Shining with Orthodox golden domes that rise from forested hilltops, crisscrossed by narrow cobblestone streets, and speckled by quiet, leafy parks, Kyiv draws visitors with an Eastern European charm.
And for those who seek the exotic artifacts of the Soviet era -- Lenin statues, imposing bronze monuments and colonnaded subway stations -- Kyiv has those too.
Founded more than 1,500 years ago, Kyiv is one of the oldest and historically richest cities in Eastern Europe. The site of the ancient Kyivan Rus state, forerunner of the Russian empire, it is considered the birthplace of Slavic civilization. The city endured the Mongol-Tatar invasion, was an important provincial capital in the Tsarist and Soviet eras and in 1991 finally became the capital of an independent Ukraine.
Today, Kyiv strives to be a proper European city, at the same time preserving its unique Slavic appeal. Cut in two by the broad Dnieper river, the city is a mix of medieval onion-domed Orthodox cathedrals, elegant turn of the 20th century buildings and some stubbornly durable artifacts of the Soviet times, including giant statues and gloomy apartment blocks on the city`s outskirts.
Begin your tour with Khreshchatyk street, Kyiv`s calling card, a broad avenue lined with grand Stalin-era brown brick buildings and chestnut trees. On weekends, when Khreshchatyk is closed to traffic, it is especially pleasant to walk and gives you a chance to mix with the local crowd -- glamorous young women walking hand in hand with their lucky suitors, teenagers dancing to hip hop music and retirees taking their giggly grandchildren for a stroll.
Khreshchatyk is at its best in May, when the chestnuts -- the city`s symbol -- are in full bloom and they fill the air with a delicate sweet aroma.
The street culminates with Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, where Ukrainians made history in 2004 by staging the peaceful Orange Revolution that overturned a fraudulent election and brought a pro-Western opposition leader to power.
Since then, the concept of opposition protests has become so popular in Ukraine that hardly a day goes by in Kyiv without a rally of some sort. Don`t get intimidated by flag-waving activists demonstrating in front of a government building or setting up a tent camp in the center of the city. In fact you can join the democratic celebration.
Aside from the revolution, Maidan is noted for the soaring 130-foot statue of a young woman in the national costume representing the newly independent Ukraine. Many Ukrainians appreciate the statue`s political significance though question its taste.
Kyiv is dotted with hundreds of medieval Orthodox cathedrals and monasteries -- a reminder that it was here that the state of Kyivan Rus (parts of modern-day Ukraine, Russia and Belarus) became Christian. In 988 A.D the Slavic prince Volodymyr marched his servants into the Dnieper to be baptized and eventually converted the whole region to Christianity.
If you don`t have time for all of the churches, make sure you see at least three: St. Sofia and St. Michael cathedrals, both just up the hill from the Independence Square, and the landmark Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, also known as the Cave Monastery, overlooking the Dnieper.
Founded in the 11th century by Volodymyr`s son Yaroslav, St. Sofia`s Cathedral was rebuilt in the 17-18th centuries in the so-called Ukrainian Baroque style, which is more modest in decoration than the classic Baroque. The cathedral managed to escape destruction by atheist Soviet authorities when a group of historians cleverly proposed to close it to worshippers and turn it into a museum, thus preserving its ancient mosaics and frescos.
The white-and-blue golden-domed St. Michael, dating back to the 12th century, was not so lucky. The cathedral, also built in the Ukrainian Baroque style, was demolished in 1935 and was rebuilt only in the late 1990s.
St. Michael`s is a popular place to get married. As you approach the cathedral you may run into beaming brides in elaborate white dresses posing for photos, and their more serious grooms clad in dark suits. They may be cracking a bottle of Champagne.
To feel the atmosphere of Kyiv of the beginning of 20th century, head to Andriivsky Descent, a cobblestone, serpentine street that is one of the oldest in Kyiv. The Descent is often compared with Montmartre in Paris. There are numerous art galleries, artists eager to paint your portrait or caricature, and cozy cafes offering both Ukrainian and foreign cuisine. Those looking for souvenirs -- national costumes, folk music and even Red Army uniforms -- can find them here too.
Be sure to stop at the Mikhail Bulgakov museum, the house of the renowned Russian author of "The Master and Margarita," a world-acclaimed novel satirizing the soulless Stalin-era bureaucracy. Bulgakov, who lived here in the early 20th century, once said that no city in the world is as beautiful as Kyiv.
Next on the must-see list is the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra -- one of the oldest and the holiest Orthodox monasteries in Ukraine and a sacred pilgrimage site for Orthodox believers from all over the world. Located on the banks of the Dnieper, its sprawling territory is home to a dozen churches and museums, a forested park and massive underground caves. The saints buried inside are believed to have healing powers.
The monastery`s 317-foot bell tower offers a great view of the city, but only for those prepared to climb narrow stairs all the way to the top.
After you`ve enriched your soul, allow yourself some earthly pleasures. A traditional Ukrainian meal will keep you up and running for rest of the day. Begin with the two best known local specialties -- a piece of bread with a slice of salo (hog fat) and borsch (beet soup). Then try varenyky dumplings with cabbage, potatoes or meat and wash it all down with vodka, or horilka as it is known here. You can resume your diet after you`ve left Kyiv.
After the meal, head to the Lypky district -- a quiet area of 19-century houses built for wealthy aristocrats and civil servants. Here, you will run into a miniature replica of the French Versailles -- the Mariinsky Palace, built in 1755 by the renowned architect Bartholomeo Rastrelli, who was the court architect for the Russian Empress Elisabeth.
Another peculiar site in the neighborhood is the House with Chimeras -- an unlikely name and design for the presidential reception house. Nestled on a steep hill, the house has three or six stories, depending on which side you look from and is decorated with sculptures of such bizarre creatures as mermaids, lizards and frogs. It was built by one of Kyiv`s most famous architects, Wladyslaw Horodecki, whose Art-Nouveau buildings dot the center of the city.
If it`s warm outside, take a boat tour on the Dnieper and get a splendid view the city`s green hills and church domes. But don`t get intimidated by the giant steel woman staring at you, a sword and a shield in her hands. If the Soviet-era 200-foot-tall Motherland statue looks more menacing than hospitable to you, just ignore it. The rest of the city welcomes you