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Why Ukraine should be on your travel radar

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Balaklava, Crimean Coast, Ukraine (Photo: Nick Stokes)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 8, 2007. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Kiev, RaeJean Stokes, Ukraine.

"Why on Earth should I visit Ukraine?" According to Elizabeth Knight, who lived there as Peace Corps Volunteer from 2003 to 2005 (as did this author), "[You should go] because it's a culture that can't be replicated in a place that's actually rather visitor receptive." Yet Americans aren't exactly arriving in droves. Search for "Ukraine" on the Internet and you're more likely to come across marriage agency websites than information about the country's wealth of culture, history, and natural beauty.

From my own experiences living there, as well as visiting several times, I can attest that Ukraine is indeed a special place to see. Not only does it have ancient castles, gold-domed churches, and historic places like Yalta, but it's home to some of the world's richest hospitality and vibrant cultural traditions. This is a place where three-day village weddings still exist and where national dress can be seen on people, as opposed to hanging in closets. That's why going there now, before it gets "discovered," promises to be a rewarding experience. Plus, it's easier than you think.

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Why go?

For starters, there's no longer a visa required for U.S. citizens wishing to visit for fewer than 90 days. The visa regulation was dropped in 2005 when Ukraine hosted Eurovision (the spectacular pan-Europe song contest, which puts American Idol to shame), partially in the hope that it would drive up tourism and partially to bolster its post-Orange Revolution reputation. So if you're itching to see an authentic part of the former USSR but don't want the hassle of dealing with the Russian or Belarussian embassies, Ukraine is the way to go.

Direct flights from New York and Toronto are available on Ukraine's national carrier, Aerosvit. I've flown with them a few times, and each time has been more enjoyable (not to mention shorter) than flying via Frankfurt with United or Northwest. If you don't want all-you-can drink vodka offered as your complimentary beverage, Delta started direct flights to Kyiv from New York in the summer of 2006. Expect to pay between $500 and $1,300 round-trip, depending on the time of year. (Summer is the most expensive.)

In terms of value for your money, Ukraine is a steal. While familiar Western hotel chains (a new Radisson SAS opened in Kyiv last year) tend to be pricey (expect to pay $400 per night or even more). You can snag a top-quality, centrally located apartment for a fraction of the price. A good place to start your search is online; I've used apartment.com.ua in the past and have always had good results. Expect to pay around $100 per night for a two-bedroom apartment.

Restaurants can be expensive, but only if you eat at the kinds of places frequented by the BMW-driving oligarchs or at the always-packed TGI Fridays. Eat like the locals do, at little cafes and from street vendors, and no meal will set you back more than fifteen dollars (a fraction of that outside Kyiv). It'll also be much tastier. Make sure to sample varenyky (similar to ravioli but stuffed with potatoes or cheese), borshch (the national Ukrainian dish), and of course salo (smoked pig fat). Salo is to Ukrainians what chocolate is to the Swiss, although the latter is arguably better for you. It's actually quite good washed down with an ice cold shot of Ukrainian honey-pepper vodka. Plus, for the truly adventurous, you can even find chocolate-covered salo, something I've never tried but seen featured on the menu at Kyiv's Tsarkoye Selo for about $2.50.

Historically speaking, Ukraine's about as old as countries come. The Greeks made it as far north as the Crimean peninsula, leaving behind one of the lesser-known ruin sites, Chersonesos. Home to the original Kyiv Rus, a state which splintered to become Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, many claim that orthodoxy was born on Kyiv's hills. Turkish and Polish invaders built beautiful castles in the western part of the country as they attempted to expand their respective territories. And more recently, Europe's map was carved up by Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill at the close of World War II in Yalta. With regards to the war, there are actually quite a few interesting sites. The partisan catacombs under Odessa are amazing, and those interested in Jewish history won't want to miss solemn Babi Yar, which pays tribute to the 35,000 executed there.

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