Unusual things to do in Kharkiv
Why visit Kharkiv?
Kharkiv is a city in the west of Ukraine, very close to the Russian border. There’s nothing to worry about there, and it’s safe to visit Kharkiv, as it’s not near the disputed territories around Donetsk. It’s the 2nd largest city in Ukraine after Kyiv and for a period was the capital of ‘Ukraine’.
Its location means that it’s quite a Soviet looking city, with some cool looking examples of Soviet Modernism architecture. These buildings are some cool places to visit in Kharkiv. However, as with other Ukrainian cities, we found that it was really quirky and there were lots of unusual things to do in Kharkiv, so here we put them into a blog.
An important thing to note before we start is the pronunciation of the name. The ‘Kh’ sound is ‘x’ in Russian or Ukrainian. The sound is more like ‘h’, with a big more of your throat used. It’s therefore not ‘Karkiv’ but ‘harkiv’.
Unusual things to do in Kharkiv
Ride on the cable cars
The cable cars in Kharkiv were not built as entertainment, but as a form of transport for workers at a factory to reach work easily. 124 cars travel the 3,000m route which takes about 18 minutes. Each car only holds two people, and reminds you of a bucket. You stand waiting for one to pass, and then leap aboard, which I can’t imagine anyone can do gracefully. We didn’t anyway. We kind of fell inside, it swung and then stablised. There are seats opposite each other in the open car, which is open at the sides.
We took the route from Gorky Park to the end. We traveled at around tree level for much of the route, looking down at the people on rides etc. below, and then at birds in the trees beside us. It’s slow and quite relaxing, if you aren’t nervous about this sort of thing.
Getting off is as ungraceful as getting on. As it comes to the station, you open the doors and then leap off, into the arms of the assistants on the platform.
When the Kharkiv cable cars were a functional commute to work, they were painted grey with numbers on the time. To brighten them up after they became a tourist attraction, they’ve been painted bright colours, which make them look quirky, if no safer.
However, if you visit Kharkiv, traveling on the cable cars is a must-do. It’s definitely one of the most unusual things to in Kharkiv, although, wait for it, there are more!
Find the temperature on the giant thermometer
In the 1970s, the Chairman of the Kharkiv City council visited Kharkiv and saw the 10m high thermometer there. He was inspired, I mean, who wouldn’t be? It’s a giant thermometer that tells every that passes it the temperature. He wanted one in Kharkiv, but bigger! This one is the height of the building, yet still tells the correct temperature.
Actually, this is thermometer number 3. The first had an old mechanism so eventually stopped working. The second was struck by lightening, so this one is the new, modern one.
Heading to Ukraine? You’ll need our Tips for Travel in Ukraine.
Admire the Soviet Modernism architecture
As a Ukrainian city on the east of the country, and as the ex-capital of Soviet Ukraine, Kharkiv has some fantastic architecture to see, if you are into that kind of thing.
Probably the best known, and one of the most popular places to visit in Kharkiv, is Derzhprom. It’s concrete structure, straight edges and towers make you think it was built in the 1960s, when the other brutalist buildings sprung up, but actually, it was erected in the 1920s, before many of the skyscrapers of New York went up. Our guide showed us photos of it being built, with materials being brought by horses and carts. It must have been an amazing feat of engineering to get it up at that time, without the fact that it only took a couple of years to build!
Lovers of Soviet Modernist architecture rush to Kharkiv to see Derzhprom, although for us, it reminded us of Leeds University, and other concrete buildings in the UK. When you learn the backstory, it is very impressive though
House with a Spire near Constitution Square
Slightly south of Constitution Square, is a huge building occupying most of the street, which resembles Khreschatyk street in Kyiv. It’s concrete, square and practical, except for the end building which has a tower with a spire, which is lit up at night with changing colours. Built in the 1950s, apparently, this is a residential building now. I can’t help thinking that the constantly changing colours at night would get annoying if you lived inside, but it’s pretty from the outside.
Ukrainia Concert Hall
This cool semi-circular building is in Shevchenko Park, where the Kharkiv Zoo is currently being renovated. Some of the building is behind protective barriers, but you can still see the cool mosiac on the outside.
For more Soviet related places to visit in Kharkiv, check our Megan Starr’s Travel Guide to Soviet Kharkiv.
Cleanse yourself in Holy Water
Sarzhyn Yar is another park in the centre of Kharkiv, which has been designed with outdoor recreation in mind. More natural than Gorky park, there are playgrounds, outdoor gym equipment etc. In the middle there’s a spring of natural water, which is believed to have healing properties. We were just wandering through the area, when a nearby man stripped down to his pants and jumped into the ‘font’. He submerged himself and then came back out.
Ukrainians like to submerge in water, however cold. In January, on the day of celebrating Jesus’ baptism, Ukrainians jump into rivers, lakes and the sea….whatever waterbody is nearby. Now, it’s generally around -20 at that time of year, so they have to break the ice to jump in. It’s believed to be good for the health, as these things generally are….
If you are in Ukraine for 10th January, look out for it.
Admire the street art
On the theme of art, there is a lot of great street art in Kharkiv. Like Kyiv, street art has really taken off since the revolution and Kharkiv has a famous street artist, Hamlet. Not the character from the Shakespeare play, but an artist who paints political and sociological pieces of art around the city to make people think. The monochrome style with meaningful slogans are instantly recognisable.
On one wall of a building, nearby residents got sick of people visiting to take photos, so they painted over it. Fans were upset and painted murals on the wall about freedom of speech etc. which were again painted over. This was repeated so many times that the wall ended up with its own Instagram account!
If you visit Kharkiv, look out for the street art of Hamlet.
See many of the Kharkiv statues
Ukrainian cities have some interesting statues, and you can expect to see lots wherever you visit, but Kharkiv has more than we’ve ever seen. There were metal statues everywhere, representing all kinds of characters. Here are some of the standout favourites.
Statue of the student programmer.
There just aren’t enough statues of nerds. It’s all David with all his muscles and whatnot, or Greek gods drapped in togas. Kharkiv has a statue of a student hunched over his laptop, doing a bit of programming. We should be paying tribute to these guys more often. Programmers are making the world go around now.
The dog and boots
There are loads of statues of children playing in Gorky Park. Also next to the entrance is a statue of a little dog, stood by his owner’s boots, as if waiting to go out for a walk. Cute.
The Bremen Town Musicians
This fairy story by the Brother’s Grimm was apparently made into a cartoon in the Soviet times. The donkey, dog, cat and chicken who toured Bremen performing music are represented as a statue in Gorky Park.
Kharkiv is a university town with a lots of universities which attract international students. To celebrate this, there’s a statue of three students from different countries outside the the Medical University.
If you don’t find enough statues while walking around the other places to visit in Kharkiv, you can go to the Statue Garden, where there are statues of various famous Ukrainians.
See a dinosaur egg
On the theme of statues, there’s randomly a big dinosaur egg in Kharkiv. Don’t know why.
Places to visit in Kharkiv
The Eiffel Tower!!
Can’t afford to visit France to see the Eiffel Tower? No matter! You can see the Eiffel Tower in Kharkiv.
Ok, it’s slightly smaller than the real thing. And it’s in a car park. So it doesn’t quite have the atmosphere of the real one. Actually, I haven’t seen the real Eiffel Tower since I was 16 and I was pretty underwhelmed by it then, so perhaps this is similar.
Part of the French Boulevard shopping centre, you can climb up to the viewing platform and look over at the view of….well, the car park and shopping centre. There is a little cafe which you could sit in and pretend to be in France.
Visit the Wild West and Japan
It’s not just Paris either. If you visit Kharkiv, you can transport yourself to the American Wild West, Japan, London and several other countries. The city’s main park, which used to be known as Gorky Park, but seems not to be so commonly called that now, houses a big amusement park.
Now, if you’ve read our blog about visiting Zhytomyr, you’ll know that we like the slightly rusting fairground rides that appear in parks around Ukraine and Vietnam. The amusement park in Gorky Park is not so scary and you feel less like an axe murderer in a creepy mask is going to chase you around it.
The amusement park has rides themed from different countries in the world, with a wild west themed haunted house, Caribbean themed pirate ship, Arabian flying chairs and Japanese aeroplane ride. There are lots of places to pose for a photo to pretend you are travelling the world while not actually leaving Kharkiv.
Learn the history of computers
Our inner nerds were quite disappointed that the Software and Computer museum was closed when we visited Kharkiv. It was a public holiday for Women’s Day and so when we got there, it wasn’t open. From looking it up on the internet and peering in the windows, it seems to be a museum full of old computers and bits of computer equipment.
There were old Sega machines, Apple computers and various games on display. We just recently sold a Sega Megadrive to Computer Exchange in the UK. We could have donated it to a museum.
Writing this, I’ve just realised that there seems to be one in Kyiv too. That’s on the list now.
Visit the Sex Museum
Ukraine and its weird museums. We love them but here was an other that was closed due to the bank holiday. Kris didn’t really want to visit either, through true British embarrassment of anything rude. The Museum of Sexual Cultures of the World in Kharkiv is full of exhibits and displays of sexual rituals and traditions from around the World. You know the massive ‘linga’ that you find in temples in South East Asia? That kind of thing.
Rather like the Toilet Museum in Kyiv, it began as a private collection of one of the university professors from the Medical Academy. His dinner parties must have been a hoot! I wonder if the toilet collection people and the sex museum people ever met up?
Like the toilet museum, it’s not just a museum of models of genitalia, but also educational, teaching teens about STDs and safe sex.
As far as unusual things to do in Kharkiv go, this place is near the top of the list, and somewhere you should definitely go.
Experience a traditional Ukrainian living room
Less themed than the previous two, another museum worth putting on your list of things to do in Kharkiv is the M.F Sumtsov Historical Museum. Ukraine has two kinds of museums we love, the quirky themed ones like the Water and Toilet Museums in Kyiv, and the local history museums. These are generally in crumpling old ornate buildings with multiple rooms, staffed by old women who sit in each, turning the lights on and off as you enter and leave. You have to pay for each floor or exhibit and you get given a huge pile of tickets, that you need to offer at each room.
The historical museum in Kharkiv is a crumbling building that’s had a new modern facard adding, not at all in keeping with the rest of the architecture. It appears to have been enclosed in a glass box, with a big flashy entrance that isn’t actually the way in. You need to enter around the back. Odd.
We weren’t disappointed by the exhibits inside. They are always a bit random, with scenes from Ukrainian villages, traditional handicrafts and tools. On one floor, there are some mock ups of Ukrainian rooms from Soviet times, with old toys, technology and furniture. It’s like visiting the Soviet version of your gran’s house. Well, if you are our age anyway. If you like retro, go.
Stand on the 50th Parallel
Kharkiv stands on the 50th parallel latitude, and is said to be the biggest city on that line. This means that it’s 50 degrees north of the equator. You can stand with your feet on either side, or just at one side. Last summer, during our tour around Uganda, we stood on the equator, which I have to admit was a bit more interesting, but this makes a good photo.
Look at a British tank
At the front of the museum are two tanks, one Soviet and one British. The Mark V tank was sent by Britain to the Russian Empire to fight the Red Army during the Civil War. While there are tanks in lots of Ukrainian cities, there are only a couple of these left.
Visit one of the biggest markets in Europe
Kharkiv’s Barabashova Market is a maze of stalls and shops full of cheap clothes imported from Asia, and all kinds of other products. About 75 hectares, it’s huge and confusing to navigate. We went because there is a big Vietnamese community in Kharkiv and we had heard rumours of Vietnamese food stalls. After living in Vietnam for five years as English teachers, we were interested in this.
It’s not easy to find the stalls, but we wandered around until we did. There are also stalls selling important foods from other parts of Asia. We had a bowl of pho and spring rolls while sat on small plastic chairs for a very authentic Vietnamese experience.
Interested in Vietnamese food? Read our blog on Vietnamese food and where in Saigon to eat it.
Visit Platform 9 3/4
For Harry Potter fans, you don’t need to queue up at Kings Cross Station in London to get your photo taken at Platform 9 3/4. No, you don’t need to go further than Kharkiv. In the courtyard outside Sho Bar, you can push the trolley full of suitcases and your cage with Hedwig inside through the wall to catch your train to Hogwarts.
There’s some cool street art in the courtyard as well.
Travel the incredible Kharkiv metro lines
The Soviet Union built some stunning metro stations, and those in Moscow are rightly famous. We’ve written a lot about the beautiful stations in Kyiv before, and Kharkiv has some to rival them. The 2nd metro system to open in Ukraine after Kyiv, and 6th in the Soviet Union, Kharkiv metro was opened in 1975. A cool thing to do in Kharkiv if you are into this is to travel the whole metro line past the 30 stations to take photos.
They are pretty diverse, with the science-themed mosiacs of Akademika Pavlova, the shiny coloured tiles of Botanishni Sad and Akademika Barabashova and ornate Kyivska. We’ve heard that attendants can stop you taking pictures in Ukrainian metros because of some long-defunct law, but we haven’t had problems with that. If you want some better photos than ours though, check our Megan Starr’s guide to the Kharkiv metro lines.
Read our posts on the beautiful metro stations in Kyiv
Unusual places to eat and drink in Kharkiv
A bar made of plasticine models
This place was recommended by our friends Andrew and Katya, who used to live in Kharkiv. It’s an art-pub in a speakeasy style that’s very popular in Ukraine. When you find the ‘secret’ door, a guard asks you for the password. It’s all very dramatic and serious, but it doesn’t matter if you get it wrong or pronounce it terribly, like we did. They still let you in.
Inside is like an explosion in a nursery school (where no children were hurt, of course!). The walls are absolutely covered in plasticine. Models, decoration, names….on walls, shelves…everywhere. You are given a board and some blocks of plasticine by the waitress, so you can play and make things to add to the decor while enjoying your food and drink.
Meanwhile, tvs show old Soviet cartoons. We watched something where a toilet and washbasin come to life and either help or terrorise a boy. It was hard to understand but rather terrifying.
Art Cafe Plasticine Vorona: Sumska 17
An English pub – one of many
When we first started travelling properly back in 2006, we were intrigued by the British or English pubs everywhere. Everyone knows what an Irish pub looks like, right? Wooden panelling, green paint, a bicycle hanging from the roof and shamrocks everywhere. We were used to those. However, in South East Asia, English pubs also seemed popular and the themes there differed. They often sell fish and chips, have red telephone boxes somewhere and some Beatles themed memorabilia somewhere.
One we visited in northern Thailand had a badger skin nailed to the wall. “Just like home” they said.
Ukrainian cities often have an English pub somewhere. We’ve visited the Underground Pub in Kolomyia, Wolf Pub in Zhytomyr and others. In Kharkiv, there are at least four, or four that we found: Big Ben, Thatcher’s, Fat Goose and Sherlock’s. There’s Liverpool pub on Googlemaps too, but it was further out of the city than we wanted to go.
We walked to all of them to check out how ‘English’ they were. Fat Goose and Thatcher’s we couldn’t get into because they were rammed. Not rammed in an English sense. All the tables were booked. Standing at the bar isn’t a thing here.
Big Ben had a couple of English dishes on the menu and lots of football scarves. It was someone in the pub’s birthday and they gave us cake, which was nice. Also, at one point, everyone stood up and started dancing. Which was odd.
Sherlock’s, you’ll be surprised to learn, was Sherlock Holmes themed, with pictures around. They had their own beer. There was also Guinness on draft for 59 UAH, which is less than 2 quid!
A Ukrainian craft beer bar
If you follow our blog and/or our Facebook and Instagram (if you don’t, why not? Go on, follow!) you’ll know that we like to try out local craft beers. We spent lockdown ordering from local craft beer breweries to try them out. There are quite a few craft beer breweries in Kharkiv, so we gave many of the beers a try. Red Cat Brewery has a shop/bar on Sumska street, and DAF (Drunk As F***) pub is nearby.
For more on Ukrainian craft breweries, see our post on craft beer breweries that deliver.
Nuts and Bolts
In the east of Ukraine, you could visit Kharkiv on a trip down the Dnipro, like we are doing this summer, visiting other cities like Poltava and Dnipro. Alternatively, you can go directly from one of the other popular Ukrainian cities like Kyiv, Odessa or Lviv.
How to get from Kyiv to Kharkiv
We travelled from Kyiv to Kharkiv by overnight train. It takes around 7 hours, leaving at about 11pm and arriving just before 6am. You can travel three classes: 3rd class (plazkart) which is lots of open beds in one big carriage, 2nd class which is four beds in a carriage, and 1st which is two beds. We like to splash out and travel 1st class, so we have the carriage to ourselves. It’s nice to get onboard after a couple of beers and dinner on the way to the station, settle into your carriage and open a bottle of wine. It is twice the price of 2nd class.
There are also fast trains during the day which take less than 5 hours. You can find train times and book tickets on the Ukrainian railways website. It works in English and is pretty easy to navigate.
You can also take the bus. Big coaches like Ecolines and Gunsel travel this route on nice buses, usually with wifi, air conditioning, comfortable seats and even an entertainment system in the back of the seat. It takes around 7 hours.
Domestic airline carriers fly from Kyiv to Kharkiv, which take about an hour. It can be cheaper than the train, so it’s worth checking it out. We flew back with SkyUp.
How to travel from Odessa to Kharkiv
If Kharkiv is part of your tour of the main cities in Ukraine, you might want to go directly from Odessa. There are overnight trains from Odessa to Kharkiv that take about 12 hours. There are also coaches, but these take about 16 hours so I wouldn’t recommend that. Domestic Airline SkyUp flies this route, which takes just over an hour, and might be a better idea.
Where to stay in Kharkiv
We stayed in an apartment from Nordian, which was just south of Constitution Square. They have a whole floor of an apartment building, made into apartments of various sizes. Ours was one room but included a kitchen area with fridge and sofa.
Kharkiv Free Walking Tour
We did a free walking tour with Kharkiv Buddy. It was fascinating and the guide was really helpful. We’d recommend it.
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