Ukraine has a mostly temperate continental climate, although the southern coast has a humid subtropical climate. Precipitation is disproportionately distributed; it is highest in the west and north and lowest in the east and southeast. Western Ukraine receives around 1,200 millimetres (47.2 in) of precipitation annually, while Crimea receives around 400 millimetres (15.7 in). Winters vary from cool along the Black Sea to cold farther inland. Average annual temperatures range from 5.5–7 °C (41.9–44.6 °F) in the north, to 11–13 °C (51.8–55.4 °F) in the south.
Ukraine is a republic under a mixed semi-parliamentary semi-presidential system with separate legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
Ukraine’s population has been declining since the 1990s due to its high death rate and a low birth rate. The population is shrinking by over 150,000 annually since 1993. The birth rate has recovered in recent years from a low level around 2000, and is now comparable to the European average. It would need to increase by another 50% or so to stabilize the population and offset the high mortality rate.
In 2007, the country’s rate of population decline was the fourth highest in the world.
Life expectancy is falling, and Ukraine suffers a high mortality rate from environmental pollution, poor diets, widespread smoking, extensive alcoholism and deteriorating medical care.
In the years 2008 to 2010, more than 1.5 million children were born in Ukraine, compared to fewer than 1.2 million during 1999–2001 during the worst of the demographic crisis. In 2008 Ukraine posted record-breaking birth rates since its 1991 independence. Infant mortality rates have also dropped from 10.4 deaths to 8.3 per 1,000 children under one year of age. This is lower than in 153 countries of the world.[
The unit of currency is the hryvnia (UAH). It is spelt гривня and pronounced hryvnia in Ukrainian and grivna in Russian. Just to make it a little more confusing, Russian speakers in the east often refer to it as ruble and it is sometimes shown as “₴” both before and after the amount and with and without spaces. National Bank actual rates.
Every reasonably sized town will have exchanges booths and banks that will convert euro, USD or Russian rubles to UAH, just look for signs with exchange rates. British pounds are also often exchangeable, though at poor rates. In tourist areas, a much wider range of currencies can be changed. Shop around as offered rates often vary.
Booths and banks will generally not try to scam you, but count your notes to be sure. At many places bank clerks would refuse money with even minor damages or grease spots. A tear in the paper longer than five millimetres can be too much.
ATMs (банкомат, bankomat) are common throughout the country and generally work with international cards. They nearly always dispense UAH, though you may find some give USD. They mostly do not charge fees to foreign cards. (unless you are withdrawing dollars).
Debit cards such as maestro do work in ATMs. Cirrus/Maestro/Plus bank cards could be most effective way to get cash in Ukraine. Not all ATMs indicate that they support the Plus system, but in most cases they do support it if they support Visa. PrivatBank ATMs indicate that they support Plus, but they do not work with North American cards.
Changing money in banks is time consuming—there is a lot of paperwork involved. Bank staff may be unwilling to go through all the procedures just to change your USD100 bill and may try to fob you off with an excuse: “sorry, we don’t have the money” is common. If you absolutely must change money there, you might be able to persuade them to change their minds; but if you can go somewhere else, you’ll probably save time. At a bank, you will also need to show your passport. Banks may also only let you buy UAH; they may prevent you from buying “hard” currency.
Even at larger branches, you cannot expect English-speaking staff. Doing anything other than currency exchange may require a translator or at least a lot of patience.
It is possible to get dollars from most banks using a cash advance from a Visa or MasterCard. There is a small service charge (3%) to do this in addition to whatever your bank charges.
Exchange booths, while looking rather unsavoury, are generally the best places to change money. Their rates tend to be better than the banks’ (but not always) and you will not need your passport. Service is quick and there’s often no paperwork or receipts.
By law, all transactions are required to be in hyrvnia, although less formal transactions may be in euros or US dollars.
If you want to buy any kind of artwork (paintings, Easter eggs) in Kiev, the place to visit is Andriivskij Uzviz (Андріївський узвіз in Ukrainian, Андреевский спуск in Russian).
It is illegal to take out of the country any items of historical importance. These includes badges, medals, icons, historical paintings, etc. While you are unlikely to face a bag search, don’t wear any old badges or display anything that may arouse suspicion.
Ukrainian cuisine is quite tasty, but just like other cuisines in the region uses a lot of fat ingredients, especially in the festive dishes. Traditional local food includes “salo” (salted lard) and soups like “solianka” (солянка in Ukrainian, meat soup) or “borshch” (борщ in Ukrainian) a soup made of red beets. Western Ukraine also has a green version of borshch, with greens and boiled eggs. The first, salo, is perhaps something you might not make yourself try – however is a delicious side dish, as for the soups being a must-have dish.
If you are outside a big city or in doubt about food, exercise caution and common sense about where you buy food. Try to buy groceries only in supermarkets or large grocery stores, always check the expiration date, and never buy meat or dairy products on the street (you can buy them at the market but not near the market).
In most towns in Ukraine there are some very good restaurants. Read the menu boards posted by the entrance of every establishment to help you to choose.
You may also find nice places to eat not by signs, but just by the smoke of traditional wood fires. These are often places where they serve traditional Ukrainian food, including very tasty shashlyky (шашлики in Ukrainian). Restaurateurs are very friendly, and, more often than not, you will be one of their first foreign visitors. Next to the “borshch”, you might also ask for “varenyky” (вареники in Ukrainian, dumplings filled with meat, vegetables or fruits) or “deruny” (деруни, potato pancakes). You have to try varenyky with potatoes and cottage cheese in a sautéed onion and sour cream sauce, a fantastic dish. These are just starters, but ones that might fill you up quickly.
You can also use some internet services, which will help you to find any restaurant you want. They usually have a lot of options and English translation making your search easier. These services are free and provide information about major cities. If there is no possibility of internet connection you can ask people about restaurants, but remember that knowledge of English among Ukrainians is low and you can also meet unfriendly people. But in most cases English or other foreign language makes people more amiable.
The Ukrainian speciality is horilka (the local name for vodka) with pepper. Other kinds of vodka are also quite popular – linden (tilia), honey, birch, wheat. Prices range €1-20 for 1L. Souvenir bottles are available for higher prices (some bottles reach upwards of €35 for 0.5L. There is a great choice of wine, both domestic and imported. The domestic wines mostly originate in the south, although wines from the Carpathian region of Uzhorod are also quite tasty. Ukraine is also famous for it’s red sparkling wines. Prices for local wine range €2-35 per bottle of 0.75L (avoid the cheapest wines, €1 or less, as these are sometimes bottled as house wines but sold as local vintages), however, one can find genuine Italian, French, Australian wines from €50 per bottle and more in big supermarkets and most restaurants. The price of imported wines dropped significantly over the last number of years and trends indicate further reductions in price.
There are a lot of beverages (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic). Ukrainian beer is of very good quality. Beer from barrels or kegs (more common in cafes) is often watered down. Canned beer is not very common in Ukraine and sometimes not of the same quality as the same variety sold in bottles. The best beers are brewed by Lvivske, Obolon and PPB (Persha Privatna Brovarnia). Imported beers are also widely available but more expensive – for instance, a bottle of Austrian Edelweiss can cost upwards of €2 while average price of Ukrainian beer is €0.50. All told, Ukrainian beers are very tasty and gaining popularity elsewhere in Europe.
Of non-alcoholic beverages, one should try kvas – a typically Slavic drink made of rye or wheat. During the summer one can easily buy it from designated street vendors. There are a lot of yellow barrels with kvas around the city in summer. It’s better to buy it in bottles due of unknown cleanness of the barrel. Milk drinks, of all sorts, are also available, although mostly in supermarkets. Bottles of mineral water are available everywhere, as well as lemonades, beer, and strong drinks. When seeking to buy bottled water make sure to ask for “voda bez hazu” (water without gas) otherwise you are likely to be handed the carbonated drink.
Never buy vodka or konjak (the local name for brandy) except from supermarkets or liquor stores as there are many fakes. Every year a few die or go blind as a result of poisoning from methyl alcohol, a compound used to make fake vodkas.
In Ukraine it’s possible to buy alcohol produced in other former Soviet republics. The Moldavian and Armenian cognacs are quite good and not expensive. Georgian wines are quite unusual and fragrant, if overly sweet.
Hotels might be a traumatic experience for a westerner anywhere outside Kiev. The cheaper the hotel, the larger the chance of some quite unfortunate surprises, especially for those not familiar with the Soviet-style level of service which still remains in many places.
There are many mid-range (€25-45) options outside Kiev. For instance in Ivano-Frankivsk (near the Carpathians), the going rate is approximately €35 for a suite (bedroom and sitting room) in one such hotel. Many hotels have the choice between renovated rooms/suites (“western style”) and not renovated rooms (East European style). The last choice is more than 50% cheaper and gives you a spacious old fashioned 2 room suite, basic but clean!
There are a number of 5-star hotels in Kiev and one in Donetsk; see guides for those cities for listings. At one such hotel in Lviv, the going rate ranges from €40-60 a night.
Another option is to rent an apartment on the internet before you leave your country. There are many to choose from in Kiev and Odessa.
What many people from ex-Soviet countries do is to go to the railway station, where they try to find people who are willing to rent a room. Prices are usually much cheaper and if there are enough people, offering the room you can make great deals.
These deals are usually not legal and they will take you to a corner before negotiating. Make sure they have warm water, and don’t be afraid to say it’s not what you expected when seeing the room.