Kyiv is arguably one of the most underrated capitals in Europe. Blending historic charm with Soviet brutalism and modern embellishments, Kyiv is a fascinating city with lots of faces and stories. On this basis, here are some of the best attractions and things to do in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Welcome to Kyiv: a Multifaceted Historic Powerhouse
Kyiv or Kiev (both spellings are correct) has been an Eastern European cultural, trading, and religious hub for many centuries.
Kyiv’s ascent started in the 10th century when it became the capital of Kievan Rus, a loose confederation of Slavic and Uralic populations.
In 988, Kyiv became Christian, and the century that followed saw the construction of numerous landmark churches, including St. Sophia, Golden Gate, and the Monastery of the Caves (Pechersk Lavra).
The period between the 13th and 16th centuries was tumultuous, with lots of attacks, sackings, wars, and conquests. The city became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 14th century before falling to the Kingdom of Poland in the late 16th century.
In the 17th century, Kiev became part of the Tsardom of Russia and the upcoming centuries saw immense development, including railroads, housing, and industrial infrastructure.
After the First World War, Kyiv faced various attacks during the Polish-Soviet War before being incorporated into the Soviet Union. Between 1941 and 1943, the Nazis occupied the city and caused widespread destruction, suffering, and persecution.
The Soviets recaptured the Ukrainian capital in late 1943, and Kyiv remained part of the Soviet Union until 1991 when Ukraine declared independence.
In the 21st century, Kiev became a multifaceted metropolis with nearly 3 million inhabitants. Home to all factions of Ukrainian society, the city has been at the forefront of the country’s endless identity struggle between the pro-European West and the pro-Russian East.
Kyiv is, however, also an industrial, technological, and cultural powerhouse, with a lot more to offer than what most people would expect.
The 12 Best Attractions and Things to do in Kyiv, Ukraine
Kyiv has countless sites in different areas, but a great place to start is the geographic center around Independence Square. The following are the 12 most unmissable places to visit in Kiev.
The Two Landmark Cathedrals in the Center: St. Sophia & St. Michael’s
St. Sophia is one of the most famous monuments in Kyiv and dates from the 11th century. It’s a typical golden-dome Kievan Rus church, reflecting the architecture of the period. Named after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, admiring the stunning cathedral is undoubtedly among the best things to do in Kyiv.
The second centrally-located religious site that should feature on your Kiev itinerary is St. Michael’s Monastery. Located just a stone’s throw away from St. Sophia, the monastery complex enchants visitors with its Baroque churches and various Kievan Rus complexes. Throughout its history, the monastery was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. As such, the current cathedral dates from 1999.
Pechersk Lavra – the Unique Monastery of the Caves
Among the best things to do in Kyiv is undoubtedly also Pechersk Lavra.
First founded as a cave monastery in 1051, the complex is today a vast collection of churches, refectories, and other religious buildings. The gold-themed interiors are stunning, and the site has breathtaking views over the Dnieper river.
During Soviet times, the entire complex became a museum, but since 2000, it has been an active monastery again. Over 100 monks live here today – making Pecherks Lavra an excellent place to learn more about Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Together with the St. Sophia Church, the Monastery of the Caves is the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Kyiv.
Independence Square and Khreschatyk Street
When visiting Kiev, you’ll inevitably stumble upon Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) and the adjacent Khreschatyk shopping street.
Independence Square played a critical part in the history of Ukraine and continues to make headlines today. It was here where the 2004/2005 “Orange Revolution” and the 2014 “Euromaidan” protests started.
Kreschatyk is Kyiv’s primary shopping street with stores, restaurants, and cafés for every taste and budget.
The Motherland Monument and its Museums
Ukraine suffered a lot during the Second World War. Official figures rate the death toll of Ukrainians to around 8 million people, of which over 5 million were civilians.
The 102m (335ft) high Motherland Monument commemorates these losses. Thanks to its immense height, the stainless steel statue is visible from all over Kyiv, emphasizing its significance.
The statue is part of a vast museum complex with exhibitions explaining the horrors of the Second World War in Ukraine.
The Podil Neighborhood
Next, when it comes to fun things to do in Kyiv, the Podil Neighborhood is one of the trendiest areas in the city.
Podil forms the lower part of Kyiv and is located on the floodplain terrace over the Dnieper river. Historically, the area was a trade hub with lots of merchant houses and portal infrastructure.
Today, the neighborhood is brimming with charming 19th-century architecture, hip coffee shops, and nightlife spots. On this basis, if you’re looking for a change of scenery from the hustle and bustle of downtown Kyiv, take the cable car at St. Michael’s and head down to Podil.
The Friendship of Nations Arch
The Friendship of Nations Arch (formerly “Peoples’ Friendship Arch”) opened in 1982 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Soviet Union and the 1,500th anniversary of the city of Kyiv. Located on the right bank of the Dnieper river, the monument has had its fair share of controversies in the last two decades.
As part of Ukrainian decommunization laws, there were plans to tear it down, but as of 2021, it still stands. As such, it’s among the top places to visit in Kiev because it symbolizes Ukraine’s identity struggles.
On a different note, the organizers temporarily painted the arch in rainbow colors and called it the “Arch of Diversity” during the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest.
At any rate, it’s among the most contentious Kiev tourist attractions, but it’s also a relaxing park with beautiful views over the river, warranting a visit if you have time.
The Golden Gate
When it comes to historic places of interest in Kiev, the Golden Gate should be on your list.
Named after the Golden Gate of Constantinople, it was the city’s entrance gate in the 11th century but didn’t survive the Middle Ages.
Rebuilt by the Soviets in 1982, the gate now stands as a beautiful historic structure amid modern architecture.
Other Recommendable Churches: St. Andrew’s and St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral
Aside from the most famous churches in Kiev, several other religious complexes are worth a visit.
The 18th-century St. Andrew’s sits atop a hill overlooking Podil. Its Baroque style, designed by Italian architect Rastrelli, sets it apart from other churches in Kyiv.
Finally, St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral is a neo-Byzantine church built in the 19th century and one of the primary churches of Ukrainian Orthodoxy.
Top Museums to Visit in Kyiv: Chernobyl Museum, Folk Architecture Museum, National Art Museum of Ukraine, and Aviation Museum
When it comes to the best things to do in Kyiv, some of the city’s museums should be part of your itinerary.
In this context, The Chernobyl Museum is the ideal place to learn about the most devastating nuclear accident in human history and a great starting point if you’re planning to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
The Folk Architecture Museum is an open-air museum that showcases the rural history of Ukraine, and the National Art Museum is among the best places to visit in Kiev for art lovers.
Finally, if you want to look at some Soviet planes, check out the Oleg Antonov State Aviation Museum.
The Best Parks in Kyiv: Eternal Glory, Taras Shevchenko, and Botanical Garden
Kyiv has lots of leafy parks and relaxing green spaces.
In this regard, the Eternal Glory Park (overlooking the river and full of World War Two monuments), the Taras Shevchenko Park, and the Botanical Garden (for plant enthusiasts) are recommendable additions to your Kiev itinerary.
Quirky Places of Interest in Kiev: Comfort Town and the Red University
If you’re looking for some unique places to visit in Kiev, the Comfort Town is a haven for architecture lovers. Instead of typical grey Soviet apartment blocks, this neighborhood consists of colorful city blocks and pedestrian-friendly alleys that adhere to the “human scale” concept.
Aside from Comfort Town, the Red University building (Taras Shevchenko National University) looks whacky from every angle, making it a popular spot for Instagram pictures.
Things to do in Kyiv for Foodies: Kyiv Food Market & Besarabsky Market
The offer of restaurants is virtually endless in Kyiv, but two markets will satisfy even the most demanding foodie’s dreams.
Kyiv Food Market has everything from Ukrainian to Vietnamese, American, and Indian food. Thanks to its vast offer, it’s a great spot for every occasion.
Located at the southwest end of Khreshchatyk street, Besarabsky Market has remained unchanged since the early 20th century. It’s one of the most authentic places to visit in Kiev, and you’ll find meat, vegetables, fish, and other delicacies here. There are also various fast food joints, making this one of the top destinations for foodies in Kyiv.
Where to Stay in Kyiv, Ukraine
If you’re visiting Kyiv for the first time, staying close to Independence Square in the center is a no-brainer. You’ll be within walking distance of many tourist attractions, and you’ll have lots of bars and restaurants at your disposal.
Alternatively, the area of Podil is more laid-back and also offers plenty of bars and restaurants. Due to its location further away from the best things to do in Kyiv, it might not be the ideal choice for first-timers.
Things to do in Kiev – Know Before You Go
- Kyiv has an excellent public transport system with metros and buses connecting all parts of the city. Fun fact, Arsenalna Station is the deepest metro station in the world. Uber and Uklon (the Ukrainian equivalent) work well, but you’ll be stuck in traffic most of the time.
- If you’re traveling by air, be aware that Boryspil Airport is located over 35 kilometers (21 miles) away from the city center. There is a train connecting the airport with Kharkiv Train Station (10 kilometers / 6 miles away from the center), but the easiest way to get to the center is to take the Skybus or a taxi.
- English levels aren’t horrible in Kyiv thanks to the influx of Western tourists, but knowing a few Russian or Ukrainian phrases will considerably improve your stay.
- Kyiv is much safer than most people think. There is organized crime, but the kind of petty crime that tourists usually face is relatively low. Apply common sense and beware of scams, and you won’t have any trouble whatsoever.
- Kyiv is also an excellent destination for remote workers. For more info, read my Complete Ukraine Digital Nomad Guide.