Ukraine Tourist Information and Tips
Ukrainian cuisine is quite tasty, but just as other cuisines in the region uses a lot of fat ingredients, especially in the festive dishes. Traditional local food includes "salo" (salted lard) and soups like "borshch" ( борщ in Ukrainian) made of red beets or "solianka" ( сол€нка in Ukrainian) which is a delicious meat soup. The first, salo, is perhaps something you might not make yourself try - however is a delicious side dish, as for the soups being a must-have dish.
If you are outside a big city or in doubt about food, exercise caution and common sense about where you buy food. Try to buy groceries only in supermarkets or large grocery stores, always check the expiration date, and never buy meat or dairy products on the street (you can buy them at the market, but not near the market).
In most towns in Ukraine there are some very good restaurants. Read the menu boards posted by the entrance of every establishment to help you to choose.
You may also find nice places to eat not by signs, but just by the smoke of traditional wood fires. These are often places where they serve traditional Ukrainian food, including very tasty shashlyky ( шашлики in Ukrainian). Restaurateurs are very friendly, and, more often than not, you will be one of their first foreign visitors. Next to the "borshch", you might also ask for "varenyky" ( вареники in Ukrainian, dumplings filled with meat or vegetables) or "deruny" ( деруни , potato pancakes). You have to try varenyky with potatoes and cottage cheese in a sauteed onion and sourcream sauce, a fantastic dish. These are just starters, but ones that might fill you up quickly.
The Ukrainian specialty is horilka (the local name for vodka) with pepper. Other kinds of vodka are also quite popular - linden (tilia), honey, birch, wheat. Prices range from $2 to $30 (1-7И)/0,5 l. Souvenir bottles are available for higher prices (some bottles reach upwards of $50 (35И)/0.5 l). There is a great choice of wine, both domestic and imported. The domestic wines mostly originate in the south, in the Crimean region - known for wine making dating back to early Greek settlement over 2,000 years ago, although wines from the Carpathian region of Uzhorod are also quite tasty. Prices for local wine range between $2 to $50 (2-35И) per bottle of 0,75 l (avoid the cheapest wines, $1 or less, as these are sometimes bottled as house wines but sold as local vintages), however, one can find genuine Italian, French, Australian wines from $50 per bottle and more in big supermarkets and most restaurants. The price of imported wines dropped significantly over the last number of years and trends indicate further reductions in price.
There are a lot of beverages (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic). Ukrainian beer is of very good quality. Beer from barrels or kegs (more common in cafes) is often watered down. Canned beer is not very common in Ukraine and sometimes not of the same quality as the same variety sold in bottles. The best beers are brewed by Lvivske, Obolon and PPB (Persha Privatna Brovarnia). Imported beers are also widely available but more expensive Ц for instance, a bottle of Austrian Edelweiss can cost upwards of $2USD while average price of Ukrainian beer is 50?. All told, Ukrainian beers are very tasty and gaining popularity elsewhere in Europe.
Of non-alcoholic beverages one should try kvas Ц a typically slavic drink made of rye or wheat. During the summer one can easily buy it from designated street vendors. It's better to buy it in bottles due of unknown cleanness of the barrel. Dairy drinks, of all sorts, are also available, although mostly in supermarkets. Bottles of mineral water are available everywhere, as well as lemonades, beer, and strong drinks. When seeking to buy bottled water make sure to ask for "voda bez hazu" (water without gas) otherwise you are likely to be handed the carbonated drink.
WARNING. Never buy vodka or konjak (the local name for brandy) outside supermarkets or liquor stores, for there are a lot of fakes. Every year a few die as a result of methyl alcohol poisoning - a compound used to make fake vodkas.
Hotels might be a traumatic experience for a westerner anywhere outside Kyiv. The cheaper the hotel, the larger the chance of some quite unfortunate surprises, especially for those not familiar with the Soviet-style level of service which still remains in many places.
There are many mid- range (E 25-45) options outside Kyiv. For instance in IvanoFrankivsk (near the Carpathians), the going rate is approximately 35 euro for a suite (bedroom and sitting room)in Hotel Nadia. Many hotels have the choice between renovated rooms/suites ("western style") and not renovated rooms (easteuropean style). The last choice is more than 50% cheaper and gives you a spacious old fashioned 2 room suite, basic but clean!
There are only three 5-star hotels: in Kyiv called the Premier Palace and Opera, and another one in Doneck called Donbass Palace, but they are very expensive. Two western hotels recently opened, Radisson SAS and Hyatt. They are not on the cheap side either and are usually full, so make reservations in advance.
Another option is to rent an apartment on the Internet before you leave your country. There's many to choose from in Kyiv and Odessa. Tip: Read Kyiv in your pocket on Internet!
What many people from ex-soviet countries do is to go to the railway station, where they try to find people who are willing to rent a room. Prices are usually much cheaper and if there are enough people offering the room you can make great deals (in Yalta people are almost fighting to be able to talk to you).
These deals are usually not legal and they will take you to a corner before negotiating. Make sure they have warm water, and don't be afraid to say it's not what you expected when seeing the room.
Many people will tell you that you can take a copy of your visa with you. Sadly, some people experience trouble over this. It's always better to carry your passport with you. A photocopy can be refused as proof of identity. A phone call to a local that can help you will often prove very effective to help you.
Get the details of your local embassy and/or consulates in advance and note their emergency numbers.
If you can it is useful to have a bi-lingual acquaintance who can be called in an emergency or if you encounter difficulties. If staying for any length of time it is advisable to get a local SIM card for your mobile for emergencies, and for cheaper local calls/texts. These are widely available, cheap (often free) and easy to 'top-up'
As in any other country, using common sense when traveling in Ukraine will minimize any chances of being victim of petty crime and theft. Try not to publicize the fact that you're a foreigner or flaunt your wealth: by clothing or otherwise. With the exception of Kyiv, Odessa, and other large cities, foreign tourists are still quite rare. As in any other country, the possibility of petty theft exists. In Kyiv, make sure to guard your bags and person because pickpocketing is very common. Guides have told tourists to watch certain people because they heard people say, "They look like Americans: let's follow them for a while and see what we can get."
Robberies and scams on tourists are fairly common, especially the wallet scam in Kiev.
Opposite, if you are arrested by police or other law enforcement, do your best to inform them that you're a foreign visitor. Not many police officials speak foreign languages freely, but many people are eager to assist in translation.
Don't drink alcohol in a company of unknown people (which may be suggested more freely than in the West). You don't know how much they are going to drink (and convince you to drink with them) and what conflicts may arise after that. Also, many Ukrainians, known for a penchant for a good drink, can sometimes consume such an amount of vodka that would be considered lethal for the average beer-accustomed Westerner.
Your Financial Security
Ukraine is a predominantly cash economy. The network of bank offices and ATMs (Bankomats) has grown quickly and are now readily available in all but the smallest villages. Do check the security of the machine - it would be wise to use one that is obviously at a bank, rather than in another establishment. You can use your credit cards (mostly MasterCard & Visa) or cash traveler's cheques easily. Credit and debit cards are accepted by the supermarkets. But avoid using your credit/debit cards for payments at establishments in smaller towns as retailers are not trained and controlled enough to ensure your card privacy. Instead, it is widely acceptable to pay cash. Locals (especially businesspeople) sometimes carry, and pay in cash amounts considered unusually large in other countries. Don't suspect criminal activity in every such case.
Also, it is strongly recommended to avoid individual (street) currency exchangers as there are thieves among such exchangers, that may instead give you old, Soviet-era currency or also coupons that have been withdrawn from circulation since the mid 1990's. Use special exchange booths (widely available) and banks; also be wary of exchange rate tricks like 5.059/5.62 buy/sell instead of 5.59/5.62.
The Euro and US dollar are generally accepted as alternative forms of currency, particularly in tourist areas. They are also the most widely accepted convertible currency at the exchange booths, with British pounds in third place.
The area around the U.S. embassy in Kiev is known for the provocateur groups targeting black people, and there have been reports of such attacks on Andriyivski, the main tourist street that runs from Mykhailivska down into Podil. Particulary in rural areas, having dark skin is often a source of prejudice. Antisemitism is still a lingering problem in some Eastern regions.
Anecdotal experience is that there is some underlying racism in Ukraine, indeed much of the former Soviet Union. Migrants from Middle and Central Asia and gypsies receive much closer and frequent attention from the militsiya (police). Always have your passport (or a photocopy of the main pages if you're concerned about losing it or if you're staying in a hotel that is holding it) as foreigners are treated more favorably than others. This is not to say that it is unsafe or threatening, but it is better to be forewarned of the realities.
While there's a lot of swimming and diving attractions throughout Ukraine, local water rescue is tremendously underfunded. It is unlikely that you would be noticed while drowning, especially on the river. Use only officially established beaches.
Ukraine has some of the worst statistics for road related deaths and injuries in the world - so act accordingly. Take care when crossing the roads; walk and drive defensively - be aware that traffic overtakes on both the inside and outside. Sometimes you even need to take care when using the sidewalks, as in rush-hours the black, slab-sided Audi/BMW/Mercedes sometimes opt to avoid the traffic by using the wide sidewalks; pedestrians or not. Owners/drivers of expensive cars have been known, at times, to be more careless of the safety of pedestrians. Drivers rarely grant priority to pedestrians crossing a road unless there are pedestrian lights. Always watch out for your safety.
Also be warned that pavements suffer in the same way as the roads in terms of collapsing infrastructure. Take care when walking, especially in the dark and away from the downtown areas of the main cities (a torch/flashlight is a useful possession) as the streets are poorly lit, as are most of the entries/stairwells to buildings, and the street and sidewalk surfaces are often dangerously pot-holed. Don't step on man-hole covers, as these can 'tip' dropping your leg into the hole with all the potential injuries!