Kiev: Golden-domed city of Eastern promise

Kiev: Golden-domed city of Eastern promise

CNN’s global series i-List takes you to a different country each month. In January, we visit Ukraine and look at changes shaping the country’s economy, culture and social fabric.

(By CNN)  The Ukrainian capital of Kiev is a riverside city that boasts streets lined with onion-domed churches and lively summer beer gardens.

Founded over 1,500 years ago, it can legitimately claim to be one of Europe’s oldest cities — and it has the monuments to prove it.

Modern-day Kiev is an unusual mix: Part historic Slavic, part Soviet, part Ukrainian-nationalist and part cosmopolitan European. Shiny office blocks mix with medieval statues and examples of bold Soviet-era constructivist architecture.

It is a 24-hour city, bustling with friendly, busy locals. Travelers from the West need to bear in mind that few people speak English, and nearly all the signs are in Russian or Ukrainian script.

Here to help you along is an at-a-glance guide to this intriguing city.

What to see

Kiev: Golden-domed city of Eastern promise

Kiev: Golden-domed city of Eastern promise

To get an immediate flavor of the city’s rich history head to Kiev Pechersk Lavra, Kiev’s monastery complex, which sprawls over a series of hills running along the Dnipro river.

“Mummified monks and a 4th-century B.C. gold hoard that rivals any collection in the world, as well as caves and a marvelous cathedral are the headlines here,” says Tom Hall, travel editor of the Lonely Planet guides. “The Lavra will require at least half a day and deserves more.”

If you can’t get enough of Ukraine’s ancient past, then an immersive excursion to the Pirogovo open-air museum — showcasing folk architecture and life from across the ages — should be just the ticket.

According to David Mottershead, founder of travel site visitkievukraine.com, the museum consists of a number of traditional villages, built to represent the folk heritage of each region of Ukraine.

“There are old-fashioned windmills, traditional churches and peasant huts dotted around the site,” he says. “You’re free to wander around and interact with the craftsman that work here in the summer — it’s a very popular activity with both tourists and locals.”

However, if you want to have an experience that combines Kiev’s colorful history with its buzzing, metropolitan present, then Mottershead suggests a stroll to Independence Square — Kiev’s central plaza renamed following the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Kiev - Founded over 1,500 years ago, it can legitimately claim to be one of Europe's oldest cities -- and it has the monuments to prove it.

Kiev - Founded over 1,500 years ago, it can legitimately claim to be one of Europe's oldest cities -- and it has the monuments to prove it.

The focal point for mass demonstrations in 2004’s peaceful “Orange Revolution,” the square is also the city’s social hub, where parades, concerts and festivals take place and which is, according to Mottershead, “a popular spot for late-night drinking and people watching.”

Even if you think you’ve had enough history for one day, no trip to Kiev would be complete without taking in the golden domes and intricate mosaics of St. Sophia cathedral — Kiev’s oldest church and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Where to shop

Lurking beneath the busy roads surrounding Independence Square you’ll discover “Metrograd” — a vast subterranean shopping Center. Divided into a myriad of quarters according to various categories — such as “shoes,” “books,” and “boutiques” — the “Metrograd” is the largest dedicated shopping space in Kiev and perfect for those in search of high-end products and designer labels. Tourists should note, however, that prices are relatively high by Ukrainian standards and bargain-hunters are better off above ground.

For a more traditional Ukrainian shopping experience head to Bessarabsky Square, home to a historic indoor market that glows with colorful spices, exotic fruits, fish, meat and flowers. “It’s a photographer’s dream,” says Mottershead. But pliable travelers be warned, some of the sales people don’t easily take “no” for answer.

“Khreschatyk is Kiev’s answer to (London’s) Oxford Street” says Mottershead. “You can find anything here from mobiles and bargain clothes to the fine porcelain and stylish watches.”

Where to eat

If you’re in a hurry, Kiev’s “Puzata Khata” is a self-service eatery that offers good, cheap, no-frills food in an interior designed to look like a traditional Ukrainian peasant house. Part of a chain of restaurants, it has regional classics like borsch (a type beetroot soup), holubtsy (stuffed cabbage), and mlyntsi (a thin, yeasty pancake).

For those craving a panoramic view of the city, and who have the cash, then “Belvedere,” housed in an elevated glass gazebo on a hill overlooking the Dnipro River, is an up-market option, serving a variety of European and fusion foods.

A popular haunt among ex-pats and homesick travelers is “O’Brien’s Irish Pub.” Situated just a short walk from Khreschatyk, this Irish boozer also serves-up an excellent English breakfast and other traditional pub food, as well as a host of decent quality ales, according to Mottershead.

Where to hang out

“If the weather’s good, Hydropark is the place to aim for beaches, bathing and ogling the city’s bodybuilders,” said Hall. “This outdoor play park is much loved by locals, some of whom plunge into the river from the bridge connecting its two islands to the rest of Kiev.”

At night, Kiev comes alive with a growing number of bars and clubs. However, it’s worth remembering that a number of venues operate a “face control” policy — which gives them the right to turn people away based on their looks.

In search of the next big thing? Mottershead recommends “Art Club 44.” “It’s an amazing live venue, playing all sorts from jazz and experimental, to reggae and rock, and is very popular among the local students,” he says.

For those in search of an all-night rave, try “Arena.” Spread over four floors, this entertainment megaplex houses a dance club with a deafening sound system, a sports bar, beer house, and a karaoke lounge and has played host to the likes of Kraftwerk and 50 Cent.

However, if a quiet night is more your thing, take a stroll along “St. Andrew’s Descent” — a winding pebble-stone street on a steep hill that is one of Kiev’s oldest and most popular. Linking St Andrew’s church at its top to a bevy of historical museums at its bottom, St. Andrew’s descent is lined with galleries, art sellers and, inevitably, a fair share of souvenir stalls.

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