A couple of months ago, I spent a few days in the Ukrainian city of Kiev, which turned out to be a fascinating and occasionally surprising place to visit. So here, in no particular order, are my top ten reasons to go and check it out for yourself.
1. It’s so cheap!
Probably one of the highlights of spending five days in Kiev was figuring out how much we’d just paid for each meal, trip etc… After eating a ridiculously large lunch at the fantastic Vagon, including drinks, appetisers and dessert, we realised it only cost £15 for two people. And even better, you can ride the Metro for about 10p (regardless of distance), take buses all over the city for 10p and ride the Funicular for about 20p. Taxis tend to charge you a flat, tourist rate of 100 hyrynas, which is still only around £5 to get from the airport to the city.
2. Chill out on the beach
Yep, there’s a beach. If you cross the bridge to the other side of the river, there’s a proper sandy beach where locals go to soak up the (surprisingly hot) sun. You can abseil from the top of the hill down to the beach, bungee jump from the bridge, swim in the river, or just sunbathe and eat ice creams that cost you less than 50p.
3. Crazy nightlife
Ukrainians seem to like to party, with lots of booze and dancing! Coyote Ugly is a favourite spot where you can smoke shisha, drink vodka shots, dance on the bar, and still come away with change from £20. However, be warned that if you ask for water in a British accent, you’re likely to come away with yet another (unwanted) shot of vodka! Apparently Arena City (quite central) is also worth a look with several different bars and outdoor seating areas.
4. Maidan square
Maidan is the city’s central square and home to some of the most recognisable statues and monuments. During our visit, it was also home to numerous barricades – many built from rubble, rubbish, tyres and whatever else was to hand. There were also many burned-out cars and even buildings which had been burned out by the police during the recent conflict. People had even pulled up the cobblestones from the ground and used them to throw during the riots. Here and in Khreschatik street you’ll also find lots of memorials to people who died during the revolution.
5. Take a trip to the world’s most famous nuclear disaster site
Admittedly this might not be on every tourist’s to-do list, but it certainly was on mine! You can take a day-trip to Chernobyl for around £100 per person, which includes an extremely well-organised bus trip to the town, lunch, fully-guided tour by really excellent guides and the amazing opportunity to take pictures by the reactor and in the deserted town of Pripyat, with its famous funfair, which was never opened to the citizens of the town before it was evacuated in 1986.
6. Brunch at Koritsa
I don’t know if this place is particularly famous, but it should be, for its awesome brunches with eggs, pancakes, cake and whatever else, plus juice and coffee for less than £15 for two people. Also try Vagon for its fantastic tagines, Varenichnaya for Ukrainian specialities (Vareniky are ravioli-esque dumplings) or Puzata Hata, which is a cafeteria-style chain that sells Ukrainian food by weight.
7. Take the Funicular up the hill
If you read Liz’s post a few months ago about her trip to Naples, you’ll remember she had a trip up the hill on the ‘funicolare’. Well this is pretty much the same thing… A carriage which takes you up the side of the hill for the eye-watering price of 20p. When you’re at the top, you can enjoy an amazing view of the city and river, as well as the park (albeit with very spiky grass) and one of the more surreal monuments – the archway representing friendship between Russia and Ukraine… The less said about that the better, maybe. Try a Kvas which is a really, really strange drink – something like a very sweet, non-alcoholic beer.
8. Beserabka market
This is a covered market just off Khreshatyk (the main street) and is a great place to wander around and see a range of really great quality fruit, caviar, salami, cheese and lard (which is strangely popular here…). Just be aware that the vendors will do the hard-sell on you even if you don’t speak Russian. We walked through with no intention of buying anything and came away with a jar of caviar and a block of cheese without even realising what was happening!
9. Pechersk Lavra
This landmark translates as something like the Monastery of the Caves, and is a particularly unique site, where you can spend at least a whole afternoon. It’s a complex of various different churches, as well as the crypts below where you can see the mummified bodies of saints by candlelight. The architecture here is particularly spectacular, with a myriad of golden domes, not to mention a great view of the city.
10. Sightseeing all the monuments around the city
There are loads of different statues and buildings around the city that are worth seeing. Climb the hill to see the St Andrew Church (and an amazing view), visit the St Sophia Cathedral (one of the Seven Wonders of Ukraine, apparently) and several other cathedrals, churches and more…
Don’t forget to download our free app, uTalk, and learn the basics in Russian or Ukrainian (or both!) before you leave – not many people in Kiev speak English, so you may find knowing a few words can make a huge difference.
And if anyone has any other tips or reasons to visit Kiev, please let us know in the comments!
Alex (with thanks to Gianfranco for the photos)
Today, we’re going to Russia. At least in spirit. Here are my top ten reasons for visiting Russia – and, trust me, it’s been hard narrowing it down to ten!
1. Train Travel
Travelling by train is arguably the best thing you can do in Russia, so try to leap on one as soon as you arrive. Everything about it is an experience, especially if you’re used to the slender commuter trains of the UK. In Russia, trains are absolutely vast, and appear even more so since you have to climb up into them from ground level. They are slow and ponderous, stopping for twenty minutes or so at each station (enough time for you to get out, stretch your legs and if you’re lucky buy a smoked fish from a vendor on the street) and crawling in between.
Inside, a strange etiquette reigns, so that on the plus side you might be invited to share food and drink with your neighbour, and on the minus side you will be obliged to give up your ground level bunk to anyone older than you who only managed to secure a second tier berth. Presiding over the whole show is the train assistant, who will sell you bed linen and glasses to make tea from the great water boiler at the end of the carriage, and as a special bonus will shake you vigorously by the foot to wake you before your stop.
The Hermitage, obviously. You could easily spend a day wandering around it, drinking in all the extravagant beauty. In fact all of Petersburg is nice for walking around dreamily, looking into little museums and palaces and drinking coffee on Nevsky Prospekt.
Tricky condensing this into one paragraph, but I think the best things to do in Moscow are to get the metro (looking at the sumptuously decorated stations along the way) to Sparrow Hills and there look at the view, then go out to the Novodevichy Cemetery where you’ll find various big names, including Shostakovich, Bulgakov and Mayakovsky. This cemetery shows enormous wealth and the desire to show it off after death, so look out for any especially showy tombstones. Then, of course, Red Square and the Kremlin are worth a good long visit, as well as Lenin’s Mausoleum, if you don’t mind being marched past the body at a fair lick and glowered at by armed guards from every corner within.
Although Russians often seem to have a reputation for being a bit moody when you first meet them (especially if you meet them on the street or in a public place, where it is a little frowned upon to show excessive emotion), you can very quickly make solid friends for life in Russia. Advice (on clothing, appearance, relationships, career choices) can be offered pretty freely in a way that can be startling, but is generally very well-intentioned. If you’re invited round for dinner, take a bottle or some chocolates, as there will probably be a very generous spread laid on for you.
If you’re looking for a little bit of peace and quiet, try to get someone to invite you to their Dachas, as this is where Russians traditionally kick back and relax. Out in the country with big allotment-style gardens around them, dachas often are simple buildings with outside toilets and local wells supplying water. People grow vegetables (lots of them), pickle vegetables (often enough to last them through the winter months), make wine and home-brew alcohol, go fishing, hunt for mushrooms, and generally have a great time.
6. All night life
Go out in most cities in Russia and you can stay out all night. All night! And it’s not just clubs that stay open all hours, but cafes and restaurants too, so that you can actually stay in the same building and have an evening meal, go dancing, get breakfast, sit with a paper and carry on right into lunch, if you want to. A lot of places which look like inoffensive coffee houses and restaurants will acquire some dance-floors and professional dancers come evening, meaning you don’t have to venture out into the cold at all if you don’t want to.
7. The banya
Like with the dacha, if you’re after traditional Russian relaxation then go to a banya. A lot of towns will have public ones (often separate bathing days for men and women) but lots of dachas will have their own private ones. Russians like it pretty hot so if you’re not used to it then it might be a bit of a shock to the system. Extreme, humid heat is followed by being doused with bowls of cold water – relief for a few seconds, at least. Beating each other with birch twigs is also standard practice, but can seem like you’re crossing a barrier if you end up engaging in it with your host.
Russian food is all interesting and delicious, but what is particularly excellent is snack food, widely available on kiosks on any street corner. Ever had crisps flavoured with caviar or sour cream and dill? Or dried bread croutons, watermelon-flavoured chewing gum and dried salt fish (a traditional beer snack)? In bars and cafes, beer can be accompanied by fried cheese and deep-fried sticks of bread, or long laces of deeply salted, chewy cheese.
Not that all Russian food is snack food – far from it. Porridge in Russia is so varied that you can have porridge made from a different grain every day of the week, and people take pride in making the traditional soups (you’ll probably come across borshch, the beetroot soup shchi, the cabbage soup, and solyanka, the delicious soup with olives) and salads (of which arguably the best are selyodka pod shuboy – herring under potatoes, mayonnaise and grated beetroot – and salat Olivier, know worldwide as Russian Salad).
Being vast, there is a vast range of weather, but the cold winter is something Russia specialises in and there are lots of excitements around it. Fur markets (selling hats and coats in everything from rabbit to mink) spring up and it becomes a squeeze fitting everyone into the trolleybuses with their extra padding of coats, jumpers, thermals. On the lakes, people will bore holes in the ice and go ice fishing, traditionally accompanied by another, fishy soup, uha, into which you pour a shot of vodka just before eating.
Bit of an odd plus to end on, but queuing is a real art in Russia and it’s such an everyday thing that I quite miss it. The best sort of queue is at a train station, where your first big decision is which queue to join. Don’t be fooled into joining the shortest one, as it might be short because the cashier is about to take her hour-long break. A very small understated sign in the window will give the break times so you can estimate how long it will take the queue to move and choose a line based on that. It’s often best to be armed to the teeth with all the information you might possibly need to book a ticket (train number, date, type of carriage, whether or not you want linen) before getting to the front of the queue, as often the attendants don’t have time for dalliers and won’t hesitate to send you to the back of the queue if they see you floundering.
The other thing to remember about a Russian queue is that when you join it it might be quite a bit longer than it looks. This is because Russians will stand in several queues at once, physically in one and then virtually in another by simply telling the last person in it that they are standing behind them. It’s then the responsibility of that person to advertise the virtual person to anyone who comes along afterwards and of the newcomer to ask who is last (can be a bit confusing when the response to this is to point to someone the far side of the room). Depending on which queue reaches the window first, the queuer will either renounce their place in other queues or niftily dash across to reclaim one of their virtual places.
Got any favourite things about the country you’d like to add? We’d love to hear them! And don’t forget to learn a little of the language before you go.
As you know, we love travelling and learning about all kinds of cultures around the world, so we decided to start the ’10 reasons’ series – every now and then we’re going to give you 10 reasons for which you should consider visiting a new country.
This month I chose Romania because it is my home country and because I can think of a lot more than ten reasons to visit this beautiful country. So, enjoy your read and please note that the reasons are not stated in any particular order – all are equally important.
1. Breathtaking mountain landscapes
Romania is one of the ‘lucky’ countries which gets to enjoy both mountains and sea, but the truly amazing landscapes are definitely to be seen in the Carpathian mountains. There are two main roads that traverse the mountain chain and they are Transalpina and Transfagarasan. These roads reach the altitude of 2042 metres (6700 ft) and take you through endless curves and sheer drops – make sure you pull over to take photos.
This might be the best known area in Romania, mainly because of the Dracula myth that is supposed to have taken place here. I’m not going to tell you about how you can have vampire encounters (Dracula is as real as Edward Cullen so don’t get your hopes up), instead I’m going to tell you that this is a very special part of Romania, having many colourful medieval cities with beautiful architecture as well as friendly people and delicious food – but more about this in the following points.
3. Black Sea resorts and summer fun
My hometown is on the Black Sea shore and I can promise you, it is like Ibiza down there. There are parties almost every day of the week during the summer but the weekend is when it gets really loud and fun. Most Romanians go there for a couple of weekends during the summer for festivals and other party-related events. You can even go on your own, you will make a lot of friends. During the day, you can lay on the beach and get a nice tan to show off when you go back.
4. Finger-licking food
If you decide to take a trip to Romania, make sure you are ready to come back home with 5-10 pounds extra, as the food over there is delicious – from the national food cabbage rolls (or stuffed cabbage) with porridge made out of yellow maize flour, to any kind of pies and cocoa sponge cake to Turkish influenced cuisine, everything you will eat there will taste amazing! On top of that, most Romanian women are really good cooks.
5. Ski- and winter-resorts
Now, I’m not much of a skier but I can tell you that you can have a great time skiing or snowboarding in the winter in the Romanian mountain resorts. The best known area for this is Prahova Valley, which is basically a river making its way thorough the chain of mountains and there are about 7-8 small resorts where you can get your share of winter fun, winter landscapes and mulled wine (what, did you think there’s no alcohol involved?).
6. The Danube Delta
If you’re more the nature-loving/sleeping-in-a-tent-is-fun kind of person you might want to take a trip here. This place is a naturally formed delta, where the Danube flows into the Black Sea. It is known for its wild places because it is pretty difficult to live there all year round given all the water and muddy islands. There are some men-built resorts where you can stay if you don’t enjoy the wilderness that much but the true sense of this place is that you can have that bonding-with-nature kind of experience.
7. The beautiful girls
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a ‘place’ you can visit, they don’t have them all lined up behind a window (although, you can find that in Amsterdam – so I’ve heard). It’s just that Romanian women are known to be beautiful and that is mostly because they take much interest in their appearance and they enjoy going out in cafés, pubs or clubs – so that makes them something you might want to experience seeing in Romania.
8. Bucharest nightlife
Speaking of clubs, this brings me to the capital of Romania – Bucharest. This big city has a vivid nightlife and fancy, luxurious clubs with music that plays till the sunrise. The custom is that you go to a club where you party & drink til 5-6 a.m. and then you go and have some Turkish kebab or shaworma (a kind of wrap) as a hangover cure. The place where you can find most of the clubs is the Old City Centre, which is very beautiful to visit during the day as well.
9. Northern Moldavia
If you are more the museum-visiting type, this area is one that you would enjoy. There are a lot of old monasteries (some date from the 14th-16th century) where nuns and monks still live nowadays and that are part of the UNESCO world heritage because they are represent the Romanian tradition. They are usually surrounded with vegetation so that can be a place to find peace and serenity even if you are not religious. Be careful of the dress code – you have to wear trousers (or a long skirt) and something rather decent for the top part.
10. The people
I’ve saved the best for last. One important reason you should visit Romania is to find that the people there are welcoming and warm, that you can make long lasting friendships very quickly and that even though Romania is a country that has had many struggles in the past, people are still good at heart and they will welcome you in their house as a friend, not a tourist.
If you have any suggestions for our next ’10 reasons to visit…’ post, please let us know!