I recently spent some time in Ukraine on a tip from a fellow backpacker. My original plan was to go to Warsaw and Berlin, but as I was traveling through Eastern Europe, I realized many places really weren’t that ‘eastern’ anymore. In Kraków there was a Pizza Hut, KFC, Burger King, Subway, and multiple Starbucks within sight of my hostel. Was I in Poland or Florida? Nothing against Kraków, it’s a gorgeous city. It’s just that with increasing popularity comes hordes of tourists, westernization, and some of the authenticity is lost. So I made up my mind. I wanted to experience something different and Ukraine was my ticket to just that.
Ukraine is pretty far off the tourist map right now and is probably one of the few pre-tourism places left in Europe. It’s not an easy place to travel to and the border crossing was a bit of an experience all in itself. I read about apocalyptic tales of 8+ hour queues and shake-downs from corrupt officials, so I was prepared for the worst. It took our bus about an hour to get through, so not too bad, but next time I’ll definitely fly in.
At to the security check, armed military guards came onboard the bus to check passports. The weird thing is they collected everyone’s passports and then got off the bus. It made me slightly nervous watching someone with a semi-automatic weapon leave with my passport in a notoriously corrupt country. But the security guard came back on, looked me over, and said “tourist” in broken English. I nodded and the guard handed me back my passport. The funny thing is, our bus drove a mile down the road and we arrived at a second security check and did the same routine all over again. But you know what? It was all worth the effort and here’s why…
1. Lviv is an Eastern European Gem
Lviv is quite different from other cities in Ukraine. In a country that has such a storied communist history, this is one place that doesn’t feel communist at all. “Lviv is the next Prague!” Or at least that’s what my Lonely Planet guide said. After visiting, I’m a firm believer in that. Lviv’s compact old town has cobble-stoned streets, a beautiful market square, and cultural attractions just as good as any other more well-known Eastern European city.Lviv’s quaint Market Square (Rynok Square). Probably not what you imagined when you think of Ukraine. View from the City Hall Tower in the center of Lviv’s Market Square. You have to climb a bunch of rickety old stairs, but the views of Lviv’s Old Town are well worth it. One of the main thoroughfares off of Market Square with restaurants and cafes (Lviv has excellent coffee).
2. Ukraine is Cheap, Dirt Cheap
Right now, Ukraine is probably the cheapest country in Europe and one of the cheapest in the world. Unfortunately, the reasons for this are not positive ones. In the last 10 years, Ukraine has seen two major currency devaluations. The first was the 2008 financial crisis, which hit Ukraine particularly hard. The second is political instability from Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, which is still ongoing.
Ukrainian Hryvnia to U.S. Dollar (Last 10 Years)
Basically, the Ukrainian Hryvnia has fallen by ~80% relative to the Dollar since 2007. Even though inflation has been high, Ukraine is still an extremely cheap place to travel to. For a backpacker, a daily budget of $20 – $30 is more than enough. Here’s some examples of what things cost:
- $5/night at a hostel in Lviv
- $5 – $10/night at a hostel in Kiev
- $2.50 for a meal at McDonalds
- $10 – $15 for a nice dinner in Lviv
- $20+ for a nice dinner in Kiev (note – Kiev is by far the most expensive place in Ukraine)
- $0.15 for local transit in Kiev and Lviv (yea that’s right, only 15 cents)
- $0.60 for a half liter (~17 ounces) of Carlsberg beer at a grocery store
- $6.70 for a half liter of Stolichnaya Vodka at a grocery store
- $0.33 for a can of Pepsi at a grocery store
I’ve also recently spent some time in Thailand, and I’d consider Ukraine far cheaper. Hostels, local transportation, and alcohol are all cheaper in Ukraine. Food is cheaper in Thailand, but that’s only true for budget food. Nice restaurants in Bangkok can be quite expensive. In Ukraine, you can go out to a very nice dinner and spend $10 – $20 (a dinner that would easily cost you $50+ in Western Europe or the U.S.).Lviv Opera House, which has world-class performances that start at less than $1.50. This is one of the reasons I loved Ukraine. I could do things I normally couldn’t do elsewhere. Whether it was going out for a fancy dinner, going to see an opera, or getting a private room at a hostel.
3. Ukraine Provides a Real Travel Experience
Few people are traveling to Ukraine right now. Because of that, there isn’t tourism infrastructure like more popular Eastern European countries. There’s no selfie-sticks, no tourist traps (other than taxi drivers), and few people speak English. For me, all these factors equaled a ‘real’ travel experience. I actually felt like I was someplace unique. When walking around Lviv and Kiev, I wasn’t surrounded by other tourists, I was surrounded by Ukrainians. It was families singing and dancing, not mobs of tourists fighting each other for a perfect picture to put on Instagram.
The people are also great. Most were friendly and happy to try and decipher my effort to speak broken Ukrainian. It’s a very poor country, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place with as much nationalistic pride as there is in Ukraine. Also, the rumors are true, the people are beautiful. Walk around Kiev and you might think you’re walking around Paris based on how finely dressed everyone is. No one does more with less.Ukraine loves music. Go out on the weekend in Lviv or Kiev and you’re bound to find dozens of street performers along with locals singing and dancing.
Other than my friend who initially recommended Ukraine, I haven’t met one other traveler who has been or was planning on going there. Kind of shocking honestly, especially since backpackers love a cheap destination where they can stretch their cash. I have a feeling that will soon change. While some will remain cautious of the situation in Crimea, Lviv and Kiev are far away from the conflict zone. I’ve already noticed more and more hostels popping up around Kiev, so maybe the word is getting out. Better go while it’s still good!