Experiencing the Local Flavor of Kiev, Part I

Getting in touch with the local culture when traveling is always an interesting challenge for any traveler. Finding it is half the fun. In Kiev I found it by visiting local markets, dining with a friend of a friend, eating at a traditional restaurant, attending a ballet, and even visiting popular tourist sites.


Upon disembarking from the Kiev Funicular on Volodymyrska Hill on the edge of Old Town, I enjoyed a piano performance of popular tunes whenever they were being performed. Behind the performer was a brick gate topped with a golden cross, which was an entrance to St. Michael’s Monastery. In front of them was the towering building of the Ministry of Finance of Ukraine. If the music wasn’t there to cause me to pause there on the cobblestone path, the striking contrast presented by these two institutions always did.

Volodymyrska Hill is located on the steep right bank of the Dnieper River on the edge of Kiev Upper Town. The Saint Vladimir Monument, dedicated to Vladimir the Great, overlooks the embankment. He was the ruler of Kievan Rus from 980 to 1015 and the Baptizer of the Rus people. His influence was significant with regard to Kiev’s Christian history over the past 1000 years.

Knowing how immobile the piano on the path was, I wondered how long it could last exposed to the elements. Once when I passed by a man was working on it. I never got my answer as to how such as instrument can survive the elements there, but I did get an answer as to how it stays tuned.


I was fortunate to be introduced to Alex, a native of Kiev, by a friend from Newport, Rhode Island, where I live when I’m not globetrotting.

Alex, a professional who works in the TV production business, was a gracious host. He introduced me to traditional food in a couple of area restaurants, and took me to the Petrivka book market, a second-hand book market in the outskirts of Kiev. He said it dates back to Soviet times when finding certain books was a challenge given the closed borders with the west.

One evening we took a trolley to a popular Ukrainian restaurant with a friend of his. Our table was in a reconfigured old wine barrel. He ordered a shared traditional Ukrainian meal for all of us, which contained an abundance of meat. A strolling female vocalist and a male violinist performed a few Ukrainian folk songs at our table while we ate. It was good fun!


The Sholem Aleichem Museum in Kiev is in honor of the Jewish author Sholem Aleichem, whose works inspired the script and songs of the hit musical Fiddler on the Roof. He was born in 1859 in a village in Kiev Oblast (region). Being a big fan of this musical, I visited this museum. His humor was prevalent there, especially in the form of the popular Jewish dolls that were displayed.

While visiting the museum, I got into an interesting discussion about old synagogues with Rafael, one of the volunteers. The beautiful, historic Brodsky Synagogue, which was just around the corner from the museum is a functioning synagogue today. It was built in 1898 and was devastated during WWII by the Nazis and was subsequently used as a puppet theatre.

Rafael and I continued our discussion by email as he wanted to learn more about America’s oldest synagogue, the Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island. I was grateful I was able to share something of importance to this man who was so knowledgeable about local Jewish culture and history in Kiev. Understandably, it was simply because of the fact that I live in lovely, historic Newport, and the city’s rich Jewish heritage is present in its synagogue.


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The Soviet Legacy in Kiev

During my strolls around Old Kiev, I invariably ran into St. Sophia’s Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is not surprising given its convenient location in the heart of Old Town and the striking views its13-cupola sanctuary offers the casual passer-by.

St. Sophia’s was built in 1037 and is Kiev’s oldest standing church. It escaped the fate of many of Kiev’s sacred places of worship as a result of the USSR anti-religious campaign (1921-1928) after Kiev became the capital of the newly formed Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922.

For example, the Church of the Three saints, one of Kievs holiest edifices which was built in 1183, was destroyed by he Soviet regime. In its place the regime built the colossal Ministry of Foreign Affairs building.

While I was standing in front of a sign on this building that now says “Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine,” two American men in business attire who had just exited the building passed close by me in deep discussion. I thought at that moment, if the local government can’t replace the church, at least they are putting a remnant of this Soviet legacy to good use – that of helping to facilitate better international understanding.


One afternoon, while downtown, I met *Servas day host Iryna. She lives with her husband in a high-rise building in Kiev’s suburbs. I gratefully accepted her kind invitation to her flat for a home-cooked traditional Ukrainian meal.

As we left her Metro station, we approached a massive complex of high-rise apartment buildings which are part of a community which houses over 300,000 people. I was surprised to learn that this complex was built in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She said that most Servas travelers she brings home think, as I did, that it was probably built during communist times. Her small, efficient apartment was similar in layout and size to the Soviet era flats of Servas hosts I had visited recently in Poland and Budapest.

For ten years during Soviet times, she and her husband and two children, lived with her Father, Mother, and brother in a three room flat. They were so pleased when, in 1991, they finally found the small flat they are currently living in, that they bought it immediately. Her daughter, who married a German, now lives in Germany, and her single son lives in Poland.  Iryna is of Polish heritage and her children speak Polish.  Her son feels he can do better financially in Poland than in Ukraine in his technology business.  Also he feels comfortable with the language there.  She often travels to these countries to visit them.

By the way, her lovingly-prepared, home-cooked Ukrainian meal was delicious!


The Russian legacy also lives on in the language. I constantly hear Russian spoken all around me in Kiev by all ages. I know a few basic words of Russian and am finding them useful, since I know even less Ukrainian (if that’s possible!). Occasionally I get into a discussion with Ukrainians who speak English (mostly the young) about their use of Russian and Ukrainian languages. Interestingly, they said that they often bounce back and forth between the two languages within a single conversation.


During a **Free “Reds” Walking Tour, we visited the Friendship of Nations monument. The interesting complex sits on a viewing platform overlooking Kiev’s left (east) bank and the Dnieper River

Under the Friendship Arch is a social-realist statue of a Ukrainian and a Russian worker with arms raised in solidarity. While standing there, I said a prayer for peace between the two Sovereign Nations.


*Servas – A non profit international peace organization of hosts and travellers  www.USServas.org

** www.kievwalkingtours.com.ua

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Exploring Maidan, Kiev’s Central Square, and Environs – A Day to Remember

During a brief encounter in a cafe with a Ukrainian professional woman named Christine, we discussed the three major cities of Ukraine which I am in the process of visiting – Kiev, Lviv and Odessa. She commented that Lviv feels a bit like Europe, and Odessa feels a bit like Russia. But when she mentioned Kiev she threw up her hands, rolled her eyes, shook her head and laughed. She was apparently at a loss for words when it came to describing the rich cultural legacy of this enigmatic city.


It was a peaceful, brisk day in Maydan Nazalezhnosti (Independence Square), or “Maidan” as Kiev’s historic central square is popularly called. This peace belies the tragedy which happened here and the surrounding area during Euromaidan in 2014 when radical protests were sparked by the Ukrainian government’s decision to suspend the signing of an association agreement with the European Union.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the start of Ukraine’s independence movement in 1990, the square has been the traditional place for political rallies. Today the only signs of the Euromaidan deadly uprising are the memorials to the 100 dead that line the steep pathway to the massive Intourist hotel, and the towering metal slabs that encircle Independence monument.  The slabs relate the story of the uprising in text and photos.  Gone are the tents, the protesters, and government troops.


Our *free walking tour started in Maidan at the Founders Monument, which depicts the three legendary founders of Kiev and their sister. The majestic column of Independence monument, recently built to celebrate the 10th year of Ukraine’s independence, dominated the landscape. The old Soviet Intourist hotel, with commanding views of Independence Square, ironically looks out on Independence monument.  Stately historic buildings surround the square.

We joined in the buzzing pedestrian traffic as we explored the square. Business men and women were striding with purpose across the wide expanse. Young people were scattered about, buried in their smart phones. Lines gathered at mobile coffee stands. Tourists were taking selfies with Independence monument in the background.

Walking up one of the old streets that fanned out from the square we arrived at the stunning St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. It was originally built in the Middle Ages, destroyed by the Soviets in the 1930’s, and rebuilt following Ukrainian Independence in 1991. Many protestors during the 2014 Maidan uprising took shelter here, we were told.


It was International Women’s Day that day and Khreshchatyk Street, Kiev’s central street in Old Town which extends from one side of Maidan, had been made into a pedestrian avenue. After our walking tour finished, I joined the masses in the promenade from the main square down Khreshchatyk Street to historic Bessarabsky Rynok (market). Excitement was in the air – buskers entertained with their music, spray-painting artists demonstrated their skills. Most adults had a flower or two in hand.

The lovely, light-filled, Bessarabsky Rynok (central market) was built in 1910. It was built for traders coming to Kiev from Bessarabia, which is mostly part of neighboring modern-day Moldova. Fresh fruit and vegetables, flowers, clothing, souvenirs – it was all there. The packed dining establishments with communal seating in one corner of the market, with trendy vegan and Chinese fast-food stalls, satisfied my hunger. I went back there to eat several times after that. The price was right (around US$5), the food was great, and the young, international clientele interesting.

What a fine day it was of enlightenment and entertainment!


* www.kievwalkingtours.com.ua

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Kiev – Riding the Rails

Getting around Kiev by rail is a great adventure. I have found that using Kiev’s efficient underground Metro system, rather than the trolley or bus, is the best way for me to experience the city without getting lost. Alternately, for the fun of it and for the view, I occasionally take the Kiev Funicular between the waterfront area and the higher ground of Old Town. The price of each of these forms of transportation can’t be beat at 7uah (US$.30) per ride.


Cyrillic script is the basis of alphabets used in languages of Slavic origin, such as Ukrainian. Fortunately for me, the lists of Metro stops on electric signs and on the walls of platforms at Metro stations are written in Latin text in addition to Ukrainian Cyrillic script. Studying these translations while waiting for a train has been helpful to familiarize me with the language while on the go. I understand these translations were added in the Metro stations when the World Cup was held in Kiev in 2012 to help international guests get around the city. Thank you, World Cup!

One day when arriving at a Metro platform, I was confused as to which train to take to get to my next destination (this was not unusual!). A young man who heard me asking for help in English came over to see if he could help. That was the day I met Alex, a young professional Ukrainian whose enthusiasm for the English language was immediately apparent.

After getting me going in the right direction, he invited me to join him and some of his friends Saturday evening at a pub where they gather regularly to practice their English. Recalling the great experience I had years ago in China interacting in English with the locals at various “English Corners,” I immediately agreed to come.

Several days later I got together with Alex and his friends at their favorite ruin pub (an abandoned building turned into a pop-up bar). They expressed their various reasons for wanting to learn English. It basically came down to the promise of a brighter future.


In Kiev, underground passageways are great for accessing a Metro station, getting across a street, or for shopping. An infinite variety of goods and services are available in underground passageways (shopping arcades) which are generally accessed by entrances to Metro stations. Some rustic underground passageways have packed, open stalls. Others are more sophisticated.

Once when I was downtown, my desire to purchase eyeliner led me to a Metro station entrance where I found an underground shopping arcade of mammoth proportions. A labyrinth of corridors with low ceilings offered an infinite variety of goods and services. Well-heeled professionals were scurrying in all directions. Despite the fact I was thoroughly lost down there, I eventually found what I was looking for. Whenever I felt a bit claustrophobic, there was always a street exit nearby where I was able to come up for air.


Adjusting to the prevailing winds at the doors that access the Kiev Metro stations was an interesting learning experience. Courtesy in other parts of the world commands that you hold a door open for the person behind you so it doesn’t slam in their face. But alas, not at the Kiev Metro stations when the wind is blowing!

At the Metro entrances swinging doors often catch the wind. I learned that people entering or leaving a Metro station often stop briefly to determine which way the doors are swinging, then manage to proceed through a door without touching it. A masterful move!

If you try to counter a prevailing wind at a Kiev Metro station by holding a door for someone, you could break the flow of foot traffic, as I did the first time. I learned to watch which way the wind was blowing through the doors, proceed quickly through a door when the prevailing winds dictated it, and then keep moving without looking back.


When going to the opera or ballet, which I often do, I have learned to leave the event quickly. If not, I must bear the consequences of trying to get through the turnstiles at the local Metro station with hundreds of others at the same time.


Riding the rails of Kiev is an experience not to be missed – the trolleys for fun, the Kiev Funicular for the experience and view, and the Metro for the swinging doors!


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Strolling Andryivsky Uzviz to Kiev Upper Town

Andryivsky Uzviz (Andrew’s Descent) is a national landmark and one of the oldest streets in the city. The winding road climbs a hill which connects Kiev’s Upper town with the commercial Podil neighborhood below.

Along this cobblestone way is a lively market for souvenirs and artworks, small museums, historic theaters, and fine restaurants in lovely old homes. This is the alternate way to reach the old city center from the waterfront area other than via the Kiev Funicular (which is great fun).

One of my favorite hangouts in the evenings on the lower part of this hill was the Chocolate Cafe (A.K.A. Lviv Handmade Chocolate) I enjoyed watching an occasional tango dancing class in front of cases of chocolate beautifully displayed, while sipping arguably the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had.

Near the top of Andryivsky Uzviz is St. Andrew’s Church, a traditional Ukrainian five-domed, cross-shaped Orthodox church. A remnant of Russian aristocracy, it was built in 1754. The views of Kiev, the Dnipro River, and surrounding area from the base of the church were stellar.


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Podil, Kiev – Beyond Kontraktova Square

The golden domes of St. Andrew’s Cathedral are outlined among the vines in this photo to the left taken from a window of my accommodations in Podil. The light and the draping limbs of barren trees express a rather esoteric feeling I sometimes felt when I walked the streets of Podil, due to the tragic WWII history that took place there.

Thousands of Jews who still lived in Podil at the time of the Nazi occupation in 1941 were massacred by German forces at a ravine at nearby Babi Yar in a few days time. 

It was an act that became one of the most notorious episodes of the Holocaust.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent Ukrainian Independence, there was a revival of Jewish community life in Kiev. Today there are approximately 20,000 Jews in Kiev. Two major synagogues serve this community, the Brodsky Choral Synagogue in the Old Town (downtown) and the Great Choral Synagogue of Kyiv in Podil.

One day while exploring Podil’s narrow, quaint streets, I visited the Great Choral Synagogue in Kyiv, the oldest one in Ukraine. It was built in 1895 under the rule of the Russian Empire. The stunning Moorish-style synagogue was accessed through a courtyard along with three kosher dining establishments, a lovely kosher 23-room hotel, and a mikva (ritual bath).

After visiting the synagogue I had some delicious soup in a tiny cafe which was tucked away on the 2nd floor of an unmarked building in the far corner of the courtyard. The receptionist at the hotel chuckled as he invited me to eat there telling me it was “generally for the workers.” He then proceeded to show me the elegant kosher restaurant, called Takida, which could be accessed from the hotel lobby or the street.

As I departed, an unmarked van with driver pulled into the courtyard. A lovely Jewish family emerged and checked into the hotel. The two teenage girls were obviously excited to be there. I could see that these guests were going to be well taken care of.


The historic Zhituya Rynok (market) in Podil has been the main shopping center of the city since the 15th century, due mainly to the proximity of the Dnieper River and the harbor. It was here that I was introduced to fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. This juice has became my drink of choice in Ukraine along with-”uzvar” a traditional spiced fruit compote.

Street vendors, bundled up for the cold, lined the sidewalk in front of the old marketplace. Their wares were spread out on low makeshift platforms.Fresh honey in all sizes of unlabeled jars and containers looked particularly interesting. Inside I pondered the displays of fish for sale, wondering which came from the nearby Black Sea and which came from some distant port. In every market I have visited in Ukraine the meat market takes a dominant position. This was no exception in this market. It is understandable given the popularity of meat in the Ukrainian culture. As my trustworthy Lonely Planet guide book to Ukraine put it: “…most Ukrainians are carnivores by nature.”


Zhituya Rynok is surrounded by temples and churches. One of them is the Florivsky Monastery, a women’s convent dating from the 15th century. I followed a lady in black through an opening next to a lovely old church and found myself in the quiet, well-manicured courtyard of the Florivsky Monastery. The door was ajar to the 18th century main church, the Church of the Ascension. It had managed to elude Podil’s devastating fire of 1811. The interior was stunning.

During the time I was enjoying the peace and quiet of the monastery complex, several old women individually approached the well in the courtyard and filled their containers with water. Much conversation took place among them.


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Podil, Kiev’s Historical Commercial Center – my home away from home in Ukraine

Kiev’s historic neighborhood of Podil sits along a bank of the lovely Dnieper River, one of the major rivers of Europe. The Kyiv River Port in Podil is the main river port of Kiev. It is here that I have made my home-away-from-home while I travel around Ukraine for a few weeks.

My safe, clean, and well-priced accommodations are part of a relatively new chain of hostels in Eastern Europe called *Dream Hostels. The price of a dorm bed is about US$10 per night, which is typical for hostels in major cities in Eastern Europe.

When my plane landed in Kiev from Budapest, I was thrilled to finally be at this historic Eastern European city. I had missed Kiev during my extensive travels of the Former Soviet Union in the late 1980’s. The explosion of the Chernobyl power plant reactor on April 26, 1986, put Kiev off limits to visitors during that time.


Kiev, Ukraine’s capital and largest city, is around 1400 years old. It is considered to be the center of East Slavic Civilization and reached its Golden Age in the 10th-12th centuries. Golden-domed Orthodox churches abound. Many have been rebuilt due to their destruction by various conquerors over the centuries.

Podil was the birthplace of the city’s trade, commerce and industry. It is an intriguing, progressive neighborhood, albeit a bit rough around the edges with some property in ruins and many with graffiti-covered walls.


I frequently visit Podil’s historic Kontraktova Square and dine at my favorite cafe called Puztz Khata. This popular Ukrainian cafeteria-style chain offers local specialties at bargain prices. Occasionally I ask a young person in line a question about the food, knowing they probably speak English. They usually do.

Kontraktova Square is usually bustling in the early morning hours. Street vendors are busy setting up their displays, people are standing in line at the take-out window at a pop-up coffee house made from an old bus, trolleys are screeching as they round corners, well-heeled people are scurrying through the swinging doors at the Metro station, and elderly people are sitting on park benches conversing and watching the world go by.  In the midst of all this hustle and bustle church bells occasionally toll from one or more of the many churches that are dotted around the area. Most of the churches are the faiths of Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Restaurants, cafes and coffee shops of all levels, types, and nationalities add to the diversity of the square. The massive brick Old Food Hall (shopping arcade), now only a shell, dominates the square along with a ferris wheel called the “Great Wheel.” After a devastating fire in 1811 Podil was rebuilt. Most of Podil’s beautiful, old stately buildings, including the Old Food Hall, are from this era.

On International Women’s Day the activity in Kontraktova Square increased dramatically. The spring-like temperature didn’t deter people from enjoying the seasonal ice skating rink. Families were strolling; children were darting around on scooters. Food stalls lined one side of the Old Food Hall and along the nearby wide pedestrian street. A line was forming in front of the stall selling popular Georgian street food. Street bands and musicians were vying for the attention of passers by.

Many women were carrying a small bouquet of flowers. A young couple asked me to take their photo with their camera and then the woman proceeded to congratulate me (in English) on being a woman!


* https://dream-hostels.com

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