Kiev, Ukraine – A Weekend in the Steps of the Vikings

Kiev, or Kyiv, has a long history. And as often is the case, several parts of it are disputed. Today the city is the capital of Ukraine as well as one of the largest cities in Europe. Kiev is the English name for the city, while Kyiv is the Latin rendering of Ukrainian (that uses the Cyrillic alphabet) Ки́їв. The former capital of Kievan Rus’ has a strong connection with the Viking voyages to the east. The land of the Rus reminds us of the travels from the past as well as our own, so we were more than happy to find ourselves in Kiev a late March evening in 2019. This is us dreaming back to a time when traveling was less troubled by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Interesting Thoughts About Names

A lot of things begin with the name “Rus’“. Some believe that the Rus, a group of Varangians, originated somewhere in the Baltic region and a common suggestion is Roslagen in Sweden. There is, for example, a statue of the boat belonging to the Viking Rurik in Norrtälje. Rurik is believed to have been the chieftain of the Rus and ruler of Kievan Rus’ from the seat in Novgorod.

Parts of the land of the Rus later became what is today Russia. You might find a similarity between the names. It is also interesting to note the Finnish and Estonian names for Sweden, Ruotsi and Rootsi respectively. These terms mean “the men who row”. An earlier name for Roslagen was Roden. A fascinating connection is the Swedish word for rowing, rodd. So Russia might actually be named after the Norsemen who controlled big parts of Eastern Europe and the name for Sweden in a few languages might have the same origin. The debate about these origins, however, is fierce.

Staying in Podil

After landing at Boryspil International Airport, we just had to clear immigration before the hotel transfer service drove us to Podil. Podil is one of the historic neighbourhoods of Kiev. Its location at the Dnieper has made it an important area for the city’s trade and industry. The river port previously had passenger ferries but does today mostly handle tourist boats. Nowadays Podil is one of the most vibrant areas of the capital. The Volodymyrska Hill separates the area from the city centre.

For us it was the perfect base to explore Kiev, we could both take long walks and use the city’s metro system to reach further. We stayed at the small Staro Hotel. The name means the Old Hotel. Just a short walk from the centre of Podil, we were close to everything we needed for a weekend in the city.

Exploring Kiev: Walking to Independence Square

Our first morning in Kiev started with breakfast. Breakfast in countries like Ukraine and its neighbours is nothing I’m very impressed with. Let’s say that it is quite basic and similar to most other countries. Well, I was really looking forward to getting out and explore Kiev. So we were soon walking along the streets of Podil. It did not take long before we were heading up the Andriyivskyy Descent towards St. Andrew’s Church and Volodymyrska Hill. Andriyivskyy Descent connects the Upper Town of Kiev with the historical commercial districts of Podil and it was already filling up with street sellers. Along the 720-metre descent, there are several landmarks such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s house. Too bad Susann didn’t realise it until now.

In addition, the area around the blue St. Andrew’s Church, with its golden spires, was full of street artists. There were paintings on display all along the walking path below the church.

The spring sun had not yet heated up the air in Kiev. The Volodymyrska Hill offered a great view over the Dnieper and the grey skies around the city. Passing by playground after playground we almost wished that we would have brought Little A with us. We might have been a bit careful with bringing her to Ukraine because of all the news from the country. However, we were really greeted by a friendly city that felt safe to walk around in.

From the Volodymyrska Hill it is just a short walk to the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the Independence Square. The square has a long history including many name changes, but for us younger Europeans it is most famous from the Ukrainian Revolution of 2013 and 2014. It was the centre of the protests which saw the end of the rule of the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. The square is huge and visitors will find both restaurants and shopping centres hidden around corners and underground. For us it meant a perfect place for a lunch break.

Exploring Kiev: Old Kiev

Many of Kiev’s main sights are within reach of Maidan. The impressive Khreschatyk Street leads south and it is possible to imagine how impressive both military parades and demonstrations must look. It really is enough to just walk along the street and take in the view and atmosphere.

Smaller streets took us to the Golden Gate and the Saint Sophia Cathedral. The Golden Gate was the main gate of a fortified Kiev in the 11th century. The original has not survived the centuries since, but the gate was rebuilt by the Soviet Union in 1982. Another sight from the time of the Kievan Rus’ is the impressive Saint Sophia Cathedral. Its golden spires are a symbol for Kiev. The cathedral has been named after the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul and it dates back to the 11th century.

Our feet could not bear much more walking for our first day in Kiev and all four of them were more than happy to get back to the hotel to rest in the evening. One thing that surprised us about the city is that, though walkable, the distances are quite long.

Exploring Kiev: The Metro to Hidropark

The mighty Dnieper flows through Kiev and splits the city in two. Well, even more parts if you consider the many river islands. To see if we could get a good river view of the city we decided to take the metro to Hidropark. Hidropark is a recreational park located on an island in the middle of the river. However, it turned out to be quite deserted this time of the year. The park’s operating season seems to be limited to the summers and our attempts to get a great view were unsuccessful. It was however a possibility to put Kiev in a better perspective when seeing how the city spreads out along the river. We were soon back on the metro towards the hills overlooking the river.

Exploring Kiev: A Walk to the Motherland Monument

Soon we found ourselves in front of the Memorial of Eternal Glory and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Park of Eternal Glory. The 27 meter high obelisk is overlooking the Dnieper at the foot of the hill.

Continuing south you pass by a district with several national museums and the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. The Lavra is a historic Orthodox Christian monastery, which together with the Saint Sophia Cathedral is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kiev is famous for its golden domes and spires and Kiev Pechersk Lavra has plenty of them. As with many old sights in Kiev, the monastery dates back to the 11th century and is today the residence of over a hundred monks.

We continued even further south for a lunch at a traditional Ukrainian restaurant, which you could also consider a tourist trap. But what do you do once you get hungry from all the walking? It was a good time to eat and the restaurant was close to our main target for the day, the Motherland Monument.

There was, however, one more stop along the route after lunch. We stumbled upon the Local Conflicts’ Museum, with a lot of old Soviet military equipment. As I’m fascinated by the military history of the Cold War, it was interesting to see some of the vehicles that we usually only see in the movies.

From the small museum it was just a short walk to the great Motherland Monument (Ukrainian Batkivshchýna-Máty). The monument is inside a large park with another great view of the river. The Motherland Monument was completed in 1981 and the steel statue is 62 meters high. Only the sword is 16 meters long. It is a part of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, a museum that we sadly did not have time to visit. We were soon back on the metro to get back to Podil with even more tired feet than the day before.

Exploring Podil: A Walk Along Dnieper River

We had half a day left before we had to leave for the airport and our flight back home. It was time well spent on exploring the area of Podil. We started by getting back up on Volodymyrska Hill. Here we were able to see the St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery before getting the funicular back down to Podil.

The main exploration of the day was eventually the promenade along the Dnieper. Starting at the Kyiv River Port, an impressive building that is sparsely used today, we headed upstream. It was just to enjoy the calm, with very few people around. Eventually we reached a time when we had to return and catch our transport back to the airport. Every adventure comes to an end and we look forward to a new possibility to explore the Ukrainian capital.

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