Previous posts to this series can be found here:
We found that its prices, people, food, culture, outdoor pursuits, and its cities made it an absolutely fantastic travel destination. We just loved our two weeks there in late August and early September. Here’s why we recommend Ukraine as an awesome travel destination.
Local Prices and Costs of Ukraine Travel
The previous post mentioned some indirect effects of the conflict we experienced first and secondhand, but there is actually one more: the prices. It was simply amazing. It was like the entire country was having one big half-off sale. The Ukrainian hryvnia had lost nearly half its value against the US Dollar during the past year. Since the devaluation was sudden and recent, prices have not really had a chance to adjust to the fluctuation. Therefore everything our converted US Dollars would buy was about 50%-off from what they would have cost earlier in the year, which was already at a good value.
The Big Mac index, an often cited yet an informal economic indicator of currency valuation, shows that you can buy the famous burger for an average of $1.91 (Jan 2019), which is at the bottom of the chart and less than any other country in the world aside from Egypt. With the Big Mac averaging $5.51 in the US, this measure pegs the sandwich in Ukraine to be extremely undervalued. But even with its two all beef patties and special sauce, who wants a cheap fast food burger when you’re able to afford so much more? (And we all know its just thousand island dressing anyways).
We were fortunate enough to experience some fantastic affordable luxuries which were out of reach to us in the more expensive European countries we’d been traveling in. But in Ukraine, it was now very inexpensive to stay in 4 & 5 star accommodation. In fact, we found several of such hotels all for well under $50, which also included decadent breakfasts for two. We even stayed at a nice 3-star property with a lovely balcony facing the Carpathian Mountains for $17.
Casual dinners for two with drinks would always come in under $5 per person while 3-course fine dine dinners with drinks would never top $10 per person. Transportation was a similar bargain with intercity trains and busses never costing more than a few bucks. In fact, GoEuro recently released a study which lists Ukraine as the 5th least expensive country for transportation in the world and I believe that may have been using data collected before the recent currency devaluation.
In Ukraine, we got to live like kings, yet usually never spent more than about $60 on any single day. After being very budget-conscious during our prior European travels, it was so nice to just let our guard down and splurge. Room service, massages, upgrades to first class, and nice sit down meals every night were all experiences we would have never considered anywhere else; but here we could still indulge on all of these things without going above $30 per person. Amazing.
We also found Ukraine to be a very modern country. We’ve never experienced such remarkable value in any other country before, let alone, such a contemporary one.
Why Travel to Ukraine Now?
We really enjoyed our time in Ukraine. Sure, the bargain prices were nice, which certainly enhanced our experience. But several other factors really made it a surprisingly lovely country to travel through.
First of all: the people. I’m not sure that any other country we visited had people so polite, friendly, and even generous. While there was often a pretty strong language barrier, smiles abounded, and Ukranians would be often eager to help. Upon arriving into some cities, kindhearted locals who heard us speak English would offer to help us find our hotel – not as a tout, simply because they wanted to help. There were surprisingly no touts or beggars in Ukraine at all.
When standing in a crowded bar or restaurant, it was common practice for Ukrainians to offer up their seats so that we could sit down. The hospitality was pretty incredible to feel while traveling Ukraine.
And despite the devaluation of the currency, people seemed to be quite generous. Throughout our Ukraine travels, we were offered delicious fresh picked berries, lots on wine, and way too much vodka. The Ukranian vodka flows like water. So it’s common for Ukrainians to just order liter bottles of vodka to the table. This led to way too many shots of vodka being sent our way, which we politely never refused and often suffered it the following day.
Ukraine vodka is good, but the food and restaurants were fantastic. The cuisine in Ukraine was unexpectedly delicious.
Hearty regional fare would dominate menus with delicious meaty and mushroom filled dishes, almost always served with excellent potatoes pancakes and sour cream. But it wasn’t just local fare here. International food abounded in Ukraine too. We ate at some excellent Italian restaurants that were nearly as good as in Italy and even stumbled across some great sushi joints too.
We never had a bad or even mediocre meal. And the restaurants themselves were just phenomenal too. There were many trendy joints with fancy brickwork, exposed air ducts, and artistically creative plating. The only place in the world I’ve seen a greater abundance of chic and stylish restaurants is perhaps LA.
In Ukrainian cafes, it was common for classical or jazz covers of current popular pop hits to be playing in the background. Dining here while the beautiful people of Ukraine would come out to sip a latte or perhaps house brewed beer felt worlds away from my preconceived notions of the country skewed by the media reports. And in Lviv, there were a number of very creative and bizarre theme restaurants (including the strangest restaurant in the world) that we enjoyed. But most importantly the food was excellent in all of these fashionable joints.
Ordering was sometimes a challenge as menus would usually be Cyrillic script only and since we do not have a Cyrillic keyboard on our smartphone (that we use as a translator) menu items would simply appear as jumbled shapes and backwards letters. So sometimes we would simply point to an unknown menu item and hope for the best. The dishes arriving to our table would be a complete surprise for us, yet often these would be among some of the best meals.
Our trip there in late August and early September coincided with the start of autumn. Most days the weather was absolutely beautiful. The first few leaves were beginning to fall. Completely clear blue sunny skies were normal. Temperatures would warm to a perfect mid-to-low 70s (F) during the day.
There is a lot of great outdoor recreation to be had in such great weather. The Carpathean Mountains are filled with trails to go hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and lots of things to do. There are lakes and rivers to which you can go row boating or rafting on. We also noticed many high ropes courses on offer. Opportunities for outdoor pursuits appeared everywhere.
Ukraine’s countryside is beautiful. Being in the mountains and experiencing the rustic hutsul culture reminded me of vacationing in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.
Our Ukraine Vacation
And though the nature and outdoor pursuits throughout the country were abundant, the cities in west Ukraine also have great appeal to them. Lviv has a truly European vibe to it with its beautiful architecture, town square, castle, and grand churches. The nightlife is fun, there are at least five breweries (bonus points for us) and I’ve already mentioned how great the restaurant scene is.
Our introduction to Ukraine in Truskavets was interesting. This resort spa town attracts people to it by its supposed healing waters. There are different types of water to drink which helps cure certain ailments. They’re dispensed to the public for free throughout a few different buildings that house a number of fountains.
Visitors then fill cups specifically created for this water which has a sort-of built in straw so that it avoids your teeth, as the water can be harmful to your enamel. We gave the water a try and hopefully, it gave our livers a bit of the boost in advance of all the vodka we would later consume.
There are spa facilities throughout the tourist town which perform a variety of traditional and unique treatments all at very affordable prices. While Truskavets was not a highlight of our visit to Ukraine, it was certainly an interesting place to venture to.
We also enjoyed our few days in Ivano-Frankivsk. And though there wasn’t really any major tourism draw there, we found it to be a very nice livable city. We found pedestrian shopping areas lined with cafes and plentiful wide open park spaces with beautiful lakes and carnival attractions.
The tourist town of Yaremche offered us a gateway to the Carpathian Mountains. Here we found great hiking on well-marked trails, among other outdoor pursuits that filled our time. Meanwhile, there were lots of souvenir markets and spas, if shopping and pampering is more your style.
Kolomyya was yet another quant city to stay in for a few days at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. The Easter Egg museum is an interesting attraction but even better was the Hutsul Museum exploring hutsul artifacts and artwork.
Perhaps best of all in Kolomyya was the fact we were able to score a room at the infamous On The Corner guesthouse, which has been featured on a number of travel shows and was recently listed as one of Lonely Planet’s Top Accommodation Picks of 2014.
Normally rooms for this place would have been booked full well in advance but due to a decline in international tourism in Ukraine, we were delighted to experience the owner’s exemplary hospitality, booking the same day as arrival.
Lastly, our journey took us to Chernivtsi to see its beautiful UNESCO protected University. Its unique architecture sometimes draws comparison to Hogwarts.
High-end restaurants line a busy pedestrian promenade. Rock bands belted out both English and Ukrainian hits in underground pubs. While another part of this country was facing grave brutalities, it was all smiles, laughter and good times here and throughout the western side of this remarkable country.
We loved visiting Ukraine during this trip in 2014 and can now highly recommend through our travel blog for others to make the journey to this special country. We can only hope to one day return to Ukraine for further exploration, some vodka, and more fun!