City break destination: Kiev

Visitors to Kiev soon spot one of the biggest statues in the world, looming over a city that makes for the perfect city break. I landed at Kiev’s Boryspil Airport, and quickly picked up my hire car to drive into the city, just 18 miles to the west.

I was on a mission to explore Ukraine’s capital and find out for myself why a short break here is so renowned.

From its rich history, architectural delights, and progressive development, Kiev ticked many of my travel boxes and I can’t wait to go back.

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A mesmerising skyline overlooking a modern capital

On arrival, I soon caught my first glimpse of the Motherland Monument, which resembles a giant version of the Statue of Liberty. The enormous stainless steel figure was opened by USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev at the height of the Cold War back in 1981.

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37 years later and Ukraine is a fiercely independent nation. Yet, Kiev’s most spectacular landmark still features elements of previous Soviet domination with its 43-foot shield decorated with a hammer and sickle. Over the past 100 years, Ukraine has suffered a civil war, Nazi occupation, Soviet colonisation, and the world’s worst nuclear disaster. It has a turbulent history to say the least.

Locals, however, like my guide Sergei, continue to enjoy the present instead of lamenting the past. The statue is often simply called ‘Mother’ here, and treated as a quirky memento of a bygone era. Kiev’s residents are warm, friendly and keen to share local delicacies at every given opportunity. This all made for a fascinating weekend in the city.

Visiting the 350-foot ‘Mother’ in Perchersk Park was a definite highlight. Photographing the statue, however, is tricky given her size – unless you capture the shot from a distance. From the viewing platform inside her shield, there are spectacular views across the River Dnipro and the golden onion domes characterising Kiev’s phenomenal skyline.

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The most appealing domes reside at the glittering Lavra Monastery and the Santa Sophia Cathedral (a World Heritage site.) There’s a timeless atmosphere in the air as you explore sacred, underground labyrinths and dark chapels in this 1,000 year old religious complex. It’s full of gold-encrusted paintings, sombre bearded monks and stone stairways worn by centuries of footsteps.

This was my first visit to Kiev in 20 years and I remain amazed at how much the city has changed. Where once stood rusty Ladas and empty shops, are glossy sports cars parked outside trendy restaurants and music emanating from hipster bars.

Staying in the heart of Kiev is the icing on a fantastic city break. Flights, hotels and food are all reasonably priced for a European destination too.

And, nearby lies one of the most intriguing day trips the world has to offer.

Discovering the haunting history of Chernobyl

Chernobyl lies just 100 miles north of Kiev and is now open for official guided tours.

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Visiting the scene of such a catastrophic nuclear disaster is a solemn, haunting experience. The power station exploded in 1986 and is still surrounded by a heavily guarded exclusion zone.

Inside the zone, I was given a tour while carrying a personal Geiger counter to check radiation levels on my way round. I visited deserted schools, homes, and hospitals in an overgrown ghost-town – abandoned more than 30 years ago. It’s important not to touch anything here, or stroke the wild dogs that are seen roaming the empty streets. On your way out, you’re even screened for radioactive contamination.

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Back in the hustle and bustle of the capital, I visited the new Chernobyl Museum to improve my understanding of the disaster that locals believe killed up to 250,000 people.

Exploring deeper into Kiev’s vast underground

Not all Soviet relics are as chilling as Chernobyl, though. Kiev’s post-war underground subway system is very exciting – the neat stations are decorated with ornate tiles and profoundly impressive artwork.

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My favourite activity in the city was taking the multiple escalators down to Arsenalna, the world’s deepest rail station. At 350-foot below ground, it’s coincidentally exactly as far beneath the surface as the ‘Mother’ is above it.

I was able to explore both the highs and lows of the wonderful Kiev. An easy drive from the airport, this city has a wealth of history that is fascinating to discover. It has all the ingredients for the perfect city break and accommodates day trips with ease. My verdict: I’ll be going back soon!

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