Considering travel to Ukraine can open up a world of unique experiences in a country that is fairly new to the modern world of backpacker tourism. In fact, travelers will notice that not many hostels are available in the largest city of Kiev, but new ones have been springing up in areas such as Odessa and Lviv as those tend to draw in more foreigners. Because of this slow growth in tourism, it is probably the best time for travelers to visit Ukraine, especially when looking for more authentic experiences (ie those not tainted by the need to draw visitors). For those willing to take it a step further, here are some of the ways to authentically experience Ukraine.
Eat traditional food, like Ukrainian borscht and salo.
Being a typically poor country with particularly harsh winters, the food in Ukraine has been based around the comfort and warmth that comes from starchy and fatty foods, and of course, soup. Ukrainian borscht is probably the easiest and tastiest way to indulge in the local fare. This soup is usually prepared with beets or cabbage and may also contain meat and a healthy smattering of cream on top. Also on the list of tasty traditional treats are dumplings (pelmeni) and lots of potatoes.
The adventurous traveler can choose to step outside of their comfort zone and go for something truly Ukrainian: salo. Salo is something loosely translated into English as lard, but on closer inspection is actually cured fatback, with little to no actual pork meat. This dish is sliced and often served on bread with garlic or onion as an accompaniment to vodka.
Drink vodka whenever possible.
Just like salo, vodka is an integral part of the Ukrainian culture, and drinking it – straight – is the way to take it. However, this super cheap beverage should be accompanied by foods like pickles, garlic, onions or anything else that is oily, salty and acidic as they help to cut down on the bite. So, have your shots of vodka, but be sure to do it in moderation and with the right foods, and you’ll fit right in with your new Ukrainian mates.
Travel by train for a slow adventure.
Train travel is one of the main ways to cross the rather massive country, but riding the rails happens almost in slow motion. A trip from Kiev to Budapest takes well over 20 hours, for example. If you have the time, this can be one of the best ways to experience Ukraine as it allows you to take in the vast landscapes and possibly make new Ukrainian friends (if you can understand them). Not much in Ukraine is modern, and the feel of the trains will transport you back in time while making your way to your next stop.
Plan a trip in winter to see Ukraine at its best.
Although the Kiev parks fill up with green foliage in late spring, the true Ukrainian experience that you might picture in your head happens when the weather is bitter cold. In winter, Ukrainians bust out the fuzzy hats, fur coats and knee-high leather boots. Weekends become a time of play as locals take to ice fishing, ice skating and sledding down snow-covered hills. It is also the best time to enjoy some of that good ol’ Ukrainian vodka, borscht and salo you’ve been reading about.
Shop at markets for food, clothes and souvenirs.
Markets are a way of life in Ukraine, and most Ukrainians will spend the time to go to them since big shopping centers are often too expensive. Markets are a place to get fresh fruits and veggies, fresh meat, clothing of affordable quality and even home goods. Even if you are not looking for anything in particular, markets make for a fun way to spend an afternoon meeting locals and observing culture.
Written by Brooke Schoenman