An Honest City Guide for Kyiv9 min read

Have you ever wondered what’s it like living in Kyiv? Here are some things I learnt from being in Ukraine’s capital for three months, not understanding the language and feeling like I was looking in, observing rather than participating, most of the time. Disclaimer: this city guide for Kyiv is to be taken with a grain of salt and a sense of humor; temperatures at the time of writing were too high for the author to convey a neutral perspective on her experiences.

Brace yourself…

Those Ukrainian women look perfect. Be mentally prepared for this could be the first time you go to the gym. Everyone has perfect legs, perfect abs, and the perfect manicure. I’m convinced it stems from the lack of control of the world outside. If you can’t be sure what the government is doing with your life, if you have little control of the economic situation, if a major part of your social capital is necessarily based on appearance, then you’re going to be putting the effort in. Take it as it comes: maybe this could be your special niche, attracting Ukrainian men or women by looking everything but put together? I initially wondered the same during my time in Sweden. However, just like in Ukraine, this was a theory which proved itself to be vain hope more than anything else.

St Pokrovsky Monastery
St Pokrovky Monastery in the middle of the city

What will also happen is that you’ll constantly be witnessing photoshoots all over the city. These beautiful people, knowing youth is fleeting and plastic surgery – though relatively cheap – is still an expense, take opportunities to document themselves in the most flattering angles possible. This happens preferably in the newly built area of Podil, or in the beautiful green spaces around the city. It gets weird at times when this happens in places like Babyn Yar. Here, around 30,000 Jews of Kyiv were murdered in late September 1941. Today, the place is a recreational park with all kinds of monuments to different victim groups scattered around. What can one say? In May, the chestnut trees are flowering, so that the pollen falls like snow. If that’s not a unique backdrop for your digital portfolio, then I don’t know what is.

It might look good, but will it taste good?

That Ukrainian food? It might look pretty good and, though your salary, which might be pretty dire for German standards but probably at least three-fold of the average salary in Kyiv, seemingly opens up the doors to fine dining for you… don’t get overexcited. Yup, it’s cheap, and OK, it might look good. But unless you’re going for traditional Ukrainian or Georgian food, I sincerely believe you’re better off cooking for yourself. B-grade wheat and an excess of palm oil does not bode for good dining.

Yup, it’s comparatively cheap, and OK, it might look good. But unless you’re going for traditional Ukrainian or Georgian food, you might be better off cooking for yourself.

One peculiar example of Ukrainian food industry is Roshen. Owned by recently de-elected president Poroschenko, the chocolate company successfully manages to add something to their products that seriously makes your skin ooze excess oil two hours after you munch those delicious chocolate wafers. Roshen also has crazy storefronts with window displays that rival fancy department stores in Western Europe. Some of them are complete with mechanical animals, projecting a slightly less subtle but certainly impressive vision.

Kyiv architecture and chestnut trees
Chestnut trees and interesting architecture in Kyiv

What (not) to eat in Kyiv

My most-shared anecdote about Ukrainian food is a piece of carrot cake I bought at the supermarket café. It was deliciously moist-looking with white frosting on top. Well, turns out it was mostly grated carrot. Even the miniature decorative carrot on top (in Germany, these are made out of marzipan) turned out to be a jellied root vegetable. To be fair, even all the complaining it didn’t stop me from eating the whole thing.

At the end of my time in Kyiv, I was eating fresh berries (buy on the street), cheese from the amazing assorted dairy store Moloko vid fermera, freshly baked white bread from Silpo (undeniably the best supermarket ever) and some syrniky (cottage cheese pancakes) from time to time. If you want to uphold your conceptions of Italian food, don’t have what passes as pizza in Ukraine. Or rename it, for your own sake.

National symbolism

Get used to seeing military presence. After all, this is a country at war. Even though it all might seem a little bit like a theater to those of you having grown up in safety, knowing about war only from your books, it’s definitely real. It is ridiculous and infuriating to see nineteen year olds parading in in their uniforms in front of Kyiv’s Motherland statue; a monument to Soviet glory (commemorating the victory over Germany in World War II) if there ever was any. The irony of kids risking their lives in this post-Soviet power struggle, founded in past visions of empire and resulting in land-grabs, seemingly carried out in part to test international non-responses, is mind-numbingly sad.

Dnipro history museum
The history museum in Dnipro, which includes a display on the war in Donbass

Incomprehensible I found the prevalence of nationalism and nationalist symbols. All the more so if all this pride it serves to hold together a nation whose identity seems at times to be based primarily in its opposition to its occupiers, past and present, rather than significantly built up from positive characteristics. With all due respect and in the awareness of the useless suffering, pain and death that is taken on by those fighting and everyone else affected by displacement and economic strain, I can’t help but wonder how this country can reflect on conflicts, past and present, without using narratives of glory and heroism.

If you have any, throw some money at the problem

You’d better be a heavy sleeper, or extremely well at tuning out excess noise. The city can be crazy loud, due to cobble-stoned streets, accelerating motorcycles, and the like. You’d think it’s a good thing the metro (30 eurocents for a ride) has windows, to let in some air, right? Well, they also let in a deafening clattering, a fine soundtrack for your oxygen-deprived underground rides. A guideline for life in Ukrainian society: if you have cash to spare, use it. Take an Uber, get yourself out of that noise and heat. Count your blessings if you’re one of the lucky ones who can do so.

You’d better be a heavy sleeper or an expert at tuning out excess noise. With its cobble-stoned streets and plenty of motorcycles, the city can be crazy loud.

The noise permeates the post-Soviet entertainment infrastructure as well: on a hot, hot day, go to Hydropark, an island on the ever-impressive Dnieper river. Built up into a recreational space, complete with rickety amusement-park rides and an abundance of kiosks. These kiosks sell everything from dried fish to Kvas, a kind of tapped bready soft drink, while also blasting music so that you’ll be challenged to relax. You’ll get to see families with drunk parents enjoying their weekend as well, which is kind of endearing. The kids will be begging to drive these miniature motorized cars, something definitely lacking in my childhood experience.

Summer fun in the Soviet-era VDNH exhibition center
Summer fun in the Soviet-era VDNH exhibition center

In these shoes? I don’t think so

Watch your step! Looking down as not to trip on the uneven, broken pavement, you’ll miss the amazing architecture of Kyiv. It’s a mix of crumbling pastel-colored colonial-style houses, monumental alleys and intricate brickwork. But you’ll see both Soviet-era and modern towers as well. Framed by high chestnut trees and more greenery than you might expect, they create an absolutely unique and impressive mix of architectural styles. It’s worth braving the noise, the heat and the dust to wander through for hours. This should be read as another homage to the many Ukrainian women who not only strut through the streets in their incredibly elaborate heels, but manage to keep their head held high while doing so. I barely made it in sneakers.

A Konfiskat store at Lisova market, in which supposedly "counterfeit" seized Western goods are sold
A Konfiskat store at Lisova market, in which supposedly “counterfeit” seized Western goods are sold

On the subject of sneakers, make sure to import yours. Ukrainian clothes shopping is for the rich and those who aren’t lucky enough to be able to buy them elsewhere. Everything imported will be overpriced. Second-hand might be OK. Still, you will need strong nerves to deal with the abundance of heat, dust and excess noise if you’re going to head out to the market at Lisova. Which, to be fair, has the absolute best falafel of the city, U Khasana, and is worth the ride if only for that. Interesting is also the status of stores such as Ikea. Not actually active in Ukraine, you nevertheless have access to their products through unlicensed resellers.

Dubbed movies and unexpected surprises

You like those movies? The Ukrainian desire to emphasize their national culture and language, another step to differentiate from the Russian, means that most films are not only subbed, but will also be dubbed in Ukrainian. Not synchronized, dubbed! Which means that if you’re lucky, you’ll understand a tiny bit of the original language in the background. Sometimes Zhotven cinema in Podil can provide some respite, they’re trying to profile themselves as an independent movie theater. Also, in front of this movie theater is one of the most beautiful squares of the city. Other nice places to calm down are Taras Shevchenko park, Landscape Alley, and the small square around the Sholem Aleichem monument. Or you can sneak into building courtyards, which will sometimes house cafés, playgrounds, and other unexpected surprises.

The square in front of Zhotven cinema
The square in front of Zhotven cinema

The original hipsters

You’re young, you’re urban, you’re enjoying your flat white while “working” on your Mac. So now you think you know what makes a hipster? Go take a walk through Kyiv. Particularly entertaining is Kashtan café. You’ll find it in a courtyard which for some reason also has an aviary with ravens, another of the city’s attractions. Someone once told me that they were enjoying their espresso tonic (right) when a tour group came through. The guide pointed first to the birds on the right, and then to the left at the hipsters, both at ease in their respective habitat.

The orginial hipsters lived in a time when H&M just wasn’t there. You couldn’t just buy your bucket hat from the rack, you had to seriously search for it.

As my roommate told me, those who ten years ago used to be the kids of Kyiv were “the original hipsters”. This was a time where H&M was not selling all clothing essentials. You couldn’t just buy your bucket hat from the rack, you had to seriously search for and curate your outfit.

H&M, by the way, is new to Ukraine. This is why, if you go to a nice consignment store like Good Buy Fashion, the pricing of these brands will be similar to those in an incomparable quality category, such as Alexander McQueen. Also, don’t be fooled: everyone might be walking around with the newest iPhone and living some kind of hyper-consumerist lifestyle, but it doesn’t actually mean that most people have money. It just means that young, hip Kyiv goes out to see, and above all to be seen.

Get certified

Hey, we know its summer and you wanna go swimming. Like everything else in Kyiv, we welcome your try! Just remember: you’ll need a medical certificate to use the swimming pool, and you might want to re-think going swimming in the Dnieper. Just saying! Try the crazy outdoor Soviet-era gym at Hydropark instead, but make sure you have your tetanus shots because of that rusty equipment is kinda scary.

The view from Landscape Alley bridge - right next to the monument to Ukrainian-Russian friendship
The view from Landscape Alley bridge – right next to the monument to Ukrainian-Russian friendship

Whatever happens, you’ll have an interesting time. Kyiv is incredibly beautiful and rewarding for the ones who won’t let the craziness, the dust and the noise get to them.

Whatever happens, you’ll have an interesting time. Kyiv and Ukraine generally is incredibly beautiful and rewarding for the ones who don’t let the craziness, the dust and the noise get to them. You’ve heard about the special Dutch skies? Well, the expansive Ukrainian sky is something I’ve never seen anything like before. When you’re here, stay cool, stay respectful, and above all stay patient when the cashiers at the supermarket or the ticket ladies in the metro (always women!) start shouting at you for some unfathomable reason.

Be glad you probably don’t understand what they’re saying, and that you can pay by debit card everywhere you go (Germany, I’m waiting for you to reach the 21st century). Feel relieved that if you have an EU passport (or one of similar privilege) and can leave when you want to. Appreciate being an observer, rather than a participant, in much of the noise that is Kyiv in summer.

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