When I told my mum I was spending Easter in Ukraine, I swear that thousands of kilometres away from her, I could feel her heart drop.
Ukraine is a country known to many only for its Soviet past and the crisis in Crimea. Crimea, a region located in the east of Ukraine, has an ethnic majority of Russians; this was used as one of the reasons to annex the region into Russia in 2014, which was allegedly confirmed by a national vote. Many criticize this vote for being biased – everyone holding a Russian passport, regardless of their place of residence, could vote, and the vote took place after a pro-Russian government had been established in a shift of power that Wikipedia calls a coup.
According to Russia, Crimea was fully integrated into Russia in 2015, while United Nations or Ukraine itself still don’t recognise the annexation as valid or legal.
Conflicts in the peninsula still continue, and tourists are strongly advised against travelling to Eastern parts of the country – it is, in fact, illegal to do so without proper documents. While these conflicted regions only make up for a small part of this vast country, they have come to represent the public opinion of all of Ukraine.
Admittedly, I based my ideas of Ukraine in the same prejudice as everyone else. I never took the time to even look up Ukraine on the map to realise how big it actually is, and instead of reading up on the country, I imagined it all to look like a war-torn playground of old Soviet leftovers.
Ukraine was never much on my radar. When I dreamed of places to visit, it never even crossed my mind. (Au contraire, I would say if I was French – I shunned flight deals connecting through Kiev even when they would have saved me nearly 100 euros because I remembered that passenger plane that was allegedly shot down by Russia around the Eastern borders and I thought the capital would definitely not be safe even for a long layover.)
But guess what the plot twist here is? Most of Ukraine is perfectly safe to visit.
While travel advisorys from national foreign affairs ministries tend to focus on the dangers of visiting, reading between the lines you can tell it’s not all that bad. Here’s what a few national foreign affairs ministries have to say about travelling to Ukraine:
‘The situation in Kyiv and other areas outside Donetsk and Luhansk is generally calm’ and ‘Most visitors to Ukraine experience no difficulties.’ – gov.uk
‘In other areas of Ukraine, the security situation is generally calm.’ – gov.au
‘Ukraine is a relatively safe country for tourists.’ – Finnish foreign affairs
Quite often it is easy to fall victim to pointless fearmongering, especially if you are getting your travel advice from government sources which I have noticed tend to exaggerate danger. (For a reason, I know – better safe than sorry, right?) For example, the Canadian goverment advises to ‘exercise a high degree of caution (with regional advisories)’ in Ukraine. Sounds pretty bad. However, the same ranking is also given to countries like the UK, France, Bahamas and Cambodia. Who would hesitate flying to London, though?
If you want more personalised opinions on destinations, I strongly suggest trusting travel blogs and travellers’ chat forums over anything else.
Why should you visit Ukraine, then?
1. It’s cheap
Ukraine is possibly the cheapest country in Europe. Like, mid-range breakfast in a super cool cafe might cost you 5 euros. A cappuccino off the street costs 70 cents (and an espresso 40 cents, if you’re really in need of a caffeine fix). A ticket to the town hall tower sets you back 1 euro – that’s one tenth of the price of the admission to the Prague old town hall tower.
2. It’s funky
Does it count as kitsch if it’s real? For a history lover, Ukraine offers sights of grand architecture as well as remnants of the Soviet era. It is a country that keeps surprising you. One thing I loved about Lviv were the little details of it, like the Sunday antique markets, or the toy cemetary, or the statue of Masoch, the guy who gave his name to masochism, with a hole in his pocket inviting you to touch… well, I should keep this family friendly, shouldn’t I. My point being, there are a lot of cool things to discover.
3. People are really friendly
I know, I know, it’s like the oldest cliché when describing foreign destiantions. But compared to Poland where I’ve been living for a few months now, I found customer service to be friendlier, people more talkative and the overall vibe of the city more welcoming. Some things you can’t explain rationally – you just feel it. I had so much fun making my way around the city and chatting to locals in a mixture of the six languages and the six Ukranian words I know.
4. It has a bad reputation
While it might seem counterproductive to purposefully seek out places with a bad rep, these are often the destinations that most need your tourist cash. While tourism brings some bad side effects in its wake, it’s undeniable that it also brings a lot of money into local economies – which, in low-income countries like most of those in Eastern Europe, can definitely help improve the overall infrastructure and quality of living in the country. By promoting Ukrainian travel, you can give the country some much needed exposure.
And if you need a more self-indulgent reason: because of its reputation, Ukraine is not overrun by tourists. Lviv, even in lower season, can get a little crowded since it’s easy to visit from Krakow, but otherwise you might apparently get a lot of attractions just for yourself.
5. It will surprise you
When you think of Ukraine, do coffee, culture and chocolate spring to mind? The greatest thing about visiting Ukraine was letting the country surprise me in every turn.
As I started posting photos from my trip on Instagram, this is what I wrote:
Ukraine was one of those destinations I never thought much about (other than that when I was little, I wanted a horse called Odessa bc I saw the name on a map and thought it was a cool horse name), and I mostly ended up there because it was close to Krakow. But holy shit, it blew me away! I was in love with Lviv in five minutes even despite crappy weather, hordes of tourists and a UTI (TMI? Never). I can't wait to come back one day to explore more of Ukraine. . . At the beginning of my trip, I asked in an Insta story poll if you guys were interested in visiting Ukraine, and most of the answers said 'No'. I asked again after a weekend of spammy Insta stories, and actually, the general opinion seems to have shifted. Ukraine is a great destination, albeit affected by prejudice stemming from Soviet stereotypes and the recent war in the Eastern part of the country. Sometimes you find beauty in unexpected places; give them a chance and you might be surprised.
Part of the reason I blog is to bring light to less-loved places. Just because it’s not Paris, doesn’t mean it’s not worth a look. A lot of touristy places are touristy for a reason, but many gems out there are still relatively undiscovered.
Ukraine is too often thought of just as a war torn country in the heart of the old Yugoslavia. But a country is a sum of its components, not a black and white picture representing only one fraction of the land. The ongoing crisis is taking place in the easternmost parts of the country. Just a quick look on the map shows what a huge country Ukraine is; Lviv, for instance, is located more than a 1,000 kilometres from the conflict area. That’s like saying you’re scared to visit Switzerland because of terrorist attacks in Tunisia!
Sometimes we are too hasty to dismiss certain destinations and stick to our old favourites or momentarily trending places instead. And that’s fine – if a place simply doesn’t appeal to you, you don’t have to go there just for the sake of going. However, just ask yourself, why do you not want to go? Is it because you are truly not interested or just because you don’t know what you’re missing out on?
Go visit Ukraine. It’s dope.
Have you ever been to Ukraine? Would you consider going?
Disclaimer: My experience in Ukraine is so far limited to the few days I spent in Lviv in Western Ukraine, so I am by no means an expert in Ukranian travel. Everything I’ve said here is based on my perceptions during that visit as well as on what I read on travel forums and travel blogs before and after my trip. Some that I used as resources:
Adventurous Kate (she even picked Ukraine as one of her favourite new destinations last year)
Kaptain Kenny Travel (if you want to visit Lviv and discover the best coffee in the city)