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Kicking back in Kyiv: Ukraine is now a direct flight from Dublin

The Ukrainian capital may be something of a tourism blind-spot, but it's vibrant, relaxing and very affordable

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Eastern promise: the picturesque city centre and St Andrew’s Church

Eastern promise: the picturesque city centre and St Andrew’s Church

The iconic Chicken Kyiv

The iconic Chicken Kyiv

Kiev, Ukraine. Photo: Deposit

Kiev, Ukraine. Photo: Deposit

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Eastern promise: the picturesque city centre and St Andrew’s Church

It's 8am on a sunny morning in Kyiv.

Beneath my high-rise bolthole, dawn shadows are gently retreating from the city as an army of commuters criss-cross Troyitska Square like ants on a chessboard. Even 20 storeys above this massive city, there's a palpable jolt of energy. And if travel broadens the mind, I'm already sensing that Ukraine's capital is going to frame new horizons.

Ukraine is in the global headlines, of course, thanks to the Chernobyl TV series and ongoing Trump controversy. But life on the ground remains calm and stable, with Ukrainians even finding humour in the Trump situation - giving their president a new nickname: Monica Zelensky.

One of Europe's oldest cities, Kyiv is the original colossus of Slavic culture, even pre-dating the foundation of Moscow by 500 years. It may since have been overshadowed by its Russian rival - and largely overlooked by tourism in general - but after hopping aboard the new Ryanair route from Dublin, I'm finally synced up to one of Europe's most uncharted capitals.

Firstly, what's in a name? We used to spell it Kiev, but in these parts they prefer Kyiv; the former is seen as a (rather unwelcome) literation thanks to Mother Russia. Ukrainian is, in fact, more closely related to Polish than it is to Russian - and as locals are quick to point out, the fewer hashtags featuring #kiev here, the better.

Out and about, Kyiv is vital and vibrant; fewer babushkas (grannies) and more young hipsters and hustlers. Downtown feels clean, orderly and safe, offering a cityscape (an architectural mishmash from baroque to brutalist) that's perhaps more eclectic than arrestingly pretty.

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The iconic Chicken Kyiv

The iconic Chicken Kyiv

The iconic Chicken Kyiv

"Kyiv isn't the city you dream of travelling to," explains my guide, Sofia. "It's always been a crossroads for people en route to somewhere else. But there's always something different to see here - and that's why I love it".

It's Kyiv's underwhelming aesthetic that is perhaps its very appeal. The city remains a blind-spot for mass tourism, so you see refreshingly few tour groups and stagnated herds of Instagramers as you wander the streets.

There are beauty spots, however. Kyiv is best known for its dazzling churches, whose mighty onion-domes dot the skyline with gloriously gilded bursts.

Most places of worship are Eastern Orthodox, and the sky-blue wonder of Saint Michael's Monastery is one of the most spectacular. After meandering along its courtyards, wisps of incense draw me inside to its frescoed nave, where group of monks are in full chant inside. It's the most unexpected urban sanctuary: hard to imagine there's north of three million people gushing outside.

But Ukraine remains a fledgling nation, still finding its standing since its independence in 1991. The stately Museum of Ukrainian History (nmiu.com.ua; €1) tracks the country's journey best, with tiers of chronological exhibits, from old-school dioramas to trending expos. I explore its vast corridors, navigating everything from Stone Age tools to blood-sullied items from the grisly revolution in 2014. An image of Vladimir Putin morphed into Adolf Hitler suggests a lot about relations with Russia.

When it comes to culture, the city's most beguiling hub is the colossal Mystetskyi Arsenal (artarsenal.in.ua; €1.50), a Soviet-era former armoury and current keystone space of Kyiv's arts revival. My visit coincides with an exhibition dedicated to Crimean Tartars, Ukraine's ethnic Muslim minority, who have migrated to the mainland since Russia manoeuvred an illegal checkmate on the peninsula. The Tatar story is told via historical art, music and sculpture, all chased with a serving of delicious Tatar coffee, which is traditionally brewed in a pit of baked sand.

Cost-wise, Kyiv offers the kind of value that makes Prague or Riga seem pricey. The city is frequently ranked as Europe's cheapest capital, quickly backed up with every payment, from my hotel rate (€75) to my subway ride (25 cents) to the city's massively satisfying dining scene.

And where better to start with an icon? Chicken Kyiv, the brainwave of a local gastrogroup (borysov.com.ua), is an overdue homage to Ukraine's most beloved export, dishing it up on hotchpotch crockery for a fiver.

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Kiev, Ukraine. Photo: Deposit

Kiev, Ukraine. Photo: Deposit

Kiev, Ukraine. Photo: Deposit

My gourmet highlight, however, is its sister outfit, Lyubchick, a folksy seafood restaurant inspired by Ukraine's Black Sea resort of Odessa, a Jewish stronghold. For €7, I enjoy local wine and the best mackerel I've ever tasted, and all to the sound of fun wedding jingles like Hava Nagila. Mazel tovs, all round.

As Saturday night progresses, Kyiv becomes a firecracker of energy, with the main Khreshchatyk boulevard rezoned into a car-free artery of revelling footfall. There are street artists, zumba dancers, toddlers racing electric cars and queues of 'out-out' clubbers all backdropped by epic fountain displays. It's a gloriously relaxed urban scene, like the evening passeggiata in Italy - gelato included.

Amid the masses, I find my perfect perch at Kashtan (@kashtancoffee), a quirky coffee bar shared with (why not?) a family of rescued ravens. It's the ideal spot to relax and reflect on a city I've developed an unexpected grá for, with its brittle but exciting future.

"We've learned to think for ourselves and educate ourselves here as Ukrainians," my comrade Oxana surmises. "But now, I think we simply need to learn to dream."

Don't miss

It may be small, but the new Klitschko Museum, an interactive ode to Ukraine's national sporting heroes, punches far above its weight division (klitschkomuseum.com; free entry).

Get there

Ryanair (ryanair.com) now flies twice weekly from Dublin to Kyiv, operating the service all year round. Flight time is just shy of four hours. Note that flights can leave and depart from different terminals at Kyiv's Boryspil airport.

Thomas travelled as a guest of Ryanair & Visit Kyiv. See visitkyiv.travel for more info.

Where to stay

The Park Inn by Radisson (parkinn.com/Hotel/Kyiv; €75) next door to Olympiyskiy Stadium makes a plush but pocket-friendly base, and is located a handy walk or a quicker Metro scoot to the city centre.

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