My partner and I were invited to attend our friends’ wedding in Kiev, Ukraine this summer. Our schedule did not assume much free time in Kiev during the days of the wedding so we did not really count on much sightseeing opportunities. Luckily for us we managed to see quite a few of Kiev’s attractions. Unfortunately, English speaking tours are relatively pricey and not readily available. As such, most of the education had to be done after the visit to Kiev was already complete. That said, I marked the most notable places in my mind so here they are:
Orthodox Christian heritage
Saint – Sophia Cathedral
Saint – Sophia Cathedral is Kiev’s oldest standing church which was originally designed as the main Christian church of the Kievan Rus’ capital. It was constructed to rival Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and symbolize Kiev as “new Constantinople”.
The Christianization of Kievan Rus’ happened in several stages. Given the Primary Chronicle, the definitive Christianization of Kievan Rus’ dates from the year 988 when Vladimir the Great along with his family and the people of Kiev were baptized in Dniepr River. The first foundation of Saint – Sophia Cathedral is said to have been laid under Vladimir the Great; however, the construction of the cathedral was done under the reign of Yaroslav the Wise, son of Vladimir the Great. It was Yaroslav the Wise who founded the first library in Ukraine and was eventually buries in the cathedral along with other grand princes of Kiev Rus’ and metropolitans. Saint – Sophia Cathedral was the place where coronations were performed, councils met, foreign ambassadors were received and numerous historic treaties announced. Throughout its history, Saint – Sophia cathedral saw the days of prosperity as well as the times of decay. Being part of UNESCO heritage, Saint – Sophia Cathedral is being restored and maintained; however, no religious ceremonies are allowed on its premises.
Knowing the significance of Saint – Sophia Cathedral, I was looking forward to my visit there. Being a first time visitor in Kiev, you cannot miss this landmark. However, I think you need to be cultured and very much in touch with the history of the region in order to understand the significance of this place. In my personal experience, I appreciated Kiev Pechersk Lavra more.
Kiev Pechersk Lavra
Kiev Pechersk Lavra is probably one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city of Kiev. It contains numerous architectural monuments, ranging from bell towers to cathedrals to cave systems and to strong fortification walls. Pressed for time, my partner and I had a chance to explore only Kiev Monastery of the Caves and Holy Dormition Cathedral. Kiev Monastery of Caves is a medieval cave monastery which represent rather complex labyrinth system of underground cells, churches, burials and catacombs full of mummified monks, religious relics and icons. Since the cave monastery was founded in 1051, the Lavra has been a preeminent center of Easter Orthodox Christianity in Easter Europe.
In the 11th century, an orthodox monk Antony excavated the first underground cell in the Ukrainian wilderness in order to serve God without any distraction. One by one the monks began to join him and a community of 12 monks slowly evolved. In 1057 Antony proclaimed Varlaam to be the first hegumen of Kiev Pechersk Monastery (Varyazskaya Cave / Far Caves) and moved to another hill where he excavated another underground cell for himself (Caves of St Antony / Near Caves). The tittles “Near Caves” and “Far Caves” are assigned based on the proximity of the caves to the Holy Dormition Cathedral, the first praying facility built by the monks.
Holy Dormition Cathedral is the main church of Kiev Monastery of Caves. It was originally constructed as Kiev’s second great Byzantine – inspired church; however, today Holy Dormition Cathedral is considered to be the most important religious site in Kiev. The original wooden structure of 1073 was eventually replaced one century after by the stone built cathedral with beautiful frescos and icons. Unfortunately the cathedral was demolished in 1941 so your visit will be to the reconstructed version of the original cathedral.
Whether you are familiar with the history of the region and Orthodox Christianity or know nothing of it, I would suggest taking a tour of the whole Kiev Pechersk Lavra complex: underground and above the ground parts. Being pressed for time, we did not take a tour which I greatly regretted as we had to collect the stories from our cab driver and friends in order to give at least some context to the place we visited. The only thing we know for certain is that there are a lot of myths, controversies and history involved.
Overall, Lavra went through a series of disastrous damages and revivals before being mostly rebuilt so you should keep that in mind. Also, being such a popular tourist attraction, I found it to be rather commercialized and only somewhat prepared for tourists unaware of Orthodox Christian etiquette. Women have to attend church while wearing a mid-length / long skirt (no pants allowed), top covering the shoulders and head scarf.
Ukrainian cultural heritage
Mamaeva Sloboda is a Cossack settlement in the middle of Kiev city where your group can get introduced to the daily life, old customs, traditional gastronomy and dancing of eastern Ukraine.
We attended Mamaeva Sloboda as part of the group celebration and truly enjoyed our time there. Our tour guide was so passionate about the Cossack way of living that we felt like she hosted us in her own home. The territory of this living museum was clean. Even though we attended it on a rather rainy day, my white shoes stayed white. The food was amazing, the drinks were plentiful, the games we played after substantial amount of drinks were super fun and the musicians made our feet move to the beat. We had a great time as a group exploring and celebrating Ukrainian culture in Mamaeva Sloboda.
There are quite a few restaurants that we had a chance to explore but Hutorets on the Dnieper I remember the most.
Part of the restaurant is located in the building standing right on the river bank while the patio of the restaurant is floating on the waters of Dnieper. We chose to sit on the patio and we could not have been happier as we could enjoy the coziness of the restaurant ambiance as well as the comfortable summer breeze.
The food was amazing as well. I personally do not find pork belly even slightly tempting; however, salo is The thing in Ukraine so no skipping there. We tried 7 types of pork belly and for the most part it was actually good. There were a lot of dishes to choose from and we most certainly indulged. To finish the night, we polished it all with traditional infusion drinks for better digestion and sleep.
Being a first time visitor in Ukraine, Kiev was destined to be the bonding point. This post includes only those aspects of Kiev that made the biggest impression on me. That said, there are numerous museums, churches, stores and restaurants to explore so be ready to find that the city has more to offer than what your initial Google search indicates. If you are planning to visit Kiev, you can be sure that it is a very safe and affordable city.
Thanks for reading,