Cool things to do in Poltava, Ukraine
If you’d asked me before we moved to Ukraine about Poltava, I’d probably have assumed it was in Poland, rather than central Ukraine. About a three-hour drive southeast of Kyiv, Poltava is most famous as the site of a definitive battle between the Russian and Swedish Empires over the territory of Ukraine. However, upon visiting Poltava, we found that it’s also the site of several other battles, the home of the Soviet Union’s long-range bombers and also quite the place for local breweries. In fact, we found lots of cool little things to do in Poltava.
This wasn’t Kris’ first trip to Poltava. It’s another place that he has visited for work, doing a one day teacher training and promotional event for Pearson in the art gallery in the centre. He drove from Kyiv to Poltava, did the event and then moved on to the next city. He had stayed overnight and visited a couple of pubs and thought it seemed a nice place to be. This was in March 2019.
Fast forward to the summer of 2020 and due to Coronavirus, we were planning to spend our summer in Ukraine. We had five weeks to play with the explore areas of Ukraine we hadn’t been to before. I asked Kris where he’d like to see, and his first response was ‘Poltava’. So there we went. Our decisions on where to visit are often that simple. Well, how to you plan your trips?
Why visit Poltava?
Poltava is really pretty. I read somewhere before we visited that there isn’t any reason why it couldn’t be the next Lviv, and we tend to agree. It has lots of parks, a long pedestrian street with cafes and bars along it with cheap local beer, and some riverside beaches. Lviv croissants, one of the franchise places from Lviv has already opened, and I’d imagine Drunk Cherry and Lviv chocolate are on their way. There’s also a branch of the 1 Euro bars from Kyiv that were opened last year.
In the 19th century, to commemorate the battle, Poltava was laid out like St Petersburg, with a circular park in the centre and with the main street coming off it. We can’t say because we haven’t been to St Petersberg yet, but we’ve Googled it and it has the same idea.
Korpusny Park is circular, with a road going around the edge and eight streets radiating off it. In the middle, there’s a big statue of a gold eagle, which someone has added Ukrainian flags to. Around the park are some ornate buildings housing government offices.
South of the park, the main street, Saborna Street is cobbled and pedestrianised, leading to Sonyanchny Park with the stunning museum building, and then onto Assumption Cathedral and the Rotunda of People’s Friendship, looking over to the city and countryside beyond.
As I said, it’s pretty and relaxing. One of the nice things to do in Poltava is just to wander around.
Things to do in Poltava
Visit the battlefield
In 1709, the Battle of Poltava is said to be one of the turning points that reduced Sweden’s hold on Europe and led to the rise of the Russian Empire. In its height, Sweden held much of Scandinavia and the Baltics, as well as some German provinces and it was pressing into Russian territory. Other Empires at the time, the Polish-Lithuanian French and Russian were fighting over parts of Europe.
We had always heard that this victory was a good thing, giving Russia more territory and ‘protecting’ Ukraine against Sweden. However, the museum at the battlefield now tells a different story. It turns out that the Cossack Hetman (leader) of Zaprozhye, Ivan Mazepa, sided with Sweden because Charles XII promised less opression of Ukrainian peasants, who were suffering under Russian rule. The warrior Cossacks were being used to fight Russian battles all over Europe, taking them away from home for long periods, while their homeland was attacked by other nearby nations.
So it could be said that the loss at the Battle of Poltava led to the continuing oppression of Ukraine, for the next 200+ years. History depends on how you look at it and who is doing the looking.
The battlefield is about 3 miles north of Poltava, and there’s a church, a couple of monuments and a museum. The museum has displays on lots of battles that happened in Poltava, and lots of history. There are information sheets in English, which helps. There’s usually an audioguide you can hire in English, but due to Coronavirus, that wasn’t possible. For 25 UAH we walked around the museum and learned more about the history.
Outside the museum is a statue of Peter the Great, and opposite, the Church of Samson and a cross on a hill. You can walk through the battlefields, which in the summer are an explosion of wild flowers. There’s also a dendropark nearby.
Even if you aren’t massively into history, the Poltava Battlefield is a beautiful area and you should put it on your list of things to do in Poltava. More information can be found on the website. We took a taxi from Poltava for around 60 UAH using the Uklon app.
The strategic long-range aviation museum
You don’t need to be some kind of plane spotter to find this place interesting. The museum is on the site of an active military base, with a big airfield. The base is where many of the Soviet Unions long-range bombers were housed. It is particularly famous as the base for Operation Frantic during the 2nd World War.
At this time, it was felt that bombing runs from Britain and Italy on Germany and Poland had long journeys, so they established so-called ‘shuttle-bombing’ where US planes would take off and land in one of three air bases in Ukraine. One of these was at Poltava.
It was relentless. The planes landed, refueled, rebombed and flew. Interestingly, Churchill wasn’t into it. He didn’t trust Stalin so Britain didn’t take part. It was purely an American venture. Not that I’m British and saying ‘I told you so…’ but apparently it worked out badly. American planes were ‘accidently’ shot at by the Soviets and allegedly they also used the operation to ‘observe’ American tech and tactics, the knowledge of which was later put into practice in the chilly cold war………
Sometimes you should listen to Churchill.
Seriously, would you trust Stalin????? America, please…..
We arrived at the entrance and went through the gate, where a friendly woman asked to see our passports. Don’t forget your passport. You can’t get in without it. She then gave us lots of information in Russian that we didn’t completely understand, took our money and waved us in. On entry, there are outdoor displays of helicopters and tanks. This made Kris happy, as he’s a big fan of tanks.
Interesting aside: some of the bombers here are the same models that continually buzz EU airspace. The Bear and Blackjack – which are actually NATO nicknames for some Russian long range bombers.
For more on old Soviet missiles, tanks and bombers, read about our trip to the Strategic Nuclear Missile Base.
We wandered around this area for a while, and then walked towards the hanger that the woman on the entrance had pointed us to. There were a couple of other tourists there, along with some guides. We showed them our tickets and they pointed us to an old Soviet style green bus. In we popped, masks on, and we were driven to the airfield. There there were rows of huge Soviet bombers. Prior to Covid, you used to be able to go inside and have pictures taken in the cockpits etc. but not right now. We were able to take lots of pictures of the outsides though. As we walked around, planes were taking off and landing from the real airstrip just behind.
Sometimes there may be English-speaking tour guides, but during the summer of 2020 we found few were working in any places we went. The gruff guy who drove us in his bus obviously decided he wasn’t going to be able to pass on much useful information about aviation given our dreadful language ability so he just told us he’d drive us back in 15 minutes.
Poltava Regional History Museum
One of the main reasons to see the Poltava Regional History Museum when you visit Poltava is the building. It’s really stunning both inside and out.
Inside there are lots of different rooms with displays on local history and culture. We love Ukrainian museums because they are so random, and this one is very similar. There are displays on clothing, weapons and wildlife.
Next after Poltava, you could go to Kharkiv. Read our post on Unusual things to do in Kharkiv
Try the traditional Dumplings
If you know anything about Ukraine, or this part of the world really, you’ll know that dumplings are a big thing. There are a couple of different kinds in Ukraine, the most famous being verenyky, cresent shaped dumplings filled with cabbage, potato, meat, cherries and all kinds of other fillings. Pelmini are smaller and pinched together. They are both generally boiled, although sometimes fried and served with sour cream.
Read more on traditional Ukrainian food in our blog post on Ukrainian dishes and where to try them.
Poltava has its own dumpling, halushky. These are quite different to verenyky and more like Chinese bao or Vietnamese banh bao. The dough is fluffier and thicker and they aren’t always filled with anything. They are large and round and served in a thick soup/sauce.
We tried a couple of different types. The typical Poltava halushky isn’t filled with anything and is served in a white sauce. We had one set unfilled and covered in shredded chicken and with meat inside. We also had some ‘Chinese style’, filled with meat, fried and covered in sweet and sour sauce.
Most restaurants serve them. We went to Kamora Halupsy Manufactoring, which has 15 types on offer. You order at the hatch, where there’s a photo menu. They come in 5 or 9. We had two sets of 9 and it was plenty. The lemonade (not fizzy, lemonade here tends to be still) with ginger was also good, if that chunks of ginger got stuck in the straw.
Have your photo taken with the dumpling statue
Poltava is so proud of halushky that it’s made a monument to them. Now, if you follow our blog, you’ll know that Ukraine loves to build statues to slightly strange things. Kyiv has statues to a cat that used to visit a local restaurant, the main character from the Soviet cartoon Hedgehog in the Fog and a series of tiny representations of Kyiv culture. Kharkiv is jam packed with different statues.
Read our post on unusual things to do in Kyiv
Next to the Rotunda of People’s Friendship is the monument to halushky. To be honest, they don’t look as appetizing as they do in real life, rather more like grey marshmallows. They are huge though.
We had been disappointed not to find the monument to verenyky in Cherkassy, which seems to have been removed, so we were pleased to find one dumpling statue on our trip.
Drink the local beers
Ukraine is into craft beer these days, as most places are. Poltava has a number of small breweries with their own brewpubs.
Beer House has a couple of locations in Poltava, including a brewery in the city, one outside (see below) a bar and a place in the circular park. They have about seven types of beer on their menu, although there were only three available when we visited. There’s a pilzner, a Munich style beer, black beer (more like an ale than a stout), honey beer and a wheat beer.
Beer House is connected to a pizza shop, which does tasty and quick thin crust pizzas with a variety of toppings, as well as other typical beer food. We ate at the one in the park and the service was good. There seems to be an English menu, although we didn’t ask for it.
Google maps has this has ‘Birloha’ but the sign outside seems to be Beer Loga. The logo seems to be a drunk bear, if that means anything. Whichever, it’s right at the top of Soborna Street when you come through the underpass from the park. They have five varieties of beer: light, dark, chocolate porter, wheat and ‘Newcastle’ style, which Kris was quite excited about, coming from Sunderland. It didn’t taste like Newcastle Brown Ale, but it was tasty.
There’s a huge menu of typical pub food – sausages, potatoes, salad etc. When we sat down, the waitress went to fetch another staff member. ‘Hi’ she said ‘I’m Helen and I can help you’ and then translated everything we ordered for us. We can actually speak and understand enough Russian to order food, but she was so lovely that we just let her translate. So if you can’t speak Russian or Ukrainian, they have English speaking waiters here.
Into craft beer and heading to Odessa? Don’t miss our post on the best craft beer bars in Odessa.
The beer we had heard of before visiting Poltava was Poltava Beer. It’s often sold in off-licenses around Kyiv. The Poltava Beer ‘bar’ is in the Lonely Planet that we have, which we got from a leaving teacher and is from around 2011, so this place has been there a while. It’s a small room with a huge terrace of tables and chairs. You go to the window and order draft beer, which the old man pours into plastic cups. There is an old man mentioned in the Lonely Planet. I don’t know know if it’s the same one. Maybe he’s always been old?
There is basically only beer available, or cider. Five draft pumps, and then crisps and dried fish. If you’re a cocktail or wine drinker, it’s not for you. The handwritten menu in the window is in Ukrainian and the guy doesn’t speak English. When we visited, the inside where the pumps are was blocked off because of Corona. Once this is over, you may be able to go in and point to the beer you want.
Ukraine has small shops which serve beer on tap. There are multiple taps behind the counter and they fill up litre bottles for you to take away. We’ve never seen so many as we saw in Poltava. They were on every street, sometimes with two. Take away beer must be a huge thing there.
Learn about the history of brewing beer and moonshine
The abovementioned Beer House has a branch outside of the city centre, and attached to it is a Museum of Brewing and Moonshine. We took a taxi to check it out. They do guided tours, but not in English when we visited, (probably because of Covid again) but the friendly woman let us in and we explored ourselves. It’s a small place, jam packed with old stills and brewing equipment, as well as old glasses and pots.
There’s an interesting display of moonshine varients from different countries, including things like raki and baijiu. It’s also not in English but Google translate worked wonders for us.
On the way back, our taxi apps were quoting ridiculously high prices to send someone from the city centre to pick us up. Instead, we asked in Beer House if they could order us a local taxi. One came pretty quickly, and took us back for the same price we had spent getting there.
Relax in a jacuzzi on a roof terrace
I wouldn’t normally put places we stayed in the things to do in Poltava, but this was basically how we spent a lot of our visit. We found a flat in a new building near the centre, walking distance of the park, where we could also use the attached roof terrace. This had a table and chairs, day beds, chair swing and a hot tub. All for us.
Nuts and Bolts
How to travel from Kyiv to Poltava
It seems that most tourists who visit Poltava do so on a day trip from Kyiv. At three hours, it’s quite a long return trip, but they seem to feel its worth it to see the battlefields. If you’re a big history buff, I guess it is. However, we’d suggest at least staying overnight or spending a weekend in Poltava to get the most out of it.
There are several ways to travel from Kyiv to Poltava.
Taking the train from Kyiv to Poltava
There is a direct train from Kyiv to Poltava from the main railway station in Kyiv. However, when I last looked, the times are not that convenient – either leaving or arriving in the middle of the night. You can check on the Ukrainian railways website to see if that’s changed. It’s in English and you can book online.
Buses from Kyiv to Poltava
Buses from Kyiv to Poltava take about 4 hours. Several companies do the journey, including Ecolines and Gunsel, both of which run large, comfortable coaches.
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