14 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Ukraine
As the largest country in Europe, Ukraine offers many attractions for tourists, including festivals celebrating its rich culture and a handsome selection of centuries-old architecture. From the rolling countryside to the cobblestone streets of old city centers, Ukraine's people are just as diverse as its landscape, and they are some of the most hospitable folks in Europe.
The word "Ukraina" literally means borderland, and the country has been prime invasion territory since its earliest beginnings. At different periods, the land has been shared by Russia, Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Romania.
Today, you'll find an undiscovered Eastern European gem in search of its own identity and making a unique mark in the world of tourism. When you visit, make sure to chat with a local at one of the many delectable eateries or markets. Old recipes are being reinterpreted with modern flair. Everyone wants to practice their English, so when conversations happen, use the opportunity to gain a local's perspective on the best Ukraine has to offer.
For sightseeing ideas, see our list of the top attractions and things to do in Ukraine.
Are you familiar with the term Dark Tourism? It refers to travel to places associated with death and tragic occurrences. The 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero in New York City, Alcatraz in San Francisco, Pearl Harbor, Pompeii, and The Killing Fields of Cambodia are all popular examples. Visitors to Ukraine can add the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, ground zero for the disaster, to the list.
The explosion, which took place in 1989, is located in the town of Pripyat in the Northern Ukraine. The sight has recently been open to the public—but you must visit with an authorized tour company. If you are worried about radiation, tests conducted disclose that travelers receive more exposure on a transatlantic flight than they receive during a visit to Chernobyl.
Close to 65 miles from Kiev, it's an easy, full-day trip from the capital with a Chernobyl Tour. Tour operators can pick up visitors at their hotel and drop them off after the tour. During the transport, you will see an informative video about the disaster. Narration and actual footage bring the incident into reality and prepare visitors for what lies ahead.
The tour takes visitors through many buildings, some looking like a stage set. It is an incredibly moving experience, one that will stay with you long after you leave.
2. St. Sophia's Cathedral
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the 1980s, St. Sophia's Cathedral (also called Saint Sophia Cathedral) is a favorite of visitors. With an elaborate Baroque exterior consisting of 13 golden domes, this cathedral stands out among the other historic buildings. Its beauty draws you into a jaw-dropping interior.
Inside, you'll find the space filled with beautiful murals, ancient mosaics, and frescoes that are centuries old. Take a tour or sit through a service to get the full experience.
Named for Hagia Sophia, St. Sophia's is one of Kiev's most noted landmarks since its construction in 1037. One of the best views in Kiev is from the bell tower—it's well worth the hike to the top!
Address: Volodymyrska St, 24, Kyiv
3. Visit L'viv's Historic Center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
One of the most charming and well-preserved Ukrainian destinations for visitors is the city of L'viv. The entire historic center has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, and tourists will love walking the cobbled streets taking in the sights.
Often called "the Paris of Ukraine," the old city has a very traditional European feel, with the addition of modern conveniences and excellent restaurants. Coffee lovers will find the café scene hard to beat. This is an area that takes its caffeine in all forms very seriously.
For a bird's-eye view of the town, climb the 1,000-plus stairs of the bell tower. The landscape in all directions is breathtaking.
4. Eat Borscht
With the explosion of gastronomic tourism of late, many feel there's no better way to dig deep into a new culture than through their food. Traditional Ukrainian borscht can be found in restaurants all over the country. Available either hot or cold, it's a perfect example of the citizens stretching ingredients when times were tough, and if you're lucky, the very best versions will inspire you to find a recipe to make once you're back home.
5. Visit a Sunflower Field
Sunflower oil is one of Ukraine's largest exports; as a matter of fact, the country is the 2nd largest producer of the oil in the world. Tourists will find enormous fields of the flowers all over the country. With shades ranging from buttercup to golden orange, these platter-size beauties thrive in the area's soil and climate.
While setting up the perfect location for that Instagram selfie, just make sure to stay close to the edge of the field. The flowers are enormous, and those that get carried away wandering off might find themselves soon lost in a sea of yellow and green.
6. Take a Cooking Class and Eat Dumplings
Do a bit of research before your trip and find a restaurant that also offers cooking lessons of the famous Ukrainian dumplings, vareniki. They are available in many varieties, both sweet and savory, and foodies can find meat, potatoes, and cabbage, as well as sweet cherry and other local fruit flavors.
It's great fun to learn to carefully pinch the dough closed, have the restaurant cook them for you, and then indulge in a feast of traditional dishes after all the hard work you've performed.
7. Kamenets Podolsky Castle
Located in Kamianets-Podilskyi, a short walk from the old town, Kamenets Podolsky Castle is a striking landmark. This fortress, which has been in existence since before the 14th century, is the perfect place in the canyon to take pictures and explore. It's reminiscent of a fairy-tale castle.
Take a tour around the inside with all of its passageways and marvel at the manicured grounds. Even though this castle is centuries old, it has modern amenities like bathrooms and a café to make sure you enjoy your visit. The castle is especially beautiful at night when it's illuminated.
After spending the day exploring, take the short trip into the old town and grab a bite to eat at one of the many diverse restaurants.
Address: Zamkowa St, 1, Kam'yanets'-Podil's'kyi, Khmelnytskyi
8. Mezhyhirya: Former Presidential Palace, Kiev
Mezhyhirya is situated on the banks of the beautiful Dnieper River and is the former residence of ex-president of the Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. There is no shortage of things to do here, and it may be the most interesting and over-the-top place you have ever visited.
Today, in all its glory, the extravagant building is a symbol and reminder of institutional greed and corruption. Within its gated walls, there are tennis courts, a shooting range, an equestrian club, helicopter pad, ostrich farm, dog kennel, golf course, and hunting grounds.
Be sure to check out the auto museum that houses Yanukovich's former exotic cars; head to the main mansion, nicknamed "Honka;" or explore the grounds with heated lakes. Excess is the theme here, and some attractions are more ridiculous than others, from the exotic animals at the president's farm to the restaurant in the form of a Spanish galleon.
Address: Novi Petrivtsi, Kyiv Oblast
9. Odessa Opera and Ballet
The Odessa Opera and Ballet is located in a historic building in the center of town and is the oldest theater in Odessa, opening in 1810. Visitors can take in shows like Swan Lake or Madame Butterfly, all for about the price of a cup of coffee here in the United States. The unique horseshoe hall allows for excellent acoustics and gives the audience a full view of the performers on the stage.
If you are here when they are offering tours, this is a great way to get a behind-the-scenes look at this magnificent piece of architecture. If you are lucky enough to be in town during the holidays, even better. The Christmas Festival is not to be missed.
Address: Chaikovs'koho Ln, 1, Odesa, Odes'ka oblast
10. Visit a Local Outdoor Market
Although there is much debate about the origin of the famous nesting "Russian" dolls, there's no denying the talented skill of the craftspeople making them. Visit a market and find a wide variety of handicrafts highlighting traditional arts in the country. Textiles are many, especially the traditionally embroidered blouses, called vyshyvanka, and hand towels used in many homes around the country.
Another favorite of visitors are the many vintage war items found at these flea market locations along with fun floral headpieces used for festival celebrations.
11. Tarakaniv Fort, Dubno
Grab your flashlight or headlamp and head to the Tarakaniv Fort, located just outside the village of Dubno and about two hours from Lviv, near the Ikva River in the west of Ukraine. It was originally built to protect the Lviv-Kiev railroad route, and visiting it is a one-of-a-kind experience.
This ruin has a tunnel entrance and is not for those with claustrophobia. Dating back to Imperial Russia, there are centuries-old tunnels and passages to explore.
Visitors will want to get here early to access the attraction before the groups. It's a great place for photographers, history buffs, and adventurers, but be sure to wear good shoes and watch out for the sometimes treacherous terrain.
Getting here is easy—take a cab from Dubno. There are many tours on offer as well.
12. Tunnel of Love, Klevlan
Just outside of the town of Klevan, the Tunnel of Love is another popular spot to visit in Ukraine. For lovers and singles alike, the Tunnel of Love is a two-mile stretch of private railway that gives the illusion of a never-ending tunnel. A canopy of trees over the tracks are actually what makes the "tunnel."
Bridal parties and romantics head here to make a wish or take a romantic stroll. Legend says that for couples who make a wish together here, if the love is real, the wish will come true. It's also one of the most photographed spots in Ukraine.
13. Odessa Catacombs
If you want to see the city of Odessa in another light, be sure to check out the Catacombs. These subterranean tunnels, originally formed from mining of a rock called coquina, a soft off-white limestone, are rumored to be larger than the underground passageways of both Rome and Paris.
Giving tourists access to Odessa's underworld, there's a network of basements, bunkers, storm drains, and drainage tunnels, forming what feels like the ruins of an underground city. It's one of the world's largest urban labyrinths, with over 1,600 miles of tunnels.
The history of the tunnels is just as intriguing as the tunnels themselves. During the invasions of World War II, the people of Odessa took to the catacombs for planning and executing their counter attacks.
14. Visit an Experience Restaurant
Proof positive that Ukraine doesn't take itself too seriously are the many Experience Restaurants found in the larger cities. All offer a bit of humor with a modern take on some piece of the country's historical past. Almost all need a secret password to enter. A bit of Google research should grant you the code, however you might need to work on the pronunciation!
There's a spot where you can sing for your supper and get a reduced bill. Another, buried deep in the underground, offers the chance to pose on vintage motorcycles and experience the life of a solider.
Coffee lovers will enjoy the cave that fires up a caramel crust on their lattes with a blowtorch in L'viv. It's all in good fun and part of the experience of a culture in the midst of establishing its own independent identity.