What to do in Kiev in winter: The perfect 3-day itinerary

by | 11 January 2019 | Ukraine | 6 comments

Kiev (or Kyiv), capital of the vast nation of Ukraine, is a city which has hit the headlines in recent years for many reasons. From the fall of communism in the 1990s to the recent tensions with Russia over the occupation of the Crimean peninsula, the city has had a chequered recent past, but this shouldn’t overshadow its incredible heritage as one of the oldest bastions of Slavic culture and heritage.

Kiev is a city with extremes of climate, from baking hot summers to icy cold winters. The itinerary below is perfect for any time of year, but if you are wondering what to do in Kiev in winter, look no further.

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History of Kiev

Kiev’s history extends back into the mists of time. The city was officially founded in 482 AD, and a fortress was built here in the 9th century by three brothers, Kyi, Shchek and Khoryv, who are today looked upon as the founders of the city. Orthodox Christianity flourished in this settlement with its wealth of golden-domed churches, and its famous sons range from Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise in the 11th century to celebrated writer Mikhail Bulgakov in the early 20th century.

The architecture of the city today is one of its crowning glories; everything is represented here, from original and reconstructed churches dating from the 11th century onwards, to 19th century extravagance and Communist might. A walk around the city is a glimpse into every aspect of its past.

What to see in Kiev

If you are looking for the best things to do in Kiev Ukraine, read on to discover my top tips for a short visit.

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Day 1

Ancient Kiev free walking tour

Start your Kiev sightseeing by taking one of the excellent free tours run by Kiev Walking Tours. The Ancient Kiev tour starts from Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in the heart of the city at 11am every day, although in winter it is best to contact them in advance to confirm your attendance, as the tour will not run if there is no interest. That said, when I visited in late December the tour was well attended, even on a cold and rainy morning.

The tour will take you on a 2-hour walk around the city centre and introduce you to the main Kiev attractions, leaving you free to revisit in greater depth on your own. The tour is free, although tips are appreciated.

Coffee in a traditional coffee house

At the end of your tour, head down nearby Yaroslaviv Val to the Yaroslava coffee shop for a cheap and delicious coffee and cake in traditional splendour. Find the coffee house at Yaroslaviv Val 13, just next door to chain coffee house Aroma Kava; it’s worth forgoing the modern lattes for a taste of the old times, a beautiful espresso and some seriously delicious cake.

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Golden Gate (Zoloti Vorota)

Zoloti Vorota is the westernmost city gate of the old walled city of Kiev. Today the square is home to a reconstruction of the old wooden gate, as well as a small museum. Don’t miss the statue of Yaroslav the Wise; depicted holding a model of the city fortifications, locals like to say he is actually holding the infamous (and delicious) Kiev cake, for reasons that are obvious once you see it!

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St Sofia’s Cathedral

A short walk from Zoloti Vorota will bring you to St Sofia’s Cathedral. This 11th century house of worship is the oldest surviving original church in the city, standing firm through wars and decades of communism to the present day. Entering beneath a belltower, admire the beautiful multi-domed cathedral from outside and inside, including magnificent original frescos, a beautiful golden altar screen and the tomb of Yaroslav the Wise himself (although his body is reputed to be elsewhere). Also worth seeing are modern paintings of Yaroslav and his family, as well as fastincating scale models of the cathedral when it was first built and of the old walled city of Kiev.

There is a moderate entry charge for the grounds, cathedral and belltower – these are charged separately, enabling you to choose what you would like to see.

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St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery

Impossible to miss from St Sofia’s cathedral, St Michael’s golden domes outdo any in this already opulent city. The monastery was destroyed under communism and rebuilt in 1999, but this only serves to showcase the brilliance of the building as it was originally intended to be seen.

The bright blue church was originally white, but the colour was changed to mimic the blue skies of the Ukrainian summer. Somewhat ironically, therefore, it stands out in spectacular fashion against the white skies of winter!

There is no charge to enter the cathedral. In common with most church buildings, photography is not permitted and a dress code applies, although this is not a problem in the winter months when the cold weather already invites modest dress! Local women cover their heads in churches, although this is not expected of visitors.

Ride the funicular to Pechersk

Kiev’s old city is built on a bluff high about the Dnipro river. To get down to the new town, why not ride the short funicular railway which leaves from just behind St Michael’s monastery? Tickets at the time of writing cost 8 hryvnia ($0.30), the same price as a metro ticket, although the tokens are not interchangeable.

The funicular will bring you out at the base of the hill next to Poshtova Ploshcha metro station, in the district of Pechersk.

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Andriiv’skyi Descent (Andriyivski uzviz)

This winding road begins at the top of the hill outside pretty St Andrews church (which is currently closed for restoration). Named after the apostle Andrew, who was said to have come to Kiev and declared a great city would be built on this spot, the picturesque road winds down the hillside and is a perfect destination for a bit of souvenir shopping. The road can get very icy in winter, so is best approached from the bottom at this time of year.

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Kiev Pechersk Lavra

So far, your tour of Kiev has been on foot, but it’s now time to hop on the metro or grab an Uber to head to your final destination of the day, Kiev Pechersk Lavra. Accessible from Arsenalna station, from which you can take trolleybus 38 or walk the 25 minutes to the lavra complex, the site is well worth the effort.

A combination of monastery and museums, the Lavra is divided into upper and lower sections. In the Upper Lavra, you will find the Dormition Cathedral, St Nicholas’s Church and the bell tower, as well as several museums including the Museum of Ukrainian Folk Decorative Arts and the Historic Treasures Museum.

The Lower Lavra is accessed by descending a cobbled hillside; in icy weather, better to stick to the cobbled road than the often slick and slippery pavement. At the bottom you will find the caves that gave the Lavra its name (Pechersk means cave). There are two cave complexes, the Near and Far caves; both contain narrow passages interspersed with chapels. If you only visit one, head for the Near caves in which the mummified remains of monks still lie in their coffins deep below the hillside.

The caves are gloomy and largely unlit, although you can buy candles to take in with you. I am claustrophobic and found the caves reasonably comfortable to visit; the passageways are easily wide enough for one person and visitors can stand upright. However, they are by no means spacious, so consider carefully if this might be an issue for you.

There is an entry charge for the Upper Lavra but not for the Lower Lavra, although there is a small charge to enter the caves. A dress code applies in the churches and caves, where ladies will be required to wear a skirt, even over winter clothes. You can borrow one free of charge if necessary.

Rodina Mat

If you still have time and energy, Rodina Mat (or the Motherland Monument) is not far from the Lavra. Opened in 1981 in true Soviet style, the huge steel statue of a woman holding a sword and shield is one of only two in the former Soviet Union, the other being in Russia’s far east.

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Dinner Ukrainian-style

After your day discovering the best places to visit in Kiev, it’s time for a rest. Take an Uber back into the city centre for a traditional Ukrainian dinner at Korchma Taras Bulba on Pushkinska Street, a short stroll from Maidan Square. This restaurant, with its traditional vibe and waitresses in national dress, manages to stop just on the right side of tasteful, and the food is delicious. Like most places in Ukraine, prices are reasonable for foreigners. A reservation was not needed in late December when I visited, although it might be advisable at peak times.

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Day 2

Take a metro tour

Kiev’s metro is one of the world’s finest. Built during the Soviet period, the stations greatly resemble those of Moscow with their fine hallways and beautiful decoration. Kiev’s claim to fame, however, is that it has the deepest metro station in the world, Arsenalna, which lies 105.5m below the ground; the escalator from the platform to the surface takes almost five minutes.

Various metro stations are well worth a special look, including Zoloti Vorota (voted one of the world’s finest), Khreshchatyk and Universitet, all in the old Soviet style, as well as the more modern Teatralna, Olimpiiska and Palats Ukraina.

Metro tickets are a staggeringly cheap 8 UAH ($0.30) to ride anywhere in the city as at January 2019, making a metro tour one of the best Kiev things to do on a budget. A self-guided metro tour is a great way to spend an hour or two, and even better if the weather outside isn’t so great. On the downside, the cheap prices make the metro very popular, so be prepared for some crowded metro cars at busy times.

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Experience Cossack life

Ukraine’s Cossacks are recognised the world over, with their colourful tunics and traditional athletic dancing. But what else do you know about them? There are a couple of venues in Kiev where you can discover what Cossack life was really like away from the stereotypes. Check out the Museum of Hetmanship, a short walk from Kontraktova Ploshcha metro station, or Mamajeva Sloboda Open Air Museum in the west of the city if you have a little more time and the weather lends itself to being outdoors.

Take a Soviet walking tour

In addition to their Ancient Kiev tour, Kiev Walking Tours also run a Soviet Kiev tour every day at 3pm. It starts from the same place in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) and takes you round all the Soviet highlights of the city. Once again, it’s best to notify the tour provider in advance that you will attend, especially in the low season. This tour is also offered free of charge, tips appreciated.

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Take in a show

Kiev’s elegant National Opera of Ukraine has its home in the stunning opera house on Volodymyrska Street in the heart of the city. Ticket prices are cheap by western standards, so why not treat yourself to the best of what the city has to offer? Performances vary daily, with both ballet and opera being performed in rotation. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, but to be sure of the best seat, simply buy online on the opera house website and print off your ticket at home.

Kiev also has a huge purpose-built circus in the Soviet tradition, with several shows daily. The performances do use animals and I chose not to visit; although the circus website does state that the animals are treated ethically, do your research before you come.

Support war veterans with the best pizza in town

For an after-show dinner or a prelude to checking out the Kiev nightlife, head to Veterano Pizza on Sofiivs’ka Street, just to the northern end of Maidan Square. This friendly, modern restaurant has quirky bullet-topped tables and artwork and memorabilia created and donated by veterans, as well as supporting veterans and soldiers with pizza, a share of profits and support with business projects.

Oh, and on top of this, it serves arguably the best pizza in town. For a real Ukrainian twist, try the seafood pizza topped with caviar! It’s definitely one of the most delicious ways to help a good cause…

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Day 3

Take a day trip out of the city

On Day 3, you might want to check out more things to see in Kiev. But if you want to explore the country beyond the city limits, why not take a day trip and discover more of what Ukraine has to offer?

Chernobyl

The site of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, the Chernobyl exclusion zone begins around 1.5 hours north of Kiev and is more than worth a visit. You can only visit as part of a guided tour, and bookings must be made two weeks in advance to allow them to secure the necessary permits to enter the exclusion zone. Learn more about the disaster as you journey north to check out the abandoned town of Pripyat as well as other locations within the zone, before taking a visit to the reactor itself, now enclosed in a protective shell. Needless to say, you can only view the reactor from the outside, but the tours are safe and you will not be exposed to any dangerous amount of radiation during your visit. (Just think: the tour guides go in daily!).

Winter is a great time to visit Chernobyl, not least because you are required to keep arms and legs covered in the exclusion zone for safety reasons, as well as wearing enclosed footwear – something that is much more comfortable in the cold of winter than it is in summer! Chernobyl under a blanket of snow is strangely beautiful; some sites can be icy but not dangerously so, and you will be on and off the bus all day giving ample time to warm up.

Chernobyl is a full-day trip; there is also a Chernobyl Museum in the city if you want to learn about the disaster without committing a full day.

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Uman

The town of Uman is a fascinating day trip from the capital by bus, as you discover beautiful parkland, a strong Jewish tradition and real life in small-town Ukraine. For more information, check out my other post.

Other things to do in Ukraine

If you have more time and have exhausted the top things to do in Kiev, there are other easy day trips to consider. Popular destinations include Chernihiv to the northeast of the city, and Vinnytsia to the southwest, or head west to Lviv for a few days to see a different side to the country. One thing’s for sure: to get a feel for the real Ukraine, a day trip is more than worth the effort!

How cold is Kiev in winter?

This can vary! When I visited at the end of December, the temperature was just below freezing. However, it can get very much colder than this – below -20C outside the city – so check the forecast and wrap up warm! The upside is that the colder the temperature, the better the chances of blue skies and sunshine, which I didn’t see on my trip.

Kiev, and Ukraine in general, are icy places in the winter months. While I was there the city pavements were not always cleared of ice; take care when walking around the city. Walking boots or other footwear with a good grip are essential.

Is Ukraine safe?

The country has hit the headlines in recent years due to political and military tensions with neighbouring Russia, culminating in the occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula by Russian forces.

Parts of eastern Ukraine, as well as Crimea itself, are therefore currently unsuitable to visit due to the risk of unrest. However, in the remainder of the country it is business as usual. During my visit I saw very little military presence in Kiev, and there is currently no reason at all to put off a visit to the capital.

Needless to say, this information is correct at the time of writing (January 2019); do check the latest updates before you travel.

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Practical information

Time zone

Ukraine is on Eastern European time, UTC+2.

Language

The language is Ukrainian, a Slavic language similar to Russian. The Cyrillic alphabet is used which can make it challenging to read some signs; most are also translated into English, especially in the main Kiev tourism areas, but once you head off the beaten track you are on your own. Learning to read a few Cyrillic characters before you arrive may be helpful.

Most young people speak at least some English, but this is not always true of the older generation. However, the people I met were unfailingly kind and helpful, and did their best to communicate with a few words of English and some sign language! If you speak Russian (or at least a little, like I do), this is generally understood and, despite political tensions, well-received.

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Money and currency

The currency is the hryvnia, UAH. Prices are currently very low by western standards, although visitors should be sensitive to the fact that life is not so cheap on a Ukrainian salary!

Major restaurants, shops and hotels accept credit cards, although cash is common elsewhere. Ukrainian banknotes go down to 1 UAH ($0.04), so be prepared for a LOT of notes! ATMs are easy to find all over the city, although most charge a small fee to withdraw cash.

Mobile phones

The country code for Ukraine is +380.

If your cellphone is on a European contract, there is a good chance you will be able to use it in Ukraine – although, since the country is not in the European Union, you will not be able to roam using your home contract. Check with your provider for details of roaming charges.

Much more cost effective, both for Europeans and especially those from further afield, is to purchase a Ukrainian SIM card. This can be done at the airport on arrival; I found I had to buy a 30-day card with unlimited data for my 5-day trip, however it did only cost less than $10 and was much cheaper than using my home contract. Connectivity is great within the city, with 4G (LTE) internet everywhere; 3G is more typical outside Kiev.

Travelling to Ukraine and want to read my other posts on this historic country? Check out the content below!

Has this post inspired you to visit Uman? Want to check out some day trips from Kiev for yourself? Pin this post for later!

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For a winter break with a difference, why not head to Ukraine? Kiev in winter is a magical blend of golden domes and snow-covered streets. | Kiev attractions | Kiev nightlife | Kiev sightseeing | Things to do in Kiev Ukraine | Where to stay in Kiev | Things to see in Kiev | Things to do in Kiev | What to see in Kiev | What to do in Kiev | Kiev things to do | Places to visit in Kiev | Kiev tourism | Things to do in Ukraine | Kiev guide | Kiev travel | Visit Kiev
For a winter break with a difference, why not head to Ukraine? Kiev in winter is a magical blend of golden domes and snow-covered streets. | Kiev attractions | Kiev nightlife | Kiev sightseeing | Things to do in Kiev Ukraine | Where to stay in Kiev | Things to see in Kiev | Things to do in Kiev | What to see in Kiev | What to do in Kiev | Kiev things to do | Places to visit in Kiev | Kiev tourism | Things to do in Ukraine | Kiev guide | Kiev travel | Visit Kiev


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