Think Ukraine, and it seems a safe bet that Europe’s largest country may not yet have a place on every U.S. traveler’s bucket list. But now’s probably time to think again, as this diverse nation and newest democracy is rebranding its tourism. Backed by an investment of $10 million, up and running is a national-level strategy, whose goals range from improving the physical tourism-related infrastructure to promotion on digital platforms, sponsoring get-acquainted-with-Ukraine familiarization trips, and participating in international travel exhibits.
This update came during a destination seminar held in the splendid headquarters of the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York City, hosted by Ukraine International Airlines (UAI), offering nonstop flights New York to Kiev, and a delegation of tourism leaders from the leading regions of tourism in Ukraine. Further, our Ukrainian travel partners held court at Ukraine’s very popular booth at The New York Times Travel Show.
It was there where I bumped into Sophia Kulich, owner of Sophia’s Travel, specialist in customized travel to Eastern European. Since she will personally host this year’s ASTA educational tour to Ukraine, what better person to ask: “Why Ukraine?”
“Everyone’s looking for something different, new horizons, and Ukraine is one of Europe’s last genuine frontiers,” she responded, adding that “Ukraine is westward-looking, big and diverse, largely undiscovered, steeped in history and culture, and home to an overwhelmingly welcoming people.”
During both events, this armchair traveler began to discover what “Ukraine Now! Ukraine Wow!” is all about.
Forbes recently challenged readers to consider: “Why You Should Skip Paris and Visit Kyiv.” The author’s answers to “why” included: Because the city has great architecture, magnificent churches, bustling markets, great dining options (at non-exorbitant prices) and significantly fewer tourists. Good news, for your first stop will probably be in the country capital of Kiev (A.K.A. officially Kyiv), founded on seven hills.
Among must-see attractions are the golden-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral and St. Sophia Cathedral, a marvel of 11th-century mosaics and frescoes. The largest and holiest site of the Eastern Orthodox religion is Pechersk Lavra Monastery, a UNESCO-designated complex of monasteries and chapels, caves and catacombs, hosting mummified monks from the 11th century. Another unique site is the opulent villa of ex-president Victor Yanukovych—locally called the “Museum of Corruption”—complete with a shooting gallery, huge collection of cars and a private zoo. Also, just outside Kiev, not-to-miss is the Pyrohovo Museum of Folk Architecture
Staying in Kiev can be an upscale sojourn. One of the capital’s grandest is the Kiev InterContinental, with 272 rooms and Franco-Ukrainian flavors starring at the Comme Il Faux Restaurant (kiev.intercontinental.com). Design Hotels’ Kiev entry is the 11 Mirrors Hotel—with 49 rooms it’s the only five-star hotel in the historic district (11mirrors-hotel.com). Recently renovated is the Opera Hotel, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World and the city’s smallest five-star property; it once welcomed composers Tchaikovsky and Liszt (opera-hotel.com).
From Kiev, the most popular day excursion is a chilling guided tour of Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe. Start at the museum, then equipped with your personal Geiger counter, visit Reactor 4, which exploded in 1986, and wander among the eerie streets and buildings of the ghost town of Pripyat in the abandoned and devastated Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Among many rural experiences, enjoy Ukraine’s part of the sprawling Carpathian mountain range, where dotting the highland fields are the cottages of the traditional Hutsul people. Here visitors meet and mingle with the Hutsul, who offer homestays and local guesthouse accommodations, as well as cooking classes starring such Ukrainian specialties as borscht and varenyky (stuffed dumplings, savory or sweet).
While road and rail seem to be the most interesting ways to reach Lviv, it’s just a short flight from Kiev aboard UIA’s domestic services. Forty miles from the Polish border, Lviv—a frothy architectural confection of Renaissance, Baroque, Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau—is the nation’s cultural capital and worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage status. Often compared to Prague and Vienna, Lviv’s attractions include the Opera House; the House of Scientists, occupying a former casino; and the Market Square, which was the hub of Lviv life from the 14th to 19th centuries. Lviv also benefits from proximity (80 miles away) to the wooded slopes and flower-filled pastures edging the Carpathian range, a prime region for hiking, biking and skiing.
Livi’s pride of place on the luxury hotel scene goes to the Leopolis, occupying a restored 18th-century building (leopolishotel.com), and BankHotel, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels group (bankhotel.com.ua).
With fascinating old towns in-between, the third primary point on the Ukrainian tourist triangle is historic, cosmopolitan Odessa,” occupied over the centuries by communities of Greeks, French, Polish, Italians, Jews and Russians. Its port-city sights include Vorontsov Palace (monument to the Duke de Richelieu), City Hall and the famous Potemkin Stairs. Most fascinating are Odessa’s Catacombs, a 1,500-mile-long tangle of corridors and rooms that underwent their major expansion during the reign of Catherine the Great.
Travel agents are headed for an extensive introduction to Ukraine on the 9-day A Patchwork of Traditions tour planned by Sophia’s Travel for ASTA’s Educational Journeys series; scheduled June 10-18, agents will explore Kiev, Lviv, Ivana Frankivsky, Kolomgia, Yalremche, Chernivtsi, Vinnytsya and the Carpathian region. Sophia’s Travel markets similar, customized tours of Ukraine, accenting heritage and ancestry, such as its Highlights of Ukraine tour, visiting less-traveled routes between Kiev, Lviv and Odessa on a 10-night tour; it’s priced for two people at $6,700.
For more information on Ukraine, visit traveltoukraine.org or usukraine.org. For more information on Ukraine International Airlines, visit flyuia.com. For more information on Sophia’s Travel, visit sophiastravel.com. For more on Ukraine, click here.