The industrial city of Zaporizhia in southeastern Ukraine is rather young, having only sprouted in the 1920s and 1930s. The catalyst for this development was the Dnieper Hydroelectric Dam, which made this section of the river navigable for the first time, and powered the city’s new heavy industry. Neighbourhoods were built quickly, in the Soviet Constructivist style, devised to inspire socialist ideals in their residents.
But Zaporizhia’s fame comes from the Zaporizhian Cossacks – autonomous warriors who lived by the Dnieper rapids from the 16th to the 18th centuries, out of the control of the Ottoman Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. These Cossacks are the soul of Ukrainian national identity, and made a home on the island of Khortytsia beside modern Zaporizhia. Their “sich”, a fortified wooden village has been reconstructed as an open-air museum.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Zaporizhia:
The largest River Island on the Dnieper and a vital historical site, Khortysia was named one of the Seven Wonders of Ukraine in 2007. The island’s value rests in its historical associations with the unruly Zaporizhian Cossacks.
They established a “sich” (a wooden fortress settlement) here in the 16th century, and maybe the most compelling piece of trivia is that they are believed to have composed their mocking reply to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV on the island.
This moment is engrained in Ukrainian folklore and recorded in a famous painting by the 19th-century painter Ilya Repin.
There’s a museum on Khortytsia, which we’ll visit next, while the whole island is a national reserve, featuring 50-metre granite cliffs, large swathes of steppe and oak and spruce forest.
2. Zaporizhian Sich Historical and Cultural Complex
The big visitor attraction on Khortystia is a reconstruction of a Zaporizhian sich.
The fortified wooden village was a few years in the making and completed in 1983. In a faithfully-designed sich from the 1500s there are exhibits in the village’s wooden huts and halls on themes like Khortytsia in the Stone Age, the story of the Zaporizhian Cossacks and Zaporizhia at the advent of socialism.
There are also dioramas to check out, two dealing with pivotal battles fought by the Zaporizhian Cossacks and one for the construction of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station.
In the summer you can watch feisty battle re-enactments by actors in 16th-century dress.
3. Dnieper Hydroelectric Station
Between Dnipro and Zaporizhia there used to be over 100 kilometres of impassable rapids on the River Dnieper, which is one of the reasons this region was so hard for empires to control.
Plans to make the river navigable were announced in the 1890s, and it would be another three decades before the city’s famous hydroelectric dam was completed.
A few years after its initial unveiling in 1932, the whole structure had to be rebuilt almost from scratch after it was wrecked in the Second World War.
The dam is 800 metres long, with a height of 61 metres, and has a capacity of 1,569 megawatts.
You could cross it via the footbridge, but it’s a trip to make at quiet times as the traffic can be a bit much.
4. Zaporizka Square
This square facing the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station at the western end of Sobornyj Prospekt sums up the recent changes that have taken place in Ukraine.
It used to be called Lenin Square and in the centre was the largest statue of Lenin in Ukrainian territory, but the name was changed in 2016 and the monument was dismantled in line with Ukraine’s “decommunisation” efforts.
Now, in 2017 there’s a traditional image of a Zaporizhian Cossack, and plans are afoot to replace the old monument with a park with an observation deck allowing complete views of Khortytsia.
5. Sobornyj Prospekt
One of Europe’s longest urban streets begins at Zaporizka Square and cuts through the centre of the city for 10.2 kilometres.
Until 2016 it was named after Lenin, which was just one of several names that it adopted, including Nazi figures in the Second World War and Karl Liebknecht after the 1917 revolution.
For tourists the most worthwhile parts are in the older quarter of the city, roughly from Zaporizka Square down to the Ukraine Shopping Mall.
There are shops, restaurants, imposing landmarks like the Neoclassical concert hall and a great deal of Soviet-era Constructivist architecture to check out.
Historians might be tickled by the sight of one of these constructivist buildings playing host to a branch of McDonalds.
6. Phaeton Antique Retro Car Museum
In the industrial zone to the northeast of Zaporizhia’s centre is a museum dealing with Ukrainian and Soviet automotive history.
There’s a large assortment of vintage vehicles, both inside and out.
Outside is a yard full of military hardware like tanks (T-34), artillery, oilers and personnel carriers going back to the Second World War.
In the main hall are some 60 vintage cars mostly by Soviet brands like Lada and Volga, as well as a ZIL limousine, a Soviet amphibious car and a VW camper.
All of these vehicles look like new and the museum makes a point of keeping them in running condition.
7. Zaporizhia Oak
You have to cross the Dnieper into the Dniprovsky District to reach this mysterious and nationally significant site.
The Zaporizhia Oak was recently named Ukraine’s national tree and is believed to date back more than 700 years.
It has long been a place of pilgrimage and in 2001 a visitor centre was set up in front of the tree, complete with a chapel and theatre stage.
The oak is 36 metres high, and has a few branches that still produce leaves.
The parts of the tree that have died are now held up by cables.
8. Holy Protection Cathedral
Ukraine has many churches that were resurrected after being destroyed in Soviet times, and Zaporizhia’s Holy Protection Cathedral was one of the most challenging projects.
It was originally consecrated as St Cyril’s Cathedral in 1886, but met an untimely end when it was pulled down in the 1930s.
The project to rebuild the cathedral started in 1993 and archive architectural plans and photographs of the building were tracked down in St Petersburg.
Construction would take until 2007, and the new church is almost an exact replica of the one that came before, even down to the vibrant image of the Intercession of the Virgin inside.
9. Motor Sich Aviation Museum
Zaporizhia is the home city of Motor Sich, an aviation manufacturer building engines for Soviet and now Russian aircraft.
One of these planes was the Antonov An-225, the heaviest and longest aircraft ever constructed.
If you’re into Soviet technology or aviation you need to visit this museum to get up close to one of the Progress D-18T turbofans for the An-225, which stands at a giant 2.79 metres high.
There’s a host of other engines that have technical details provided on information panels, and a couple of early aircraft hanging from the ceiling.
The first floor has a some neat vintage motorcycles, and you can size up an array of vintage military hardware outside.
10. Regional Lore Museum
You may still be excited to know more about the Zaporizhian Cossacks, and in which case this museum has all the background you could wish for.
The highlights of the collection are Zaporizhian weapons and everyday items unearthed on Khortytsia and other sites in the region.
There are also much older artefacts, recovered from local Bronze Age barrows and Scythian jewellery from the Iron Age.
Beyond this is a large coin collection, while the museum also explores the natural history of the Zaporizhia Oblast, with some interesting paleontological specimens from the Neogene period.
11. Children’s Railway
A real-life railway operated by children sounds like a recipe for disaster, but these narrow-gauge lines are found all over the former USSR, from East Germany to Uzbekistan.
They were created to educate future railway drivers, signal operators and conductors.
So in truth it’s not children, but teenagers operating this train that clatters along a track for almost ten kilometres.
The teens dress up in uniform and take charge of every job, from actually operating the throttle to selling tickets.
The train can be boarded at the Komunarskyi District, just down from Dubovy Gai.
If you have an eye for 20th-century architecture there’s a neighbourhood just north of the Sobornyj Prospekt that warrants a detour.
Sotsgorod or District #6 is a garden city built from 1929 to 1932, at the same time as the Dnipro Hydroelectric Station.
The purpose of its Constructivist architecture was to engender socialist principles in its inhabitants, and serve as a model for future Soviet cities.
Sotsgorod has streets of apartment blocks, never more than four storeys tall, affording spacious apartments and lots of greenery.
The plan proved influential, and Le Corbusier was one of many illustrious architects to visit this neighbourhood in the 1930s.
13. Dubovy Gai
Parents looking for a low-cost way for children to enjoy themselves in summer need look no further than this park next to the Dnieper.
When the weather’s warm there are Soviet-style amusements, which are still pretty fun, like a small roller coaster, carousels and dodgem cars.
The park has a big lake, which abounds with birdlife in the warmer months.
Other than that you have long trails bordered by cool, mature woodland, and a small menagerie of domestic animals.
One of these is a shaggy Bactrian camel, a native of the Eurasian Steppe.
14. Museum of the History of Weapons
On Sobornyj Prospekt in the basement of a nondescript-looking shop is a head-spinning arsenal of weapons put together by just one man.
The museum is a single room, but there isn’t a centimetre of wall-space that is not covered by vintage swords, cutlasses, axes, muskets, revolvers, rifles, blunt weapons or armour.
In all there are more than 4,000 pieces in this museum, the oldest dating to the Stone Age and the most recent from the Second World War.
15. Central Beach
Nobody could blame you for thinking twice about swimming in the Dnieper River.
But on hot days you could come for a wander to catch the breeze on the riverbank in the city’s southern neighbourhood.
There’s a golden sandy beach, which is fringed by willows and silver birches.
You’ll be surprised at the size of the beach, so you could visit to feel the sand between your toes, bask in the sun and look across to Khortytsia.
Central Beach is also loaded with bars and eateries, all clustered around the pleasure port if you fancy a cruise along Ukraine’s fabled river.