Johnny's Guide to Ukraine: Kiev, Odessa and Chernobyl

I never thought I'd come to Ukraine especially since they are currently at war with Russia. I really never thought I'd be traveling to and threw Ukraine by land, but my buddy Sam wanted to the adventure and I joined in on the fun. We came to the land of former USSR to see the how nature reclaims houses after the nuclear devastation of Chernobyl, drink vodka, eat borscht, and see if the rumors of Ukrainian women being the most beautiful in the world was true.  It turns out it is and I did everything mentioned above, but there's actually so much more.

To start, I wouldn't have thought but I actually feel a lot safer in Ukraine than is most of western Europe or even San Francisco but I did. It's hidden gem with lots to see, kind people, and tons of history. It's a great place to visit if you're looking for a unique culture and a fantastic value as their current economy makes everything super cheap compared to the rest of Europe.  Keep reading for my guide on what I did, what I ate, and how you too can travel through Ukraine like a boss.

How to get to Odessa

We started our trip from Chișinău the capital of Moldova and ended up hiring a private taxi to take us to Odessa. It was about a 5 hour drive including the 1-2 hours it took at the border but was pretty exciting most of the way so not a bad trip at all. We would have taken a bus or train but there wasn't an easy option available and since we were splitting the taxi by three even at the first quoted 100 Euro it was only $35 per person. Luckily Phil, one of the guys I was traveling with found a guy on the car sharing app, Bla Bla car willing to do it for a lot less as he was coming this direction anyway.

Even though that ride actually ended up falling through as he wanted to leave at 3am, the driver was nice enough to set us up with is friend who was leaving in the morning. We ended up paying $50 total for the 5 hour ride which was about $20 each including the tip we left the driver. If you've listened to Episode 126 of the podcast, it was actually recorded in the backseat of that car during the drive. If you're coming from somewhere other than Moldova, you can fly directly to Odessa from Vienna, Prague, Warsaw, Munich or Kiev which would be the much easier option.

Stopping by a Winery on the way to Moldova for Lunch

At Purcari Winery in Moldova

Where we stayed in Odessa

The hotel we stayed at was right on the beach, within a 1 minute walk of tons of restaurants, coffee shops, and the hottest nightclub in the city. It also had an indoor pool, rooftop, gym, and best of all was super affordable at $75 a night. That being said, I wouldn't actually recommend it and here's why.

The hotel we stayed at is in Arcadia Beach which on paper seems like the ultimate place to be and if I didn't go explore the city on my own, I never would have left it as it had everything you needed. The problem is, it's the super touristy area that people just visit and no one actually lives in. All of the restaurants are made for tourists, the bars are the most expensive in the country and most of the people there are tourists as well which means you won't meet any locals, or eat at local restaurants.

But if your goal is to party it up for a night or two and lay on the beach then by all means stay at the Morskoy Hotel (Agoda). But trust me, don't' stay there for more than two nights or you'll get bored quick. Instead, stay in the city center, just above the word "centre" on the map as close to the area in between Cathedral Square, Odessa National Academic Theater and the Odessa Philharmonic Theater.

National opera Theater in Odessa

Things to do in Odessa

The great thing about the Ukraine is how different everything is, just ever so slightly which makes it super interesting. For an example, the free walking tour in Odessa is ran by locals who are genuinely just doing it for the fun of it and as a way to practice their English and meet travelers. I was super surprised when the guide wouldn't take my tip at the end of the tour as they explained to me it was really free. So instead of tipping, I took my guide to lunch and then hung out with her again the next day she was so cool.

At night you'll want to just walk around the city center as there are a ton of things do. It reminds me of 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica with street performers, games and shops all on a street that is closed off to cars and traffic at night. During the day you'll want to go check out the beach at Ibiza Beach Nightclub at least once as even though the water isn't at all clear, the atmosphere is great and you can get full service cabanas or chairs for a super bargain. I paid $5 per beach chair one morning and got coffee and breakfast delivered to me ocean side for about $4. If you want to splurge a bit and have a mini vegas style cabana by the pool, we rented one for the whole day for only $40 and paid less than $15 for a bottle of champagne. 

If you want to meet some locals, you can drop by one of the free language cafe meetups or look for an event going on as it's the best way to get plugged in with both the expats and English speaking locals. I'd also highly recommend meeting some locals and going on a few dates while you're here. I know what what it's like dating Ukrainian men but the women are gorgeous and bluntly straightforward which is refreshing. No small talk needed, just be honest and tell them you want to buy them a drink or go on a date and if they like you, they'll say yes, and if they don't, they'll simply say no. Ukrainians don't do fake phone numbers, texting back and forth or wasting anyone's time.

Ibiza Beach Club in Arcadia Beach

On the beach lounges at Ibiza Beach Club

How to get to Kiev

There are four ways to go from Odessa to Kiev and somehow the three of us decided to each take separate journeys. Phil wanted to get there as quickly as possible as he only had one full day in Kiev before flying back to the U.S. so he took an early morning flight which is the fastest way to get there. I took the afternoon bus which I thought would be an easy 5 hour ride but turned out to be a super long eight hour journey. Sam thought taking the overnight VIP bus would give him a place to lay down and rest for the night, and allow him to wake up refreshed to have the day to work but ended up being uncomfortable for 7 hours in tiny seats that don't recline and with zero leg room.

If I were to have done it again I would have skipped the bus which was decently comfortable but just way too long and opted instead for a train which  you can walk around on or save some time and fly direct. You can book standard of overnight trains from Odesa to Kyiv (Ukrainian spelling) here.

You can also buy one of these bad boys and drive

Where to Stay in Kiev

One really nice thing about Kiev compared to the rest of Europe and other big cities such as New York is the amount of sheer value you can get in a central location. I wanted to stay in the city center and ended up booking a place at the Dnipro Hotel ( which is 1 block away from Independence Square and where all of the tours start.

They were actually out of normal rooms but since the suite was only $70 a night I figured why not. Even though both hotels I've stayed in so far look like they were built in the soviet days and not remodeled since, for the price I'm paying including a great breakfast, it's a great value. Sam stayed at the Fairmont Grand Hotel which was far nicer and on a really cool street with a couple nice restaurants and bars and right by the river. After deciding to extend my stay for four more nights to see more of the city and recover from being way too hung over from the wedding celebrations I booked a room directly inside independence square called Kozatskiy Hotel which is only $25 a night and in the best location possible, but also makes me feel like I'm i'm living in a room last updated during communist rule. 

The executive suite at the Dnipro Hotel

The Kozatskiy is on the far right

Video Tour of My $75 Suite

Day tours in Kiev

As always the first thing I like to do in a new city is going on a free walking tour to get an idea of the history and see the sites. One nice thing about the walking tours in Kiev are that they have two separate tours, one at 12noon and one at 4pm which allows you the option to either do both in one day and see it all at once, or separate it out into two trips and have more to do.

I went with Kiev Tours and had a great professional guide which was free but accepted tips. I'm a bit sad to say that I completely forgot to take the 4pm tour during the week and missed it but I've seen enough of the city on my own so hopefully I didn't miss too much.

Another thing I didn't have a chance to do but sounded fun was to shoot AK-47's and drive a military tank. I don't know how they are as I didn't have time to go on the tour but you can check out their page here.

At one of the stops of the noon tour, St. Michael's Cathedral

Visiting Chernobyl

One of the coolest things I did was go on a day trip to Chernobyl with soloeast travel which I recommend as it was a great day. You can also get a price quote from the other Chernobyl tour company as they are both highly rated. Either way make sure you book in advance as I did mine three days before I went and almost couldn't get a seat.

I wanted to check out the the old nuclear disaster zone as from photos it looked like nature had started reclaiming old buildings and I knew it was going to be a super unique experience. There is zero cell phone service out there so be prepared to be completely off line for the day. You also have to wear long pants, long socks, and sturdy shoes as there will be a ton of broken glass and nuclear debris to step over.

Sitting in one the abandoned bumper cars

One of the schools inside the exclusion zone

Left over gas masks in crates from the accident

Local Culture 

I was really fortunate not only to attend a local wedding and meet a bunch of people there, but also to connect and go on a few dates while in both Odessa and Kiev. Most notably I ended up going out every night with a girl in Kiev that really showed me what real Ukrainians are like in their day to day lives. It turns out that Ukraine as a country and it's people have been through centuries of oppression, corrupt governments and dictatorship. Their currency has went from being worth 25 cents to the dollar now being worth 4 cents. 

The average person in Ukraine earns $200 a month, with those in capital of Kiev making $314. The craziest thing is the fact that those same people used to earn more than double that just a few years ago in 2013 before their currency devalued. The good news for digital nomads or expats is the fact everything here is super affordable for us, and our spending here is actually appreciated as their tourism has gone down in recent years. The stereotypes of women in Ukraine chasing you down the street to get married just because you have a U.S. passport are super untrue, but whenever you mention you're from California or somewhere else cool, people are genuinely super interested on why you would come to the Ukraine. 

Also the stereotype Ukraine women just wanting to marry an American for money and a green card are also really misunderstood. In the local culture, women really value stability as that's the one thing that has been missing from the Ukraine since the beginning of time. I asked a lot of locals this as I was super curious and everyone said that if the government and life in Ukraine was better they would rather stay there as they really love their country and culture. The only reason why they even want to move abroad is to have a stable life for their future children as raising a family is super important to them. That being said, unless you are chasing models and flashing cash, most girls I've met here are actually really down to Earth even though they are beautiful. I think the ideal amount of wealth for most is being able owning a 3 bed/2 bath house, be able to afford two mid-range cards like a Honda Accord, and being able to dress up once a week and go to a decent restaurant. 

Celebrating Independance Day in Ukraine
A walk down the street on independence day in Ukraine

Where to Eat in Ukraine

One of the best things about eating out in Ukraine is how affordable everything is due to the currency exchange. Getting a late night snack will only cost you $1.50 and going out to a fancy restaurant usually won't break your bank. The first time I chose a top 3 restaurant on tripadvisor I was a bit concerned as it showed the price being $$$$ which normally in the U.S. means it'll be a $100 per person meal. But once I got there and realized that a dinner for two could be had for less than $40 I stopped looking at prices and just assumed that whichever restaurant we went to worth be within budget no matter how fancy it looked or if it was on the top floor of a nice hotel.

But my actual favorite place to eat in Ukraine was what locals consider their version of cheap fast food at a cafeteria style restaurant chain called Puzata Hata and meals there were as low as $1.50 depending on what you point at and how much you eat.

A few must tries are the Ukrainian Borsch, all of their various salads, their Varenyky Pierogies filled with mashed potatoes,  Holubtsi cabbage rolls, and of course their Chicken Kiev which you guessed it, was invented in Kiev. But in general, just each everything, all of their food is super hearty and tasty. It's almost a surprise how few Ukrainians are fat, but asking around and seeing what other people eat, it's just because they don't eat McDonald's, drink sodas or eat huge portions they stay slim.

I often ate here twice a day it was so good and easy

Just point at what you want a pay per item

Dinner at Spotykach Restaurant in Kiev, Ukraine

Coworking in Ukraine

I'm currently sitting in a beautiful coworking space in Kiev with 30+ other people so I assume they have a decent startup scene here, with a ton of developers but since Ukrainians aren't super open to talk to strangers I haven't actually met anyone to ask what they do for work. There definitely isn't a thriving Digital Nomad scene here but it's a good alternative to other parts of Europe as it's outside of the Schengen area and allows most people including Americans, Canadians, and Brits to visit without a visa for up to 90 days every 180 days. But for whatever reason Australians need to apply for a visa in advance.

The internet here is okay, and better than places such as Bali but far worse than Thailand or Poland as they still don't have 4G and for whatever reason their 3G networks and wifi tends to drop at the same time giving you periods of up to an hour a day without internet access. The good news is so far here at the coworking space the internet has been stable and super fast at over 80mps up and down. 

I really liked and recommend the downstairs cafe of Chasopys which is the coworking space I worked out of while in Kiev, but their actual main coworking area upstairs sucked. I liked that they had three skype rooms but aside from that it was uncomfortably silent with a zero talking rule and the chairs were designed to look nice but were terrible for your back and posture as they forced you to lean back the entire time. 

Coworking at Chasopys Cafe in Kiev, Ukraine

Credit Cards and ATMs

You may have heard that lot of Credit Cards don't work in Ukraine because of the high amount of fraud there. This may be true but personally I didn't have any problems there and I don't think most people would either as long as you use some common sense. As with anywhere in the world, try to only use ATM machines that are in front or connected to banks and not just random ones on the street or in a convenience store. The ones on the street often have super low limits only letting you take out $60 at a time and they still charge a $5 fee making it a bad value and a higher risk of being scammed. 

Always physically feel the card insert to make sure there's not an attachment on it and cover your PIN code with your other hand so cameras or people don't see it. As for credit cards try to use things like the "tap" feature with Apple Pay on your iPhone or the paypass feature on your Android instead of handing over cards if available. But in general I had zero problems and all of my cards worked including my Barclay Arrival Card and my Capital One Venture Card. I withdrew money using my Charles Schwab ATM card many times which flagged my card but I just had to call in and verify it was me and everything was fine. The schwab card also refunds all ATM fees worldwide so it's worth getting either way. My advice is to always have 1-2 backup credit cards and ATM cards regardless when you travel. Just make sure they are using different banks so if one freezes your account or doesn't work in Ukraine, the others will. 

From Kiev, Ukraine

Overall Thoughts on Ukraine

I honestly didn't think I would like Ukraine as much as I did. I came here because it was so different and and off the beaten track that I thought it would be an adventure and a unique experience. Having military tanks drive by the street in front of my hotel the first night I was in the capital and the sheer adventure of getting here by land added to the overall experience. Listen to episodes 125 and 126 of the podcast to get a glimpse on what it was like traveling through Eastern Europe to get here. Also listen to the first 5 minutes of episode 127 to get an idea of how crazy it was to watch thousands of military personnel and vehicles drive by from your balcony. 

Aside from the craziness of being in a country currently at war with Russia and visiting the world's biggest nuclear disaster zone Ukraine is actually an incredible place to visit full of good people with warm hearts. They have endured so much and I wish there was something I could do to help fix their economy and political situation, but for now, I guess the best thing we can do is understand which I feel like I have a much better understanding of now. I thought Ukraine would be one of those places I would check off my bucket list and never return to but as I'm headed to the airport now in a few hours to leave, I'm already wishing that I had planned to stay even longer and will be back. 

I now have a special place and understanding in my heart for the people of Ukraine and won't soon forget either.  Watch this video below to see how drastically different various sides and life in Ukraine can be, even in a single day. 

I hope this post inspires some of you to come visit Ukraine and experience it for yourself.

Warm Regards,

Johnny FD

Ukraine. You are beautiful.

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  1. Replies
    1. It's actually decently good. I never had a problem at restaurants, or anyone under 30 years old. But if you do, you can just use the google translate app which works really well in both Ukrainian and Russian.

  2. I was in Kiev last summer and I was astonished by how kind and happy Ukrainians are. They love their countries, they are pretty down to earth, and women are beautiful. And it's super safe. Fell in love with the city. I've lived in Prague and Vancouver and Seattle, Kiev is just awesome

    1. I was super impressed on how optimistic and positive Ukrainians are especially with all that is going on. +1 to everything you said.

  3. I want to drive a tank and shoot AK47s, great post, never would of visited Ukraine, you have sold it to me JFD


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