The Eastern European country of Ukraine, which declared its independence from the former Soviet Union just over 20 years ago in 1991, is the second-largest country in Europe. It has a long, proud and diverse history, having survived many revolutions, political corruption, economic hardship and oligarchal rule for many years.
Cultural Melting Pot
It has an eclectic mix of Central European cuisine, language, architecture and fine arts as it was historically under control of countries such as Romania, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia and Turkey for centuries.
Its capital, Kiev, is notable for its internationally famous Baroque and Orthodox architecture and its green, hilly terrain. Some of the country’s most famous sites include the Potemkin Stairs in Odessa; Freedom Square in Kharkiv, The Swallow’s Nest Neo-Gothic chateaux fantastique near Yalta; Livadia Palace near Yalta; Balaklava Harbour in Crimea; and the infamous Chernobyl, site of the 1986 nuclear disaster.
Traveling to Ukraine
It is much easier to travel to Ukraine these days, as tourist visas are no longer required for those from the EU, the U.S., Japan, Canada, Switzerland and many other countries. Therefore, tourists can travel up to 90 days in Ukraine without a visa. Always check in advance for the regulations of customs for both the departing country and the Ukraine, as rules can change.
Perhaps the least expensive way to fly to the Ukraine is via Boryspil International Airport near Kiev. International hubs include Frankfurt, Budapest, Munich, London, Prague, Rome, Milan, Warsaw and Vienna.
The quickest way to navigate the larger cities is the “marshrutka,” which are minibuses that follow set routes much like standard buses do. Fare is paid when you get in, and is the same no matter the destination, and is the same for all other street transportation. Every city has a bus station that will connect you to almost anywhere in the country.
Trains are run by Ukrainian Railways, which is state owned. For more information about trains and routes, visit Poezda.net.
For those who want to drive, be aware all signs are in Ukrainian and only a few have the Latin alphabet, usually in larger cities. Also note that the speed limit or other warning sign is only posted once. The speed limit is approximately 40 mph.
Ukrainian is the official language, but Russian is most often spoken in the south and east. The younger generations may well speak English, as it is the most widely taught foreign language. It’s a good idea to have access to a bilingual guide and a mobile phone when traveling to Ukraine, and try to become familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet before going.
Ukrainian dishes are well known for their savory, strong dishes, much like those of Russia. The Ukrainian diet includes beef, chicken, pork, fish, potatoes, grains, fresh and pickled vegetables. Traditional food includes “solianka,” a meat soup, “borshch,” made of red beets, and “salo,” which is salted lard. More favorites are “varenyky,” dumplings filled with meat, vegetables or fruits; and “deruny,” potato pancakes.
Ukrainian dishes tend to be inexpensive, filling and hearty. Try the chain Puzata Hata, a Unkrainian restaurant with several locations. It serves inexpensive, traditional meals and “kvas,” a refreshing non-alcoholic beverage.
Raise a toast
Ukrainian vodka, or “horilka” with pepper is a specialty, as are these other flavors of vodka: linden, wheat, birch and honey. Don’t pass up on Ukrainian wine, either. There are fantastic ones from the Crimean region and cost between $2 and $50 per bottle.
Ukrainian beer is very good, brewed by PPB (Persha Privatna Brovarnia), Obolon and Lvivske. These beers are becoming more popular outside of Ukraine as well, because they are inexpensive. For example, a bottle of Edelweiss from Austria can be $2 per bottle, whereas a Ukrainian beer would be $0.50.
Do try kvas, a non-alcoholic drink made of rye or wheat. Street vendors sell it all over the place, as well as mineral water, beer, strong drinks and lemonades.
Hotels like home
Hotels in Kiev are much like you would find in any large city, but outside Kiev, they are quite different. There are many mid-range hotel options outside Kiev, such as the Ivano-Frankivsk near the Carpathians. Many hotels give the choice between a “Western Style” or “East-European Style” room, and the difference is that the “East-European Style” room is very basic and not renovated (but much cheaper!).
For those who want a hotel reminiscent of one in Paris or London, there are a number of five-star hotels in Donetsk and Kiev. One may also rent an apartment online, a nice option for those staying longer than a few days.
Wonderland for wanderers
On the crossroads between eastern and central Europe and the north and south, Ukraine has mountain ranges that are ideal skiing locations and are gorgeous hiking, fishing and hunting destinations.
The Black Sea coast is a draw during the summer months, and within the country there are historic parks, ancient churches and mosques, as well as castles and vineyards.
The Crimea is known for its fantastic swimming on the sea, and travelers can cruise the Dnieper River from Kiev to the Black Sea.
Fervent football fans
The Soviet emphasis on physical training has been a boon for Ukraine. There are now many swimming pools, gyms and other athletic venues to hone one’s skills. The most popular sport? Most definitely football, with a premier league (“Vyscha Liha”), and the Football Club Dynamo Kyiv and Football Club Shakhtar Donetsk (leading the league now).
Ukraine entered the Olympics in 1994 at the Winter Games, and is ranked 35th by the amount of gold medals it has won. This year, Ukraine will be host to the Euro 2012 alongside Poland.
If you want some tickets for Euro 2012 in Ukraine, click here.
You may also like to check out my posts on other exciting travel destinations here