At a party one night in Brussels in 2018, an acquaintance named Vasyl invited me to join him and some friends on a trip to Kyiv (Kiev in English) that December to celebrate a birthday. Most were from Ukraine’s capital city, so I figured it was the best way to discover it. “I’m in,” I told him.
By the end of the trip, Vasyl was my Ukrainian “brother.” Nothing bonds people like sharing an apartment and crazy Kyiv nightlife for a weekend. He was also my de facto tour guide, showing me cultural sights when the rest of our group was sleeping.
Speaking of brothers, legend has it that Kyiv was founded by three, Kyi, Shchek and Khoryv, and their sister Lybid. The city is named after Kyi, the eldest brother. Legend further purports that the emergence of a great city in Kyiv’s location was prophesied by St. Andrew, after whom a spectacular church is named to this day.
Kyiv may have existed as early as the 6th century and it was a golden child of the Golden Age in the 10th–12th centuries. Since then, it has been destroyed twice, most recently, during World War II. But it quickly recovered, becoming the most important city of the Soviet Union after Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Kyiv first became part of the Soviet Union in 1921 and capital of Soviet Ukraine in 1934 then of Ukraine in 1991, when the U.S.S.R. dissolved. The city took a new type of leadership as Ukraine was a founding member of the Commonwealth of Independent States, an association of former Soviet republics, along with Russia and Belarus. (Interestingly, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – all now members of the European Union – declined to join the commonwealth.) In 2018, Ukraine pulled out because of mounting tension with Russia following the illegal takeover of Crimea in 2014. (Now Russian threatens to invade Ukraine in 2022, amassing 200,000 soldiers on its border!)
Former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko cut the official cord with the commonwealth, which had been unraveling for years. He’s a billionaire who founded a mega confectionary business called Roshen specializing in affordable chocolate.Nicknamed the “chocolate king,” Poroshenko is like Milton Hershey in America, democratizing chocolate for the masses. But the public was no longer sweet on him in 2019 and voted in Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky to replace him. No joke!
My laughs with Ukrainians in Kyiv began on a Friday evening at a swanky restaurant where we met girl friends of my Ukrainian guides. Then we went to an even swankier nightclub with a great DJ and stroke-inducing neon lights. This was a warm-up to the 30th birthday celebration of Vasyl’s old and my new friend, Vlad, who goes out in style.
The next day, we managed to make it to an afternoon brunch. Afterwards, Vasyl took a few of us to the majestic Saint Sophia Cathedral to atone for late-night partying. With 13 golden domes atop a Baroque facade, this 11th century building is unforgettable. It’s where several Kyivan princes are buried, including the city’s founder Yaroslav the Wise. No wonder Saint Sophia is an UNESCO World Heritage Site – one of two Orthodox Christian outposts with such designation in Kyiv. (The other is Pechersk Lavra, a cave monastery dating back to 1051, which unfortunately, we did not see.) While not yet on UNESCO’s list, St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery with a golden-lit mural is also magnificent. This functioning monastery became the headquarters of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2018. It is located near the impressive Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which riffs off St. Michael’s with golden lights at night.
Afterwards, Vasyl took me for hot chocolate at Lviv, a famous chocolatier’s café and one of Kyiv’s many coffeehouses. Borrowing from the Viennese tradition, Ukrainians love their java and often fruit-based strudel to go with it. In the last decade, Kyiv has cultivated coffeehouses and even has a coffee club bus that travels around the city.
At Christmastime, Kyiv decks the halls like other major European cities, including a Ferris Wheel. The latter is a strange European tradition in the winter, often with open-air gondolas. These giant wheels are associated with the holiday season, which is romantic until the point that you can’t feel your fingers. Kyiv’s Ferris Wheel is outdone during the holidays, however, by a huge tree in Sofia Square. It also has competition from the colorful lights of Parkovy Bridge, which reflects beautifully in Dnieper River and connects to recreational Trukhaniv Island.
Christmas is well celebrated in Ukraine as the majority of its citizens are Orthodox Christians. They observe the Julian calendar unlike Catholics and other Christians, who follow the more recent Gregorian calendar. This means that Orthodox Christians observe Christmas on Jan. 7 instead of Dec. 25. However, Kyiv starts getting merry for the season by mid-December. A Christmas market was being set up when we were there the first weekend of the month.
Meanwhile, we celebrated Vlad’s birthday. He booked the hottest nightclub in town, which included a multicourse dinner, dance show and DJ that inspired us to dance on tables. We spent our entire evening at this one-stop-shop of indulgence complete with dancing cowgirls, giant sparklers and random guys in Sponge Bob costumes. Of course, our evening did not stop at 3 am when this venue closed. We moved to a late-night club, dancing until nearly sunrise. With 20- and 30-somethings in Kyiv, that’s how you roll.
The next afternoon we had cabbage soup to recover. It was served inside hollowed out cabbages and tasted like heaven on earth. Each restaurant puts its own spin on this classic Ukrainian dish.
Vasyl then led some of us on a tour of the old part (Podil or Lower City) of Kyiv, namely the Vozdvyzhenka district that resembles an architectural rainbow with brightly painted, 19th century-style buildings that are ironically much older. It’s known as the “millionaires’ ghost town” because its 42 acres of luxury housing has lacked residents due to the 2008 financial crisis. En route, we passed the stately National Museum of the History of Ukraine, where the famous Motherland Monument sits, and turquoise St. Andrews Church.
Our last stop was at a Roshen chocolate shop, where I stockpiled stocking stuffers for Christmas. I returned with my Ukrainian “bro” and friends from Kyiv exhausted but happy with memories of sugarplums (us) dancing in my head. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!