soviet republic, it is actually an enchanting travel destination on its own?
1. No visa required
Citizens of many countries, including US, Canada, UK and EU, do not need a visa to travel to Ukraine for up to 90 days. Just bring your passport and get a stamp at the border. This is obviously not the case with neighbouring Russia and Belarus, where you would either experience famous soviet "hospitality" when applying for a visa yourself or pay $200+ to an agency to get a visa for you. This lack of hassle makes it extremely easy to pop into Ukraine while trotting elsewhere in Europe.
Kiev doesn't have the Red Square, nor does it have the Bolshoi theatre, the Hermitage, or the St. Basil's Cathedral. But it has something else. Being older than Moscow, Kiev had been the important centre of Slavic culture
since the 11th century. And it still is the major centre of the Eastern Orthodox
It has a great number of beautiful and very elaborately decorated churches; the Monastery of the Caves visited by pilgrims for centuries and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site; two quiet botanical gardens in addition to many large and small parks; enormous World War II monuments; cobblestone streets; and easy to navigate layout. It is also soviet enough, so you can get an idea of what many Russian cities look like.
Lviv - surprisingly European, this small city on the western boarder looks nothing like Kiev. It's more Catholic, than Orthodox, and could be compared to Warsaw. Even language here is very different; it has more Polish in it. My favourite place in Lviv is the old cemetery where gravestones are real pieces of art. To get here, you can take an overnight train from Kiev, spend the day walking around, and take another overnight train back. Once you set your foot downtown,
within minutes you will be approached by a local offering a city tour. Just go for it, you would be surprised by how many details are hidden from an outsider's eye.
Ukraine is a definitely a budget friendly destination. Even in Kiev you would probably spend half of what you could have hoped for in Moscow. Food, transportation, and entertainment are pleasantly affordable.
4. Slavic cuisine is unique and tasty, and you have to try it
Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus essentially share the same type of cuisine with only minor regional variations. Vodka and caviar are as big in Ukraine as they are in Russia. Same for cabbage rolls, borsch, pancakes,
pelmeni, shashlyk, you name it.
You can get authentic national dishes everywhere: at street stalls, no-frills-type cafeterias, or more upscale restaurants. I've stayed at a place with a fully equipped kitchen, but in my 8 days in Kiev I didn't use it once. Buying tasty homemade food from a cafeteria was more practical.
Again, it's weird for me to say it but Ukranian
people have this unexpected kindness and welcoming attitude to strangers that many Russian people lack. They are also known for having a great sense of humor.
Now, the language barrier in Ukraine is as much of a reality as it is in Russia. So before you go, practice the ultimate survivor skills: excessive hand gestures and universal finger pointing. After all, this is what makes travel to faraway places so exciting.
Need extra persuasion?
Chernobyl is of course not for everyone, but could be a captivating place for some. Located about 100 km from Kiev, it can be visited with a licensed tour company on a daytrip. Some companies even offer overnight stays. I personally haven't been to Chernobyl yet, but it sure is on my list.
P.S. Do you need help with planning your Ukraine trip? Ask me! The last time I've been there was in 2006, but I want to re-visit in the summer of 2013. Stay put for more stories and pictures.