OverviewOne of the largest and most varied countries in Europe, Ukraine takes in the spectacular Carpathian Mountains in the west, the history-rich central plains and the stunning Black Sea coast in the south. The Crimean Peninsula, ethnically more Russian than Ukrainian, remains a huge draw for holidaymakers from Russia every summer.
Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, is the origin of the Kyiv Rus state, founded in the eighth and ninth centuries, and the origin of the Russian state. Striking examples of baroque and Renaissance architecture can be found in Lviv, one of Europe's oldest cities, while Odessa is probably best known for the Potemkin Stairway, but is also home to one of the world's largest opera houses.
Historically part of the Russian Empire since the 1650s, and later incorporated into the Soviet Union, Ukraine gained its independence in 1991 following the failed Moscow coup of August that year. The country came to international attention in late 2004 when 10 days of mass protests over electoral fraud led to a re-run of the presidential election and the eventual declaration of Viktor Yushchenko as president. The people's Orange Revolution undoubtedly raised Ukraine's profile abroad and the country is beginning to find its place on the tourist map.
Quick FactsCapital: Kyiv
Currency: Hryvnia (UAH)
Area: total: 603,700 sq km, water: 0 sq km, land: 603,700 sq km,
Population: 48,396,470 (July 2002 est.)
Language: Ukrainian (official), Russian (defacto second language and universally understood), Romanian, Polish, Hungarian
Religion: Ukrainian Orthodox - Moscow Patriarchate, Ukrainian Orthodox - Kyiv Patriarchate, Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox, Ukrainian Catholic (Uniate), Protestant, Jewish, Muslim
Calling Code: +380
Internet TLD: .ua
Time Zone: UTC +2
Visa requirements and customs
Tourist visas are no longer required for citizens of the European Union, United States, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Vatican City, Monaco, Iceland, Norway, San Marino, Mongolia, Serbia, Montenegro and the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (except Turkmenistan). This applies only for tourist travel lasting less than 90 days.
For other countries, visas are obtainable within a few hours of visiting a Ukrainian consulate having received a 'letter of invitation' from one's prespective lodging or business provider.
More information is available at Ukraine's Embassy in your country and/or the Foreign service departments of your national governments (or their embassy websites here in Ukraine).
Always know how much currency you have with you. Customs officials might inquire about the amount being brought into the country. It is prohibited to bring large amounts of Ukrainian currency (hryvnia) in to the country unless it was declared upon leaving Ukraine.
It is advisable to check in advance the customs regulations (e.g. the Boryspol Airport website, which has an English version) as rules and regulations have the habit of changing at short and unannounced notice.
When entering the country you will be required to complete an immigration form - currently this is a simple white document with two parts that have more or less identical information. Both parts should be completed on arrival: the immigration officer will keep one part and you have to retain the second, which you will need to show to the immigration officer on your departure from the country. It is not advisable to lose this easily lost scrap of paper, as you'll almost certainly have difficulties on leaving Ukraine (and likely incur a "fine" too). You will need to know where you are going to stay as this is required on the form and the immigration officer will insist that it is filled in.
The cheapest way to fly into Ukraine is through the Kyiv Boryspil International Airport. The main international hubs for these flights are Budapest, Frankfurt, Milan, Munich, Prague, London, Rome, Vienna and Warsaw with several flights a day of Austrian AUA, CSA Czech Airlines, LOT, Lufthansa, Alitalia, Air France, British Airways, KLM and MALEV - Hungarian Airlines; also Ukraine International, which code-shares on these routes with the respective carriers, and another Ukrainian carrier, AeroSvit. Special offers on flights come and go, depending on the whim of the carrier. Recently the low-cost airline Wizzair started operations within Ukraine and will start one international route from Kyiv to London Luton airport in December 2008. The only other low cost carrier serving Ukraine is AirBaltic, with flights routing through either Riga, Latvia, or Vilnius, Lithuania. AeroSvit could also be considered a somewhat low-cost carrier.
There are several airlines which offer direct flights to cities like Dnipropetrovsk (Lufthansa), Donetsk (Lufthansa, Austrian), Odessa (MALEV, LOT, Austrian, CSA Czech Airlines), Kharkiv and Lviv (LOT, Austrian Airlines), but they are more expensive.
To fly inside Ukraine, the most common airline is AeroSvit. It is the unofficial national airline, and its routes cover all of Ukraine's major destinations. Planes used are newer Boeing 737 and 767 aircraft. Ukraine International also recently introduced flights within the country from its hub in Kyiv, mainly flying newer Boeing 737 aircraft.
One can enter Ukraine by train  from any land-bordering neighbor. When coming from Western Europe there will be a wait at the border while the train's bogies are changed in order to adapt to a different rail gauge. It's generally quicker and cheaper to buy a ticket to the border and then change trains, rather than wait getting through train. Generally, in Ukraine railway travel is much cheaper than flying, and is comparable (but probably cheaper) to bus or car travel. It will take at most a whole day to ride across the country, so unless you are in hurry take a train. It's good practice to take long-distance trains, which are much more comfortable. Avoid cheap third-class travel if you're cautious of local experiences.
When you arrive, the road is fairly narrow (no motorway/autobahn this) with a queue of trucks and vans parked to the right of the road; a hard-core parking area with cafe/bar to the left. Don't stop behind the goods vehicles, slip up the side of them and then feed into the customs area when the guy flags you forward (for courteous Europeans, you're not jumping the queue - commercial traffic goes through a different process).
If you're in an EU registered car then make for the EU-passports, passport control section. Thence to Ukrainian passport control and then Ukrainian customs and then you're through. It used to be a nightmare, with apocalyptic tales of 5-6+ hours at the border (and as of July 2007, this is still a possibility), but the Ukrainians have made great advances in efficiency and it takes about an hour to make the crossing (September 2005 - still true in Feb 2006). Don't expect the border police to treat you in a friendly or even respectful manner, in fact, expect anything ranging from neutral to extremely dickish behavior.
Once through, just follow the main road towards Lviv on the E40 - this is the route right across Ukraine to Kyiv (and thence on to the East). Stick to this - the main towns on the way are Lviv, Rivne, Zhytomyr.
Watch out about 15-20 km inside Ukraine, I think the village is called Mostiska, as they have gone crazy about traffic calming measures here (speed bumps or sleeping policemen). They're like icebergs across the road, and very badly marked. And there are about four or five sets of them through the village. Other than that, take care on the road, which although the main East/West highway, and the main road route into the EU, still remains in a miserable condition (surface-wise). And you'll soon realise why Ukraine has such poor statistics in relation to driver and pedestrian fatalities and injuries. Drive defensively is the optimum advice re the roads, other road users and the walking, riding public.
You can walk across the 200 meter long bridge from Sighetul Marmatiei, Romania. But once you get to Slatina, Ukraine, it may be difficult to engage onward travel unless you came in a car. Bicycling is also a possibility in summer.
Get aroundThe quickest way to get around big cities is the so-called marshrutka - the minibuses which follow routes much like the regular buses do. You can generally flag them down or ask them to stop at places other than the specified bus-stops. The fare is paid as soon as you get in, and is fixed no matter how far you want to go. This is the same for the conventional buses, tram, trolley-buses and the Metro. You tell the driver that you want to get off when you're approaching the destination. Each city has an inter-city bus station from which you can go pretty much anywhere in Ukraine. Fares and quality of service vary widely.
Trains in Ukraine are really cheap. For example: Simferopol to Lviv for 8 Euros ("platzkart") on overnight train with sleeping-car.
The problem is that trains are quite popular in Ukraine and you have to buy the tickets well in advance. There are always 3 kinds of ticket counters: 1 group for trains that go on the same day, 1 for trains that go within 7 days and 1 for trains that go within 45 days. Buying tickets for the same day is usually not such a big problem as long as they are still available. But tickets for trains that leave not on the same day you usually have to stand in line for a long time.
You might want to get the more expensive tickets ("SV" and "kupe"). Being a foreigner and traveling in "platzkart" (compartments without doors) is safe and enjoyable. People sometimes stroll along the corridor looking for mischief, but just be aware as you would anywhere. If you keep your valuable objects somewhere inside your sleeping bag or close to your body you should not experience any problems with theft.
A first class cabin is a very good deal. The cabin has (staple)beds for two persons and you have privacy and safety because you can lock the door. The price from Lviv to Odesa was in 2004 round 25 Euro p.p!
It is possible to get around in Ukraine by car, but one must be aware of certain particulars:
The signs are all in Ukrainian (Cyrillic alphabet). Only a few signs (every 200km or so) are written in the Latin alphabet, and indicate main cities. It is recommended you have a good road map (those available are mainly in Ukrainian, but Latin alphabet maps are starting to appear), because place names aren't well posted on road signs.
You are strongly advised to respect the signs, especially speed limits. Be aware that unlike in Western countries, where limits are repeated several times, in Ukraine, an obligation or a prohibition is often indicated on a single sign, which you must not miss. And even these signs are often far off the road, covered by branches, etc. The police are always there to remind you.
Speed in cities is limited to 60km/h (40mph).
Speed in "nationals" is limited to 90km/h (55mph).
Speed on highways is limited to 110-120km/h (75mph).
Be aware that corruption is widespread among Ukrainian police, and tourists are an especially profitable target. When you are stopped for speeding or other offenses, officers might aggressively try and extract ridiculous sums of money from you (€100 and up), offering "reductions" if you pay on the spot (the proposed alternative being some unpleasant and more expensive way, all made up). If you're asked anything beyond that, demand a written ticket for you to pay later instead. Don't let them intimidate you. It's very useful to have an embassy phone number handy for these cases. If you mention that, they'll let you off the hook quicker than you know it. At any rate, write down the officers' badge numbers, rank, plate number of the police car, and notify the nearest embassy/consulate in detail, to help fight these corrupt practices.
Fuel is no longer a problem in Ukraine, especially for those who remember travelling to Ukraine during the early 1990s, when gasoline was considered precious. Today, there are plenty service stations. There are varying types of fuel, such as diesel, unleaded 95 octane, and (more rarely) unleaded 98 octane; one finds also 80 and 76 octane. Note that if you choose to fill-up in a rural filling station, you will need to pay first, and in cash. Even there many stations do accept credit cards, however.
The state of the roads is a huge subject:
The main roads are okay for all cars, as long as you don't go too fast. Numerous running repairs have created a patchwork road surface, and it will seriously test your suspension - even on the major dual carriageways.
Secondary roads are passable, but beware: certain zones can be full of potholes and you must treat them with extra care, or avoid them entirely. Roads between villages are often little more than dirt tracks and not metalled. Treat as inaccessible unless you're driving a 4x4.
Road works have been ongoing, but the quality of the roads is shy of Western Europe (with the exception of Kyiv)...
Be careful when driving in towns or villages. Sometimes pets prefer to walk on the road, and they are a hazard for all drivers. You're likely to see plenty of animals hit by cars, so be prepared...
Bicycle traffic is not very common, but you will sometimes see an aged man transporting a sack of grass on an old road-bike or a cycling enthusiast in bright clothes riding a semi-professional racing bike. Those are even more likely to be met on well-maintained roads where the pavement is smooth. Also cyclists will use both lanes of the road in both directions equally ie you are just as likely to meet a cyclist coming towards you, riding on the verge, as you will travelling in your direction. And almost invariably without lights or bright clothing so be extra careful when driving at night and dawn/dusk.
Also, don't be surprised to see plenty of horse drawn carts - even on the dual carriageways.
If you need a good GPS navigation solution for Ukraine, look here : http://www.gpsukraine.com , or just google for GPS Ukraine. It's not as much detailed as in the western countries, but it's the best available, quite precise and easy to use.
There are two major bus companies that run buses from all of the major cities to and from Kyiv, they are Avtolux, and Gunsel. Prices run about 55-70 Hryvnia (11-13 USD) for service to Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv.
The major advantage that the bus service has, is that it leaves from Boryspil and stops in Kyiv, so if your destination is not Kyiv, its easier then taking a bus to the Main Passenger Railway Station in Kyiv.
They are standard coach buses, serve cold drinks and tea, show movies, and make a stop about every 3-4 hours.
They run every few hours.
Avtolux has a VIP bus to and from Odessa that has nice leather seats and is more less non-stop. It departs once a day, takes four hours or so both to and from Kyiv, and costs about 130-150 Hryvnia.
Aerosvit offers cheap flights and is a time-saving alternative to the slow and inefficient train service. For example the flight Odesa-Kyiv (One-Way) is ~18 USD (including Tax & all fees) and takes 1.5 hours. However, be sure to book early for the cheapest fares.
The flights can be booked online via www.aerosvit.ua, comfortably in English.
WizzAir, as of early 2009, offers flights between Lviv, Kyiv and Simferopol at competitive prices.
Hitchhiking in Ukraine is average. It's possible to go by hitchhiking - usually cargo trucks will take you for free - but it's still worth to try stop personal cars as well. Good people are everywhere; you may be picked up in a Lada or a Lexus. (More usually the former.)
The usual hitchhiking gesture (also used to hail taxis and marshrutkas) is to face oncoming traffic and point at the road with a straight right arm held away from the body. Sometimes, for visibility, you may add a downward waving motion of the open right hand.
Ukrainian is the official language. Near the neighbouring countries, Russian, Romanian, Polish, and Hungarian are spoken. Russian is a close relative of Ukrainian and is most often the language of choice in the south and east of Ukraine. It is safe to assume that virtually any Ukrainian will understand Russian, however, beware that in the western parts people may be reluctant to help you if you speak Russian, though as a foreigner Ukrainians will be more forgiving than to Russian visitors. On the other hand, in eastern parts and especially Crimea, Russian is the most commonly spoken language. In central and eastern part of the country you may also find people using these two languages simultaneously (so called surzhyk—mix of languages). It is also common for people to talk to others in their native language, irrespective of the interlocutor’s one, so a visitor speaking Russian may be responded to in Ukrainian and vice-versa. Kyiv, the capital, speaks both languages, but Russian is more commonly used. So, Ukrainian is more frequently met in Central and Western Ukraine, Russian - in Eastern and Southern parts of the country.
Young people are more likely to speak a little English, as it is the most widely taught foreign language in school.
If you are traveling to Ukraine, learn either basic Ukrainian or basic Russian before hand (i.e. know your phrase book well) and/or have some means of access to a bi-lingual speaker - their mobile/cell/handy number (everyone has a mobile phone) can be a godsend. Virtually nobody in any official position (Train Stations, Police, Bus drivers, Information Desks, etc.) will be able to speak any language other than Ukrainian or Russian. If you already know another Slavic language you will be able to communicate sufficiently.
It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet; this will save you a lot of time and difficulty.
BuyTo shop you will most certainly need local currency (hryvnia). US Dollar, Euro, British Pound and other currency exchange points are very common in cities, and the exchange rate is usually very fair (except in Kyiv, where the exchange rate is higher compared to other cities). However, sometimes and in some banks there are problems with cash deposits (or that is the official version), so do not exchange too many dollars unless you're traveling to the more provincial areas. When doing person-to-person payments you might be able to pay in US dollars or Euros, as those are widely recognized, and you might in fact get better rates than in official exchange points. However, be careful, because it's not legal to make payments with foreign currency.
If you want to buy any kind of artwork (paintings, easter eggs) in Kyiv, the place to visit is Andriivsky Uzviz (???????????? ????? in Ukrainian, ??????????? ????? in Russian).
BE AWARE THAT IT IS ILLEGAL TO TAKE OUT OF THE COUNTRY ANY ITEMS OF HISTORICAL IMPORTANCE including badges, medals, icons, historical paintings, etc... This law is strictly enforced at all exit points of the country and one risks heavy fines and/or imprisonment.
- As of March 2009
1 UAH = 0.125 USD (1 USD = 7.99 UAH)
1 UAH = 0.092 EUR (1 EUR = 10.86 UAH)
1 UAH= 0.086 (1 GBP = 11.58 UAH)
EatUkrainian cuisine is quite tasty, but just as other cuisines in the region uses a lot of fat ingredients, especially in the festive dishes. Traditional local food includes "salo" (salted lard) and soups like "borshch" (???? in Ukr.) made of red beets or "solianka" (??????? in Ukr.) which is a delicious vegetable soup. The first, salo, is perhaps something you might not make yourself try - however is a delicious side dish, as for the soups being a must-have dish.
If you are outside a big city or in doubt about food, exercise caution and common sense about where you buy food. Try to buy groceries only in supermarkets or large grocery stores, always check the expiration date, and never buy meat or dairy products on the street (you can buy them on the market, but not near the market).
When choosing a restaurant at which to eat, you will find one that you like based on the menu posted by the entrance of every establishment. This may sound strange, but in most towns in Ukraine there are some very good restaurants, sometimes even luxurious ones, and these restaurants do serve properly made food. If you like traveling to more remote parts of the country and are in doubt about what to eat, remember that vegetables are always a safe choice.
Along the way you may find nice places to eat not by following the rare signs, but just by tracing the sky for the smoke of traditional wood fires. These are often places where they serve traditional Ukrainian food, including very tasty shashlyky (??????? in Ukr.). Restauranteurs are very friendly, and more often than not you will be one of their first foreign visitors. Next to the "borshch" you might also ask for "varenyky" (???????? in Ukr. - dumplings filled with meat or vegetables) or "deruny" (?????? - potato pancakes). You have to try varenyky with potatoes and cottage cheese in a sautéed onion and sourcream sauce - it's a fantastic dish. These are just starters, but ones that might fill you up quickly.
DrinkThe Ukrainian specialty is horilka (the local name for vodka) with pepper. Other kinds of vodka are also quite popular - linden (tilia), honey, birch, wheat. Prices range from $1 to $10 (1-7€)/0,5 l. Souvenir bottles are available for higher prices (some bottles reach upwards of $50 (35€)/0.5 l). There is a great choice of wine, both domestic and imported. The domestic wines mostly originate in the south, in the Crimean region - known for wine making dating back to early Greek settlement over 2,000 years ago, although wines from the Carpathian region of Uzhorod are also quite tasty. Prices for local wine range between $2 to $50 (2-35€) per bottle of 0,75 l (avoid the cheapest wines, $1 or less, as these are sometimes bottled as house wines but sold as local vintages), however, one can find genuine Italian, French, Australian wines from $50 per bottle and more in big supermarkets and most restaurants. The price of imported wines dropped significantly over the last number of years and trends indicate further reductions in price.
There are a lot of beverages (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic). Ukrainian beer is of very good quality. Beer from barrels or kegs (more common in cafes) is often watered down. Canned beer is not very common in Ukraine and sometimes not of the same quality as the same variety sold in bottles. The best beers are brewed by Lvivske, Obolon and PPB (Persha Privatna Brovarnia). Imported beers are also widely available but more expensive – for instance, a bottle of Austrian Edelweiss can cost upwards of $2USD while average price of Ukrainian beer is 50c. All told, Ukrainian beers are very tasty and gaining popularity elsewhere in Europe.
Of non-alcoholic beverages one should try kvas – a typically slavic drink made of rye or wheat. During the summer one can easily buy it from designated street vendors. It’s better to buy it in bottles due of unknown cleanness of the barrel. Dairy drinks, of all sorts, are also available, although mostly in supermarkets. Bottles of mineral water are available everywhere, as well as lemonades, beer, and strong drinks. When seeking to buy bottled water make sure to ask for "voda bez hazu" (water without gas) otherwise you are likely to be handed the carbonated drink.
WARNING. Never buy vodka or cognac (the local name for brandy) outside supermarkets or liquor stores, for there are a lot of fakes. Every year a few die as a result of methyl poisoning - a compound used to make fake vodkas.
SleepHotels might be a traumatic experience for a westerner anywhere outside Kyiv. The cheaper the hotel, the larger the chance of some quite unfortunate surprises, especially for those not familiar with the Soviet-style level of service which still remains in many places.
There are many mid- range (E 25-45) options outside Kyiv. For instance in IvanoFrankivsk (near the Carpathians), the going rate is approximately 35 euro for a suite (bedroom and sitting room)in Hotel Nadia. Many hotels have the choice between renovated rooms/suites ("western style") and not renovated rooms (easteuropean style). The last choice is more than 50% cheaper and gives you a spacious old fashioned 2 room suite, basic but clean!
There are only three 5-star hotels: in Kyiv called the Premier Palace and Opera, and another one in Doneck called Donbass Palace, but they are very expensive. Two western hotels recently opened, Radisson SAS and Hyatt. They are not on the cheap side either and are usually full, so make reservations in advance.
Another option is to rent an apartment on the Internet before you leave your country. There's many to choose from in Kyiv and Odessa. Tip: Read Kyiv in your pocket on Internet!
What many people from ex-soviet countries do is to go to the railway station, where they try to find people who are willing to rent a room. Prices are usually much cheaper and if there are enough people offering the room you can make great deals (in Yalta people are almost fighting to be able to talk to you).
These deals are usually not legal and they will take you to a corner before negotiating. Make sure they have warm water, and don't be afraid to say it's not what you expected when seeing the room.