What to see (and not see) while you're here
What to see and do... but avoid Ukraine between November and March... the weather is not great; the countryside drab (unless you go to the expensive Carpathians in winter) and the cities bleak... come in summer when everything is more upbeat!
Kiev - central Kiev is unlike other cities (the outskirts are grotty building sites) and the bustling centre of all things in Ukraine. St Sophia Cathedral is a must (most of the other churches are reconstructions; this is original), Cost 20 Uah; The Lavra caves (do not wear shorts; women must cover their head and not wear trousers - you can hire coverings and skirts there, but expect to queue to do so) - allow a day to spend time in the parks, see the caves, and the best museums: museum of miniature and National Treasures tickets for these total 40 UAH). The caves are free, but all other things require tickets.
Andreyvskiy Spusk - enjoy the bric-a-brac and souvenirs and the Museum of One Street.
The only church you can really take photos in in Kiev is St Vladimir's on Shevchenka - but it's a good church for photos (free entry; 10 Uah for photos). Go onto the metro, just to spend time going down one of the longest escalators you're likely to ever go on. If it's sunny get the metro to Hydropark stop, get off and find a river bank to lie on. Do NOT miss the Museum of Folk art and architecture if you don't have time to see rural Ukraine (see my blog on 'Budget Travel in Ukraine' to see how to get there yourself).
You can easily spend 4 days in Kiev...
ODESSA. the 'Pearl of the Black Sea' is, well, not exactly that (yet...) even though most advertising hoardings urge people 'I love my city Odessa!' and it has been eulogised in a great many songs and in Ukrainian and Soviet mentality.... BUT only 213 years old or so, built by order of Catherine the Great, Odessa has a couple of problems. Built out of sandstone, the buildings are literally becoming dust and the council is quickly trying to renovate at least their facades... but at the same time it is demolising irreplaceable architecture and replacing it with concrete and glass monoliths in an attempt to be 'modern'. The centre is pleasant enough, and the beaches add an extra diversion... but...
Odessa is becoming a popular place for tourists from the US and Europe - FAR more than 2 years ago. Odessa IS an attractive city (in the summer) and the current mayor is doing a lot to make the centre, 'old' city more attractive in order to attract UNESCO world heritage status. Much of the centre, however, is being demolished, probably to make way for concrete and glass monstrosities...) The Opera House is definitely worth a look (performances usually 2-3 times a week. Best place to sit is near the back, at the front of one of the galleries: thsi provides the best view of the hall, which is spectacular... the performance probably won't be, but you can spend the interval wandering around teh various corridors looking at the gilt and statuettes... currently you CANNOT enter the Opera Theatre without a ticket for a performance. Tickets available at the 'kacca' inside the main door). City Gardens is a great place to relax, and while away a few hours in a pavement cafe in the centre. Odessa Cathedral looks good from the outside (not inside), and you can see a crowd of men playing chess and a littel art and souvenir market in the grounds nearby; the train station is a grand affair and there are a couple of nice, renovated churches near there. If you're into clubbing, there are a multitude of places to go (Arkadia beach in the summer - kicks off about 11pm until 6am and Yo in the city centre in the winter months). In the summer, popular beaches stretch all along the coast and the best thing to do is go to Park Shevchenko and, from there walk along what is called 'The Health Road', a shady road, mostly closed to cars, which wends from Odessa to Arkadia - a distance of several kilometres - expect a good 1.5 hour walk all the way). From the road you can walk down to various beaches. The ones further from the centre are less busy and often cleaner (although rubbish throughout Ukraine is a significant problem...). The sea here is cleaner than it used to be, but beware of jellyfish and some strange biting sea lice things which will attach to you and start to suck blood (I have yet to find out what these things are...).
Odessa is not a great place to be in Winter. In autumn it retains a certain charm, similar to Paris in some areas. Spring passes quickly and is often wet and blustery.
You can spend little more than 3 days in Odessa (and that's including 2 days at the beach!)
VYLKOVO TOURS: You may be tempted to go on a trip to Vilkovo, the 'Ukrainian Venice', on the Danube Delta south of Odessa. If you do, do NOT get your hopes up. The tour will probably be in Russian. You will be marched through some back alleys in a little village where there are a couple of dirty streams backed onto by ramshackle houses and be told that this is the 'Ukrainian Venice'... which ironically says a lot about Ukraine... Your tour may include a trip on the Danube and a meal in a restaurant with 'time to explore'. You will get a meal, sitting at a table with many others, you will get time to sit by the river - with everyone else on your tour... but you cannot leave the grounds of the restaurant... and you will have 3-4 hours to sit in the grounds of that restaurant. It is an opportunity to see rural life in Ukraine, but it is NOT Venice...
If you want to get out of Odessa, you're better off going to Bilgorad Dnistrovsky, a quiet, laid-back town about 70km south (buses go there regularly from a street immediately to the West of the train station), centred on a big, old castle (ask for 'Zamok'). On the way you'll pass through a number of wonderful seaside village (Karolina Bugaz, Zatoka and others) which are great places to chill out on long beaches of white sand... but the accommodation is generally booked solid in the high season, and exorbitantly priced. Go there in June or September when the weather is still good but prices not stupidly inflated.
Uman: Lying mid-way between Kiev and Odessa, Uman is a historical park constructed by a rich Duke over 200 years ago to immortalise the beauty of his young bride. Their marriage ended in infidelity and tragedy, the old Duke dying within a few days of a 'broken heart'. His bride lived out the rest of her years alone adding to the park the Duke had built for her. It's a large, landscaped area including scuptures, lakes, rivers, fountains and waterfalls. It is a popular place with all Ukrainians at the weekend and on public holidays but still large enough to relax in and spectacular with autumn colours. Almost all buses travelling between Odessa and Kiev stop there. Uman's main bus station is about 100 metres from the northern entrance to the park. There is a hotel next to the entrance which, if you want to explore the park without crowds of other visitors, is worth staying in to enter the park early the next morning.
KAMYANETS-PODILSKY: 'the museum city', central Ukraine... has an impressive castle, but the 'city' itself is undergoing major restoration work at this time and looks like a building site.
HOTYN CASTLE: not far from Kamyanets-Podilksy is a bus ride (take bus from Kamyanets to Chernivtsi) and a walk away (there ARE signs to it!): a very impressive 16th century castle. A great place to visit in summer, take a picnic....
LVOV (L'viv): a small Prague without a river. The pleasure is to walk through the winding streets peering at a host of different churches. Climb the steps of the tower in the Town Hall in the central square to get a good look at the buildings below. The Apteka museum in one corner of the square is fascinating. Don't miss the Armenian Cathedral. The train station is a good 30 minutes walk from the centre of the town.
Carpathian Mountains... are probably not as impressive as you'd expect if you read (or hear Ukrainians eulogising) about them. There is a huge amount of litter there (Ukrainians have a tradition of leaving something of their's at a place which means they will return there.... unfortunately what most of them choose to leave, tying it to trees etc. is a plastic bottle or sweet wrapper, condom or empty crisp packet). They are restful in the summer, with a slow pace of life, but there are many more beautiful places in the world. Skiing in the winter there is exorbitant over the Xmas-New Year period... it's cheaper to go to France (let alone Bulgaria or Romania...) where you'll get much better skiing, conditions, and service. Recently there has not been very good snow.
Pochayev monastry. Out of the way; difficult to get to, but an impressive cave monastry all on its own, isolated on a hill in the middle of nowhere... missable if you've been to teh lavra caves in Kiev, but interesting all the same.