Kiev: Europe’s Most Underrated Capital City?

To make it clear from the outset, we fell in love with Kiev! Another one of our ‘off the map’ destinations, it’s gilded churches, quirky street art, cheaper than cheap beer, excellent food and interesting architecture. All of this was enough for Nat to crown Kiev “one of my favourite European cities”, and she’s been to a lot!

Interest in Ukraine’s capital city has skyrocketed since the release of the Sky Atlantic series Chernobyl. If you want to read all about our trip into the Chernobyl exclusion zone (home to the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear disaster), check out our guide here

This is the itinerary we followed for the rest of our long weekend. There is so much more to see and do around Kiev as well as taking a trip into a nuclear wasteland. 

Beer of the trip – American Amber Ale, Solomianska Brovarnia

Scratch map beer – Chernihvske

Getting there…

Boryspil International is the main airport for travelling into Kiev. We were lucky to bag flights from Manchester for £45 return over May bank holiday. Having a quick browse flights have dramatically risen since then, most being around £100 return from the UK. Don’t be put off by this though as the amount of money you will spend in Kiev is less than a quarter of the amount you would spend in most European capitals. 

They also have the cutest airport signs

The airport is 19 miles from the centre of the city and we only paid £12 in an Uber to drop us at Independence Square, Uber is easily the best way to get around the city. 

Just be careful before you book as they have a specific taxi pick up and drop off area for all terminals, we think this was on the second floor. Don’t just head outside and hit the button like we did as you may be charged a cancellation fee (don’t worry if you do though it was only small!).


Ukraine still operate their own currency, the Ukrainian Hryvnia (UAH), which makes the British pound stretch even further (yay!). The exchange rate at August 2019 is £1 to 31 UAH. To put this into a context that everyone is interested in, on average one domestic beer (0.5l) is 29 UAH, or 94p 😊 and a 3-course meal for 2 people in a mid-range restaurant is 650 UAH, or £21.

Where to stay?…

A word of warning, Kiev is huge! For your first visit, Shevchenkivskyi or the northern edge of Pecherskyi district (where we stayed) are probably your best bets. These areas are central and a good base to explore the outer reaches of the city. Fancy hotels and Plus Airbnb’s are happily affordable, so you don’t have to splurge to get excellent accommodation or if you want to be extra savvy (like us) regular Airbnb’s are super cheap.

Day 1: Independence Square, Kreshchatyk, Churches & Craft Beer

After dropping off your bags at your accommodation order an Uber or walk to Independence Square and the Independence Monument.  These are located at the northeast end of Khreshchatyk, the main street running through the centre of the city.

You will more than likely be approached by street performers for pictures in the square which can be quite funny if you feel like a laugh but beware, they will demand a decent payment for their time (150 Hryvnia per person is what they managed to blag from us)!

Still, not every day you have a photo with Garfield while a Dove sits on your head…

Take a stroll down Khreshchatyk after visiting the square for a look at some imposing soviet architecture, plenty of shopping and a variety of bars and restaurants. One thing we didn’t know beforehand (that we wish we did) was that during the evening on Sundays (and on public holidays), Khreshchatyk and Independence Square are closed off to vehicles, and locals come out in force to see a host of street performers and musicians. Finding somewhere to eat and grab a drink al fresco is the best way to enjoy the atmosphere. Make sure you come back during the evening.

After Independence Square and Kreshchatyk you should spend the afternoon exploring some of the city’s famous golden domed churches. There are so many to see that you would be hard pressed to visit them all, but each church is beautiful in its own right so try and visit as many as can!

Firstly, walk up to St Sophia’s Cathedral and take a walk around the church grounds.

For amazing views over the city, make sure you climb the bell tower, which is just a small additional fee over the £1 entry to the grounds.

From St Sophia’s walk down the street to St Michaels Golden domed Monastery (the blue church in the picture above). It’s free entry into the grounds of the monastery and it is stunning! The sky-blue walls of the church and the gilded domes are a photographer’s dream.

If you have time to go inside the churches you should, they are just as impressive inside as outside.

A short walk away is St Andrew’s Church. Unfortunately, the church was closed when we were there however around the rear of the grounds is a viewing platform with great panoramas over northern Kiev looking over the Dnieper River.

Of course it wouldn’t be complete without a beer pic!

You will definitely be thirsty after checking out all the sights, so you should head down the street from St Andrew’s to Solomyanska Brovarnia, A two-storey microbrewery. The ground floor has more of a local pub feel while upstairs is reserved for the restaurant and dining. Grab the tasting flutes to try out their in-house brews, find your favourite and pair it with some of the tasty appetizers from the menu, the tempura prawns are a must.

A little further north is Drunken Monkey, a quirky basement bar with 20 taps of their in-house craft brews on rotation. Famed for their ‘different’ naming style for their beers, classics such as White Walker weizenbock (for all of Joe’s fellow Game of Thones fans), Fat Girlfriend brown ale, and F*ck Like Chocolate Rabbits stout will keep you entertained and tipsy all night long!

Kiev will also not disappoint all you foodies. The food in Ukraine is different to what you would typically find in the rest of Europe, but you can find plenty of international food on offer all around the city. We had great meat & potato skillets at Sunduk, a traditional pub a 5-minute walk from Kreshchatyk (near St Volodymyr’s Cathedral) and make sure you grab a drink from Pilsner Bar just down the road if you’re still thirsty.

Skillet at Sunduk restaurant, still drooling!

Day 2: Botanical Gardens, Motherland Monument & Steaks

Start your second day by grabbing breakfast at one of Kiev’s small cafés. The breakfast at Blue Cup Coffee Shop is worth an honourable mention and will not disappoint!

Head south into the Pechersk district to find The Motherland Monument, a colossal 102m tall statue standing on top of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War. 

The Motherland Monument

The monument and grounds are worth exploring on your way down to the Hryshko National Botanical Garden. The gardens cover 1.3 km² and are home to 13,000 types of trees, shrubs, flowers and other plants from around the world. There is a small entry fee but it’s a great place to leisurely explore and snap some pretty good views of the city from the higher areas of the park.

It’s also an ideal spot to pick up a couple of beverages and enjoy them on the grass in the sun 😉

If you are a fan of steak you need to head over to Syndicate Beer & Grill during your stay! A microbrewery and steakhouse decorated in a prohibition style, with an extensive menu of great home brewed beer and tasty beef that won’t break the bank. 

We would go back tomorrow just for the parmesan fries 😊

Day 3 – Chernobyl

No visit to Kiev would be complete without taking a tour of Chernobyl! The city is only two hours away from the Chernobyl exclusion zone and is the main starting point for guided tours visiting the power plant site and the 30 km nuclear wasteland surrounding it. There are a variety of tour operators offering trips into the exclusion zone so be sure to do your research before booking up. You can read all about our experience at Chernobyl in our blog here

You will probably arrive back into Kiev quite late after your trip so the bars and restaurants along Kreshchatyk will be your best bet after getting dropped off back at Independence Square. We recommend Moments, the pork lion wrapped in bacon is delicious!

Kiev is without a doubt one of Europe’s most underrated destinations. Both inside the city and out, there are places to explore that you would struggle to find anywhere else. If it isn’t already, Kiev should definitely be on your travel radar!

We hope we have been able to help you with your travel planning and you have a wonderful trip to this amazing city.  We would also be more than happy to provide any additional info if needed, drop us a comment below or message us on Instagram @backpacksandbeverages.

Cheers guys,

Joe & Nat xxx

Chernobyl tour : What it’s really like visiting one of the most radioactive places on Earth?

When we booked to go on a day trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone we received a mixture of reactions from our friends and family. “Why on earth would you want to go there?”, “surely it’s not safe and still full of deadly radiation?” and the odd “interesting, I’d like to learn more about Chernobyl myself!”.

Following on from the recent success of the Sky Atlantic series, Chernobyl, these reactions have changed slightly. People are now a lot more interested in finding out for themselves how the desolate area surrounding Chernobyl looks today, only 33 years after the fatal nuclear disaster.

About the disaster…

On 26th April 1996, an experiment on reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant went catastrophically wrong, causing an explosion that resulted in radioactive material being released into the atmosphere, and deposited over most of Europe. 

Watching the series for ourselves has really made us appreciate the importance of where we were. So we have summed up our experience for any of you who may be interested in visiting the Chernobyl exclusion zone, to visit a place that is said to be uninhabitable for at least 3,000 years. 

Tour details

We booked our tour with Solo East, one of several Kiev based firms that run daily trips into the exclusion zone. They had a lot of positive trip advisor reviews and they promised a maximum group size of twelve (which they kept true to) so everyone on the tour could make the most of the guide’s knowledge of the area. Plus, it keeps queue sizes down through each of the checkpoints within the zone, making for much quicker entry. 

How long do the tours last?

We opted for the one-day trip into the zone, which at May 2019 cost around £90 pp. You can also do a two-day tour which includes spending the night in the exclusion zone for around £250 pp. The price gap between the one and two-day tours may put you off taking the longer trip, especially as the price of pretty much everything else in the Ukraine is so low compared to the rest of Europe. However, after doing some research and speaking to various tour guides on the day, you do get a much more in-depth experience compared to the one-day trip.

You need to be aware that the one-day trip is a very long and tiring day! The tour involves an early get up, meeting at around 8am, arriving back into Kiev between 7 and 9pm (depending on the traffic.) Also, due to the amount of stop offs during the day at each of the tour sites, it can seem a rush to see all the main locations. We were exhausted by the time we arrived back into Kiev!

What should you wear for a Chernobyl tour?

Chernobyl tours operate a strict dress code policy. You will need to wear a long sleeved top or jacket, with long trousers and closed toe shoes. No sandals, shorts or skirts are allowed.

Make sure you pack light and preferably take a backpack, as it’s forbidden to place your bag on the ground at any time. If one of your possessions does come into contact with radioactive material and it cannot be cleaned, you will have to leave it behind.  This shouldn’t happen if you stay on the path advised by your tour guide and don’t sit down or put anything on the ground!

Is the Chernobyl tour safe?

It is perfectly safe to enter the zone with a guided tour, providing you stay with your tour group and listen to the safety briefings.

During a Chernobyl tour, the level of exposure falls within a range which is similar to the radiation you would be exposed to on a long-haul plane flight. Just remember to always follow your tour guide, the Ukrainian military patrols within the zone do not take kindly to tourists that wander away from their tour groups to explore on their own and DEFINITELY DON’T take anything away as a souvenir from the zones. 

Things to consider…

1. If you are booking the tour online make sure you opt to rent a Geiger counter, a device used for measuring background radiation. It is interesting to monitor the radiation levels throughout the day and as we can’t see, hear or smell radiation, it would be like visiting an art gallery without your glasses! and they also make for great photo opportunities!

Throughout the day the counters remain quiet with a general ticking noise, until you are advised to hold them against a known ‘hotspot’ by your tour guide and you see them go wild. This really makes the tour come to life. Don’t worry, the radioactive areas you will be taken to cannot give you a harmful dose.

2. Another point to note for the girls especially, the toilet stops are extremely limited, and the only decent bathroom stop is for lunch at the canteen. Make sure you have a pack of tissues and anti bac gel at the ready! Ladies, Nat would recommend planning your Chernobyl trip for a time when you know you won’t be having your period, as she can’t imagine how uncomfortable it would have been. 

3. We would recommend packing enough snacks, snacks and more snacks to last you for the day. There is only one stop off for food during the day for lunch at the canteen, so you will need plenty to keep you going for the 12-14 hours you will be on the tour. We were getting very hangry by the time we made it back to Kiev!

What to expect during the trip…

Tours leave from Independence Square in the centre of Kiev at around 8am, your tour rep will meet you, check your passports, confirmation and then advise which minibus you’ll be on. There is a McDonalds conveniently located nearby so we would recommend grabbing a breakfast or even taking one with you to eat on the journey.

It is a 2-hour drive from Kiev to the first checkpoint at the edge of the exclusion zone. You do stop at a petrol station on the way down where you can also get drinks and snacks. You should definitely use this opportunity to take a bathroom break as well!

At the first checkpoint you need to show your passport to the guards (you need to send your passport info to your tour operator before the trip) while they do a quick search of the tour bus. Your tour guide will issue you with individual tickets for the tour at this point and a Geiger counter if you’ve reserved one.

From here, you will enter the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and visit several locations throughout your day. For us our first stop was one of the many abandoned villages inside the zone, where we saw what life would have been like in rural Soviet Ukraine. Despite the whole area being completely overgrown, most of the buildings were still standing, sort of!

Next up was the Chernobyl town sign, which interestingly, still has the Soviet hammer & chisel symbol. Inside the exclusion zone is the only place throughout all the former Soviet Union that you can still see Soviet propaganda symbols, as these were removed from everywhere else following the downfall of the USSR.

From there we went to a former military base which is home to two enormous radio antennae called “The Russian Woodpecker”, this was used during the cold war to detect incoming ballistic missiles fired at the Soviet Union.

At this point it was time to stop for lunch, which was surprisingly good for a small canteen in a nuclear wasteland! The food is typical Ukrainian fare of meat, potatoes and bread, they did offer vegetarian options too.

After lunch we finally made it to the power plant site itself and got surprisingly close to the reactor building. You can’t actually see the damaged reactor as it is contained in a domed metal structure, where automated robots will be working for around the next 100 years to safely dismantle and dispose of what remains of the power plant.

What the Chernobyl Power Plant looks like today.

The last stop on our trip was the abandoned city of Pripyat. Purpose built for the workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Pripyat was home to approximately 50,000 people at the time of the disaster. The tour of Pripyat takes you to the main square, the leisure centre, the hospital, the school, the supermarket and the famous fairground which you will have probably seen plenty of creepy photos of.

Here our tour guide is holding a picture of what the main square looked like before the disaster.
The abandoned fair ground – possibly the most iconic pictures of Chernobyl.
The highest level of radiation we experienced was detected when our tour guide placed the geiger counter near one of the carriages.
Pripyat school – a lot of scary dolls left behind.
The scariest doll we came across!
The swimming pool within the leisure centre – glad I left my swimming shorts at home today.

After Pripyat you will make your way out of the exclusion zone, and from there it’s another couple of hours back to Kiev traffic permitting. It took us around three and a half hours to get back to the city ☹

It was a very long (and incredibly interesting) day so do bare this in mind, in hindsight the 2-day tour may have been the better option but as we didn’t have long in Kiev unfortunately it didn’t work as an option for us. If you do have the time we would love to hear your opinion on the 2-day trip, please drop us a comment in the box below or a message on instagram.

We hope that this helps solve your debate on whether to take a trip to explore the most “dangerous” place on Earth 😊 

We also fell in love with the beautiful city of Kiev and will be posting a blog about our recommendations / itinerary as soon as we get chance! So watch this space for more help planning your Ukrainian escape 🙂

Happy exploring!

Joe & Nat xxx