Ukraine’s capital is a green metropolis on flowing hills next to the Dnieper River. In the middle ages Kiev was the capital of an enormous state occupying a big tranche of Eastern Europe, and you can enter monasteries and cathedrals stemming from this golden age.
There’s no denying that Kiev has seen some tough times, from the Mongol invasion from the east in 1240, to the Nazis attacking from the west in the Second World War. These moments are part of Kiev’s identify and remembered with colossal memorials like the Motherland Monument.
But the city has always rebounded, as it did in the 19th century when it sprouted the many Baroque churches that pierce the skyline. Today, Kiev has 21st century history to retrace at Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the site of momentous demonstrations in 2004 and again in 2014.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Kiev:
1. Kiev Pechersk Lavra
One of the most important sites in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the World Heritage Pechersk Lavra is a marvellous complex of churches, bell towers and subterranean caves.
It can take around four hours to see everything, and you may need an English guided tour to get the most out of Pechersk Lavra.
Beginning in the 11th century, the oldest portions of this complex are underground, in two man-made cave systems, Near and Far.
If you’re planning to go below, try to arrive before the crowds as you’ll descend into a rather confined and bewildering space with a taper candle to light your way.
Canonised monks like Nestor the Chronicler used to live in cells, and are now preserved as mummified, imperishable relics.
Women have to observe a pretty strict dress code that entails covering your hair and wearing a skirt.
Available tour: Kiev: City Exploration and Kiev Pechersk Lavra Tour
2. Great Lavra Bell Tower
Still part of Pechersk Lavra, this sensational monument deserves special attention as it’s one of Kiev’s emblems.
The Great Lavra Bell Tower is an unmissable fixture on the city’s skyline and dwarfs the other monuments at Pechersk Lavra, climbing to just below 100 metres.
At the time of its construction (1731-1745) it was the tallest free-standing bell tower in the world, and is composed of four tiers, each narrower than the last, culminating with a gilded dome.
The style is Ukrainian Baroque, and while studying the three upper tiers architecture geeks will notice that the columns are Doric on the 2nd tier, Ionic on the 3rd and then Corinthian on the fourth.
For a small fee you can go up for an all-encompassing view of Kiev, while the mighty bell tolls every quarter of the hour.
3. Saint Sophia’s Cathedral
Also included in the same World Heritage Site, Saint Sophia’s Cathedral is Kiev’s oldest surviving church and has architecture and ornamentation dating back to the 1000s.
Like the Pechersk Lavra it’s been elected one of the Ukraine’s Seven Wonders.
The cathedral, famed for its 13 gilded domes, was initiated in 1037 by Prince Yaroslav the Wise whose sarcophagus is on display.
You have to take your time shuffling around the interior because of the sheer quantity of medieval frescos and mosaics that have survived since the cathedral was built.
The pinnacle is the Orans of Kiev icon in the chancel vault, standing six metres high and depicting the Virgin Mary.
In the monastic buildings there’s a museum showing medieval artefacts from the cathedral and a model of Kiev before it was annihilated by the Mongols in 1240.
4. Pirogovo – Kiev Museum of Folk Architecture and Life
A perfect document of Ukrainian folk culture awaits at a sprawling open-air museum on the southern outskirts of the city.
Rural architecture from six different Ukrainian regions has been moved to this site and reassembled in six distinct villages.
There are more than 300 buildings, from churches to dwellings to workshops, in a living museum where you can watch time-honoured crafts in action like forging, weaving and pottery.
The museum was founded in 1969 and over time has amassed some 70,000 artefacts.
On show in old rustic buildings are glassware, ceramics, costume, metalwork, woodwork, embroidery and carpets, all opening a window on folk crafts and culture in days gone by.
5. St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery
On bluffs over the right bank of the Dnieper, this working monastery dates from the 12th century and boasts a multi-domed cathedral and a bell tower.
The exterior architecture is from the middle of the 18th century and in an elaborate Baroque style, but the interior of the cathedral kept hold of its Byzantine design.
Sadly the building was torn down in the Soviet era when its art was moved to Moscow, but it would be reborn 70 years later.
Come by to see the sky blue walls capped with shining domes and the majestic view of the Knieper from the top of the bell tower.
The museum on the lower floors of the bell tower records the history of the monastery and the fate suffered by other religious monuments in the Soviet era.
6. The Motherland Monument
Erected in 1981 the Motherland Monument is a gigantic, 62-metre stainless statue commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
In a park beside the Knieper, this symbolic figure of a woman is visible from all over Kiev.
To give you an idea of the dimensions, the monument is made with individual blocks of steel, held together with more than 30 kilometres of welding.
The sword that the figure holds up is 16 metres in length and weighs nine tons alone.
On the figure’s left arm is a shield bearing the insignia of the Soviet Union.
The higher of the monument’s two observation decks is at the top of this shield, though you’ll need to wear a harness to visit this upper one.
7. Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II
The Motherland Monument is integrated into this museum, and the memorial continues at the base.
See the marble plaques for the city’s 11,600 fallen soldiers and 200 workers, a “Flame of Glory” in a giant bowl surrounded by military hardware from the war.
Also walk the “Alley of the Hero Cities”, where Soviet cities that offered stiff resistance to Nazi Germany are remembered.
The museum is also gigantic, telling the story of the Second World War from Ukraine’s perspective with more than 300,000 objects.
The exhibitions here are very well-curated and the galleries are loaded with weapons both heavy and light, as well as maps, uniforms and archive photographs.
8. Maidan Nezalezhnosti
To get a handle on current affairs in Ukraine make for ground zero, at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). This has been a centre for political activism since 1990, and is where the Euromaidan protests occurred in 2013-14. There’s a contemporary memorial to the “Heavenly Hundred”, people who died in the protests.
On the lighter side, when Kiev hosted Eurovision in 2017 the fan zone was located here as if to show how much has changed in just a few years.
While you’re sightseeing, get a photo of the 2001 Independence Monument, Hotel Ukraine and the regal portico of the Tchaikovsky National Music Academy.
A gathering point and upmarket shopping street, Khreshchatyk ties the Maidan to the rest of Kiev.
This thoroughfare was almost obliterated in the Second World War, and was rebuilt in the Soviet Neoclassical style.
One of the neat things about Khreshchatyk is that during weekends and public holidays road traffic is prohibited and the street fills with families and couples strolling along and checking out the many street performers.
All of the major international retailers are on Khreshchatyk and there’s an wide choice of cafes, restaurants and ice cream shops, with outdoor terraces where you can sit and watch everyone going about their day.
Look out for the palatial TSUM department store, a Kiev institution, as well as the Ukrainian House convention centre and the lively Kiev Passage side street.
10. Andriyivskyy Descent
The most famous street in Kiev drops down the sharp slope from the Upper Town to the Podil quarter on the Dnieper.
At the top, St Andrew’s Church is in an opulent Baroque style and dates to the middle of the 18th century.
You can catch a funicular up from Podil, or inch your way up the cobblestone street if you’re feeling fresh.
The architect was Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, an Italian who made his name in Russia and the Baltic, designing the Winter Palace in St Petersburg.
From there make your way down through a neighbourhood known as the “Montmartre of Kiev”, not just because of the steep topography but also the arty ambience and evocative 19th-century architecture.
There are plenty of chic cafes to call in at, and stalls by the street sell paintings in summer.
Andriyivskyy Descent is also the location for the Kiev Day celebrations at the end of May.
Kiev’s riverfront merchant’s quarter and former city centre was razed by fire at the start of the 19th century and rebuilt on a grid system.
To get there you could catch the funicular down from St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, which will drop you in a neighbourhood that was saved from major damage in the Second World War so looks jus as it did more a century ago.
Podil is a hip, cultural area, boasting Ukraine’s most prestigious university and lots of places to dine out.
Among the big sights are the spacious Poshtova Ploscha (Postal Square) next to the funicular station, and Kontraktova Ploscha (Cotracts Square), named for the Contracts House trading hall.
On this square look for the 18th-century Fountain of Samson, comprising a sculpture of Samson slaying the lion under a handsome rotunda.
Included in: Ancient Kiev Walking Tour
12. St Volodymyr’s Cathedral
Kiev has many churches, monasteries and cathedrals now run as museums, but St Volodymyr’s Cathedral is a functioning place of worship where you can observe Eastern Orthodox services.
These happen twice a day on weekdays (08:00 and 17:00) and three times on Saturday and Sunday (07:00, 10:00 and 17:00). Easy to spot for its yellow facade, St Volodymyr’s is the mother cathedral of the Kiev Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Eastern Orthodox Church.
The architecture is 19th-century Neo-Byzantine, and many of the frescoes were painted by the feted Russian Romantic Nationalist Viktor Vasnetsov.
When the St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery was pulled down in the 1930s the relics of St Barbara were moved here, where they remain today.
13. Mykola Syadristy Microminiature Museum
Within the Kiev Pechersk Lavra complex is a museum for the artist Mykola Syadristy.
All of Syadristy’s works fit into a single room.
And that’s because they’re miniscule and require microscopes to see them.
Only then will you realise how complicated these pieces are, like a chessboard on the head of a pin, or the smallest book in the world at no more than 0.6 square millimetres.
The artist’s sense of imagination is also made plain in microscopic works like a poppy seed turned into a bird’s nest or a flea wearing a pair of golden shoes.
14. Mikhail Bulgakov Museum
One of the most acclaimed Russian writers of the 20th century was born and grew up in Kiev.
His fine late-19th-century house on Andriyivskyy Descent is now a museum about his life and novels.
What makes the house so engrossing is that it inspired the home of the Turbins in the novel the White Guard, and the play The Days of the Turbins that came after.
The house is filled with Bulgakov’s possessions, and where replicas have been used they have been painted white.
At the end of a tour you’ll be invited to a cup of tea or coffee in this genteel setting.
15. Hryshko National Botanical Garden
Just downriver from the Motherland Monument, this sweeping botanical garden is managed by the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.
In all there are 13,000 varieties of trees, shrubs and flowers from far and wide.
The gardens are lovely in almost any season, but if there’s a time you simply have to come it’s the end of spring.
This is when the hundreds of lilac bushes on the “Lilac Alley” are in full bloom.
Spring and early summer bring a riot of colour as the peonies, magnolia and roses are also in flower.
Check out the greenhouse for exotic species and there are reptiles in the terrarium.
Bring a picnic blanket and give yourself time to watch the Dnieper bending past the spires of the St.
Michael’s Vydubytsky Men’s Monastery far below.
16. State Aviation Museum
Situated inside the old terminal building for Zhulyany Airport, the State Aviation Museum is a few kilometres southwest of the city centre.
Anyone with an eye for aircraft or Soviet hardware will be in heaven here.
The museum opened in 2003 on the 100th anniversary of the first manned flight.
It’s the second largest museum of its kind in former Soviet countries and has a growing fleet of aircraft, which numbered over 70 at the last count.
You can inspect Ilyushins, Antonovs, Sukhois, Tupolevs, Yakovlevs and of course, aircraft produced by the fabled Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau (MiGs). The size of some of the helicopters may catch you by surprise, like the Mi-24, which is both a gunship and a transport for eight passengers.
Available tour: Kiev: 3-Hour Museum of Aviation
17. Landscape Alley
On the south side of the Andriyivskyy Descent, just off Velyka Zhytomyrska Street is a green space that has been turned into a wonderland by dozens of pieces of public art.
If there’s one thing all the artworks have in common it’s that they’re whimsical, light-hearted and adored by kids.
Some of the characters you’ll meet are a 30-metre cat centipede, a happy elephant fountain and benches in the form of a crow, cat and rabbit, all covered with mosaic tiles.
And at this hillside setting you can bask in photogenic views of Podil, the Dnieper River and Zamkova Hora (Castle Hill).
18. One Street Museum
It’s hard not to be enchanted by Andriyivskyy Descent, and all the stories associated with this famous street.
If you’re thirsty for more information there’s a museum near the bottom.
The museum has been cleverly designed to recreate the atmosphere of the street at the dawn of the 20th century.
There are more than 7,000 exhibits in the showcases, and it’s a crazy miscellany of artefacts, from vintage postcards to sketches, antique Bulgakov editions, photographs, costumes, tableware, newspaper cuttings and antique typewriters.
There are insights about the noteworthy people who have lived on the street, the history of St Andrew’s Church, and the castle built by Richard the Lionheart that once crowned the hill.
19. Golden Gate
In the middle ages Kiev was the capital of the Kievan Rus’, a federation of Slavic states that stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic.
In that time there stood a humungous gate at the southern entrance to the city, but it was pulled down in the 13th century and remained a ruin until the 1980s.
In 1982, on Kiev’s 1500th anniversary the gate was reconstructed, even though nobody could agree exactly how it looked in its 11th-century heyday.
So even if the design is open to question the gate is an impressive structure with four tiers of merlons above the main portal and wooden extensions on each side.
In the surrounding garden there’s a monument to Yaroslav the Wise, an enlarged bronze version of a sculpture by Ivan Kavaleridze.
20. National Opera House
It’s not often that you can visit a capital city and decide on a whim to watch Madame Butterfly, Rigoletto or Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.
But that’s exactly what you can do at the National Opera House, and compared to the rest of Europe tickets cost next to nothing.
A seat in the stalls will cost around 500 Hryvnia, €18, and it’s even less in the balcony.
The building is magnificent as well, built in the Academic style over the turn of the 20th century after its predecessor burnt down.
If you’re staying at a hotel you can ask your concierge to book tickets if there’s more than a day’s notice, or you can go to the box office on the day.
21. St Cyril’s Monastery
If you want to browse one of Kiev’s exquisite churches without being jostled by tourists, this beautiful monument needs to be on your list.
St Cyril’s is a little way from the centre of the city and requires a metro and trolleybus ride.
But what greets you at the end of the journey is a monastery and church harking back to the Kievan Rus’. The church’s Ukrainian Baroque facade is from the 18th-century and conceals a 12th-centrury interior, the only one in Kiev that hasn’t required major interventions.
The many original frescos are bright and sharp after a restoration in the 1970s.
Go upstairs to the gallery for a closer look at the image of the Transfiguration on the ceiling.
22. Babi Yar
While you’re in the northwestern suburbs you can uncover perhaps the darkest period in Kiev’s history.
A brief walk from St Cyril’s Babi Yar is a ravine where a mass murder took place on September 29-30 1941. In two days 33,771 Jews were murdered by the SS, the largest single mass killing carried out during the campaign against the Soviet Union.
And during the remainder of the war up to 150,000 Jews, Romanis, the mentally ill, Soviet Prisoners of War and Ukrainian nationalists were killed in this place.
The site is now a memorial park, hosting separate monuments to the various group of victims: Jews, children, Romani people and clerics.
Available tour: Kiev: Babiy Yar Memorial & Museum World War II
23. Taras Shevchenko Park
Something that bears repeating is just how green the centre of Kiev is: You can whole quarters of the city without leaving tree cover.
One of the prettiest parks is Taras Shevchenko Park, fronting the Taras Shevchenko National University and a popular hangout for students.
But they’re not the only ones who meet-up here, as older citizens gather for boisterous games of chess that can get very heated.
Little ones can take pony rides, and you can also see the statue of Taras Shevchenko surrounded by flowerbeds.
This 19th-century writer and polymath has had an enormous influence on Ukrainian culture and helped to shape the modern Ukrainian language.
24. House with Chimeras
Opposite the President’s Residence on Bankova Street is the pinnacle of Art Nouveau architecture in Kiev.
The House with Chimeras dates to 1901-02 and was designed by the Polish-Ukrainian architect Władysław Horodecki as his personal home.
Horodecki was a keen hunter, which explains the many creatures on the facade, both mythical and real, like dolphins, deer, elephants, frogs, rhinoceroses and mermaids.
Today the building is owned by the government and reserved for official receptions.
Access is restricted on the road, and in these tense times you can’t just show up to view the interior.
But if you fill out an online form well in advance there are tours on weekends, where Horodecki’s bizarre decoration includes a chandelier with catfish being strangled by lotus flowers.
25. Besarabsky Market
At the southern end of Khreshchatyk, a couple of streets across from Taras Shevchenko, is Kiev’s historic market.
Even plastered with advertisements, the early-20th-century market hall is imposing, and was the work of the Polish architect Henryk Julian Gay.
Shopping here can be intimidating as the stalls are run by fierce babushki.
Also, none of the produce is labelled with prices, as haggling is the way people do business.
So if you want to do some shopping you may need a Ukrainian friend with you.
If not, come for a snapshot of day-to-day life and grab something from one of the bars and cafes on the edge of the market.