The Far East of Europe: Seven Challenges of Visiting Ukraine

2 Aug

I’m traveling in Ukraine right now. It’s the edge of Europe, where Central European culture gives way to Slavic, East Eurasian culture. Ukraine is a rewarding place to visit. The history is fascinating, there are few other tourists, and it is extremely cheap. That being said, it presents challenges to the traveler which simply aren’t a big issue in other parts of Eastern Europe. Here is my advice on dealing with seven major challenges that you’ll face when visiting Ukraine.

1: There are dangerous areas in the east and Crimea (but the west is safe)

Eastern Ukraine has been in the news a lot lately, as has Crimea, with the recent attacks from pro Russian forces. It’s not a safe place to visit at the moment, and travelers should stay away. If you visit a city, be sure to avoid any political protests. Lviv is generally the most touristed city, safe and packed with great sights. The carpathian region is also a safe area.

2: Learning to read cyrillic is not a good help, it’s a vital necessity

You can’t get by in Ukraine without learning the cyrillic alphabet. You simply can’t. Signs and menus, even in touristy places, are usually only in cyrillic. Don’t even think about reading a train timetable without knowing how place names are spelt in cyrillic. It isn’t as hard to learn as you think, so just go ahead and memorize it.

3: The Tap Water is not drinkable, and be careful when grocery shopping

The tap water in Ukraine has a nasty chlorine taste and is not drinkable for people whose bodies aren’t used to it. In addition, be aware that the quality of meat and dairy items in grocery stores should be checked before they are bought.

4: Service is inefficient, slow and rude

It’s a fact of life here, the service in Ukraine is ****. The waiters seem very impatient to take your order (and have little tolerance for broken, limited Ukrainian), and yet they aren’t ever impatient to get your food out to you. Sometimes, when you need something, you can’t help but feel that they trying to avoid eye contact with you. Service is a bit better in the tourist areas, but don’t expect much.

5: The language barrier is big and real

People here speak Russian and Ukranian, and not much else. For the most part, only younger people will know more than 2 words of english. It makes sense to, when buying a train ticket, write down the time and number of the train route you want on a piece of paper (with the destination in cyrillic) rather than trying to explain to an impatient train station employee.

6: There is not much of a tourist infrastructure (yet)

Outside of Lviv, there are hardly any hostels. There are a few tour companies that arrange hiking tours of the Carpathian’s, but the signage and mapping of hiking trails in the region is terrible. And a tourist information office that’s actually useful? Good luck finding one. The upside is that few tourists are here, and so it really feels like an old, authentic Eastern European experience. It’s very cheap too.

7: There are scams and thefts

Ukraine may not attract the tourist crowds of Italy or France, but don’t go thinking that there’s no opportunity for scams and thefts. The classic European scams are here. There’s the women asking you to hold their baby, the aggressive fake taxi drivers at airports and train stations, and the pickpockets who try to distract you somehow and take your wallet. Make sure you agree on a price before taking a taxi. If they gesture “just get in, it will be fine”, when you ask about the price, don’t get in!

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