Today we find Ukraine in a very interesting historical moment: from the steep economic contrasts of the post-Soviet decade, wealth has spread to a larger percentage of the population, while the vast majority of the country remains poor.
Grivnas This means that all basic necessities in the country — transportation, food, clothing, lodging — remain at prices affordable to the majority working for very low wages, but at the same time enough people have gained material comfort that luxury products are available for European prices in every major Ukrainian city, especially in Kyiv.
Whereas Moscow and St. Petersburg have grown into exorbitantly expensive metropolises, westerners in Ukraine will find their money will take them quite a long way, from sightseeing to dining or studying, Kyiv has a host of advantages as one of the great Russian-speaking capitals of the world.
So let us make the assumption that you’ve decided, you’ve flown, you’ve landed. And if you are staying in Kyiv for a while, how do you acclimate yourself? How do you get around, eat, and relax like a local? Read on!
The Subway in Kyiv, like most major cities of the former Soviet Union, has an excellent public metro, and like the Moscow metro, the many stations are decorated in grand socialist style, with statues, murals and revolutionary slogans.
An entrance token is 8 hryvnas (0.3 USD) and passes may be purchased for multiple rides or month-long use.
Like the Moscow metro, Kyiv’s is clean, quick, and very convenient, taking you from one side of the considerable city to another in fractions of the time needed to do so on the cracked and congested roads.
One of the wonders (or horrors, depending on your love of adventure) of Kyiv transportation is the marshrutka, short for "route taxi." This is a creation of the post-Soviet nineties, when tax-funded public transport ceased to exist.
The Marshrutka For 7 to 10 hryvnas (0.25 to 0.35 USD) these buses will take you along the designated route with a group of fellow, often sardine-packed passengers. To make the route shorter, passengers are expected to inform the driver of their desire to exit the bus at a given stop by shouting at the top of their lungs before their stop.
Just make sure to yell, in your best imitation of three-beer Russian, before you zoom past your stop. Despite the occasional discomfort, marshrutkas are convenient and safe, and if you learn the routes, you will see both the celebrated and the hidden parts of the city, and feel the geography of Kyiv a local, a self-guided tour for a quarter of a dollar.
Traveling within and outside of Ukraine is so easy, and so vastly differs from the experience of traveling in and out of Russia, that it baffles former foreign students of Moscow.
First, the trains are not very inexpensive: it costs approximately 20-35 USD to travel anywhere within Ukraine from Kyiv, whether the trains rolls south to the Crimea or Odessa, or West to Lviv and the Carpathian mountains, and these trains are all one overnight ride to their destination.
Traveling outside Ukraine is more expensive, but hardly more difficult. You may travel within Ukraine and not worry about being constantly checked for correct documents.
Not once, in fairly regular and extensive travel around Ukraine, was this author ever asked for his passport and due to the easy visa regime of Ukraine with Western Europe and the US, traveling out of Ukraine and back was also a headache-free experience.
In contrast, traveling even within Russia involves constantly proving that yes, I am in this country legally, thank you officer, not to mention all the time spent assuring you have the proper paperwork to reenter the country if you choose to visit neighbors.
planes Visiting any of Ukraine’s close neighbors (excepting Russia and Belarus), can be done quickly by train, even faster by plane (try flights on Wizzair, a low cost airline that flies to ten major cities in Western Europe), and with an EU or American passport border-crossing, is a minor matter.
Supermarkets & "bazaars"
Living in Moscow for several months studying Russian, I was taken aback that Kyiv is such an affordable city, where almost anything can be found. As an enthusiastic amateur chef, I need many spices, vegetables, products, and in Moscow it seemed that even fairly standard European and American products were difficult to find and/or very expensive to buy.
In Kyiv the same products — cheeses, fruits, sauces, spices — that I could buy at only one super-expensive store in Moscow or had to tramp through shady and filthy bazaars to acquire, I find in many supermarkets here.
While Kyiv is convenient, convenience is not everything: one necessary trip for the novice Eastern-European traveler is to the rynoks , also called bazaars, Ukraine’s open-air markets, which in the summer and fall are absolutely the best place to buy Ukrainian produce, organically grown by default, and incredibly fresh, delicious and cheap (unbelievably fragrant yellow tomatoes, cucumbers, and plums, and fresh mild cheese, are some of the bazaars’ summer specialties, and a kilogram of anything usually costs under 25 hryvna, or 1 USD).
But of course not everyone likes to make their own food, and not only produce can be found at the rynoks — they are buzzing hubs of commerce in every area, and to take one example — the book rynok at Petrovka metro, famous even beyond Ukraine: if it is printed, downloaded, listened to or watched, not to mention banned or illegal, it can be found at Petrovka.
Besides the chains of restaurants common to any even moderately developed country — McDonald’s and a rotating selection of international fast-food chains (at the moment Kyiv offers Baskin Robins, Papa John’s and T. G. I. Friday) — there are many homegrown chains in Kyiv, such as Puzata Khata (traditional Ukrainian), Celentano (pizza), Sushiya (hmm...), which offer excellent food at prices far below western standards.
Fast-food chains At Zdorovenki Buli, one of Kyiv’s most popular buffet-style eateries, a meal of salad, soup, tea, beer, Indian rice and sausage will cost you 200 hryvna (7.82 USD).
A good meal at a restaurant catering to Ukrainians will cost between 100 to 200 hryvna.
To break 10 dollars (about 260 hryvna) on a meal, you would have to make an effort. To compare again with Moscow, a meal in a restaurant typically costs a minimum of 10 USD, and though this difference is not much in itself, obviously it makes itself felt over the course of a month.
Almost every popular ethnic food can be found in Kyiv, including Chinese, Korean, even decently authentic Mexican food (but comically inauthentic is the norm).
High-end restaurants High-end restaurants are also plentiful in Kyiv, with excellent French, Asian-fusion, and steak houses among their number. These serve high quality food at European prices.
For comparison, a ribeye-steak at Goodmans Steak House in Kyiv costs 800 Hryvna (25 USD), while at their Moscow location it costs 2580 Roubles (41.13 USD)
Live music is performed in most central bars on the weekend, with rock, blues and jazz being the most common, and in the author’s experience the shows are consistently good and often excellent.
Balkan music While the opera and ballet do not compare to Moscow or St. Petersburg, drama and classical music are world-class, while contemporary music thrives in Kyiv: there are festivals of punk, jazz, Balkan music and many others throughout the year.
Gogolfest, which included Gogol Bordello and the No Smoking Orkestra, among others, was one of the highlights of the music scene, and Ukrainian bands such as Okean Elsy and Boombox, and touring international musicians, play constantly in the capital. Again, prices are incredibly low: to see an internationally known star, you shouldn’t part with more than 30 USD for a good ticket.
Written by Zachary King