Backpacking Ukraine: Top experiences
- Walking from a Khan’s palace to a cave monastery to a cliff city in Bakhchisaray
- Going underground to find mummified monks at Kiev’s cave monastery
- Partying your way through Lviv’s quirky nightlife
- Riding the rails through the idyllic countryside
- Seeing the Soviet Union of the 21st century in Sevastopol
Jump to the list of posts from Ukraine, or read on for the destination overview.
I was backpacking Ukraine for two weeks.
Odessa --> Bakhchisaray --> Sevastopol --> Kiev --> Lviv --> Chop
Know before you go
I’m not going to sugar-coat it: backpacking Ukraine is hard. Really, really hard. It will test your patience. It will make you uncomfortable. You will be on your own in places with almost no other travelers.
But for all its challenges, Ukraine is also one of the most rewarding countries on the planet.
Lviv and Kiev have a Central European flavor and are as easy to travel in as Budapest or Prague. If you’re venturing further east — especially into Crimea (if it’s safe) — Russian language skills will help a lot. The ability to pronounce words written in Cyrillic, even if you don’t know what they mean, is essential. (Russian pronunciation is often similar to Romance languages, so reading Cyrillic will be easier if you know some Spanish.)
Note: The UK and US governments currently have travel warnings for Ukraine. They mainly apply to the far east and Crimea. See the Safety section for details.
Even on a $15 a day budget, you won’t feel like you’re scrimping and saving while backpacking Ukraine. In fact, it would be really hard to find a way to spend more than $25 a day.
Backpacker accommodation outside Lviv tends to be a room with dorm beds in someone’s flat. However, some of those flats are among the nicest places to stay on the continent. Hot tubs, huge kitchens, outdoor space, free activities and other amenities are common. Dorm beds are usually around $8.
Lviv’s Kosmonaut Hostel deserves special mention here as being my favorite hostel in Europe.
It’s very important to make advance bookings and to make sure your hostel owner knows your arrival time. A lot of places don’t have on-site staff (or the “staff” are the flat owners who also have to take their kids to school and go to work), so they only come once a day to clean or to let in new guests. If you don’t give them a head’s up, there may be no one to let you in.
The stereotype is true: Ukrainians eat a lot of borscht, cabbage, and potatoes. But there are also delicious grilled meats, pastries, and dumplings on offer.
Try visiting a Tatar restaurant at least once in your trip. The Tatars are Muslims who immigrated to Crimea from Central Asia. Their specialties include mouth-watering flatbread, grilled lamb, and hearty noodle soups. It’s totally different from Eastern European food.
Puzata Hata is a cafeteria-style chain (branches everywhere) with surprisingly good Ukrainian staples. It’s a good place to sample common dishes, and you pay by weight — so if you haven’t had a salad in three months, you can get one for about $1 here.
Simple cafes will charge between $0.50 and $3 for a meal. It helps to speak basic Russian — they often don’t have menus and will just ask what you want. Even if they do have menus, they will be in Cyrillic.
Self-catering in major cities is easy — there are large supermarkets. In smaller towns, people still shop at corner markets. This can be very challenging, as the goods are blocked behind counters or glass walls and you have to ask for what you want. Russian skills are essential.
Odessa, Lviv and Kiev are similar to Central European cities. Activities include walking around, going to museums, and visiting churches. All of these activities are free or under $5.
Kiev has a tragic Holocaust history, documented through monuments across the city. There are some gorgeous Orthodox churches — St. Sophia’s is the most interesting. It also has the (incredibly weird and creepy) underground cave monastery.
Lviv is super-quirky and offers off-beat activities like visiting the bar opened by the original Masochist, going to a mock password-only Ukrainian nationalist restaurant, throwing coins into the hat of a statue on a roof, visiting the antique book market, and touching a sculpture’s nose for good luck. A free walking tour offered through your hostel is the best way to explore the city.
Crimea is very different from the rest of Ukraine. It’s long been known as the “last stop before Moscow,” and it has a distinctively Soviet feel to it. Travel services are geared toward Russian families, not backpackers.
Bakhchisaray is the most interesting Crimean town. Within a couple kilometers, there’s an ancient Khan’s palace, a cave monastery, and a cliff city. Otherwise, most activities involve Cold War history (in Yalta) or Soviet monuments.
It’s actually very easy to get around while backpacking Ukraine. Distances are huge, but the Soviet rail system works brilliantly. Overnight trains are comfortable, safe, and cheaper than hostels. (An 18-hour train ride was $12.)
The biggest question you’ll be faced with is which class of sleeper berth you want. The luxury classes are more expensive than trains in Western Europe, so most backpackers use “kupe” or “platzkart” classes.
A kupe ticket will buy you a sleeper berth in a private compartment with two bunk beds. This can either be a great way to escape the noise of the open car, or a total nightmare if you end up with someone sketchy/drunk/loud in your compartment. After I got stuck with a drunk guy who wouldn’t stop trying to get me to marry him for 18 hours between Sevastopol and Kiev, I can’t recommend it for women alone.
Platzkart tickets buy you a berth in an open rail car. You have to tolerate a little bit of noise, but all but the lightest sleepers shouldn’t have any problems. I preferred platzkart tickets because I felt more secure with a lot of people around. Platzkarts sell out quickly, so you’ll need to buy your train ticket as early as possible.
No English is spoken or written on the trains, on your ticket, or in the stations. Make sure you can read the name of your destination in Cyrillic.
Note that no trains or buses are currently running to Crimea from Ukraine due to the border disputes.
The most commonly visited parts of Ukraine are generally safe for tourists. But the whole country gives off a seedier vibe than in most of Europe.
Alcohol use is a really big problem. You’ll see people getting wasted at 5 am as they open their market stalls. If you’re walking around in isolated areas, keep an eye out for drunk people and steer clear. Injection drug use is also widespread.
Sex tourism is common in big cities, especially Kiev. Men should be wary of friendly women in bars.
Most foreign governments have issued travel warnings for Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk. Given how difficult it is to travel in these parts of the country under the best of conditions, I would not suggest taking the risk right now. Stick to Kiev, Lviv, and the rest of Western Ukraine.
Ukraine is very politically divided, with many Russian loyalists living side-by-side with Ukrainian nationalists. Be careful when broaching the subject of politics.
Perhaps the most common frustration for travelers backpacking Ukraine is the complete lack of help. The Soviet view of customer service is ‘ignore the person and they’ll eventually go away.’ This can be mildly irritating, like if you’re trying to order a coffee, or genuinely dangerous, like if your bus drops you off in a random market way outside of Odessa and you have no idea where you are or how to get into the city. Again, Russian skills help immensely.
For women alone
Backpacking Ukraine as a woman alone is generally fine. You’ll get some marriage proposals.
Young Ukrainian women wear all manners of revealing clothing. You won’t offend anyone in any-length skirts, jeans or shorts and t-shirts.
Parts of Crimea are inhabited by Muslim Tatars. If visiting a Tatar restaurant or staying in a Tatar person’s home, you’ll have an easier time if you cover your shoulders and knees.
The streets get pretty sketchy after 10 pm, even in easy-to-manage cities like Lviv. If you’re taking an overnight train, arrange a taxi to the train station or just walk there before it gets too late — most train stations have good waiting rooms.
Ready to get started?