Away from the Eurovision stage, visitors to Kyiv are going to love discovering the city that’s one of the latest travel frontiers for thrill-seekers. There are many facets to life here - from the ancient domes that glitter majestically in the sun like a magical kingdom to its ultra modern buildings and decadent nightlife.
The Ukraine capital also boasts avant garde chefs, artists, architects and, yes, fashionistas. Who knew Kyiv would also be a shopping destination that goes far beyond kitsch Russian egg dolls and onion domed figurines?
Once the Eurovision music stops, you’ll want to explore all that's on offer behind the pastel coloured landscape.
About those onion domes - the huge green and gold one that dominates the cityscape belongs to St Sophia (24 Vladimorskaya Street), an 11th century church that is thought to rival Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Inside, the air is thick with incense, and at prayer time, the walls seem to mystically vibrate to a cappella choral music. It’s heady stuff.
The city also has its own UNESCO world heritage site in Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavrce (9 Lavrska Street), an ancient monastery complete with catacombs and the glass-encased tombs of monks. Visitors are asked to dress and act respectfully to honour the dead.
To get a feeling for some of the Ukrainian artists, head over to The Pinchuk Art Centre (1/3-2, Block A, Velyka Vasylkivska ), named after arts philanthropist and Ukrainian steel tsar Victor Pinchuk. It has some of the best local and international art on display. Dine inside at the SkyArt Cafe with views over this city and return in the evening, when it is transformed into BarSky nightclub - a little like SkyLounge in LA.
Meanwhile, breathe in the intoxicating air of democracy and revolution at Independence Square where the former statue of a dour Lenin has been replaced by Slavic goddess Berehynia. This is, after all, a city dedicated to beauty, art and freedom. Independence Square is also where the Orange Revolution for democracy was declared in 2004.
Start with a trip to the markets to really see what’s on offer in the local produce and take a walk through history. Built in the early 1900s from the Polish designs of architect Henryk Julian Gay, Besarabsky Rynok (located in the heart of the city at Bessarabska Square) tells the story of the city through its appetite for food. There are mounds of caviar (sample it on the back of your hand to really draw out the depth of flavour) as well as abundant summer vegetables and fruits; fresh fish, wild boar and whatever else is in season; local cheeses, borscht, vodka, pickles and dumplings.
You can’t go to Kyiv and not have at least one dish of Chicken Kyiv, right? It’s like going to China and passing on the dim sum. Chicken Kyiv - otherwise known as a heart attack on a plate - is a pounded chicken fillet, rolled around cold garlicky butter and then either fried or baked. Although its origins are almost as controversial as the Australian pavlova, there’s a theory the dish was proudly borne on fine china from the kitchens of the once grand Continental Hotel in Kyiv.
Either way, it still rules supreme at the uber rustic Tsarske Selo restaurant (42/1 Ivan Mazepa Street) but there’s also borscht on offer, shashlik, cabbage rolls, varenyky (stuffed dumplings) and deruny (potato pancakes). It’s a heavy meal and best accompanied by gorilka - Ukrainian vodka. Dining at Tsarske Selo has been likened to visiting a local house, pumping with live Ukrainian folk music.
Visit Arbequina (4 Grinchenko Street, close to Independence Square). This cute restaurant looks more like a stage set than a cafe, which is apt because it’s all about the theatre of dining here in one of the city’s many restaurants boasting international cuisine. This one is best described as Spanish Ukrainian (Arbequina means an assortment of olives to be used for making oil).
The best time to visit is Sunday brunch, when you can choose imported Iberian ham, Spanish cheeses, local pastries and pancakes made with cottage cheese. There’s also a little store where you can purchase some of these dishes to take away and they’re threatening to have tango dancing in the evening.
Early Summer BBQ
There’s lots of South American-themed BBQ restaurants over the Parkovy pedestrian bridge to Trukhanov Island, which is where Kyiv comes to let its hair down on the weekend. It’s a very relaxed lifestyle - just choose an open air venue and your favourite protein hit.
Back in the city, street food is definitely a thing in Kyiv with vendors selling everything from hot dogs to shasliks, but why waste the experience of dining out in a city where food can be akin to performance art?
Try Kanapa (Andriivs’kyi descent, 19, Kyiv), which is rumoured to be owned by a Ukrainian rock star and where the salads are served in a miniature green house. One of the featured dishes is Vareniki, made from blood and mince.
Under Wonder (21 Velyka Vasylkivska) is rustic with multi-coloured panes of glass and decaying racks of newspapers, but look beyond to the menu, which features chicken stuffed with sundried tomatoes, rabbit with foie gras and ravioli nero with salmon. Only the brave should consider the horse carpaccio.
Kyiv has a strong disco heartbeat and futuristic nightclubs that look as though they’re part of the set of a James Bond movie. People watching here is exceptional, with Slavic model types on the dance floor and beautiful people from all over Europe.
Two of the best nightclubs include Arena (2a Basseynaya Street), which features the best DJs during Eurovision along with outrageously expensive cocktails, but you can virtually dance here all night long. And for the hip-hop crowd, try Patipa (Muzeyniy, Pereulok, 10) with more great DJs heavy on the R&B - although anyone over 30 is going to feel woefully out of place. A word of warning: the fashion police are out and about in Kyiv, especially at the door of the fancy nightclubs. You might not be let in if you don’t fit in.
Kyiv is a pilgrimage post for the European and Russian fashion pack. Most of the expensive brands are well represented here, but why would you shop for these when there are some original finds in the local stores featuring Ukrainian designers, which have quite a following throughout Europe and Russian.
Shops to try include Asthik (7a Lesi Ukrainki Boulevard); Corner Concept Store (19 Zhukouskogo Street), which is also great for presents; and Sanahut (8/16 Hrushevsky Street) for luxe Euro brands. Meanwhile, the Lesnoy Flea markets in Brovary Street might be one of the last destinations in Europe to find genuine bargains in vintage apparel. It’s one of the reasons the fashion pack want to check out Kyiv.
All up, you’ll be glad Kyiv won the right to host Eurovision again, but do allow for some extra time there once the contest ends because you’ll want to do it justice.
This writer is strongly biased towards the Ukraine with a grandmother who was born there in what is now known as Dniprodzerzhynsk, just down the Dnieper River from Kyiv.