Insider Tips for Ukraine: An ultimate visitor’s guide to Europe’s most underrated country
When many people think about traveling around Europe, they will usually first think about France, Italy, United Kingdom, Spain and other Western European countries. Most of the time, lots of travelers would not venture to go Far East to visit the countries in Eastern Europe. This is probably due to what people hear and read through media along with prior historical situations between countries. Thus, the world has a lower image and opinion about Eastern Europe vs. the rest of Europe. As I was embarking on my first trip to Ukraine, many times people warned me against going there because they associated it with war, or as a third world country where English is not spoken, I’ve heard many reasons. The truth of the matter is that you will be surprised to learn of all of the hidden gems and insider tips for Ukraine that I found, and you can too, when visiting Ukraine.
By writing this post, my aim is to help Ukraine not to be overlooked any longer by travelers like yourself. I promise you that learning insider tips about Ukraine and why you should visit it, will be like opening a surprise gift box for your birthday and really enjoying what you discover inside. I guarantee that if you visit Ukraine, the way I did, you will fall in love over and over with all that you’ll find there. Read on to discover why Ukraine is Europe’s most underrated country and how it became my surprise destination of the year!
History 101: Ukraine and not “The Ukraine”
First, let’s start with history 101 by my explaining that it is just Ukraine and not “The Ukraine.” Ukraine is the official name stated in the Ukranian Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Before 1991, Ukraine formed part of the Soviet Union and the official name was The Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic (now you know why they do not like to be called “The Ukraine”… they’ve moved on and so should we).
Fun Fact: Did you happen to know that Ukraine is the largest country by area that is located entirely in Europe? Yes, this is a fact. So, you can probably guess how diverse and different Ukraine might be by region alone (given its size). You can have it all in one country from mountains, to the sea, to charming cities with cobblestoned-filled streets, to local villages, to wine regions, ski areas, and much more. I was blessed with the opportunity to go on a local tour with an amazing company (Cobblestone Freeway Tours), who took me to many different regions of Ukraine and forever changed my prior image and impression based solely on what I’d heard in the past about Ukraine. At this point, I even consider myself more of an honorary Ukranian (based on my more recent return visit).
Hope that you’re excited to read about all the reasons why Ukraine is the most underrated country in Europe and why you should plan to visit it now.
The Experience and People
Ukranian people are so helpful and friendly
This is not an exaggeration! Ukrainians are the most friendly and helpful people that you could ever meet in Europe. Believe it or not, people totally go out of their way to help you out, even when sometimes they don’t speak the same language as you. I had the most amazing experiences, even after my tour with Cobblestone Freeway ended and I stayed longer in Ukraine. I took a taxi and the taxi driver went totally out of his way to try to understand what I needed. He finally understood that my phone was not dialing for some reason and he called the person that I was scheduled to meet with. It was a lot of hand gestures mostly almost like pointing at his clock to indicate she was running late. He even waited for a moment with me and explained in sign language that there was a coffee shop nearby where I could wait for her. Super helpful!
Ukrainian people are not the kind to try to scam you or take advantage tourists
I never felt taken advantage of as a tourist. In most places, people will treat you like a local or part of the family. They were not staring at me or taking photos of me (like when I visit other countries). The prices I paid were the same as stated on the tags. I never felt like I had to negotiate 30, 50 or 70% less like in some other countries. People do not try to scam you. I truly like that.
Ukraine is Perfect for Budget Travelers
Ukrainian prices are so low that you can really have five-star dining/accommodation experiences for a lot less money than when visiting other countries. It is definitely one of the least expensive European countries I have visited and Kiev (Kyiv), the capital of Ukraine, is ranked as one of the “cheapest” capitals in Europe.
Example of prices for Accommodations in Ukraine
In cities like Lviv, you can find an airbnb for 10-15 dollars a night and there are also pretty affordable hotels. In the capital Kyiv (Kiev), prices are a little higher for accommodations (for example, an airbnb can cost approximately 30 dollars a night), but it all depends on the time of year too, so do your homework.
Example of prices for food and drink in Ukraine
I found meals to be pretty similar in prices, of course a little higher in the capital of Ukraine, but you can always find lunch for less than 5 dollars, fancy drinks very cheap between 2-4 dollars, Beer for less than a dollar, my large caramel cappuccino was like $1.10, in comparison to my large caramel cappuccino in my hometown of NYC for almost $6 (similar to other European countries). And we’re talking about comparable quality. What a big difference!
Cities and places I visited with Cobblestone Freeway Tours
Lviv, Ukraine (Львів)
Lviv, my favorite city in Ukraine, is one that’s full of history, charm, food culture and, as the mayor of Ukraine told us (when I had the pleasure of meeting him at City Hall), “Kiev (Kiyv) is the heart of Ukraine but Lviv is the soul.” I couldn’t agree more!
History 101: Lviv is the largest western city of Ukraine, better known as the little Paris of Ukraine and it houses one of Ukraine’s best historical cultural centers. Lviv is also a result of it’s specific history. In close proximity to the border of Poland (and at some point in history as part of Poland) you will see influences there. In its architecture, Lviv takes a lot of influence from Austria (having once been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). You will see that lots of areas might remind you of a small Vienna and some people will speak German better than English. You will also find the influence of Austria in the food and in many restaurants and cafes (in some places you will noticed the names of Austrian cities, the flag of the past Austro-Hungarian Empire and maybe even a picture on the wall of their Emperor during that era). Lviv is a very interesting place to visit; a must-see if you come to Ukraine.
Lviv Must-sees | Things to do in Lviv
Lviv has many places to see and things to do. Just a quick “warning”: Being known for some of the best coffee and chocolate in the country, you may never want to return home! I’ve probably got your attention now! I will highlight some spots that I visited on our tour, but I also plan to have other posts strictly dedicated to Lviv (and a few of the secret spots I discovered), coming soon.
The addictive Drunken Cherry
Almost as soon as we were picked up at the airport and brought to the city center of Lviv, we were whisked away to our first stop: Drunken Cherry.
It is a very small but popular bar/shop (hence the long lines every day and night) where people gather, mostly outdoors, to enjoy a glass of this alcoholic drink. It is sort of a homemade moonshine with sour cherries inside.
It is so addictive that not only is this place full from the moment they open at 10am, but you will always see people walking around with bags full of bottles of Drunken Cherry. It makes for a good souvenir, if you don’t drink it yourself beforehand (LOL).
Drunken Cherry in Lviv is Dreams in Heels Approved!
Lviv Coffee Mining
A great experience to have in Lviv that is not to be missed is visiting this place! They not only sell coffee bags for you to take with you, but there’s also a tour, underneath this historic building, explaining how coffee was first mined in Ukraine. In addition to the background about the coffee mining process, you’ll get your own hat to wear, take photos and, the best part, you will taste their amazing caramelized coffee (tastes like a liquid form of caramel flan (custard) or a crème brule). It is simply delicious!
Lviv Chocolate Factory
Chocolate lover? Well, this is one of the go to places for chocoholics in Lviv. You can learn the traditions of chocolate and even take a tour of the factory (located on the first levels of the building). Highlight: In addition to the great chocolate truffles, chocolate coffee, etc., but also on a good, warm day (like the one I experienced), you can check out the beautiful views of the city from the rooftop of the building, while also enjoying a chocolate sundae. Yummy!
Lviv Beer Museum
While it is located a little outside of the city center, nothing in Lviv is really far away. If you are a beer fan, this museum will provide you with the history of beer and Lviv, in a fun and interactive way.
After you finish the museum tour, you can check out their art gallery, which is a great place to take photos, while sipping on some beer (since there’s a beer tasting included).
Kryivka (Secret Bunker) Restaurant in Rynok Square
This place is a total hidden gem. There are no signs outside of the building so you might only find it by being with a local, asking someone or just look for a line. There are usually people waiting outside, but mostly at night. The place is located at the Rynok Square. Once you find it, you will walk down a small hallway and then knock on the wooden door. An ‘armed’ guard will open the door and shout “Slava Ukraina” to you and in order to gain access to the place, you need to tell him the secret password, “Heroyam Slava!” (which means, “hail to our heroes”).
Once you are in, you can enjoy traditional Ukranian food, such as borscht soup, and so much more. They are also known for their vodka shots. Warning, the place gets packed at night (since it is open late, especially in comparison to most restaurants and places that primarily close at midnight).
OK…enough about food and drink (for now)…here are a few places on my must-see list:
Lviv Opera House
Lviv Opera House was opened in 1900, built by Sigmund Gorgolewski in the Neo-Renaissance style. If you have visited Vienna, you will definitely notice the resemblance to the Vienna Opera House. I suggest that while you’re visiting Lviv, pick up tickets and enjoy an opera or ballet production. It is a must do after all!
The Boim Chapel
The Boim Chapel is a spectacular monument in Cathedral Square, Old Town Lviv. It has a magnificent architecture that’s just charming (just like Old Town) and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. Your pictures will speak for themselves!
Where did I stay in Lviv?
Vintage Boutique Hotel – Perfect for wine lovers!
This hotel is a delight. It is cozy, super cute and elegant. It only has 29 rooms of different categories and styles. This Vintage Boutique Hotel is located right in the heart of Lviv city center, so you can walk to all of the main sights.
I really love their dining experience too. They offer a very good gourmet breakfast and, for other dining, great fancy (but not pricey) meals. The service is excellent all around the hotel, it has good wifi and the highlight for wine lovers is their wine cellar. They have one of the most extensive lists of wine in Lviv. As a wine enthusiast, I enjoyed trying different kinds of wine and, of course, often accompanied by their delicious Ukranian cheese platter. I totally recommend this place for your stay in Lviv.
Driving towards The Carpathian Mountains and stopping along the way
Next stops: Kolomyia, Yaremche and Bukovel
I truly enjoyed our private bus tour ride towards these different areas. On the way, we stopped first at a canola field for photo-ops.
After the photo-op, we went to Kolomyia (which is located on the Prut River in the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast in Western Ukraine). We had lunch and then went to the Pysanka Museum (Easter Egg Museum). It was really interesting to visit this museum and to learn more about this famous tradition in Ukraine.
Back on the bus and we drove to another city in the same area, Yaremche, where we really got to see the Prut River and to shop in a traditional Ukranian craft market.
It was refreshing to walk over a beautiful bridge, enjoying the views of the river; I even walked down close to the river and sat on the rocks along the river’s edge. I also got to check out lots of artisans who sell traditional handmade Ukranian clothing, accessories and more. In addition, there were stands where you could buy souvenirs, cheese, food and drinks.
Bukovel is a ski resort town located in the Carpathian Mountains. Since we did not visit in the winter, we did not ski, but we got to enjoy the restaurants (great breakfast) and, of course, other activities such as taking a ride on the chair lift up the mountain, enjoying the views, traditional live music and even a fun and thrilling zip-line roller-coaster ride.
It was tons of fun. There are also hikes available, but I decided to go for a spa treatment instead. They also offer a traditional Ukrainian hot tub experience. I felt so good and relaxed afterwards, especially having been on the go for several days straight.
Where did I stay?
Bukovel Hotel is in a great location. The rooms were rustic cabins with all I needed: hair drier, comfortable bed, a balcony and good wifi throughout the whole area. I also truly enjoyed their restaurants.
Hutsul Region of The Carpathian Mountains
Verkhovyna is a town located in the Hutsul region of the Carpathian Mountains called Pokuttya. It is an important tourist area to highlight the hutsul traditions. They have many superstitions and beliefs, such as placing mirrors on the outside of their homes to keep the dark and evil spirits out. It is a way to reflect back or away this negative energy, or even, what some people called, the evil eye. I walked around town, taking photos and eventually found myself in a Hutsul church.
Kryvorivnia is a Hutsul village that we visited and it’s a must-see while in this area. Hutsul Grazhda is a replica of an original traditional Hutsul home from the 1800’s which was built in 1995 to serve as a museum.
A guide will explain to you in Ukrainian (we had a translator from Cobblestone Freeway), how the Hutsul community lived and what their huts looked like.
We also visited an authentic Husul church (we even got to see some of the mass) and the cemetery next door.
Another favorite and unforgettable experience of mine was participating in a Traditional Hutsul Wedding, in a small village in Bukovets. And guess who the bride was?! For more details, you’ll need to wait for another article just about this experience.
Where did we stay after the Wedding party and feast?
In a hidden-gem of a hotel called Maetok Sokils’ke in the town of Tiudiv.
This place was truly unique and undiscovered. Amazing views from my room window, great pool, nice outdoor gazebos (to best enjoy a glass of wine, tea and/or have a meal) and a great sauna. I could have spent several more nights there!
Kosiv is a very small city, but we had a special opportunity to stop by their Kosiv local Institute or Arts college, Kosivsʹkyy Instytut Prykladnoho Ta Dekoratyvnoho Mystetstva Lnam to observe how kids learn skills such as carpeting, painting, making sculptures and sewing/crafting Traditional Clothing and Lizhnyks (special rugs made of sheep’s wool which are decorated in large, dark-colored patterns).
There is also a museum inside and an area where they sell jewelry, accessories and handmade decorations from the teenagers who study in this Institute.
Ready for quick shopping? We went to the Kosiv craft market. It is more like a souvenir/commercial market with handmade items and folk art. You can buy Pysanka (easter eggs), jewelry, handbags, sculptures and more. It is a long street and it is open only on Tuesdays and Saturdays, except for religious holidays. Fun Fact: This market is located not really in Kosiv but in a small village next to it called Smodna. It is very hard to get lost in this area since Kosiv is very small. After this, we visited an even smaller town called Sheshory for an authentic Ukranian lunch at Arkan restaurant.
Chernivtsi is a city very close to (only one hour away) the Romanian border. While my time in Chernivtsi wasn’t too long, and it was sort of raining while I was exploring its old town, I have to say that the city is very charming and people were very friendly. On my first afternoon, we were received at the Bukovyna Hotel by a very welcoming staff.
The hotel is at the city center, with clean and comfortable rooms. While I found the restaurant service quite slow, the food was good and worth the wait. I had this steak infused with cherries and I still think about it (in my dreams).
One of their highlights is also their excellent and fresh buffet breakfasts featuring local products and their lobby room ambiance.
I also enjoyed visiting the University of Chernivtsi (UNESCO Site). A truly impressive building with beautiful architecture. I went on a tour inside to explore it further and it’s totally a must-see.
I really love the pink church too. It’s super cute and makes for a great photo. As I was walking in the mist, I appreciated the streets of the city center and the small cafes along the way. We had a coffee at Lviv Handmade Chocolate (which has many branches around Ukraine) and it was so delicious! In addition, we enjoyed lunch at Panska Huralna.
Day Trips from Chernivtsi
While visiting Chernivtsi, we went on a day trip to the town of Khotyn. Khotyn is another must-see since it has an important architectural landmark right in the city, center the Khotyn Fortress.
You can get panoramic views of the Dniester River and enjoy the fortress, Note: Khotyn Fortress was built between the 13th-15th centuries, so it’s really a historical landmark.
Next stop on our day trip was another historic city, Kamianets-Podilskyi. While there, we visited the Kamianets-Podilskyi Castle.
This castle is a former Ruthenian-Lithuanian castle and eventually became a three-part Polish fortress. With lots of changes throughout history, the result is a Ukraine that’s so diverse and rich in culture that you can never be bored.
Lunch recommendation: Pid Bramoyu. Great Ukranian traditional food and local wine. Conveniently located two blocks from the castle.
Ukranian Music and Dance
Another special aspect of Ukraine is their music and dances. We experienced a few throughout our tour, but I truly enjoyed the one during our return to Chernivtsi best. It was an evening performance by a folk group named Gerdan. A must-see if you are ever in Chernivtsi.
Ready to eat? Our last dinner in Chernivtsi was at Hopachok featuring a gourmet style regional Ukrainian cuisine. Yummy!
After this adventure, we got ready for an overnight train from Chernivtsi to Kiev (500 kilometers away/about a 12 hours train ride). Never fear, we got all our travel essentials/provisions including wine and drunken cherry! LOL
Last, but not least: The Capital of Ukraine, Kiev (Kyiv)
Kiev (Kyiv), The Heart of Ukraine
You should visit the heart of Ukraine, which is the capital Kiev (Kyiv). It is not only known as a business city, and famous for its gold-domed churches, but also is known as a fashion mecca. You will certainly feel like there is a runway show along the streets outside every day. The women have an impeccable street style and taste for the latest trends in fashion. You will find signs in English everywhere and while this city is spread out, it is not hard to move around in.
Kiev is located on the Dnieper River and holds one of the wonders of Ukraine, The St. Sophia Cathedral, a must visit.
You will also find secret restaurants inside the mall (which you need a code to access), outstanding typical Ukranian food, parks, gardens, street art, salsa dancing on the streets and many great places for nightlife. Talk about “atmosphere”… it’s everywhere.
History 101 Fact: Kyiv was the capital of the ancient Kyivan Rus state, which broke up in the 12th century, long before any state known as “Russia” came to exist. This is why its named Kyiv after it’s founder.
Maidan Nezalezhnosti Independence Square
One of the main squares of Kiev is best known as Maidan Square (thought it’s been known by different names through history), located on Khreschatyk Street. The square has been the traditional place for political rallies since 1990 and also for special events, markets and so on (along with protests that occurred during the recent revolution in 2013-2014).
I had the opportunity to be at Maidan Square and the surrounding area earlier this year, during Ukraine Independence Day, and it was such a great day full of live music, performances, pop-up shops and more.
I really fell in love with this street. Well, one reason is because of the shopping. I have to say that Kiev has so many great places for shopping, for fashionable clothing, amazing accessories and more.
Fun Fact: This Street was declared one of the Top 20 most expensive shopping streets in Europe. So, start saving your money before you go there. This street is not only good for shopping but it has historical significance as well since it was destroyed during World War II and then rebuilt again post-war.
This budget-friendly restaurant serving delicious food is located in the middle of the Taras Shevchenko Park. With a very unique décor and live music, it’s no surprise to find the staff dressed in Ukranian traditional garb (bonus, they speak very good English). Outside the park, you’ll find people dancing, especially on Fridays and on the weekend. I was even pleasantly surprised to see Ukranians dancing salsa (just a little Latin flavor in Ukraine).
St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral
St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral is a 19th century historical landmark and a must-see while visiting Kiev. It features one of those beautiful golden domes that attracts visitors from all over the world. It is magnificent to look at, inside and out with beautiful mosaics. It’s also the mother cathedral of the Orthodox Church.
Korchma Taras Bulba Kyiv
Delicious and authentic Ukranian cuisine with a great ambiance. A really good value for your money.
I totally love the décor, and the staff dress in Ukranian traditional outfits. The highlight is that you can also get dressed up, if you’d like, and opt in to taking amazing photos home. Fun, quality restaurant built for great memories!
Where did I stay in Kiev?
Ibis hotel, a great modern hotel which is conveniently located in the city center. The location made it pretty easy to walk around and explore the city. It’s very reasonable priced considering the location since it’s close to many historical sites (such as the St. Sophia Cathedral, the National Opera House, the botanical garden and more.) They also offer an excellent breakfast with a variety of options.
I hope this post, full of insider tips for Ukraine, has inspired ideas for your visit. My wish is for more travelers like yourself to recognize all that Ukraine has to offer and that this magical country will no longer be overlooked. I know that when you visit Ukraine you will fall in love with it (like I did) and thank me for this article. This is your chance to visit Ukraine before it goes from Europe’s most underrated country to the surprise European destination of the year!
Note: Many experiences in this post was written based on a 13-day tour with Cobblestone Freeway Tours (all my opinion are my own.) I am happy that, through them, I got to experience the magic of Ukraine and fall in love with this amazing country forever.