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Encounter Unexpected Wonders In Kiev, Ukraine

Jan 1, 2013
2013 / January 2013

Mykola Syadristy is a master of the miniature. Renowned for his wondrously diminutive works — a chessboard on the head of a pin, a flea fitted with golden horseshoes, a portrait of Hemingway painted on a pear seed, just to name a few — the self-taught artist is a Ukrainian sensation. And his museum in Kiev, set on the serene grounds of an ancient monastery, is one of many things that make this city fun for visitors of all ages.

The capital of Ukraine may be best known for its brightly colored cathedrals and glittering gold domes, and rightly so: They are striking sights, especially when the sun is shining. But some of the city’s greatest treasures are hidden away — either behind closed doors or far below ground. And like Syadristy’s Museum of Microminiature, they appeal to young and old alike.

First, however, you must find them, and in a place like Kiev, that can be a bit challenging — particularly with little ones in tow. For one, English isn’t widely spoken. Signs, such as they are, tend to be in Ukrainian or Russian. And information about places of interest is seldom available online.

Make no mistake; Kiev is a modern metropolis, and in recent years it’s made major strides toward becoming one of Europe’s more tourist-friendly capitals. One example of that is Boryspil International Airport’s bright, spacious new Terminal D, which opened last May in time to accommodate spectators of the UEFA Euro 2012, a European soccer tournament co-hosted by Ukraine.

Still, Ukraine continues to struggle with its transition to democracy, and its hospitality sector, still underdeveloped, suffered the consequences. Some 90 percent of the country’s hotels date back to the Soviet era, and few meet international standards.

The 5-star InterContinental Kiev meets and exceed international standards and should be first on your list of accommodations if that’s the type of hotel your family craves. On the right bank of the Dnieper River, smack in the center of Old Kiev, the 272-room property puts your family within easy walking distance of most of the city’s major sights. In fact, the hotel shares a square with St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral, part of the monastery founded some 1,100 years ago, and most guestrooms come with unobstructed views of that Baroque masterpiece.

St. Sophia Cathedral © Sergeyussr | Dreamstime.com

St. Sophia Cathedral © Sergeyussr | Dreamstime.com

It’s the nearby St. Sophia Cathedral, however, whose gold and green domes have become Kiev’s most iconic. Inside, incense fills the air, and kids are sure to get a kick out of the monks and priests with their big beards and flowing black frocks. There’s also the well-preserved Glagolitic graffiti, hundreds of notes in an ancient Slavic tongue scrawled on the church walls by simple yet evidently literate subjects of the king.

But that’s nothing compared to what’s in store for everyone at Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, or the Kiev Monastery of the Caves. One of the holiest sites in the Orthodox Catholic faith and a UNESCO World Heritage site, the expansive complex includes nine churches, a grand bell tower and, as the name suggests, an intricate network of subterranean corridors. At the entrance, pick up a candle (about 25 cents) to light your way through the low-ceilinged labyrinth where mummified monks, many of them Orthodox saints, reside in glass-enclosed tombs. And watch out for the hands and feet that sometimes stick out from their decorative shrouds.

As for the living, modest dress is a must. To enter the catacombs, women are required to wear a headscarf and either a skirt that covers their knees or pants (although even the latter are deemed inappropriate). Shorts and T-shirts are strictly forbidden. If you can, avoid the Lavra on weekends, when crowds tend to be biggest. Two-hour guided tours are available in English for about $50 for groups of up to 10 people, but make sure to book in advance. Or brush up on your Russian; tours run every half-hour for $2 a head.

If your family has a passion for trains — as most kids do — climb aboard the Children’s Railway during the summer months. Common to countries throughout the former Soviet Union, the narrow-gauge line is run entirely by children (ages 9–15) who take the tickets, look after passengers and even drive the engine under the supervision of experienced professionals. The little train runs around a two-mile loop located somewhat ominously on the site of a former Nazi concentration camp called Syrets Park. Not far from here is the Babi Yar ravine, where more than 33,000 Jewish people imprisoned in Syrets were later killed.

Kiev’s speciality museums delight kids and grown-ups alike. Just 30 minutes from Kiev near the village of Pirogov is the National Museum of Folk Architecture and Lifestyle of Ukraine, a 400-acre outdoor village of preserved 16th- to 19th-century buildings brought from around the country. Here, folks dressed in traditional costumes demonstrate old-time crafts and trades. The buzz at the Apiculture Museum — also on the outskirts but closed weekends — is all about beekeeping and harvesting honey (Ukraine is among the world’s top 10 producers of honey). The Museum of Bread emphasizes the importance of bread to the Ukraine people and shows how bread is made, from growing the wheat to milling the grain to baking the delicious loaves. Or head underground in an old water tower at the Water Museum in Kreschatiy Park, where kids blow immense soap bubbles (and get inside them), touch the fish in open aquariums, change the course of a river and learn about the Earth’s hydrosphere.

On weekends, families flock to Khreschatik Street, Kiev’s broad main boulevard. Closed to traffic for two full days, it becomes a kid-friendly pedestrian zone full of furry mascots, face-painted mimes, ice cream vendors and, during the summer, lots of free live music, much of it by big-name acts. Start at Independence Square, center stage of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, and make your way amid the imposing Stalinist architecture to Bessarabsky Rynok, Kiev’s most colorful indoor market. There, surrounded by mounds of glistening produce, aproned babushkas sell everything from caviar to cow’s tongue to that quintessential Ukrainian treat, cured pig fat — or salo, as locals call it.

If that rustic rynok recalls Ukraine’s Soviet past, the world-class Pinchuk Art Centre just across the street is proof of just how far the country has come in the 22 years since independence. Founded by billionaire businessman Victor Pinchuk, the gallery features works by Ukrainian artists and international superstars, among them Damien Hirst, whose special solo exhibition runs through April. Admission is free, but be ready to wait in line if you’re not there when the doors open at noon. (Check the center’s calendar for family Sundays, when children can participate in hands-on art lessons.)

Pinchuk, who wants to establish Kiev as a cultural hub, told The New Yorker, “There is only one queue in the country, and it is ours.” But that’s not quite true. Just a few blocks away, you can find an even longer line stretching down the sidewalk from a rather ordinary-looking shop on a side street off Khreschatik.

The place is called Kyivska Perepichka, and according to Kievans, it’s the home of the best hot dog in town — a veritable symbol of the city. Rain or shine, there’s always a line, and with one bite you’ll know why.

Visit Kiev: Info to Go

Flights to Kiev arrive at Boryspil International Airport (KBP), 18 miles east of the city. Sky Bus shuttles run every 15 minutes from the airport to the central bus station (45 minutes; 25 hryvnia, or about $3, one way). From there, take a taxi to your hotel, but be sure to negotiate a price in advance, as few use meters and may choose to overcharge a first-time visitor.


Hyatt Regency Kiev Behind the shimmering façade is a stunning interior with contemporary décor and close-up views of St. Sophia, just across the square. Guests access an indoor heated pool. 5 Alla Tarasova St. $$$$

Intercontinental Kiev Situated in the heart of Old Kiev, the elegant 5-star boasts superb service, a gorgeous rooftop bar and the best spa in town. A park and a children’s playground are nearby. 2A Velyka Zhytomyrska St. $$$$

Premier Palace Hotel The grande dame of Ukrainian hotels and the first 5-star in Kiev, this Art Nouveau masterpiece celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Recent renovations restored it to its former glory. 5-7/29 T. Shevchenka Blvd. $$$


Comme Il Faut A French bistro bedecked in silver and gold, the city’s most elegant space comes with staccato service and a menu worthy of the stunning décor. InterContinental Kiev, 2A Velyka Zhytomyrska St. $$$$

Corsair Drop anchor at the mess hall in Kiev’s only pirate ship restaurant and set off on a culinary voyage the kids will love. 14B Petra Sagaydachnogo St. $$

Shinok Modeled on an old Ukrainian farmhouse, this family favorite serves up hearty homestyle dishes like borscht and vereniki, and wines to wash it down. 28B Lesi Ukrainki Blvd. $$

JUMP TO: Andrew’s Descent is one of Kiev’s most storied, beloved streets


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