After enduring a Nazi invasion, Soviet occupation and numerous revolutions, Ukraine has emerged a country reborn — primed and ready for travellers in search of a unique experience that won’t break the bank.
Rich in history and culture, but with a modern, youthful feel, visitors will quickly fall in love with Ukraine’s welcoming people.
And getting to this Eastern European country from Canada — whether you’re a tourist or among the 1.4 million Canadians of Ukrainian decent — has never been easier since Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) introduced direct flights from Toronto to Kyiv (aka Kiev) last year.
Arriving in the nation’s capital, you’ll quickly realize there is much to see and do in this city of about 2.9 million.
In the centre of town is Independence Square (Maidan) — a living, breathing testament to the struggles and resiliency of Ukrainians.
You can almost feel the heart of the country beating as you stand before the towering Independence Monument and take in the surrounding display of images depicting clashes between protesters and security forces during the 2013-14 revolution known as Euromaidan — the most recent of four rebellions since the country began fighting for independence in 1991.
During the fiercest days of Euromaidan, dozens of demonstrators were killed, many by sniper fire, as they protested human rights violations and government corruption.
City guide Anastasia Lazo explained a “peaceful” demonstration began in late 2013 and later turned to bloodshed when soldiers attempted to clear protesters — many of them students who had been camped out for months — from the square.
The revolution ultimately led to the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.
Steps from the Square is a monument to those killed, affectionately remembered as the Heavenly Hundred. Photos of these heroes and their stories line a nearby sidewalk.
Yanukovych ultimately fled the country and went into hiding in Russia.
Lazo said it was only then that Ukrainians got their first glimpse of the sprawling 140-hectare estate, known as the Mezhyhirya Residence, where their former president lived with his mistress — spending $4 million a month on maintenance while many citizens lived in poverty.
The well-manicured grounds have since been opened to the public, so visitors can see the former president’s massive vehicle collection, play a round on his golf course, enjoy the petting zoo, and marvel at other features such as the Spanish galleon moored in the harbour.
With help from a tour operator such as Julia Kulik, who runs JC Travel (& Tours) with her husband, Alex, you can visit the inside of the former president’s home — Honka club house — built by a Finnish company.
Petro Oliynyk, a quirky grocer who took up residence in the opulent four-storey house after the revolution, will show you around and may even demonstrate how to use a trembita (alpine horn).
Hand-carved inlaid flooring, a private chapel, Swarovski crystal chandeliers, suits of armour, an indoor tennis court, a bowling alley and a rare Steinway Imagine Series Limited Edition piano all illustrate the lavish lifestyle Yanukovych was living.
Soon after the 2014 revolution, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and there is ongoing unrest in southeastern Ukraine. But the conflict is far from Kyiv, which is as safe as any European city.
Perhaps it helps having former heavyweight boxing champ Vitali Klitschko as its mayor?
Walking around Kyiv, you’ll be struck by the many spires of brilliantly coloured churches.
In the centre of town is the bright yellow St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, built in honour of the prince who brought Christianity to Ukraine.
There’s also the stunning St. Sophia Cathedral — a UNESCO World Heritage site and Kyiv’s oldest Christian church, St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral and St. Andrew’s Church.
Another UNESCO site in Kyiv not to be missed is the Pechersk Lavra (monastery of the caves) — founded in 1051. Visitors can take a candlelight walk through the sacred caves lined with the tombs of 126 saints.
If food is a draw when travelling, you won’t be disappointed in Ukraine.
For an unforgettable fine-dining experience and a menu filled with traditional country-style dishes, including borscht served in a cabbage instead of a bowl, be sure to check out Kanapa in Kyiv.
“Here it’s all about authentic but inspirational dishes, from before Soviet occupation,” said Maria Banko, a spokesman for Borysov Restaurant Group, which operates Kanapa.
The company owns numerous concept restaurants created by chef Dima Borisov, including Chicken Kyiv where you can enjoy a chicken Kiev dinner with a tasty Kyiv cake for dessert for under $10.
For a truly unique experience, visit Ostannya Barykada (The Last Barricade), a themed restaurant celebrating Ukrainian revolutions.
After entering a small bar and providing a “secret” password, a hidden door opens up into a large dining area. If you take a seat on a stool at the diner-style counter, a wall opens and the stools slide into yet another dining room.
If you enjoy themed restaurants be sure to visit Lviv — a city of about 725,000 known as the jewel of Western Ukraine, which is about an hour from Kyiv via a reasonably priced UIA flight.
When it comes to concept restaurants, !Fest has cornered the market. You could spend days in this city’s medieval centre visiting the company’s many restaurants, cafes, pubs and shops.
“Each place has a story,” !Fest spokesman Taras Maselko said.
One of the chain’s most creative endeavours is the Coffee Mining Manufacture where you can enjoy a hot drink and visit a makeshift coffee mine.
“We tell people we dig the coffee in the mines under the square in Lviv,” Maselko said, laughing, as he explained some visitors actually believe the fictitious legend.
Down in the ancient cellar, visitors are given mining helmets to wear, coffee spills from the walls into mining carts on tracks and a server will set your table ablaze with a blow torch while caramelizing your cup of Joe.
Another must-see !Fest restaurant in Lviv is Kryjivka, where the entrance is guarded by a Partisan fighter armed with a submachine-gun who pours you a shot of honey vodka from his canteen after you provide a “secret” password.
A hidden door opens to an underground bunker — known as the last hiding place of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.
If you walk up a nearby flight of stairs and knock on the door of apartment 8, an older man in a bathrobe will invite you into his tiny apartment before showing you through a hidden door into the Most Expensive Galician Restaurant.
There’s also the Masoch Cafe where scantily clad servers invite guests to get on their knees to be lightly whipped.
And a Jewish restaurant of sorts — At the Golden Rose, in the city’s historic Jewish quarter — where you bargain with the server to determine how much to pay.
Lviv’s population was once about one-third Jewish, but now there are less than 2,000 Jewish residents and all but four of the city’s 35 synagogues were destroyed by the Nazis.
A sombre memorial and the new Territory of Terror museum near Lviv’s former Jewish ghetto serve as reminders of the more than 100,000 Jews who passed through the Janowska concentration camp — some 40,000 of whom were put to death.
At night, the streets of Lviv become quite lively — not surprising since one in five residents is a student at one of the city’s 11 universities.
“Kyiv is the heart of Ukraine, but Lviv is the soul,” said Diana Borysenko, a city guide who also does genealogy tours. “Wherever you go, you feel like you are in a special city.”
If you’re daring enough to climb more than 300 steps up the city’s bell tower, you can enjoy breathtaking views of Lviv — home to more than 60% of the country’s UNESCO sites — and many of its 150 active churches.
While some in the country still speak Russian, most now speak Ukrainian. Learning the East Slavic language is no easy feat and forget about reading street or storefront signs, which are all written in Cyrillic.
Fortunately, many Ukrainians speak some English and are happy to help.
However, if you want to make new friends quickly, you should learn one word — budmo (similar to cheers).
A traditional toast in Ukraine involves the toaster and other revellers raising their glasses — perhaps filled with locally brewed Pravda beer — and joining in this back-and-forth exchange:
Budmo! Hey! Hey! Hey!
HOW TO GET THERE
Ukraine International Airlines offers direct flights from Toronto to Kyiv twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays, for under $1,000. The country’s largest airline also flies to more than 80 domestic and international destinations in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the United States. For more information visit flyuia.com/ca/en/home.
WHERE TO STAY
There are plenty of hotels to choose from in Ukraine, including big-name chains that travellers from North America will recognize. But if you prefer lodgings with a more local feel, consider these options:
IN KYIV — The Opera Hotel, located down the street from the national opera house and walking distance to the city centre, is a beautiful melding of three buildings, one of which dates back 150 years. With 140 rooms, starting at around $150 per night in the low season and about $270 in the high season, its friendly staff offer a personal touch. This hotel has hosted celebrities such as Britney Spears and the Real Madrid soccer team. But the piece de resistance is its Teatro Restaurant, which offers a fine-dining experience with an amazing menu created by award-winning Sicilian chef Gaetano Sgroi, who combines “tradition with a touch of originality” while using the freshest ingredients and products made in-house. For more, visit opera-hotel.com/en.
IN LVIV — The family-owned Hotel Leopolis, a UNESCO world heritage site, is located around the corner from the city’s central square. This cosy hotel has 72 rooms, offers five-star service and has a gorgeous cigar lounge in its 15th-century brick cellar. It hosts an assortment of musicians during the city’s annual jazz festival in June and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has even stayed here. For more, visit leopolishotel.com.
GUIDES AND TOURS
JC Travel (& Tours) — The husband and wife team of Julia and Alex Kulik specialize in small groups, one to 10 people, and offer an unmatched personal touch whether you want to see the sites or experience Ukraine as a local: enjoy-ukraine.com.
Diana Borysenko — This city guide offers private tours of Lviv and Western Ukraine, but she also does unique genealogy tours for those interested in tracing their ancestry: tourguides.viator.com/tour-guide-diana-borysenko-144007.aspx.