There were a lot of things I didn’t expect about Ukraine and specifically Kyiv – some of which would have made my trip a little easier. Allow me to share some knowledge about visiting Kyiv that will probably come in handy if you plan to visit.
Why it’s Kyiv and not Kiev
For a long time, the world knew the Ukrainian capital as Kiev. That’s because Kiev is the Russian spelling and pronunciation of the city name. When Ukraine gained independence and they romanized the city name based on the Ukrainian language, they officially changed it to Kyiv. It’s pronounced something like ‘keev,‘ not ‘key-ev.’ The UN also recognizes this change and so should the rest of the world. A foreign country’s spelling and pronunciation of another country’s capital has no business being its official name.
The Ukrainian hryvnia is a closed currency
What does this mean? For one, don’t expect to be able to get it outside the Ukraine to bring it in. You’ll only be able to get the local currency by using an ATM or going to a bank or exchange in Kyiv. This also means that if you leave Ukraine with a few hundred hryvnia, you won’t be able to exchange it back home because no one else accepts or uses it. So make sure you use it all up before you return home.
USD and euro are sometimes accepted/requested
As a result of the currency being closed (and likely because it’s less stable), sometimes euros and dollars are accepted. To complicate matters, sometimes they’re requested. So you may book a tour or a guesthouse stay that requires you to pay in euro. However, you can’t take out dollars or euros from any local ATMs. You can see the conundrum. We were fine using credit cards and hryvnia, but when you book anything, you should double check what currency they prefer as payment.
Credit cards are accepted widely
If you’re worried about the currency issue, worry not. Most restaurants and bars take cards. We even came across street vendors selling souvenirs on St. Andrew’s Street who accept cards. You’ll need a small amount of cash to tip tour guides or sometimes to use the Metro (read below to find out why) but otherwise, you’ll be okay paying by card. For some reason, they often charge drinks on the bill separately from the food, so don’t be alarmed when they run your card twice to pay for one meal.
You can’t drink the tap water
This was one of my biggest surprises about visiting Ukraine. Tap water isn’t all that safe to drink, even in Kyiv, because chlorine-based chemicals are used to disinfect it. Boiling tap water is recommend before drinking. The easy alternative is to buy bottled water to drink at your accommodation and order it when you eat out and avoid drinking tap water altogether. It’s not so unsafe that you can’t brush your teeth with it, but don’t drink too much of it.
The metro is convenient but can be a pain to use
We had a mixed experience with using the Kyiv Metro. There are several ways to ride it, either by buying a token from the metro station or by using a reusable Smart Card that you can load rides onto, though my friend had a consistent problem with her Smart Card not reading properly so the barricade wouldn’t open after scanning it. The problem with buying a fare is that you never know whether the station or the self-service machines will be accepting credit cards. The self-service machines also don’t give change. They give you a refund ticket that you have to go to the cashier to claim. The lines at the metro station cashiers are always long because the metro is really busy. So if you make the line once, you should buy a few tokens so you don’t have to do it each time you ride. And make sure you have cash just in case.
You can use Uber when visiting Kyiv
If you’re hesitant about the public transportation, you can also use Uber to navigate the massive perimeter of Kyiv. It’s safer than a taxi because they can’t overcharge you and you won’t need to carry cash. This is a cheap option if you’re sharing rides with your trip mates and it can be much faster if you’re going to an area that isn’t easily served by public transport.
There is a lot of Georgian cuisine
I was delighted to discover that in addition to yummy Ukrainian food, there are traditional Georgian restaurants on every corner of Kyiv. So you can expect to indulge in amazing khachapuri cheese bread almost as often as you sit down to a bowl of borscht.
There is Wifi everywhere
Kyiv is an easy city to stay connected in without even going through the trouble of asking for a password. Many public spaces including malls and restaurants offer free unprotected Wifi. If you’re worried about your data or privacy, you can use a VPN for added security.
The people are assholes almost all the time
There were some notable exceptions to the rule, like the wonderful lady who gave us a tour of the Exclusion Zone. But the majority of the time, interacting with people in Kyiv was annoying as hell and not in the average slow European service kind of way. People are rude, sullen, and impatient. Like when we tried to buy a metro token from the ticket counter and the stone-faced woman told us we couldn’t without cash even though she had a working card reader sitting right in front of her. Or the fact that before we could finish explaining that it was Visa (which the sticker on the window indicated was accepted), the man behind us in line had elbowed us out of the way and slammed his bills on the counter. It’s a place where you often find yourself wanting to tell the people around you to fuck off. So prepare for that.
Ukraine International Airlines is a low-cost airline
Don’t be fooled by the fact that Ukraine International Airlines is the country’s flagship airline. You can expect to be treated by the airline the same way you’ll be treated by the people in Kyiv: like dog shit. Their ridiculous baggage allowance prohibits you from bringing on a personal item with your one carry on bag. So you have to shove everything that you’d need in a purse or a laptop bag into your one big bag. On my way out of the country, I was charged a whopping 80 euro (half the cost of my round trip flight) for an oversized bag. So adhere to the allowance strictly just in case or prepare for potentially hefty fees. Better yet, fly a real airline.