We need to talk about
With seven months to go before Poland and Ukraine become the centre of our (sporting) universe, Sara Evans travels to the city that will host the final of Euro 2012
Kiev's skyline is one of the most exotic I have seen -- no wonder it is often referred to as the "city of a thousand golden domes". Ukraine's capital is also one of Europe's oldest cities and the birthplace of Eastern Slavic civilisation, and home to a dazzling number of Orthodox churches and cathedrals.
Against a backdrop of forested hills, gilded turrets and soaring spires -- some almost 1,000 years old -- shine brightly all over the city, giving Kiev a fabulous fairytale feel.
Kyiv-Pecherska Lavra, a UNESCO-listed 11th-Century monastery, with its network of Byzantine-inspired churches and cathedrals, is widely regarded as one of Kiev's most outstanding golden-domed wonders. Below ground, there are caves that are just as fantastical, home to subterranean churches and catacombs.
I enter these caves through the Church of the Raising of the Cross and descend into a labyrinth of candlelit passages, passing side rooms with glass coffins that contain the unembalmed but perfectly preserved bodies of monks, more than 900 years old.
Believers say that God preserved the monks, while others say the underground climate is the preserver. Either way, it's deeply moving to witness babushkas, as well as teens in skinny jeans, shed tears at the sight of their holy men.
With its glorious rooftops, miracles and museums, this monastery is Kiev's most-visited attraction. But it doesn't hold all of the city's golden eggs. Just across the road, more worldly treasures wait to be discovered.
The Mystetskyi Arsenal, a former weapons store, is a huge contemporary art museum with big ambitions. Next year, it will hold Ukraine's first international biennale of contemporary art. By 2014, if all goes to plan, it will be Europe's largest art museum.
This appreciation of art isn't new to Kiev. It runs through the city's veins. Walking through central Kiev, I come across museums devoted to all kinds of art, including folk and oriental.
There are also numerous galleries that showcase contemporary Ukrainian artists. Some are just opening, while others, such as the Pinchuk Art Centre, are well established.
Many are located around Andrew's Descent, a cobbled street where artists sell their work and which is often referred to as the Montmartre of Kiev.
At Andrew's Descent, I'm also just a stone's throw from another clutch of golden-domed buildings. There's St Sophia's Cathedral -- from 1037 and listed by UNESCO for its outstanding frescoes -- and St Michael's Gold Domed Monastery, with its sky-blue plasterwork and domes so shiny they mirror the clouds.
But it's not just its architecture for which Kiev is celebrated: it's as an arts destination, with enough cultural treasures to ensure -- even when the sun's not shining on its golden-domed buildings -- that the city can still glitter and sparkle.
The inside track
Churches and museums open from 9.30am-6pm (October-March) and from 9am-7pm (April-September). The caves open from 8.30am-4.30pm and entry is free. Admission to the churches and museums is around €1.30 but free between 6am-9am and after 6pm until sunset (vul Sichnevoho Povstannya 21; lavra.ua). Information at traveltoukraine.org.
Allow half a day to visit Kyiv-Pecherska Lavra. Avoid weekends when it's very busy. Arrive early to avoid queues. Women should bring a headscarf.
The Chernobyl Museum is a poignant tribute to the world's worst nuclear accident. It displays pictures of those killed at the power plant when reactor No 4 exploded in April 1986, and distressing pictures of the sorts of deformities caused in humans and animals, including one of an eight-legged piglet. A tour to the plant itself is the most popular day-trip from Kiev.
Download art gallery listings or buy the app at inyourpocket.com/ ukraine/kyiv.
Kiev boasts over 60 museums. Discover the best at primetour.ua/en /excursions/museum.
One of the best ways to see Kiev is by boat. Find the landing stage at Poshtova Ploscha (gokiev.info /ferries.php).
The best hotels
Sherborne Guesthouse €
This popular alternative to hotels offers well-designed self-catering apartments with hotel amenities (490 9693; sherbornehotel.com.ua; doubles from €125).
Podol Plaza €€
A boutique hotel in a decent location, with friendly staff, a good reputation and Italian-style rooms (503 9290; podolplazahotel.com.ua/en; from €178).
Grand and elegant, centrally located and with a contemporary lounge bar that provides panoramic views of the city (intercontinental.com; from €292).
On the cheap
For the budget concious, stay-for-free club Couch Surfing (couchsurfing.com) has a few hundred hosts in Ukraine. You can also try hospitalityclub.org or globalfreeloaders.com.
The best restaurants
Russian food with a Ukrainian twist served with flavoured vodka in a stylish and retro-Soviet setting (vul Volodymyrska 16; 586 4095).
Tsarske Selo €€
Popular Ukrainian-themed restaurant with rustic décor offering solid and tasty traditional food, close to Kiev-Pecherska Lavra (vul Ivan Mazepa 42/1; 288 9775).
Mediterranean cuisine served in the restaurant of the luxurious Opera Hotel. Expect fine dining and a wide choice of wines (vul Bohdana Khmelnytskoho 53; 581 7070).
What to eat and drink
Chicken Kiev is a safe and obvious bet. Borshch, a steaming soup of beetroot, salted pork fat and herbs, is a popular local staple along with Varenyky, similar to Chinese dumplings. Among the more gastronomically challenging dishes you might encounter on your travels are sheep and bull testicles. Watch out for them grilling on charcoal at street corners.
Roadside stalls also sell kvas, a popular gingery drink made from old black bread and sugar which is mildly alcoholic. Ukrainians don't drink anything like their Russian neighbours but seem to get through a lot of their favourite spirit, Nemiroff, the biggest name in local vodka.
What to avoid
The metro is a pickpocketing hot spot. Keep your valuables well hidden.
From 8-9am and 5-7pm the metro can become crowded and is best avoided. After 9pm, public transport can become rowdy. Consider taking a taxi instead, but agree a fare first.
Exchange rates at the airport tend to be poor -- avoid getting your Ukrainian hryvnia there.