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Traveling in the Ukraine: History, Highlights and Casual Tips

A Historic Overview

The Ukraine has a long and complicated history and, like many countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc, it has struggled in modern times with issues of autonomy, national identity and free market.

Located between Poland, Russia, Romania and the Black Sea, the Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe. The name Ukraine, which is a Slavic term, can be loosely translated to mean borderland, and the country’s unique mix of people, cultures and ethnicities suggest a land whose borders have been continually blurred and redrawn over countless uprisings, conflicts and revolutions. In other words, the Ukraine is best described as a European melting pot.

Ukrainians, Russians, Romanians and Belarusians make up a large percentage of the current population, while several other nationalities exist on a smaller scale. If a country is composed of this many distinct backgrounds, then it results in a wide range of art, cuisine and cultural traditions. From the golden-domed churches of Kiev and the cobblestoned alleyways of Lviv to the Carpathian Mountains and Black Sea resorts, the Ukraine has a wealth of attractions for any adventurous traveler.

Exploring Kiev

When Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian poet, was in exile he wrote the following love-letter to his homeland: “Most often of all I soothe my aged imagination with pictures of golden-domed, garden cloaked and poplar crowned Kiev.”

Kiev is the type of city that fires the imagination. Perched on a hill, the capital of the Ukraine overlooks the Dniepr River. It is a budget-friendly destination that has a myriad of architectural and historic wonders. You will find cathedrals, monasteries, churches and even a national opera house. St. Sophia, the oldest church in Kiev and a UNESCO Heritage Site, is the city’s most famous attraction. Built in 1037, it features thirteen golden onion domes and a turquoise bell tower. There is also a museum inside its refectory where you will find 11th century, Byzantine icons and frescoes.

Andrew’s Descent, otherwise known as the Montmartre of Kiev, is the city’s most vibrant and beloved street. Boutiques, art galleries, traditional craft vendors and an array of restaurants and cafes adorn this cobbled thoroughfare. Outdoor concerts and bazaars are held on Andrew’s Descent during the summer. After you dine al fresco and sample some traditional borsht for lunch, head over to the Golden Gates. Located up the hill from the opera house, the gates gave signified the entrance to Kiev since 1037.

Adventure in the Carpathian Mountains

Whether you are looking to hike, rock climb, ski, bike, or just bask in the stunning natural beauty, the Carpathian Mountains are ideal for adventurers and naturalists alike. Often referred to as The Green Pearl of the Ukraine, the Carpathians have numerous resort towns that can act as a base camp for mountain excursions and guided tours.

If you are a thrill-seeker, then a hike to the highest peak in the Ukraine is in order. Howerla is the tallest mountain peak, but only skilled and experienced climbers should hike it, as the climb is demanding.

Perhaps a more leisurely stroll through a nature reserve is more your idea of outdoor fun. There are two main reserves in the Ukraine: the Carpathian National Park and the Carpathian Biosphere Park. The Carpathians are world-renowned for their beech forests, and a swath of land on Czarnohora has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Rakhiv, Verkhovyna and Vorokhta, three popular cities in the Carpathian Mountains, are all great places to hang your hat as you explore this picturesque mountain range.

Odessa and the Black Sea

If sandy beaches and lively resorts are your idea of an ideal vacation, then make your way down to Odessa, the Ukraine’s third largest city. Odessa features historic attractions such as Pushkin Street, the Catacombs, the Potemkin Staircase and the City Garden, but it is the colorful port, beaches and cruises that draw people to this vibrant city on the Black Sea.

In the summer, Odessa is a vacation hotspot for many people in Eastern Europe, and the beaches are known to get crowded. The city has a cosmopolitan and Mediterranean feel. Boat trips can be arranged from Odessa to Yalta and other places in Crimea, including beautiful Sevastopol. Due to the influx of tourists, it is recommended to visit the Black Sea sometime between late August and October.

The Ukraine is not as well traveled as the countries in Western Europe. For that matter, the cities in the Ukraine are still relatively unknown and off the beaten path in comparison to eastern rivals like Prague, Budapest and Bucharest. However, the Ukraine’s wealth of historic, artistic and natural treasures makes it a must-see destination. Its budget-friendly economy is a backpacker’s dream. Still, as is often the case with these hidden and undiscovered jewels, that budget-friendly vibe will not last forever. While the Ukraine may have had a long and complicated history, the beautiful cities and landscapes that exist today are vibrant examples of national pride, determination, tradition and progress.

Andy Johnson is a frequent traveler to Ukraine and a content creator for US Dish.

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