Ukraine isn’t the first destination to top everybody’s list, but it should be. The former Soviet republic is a prime destination for history buffs, outdoorsmen and adventure travelers alike.
The capital city of Kiev, founded in the 5th century, has been overrun and occupied by the the Khazars, Mongolians, the Lithuanians and the Nazis, among others, but still stands proudly today as home to roughly 2.7 million people.
The country has amped up construction ahead of their co-hosting gig (along with their western neighbor, Poland) of the Euro 2010 Football Championships in 2012. Matches will be held in Kiev, Donetsk, and Lviv, and the country has furiously worked at creating a new concourse at the Kiev airport, now to open in 2012, as well as ample hotel rooms for tourists and viewers alike.
Ukraine created its own money, the Hryvnia, in 1996 (1 Hryvnia equals 13 U.S. cents). Meals can cost between $30 and $40 per person in Kiev, with meals going for less in smaller towns that dot the country. Or opt for the far more budget-friendly option of cafeteria-style restaurants, where meals can go for as little as $4. Hotels are another story, with basic rooms starting out at around $100.
Major international carriers such as Delta, Continental, SwissAir, KLM and British Airways all fly with stopovers from New York’s JFK airport to Kiev (a quick check shows that flights start around $1,400 with a stopover).
For a city break: Kiev
Kiev, the nation’s capital, is part Soviet, Russian and Ukrainian in nature and architecture.
Because of this, its a great city to explore, with museums, churches and monuments galore, not to mention a stunning waterfront on the Dnieper (Dniepro) River.
Be sure to check out the St Sophia Cathedral, a World Heritage Site constructed in the 11th century, and the Kievo Pecherska Lavra, a monastic compound overlooking the river that has a labyrinth of mummified corpses of monks below.
Public transportation is the name of the game here. The subway (metro) runs efficiently though its often crowded. Or take a bus or tram around town, taxis are more expensive, with prices starting around 20uah for a ride (roughly $2.50).
For the adrenaline junkie: Chernobyl
If nuclear history is of interest, head outside Kiev to Chernobyl, the nuclear reactor that exploded in April 1986.
The plant sits roughly 62 miles north of Ukraine’s capital and transportation can be spotty, to say the least. Arrange for a tour that picks you up in Kiev and takes you round trip instead.
Be warned: tours are a bit pricey; most start around $140 per person.
For the outdoorsman: Carpathian Mountains
Would-be skiers, hikers and bike riders alike head to the Carpathian Mountains, the highest and largest mountain range in Eastern Europe.
Ukraine’s mountains are smaller than those of their Polish counterparts, but they are easily accessible by public transportation (and even taxis) from many of the country’s cities.
There is an overnight train from Kiev to the northern portions of the mountains, or take a train from Kiev to Lviv (roughly $30 each way) and hop a “marshrutka” (minibus) to the mountains.
For the movie fan: Khotyn Fortress
Located in Khotyn in western Ukraine, the fortress was built in 1325 and is now known as one of the “7 wonders of Ukraine.”
It is also the setting of setting of various films, including “The Three Museketeers”.
The kicker? It costs a mere 50 cents to enter.
For the cultural lover: Lviv
A major Polish and Jewish cultural center, Lviv sits roughly 300 miles from Kiev and 100 miles from the Carpathian mountains.
The city’s architecture is very…un-Soviet. Though fires in the 16th century destroyed much of the city’s Gothic buildings, the city still boasts stunning examples of Renaissance and Baroque architecture.
Walking is key here. Travel by foot is very doable. Be sure to visit the city’s tallest point, the Castle Hill (Zamkova Hora).
For the history buff: Odessa
Odessa has been an important Black Sea port city for centuries, and was further made famous with the Battleship Potemkin uprising in 1905, seen by many to be a precursor to the Russian Revolution some 12 years later.
Among the various tourist attractions in this port town are the Potemkin Steps, which were built between 1837 and 1841. The steps were built to create a direct line from the main city of Odessa to the harbor below.
For a true bargain, head to the somewhat seedy but popular Seventh-Kilometer Market, which sits near the airport on 170 acres. It’s a bargain hunter’s paradise.
For the nature lover: Sofiyivsky Park, Uman
Sofiyivisky Park is an historical botanic garden in Uman, a city in the center of the Ukraine.
The expansive garden, founded in 1796, has over 2,000 types of trees and is now considered a “wonder” of the Ukraine. The park was designed to illustrate portions of Homer’s The Illiad and The Odyssey.
Open from 9am to 6pm, entrance is free.
For the beach goer: Yalta
The beaches of Yalta, and all of the Crimean peninsula, are a chic hangout for eastern Europe’s elite.
Cafes dot the town, home to the historic Yalta Conference of 1945, when the heads of state in World War II met to discuss post-war organization.
Head to the Hotel Yalta, which offers a nicer beach than those the rockier beach (akin to those of the French Riviera). Be forewarned: It might cost a few Hryvinias to get in.