Ukraine Travel Tips
Coming to visit Ukraine this year? Good choice. It’s great to see tourism really taking off in this cool country. We’ve been living in Ukraine for over three years now, and have had several friends and family come to visit us. Each time, we’ve realised some important Ukraine travel tips they need to know. So whether you are visiting for a holiday, or moving to Ukraine, here are our tips for visiting Ukraine.
Ukraine Travel Tips 1: It’s not THE Ukraine
The first mistake people who visit Ukraine make is using an article before the country name. It isn’t
It’s spelled ‘Kyiv’
The official spelling of the city is Kyiv, not Kiev. Kiev is the old Russian spelling and Ukraine adopted the new spelling in the 1990s. From our point of view, when we have ‘London’ and ‘Londres’ and different spellings of places in different languages, it doesn’t seem an important point, but Ukrainians are very passionate about this. If you are visiting Ukraine, use their spelling.
Another of our useful tips for visiting Ukraine is that there are two different spellings of some city names. Odessa can be spelled with one ‘s’ or two. Lviv is spelled with an ‘i’ in Ukrainian but with an ‘o’ in Russian. This is a useful Ukraine travel tip if you are trying to book transport, as websites like the Ukrainian railway’s site use the Ukrainian spellings.
People speak Russian as well as Ukrainian
All Ukrainians are bilingual, speaking both Russian and Ukrainian. The east of the country is largely Russian speaking, so you’ll hear and see a lot of it in cities like Kharkiv and Odessa. The West is largely Ukrainian speaking. In Kyiv, you’ll hear both languages, but a lot of Russian. Despite the bad relationship between Russia and Ukraine, it’s quite acceptable to speak Russian to people, especially as a tourist. Tourists often ask if they’ll get a bad response if they use Russian, but we’ve got Ukrainian friends who do everything in Russian, because they grew up in a Russian speaking region and are more confident in that language. Even living in Ukraine, we get by largely in Russian.
When you are visiting Ukraine, hang your coat up
If you are visiting Ukraine in winter, you’ll be bringing a coat. While where we come from, you just hang your coat on the back of your chair in a bar or restaurant, this isn’t the done thing here. In Ukraine, you’ll see coat hooks or a coat stand and you should go and hang it up there. Sometimes, the waiter will take your coat from you to hang up. In some places, there will be cloakroom to check your coat into. Give it to the staff there and they’ll give you a tag to collect it.
Cover/uncover your head in Orthodox churches
Ukraine is full of amazing churches, with some fantastic cathedrals in Kyiv and Lviv. Something to be aware of is the custom for headwear. Men should take hats off, whereas women must cover their heads. It’s a good idea to carry a scarf when sightseeing, but most tourist churches will have scarves by the door to borrow.
Book a table
When people are going out to dinner or for a drink here, they book a table. Tables can even be booked in pubs, cafes and coffee shops. If you are in a group and trying to find somewhere to eat or drink, you’ll often find that everywhere is full. It doesn’t have to be the number 1 restaurant on TripAdvisor on a Saturday night, you need to book on a Wednesday too, even for restaurant number 431.
In pubs in the UK, people stand up around the bar or anywhere there is somewhere to balance their beer. You very rarely find a pub that is ‘full’ so you can’t go in. In Ukraine, this happens quite a lot. We’ve walked into what looks like a fairly quiet pub, but haven’t been able to stay because all the tables are reserved. Standing up is just not accepted.
On a night out, people don’t seem to pub crawl. They tend to book a table in a pub and stay there. If you want to go to a specific pub and you are in a group, it’s best to book a table. On special occasions like Valentines or during sporting events like football matches, you also need to book, even in a pub.
We’ve heard stories of cafe tables being reserved at 3 pm on a weekday afternoon.
The menus have the price and the weight
Menus can look a bit confusing, in that there are two or more numbers next to each item. One will be the price. The others, often with what looks like the letter ‘r’ next to them (it’s actually the cyrrilic initial ‘g’ from ‘grams’), are the weights. If you order a dish with several components, like meat, potatoes and vegetables, there will be weights for each part e.g. 100/30/10.
Everything is sold in the metros and subways
The answer to the question ‘where can I buy ____________’ is generally ‘underground, outside a metro station’ if you are in Kyiv, or ‘underground in the subway’ if you are somewhere else. Shoelaces, lightbulbs, superglue, inner soles for shoes…..all of those random items can be found in small shops underground. If your shoes break and you need to stick them, or you want a gift bag for a present, just head underground.
Moving to Ukraine? Don’t drink the tap water.
Like many countries,
Bottled water is colour coded
A cool trick with the bottled water is that they colour code the bottles to tell you what kind of water it is. Fizzy water has a dark blue lid, still water has a pale coloured lid.
Mixed drinks come unmixed
If you order a vodka and coke in many bars, you’ll get a shot of vodka, and a bottle of coca cola. It’s rare to get the two mixed, except in one of the many cool cocktail bars that are opening all around the main cities.
Read more about Bars in Odessa.
The heating and hot water is centrally controlled
Like other ex-Soviet countries, and China, heating is centrally controlled. It is turned on by the government on a specific day in winter, and is turned off on a specific day in summer. It’s on continuously when it’s on. In autumn, it can be quite cold in apartments but there isn’t any heating yet. A lot of businesses install electric radiators to keep places warm before the heating comes on. If cold bothers you, it’s worth finding out if your hotel or apartment has electric radiators.
Hot water is also centrally controlled. In the summer, it regularly gets switched off so places are without hot water for weeks. A lot of apartments, like ours, have their own boilers. If you rent an Airbnb or apartment, either for a trip or because you are moving to Ukraine, ask if it has a boiler, or you could be without hot water for your stay.
Coffee in Ukraine is everywhere
A friend came to Kyiv recently and asked her hotel if they had a kettle to use to make coffee in her room. The receptionist looked at her like she was mad and pointed outside, to the nearby coffee stall. There are coffee kiosks, vans and shops everywhere. Noone seems to make their own coffee at home. Everyone goes out to buy it in the street. Look out for the coffee snails in Kyiv, and the cars in Odessa selling coffee out of the back. You are never more than a minute from a coffee place in the cities. Even if you are living in Ukraine, you might not need a kettle. We have one though.
Megan Starr has a post on where to find the Best Coffee in Kyiv, which will be useful to you if you are a big coffee fan.
Lviv is famous for coffee in Ukraine and has many popular coffee shops, including the funky coffee mine. You can even do a tour explaining the history and culture of coffee in Lviv like this Lviv Coffee Tour.
Read more about visiting Lviv in our post: One day in Lviv in winter.
You can’t bring local money in
When people come and visit us, we often forget to tell them one of the most useful Ukraine travel tips. The Ukrainian
Have the exact change
Hand over a big note in a shop when paying for your shopping and you are likely to be asked for the exact coins too. Inflation after the last revolution has meant that the kopeks are worth very little now, but prices still include kopek.
Living in Ukraine tip – Buy produce in season
Ukraine is known as the breadbasket of Europe and large areas of the country are farmland, growing all kinds of fruit and vegetables. It’s easy to buy local when things are in season. If it has to be imported, it becomes really expensive. Last winter I saw broccoli for $10. This means in summer there is a huge range of great fresh food – strawberries, raspberries, cherries, courgettes, peppers, broccoli etc. In winter, however, there’s much less. Expect to eat a lot of beetroot, pumpkin, and carrots.
In the UK, we used to generally buy the same produce whenever we went shopping, but in Ukraine, doing that can mean an incredibly high shopping bill. So check the prices before you buy things, even if you bought the same thing from the same shop last week.
Don’t slam car doors
When you get out of a taxi here and slam the door, the driver gets really annoyed. No idea why. It’s not like doors have a tendency to fall off if they are slammed too often. Anyway, just close them gently.
Something to look out for if you visit the south is that cars are often missing their bumpers. No idea why but if you are visiting Odessa, check it out.
See our post on Things to Do in Odessa.
There is still a war on
While you might not see much of it on the news back home at the moment, there is still a war in the east of Ukraine, in the Donbass region. Ukrainian men are being called up to fight there and people are dying every day. You won’t see much about this in the rest of the country, but it’s good to remember the country’s troubles. Ukraine is generally a safe place to visit though.
Hopefully our Ukraine travel tips will help you have an awesome trip. Feel free to send us a message on Facebook if you have other questions and see our other Ukraine posts for more ideas and tips.