If you’d asked me five years ago, if I would move to some ex-Soviet Union country after living in some incredible and exotic countries (e.g., Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, just to name a few), I would’ve laughed in your face.
But, yet, here I am, writing this from Kiev, Ukraine, one of my favorite cities on the planet in a country that I’ve gradually made my home over the past several years.
Of course, I may be a bit biased because I was born here and speak Russian fluently. But I don’t think that’s the defining factor in my decision: I doubt I would live in a country like Lithuania, Moldova or Kazakhstan even if I was born in those countries and spoke their respective language. There’s something special about this country that goes beyond even that.
My return to the country was gradual, kind of like dipping toes in a pool before diving in. In 2011, I crossed the border from Poland into Ukraine for the first time after spending more than twenty years living abroad. I spent about three weeks in Kiev and Odessa before flying back to America.
Then, an interesting pattern emerged: I returned again in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, and have spent most of this year, 2018, living and traveling around this country.
At this point, Ukraine is easily the country where I’ve spent the most amount of time out of more than 85 countries that I visited in the last 15 years.
Today, I want to talk about what makes Ukraine special and whether it’s a place you should put on your radar as well.
When most people think about Ukraine, they think of crumbling architecture, unshaven Eastern European men wearing Adidas pants and drinking vodka, corrupt politicians and freezing winters.
There’s some truth to all of that (especially the part of about freezing winters), but the reality is that over the past several years, Ukraine has become a very livable country, so much so that I prefer it over any other in Europe and elsewhere.
If you’re flying in from abroad, chances are your first point of contact will be Kiev’s Boryspil International Airport. This is the main international airport and is located roughly 45 mins from the city center.
In order to get to the city center, you have two options. The first option is an airport bus ($2) that goes to either a metro station or the main train station or a taxi ($12-15) which goes straight to your destination.
If you are short on cash but still prefer the convenience of a taxi, a good option is to take the airport bus to the main train station and then take the taxi to your final destination.
Kiev has another airport: Zhulyani. It’s much closer to the city center; only about 20-25 mins by car. It’s also smaller and mostly serves domestic routes as well as select international routes.
Mobile SIM Cards
The first order of business after landing and going through passport control is buying a local SIM card. For that, you need an unlocked phone.
If you bought your phone outright from the manufacturer (without the carrier subsidy), chances are that it’s already unlocked. But to make sure, you should check with your carrier.
Having a Ukrainian SIM card will grant you a Ukrainian number, for easy communication with others throughout the country. Most importantly, however, you will have a cheap data plan everywhere you go.
There are three main providers in Ukraine: Kievstar, Vodaphone and Lifecell.
This is the largest provider and covers the majority of the country. It’s also the most expensive provider.
The next popular mobile company. Before the whole Russian/Ukrainian conflict, it was called MTS.
Finally, there’s Lifecell (formerly called “life;)”), a mobile company wholly owned by Turkcell, a Turkish mobile operator.
In the summer of 2018, Ukraine’s mobile providers finally unveiled the 4G/LTE network. This made it possible to get speeds up to 50-70Mbps in the major cities.
As of this writing, my current plan costs me 90 UAH ($3.25)/month, and I get unlimited 3G/4G connectivity.
My mobile plan
When I first began living in Ukraine, I signed up with Kievstar since it was the biggest operator with the best coverage in the country.
Several years later, I switched over to Vodaphone mainly because it’s slightly cheaper than Kievstar and provides enough coverage for my needs. (I mostly live in big cities and don’t need coverage in smaller towns and villages.)
Budget in Ukraine
Here’s a rough outline of how much certain things cost in Ukraine. Prices are based on an exchange rate of $1 to 28 UAH. (To get the prices in dollars, divide the prices below by 28.)
The following prices are for Kiev. They will be slightly lower in other cities and even lower in smaller towns and villages.
Decent Apartment not in the center: 10,000-13,000 UAH
Decent Apartment in the center: 15,000-16,000 UAH
Really nice apartment in the center: 17,000-20,000 UAH
Regular gym / daily pass: 100 UAH
Regular gym / monthly pass: 600 UAH
Nice gym / daily pass: 250 UAH
Nice gym / monthly pass: 1400 UAH
Lunch (Business; 2-3 courses): 80-150 UAH
Lunch (regular): 120-180 UAH
Fancy lunch: 250 UAH
Dinner (self-service restaurant): 80-150 UAH
Dinner (regular): 150-250 UAH
Dinner in a nice restaurant: 350-450 UAH
One glass of wine (150 ml): 60-80 UAH
Beer (0.3 L): 50 UAH
Beer (0.5 L): 75 UAH
Metro: 8 UAH
Bus: 8 UAH
Taxi (15 min): 80-100 UAH
Taxi (30 min): 200-250 UAH
Where to go
Ukraine is a huge country—the second largest in Europe by size (after Russia)—and is roughly divided into four parts: Central (including the capital, Kiev), Eastern Ukraine, Western Ukraine, and Southern Ukraine.
Each region is fairly different from the other. The people talk differently, they act differently and they even look different. The cities themselves are also fairly different ranging from Central European-inspired Lviv in the West to the more Soviet-style Dnipro and Donetsk in the East.
Below, I will cover each part in greater detail.
Central Ukraine / Kiev
Kiev is Ukraine’s capital and the biggest city. In my opinion, it’s also the best city in Ukraine to live and visit. It’s friendlier, has more culture and is more aesthetically pleasing than pretty much any other city in the country.
There are lots of things to do in Kiev. There’s a huge array of restaurants, coffee shops, supermarkets, gyms and whatever else you may need. There are also tons of cultural things to do such as theaters, opera houses replete with great performances to attend.
Eastern Ukraine includes the area of the country east of the Dnepr river. This includes the major cities such as Lugansk, Donetsk, Dnipro, and Zaporozhye.
After the Russian/Ukrainian conflict, both Lugansk and Donetsk (including part of their respective provinces) came under the rebel control and are, thus, difficult to access from Ukraine. At this point, travel it is not advised.
Recently, I spent two months living in Dnipro, Ukraine’s third largest city. Dnipro is a much more “raw” city than Kiev. While it has its share of restaurants and coffee shops, it lacks the “cultural touch” and sophistication of Kiev.
Just to the south of Dnipro, there’s Zaporozhye, an industrial city with reportedly one of the longest streets in Europe. It’s called “Lenin’s Street” and it basically runs across the entire city and then some. While it’s a nice landmark (sort of), one wide and long street decidedly gives the city an “uncozy” feeling that mostly characterizes the Eastern region.
Southern Ukraine is all about sun and sand, at least in the summer. That’s where you’ll find the only city you need to know: Odessa, the premier summer destination not only in Ukraine but across most of Eastern Europe.
Odessa isn’t only my hometown, but it’s also a fairly picturesque and beautiful city worthy of any postcard. There’s the famous opera theater, the cute downtown with cobblestone streets and great beaches.
The West of the country comprises of cities such as Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Chernivtsi.
In many ways, western Ukraine feels more similar to countries like Poland, Hungary, and Austria. Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk look like they belong in neighboring Poland or Slovakia instead of Ukraine. Part of that is because, before WWII, this region was part of the neighboring Austria-Hungary empire.
The largest city in the region, Lviv, is especially a great place to visit in the winter. It’s cozy, has great restaurants, cool coffee shops, and is much cheaper than other large Ukrainian cities.
When to go
Although Ukraine, like the rest of Europe, has four normal seasons, I like to think it’s mainly two seasons: hot summer and freezing winters.
Ukraine’s spring starts around the beginning of May. It’s not uncommon for it to get very hot in just a couple of weeks.
Summer lasts from the beginning of June to around the beginning of September. In the first or second week of September, temperatures start to gradually drop. By October, it’s already fairly cold. November may witness the first snowfall.
Since this is Eastern Europe, winters can get uncomfortably cold. It’s also not uncommon to have temperatures drop to as low as -25 C (-13 F) in January or February, the latter being the coldest month of the year.
It’s also very possible to see lots of snow even as late as in March.
In my opinion, the best time to visit Ukraine is either in the spring or fall. This is when the weather is the most comfortable and it’s not too hot or cold. Another option is to visit in the summer, which does get hot but not uncomfortably so.
Summers are a great time to visit the coastal city of Odessa, with its beaches and beach clubs.
Unless, for some strange reason, you like cold weather and want to walk around in the snow, avoid visiting the region from November to March.
Moreover, winters can be especially brutal because not only you have cloudy days and snow, but you’re also surrounded by crumbling Soviet architecture, making the whole experience super depressing.
How to rent accommodation
Depending on how long you’re visiting Ukraine, there are several ways of renting accommodation. In this section, I will cover the best ways to rent a pad depending on your needs.
If you’re a tourist who’s coming to Ukraine for a short visit (a week or so), the best way to rent accommodation is via Airbnb. Although the prices there are generally more expensive than sites tailored specifically to locals, the ease of use and reputation features of the site is worth it. I’ve used Airbnb many times to book accommodation in Ukraine and abroad.
Another way to rent short-term rentals is via local sites. This requires knowing Russian or Ukrainian and being able to trust the pictures displayed to be a true representation of the apartment. I would only advice this method if you have a local friend who can help you. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get burned when the apartment you reserve is the difference from the actual apartment.
For long-term bookings (a month or more), Airbnb is still a great option because many hosts offer steep discounts if you book for at least a month.
An even better way is to go directly to the source and rent an apartment from an owner instead. One of the biggest sites for doing just that is olx.ua, which is sort of a Ukrainian craigslist, where people buy/sell/rent anything from used jeans to luxury apartments.
Like I already mentioned, be careful with listings that show amazing pictures but have a relatively low price. These listings can be copied from other apartment rental sites around the web and are used to lure people to send a “deposit” to secure an apartment. Once the money is sent, it’s never seen again.
Beware of any third party services that promise you to “find” an apartment in exchange for money upfront. I’ve heard stories of people taking such money and never returning it.
Where to buy stuff
Gone are the days of dark and confusing Soviet Union-era “magazinchiki” (магазиньчики). Today, shopping in Ukraine is no different than shopping in any other Western country.
Ukraine is now graced with modern supermarkets that may easily rival your Western country.
I would categorize shopping to three levels of shopping stores in the country.
The street stores/kiosks
These are small shops that are located on the actual street. They typically sell things like water, cigarettes, various snacks, and even sometimes things like bread and cheese.
ATB, Furshet, Varus, Billa
At the next level of supermarkets, we have chains like ATB, Furshet, and Varus (popular in Eastern Ukraine).
These are mostly located in more “working class” neighborhoods and are cheaper than other stores.
These would be similar to stores such as Stop & Shop in New York City.
One of my first experience shopping in Ukraine was “Silpo” (written as Сильпо). It’s one of the biggest chains in Ukraine and is located across the country.
Silpo is a bit more expensive than the previous stores, but it carries higher quality goods, more selection and attracts a more upscale crowd.
It’s similar to something like Safeway in California.
Last but not least, there’s “Le Silpo,” Silpo’s luxury brand. There are only four Le Silpo’s around the country in the following cities: Kiev, Dnepr, Odessa, and Kharkov. Each city has only one Le Silpo, typically located in an upscale area of the city.
Not trying to sound like some snob, but there’s definitely a noticeable difference in the service that’s offered in “Le Silpo” vs regular Silpo, and the other stores.
Le Silpo can be compared to Whole Foods Market in America.
If this is your first time visiting Ukraine (or Eastern Europe), then get ready to experience a mild form of culture shock. Although Ukraine has changed drastically over the years (for better), Ukraine is still quintessentially Eastern Europe.
For starters, that means don’t expect much of hand-holding. That includes things like customer service in stores or restaurants. Don’t expect random smiles from people you may not know (e.g., in stores, restaurants, coffee shops).
For more information and examples, check out my article about living in Russia several years ago. I would characterize Ukrainian mentality very similar to Russian mentality described in that article.
I will admit, however, that Ukraine has come a long way over the years. In the eight years that I’ve been visiting and living in the country, customer service and general ambiance have gradually improved. I’ve noticed this mostly in Kiev, but other cities have picked up too.
Language in Ukraine
Ukraine has only one official language: Ukrainian. The reality, however, is a bit complicated. Most of the country actually speaks Russian. While Ukrainian is the official language everywhere (government offices, police, etc), Russian is the main language of communication in every city south and east of Kiev (including Kiev): Poltava, Dnipro, Odessa, Zaporozhye, Mariupol, Luhansk and Donetsk.
In the capital of Kiev, I hear Russian on the street about 80% of the time compared to 20% of Ukrainian. Almost all shop owners, restaurant waitresses and other service workers speak Russian. People who are originally from Kiev speak natively Russian; Ukrainian is mostly spoken in smaller towns/villages outside of Kiev.
Ukrainian is the dominant language of Western Ukraine. It’s spoken in Lviv, Ivano-Frankovisk, Chernitvski and the surrounding cities and towns.
Everyone in Ukraine understands both Russian and Ukrainian, so knowing one language would be sufficient. If you’re going to be predominately living/visiting Western Ukraine, then Ukrainian is the language to speak and understand. Otherwise, if you’re going to be spending time in Kiev and East / South of the capital—especially in the main cities—then the language to learn is Russian.
Since I’m a native of Odessa, my native language is Russian. I have no problem communicating in Kiev, but had to switch to Ukrainian when I went to Lviv last year.
Safety and precautions
All in all, Ukraine is a relatively safe country. It’s safer than North America, South America and even Western Europe.
Unlike places like Rio de Janeiro (and Brazil in general) which is fairly unpredictable or American cities like New York (where you can also get easily robbed), you generally won’t be robbed at knife- or gun-point in broad daylight or even at night if you stick to well-lit streets in good areas of the city.
Nevertheless, Ukraine is no Japan. It’s still a poor Eastern European country with its share of crime. However, this crime is more subtle. About a year ago, I had someone break into my apartment and steal my suitcase full of stuff. This was at an Airbnb which I rented in a nice neighborhood, so it seems like someone had copies of the keys and entered the apartment when I wasn’t there. They stole my entire suitcase and nothing else.
The best way to stay safe in Ukraine is to relax, but keep your eyes open for any strange and suspicious things. Street smarts go a long way.
For digital nomads
If you’re a location-independent professional, Ukraine can be a solid choice. Big cities like Kiev are replete with work-friendly coffee shops and tons of co-working places. Internet speeds have improved dramatically over the years as well. Plus, with the introduction of 4G/LTE in the summer of 2018—with speeds up to 50-70Mbps—you don’t even need to rely much on fast WiFi anymore.
Over the last couple of years, Ukraine with its cosmopolitan capital, Kiev, is witnessing a resurgence in various startups and other online businesses. There’s a nascent startup culture here, which is easily evident when you spend time in some of the bigger co-working spaces.
Visas and overstays
Most citizens of industrialized countries (e.g., USA, UK, and EU countries) get the automatic 90-day visa on arrival. After your 90 days is up, you must leave the country.
After leaving the country after your visa expires, you can’t immediately return to Ukraine; you must wait 90 days before coming back. That’s what the whole 90/180 days visa means. It means you can only stay for 90 days within any 180 day period.
Thus, it’s not possible to stay 90 days, leave the country and then come right back.
If you overstay, the fine ranges anywhere from 510 UAH ($20) to 850 UAH ($30). (There have been reports of it being as high as $200-300 for really severe overstays). There also have been reports of being banned from the country for three years.
After living in some very exotic countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, as well as Bali, Indonesia and Thailand, it seems strange that I would more or less settle in an ex-Soviet Union country where people are so stoic to the point of indifference and where the winters can get unbearably freezing.
While I wrote a lot of nice things about the country, it’s important to understand that Ukraine is not USA or Thailand; it doesn’t have the “civility” of USA and it doesn’t have Thailand’s hospitality. It’s an Eastern European country through and through. For many years, trying to make sense of all that was the source of my frustrations in this country, something that I described in great deal here.
I eventually made peace with the fact that the only livable city (at least for me) in Ukraine is Kiev. The other cities are great for random trips, but making them home will be a challenge.
Nevertheless, even knowing that I can throw a dart and live anywhere in the world, something about the country lures me back in, and every time I open a map and think of a new place to live, picking any other country than Ukraine is becoming more and more difficult.