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Kiev today is a city in flux. The galloping capitalism of the last decade skidded to a halt with the arrival of the worldwide recession in 2008. While the Orange Revolution of 2004 ushered in a pro-Western government, this past February a narrow victory at the polls delivered the presidency to Viktor Yanukovich, who maintains closer ties to Russia.
These days the Ukrainian capital is drawing the kind of intrepid traveler who, perhaps having already ventured to Prague or Budapest, is seeking something further-flung. Originally settled by Scandinavian traders en route to the Black Sea, Kiev is more than 1,400 years old, a full millennium older than St. Petersburg, to which it’s sometimes compared. Several ninth-century pagan statues and a stone circle once used for sacrifices stand today outside the city’s national history museum. Reminders of the 20th century’s darker moments can be found across the city, with a famine memorial here, a Chernobyl museum there. On a hilltop looms a gigantic Mother Motherland statue, a USSR footprint from the 1970s. At her feet is a sweeping outdoor World World II memorial: steel sculptures of battle scenes and huge tanks, with patriotic music swelling in the background.
But Kiev is also majestic, energetic, and fun. The wide avenues are lined with chestnut trees and the low skyline gleams with gold-domed churches. The city is carpeted with well-kept parks and botanical gardens. During the summer, crowds flock to the shores of the Dnieper River.
International hotels have recently arrived on the scene. A Radisson SAS Blu (from $246/night) opened in 2005, followed by the Hyatt Regency Kiev (from $503/night) in 2007, and the InterContinental Kiev (from $450/night) last year. All three hotels lie within walking distance of the famous St. Sophia’s Cathedral and St. Andrew’s and St. Michael’s churches. Only the bong-bonging of their bells breaks the quiet in this historic part of town. The best view award goes to the InterContinental’s sleek rooftop lounge, whose patrons can take in city panoramas over caviar and Crimean champagne. The elegant hotel also has a spa and a French restaurant, Comme Il Faut. The hotel competes with the grand old stalwarts Opera Hotel (from $400/night) and Premier Palace Hotel ($266/night).
Though Kiev has a sophisticated metro system and cabs are plentiful, the all-Cyrillic signs can prove challenging for visitors. So it’s worth hiring a guide for at least a day. Book a tour with the knowledgeable Nickolas Moshkovsky of Steppe by Step.
A Kiev visit must include a trip to the Monastery of the Caves (25 Sichnevogo Povstannya), a pillar of the Orthodox Christian church that attracts pilgrims and sightseers alike. Above ground sprawls a complex of churches and museums – of these, don’t miss the Museum of Micro Miniatures, where one peers at the exhibits through microscopes. The underground portion of the monastery, an intricate web of tunnels, dates from 1051. For centuries monks sequestered themselves in the nooks and crannies, and today the shadowy maze is lined with their mummified bodies inside glass coffins. (The coffins were only introduced 10 years ago after a child bit a mummy’s finger.) The only light comes from flickering candles; women must wear headscarves and long skirts. The experience, while not for claustrophobic types, is otherworldly.
Much of the monastery and many churches were destroyed during World War II. Only during the past decade has the city painstakingly rebuilt the structures; some possess a tell-tale sheen. Inside a church one recent November day, a woman in stiletto boots kneeled to kiss an image of Jesus, his crown of thorns studded with rhinestones.
When capitalism reached Kiev after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, it did so with a bang. Today, outposts of Chanel and Gucci cluster near stately Khreschatyk Street. Across from the 98-year-old Besarabsky Market sits the Pinchuk Art Centre, where Ukrainian steel magnate and art collector Victor Pinchuk commissions exhibits by the likes of Damien Hirst and Andreas Gursky—and the artists actually show up for the openings.
Kiev recently got its first gourmet food store and sushi is enjoying a trendy moment. But by and large, the cuisine sticks to the substantive basics such as savory dumplings, borscht, and roasted meats. Fresh bread, usually dark and studded with dried fruit, is ubiquitous. It even shows up in liquid form as tasty kvas, which is made of fermented rye bread.
For nostalgic Kievans, Spotykach (16 Volodymyrska) is meant to evoke the Soviet Union of the 1960s. A woman with a toothless smile greets patrons with shot glasses filled with horseradish vodka – and to chase it down, a bit of rye bread topped with lard and a pickle. The restaurant brims with lace tablecloths and Iron Curtain curios. At the rustic-Slavic restaurant Shynok (28V Lesi Ukrainki), the bread-juice kvas produces the placebo effect of soaking up the vast amounts of vodka being splashed about. Indeed, vodka (wodka!) is everywhere and is generally drunk neat, often infused, and always perfectly chilled.