From visiting fairy-tale castles to trekking in the Ukrainian Carpathians, exploring both historical and industrial cities and visiting dark tourist places, such as a former nuclear missile facility and the Chernobyl Exclusion zone, this is the ultimate and most complete Ukraine itinerary available on the internet.
What was supposed to be a three-week stay in the charming city of Lviv turned out to be a 2-month journey across what is, in my opinion, the most fascinating country in Europe, travel-wise.
I had always been interested in visiting Kyiv and, more recently, also Chernobyl but, other than that, Ukraine itself never actually called me, for the simple reason that I didn’t know much about it.
And this is the problem of Ukraine: from a tourism perspective, the rest of the country remains the largest unknown territory in Europe, even for other Europeans.
Nonetheless, as I got into the country and started to explore more deeply, I began to realize that the largest country in Europe, nestled (both geographically and politically) between the EU and Russia, must also have the biggest hidden touristic potential.
From partying in a real cosmopolitan city to exploring the remotest mountain villages; from visiting otherworldly baroque monasteries to trying to sneak into a tank factory; and from having an espresso in the refined Old Town of Lviv to having lunch in a Vietnamese neighborhood inhabited by Vietnamese refugees invited by the USSR as a favor to Ho Chi Min; what makes Ukraine a fascinating destination is that it is one of the few countries that will totally satisfy both the sightseeing lover and the urban, intrepid explorer willing to visit the darkest and most offbeat stuff.
This post is a 3-week itinerary containing all the places I visited in Ukraine (almost), which also includes tips such as transportation and accommodation, all combined with my personal experience.
For things like how to get a visa, budget, cultural facts, etc. you must check out my travel tips for Ukraine
Ukraine is a far-flung country where visiting everything would imply a long time, perhaps several months.
However, Ukraine’s two most touristic cities – Kyiv and Lviv – are already a reason by themselves to visit Ukraine and, with a few more days, you can also get a real glimpse of what rural and Soviet Ukraine looks like.
Below is my recommendation of what places should you visit in Ukraine, based on the number of days you have. Of course, you can combine them, depending on your preference.
If you only have a few days for backpacking through in Ukraine, I recommend you stay in Kyiv, since the city is big enough to keep you busy for several days, plus you can do some great day trips to the infamous Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and Cherniviv.
Apart from visiting Kyiv and its amusing surroundings, you should take a train to the western city of Lviv, the Ukrainian cultural capital and a completely different world from Kyiv.
With one extra week for backpacking around Ukraine, I recommend you get into the Ukrainian mountains, the Carpathians, and do some proper sightseeing by visiting the castles and monasteries around Lviv and Kamianets Podilskyi.
If planning accordingly, in 3 weeks you can visit a fair amount of the country and, if interested in the Soviet Heritage and off the beaten track Ukraine (Against the Compass readers love it), I would first recommend you spare 1 or 2 extra days in both Lviv and Kyiv and, then, visit the city of Kharkiv and the former nuclear launch facility near Pervomaisk.
The best guide book is, by far, the one written by Bradt, as they provide so many details about each and every region in the country, including many mentions of real offbeat gems and deep and useful tips for backpacking in Ukraine.
A good purchase as well, but I prefer Bradt, as the Lonely Planet doesn’t get that deep into the different destinations.
Train is the way to go for backpacking in Ukraine, and you can book your tickets on this website
Lviv and Kyiv are the most obvious choices when choosing a starting point, for the simple reason that they have the largest number of international flight connections. Odessa has some international flights too. I actually flew out from Odessa to Minsk.
If you are backpacking around Europe, however, and enter Ukraine overland, you might start from a different city. For example, after 3 weeks of being in Ukraine, I traveled to Moldova from Odessa by train, and then re-entered Ukraine via Chernivtsi.
Check my Ukraine practical guide for all overlanding options.
Click on the image to see the interactive map
Everybody knows about Kyiv.
Many people know about Lviv too, but not as many, especially in the most Western part of Europe.
Nonetheless, you might be surprised to know that this is, by far, the most touristic place to visit in all Ukraine, an elegant city composed of stately architecture featuring gothic, baroque and classic-style buildings, hence reflecting their 700 years of history when they were part of Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It is important to mention that, unlike the rest of Ukraine, Lviv wasn’t part of the USSR until the end of WWII, in 1945.
Culturally, politically and architectonically, Lviv and Ukrainians from Lviv share closer ties with Central Europe than Kyiv and other parts of eastern Ukraine.
Consequently, Lviv and all of Galicia Oblast is the region with the strongest Ukrainian national identity.
It is also the city best prepared for tourists, home to a European-style old town with all the narrow alleys, coffee places and fine-dining restaurants that you tend to find in an old European town of this kind.
This is just a small summary, but, for more information, read my Lviv 3-day itinerary
Discover Lviv on an organized tour!
CLICK HERE TO SEE ALL AVAILABLE TOURS IN LVIV
Backpacking Hostel – Park Plus Hostel – I stayed here one night and it’s a great hostel to meet other backpackers, plus the location and facilities are great.
Budget Apartments – In Lviv, there are more touristic apartments than hotels and they tend to be a very good value-for-money option.
Mid-range Hotel – Villa Stanislavskyi Hotel – Elegant rooms in a classic building. Not expensive for what you get.
5-star hotel – Grand Hotel Lviv – One of the best hotels in town.
History says that, when the Mongols invaded Kyiv in the 13th century, today’s Pochaiv was found by a group of refugee monks who had fled Pechersk Lavra in Kyiv.
Those devoted monks somehow felt Pochaiv had some divine atmosphere, so they settled down and founded a monastery which, at first, was nothing more than a set of isolated caves but, over the centuries, it evolved into a stunning baroque complex.
Today, Pochaiv is the second holiest place in the country for Ukrainian Orthodox, after Kyiv Pechersk Lavra.
It is the second holiest place, yes, but the most remarkable in my opinion, and not only because it is architecturally more impressive, but because there are no tourists and it’s located in rural Ukraine, only surrounded by misty forest, hence providing a unique spiritual and purely Ukrainian atmosphere.
Visiting the huge Orthodox complex was great and then, in my guesthouse, there was a young monk who had been there for weeks and I don’t know, he was just so funny and hyperactive like no monk I have met before. Great time in Pochaiv.
By the way, for either lunch or dinner, the restaurant’s monastery is great and cheap. It’s one of those Soviet-style cafés with plenty of choices.
There aren’t many options and depending on the season, Pochaiv gets busy, so do book in advance!
Budget Guest house – Guest House Pochaiv – The one I stayed at which was absolutely perfect for me. Clean, comfortable rooms, a nice garden and not far from the monastery.
Budget Hotel – Premier Hotel Pochaiv – For more comfort, this inexpensive hotel is right next to the Lavra.
Alternatively, inside the monastery there is a hotel, and a Ukrainian pilgrim I met on the bus told me that they also have a budget dorm exclusively for pilgrims, but you will need to figure it out by yourself once you get there.
You can go by bus or train but, either way, you will have to stop in Ternopil.
There are several trains a day connecting Lviv with Ternopil and then, once in Ternopil, you need to take a marshrutka to Pochaiv.
The whole journey takes the entire morning.
I went to Ternopil by coach from Lviv, don’t ask me why, but I think it was because I really wanted to check out Stryiska Bus Station, which is built in a peculiar Soviet modernist building. It wasn’t a smart choice, as I remember waiting at the bus station for almost 3 hours for the bus to depart.
The advantage of going by bus, however, is that it drops you at the same bus station with buses going to Pochaiv, which is around 2km walk from the main train station.
Going to Pochaiv on day trip by public transportation isn’t convenient. By car it might be.
The mountain region south of Ivano-Frankivsk resisted Soviet occupation until 1960 so, in an attempt to alleviate Ukrainian nationalism, the Soviets decided to rename the city after the famous Ukrainian poet Ivano-Frankivsk; its previous name was Stanislaw.
That region had been the epicenter of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.
Ivano-Frankivsk is the main gateway to Ukrainian Carpathians, so most travelers coming from Lviv tend to stop here only to get off the train and get in a marshrutka, but I recommend you spend one night here, as Ivano-Frankivsk is a Polish-like city composed of a sophisticated downtown, pedestrian boulevards and a student atmosphere.
Besides strolling down the streets, you should climb the tower located in Rynok Square to get a panoramic view of the city.
For good coffee and food, go to Fabbrica.
Backpacker Hostel – Prostir – We stayed in this hostel and, besides having great facilities, it’s located in the city’s main square, so it can’t get better than that.
Top value-for-money hotel – Nadiya Hotel – Impeccable rooms, 5 minutes’ walk from the main square and not expensive at all.
You can go by train, but you need to stop in Lviv first.
The Carpathians is a mountain range that stretches across the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and, of course, Ukraine.
It is the third longest mountain range in Europe after the Urals and the Scandinavian Mountains.
I don’t know what the Carpathians are like in other European countries but in Ukraine, this is an isolated region home to traditional mountain villages mostly inhabited by a distinct ethnic group named the Hutsuls, a group of people who speak a different dialect and wear colorful woolen clothes.
They also have their own traditional folk dancing and a curious fact you might be interested in is that the Eurovision winner from 2004 was a Ukrainian lady who performed a Hutsul dance.
Traveling to the Carpathians feels like traveling back in time to pastoralist, ancient Europe.
Moreover, adventure travelers should know that this mountain range also offers plenty of trekking opportunities, the main reason people come here.
The Carpathians are the top backpacking adventure in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Carpathians is a big region that would require a separate travel guide, so in this Ukraine travel itinerary, will give you a summary, and then you can do your own research.
Where did we go?
We went to a small village named Kosiv, 100km south of Ivano-Frankivsk, where we spent 3 days.
From Kosiv, we did a 1-day trek through green-rolling landscapes and Hutsul villages.
The reason we went there was because I was contacted by a local and Against the Compass reader (@yaro_traveler), who hosted and took us around for our whole stay.
If you are not sure where to go, Kosiv is relatively easy to reach, is on the way to the next destination and its surroundings are beautiful.
Yaremche – This is the most developed town in the Carpathians and the most ready to host tourists. There is a tourist office where you can get information and plan your treks, either independently or with a guided tour.
Mount Hoverla – Hoverla is the tallest mountain in Ukraine (2061m). You can can climb up and down it in one day and there is a guesthouse right at the beginning of the trail. Otherwise, Vorokhta is the largest closest town and the official base.
Bukovel – Best ski resort in Ukraine.
Yasinya and Rakhiv – The area located on the other side of Mount Hoverla is actual off the beaten track Carpathians, where you will find the remotest and most traditional villages.
Kolomiya – The largest town close to Kosiv, and an unavoidable stop for continuing to Chernivtsi. The town itself is pretty and it has a famous market selling all types of Hutsul handicrafts.
Pretty much any village can be reached by marshrutka. Otherwise, hitchhiking is also a common option among locals, but expect to pay a small fee, which tends to be equal to a marshrutka ride.
There is also a train running from Yaremche to Vorokhta, which then continues west towards the area on the other side of Mount Hoverla. For continuing east towards Chernivtsi, you must take a marshrutka.
Due to the increase in popularity, today the different Carpathian towns are well-sorted for accommodation options.
Podillya is a historic region in Central Europe and there was a time in which Kamianets Podilski acted as its capital.
Today a UNESCO World Heritage site, the old city of Kamianets Podilski is great to stroll down, the highlight being a massive canyon that totally encircles the city’s jaw-dropping castle or fortress.
If you are looking for something offbeat, more alternative, perhaps you should skip this fairy town but we all have to admit that Kamianets might be the prettiest city in the country.
Kamianets was our first actual stop in our Ukraine itinerary after re-entering Ukraine from Moldova. We enjoyed our time here as we needed some good rest, so we spent our time wandering around the town, chilling out and eating our way through fine-dining restaurants.
Budget Hostel – Hostel Svid Hub – A brand-new, comfortable hostel and the best place to meet backpackers.
Budget Guest House – Guest House SunRise – Simple but comfortable and cozy guest house close to the old town with very welcoming staff.
Mid-range Hotel – Luxury House in Old Town – Traditional house featuring an awesome garden at the heart of Kamianets. Excellent value-for-money option.
Your best bet is taking a marshrutka to Kolomiya. From there, you can take a second one towards the city of Chernivtsi, from you will take the third one to Kamianets.
If you have time, I also suggest spending one night in Chernivtsi. I personally only spent a few hours around town, and I recall it being pretty.
To be very honest, since it was my last stop after spending 2 months backpacking in Ukraine and seeing so many cities, I was not impressed at all.
Sure, Odessa has nice restaurants, cafés and bars – a great place to hang out – and the architecture is monumental, but most city landmarks weren’t very exciting.
Moreover, Odessa is the beach-resort capital of Ukraine, one of the reasons it became so famous, but lying down on the shore of the Black Sea was not why I was backpacking in Ukraine.
Then, should you include Odessa in your Ukraine itinerary?
For some reason, travelers always tend to include Odessa in their Ukraine itinerary, even those backpacking in the country just for a week.
Perhaps, if Odessa had been the first place in my Ukraine itinerary, I would change my mind but, in my opinion, it has nothing remarkable to offer and places like Kharkiv or the Carpathians are far more interesting, for the simple reason that they offer something more unique.
Traveling is very subjective, however, and maybe you will go there and have the best time of your life, who knows, but if you like the traveling style of this blog, we may share a similar opinion.
By the way, from Odessa you can travel to Georgia (Batumi) by boat.
Budget Hostel – Friday Hostel – I spent one night in this friendly, brand-new hostel. Great location and plenty of like-minded travelers.
Boutique Hotel – Mr. Grey Hotel – A super-stylish hotel with the best service, rooms and location.
Top-end – Premier Hotel Odessa – One of the most popular 5-star hotels in town.
There isn’t a direct train, and you have 2 options:
This is so bloody awesome: an actual nuclear missile launch facility, no kidding.
After the dissolution of the USSR, Ukraine held approximately 30% of the total Soviet nuclear arsenal, including 40 underground silos (missile launch facilities) in Mykolaiv Oblast.
In 1994, however, after Ukraine joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, they agreed to destroy all of them, turning one of the 40 silos into an open-air museum that showcases tens of missiles, weapons, tanks and allows you get down into the silo, to the actual control room from where missiles were launched.
The entrance fee is about 400UAH, with tour guide included.
The tour, nevertheless, is only available in Russian. If you want an English-speaking tour, you must book it through a tour operator. The tour includes private transportation to and from Kyiv.
The museum is 30km north of the city of Pervomaisk, 224km north of Odessa and 319 south of Kyiv.
From Odessa, you can catch a direct bus or marshrutka (go early in the morning) and once in Pervomaisk, you need to either catch a taxi or a second marshrutka heading north towards Kyiv. For that, we just stood at the main road going into that direction.
We actually came from the eastern city of Kharkiv (517km) and since there weren’t any connections, it was a very long 2-day journey – Kharkiv-Kremenchuk-Kropuvnyysky-Pervomaisk – combining both trains and marshrutkas.
Pervomaisk is a shit hole of a town and we stayed in one of the few hotels you find in the city’s main square. We paid 450UAH for a basic double room.
If you could only visit one place in Ukraine, it should be Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.
It is far less touristic and manageable than Lviv, but I definitely prefer Kyiv.
Kyiv is in fact one of my favorite cities in the world, along with Tbilisi, and while Lviv is so cute and has a town feel, Kyiv is an extremely lively, vibrant and beautiful capital with so much going on.
There are soooo many things to do here, from visiting baroque-style buildings and epic cathedrals to a large WWII heritage, loads of Soviet things to see, a great bar scene and, basically, something going on in almost every corner.
This is just a small summary, but I have written a very comprehensive guide about the city:
Discover Kyiv on an organized tour!
CLICK HERE TO SEE ALL AVAILABLE TOURS IN KYIV
For more information, including more offbeat places, check my Kyiv travel guide.
Backpacker Hostel – Dream Hostel Kiev – Top backpacking hostel in the city, with a great traveling atmosphere and great location. A really good place.
A good hotel – Bursa Hotel – A nicely decorated hotel with a trendy style in the heart of Podil.
Mid-range Hotel – Ukraine Hotel – Surprisingly, the famous hotel that overlooks Independence Square isn’t expensive at all.
There are several trains a day connecting Odessa and Kyiv. If you decided to stop at the Strategic Missile Museum, you can also get a direct bus or marshrutka from Pervomaisk’s main station.
In 1986, a reactor from the nuclear plant located in the city of Pripyat suffered a massive explosion that provoked the release of tonnes of radioactive material into the sky.
It was an unprecedented accident that took the lives thousands and thousands of people and caused hundreds of thousands to be evacuated, plus all the social, economic and natural repercussions, whose consequences are still being suffered today.
As a result of this unfortunate disaster, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was created, a 30km² territory that surrounds the nuclear plant, and which anyone can visit today.
For getting in the Exclusion Zone you must book a tour with an authorized tour agency and typically, for the 1-day tour, you visit the ghost city of Pripyat, the nuclear plant and a few other landmarks.
There are also multi-day tours in which you get deeper into the Exclusion Zone, visiting surrounding villages inhabited by locals who have always refused to leave their homes.
It’s a great experience but remember that this isn’t a fun place; but one visits Chernobyl to learn and empathize with the victims.
For that, I wrote a comprehensive guide: How to visit Chernobyl responsibly.
The guide also contains everything you need to know about safety.
The Exclusion Zone is in a city called Pripyat, 130km north of Kyiv.
Chernobyl is the name of another city also located within the Exclusion Zone but for some reason, the nuclear plant is in Pripyat.
You can get to the area by yourself but as I said, you can’t get in the Exclusion Zone unless you book a tour with an authorized tour agency.
Similar to Kamianets, Cherniviv is another great city for sightseeing lovers but instead of having sort of a medieval feel, Cherniviv is famous for its jaw-dropping cathedrals and golden domes.
Located only 2 hours from Kyiv by train, Cherniviv has some of the highest concentration of UNESCO World Heritage sites in the country, most of them being religious buildings, since this beautiful city was one of the very few in this part of Ukraine whose original churches weren’t destroyed and replaced by concrete, Soviet facades, the reason why the city is revered by the whole Orthodox community.
It’s a small city which can easily be visited in a day but there is plenty of accommodation as well.
There are several trains a day running between Kyiv and Cherniviv
Kharkiv is an eastern city located less than 30km from the Russian border and my second favorite city in Ukraine after Kyiv.
Many travelers might not find Kharkiv a particularly amusing destination, however, as Kharkiv’s main attractive lies on its high abundance of Soviet legacy, so if you are aiming at savoring an espresso in a cheesy café while admiring some boring churches, Kharkiv might not be your destination of choice.
Nevertheless, Kharkiv isn’t the average Soviet city filled with ugly concrete and brutalist buildings but, with its affluence of imposing Stalinist architecture, the city also manifests an elegant feel and sophisticated atmosphere, the reason why this is claimed to be the most aesthetically attractive industrial city in the continent.
We actually visited Kharkiv on the day of my birthday, and I couldn’t had been happier with the place we chose to celebrate it: we visited a tank factory, ate Vietnamese food with Vietnamese people in the Vietnamese district of Kharkiv, and partied in a local rock & roll bar until late.
Don’t miss Kharkiv in your Ukraine travel itinerary.
These are just some of the many highlights.
Backpacker hostel – Hostel Sputnik – One of the most popular hostels in town, great location and an excellent vibe.
Budget Hotel – Siesta Hotel – Great budget accommodation close to the city center.
There are several trains a day running between Kyiv and Kharkiv. I recommend taking an overnight train.
Trains to Kiev run all day long.
An overview of the best activities to do in Ukraine. You can book them with just one click.