Dateline: Southern Ukraine
Dnipro (or Dnepr/Днепр/Днипро/Днепропетровск) is a 2nd tier city in Southeastern Ukraine. Having traveled around Ukraine and decided that Kiev is the best city in Ukraine, I would’ve never visited this city had it not been for my friend’s constant nagging to visit him and check it out.
Finally, another friend of mine who had lived here before couldn’t stop praising this city and asked me to meet her there on the weekend that she would be there. I figured this would be a great opportunity to get to know a new city with a someone who’d lived there before. I accepted her offer and bought a ticket on a fast express train from Kiev.
For the first week, I rented an apartment in a very commercial (and expensive) part of the city that was supposed to be the center of everything (Мост Сити, “Bridge City”). Indeed, it was in the center of everything; there was a huge shopping center right in the same complex complete with a huge supermarket and Western brands such as Zara, Diesel and Massimo Dutti.
Beyond the expensive department stores, everything about this “commercial center” screamed cheap and underdeveloped. There was nothing “exclusive” or “luxurious” about it, and it was a far cry from anything like Kiev’s “Maidan” (Independence Square) or even some of the more charming squares in other Eastern European cities. Its lack of tasteful architecture was also rather hard on my eyes. The only thing I noticed was lots of concrete.
Thinking that this “commercial center” was all there was to this city, I immediately regretted making this trip and started planning my return back to the capital.
Fortunately, the situation improved dramatically when I switched apartments and moved to a different area. Not only was the apartment itself newly remodeled and one of the most spacious I’ve ever stayed in Ukraine, but the neighborhood was awesome; it was very green and bohemian with plenty of great restaurants and a few cool bars. I enjoyed the area so much that instead of spending only a week, as I originally planned, I ended spending almost the entire summer here.
Awesome restaurants and coffee shops
For an Eastern European 2nd-tier city, there are surprisingly great food choices when it comes to restaurants and coffee shops. There are at least a dozen restaurants that I would easily call “world class” where I wouldn’t hesitate to invite a good friend or even my lovely Mom—my trusted litmus test for a place’s excellence—should she happened to visit me.
As a burger lover, I’ve had one of the best burgers and meat as long as I can remember. I’ve also had excellent Italian food and even pretty decent Mexican enchiladas.
While there are plenty of great restaurants, the coffee shop scene (mainly for getting lots of work done) isn’t terrible but could definitely be improved. After living here for a few months, I still didn’t have my “ideal” coffee shop, one that would be my default choice when I was tired of working at home and needed a change of scenery.
On the other hand, this is where a city like Kiev shines. I can easily name five coffee shops that I can go to and get some serious work done. As a location-independent entrepreneur, this is important.
One of my favorite things about Dnipro is the fact that the center is very compact. One can cover this part of the city in about ten to fifteen minutes. Since the center is where all the desirable attractions are, this makes it super easy to have dinner with a friend (who also happens to live in the center) without being stuck in traffic while taking a taxi or public transportation.
It’s not some tiny center either. There are plenty of great restaurants, coffee shops and bars bunched all pretty next to each other. There are also lots of great clothing stores, whether it’s from a local designer or from some famous Western brand.
I cannot overemphasize how convenient this is. Even in Kiev, which isn’t a huge city by any means, everything is so spread out and there isn’t a “true” center. That means meeting a friend in the “center” easily means either a 30-45-minute walk or a 15-30-minute ride by car (assuming both of you live at least close to center). Here, no such issues exist because you simply leave your apartment and ten minutes later you are outside your friend’s apartment or inside the restaurant.
Just to give you an idea, imagine New York City with only the Prince St. in Greenwich village or LA with a small chunk of Melrose Ave. That’s a hell of a lot more convenient than making the trek from South Brooklyn or Bushwick in NYC.
For a seemingly sleepy Eastern European city in the middle of nowhere, there are plenty of Western-style conveniences. There are tons of Western-style supermarkets where you can buy all kinds of products that your heart desires. There are the familiar Western clothing brands such as Diesel, Nike and Levi’s. There’s also Uber for easy trips within the city or even to some nearby destination.
One may argue that these Western-style companies and influences are making Eastern European cities such as this one more “Westernized,” but I’m all for it if it makes the city more convenient and pleasant to be in.
“A city in the valley”
Unlike Odessa, Ukraine, Dnipro doesn’t have access to beautiful beaches of the Black Sea, but it mostly makes up for it with access to a beautiful river, Dnipro, which runs along the middle of the country. The city’s main attraction is the wide riverfront area called набережная. In the summer, that’s where you’ll find all kinds of people walking, sitting and overall enjoying life. There are also tons of great restaurants overlooking the beautiful river.
In some strange way, Dnipro—unlike Kiev and other Ukrainian cities—even has an eery Latin American feel. My neighborhood reminds me of Mexico City’s Condesa or Colombia’s Cali. The fact that it has a Latin American feel was definitely one of the main things that drew me to this city and got me to stay longer.
But unlike Latin America, with its crime and unpredictability, Dnipro, like the rest of Eastern Europe, is fairly safe and predictable.
Dnipro is a “hard” city
It didn’t take me long to realize that it’s a rather “hard” city. When I say, “hard,” I’m referring to the people and their behavior. Unlike Kiev or St. Petersburg, two cities infused with great culture and friendly people, in Dnipro, people almost never say “Hello” when greeting you—unless you say it first—everyone is mostly just going about their business.
I’ve had plenty of situations where I interacted with someone and then shook my head in response to their behavior. Things like opening and holding doors for random strangers were rarely (or never) met with a “thank you.” Ask for something in a supermarket, and the person behind the register would simply ask, “What do you want” point blank without greeting you of any kind.
Generally speaking, Eastern Europe as a region is fairly “hard.” It’s not a region where people typically go out of their way to make sure you’re satisfied with anything. This is something I experienced first hand when I spent a few months living in Russia several years ago.
Nevertheless, over the past few years, the region has been undergoing great gentrification that cities like Kiev are actually becoming more or less pleasant cities to spent lots of time in, even for picky foreigners who’re used to Western handholding.
Dnipro is a bit behind in this regard. It’s quintessentially Eastern European in a sense that nobody really cares about whether you enjoyed the pasta dish in a restaurant or the fact that you don’t understand something in a supermarket. Customer service simply doesn’t exist.
Meeting people is surprisingly difficult here because, unlike in Kiev, where people are more cosmopolitan and are at least somewhat curious of people from other cities or countries, people here are more reserved and guarded.
Of course, it wasn’t like this with every person I met, there are plenty of friendly people who at least went out of their way to help you (mostly in department stores), but for the most part this city was decidedly unfriendlier than other Eastern European cities such as Kiev, St. Petersburg or even Bucharest.
The entire time I lived in the city, I spent a lot of time thinking about whether it’s a city I can make peace with and learn to love. And, indeed, if someone put a gun to my head and told me to live here or else, I would certainly find ways to adjust. It’s a city that has everything one would need for a comfortable life. There are great restaurants and coffee shops allowing you to have a great lifestyle for a fraction of the price elsewhere.
But, yet, even as I was writing the above paragraph, and even if I had a great job and a nice apartment, this city still would never be my first choice.
As someone who was born in Ukraine and speaks the language, I’ve had my share of challenges in the city but for the most part, I’m used to the Eastern European mindset and life, so the lack of “humanity” didn’t affect me all that much; it’s something I fully expect. However, I would never recommend this city to a foreigner. I can already see them complaining about how no one “gives a fuck” about their concerns.
Even the fact that this city is “hard,” can also be flipped on its head and become an advantage. I know many people who actually prefer Dnipro over the more cosmopolitan Kiev. It’s smaller, more navigable and the “hardness” of the city can be an advantage because people always keep their word and don’t flake on you in the last moment like they do in bigger cities.
Speaking of Latin America, here’s what I wrote about Medellin back in 2011:
In many ways, it’s a city without a soul, a city without charm. A city where everything works but nothing is special that motivates you to return or convince others to come and visit.
As I wrote recently, 2nd and 3rd tier cities are generally boring and nondescript and don’t have the excitement or the cachet of their 1st-tier counterparts.
Ultimately, I realized that regardless of what I thought and how much positive spin I can create around this city, I was still in a 2nd -tier city in Eastern Europe. And, in Eastern Europe, as my experience has proven again and again, the only livable places are really the 1st tier cities; everything else is too broken (both literally and metaphorically) to provide a decent quality of life.
Why live in a 2nd-tier city when I could just as easily be living in Kiev—a truly awesome city—where people and the architecture are much more friendlier and welcoming?
Thus, it seems that no matter where in Ukraine I travel to and live, all roads always lead back to Kiev.
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