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While there are plenty of great reasons to visit Kyiv, Ukraine, one of the main ones is the fantastic array of churches that the city is home to. From the well-known cathedrals and monasteries of St. Sophia and St. Michael to the smaller churches of St. Cyril and St. Nicolas Wondermaker, each one has its own unique history and stories to tell. With so many churches in Kyiv to discover, it may be quite difficult to choose which to visit, especially if you are only in the city for a short while. So, here is an informative guide to the religious buildings in Kyiv and what they can offer visitors.
PRO TIP: I would suggest taking a tour of the temples, cathedrals, monasteries and churches in Kyiv to maximize your time and to understand the history behind it all. I feel if you visit on your own, you won’t get the real meaning behind these religious sites. I would recommend this tour, which is available on GetYourGuide. It last about 3 hours.
Table of Contents (skip directly to the info you're looking for)
- 1 1. St. Sophia’s Cathedral
- 2 2. St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery
- 3 3. Kyiv Pechersk Lavra
- 4 4. St. Andrew’s Church
- 5 5. St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral
- 6 6. Frolivskyy Monastery
- 7 7. St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Cathedral
- 8 8. St. Cyril Church
- 9 9. St. Nicolas Wondermaker on the Water Church
- 10 10. The Church of the Nativity of Christ
1. St. Sophia’s Cathedral
As one of Kyiv’s most iconic landmarks, St. Sophia’s Cathedral is an absolute must when visiting the city. It is Kyiv’s oldest church, having been built in 1037 on the orders of Prince Yaroslav the Wise at the height of the Kyivan Rus, the first state to rise among the Eastern Slavs. Yaroslav ordered the structure to be built to celebrate his victory in protecting Kyiv from the tribal raiders known as the Pechenegs. While there have been many additions to the cathedral over the centuries, such as the bell tower in the 18th century and the gilded golden domes in the 19th, St. Sophia’s has retained many of its original features.
In addition, St. Sophia’s Cathedral has been of incredible importance to the people of Kyiv throughout the years. Adjacent to the Royal Palace, it was not only a place of worship but also a significant political and cultural centre. Coronations and other royal ceremonies took place here, foreign diplomats and dignitaries were received and treaties between countries signed. It was also the location of the first school and library in the Kyivan Rus. Today, St. Sophia’s is protected by Ukraine as well as UNESCO, having been made a World Heritage Site in 1990; along with Kiev Perchersk Lavra, it was the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in the whole country.
While most people are aware of how stunning the outside of the cathedral is, it is the interior which is truly astounding. The cathedral is filled with frescoes and mosaics dating back to the time the cathedral was under construction, each of them positioned in an allotted space according to Byzantine decorative schemes. One of the most striking of the mosaics is that of the Virgin Orans which dominates the central apse. A unique Orthodox concept, the mosaic depicts the Virgin as a symbol of the earthly church intervening for the salvation of humanity. Other important frescoes include Christ Pantocrator surrounded by four archangels, Christ’s Descent into Hell, and the Apostles receiving the Holy Communion. There are also a couple of secular frescoes of Yaroslav and his family, one on either side of the nave. While the prince’s tomb can be found in the far-left corner from the main entrance it is, however, empty. Legend has it that his remains were taken by a priest who was collaborating with the Nazis during World War II and were subsequently smuggled into the USA.
As well as the main cathedral building, the complex has a number of other buildings to explore. The refectory is now a museum and houses a number of archaeological finds and architectural displays, including models of how Kyiv looked before it was razed to the ground during the 1240 Mongol invasions. Just next to the bell tower is the intricate tomb of Kyiv Patriarch Volodymyr Romanyuk. It is also really well worth heading up the bell tower to get amazing panoramic views over Kyiv.
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2. St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery
When visiting St. Sophia’s Cathedral, if you look out past the statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky it is impossible to miss the beautiful St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. Named after the patron saint of Kyiv, the 12th century original of this wonderful building was unfortunately destroyed by the Soviets in the 1930s. Following a massive reconstruction after Ukraine gained independence, St. Michael’s was completed in 1999. It provides a stark contrast between the buildings surrounding it, with its sky blue walls and golden domes which glitter in the sun.
Outside the monastery are the reconstructed statues of Princess Olga, Apostle Andrew, St. Cyrill and St. Mephodius. You can also find the Monument to Victims of Famine in 1933 to the right of the church exit. This is to commemorate the victims of a famine orchestrated by the Soviets in an attempt to crush the lower classes; as many as 10 million Ukrainians died between 1932 and 1933.
3. Kyiv Pechersk Lavra
Standing magnificently over the city on a hill by the Dnipro River, Kyiv Pechersk Lavra – also known as the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves – is Kyiv’s number one attraction. The complex is split into two areas, the Upper Lavra and Lower Lavra.
The Upper Lavra is where you will find the buildings above the ground. Here, there are a number of churches and museums. One of its most notable features is the Great Lavra Bell Tower which can be seen from miles around as part of the Kyiv skyline. Standing at almost 100 metres tall, it was the tallest bell tower of its kind when it was constructed during the 18th century. Built in the Classical style, it is a beautiful four-tiered tower topped with the traditional gilded golden dome that is characteristic of so many of the churches in Kyiv.
The main church of the monastery is the Dormition Cathedral, or Church of the Assumption. The original was destroyed during the Second World War but was eventually rebuilt during the 1990s after Ukraine gained its independence. Other highlights of the monastery complex of the Upper Lavra include the Gate Church of the Trinity, the refectory chambers and the Church of the Saviour at Berestov.
The Lower Lavra is the name given to the network of caves which run under the main buildings above the ground and beyond. These cave tunnels, which run into their hundreds, were dug by the monks themselves dating all the way back to the 11th century. The monks used them to live and worship in, and there are numerous underground chapels and living quarters still remaining. There are even mummified remains of the monks lining the niches of the underground streets. The caves are free to enter and explore, although many people buy a candle at the entrance for a couple of hyrvnias. Women need to cover their heads with a headscarf, plus cameras are not allowed.
As well as the religious buildings and underground caves, Kyiv Pechersk Lavra is also one of the largest museums in the city. Rather than being one museum, it is actually a collection of interesting museums, including the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine, which houses a vast array of historical artefacts, precious stones, jewellery and metalwork, and is home to a spectacular exhibit of Scythian gold, the National Folk Decorative Art Museum, and the Museum of Micro-Miniatures, where you can view a number of miniature creations by Russian artist Mykola Syadistry, such as a chess set on the head of a pin.
4. St. Andrew’s Church
Located at the top of Andriyivskyi Descent, St. Andrew’s church is one of the most important Orthodox places of worship in the entire city. Built in 1754 by Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli – the same architect who built the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg – the church is a wonderful example of Baroque architecture from this time. It is an exquisite blue and white church built in the typical Ukrainian cross-shaped, five-domed shape and is well-known for its elegance and grace.
Although the inside of the church is closed for refurbishment at the moment, you can go up to the platforms by the church to take in the spectacular views over the river.
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5. St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral
St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral was built in the 19th century to celebrate the 900th anniversary of Orthodox Christianity in the city. Although St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral is not considered to be one of the most important places of worship in Kiev, it certainly is a contender for being one of the prettiest. It has a really cool yellow exterior which is complemented by seven blue domes in the typical Byzantine style. However, it is the interior which amazes all visitors to the cathedral. St. Volodymyr’s features lots of huge frescoes painted by both expert Russian painters and Venetian masters; some of the most beautiful ones are the Holy Mother of God, the baptism of Volodymyr the Great, the baptising of Kievers and the Virgin with the Child, all of them flecked with golden accents. The entrance door is also stunning with its bronze sculptures of St. Olga, Princess of Kiev, against a blue background. Because of its wonderful pieces of art, St. Volodymyr’s is a popular pilgrimage destination as well as being popular with tourists to the city.
6. Frolivskyy Monastery
Actually a convent, but the name formally translates as monastery from Ukrainian to English, Frolivskyy – also known as the Ascension Convent – was originally built in the 16th century and consisted of two wooden churches, St. Florus and Laurus. During the Great Northern War in the 1700s, the convent expanded greatly when the old Ascension Convent on Pechersk Hill was demolished. Peter the Great wished to build an arsenal there, so all the convent’s treasures and nuns were transferred to Frolivskyy.
What is now the main church was built in the 1720s, with the three-domed building being dedicated to the Ascension of Christ in 1732. It does have a Neoclassical bell tower, although this was a later addition. Unfortunately, the original wooden buildings no longer exist because of a fire that occurred in 1811. However, it is still a pleasant little convent to visit.
7. St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Cathedral
If you want to see a church which differs significantly in style to many of the others in Kyiv, you should head to St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Cathedral. Rather than having the traditional onion domes, this cathedral was built in the Gothic Revival style, similar to cathedrals all over western and central Europe, during the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th. What makes this cathedral so astonishing is that it was built completely through voluntary donations, with the construction lasting 10 years. During the Soviet occupation, the church was abandoned due to the persecution of Christians and subsequently served as a KGB service building. Between 1979 and 1980, the cathedral was restored using stained glass from the Baltics, furniture from Lviv, and wooden floors from the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast. It became the National House of Organ and Chamber Music of Ukraine and is today shared between that organization and the Roman Catholic Church.
While it may not have the splendour of other churches in Kyiv, St. Nicholas is a cool church to visit for the contrast it provides between others in the city.
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8. St. Cyril Church
Part of the St. Cyril Monastery, St. Cyril’s Church is a fine example of medieval architecture and one of the most important specimens of Kyivan Rus architecture in the whole country. While the outside of the church is in the typical Ukrainian Baroque style, the interior has remained true to its original Kyivan Rus origins.
Most of the frescoes inside date back to the 12th century and depict the many deeds performed by St. Cyril. For many years they were hidden under plaster before being uncovered in the second half of the 19th century. These frescoes were then painstakingly restored to their former glory so you can now enjoy their bright colors and intricate detail in their full splendor.
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9. St. Nicolas Wondermaker on the Water Church
One of the most unusual churches in Kiev and also the smallest, St. Nicolas Wondermaker on the Water is true to its name; it stands exactly on the river and is exquisitely beautiful in its simplicity. The church is not only a place of worship but also serves as a monument to the Christening of the ancient Rus, being located just a short distance away where the Rus people were christened under Prince Volodymyr, as well as being a monument to the fallen seamen and sailors of all time.
Note: Inside you can see the Icon of St. Nicolas as well as other relics pertaining to the saint.
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10. The Church of the Nativity of Christ
Another of the small Kyiv churches, the Church of the Nativity of Christ sits on the banks of the River Dnieper and has gone through many transformations throughout the centuries. Originally built as a simple stone church at the beginning of the 18th century, it was enlarged a few years later due to its popularity as a community church. As the city’s population grew, an even bigger church was needed, so the original structure was pulled down at the start of the 19th century and rebuilt. During the 1930s it was pulled down again, as were so many other religious buildings, during the Soviet era. However, the Church of the Nativity of Christ was rebuilt and restored in the late 20th century, reopening to the public in 2002. While not having the same amount of opulence and extravagance as many of the other churches in Kiev, it is still worth a visit for its different exterior shape.
If you enjoy exploring religious buildings, then Kyiv is the city for you!
It is easy to see why Kyiv’s churches, cathedrals and monasteries attract so many visitors every year. Although many of them may be similar in style, they are each unique in their own story and background. In fact, if it were not for all of the other wonderful things to do in this city, it would be very easy to dedicate a whole weekend trip just to visit the magnificent churches in Kyiv and learn about their unique historical significance to Kyiv.
Are you an architecture and history lover? Do you love to visit religious sites? Tell us all about it in the comments.
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