Before we begin – in this post, I am spelling ‘Kyiv’ like ‘Kiev’ because that is what people are searching for on Google. I spell it like ‘Kyiv’ everywhere else.
This post was last updated on 17 June 2020.
My love affair with Ukraine has been intense and passionate. Ukraine is one of those countries that has never stopped surprising me. Every time I think I’ve seen its beauty, or discovered its weirdness, it comes at me with something ten times more strange and spectacular than I could ever have imagined.
It is this combination of the strange and spectacular that I love about Ukraine so much. Bizarre themed restaurants sit alongside stunning Orthodox churches, and the souvenir stands lining the leafy streets sell traditional Ukainian clothing (made in China of course) alongside toilet paper with Vladimir Putin’s face on it.
These contrasts, these things which should not go together, but somehow always do, are what make Ukraine so special, and so when I visited Kiev for the first time, I made sure to book a Kiev tour so that I was able to discover some more of these quirky contrasts.
When I travel, I love to learn about not only the history of a place, but also the current situation of that place. I find street art incredibly interesting as it is often a window into the current struggles, political climate and general vibe of a given city.
Because of this, I opted for a Kiev walking tour that would focus on street art and history, as well as some of the beautiful Orthodox churches that you can find in Kiev.
My Kiev Tour – Churches, Street Art & More in Ukraine
I met my Kiev tour guide Taya from Tours de Kiev in the early afternoon near the Golden Gate of Kiev.
As we admired it, Taya told me about the history of the gate, which used to be the main gate in the 11th century fortifications of Kiev, named and modelled after the Golden Gate of Constantinople and serving as a victory arch. However, it was dismantled in the Middle Ages and wasn’t rebuilt until 1982 by the Soviets, supposedly to celebrate Kiev’s 1500 year existence, which is the reason why it looks so modern.
There’s also a little monument of a cat here, which is very cute and very popular with tourists who want to take selfies with it!
Taya then told me the sad stories behind a few of the majestic buildings that surrounded us. She explained that a lot of the buildings in Kiev, including former grand hotels and palaces, are crumbling into disrepair because people simply cannot afford the upkeep.
It was definitely sad to see these once-grand buildings beginning to look forlorn and tired, but that’s the unfortunate reality in many countries and so I was glad that Taya actually drew my attention to this and explained it rather than just pointing the other way and hiding the less glamorous parts of her city.
We began to walk around Kiev, enjoying the sun and getting to know each other a little.
As we walked, we passed various statues and sculptures that Taya explained the meanings behind. My favourite was the adorable Hedgehog Monument!
This cutie is made from actual nails and wood from a fallen tree, and is the lead character in old Soviet cartoon, Hedgehog in the Fog, which was named the ‘best animated film of all time’ in 2003 in a survey of 140 critics and animators from around the world.
Before long, we reached a huge area with so much impressive architecture that I didn’t know where to look. Luckily, Taya had a plan, and she drew my attention to what was immediately in front of us – St. Sophia’s Cathedral and its Bell Tower.
St. Sophia’s Cathedral is one of the most popular things to see in Kiev and both the cathedral and the Bell Tower have the trademark golden domes that can be seen on pretty much every single church in Ukraine. When I asked Taya what the reason for this was, she explained that if the tops of the churches are golden, it means that God can see them easily!
After taking a few pictures, we headed over to another of the most famous Kiev attractions on our Kiev tour, St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, stopping a few times en route so that Taya could talk to me about the history behind some more statues – we even saw a statue of the guys who invented the beautifully infuriating Cyrillic alphabet!
The statue below is Bogdan Khmel’nitsky’s monument, which was initially unveiled all the way back in 1888! It depicts Cossack leader Hetman Bogdan Khmel’nitsky, who led the Ukrainian people during national liberation wars against Turks, Crimean Tatars, and the Polish nobility.
St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery is definitely one of the most famous things to see in Kiev, and I’d seen a million Instagram pictures of Kiev’s ‘blue church’ before my arrival.
However, no picture can quite prepare you for a building so wonderful, and the fact that it was a gorgeous sunny day just made the colours seem even more vibrant.
St. Michael’s Monastery was actually demolished by the Soviets in the 1930s, but was restored 8 years after Ukraine’s independence in 1999.
For any architecture buffs out there, you may find it interesting that the exterior of the cathedral is in the Ukrainian Baroque style, while the interior is Byzantine, with grand gold-plated mosaics of Orthodox icons.
We walked through the church, which is still functioning today, and around the grounds so that I could take some pictures.
Next stop on our Kiev tour was St. Andrew’s church, another one of the most famous churches in Kiev and the church that Taya actually got married in!
St. Andrew’s Church is perched on top of a hill and is one of the most stunning examples of Baroque architecture in Kiev.
I didn’t think that anything could top St. Michael’s but I have to say that St. Andrew’s is even more beautiful, and by far my favourite church in Kiev.
Maybe that’s just me though – which do you like?
After we’d admired St. Andrew’s church and Taya had told me another legend behind one of Kiev’s statues (a man was dating two women who happened to be sisters, though he only ever liked one of them – awkward!), we decided to make a quick pitstop at a local bar named Kanapka Bar.
With huge chandeliers and wooden panelling, sitting inside Kanapka is like stepping back in time, in the best possible way.
Neither of us were particularly hungry, but Taya noticed my eyes gravitating towards the oysters on the menu, and so she ordered us plates of oysters, along with a refreshing apple cider for me and apple tincture for herself. Perhaps the best thing about Kanapka (like most places in Ukraine) are the prices – our oysters were just a euro each and the drinks weren’t much more!
After lingering over our drinks for a while, we decided that it was time to continue with our Kiev tour, and so we left Kanapka and walked up to the top of the cobbled street where we enjoyed a wonderful view over the city of Kiev, as well as the mysterious ‘Lysa Hore’ or ‘Bald Mount.’
To look at, the Lysa Hore is nothing special – it is just a hill with a clearing on the top where no trees have grown (hence the name ‘bald’). However, according to legends, witches and Satanists gather on Bald Mount to conduct rituals and sacrifices – spooky!
Laughing, Taya told me that the only strange interaction she’d had on the Bald Mount was an older guy asking if she wanted to buy drugs when she was younger – not quite a witches’ coven!
Our Kiev tour then took us to a place I’d been dying to go to before I ever stepped foot in Kiev – Landscape Alley. Landscape Alley is a street full of mosaic sculptures made in protest to building work that was supposed to occur, and is one of the most recognisable Kiev attractions.
Taya told me that if the residents of Kiev disagree with the council’s plans to build ugly skyscrapers, they create play areas for children, because although these areas are created illegally, with no planning permission, nobody in Ukraine will ever destroy a children’s play area – sneaky!
However, Landscape Alley is far more than a children’s playground. Despite the actual Alice in Wonderland themed play area at the far end (which is slightly creepy if you ask me!), most of the street is comprised of sculptures that adults and children alike can’t resist admiring.
Some particularly popular sculptures are cats with their mouths wide open and benches inside – these cats have without a doubt been the scene of many an Instagram photo session, and of course I couldn’t resist asking Taya to take a few snaps for my own Insta feed!
After posing in various cat’s mouths, Taya and I walked down a narrow alleyway where Taya showed me some Ukrainian street art and sculptures.
She told me that street art has only been present in Kiev for a few years, but that now most of the pieces tell a lot about the mindset of Ukrainian youth, with every painting relaying a message.
Below are just some of the sculptures and street art that Taya showed me on my Kiev tour.
We stopped in front of a few different pieces, with Taya explaining the meaning behind each one. I especially enjoyed this part of my Kiev tour because as someone who is not particularly ‘arty,’ I would usually just glance at street art, decide whether or not it is to my taste, and move on. However, thanks to Taya, I was able to understand a lot more about the various murals around Kiev.
The last part of Kiev street art that Taya showed me is possibly one of the strangest pieces of street art in Kiev!
At first glance, it doesn’t look like much of anything – while it was certainly very colourful, I couldn’t pick out any specific designs within the piece. It all just seemed a bit manic.
However, then Taya handed me a black and white photocopy of a painting known as ‘Rebus’ or ‘Yaroslav the Wise,’ which depicts a famous lithography of the prince giving instructions to his sons, with the ball in the middle of the painting symbolising information received by a new generation from an older one.
At first I was confused as to what this had to do with the mural in front of me, but Taya explained that apparently, the psychedelic piece that we were looking at is actually an upside down (and crazier version!) of Yaroslav the Wise!
Well, we both squinted at the mural for a long time but neither of us could see the classic painting for the life of us – I guess we just aren’t hipster enough 😉
However, despite my cultural ineptitude, it was super interesting to get the back story behind the art and feel like I could walk away having learnt something.
Final thoughts on my Kiev tour
This just about concluded my Kiev tour with Taya, and I was surprised at how much we’d managed to pack into one afternoon!
We’d definitely taken our time wandering the streets of Kiev (as well as stopping for a cheeky drink midway through!), but we’d seen countless examples of Ukrainian street art, lots of monuments and sculptures, and all of the Orthodox churches that Kiev is so famous for.
I really felt as though I learnt a lot with Taya, and our slow pace combined with Taya’s relaxed style made it feel as though I were just wandering around Kiev with a friend rather than with a tour guide.
Not only that, but I really liked the fact that Taya customised the experience just for me. I’d expressed an interest in history and street art, and so she prepared a route that would include generous helpings of both. At no point did I feel as though we were rushed or on a time limit, which just added to the relaxed feel of the tour.
When I asked Taya which other tours she would recommend for budget travelers like me, she told me that any of her walking tours suit a backpacker’s budget, especially as the bigger the group, the lower the cost (as the price of the tour is split between the people on it).
For this reason, I would definitely recommend a tour with Tours De Kiev if you find yourself in Ukraine.
If you’d like to know more about Tours De Kiev then you can find their website here and their Facebook page here.