One of the most underrated European capitals, Kiev is an alluring mix of centuries-old architectural masterpieces, amazing food, bustling nightlife and energetic art. Having gone through two modern revolutions, the Ukrainian capital quirkily combines the best of East and West. It’s a city of curious contradictions where old and new clash in the most bizarre – and brilliant – ways.
And it’s never been easier to visit, with Ryanair launching direct flights from London Stansted to complement existing services operated by BA, Wizz Air and Ukraine International.
What to do
Descend into ancient caves
Unesco-protected Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery complex, entrance 30 hryvnias (£0.90), is the main highlight of the Ukrainian capital. Be sure to descend into the dimly-lit labyrinth of ancient caves where monks previously dwelt. The experience is enhanced by the presence of the mummified bodies of the saints resting in numerous vaults underground.
Be amazed by Byzantine architecture
St Sophia’s Cathedral, entrance 180 hryvnias (£5.20), is a Kiev must-see. It was built as the main church for the powerful medieval empire of Kievan Rus and has been a splendid symbol of Kiev ever since. Be awe-inspired by the breathtaking Byzantine interior and well-preserved medieval frescoes inside. For fantastic vistas of downtown Kiev, climb the elegant Baroque bell tower, which boasts 360-degree views of the city centre.
Walk down the local Montmartre
Long-known as a mecca for painters, musicians, writers and artisans, the cobbled street of Andriivs’kyi Descent is one of the last remaining places to sense the atmosphere of the pre-Soviet or “old” Kiev, as locals would say. Get a trademark apple cider in Kanapka, visit Karas Gallery and spend an evening at Koleso Theatre, set in a tenement house from the 19th century. Take the stairs to the top of Castle Hill to enjoy magnificent views of this street, dominated by the Baroque St Andrew’s Church.
Get your dose of art
Pay a visit to Khanenko Museum of Arts, entrance 70 hryvnias (£2), for spectacular Eastern and Western collections of classical art, and the National Art Museum of Ukraine, entrance 40 hryvnias (£1.1), for the rich selection of chef-d’œuvres by local masters.
Kiev is also famous for its contemporary art scene, with two institutions standing out.PinchukArtCentre is a free gallery featuring the likes of Damien Hirst, Banksy, Marina Abramovic and Ai Weiwei; it frequently hosts cutting-edge seasonal exhibitions. Izolyatsia is a former shipyard turned creative space buzzing with energetic displays of local and international artistic talent.
Where to stay
Ideally positioned in the middle of the historic Bohdana Khmelnytskoho street, 11 Mirrors is a stylish boutique hotel with a scrupulously designed, contemporary feel. It offers spacious and comfortable rooms and an excellent mezzanine restaurant. Doubles from £195, B&B.
MaNNa is a modern boutique hotel with just five rooms. Boasting an innovative loft design, great service and convenient location in the hip Vozdvyzhenka district, it’s welcoming and trendy, an ideal Kiev refuge. Doubles from £163, room only.
The leader of the local hostel scene, DREAM House Hostel Kyiv is a perfect pick for an affordable place to stay in the city. Situated as central as you can get, it has a great room selection and vibrant atmosphere – it’s everything you’d expect from a good hostel. Doubles from £26, room only.
Where to eat
Offering a modern and innovative take on traditional Ukrainian dishes, Kanapa is one of the best restaurants in the capital. It benefits from a great setting in a charming, old, wooden house on Andriyivsky Uzviz. Treat yourself to culinary superstars like black varenyky (traditional Ukrainian filled dumplings) with pikeperch, borsch soup with pork ears and the iconic chicken Kiev.
Mama Manana is a soulful and cosy restaurant serving superbly tasty, simple Georgian food and wine. Plump for khinkali dumplings with various fillings, extra cheesy khachapuri bread and chkmeruli made of chicken in a garlic cream sauce.
To really understand the Kiev food scene you should head to the streets. Start your tour with legendary Perepichka (B. Khmelnytskoho st, 3), serving fried buns with a sausage inside for the last 30 years. Continue with Yaroslava (Yaroslaviv Val, 13), a retro eatery supplying locals with super affordable and incredibly tasty filled pies since 1956. Finish up with a more modern option: Green 13 is the best vegan spot around and its trademark Green Burger is out of this world.
Where to drink
Hidden in a basement on the central Shota Rustaveli street, Alchemist may well be the Kiev’s most bohemian spot. It’s top-notch bar meets bombastic dance floor meets jazz club, with a great selection of drinks, an amazing atmosphere and a trendy, well-curated set of music acts. An ideal high-end nightlife spot.
Barman Dictat may be a bit difficult to find (it lurks in one of the courtyards off the main Khreschatyk street), but once you do locate this basement bar, it’s definitely worth the journey. With an impressive floor-to-ceiling alcohol stand, cool industrial design and one long bar serving as the centre of the action, it’s a classy locale in which to enjoy after-dinner drinks.
With futuristic, minimalism-inspired design, a high-quality drink selection and fantastic views, One Love stands out from the many coffee shops of Kiev. It’s located on the 5th floor of PinchukArtCenter – combine a coffee break with a gander at some of the best contemporary art around.
Where to shop
For the biggest choice of clothes from Ukrainian designers and brands, head to the largeVsi. Svoi store located on Khreschatyk street. Keep an eye out for embroidery – Ukraine is famous for its vyshyvankas (traditional embroidered shirts) – and check out the locally produced bags, shoes and T-shirts.
Browse Mriyi Mariyi for authentic and well-made Ukrainian memorabilia. It has a great assortment of potential souvenirs such as traditional clothes, ceramics, glass, art and knick-knacks.
Bessarabsky Rynok is a legendary Kiev market offering a rich selection of goods. Although slightly overpriced, it remains one of the most popular markets in the capital.
One of the most instantly recognizable elements of Kiev’s skyline is the magnificent Great Lavra Bell Tower. Built in the 18th century and adorned by more than 50 columns, it’s one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.
The Great Lavra Bell Tower is a dramatic addition to the skyline (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
Ukrainian hryvnia (UAH), currently around 33.90 to £1.
What language do they speak?
Ukrainian is an official language with Russian widely spoken as well.
How much should I tip?
Around 10 per cent of the bill.
What’s the time difference?
Two hours behind the UK.
What’s the average flight time from the UK?
Metro is a good option for getting around. Buses can be overcrowded and inconvenient. Avoid marshrutkas (privately owned mini-buses); Uber is the best choice for a taxi service.
Head to Volodymyrska Hirka Park for stunning views over the Dnipro River and the Kiev hills.
Try and time a visit with the monthly Kurazh Bazar, the coolest and biggest flea market in the city.