IS IT KYIV OR KIEV?
Like everything else in life, this depends on whom you ask. In Ukranian it is Kyiv, while in Russian it is Kiev. With the revival of Ukrainian language and culture, the official name is Kyiv. But given how many people still speak Russian, especially in Kyiv and Odessa, you will not be an outcast if you refer to it as Kiev. Similarly, you will be equally fine if you thank people with Ukranian "Dyakuyu" (pronounced DYA-koo-yoo) or with Russian "Spasibo" (pronounced spah-SEE-bah). While here, you will learn a lot about the Kievan Rus, a nation from which Ukrainians, Russians, and Belorussians are all claiming as their ancestors. Kievan Rus empire started in the 9th century and ended in the 13th with the Mongol invasion.
We stayed at the Hilton Kyiv Hotel. Not the cheapest option, but a great hotel, good location, close to the metro, next to the Volodymyrska Church, and a walking difference from most activities. If you are too tired to walk, taxis are safe and inexpensive, and Uber is also available. Our U.S.-based Uber account worked great in Kyiv with no issues.
Kyiv is a super cool city with lots to see. It is very old and has interesting history, delicious food, amazing cafes and restaurants, so whatever your interest is, you will be able to find something to love here. Majority of Ukrainians are Orthodox and the churches are really beautiful. They made an extraordinary effort to rebuild churches destroyed during the Soviet times. You should know that unlike catholic or protestant churches, orthodox churches do not have a seating area inside- so you won't be able to get some rest while admiring the inside of a church.
WHAT TO DO & SEE
* Take a Tour of Kiev - we opted for the Ancient Kyiv Tour by Kiev Walking Tours which starts every day at 11:00 from Maidan. They offer many other great tours for which we didn't have enough time, like the Kayaking on Dnieper, Jewish Kiev, Chernobyl Tour, etc. Many of the things listed below are part of the tour we took. Prepare for lots of uphill walking- Kyiv is super hilly.
* Stroll Down Khreshchatyk Street - this is the main street, full of big department stores. It is especially fun to see it at night. It's bigger and wider than what you would imagine.
* The Independence Square (Maidan) - recently made famous by the 2013/2014 protests and revolution. A big square where political rallies often take place. Take a selfie next to the I Love Kyiv sign.
* St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery - dates back to 12th century before being destroyed in 1930s. Rebuilt in 1999. A must see for photo ops, it is really beautiful and its golden domes are a symbol of Kyiv. No photos allowed inside.
* St. Sophia Cathedral and Monument to Bogdan Khmelnytsky - the Cathedral is one of the few surviving buildings from the 11th century Kyivan Rus period, while the statue is of a 17th century Cossack who fought against Poland and signed a treaty with Russia, which eventually resulted in incorporation of Ukraine in the Russian Empire.
* The Golden Gate and Monument to Yaroslav the Wise - 1982 reconstruction of how the the gate of this fortified city (maybe) looked like in the 11th century when constructed by Yaroslav the Wise. He is famous for constructing the Golden Gate, laying foundation for the St. Sophia Cathedral (the monument depicts him holding the church in his hand), and for wisely marrying off his daughters to forge political alliances. Doubt the daughters had any say in this.
* Andriyvskiy Descent- a very steep hill, also known as the Souvenir Hill, on top of which is the beautiful St . Andrew's Church. You can buy all the souvenirs you want there, and you should also check out the Volodymyrska Street next to church where local artists sell beautiful paintings during the summer.
* Podil Neighborhood - at the bottom of the steep descent begins the oldest neighbourhood of Kyiv, Podil, which used to be a Jewish quarter before the Jews were killed during the Nazi occupation and subsequent pogroms under the Soviet regime. Podil today is full of nice restaurants and bars.
* Kiev Pecharsk Lavra (Cave Monastery) -not to be missed religious complex in Kiev, with a famous bell tower, caves, and the amazing view of the city and the Dnieper River.
* St. Volodymyr Cathedral - not so close to other churches, but worth a visit. Lovely exterior and even more beautiful interior. You can pay 50 grivnas (app. $2) for a permit to photograph inside.
* Mariyinskiy Park - a lovely and relaxing park where you can take a glimpse of Mariyinskiy Palace, former palace of the Russian Empire and now an official ceremonial residence of the President of Ukraine.
* Friendship of Nations Arch (aka Rainbow Arch) symbolizes the friendship between Russia and Ukraine. A beautiful view of the left bank. If you are into politics, great topic for discussion with your newly acquired Ukrainian friends.
* Monument to Volodymyr the Great who christianized the Kyivan Rus in the 10th century. Fun fact is that he was the father of Yaroslav the Wise. The best view is from a park above the statue.
WHERE AND WHAT TO EAt
There are several dishes that you should really taste: Vareniki (dumplings with potatoes, cherries, cheese, etc), Okroshka Cold Yoghurt Soup, Ukranian Red Borscht (much better than the green one we once tried), Compost juice, and Vodka of course (horilka in Ukranian). If you get tired from Ukranian cousine, there are plenty of ethnic food you can eat, from steaks, pizzas, pastas, to Georgian, Vietnamese, and Japanese food. Some restaurants we tried include:
Near St. Andrew's Church - on Andriyvskiy Descent:
Kanapka Bar - By far the best restaurant we tried in Kyiv. No competition. We opted for a tasting menu, a 3-hour long unforgettable experience which included oysters, Chicken Kiev, and lots of nitrogen. An absolute must while in Kyiv. Read more about this experience here.
Vero Vero Italian Restaurant - This restaurant is made for those long, wonderful, summer nights. The patios is amazing, so romantic, and the food is excellent, albeit expensive. Not sure how it looks in the winter when you have to dine inside, but in the summer it is a must visit.
Hutorets (Khutorets) on Dnipri - Nice restaurant on water, with traditional Ukranian food. It's lovely to be lulled by the waves, watch sunset over the Dnieper River, and taste delicious vareniki and horilka. It's just not as inexpensive as we were led to believe, so careful if on budget.
Near St. Sophia Cathedral/ Golden Gate:
Chang Vietnamese Restaurant (the name remains a mystery)- most recent addition to Kyiv's gastronomy scene. Good if you live in the city and are craving something different. Not recommended if you are just there on a short visit.
Fish Market - This place is in perfect spot as you are doing the walking between all the churches. Coming back from Golden Gate, before you reach St. Sophia, we saw a lovely patio and sat here for lemonade and some snack. It was a perfect rest spot, before heading out for more sightseeing.
Near the Synagogue/main Khreschatyk Street:
Milk Bar - A typical hipster dessert bar, with good food and amazing desserts (Levander cake, I am talking to you). The service is a little slow, but the quality of desserts makes up for it, at least for now.
Near Volodymyrska Church/Hilton Hotel:
Chachapuri Georgian Restaurant - Georgian food seems to be all the fav in Kyiv, everyone kept talking about it so we decided to give it a try. It's not bad, but we liked Ukranian food better. Like everything, it's just a matter of taste.
7 Fridays - Very inexpensive, low key lunch place. The food is really good- borscht especially. They have lunch specials that are about $6 for 2 courses. Recommend coming if you are on a budget or just want to balance out your daily budget and leave more money for dinner.