Looking back on our family’s summer travels, I decided that to write up an itinerary for any country in which we spent longer than a week. Our Ukraine itinerary is a bit of a departure for us. Usually we are high-paced travelers that see way too much on any given day and we tend to hop from place to place. Since this was in the middle of a much longer trip, we decided to adjust our typical travel plans and “dwell” a bit. As it turns out, it was a great choice! Sure, with 8 days, it is definitely possible to see quite a few more cities, but if you want to take it slow and soak in the environment, this might be an itinerary for you.
When looking at where to go, we decided to limit our Ukraine portion of our family vacation to both the “cultural capital” (Lviv) and the “actual capital” (Kyiv). Why do I spell it Kyiv, rather than Kiev? No, it’s not a mistake, but it is the Ukrainian spelling. Kiev is the Russian spelling. Given recent political events, Russia isn’t very popular with a big percentage of the population, so I will go with the Ukrainian spelling. In Lviv, this was strongly felt, so we avoided using our limited Russian language skills and restricted ourselves to English. In Kyiv, we were often greeted in Russian, so we would respect the speaker and go with whatever the person seemed to want to use.
Lviv is a small city with lots of history and needs at least 1 day to get a general feel, but we spent 3. Most of it was spent visiting tiny museums, eating good food, drinking weak coffee, enjoying playgrounds, and simply relaxing.
Kyiv is much larger and probably needs at least 2-3 days, but we spent 4 full days. There are many museums, plenty of cathedrals, and lots of areas to take walking tours. Add in a day of transit between the two cities, and you have an 8 day itinerary.
- Day 1: Morning arrival in Lviv. National Museum, Armory Museum, and Latin Cathedral.
- Day 2: Lviv. St. George’s Cathedral, Ivan Franko Park, Armenian Cathedral, Transfiguration Church, Dormition Church, and National History Museum.
- Day 3: Lviv. Prison on Lontskogo: National Museum & Memorial to the Victims of Occupation, Museum of Religious History, Castle Hill, and John the Baptist Church.
- Day 4: Lviv. Train from Lviv to Kyiv.
- Day 5: Kyiv. Lonely Planet Walking Tour, including Maydan Nezalezhnosti, St., many political and religious sites, and a few parks and playgrounds.
- Day 6: Kyiv. Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra, Spivoche Pole, National Museum of History of Ukraine in the Second World War
- Day 7: Kyiv. State Aviation Museum, Ukrainian National Chornobyl (Chernobyl) Museum
- Day 8: Kyiv. Pirogovo Open-Air Museum and Toilet Museum. Depart in evening or next morning.
The main takeaways from this itinerary are:
- This is a very relaxed pace for Lviv. You could easily do this in 1-2 days.
- Our time in Kyiv was much busier than we expected, but even so, you could easily do most of this in 3 days, rather than the 4 days that we took.
- Lviv is small and cute. Kyiv is big and impressive.
- Lviv feels more like Ukraine. Kyiv has a lot of Russian roots and feels like more of a mix of Ukraine and Russia.
- Museums in Lviv typically take no more than 15-60 minutes. Museums in Kyiv are much larger and can easily take at least half a day.
- The open-air museum in Lviv was one place I wished we had added to our itinerary.
My morning started much earlier than expected when a train engineer knocked on our cabin door and asked to access the train wheels underneath my bed. When crossing into Soviet territory, the train tracks change width and the wheels need to be replaced. Nice defensive maneuver back in Cold War days. Not so nice in the wee hours of the morning as a sleepy tourist on a night train. Add in passport control, and it was a long night.
On arrival to the train station, we stopped by an ATM, but the max limits were only $40 per transaction. Odd, but we managed to get $80 and hoped it would be enough to last the day. As it turns out, things in Ukraine are quite cheap and it lasted much longer than one might expect. For example, a bus from the train station to our apartment rental would have cost $.20 each. Since Uber was only $2, and we didn’t feel like lugging our bags around, we opted for the door-to-door service. Our apartment was still being cleaned, but the owner let us drop off our bags and gave us a key to get back in later.
A five minute walk to downtown, and our time in Lviv really began. We spent the morning wandering and getting a feel for the town. After a nice lunch, we spent the afternoon visiting the National Museum, the Armory Museum, and the Latin Cathedral. The museums were small, but at $.50 to $2 for entry, it was easy to pop in and not feel bad about only staying for 15-60 minutes.
We also stopped at a coffee shop. The orange hot chocolate was amazing, the muffins super cute, and the “strong” coffee incredibly weak, but despite the poor coffee, it was still a fun break from sightseeing. Later in the day, the kids found an amazing candy shop. For dinner we managed to get crepes and a soda for $2 each. By the end of the day, we were still nowhere close to running out of money, so maybe the low limits do actually make sense.
Today, we started with a St. George’s Cathedral, an orthodox church that was holding a beautiful service. We listened to the music for a bit, then headed to the Ivan Franko Park, which was both lovely to walk through and had a playground that was a bit young, but still a lot of fun for the boys. After a nice lunch, we continued on to the Armenian Cathedral, the Transfiguration Church, the Dormition Church, and a few other churches.
Next was the National History Museum, branch 6. This was followed by spoiling our dinner with some “bubble waffles” and some even weaker coffee than we had the day before.
Today, we decided to visit the Prison on Lontskogo: National Museum & Memorial to the Victims of Occupation, which was interesting, but mostly in Ukrainian, so we didn’t get as much out of it as we probably should have. The Museum of Religious History was also fairly interesting.
At this point, we decided to diverge. I was exhausted from traveling for the last month and wanted to rest in the wonderful apartment. Jeremy took the boys to Castle Hill and the John the Baptist Church.
Most of our day was filled with a 6 hour train ride from Lviv to Kyiv. We were surprised to discover that there was no dining car, so our lunch consisted of a few snacks that the attendant happened to be selling in her cabin. There was a delay and we ended up arriving after 5:00pm and didn’t make it to our apartment until after 6:30pm. We ended up picking up dinner at a nearby grocery store, started some laundry, and spent the evening in the apartment.
Our first day in Kyiv was filled by a Lonely Planet suggested walking tour of the city. This started us by Maydan Nezalezhnosti, the site of the government overthrow in the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014. Along the way we saw many religious sites that included St. Michael’s Monastery, St. Andrew’s Cathedral, St. Sophia’s Cathedral, and St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, and many more.
We stopped by the Parliament buildings, but left fairly quickly when we realized there was a demonstration. There was a nice park and we thought about going to the Water Museum, but didn’t want to wait for the next tour. We also stopped by the Friendship of Nations Monument arch, the statue of Volodymyr (Vladimir) the Great, and the Zoloti Vorota, or Golden Gate.
For lunch, we enjoyed some Georgian food, which we came to love while in Ukraine. There were several playgrounds, including ones near the House of Chimeras, St. Michael’s Monastery, and Shevchenko Park. At the end, we took the subway back to the apartment, riding the incredibly long escalators to get up and down to the platforms.
Since our last two days were going to be on a weekend, and therefore the crowds would be out, we decided to head towards the Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra (church/monastery). After buying a self-guided ticket, we started to have second thoughts and decided that we might have more fun with a 2 hour private tour. The guide ended up being so-so, but the complex was vast enough that we still think we made the right choice. And we really did learn more than we would have on our own. The Dormition Cathedral was quite impressive. We stayed for a few minutes of the service, then headed on to other sites. The catacombs were interesting, and were probably what made the guided tour most valuable, but given that you couldn’t see many of the bones, it was much less creepy than expected. There were a few museums, the refractory, and a few other sites, and the tour was done. We ate lunch on site, wandered a bit on our own, then headed out.
We decided to walk to the National Museum of History of Ukraine in the Second World War, had a dreadful time due to path closures that Google Maps didn’t know about, got lost and ended up in at at some beautiful flower exhibitions at the Spivoche Pole. Once we made it to the museum, John was delighted and we spent quite a bit of time wandering around the well done indoor and outdoor exhibits.
I was still feeling run down from traveling for over a month, so I went into rebellion mode and stayed at the apartment for the morning. Jeremy was happy to take the boys to James’s much anticipated State Aviation Museum. It didn’t disappoint! Can you believe that a plane that we actually flew on while in Russia was at that museum? Apparently only 13% of the fleet is still in service. They returned to the apartment via Uber and picked me up for lunch.
After lunch, we decided to head to the Chornobyl Museum (Ukrainian Spelling of Chernobyl). This was Jeremy’s compromise for me not allowing him to visit the Chornobyl site. You need to be 18 to go on it and supposedly you only get the same amount of radiation that you would get on a transatlantic flight, but still, I’m not sure it is worth the risk. Since we were traveling with kids, the point was moot. The museum is really well done and there were only a couple of spots that we had to steer the kids away from the material. One room was a bit creepy and showed wax models of what the cleanup effort was like. Another display showed all the cities that are no longer inhabitable, while a third showed a preserved eight legged pig. Very overwhelming, but it is amazing how much more I got out of the museum than I ever did out of a text book.
Upon leaving, we wandered around the Podil neighborhood, stopped by the Florivisky Monastery, and thought about going to the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, but we were museumed out and decided to skip it. We took the funicular up the mountain, went to the boys favorite playground just behind St. Michael’s Monastery, bought some cotton candy, then strolled down to Maydan Nezalezhnosti for a nice Georgian dinner.
Today we started our morning with more weak coffee at the Magic Snail. Then we decided to visit an English speaking service at the International Christian Assembly (ICA Kyiv). It was quite good! We got lunch, then headed to the Pirogovo Open-Air Museum. We really should have got food here. The booths selling food were amazing. We picked up a few snacks, but were so stuffed that we really couldn’t justify getting more. We wandered a bit. If I would have been in pants, rather than a long skirt, we probably would have considered renting a bike. But since we were on foot, we simply enjoyed wandering through the various villages that showed what life was like in various locations and time periods.
While looking at Google Maps on the Uber back to the apartment, we noticed that there was a Toilet Museum a few blocks away. The boys were intrigued, so we made a stop. It was small, but they give free guided tours in English, so we ended up learning a lot while being highly entertained. It’s silly, but definitely worth a stop if you have hit all the major things that you wanted to see. We went back to the hotel to rest, ventured out for dinner, then went back to pack up and sleep before continuing on to Germany.