Ukraine’s second city is in the east of the country in the region of the same name. Internationally Kharkiv is associated with manufacturing and commerce, a reputation that has persisted since it was the third-largest centre of industry in the USSR. As for tourism, Kharkiv was never directly affected by the recent conflict in eastern Ukraine, and life has returned to normal.
Something handy about the city centre is that all the landmarks and attractions are on or near the main artery, Sumska Street. You’ll be able to walk to nearly everything on this list, from impressive Soviet-era squares to a whole roll-call of kid friendly outings like the action-packed Maxim Gorky Park and the Nemo Dolphinarium.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Kharkiv:
1. Maxim Gorky Park
A few minutes up from the centre is a 130-hectare park that has a few days out rolled into one.
First it’s a sophisticated and well-maintained city garden, laced with tree-lined avenues, expansive lawns, ponds sculptures, a gazebo and a Temple of Diana.
But there are also plenty of family-oriented amusements.
The park has a Ferris wheel that dominates the skyline and has a far-reaching view of the city, along with an aerial ropeway, carousels, a haunted house and even a roller coaster.
Everything is sheltered in clean woodland and during the summer holidays there are live shows for kids on the stage.
2. Annunciation Cathedral
By the Lopan River, Kharkiv’s Neo-Byzantine Annunciation Cathedral is enormous, and when it was constructed in the late 19th century it was one of the largest churches in the Russian Empire.
The tallest structure is the bell tower, which crests at 80 metres and was completed in 1888, 12 years before the church was consecrated.
Outside, note the candy-stripe effect of the classic Byzantine rings of red bricks and white stone.
The interior has a capacity for 4,000 worshippers, and a couple of the things to search out are the seated image of Athanasius of Alexandria in the south aisle and the iconostasis made from white Carrara marble.
3. Taras Shevchenko Gardens
This grand park at the very centre of the city has a web of paths and alleys, edged by towering oaks and delivering you to fountains and sculptures.
The most striking of these is the monument to Taras Shevchenko next to Sumska Street.
Of the hundreds of monuments for the 19th-century poet who laid the foundations for the modern Ukrainian language, this one, dating to 1935, is considered to be the finest.
Despite its size it took only one year to sculpt, and famous actors from Kharkiv’s Berezil Theatre posed as characters from Shevchenko’s works.
Strolling around the park you’ll note the size and age of the oak trees: They are the remnants of an oak forest that protected the northern approach to the Kharkiv fortress in the 17th century.
4. Mirror Stream Fountain
Across the way from Kharkiv Philharmonic on Sumska Street, this fountain was erected in 1947 to commemorate the Soviet victory in the Second World War.
If you’re wondering how a Soviet-era war monument could have such a romantic design, there’s a long back-story to explain it.
At the time the Secretary of the regional communist party had a long-term unrequited love: After the war he sent her on holiday to the Russian resort of Kislovodsk.
In a letter she sent a photo back of a gazebo in Kislovodsk that she had taken a shine to.
So when the time came for Kharkiv to build a war monument he tried to recreate that sight for her.
Needless to say, this didn’t go down very well, and the official disappeared soon after but the monument is still there.
Come by at night when it’s illuminated.
5. Freedom Square
Bordering Taras Shevchenko Gardens to the north is the eight-largest city square in Europe.
Freedom Square covers 12 whole hectares, and is up to 750 metres long and 125 metres across.
One reason there’s an absence of a monuments is because its statue of Lenin was torn down by protesters in 2014. No charges were brought, and the statue won’t be rebuilt; instead there’s going to a new 86-metre column, with an angel and orthodox cross, watching over famous figures from the history of Sloboda Ukraine (Kharkiv’s historical region).
You don’t have to be an architecture student to be wowed by the Constructivist Derzhprom (State Industry) complex that banks up on the west side of Freedom Square.
When it was completed in the 1920s it became the largest building by floor area in the world, usurped only by New York’s skyscrapers.
Made from concrete and comprising a number of overhead walkways, it’s one of those buildings that requires you to step back to appreciate both its size and the fact that it is completely symmetrical.
The Derzhprom has 45,000 windows and 17 hectares of glazing.
It came through the Second World War relatively unscathed thanks to its reinforced concrete frame.
7. Kharkiv Fine Arts Museum
Just the ticket for a rainy day, the city’s art museum is central, between the Mirror Stream Fountain and the Lovebirds Monument.
The venue is a Neoclassical mansion from 1913, but the collection goes back to the start of the 19th century when Kharkiv University purchased a variety of works by European masters like van Dyck and Albrecht Dürer.
The museum took damage in the Second World War, but its most valuable pieces had already been placed in safe storage.
These include masterpieces by Russian artists like the Romantic, Ivan Aivazovsky, the Modernist Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, and the Realist Ilya Repin.
The museum has a version of Repin’s famed Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, which he painted while working on the original.
8. Assumption Cathedral
Raised in the 1770s, this eye-catching golden-domed church blends Baroque and Neoclassical architecture.
It was Kharkiv’s main Orthodox place of worship until the construction of the Annunciation Cathedral at the end of the 19th century.
Unfortunately the cathedral was gutted by the Soviet authorities in the 1930s, but has been restored in stages since the 70s.
The gilded iconostasis is believed to have been the work of the feted Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli.
The cathedral’s separate Neoclassical bell tower measures 90 metres in height and was Kharkiv’s tallest building until the 21st century.
This was built after the Napoleon’s retreat as a symbol of gratitude to Tsar Alexander I.
9. Constitution Square
With a little more life than Freedom Square, this plaza is roughly where the Kharkiv Fortress used to stand in the 18th century and is a place for public gatherings.
The square is bounded by some 200 years of architecture and the variety of styles reflects the varying age of these buildings.
Where Moskovsky Avenue joins the square there’s a fine four-storey mansion constructed for clergy visiting the Assumption Cathedral.
A few steps from the city’s historical museum is the Freedom Monument, which is newer than its classical design makes it seem, and was unveiled only in 2012. Also keep an eye out for the giant thermometer above the entrance to the metro station on the north side, and the majestic Neo-Baroque facade of the Kharkiv State Motor Transport College beside it.
10. Kharkiv Historical Museum
This museum, stranded on Constitutional Square has a slightly odd position as it seems to be facing in the wrong direction, fronting Universytetska Street instead of the plaza.
You’ll know the museum by its glass facade, and historic cannons and tanks guarding the entrance.
One of these is a British-made Mark V, dating to 1918 and captured by Soviets in the Ukrainian War of Independence in 1919. Holding 300,000 exhibits, the museum is one of the largest in its field in Ukraine and in the collection are weapons, medals, coins, uniforms, paintings and photographs, all with a focus on the War of Independence (1917-1922) and the Second World War (Great Patriotic War).
11. Pokrovsky Cathedral (Holy Shroud Monastery)
Through the gates on the west side of Constitution Square hides the beautiful Pokrovsky Cathedral, the Ukrainian national monument and the oldest surviving building in the city.
Dating to 1689, the cathedral is a fusion of Cossack’s Baroque and Neo-Byzantine design, and is integrated into a complex that also has a seminary and episcopal palace.
When the monastery was founded in the 17th century it was part of the city’s fortifications, which might explain the stern appearance of the bell tower.
The inside is highly ornate, and every surface is adorned with frescos.
As a male monastery this site has strict rules on about “female modesty”, but the good news is there’s a rack of free headscarves by the entrance.
12. Botanical Garden
That aerial ropeway in Gorky Park will lift you over Novhorodska Street to the city’s botanical garden.
Not to be confused with the botanical garden on the west side of Taras Shevchenko Gardens, this garden is run by the University of Kharkov.
Dating back to 1804, it’s the oldest botanical Garden in Ukraine and has more than 2,000 species of flowering plants, 1,000 varieties of trees and shrubs, as well as tropical and subtropical plants numbering 3,000 taxons.
The garden plays a big role in botanical conservation, containing 15 plant species that are on the European Red List.
Step into the greenhouse, where there’s plant life from five different climate zones, and stroll the arboretum, laid out according to geographical origin.
13. Children’s Railway
Every May and September you can do something in Kharkiv that you’ve probably never done before: Ride a train operated solely by children.
Well, not quite children, but teenagers.
“Children’s Railways” are a tradition that go back to Soviet times and filled a practical role in the 20th century, helping to train upcoming generations of railway engineers and conductors.
Kharkiv’s narrow gauge line was created in 1940 and runs north from the Maxim Gorky Park into woodland next to Sumska Street.
Youngsters are responsible for the most minute details, from coupling the carriages to selling tickets and driving the engine.
14. Kharkiv Zoo
The city’s zoo suffered after the political crisis in 2014,and is currently going through needed modernisation.
At the time of writing it is scheduled to reopen in 2018 so if you’re in the city you should definitely keep it in mind.
Dating back to 1896, the zoo is the oldest in Ukraine and is on the southern edge of Freedom Square.
Considering it’s located in the centre of the city Kharkiv Zoo covers a sizeable area, at 22 hectares.
Before its hiatus in 2017 it had more than 6,800 animals representing 385 species.
15. Nemo Dolphinarium
Open every day except Mondays, the city’s dolphinarium is on the western edge of Taras Shevchenko Gardens.
Here Nemo’s three dolphins perform choreographed tricks and interact with their handler in time to music.
This is all preceded by a show with a sea lion.
Children up to the of five have free entry, while if you’re willing to pay extra you can even put on a wetsuit and go scuba diving with these smart mammals.