get here from the War Museum, you must brave the metro again. But that is what Kiev and the rest of Ukraine are like: nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Yuliya Popova is the editor of the Kyiv Post, a multilingual online and print newspaper.