My story with Kharkiv, Ukraine was quiet similar to the one with Odessa. I’ve had tickets to go there at least twice but due to the unstable situation in the area flights were cancelled and I didn’t manage to go.
Finally, during one of my trips to Ukraine with the fellow concrete fan and a friend Paulina we’ve decided to visit Kharkiv. And oh my, we had a blast there!
I must admit that, unlike Odessa, I didn’t know what are the major things to do in Kharkiv or what to do in the city in the first place. My only sources of information, besides odd and not too appealing pictures I’ve found online, were my fellow travel blogging friends who share my passion for not too obvious travel destination. They made me excited about visiting Kharkiv but still I wasn’t prepared for the amazing city that is still undiscovered.
Table of contents
- 1 Arriving to Kharkiv, Ukraine
- 2 Short history of Kharkiv
- 3 Things to do in Kharkiv, Ukraine
- 3.1 Seeing all the stations of Kharkiv metro system
- 3.2 Admiring Derzhprom building and learning about constructivist architecture
- 3.3 Finding cool examples of Soviet architecture
- 3.4 Discovering the beautiful side of Kharkiv
- 3.5 Enjoying the hipster side of Kharkiv
- 3.6 Relaxing at the sanatorium kind of park
- 3.7 Riding the cable car through the park
- 3.8 Finding pretty churches
- 4 Is it worth to visit Kharkiv, Ukraine?
- 5 Is Kharkiv safe?
- 6 Visit Kharkiv – practical information
Arriving to Kharkiv, Ukraine
The first surprise came already at the train station. We arrived in the late morning by train from Dnipro (where we had the most exhausting day ever, there were just too many things to see and not enough time!) and as soon as we stepped into the station building our jaws have dropped.
I know train stations in Eastern Europe are often just spectacular but I didn’t expect Kharkiv train station to be that beautiful! It reminded me of the grand metro station in Moscow, the same style of interiors that could be as well the art gallery and not the transport hub.
The most stunning part was the waiting hall, with a big painting on the wall. Technically it is not allowed to take pictures there but we asked the lady who was looking after the place and after “no” she gestured we have one minute and looked in another direction (that actually happened more than once during our time in Kharkiv).
The surprisingly beautiful train station was just the good beginning of our trip to Kharkiv. As it quickly turned out our 2 planned days were not enough with all the great things to do in Kharkiv. So if you’re wondering if you should visit second biggest city in Ukraine here are some of the reason why yes, this is an excellent idea, as well as some things you should look forward to!
Short history of Kharkiv
But let’s start with a little overview as, just like me before my visit, you might not know much about Kharkiv, Ukraine or even wondering where is Kharkiv.
The city, second biggest in Ukraine, is located in the north-east part of the country, very close to the border with Russia. It is an important industrial and scientific center and the majority of almost 1,5 million inhabitants speak Russian here.
Kharkiv was founded in 1655 and developed quickly. This is where, at the end of the 19th century, the foundation of Zionism movement has started, the city was also briefly the capital of Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, between December 1919 and 1934. Today Kharkiv is a vibrant city with so much to see and do!
Things to do in Kharkiv, Ukraine
I can’t decide what was the highlight of my time in Kharkiv. Was it the incredible metro system, Derzhprom building, other Soviet gems or the overall feeling of the place? I really don’t know as everything was just great! So with no particular order here are some of the best things to do in Kharkiv, Ukraine!
Seeing all the stations of Kharkiv metro system
Everyone knows metro systems in former USSR are beautiful. Moscow metro stations are out of the league but other cities aren’t too shabby either. But to be honest I didn’t expect Kharkiv metro to be that interesting!
After seeing some of the stations in the center together with Paulina we aimed at seeing them all: 30 stations on 3 lines. If it wasn’t for a completely unnecessary police intervention we would have managed…
Most of the stations are really interesting and beautiful, with so many great details that catch the eye! Some even have a bit of the futuristic look. I will remember it mostly for the funky lighting and colorful tiles but each station was different and worth stopping at. The most beautiful ones, however, were Akademika Pavlova, Kyivska and Pushkinska.
Now you might be wondering what was the story with the police I’ve mentioned above. When we were buying tickets for the last part of our metro sightseeing trip two young policemen approached us and asked for the passports. They could only speak Russian which I’m rather basic at so the communication was a bit of challenge. They kept asking us if we have any drugs and were surprised that there are actually tourists in their city.
Eventually they told us to go with them to the police room at the metro station so they could check our backpacks. They were rather nice and there were no reasons for me to be nervous. We tried to talk a bit, we laughed a bit, I told them to learn English, they weren’t happy about my visa Russian visa (it was 3 weeks before my trip to Russia) and at the end they apologized for the problems and even packed back my backpack. Everything went even faster for Paulina.
We still don’t know if we were stopped because someone saw us and reported for some suspicious behavior in the metro (who else spends 2 hours underground and stops at every single station to take pictures and then jump to the next train?), it was a routine control or the guys were just bored and needed some entertainment. But all was good, now I have an interesting story to tell, it just cost us missing 3 remaining metro stations to see!
As for taking pictures in the metro: I assume it’s forbidden but besides the police guys we didn’t have any problems. Once the security guy told us not to take pictures but then asked us where we are from and told us that we have 2 minutes for our photography madness (he was standing next to us the whole time).
Two or three times the train dispatcher glimpsed and us and then choose to look in another direction the whole time which we understood as a silent consent. But it wasn’t as openly allowed as in Moscow metro where you can take pictures freely.
When you visit Kharkiv and you want to see some of the most beautiful station allow yourself around 2 hours for the underground tour. At the time of my visit (April 2018) the ticket was 5 hryvnia – unlike other Soviet cities it wasn’t a token or a card but the recipe like in the shop with the barcode to scan at the reel.
Here you can see the map of Kharkiv metro, the most central stations (that you will most likely use) are Derzhprom / Universytet (where blue and green lines cross) and Maidan Konstytutsii / Istorychnyi Muzei (where blue and red lines cross).
Admiring Derzhprom building and learning about constructivist architecture
How many of you have heard about constructivist architecture? As much as I’m a fan of 20th century architecture I focus mostly on art nouveau, art deco, modernism and brutalism styles. Well, after visiting Kharkiv I can add constructivism to the list of styles I admire.
The building of Derzhprom is one of the finest example of constructivism – the trend that emphasized the construction of the building, its style and logic of use. It became popular in 1920s and 1930s and was strictly connected with the development of engineering and the need for more buildings of public use.
When you see an unique or interesting architecture from that time it’s most likely constructivism. The style was especially popular in the former Soviet Union countries but also in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany.
The construction of Derzhprom building has started in 1925 and was completed 3 years later, in 1928. At that time it was the largest skyscraper in the USSR and second largest in Europe! The building consists of three parts, connected with the bridges.
In 1955 the television tower – one of the first in USSR – was added on top, extending the total height of the building to 108 meters. What’s interesting the reconstruction of the place took more – 7 years – than the building itself!
I’ve seen many funky buildings before but Derzhprom is on the top of my list of the craziest architecture I’ve encountered. The architects behind it, Sergei Serafimov, S.Kravets and M.Felger, were definitely creative when designing this structure. I honestly didn’t know where to look or what to think of the place. It was so enormous (the office area is 60 000 m², the area of the base is 10760 m²) I couldn’t take a proper picture of the building.
Derzhprom was so interesting we spent a good part of our time in Kharkiv just hanging around and admiring the place. But I’m not the only one who sees beauty in Derzhprom building – it is a national monument of Ukraine and a candidate to UNESCO World Heritage List!
And if you’re wondering what the name “Derzhprom” means it stands for “derzhavna promyslovist” in Ukrainian which is House of State Industry.
Finding cool examples of Soviet architecture
But Derzhprom isn’t the only example of great architecture in Kharkiv. We’ve found so many of them actually, with a big help of Megan’s map – I highly recommend to download it on your phone before you visit Kharkiv.
Derzhprom is the finest example of constructivism but there are few more important places of this style in Kharkiv. One of them is the central post office, located next to the train station. From there it’s a short walk to the Palace of Culture for Railway Workers (oh how I remember those well from my childhood) – another architecture beauty.
As everywhere in the former Soviet Union there’s a great circus building – as much as I’m against the institution I do admire their architecture (so far the best ones I’ve seen in Chisinau, Moldova or Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan).
The same goes for markets – in the times of USSR some amazing structures were built for this purpose (just look at Kiev or Ivano-Frankivsk) and Kharkiv is no exception. Sadly the Roofed market “Saltovskyi” is no longer in use but it’s still worth to go all the way there to see it. We almost managed to get in, almost as our negotiation skills in Russian weren’t good enough but at least we could have peeped inside a bit and it looked pretty amazing!
But the most incredible Soviet building in the city was Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre located right in the center, at Sumskaya street, next to Shevchenko park. This is a first academic theater in Ukraine, founded in 1925, and it operates in this very building since 1991.
The structure is huge and so full of details, it’s worth to walk around and see it from every angle as well as walk in close to see the ceiling above the entrance. Sadly it was closed when we were around so I couldn’t see how it looks like inside but I can only imagine it’s as interesting as the outside.
Discovering the beautiful side of Kharkiv
I don’t know why but I kind of expected Kharkiv to be a random, maybe even dull, Soviet city. Oh how wrong I was! It was actually really beautiful, with numerous buildings that got my attention.
The main street, Sumskaya, is the showroom of Kharkiv but for me it was just the prettiest! The street is cobbled and the buildings around are the great examples of art nouveau style. That’s what you call a typical, pretty Eastern Europe city.
Sumskaya is one of the longest streets in Kharkiv but you will most likely focus only on the part between Constitution Square and Gorky Park. That’s where you will find the majority of attractions and the prettiest buildings of Kharkiv.
It’s worth to step inside of the gates every now and then too (I always do it, some of my friends already laugh at me because of that) as you might find some wonders there as well.
Enjoying the hipster side of Kharkiv
I find Ukrainian cities to be among the most hipster ones I’ve ever seen and Kharkiv is no different. There was a big number of great, hip cafes (of course, like everywhere in Ukraine), some decent street art around and cool looking kids who give you disrespectful looks when you enter their zone. Since I’m a hipster at heart and definitely not by look, especially when I’m travelling, I didn’t really care about that and found it pretty amusing.
But the most hipster place was the soup bar. I randomly found it on Foursquare and it was so hipster it hurt but the soup was really delicious, served in the dough cup, and I can definitely recommend this place for a quick bite.
The hipster side of Kharkiv was a big surprise to me as I didn’t expect it at all. But it just made me enjoy the city even more!
Relaxing at the sanatorium kind of park
Sarzhyn Yar is not your typical park. It felt more like an old-school sanatorium with pensioners walking around in their underpants (making me feel a bit awkward to be honest). In the center you can find water spring. Apparently it has some good characteristics as there were always people queuing with empty bottles to get some water back home. It is also said that you can find the cleanest water in Kharkiv here.
But that wasn’t the reason why I found this place special (or why I visited the park in the first place). The water spring has a really interesting protection which is yet another funky and beautiful Soviet structure in Kharkiv, built in the 1960s.
Around the spring you can find lots of benches where people just hang out and relax (as well as sunbath on the ground) and that’s what we did too. It was such a fun place for people watching! Besides collecting water and relaxing there were also some locals fishing and walking around.
For a random midweek noon the park was surprisingly busy but that made it so much more interesting actually. It was a perfect place to stop for a while and have a break during the busy Kharkiv sightseeing.
Riding the cable car through the park
While you’re at Sarzhyn Yar you should go for a cable car ride! I know there are lots and lots of cities where you can ride a cable car but the one in Kharkiv was probably the most amusing that I’ve ever seen (and not in the terrifying way like in Chiatura, Georgia).
It was built in 1971 to serve nearby Kharkiv Aviation Production Enterprise and Kharkiv Machine-building Factory “FED” and allow the easy access for workers. These days it’s one of the biggest (and quirkiest) attractions of Kharkiv.
There’re 124 cable cars that are designed for two people each. We’ve decided to split with Paulina so we both have enough space to move around and take pictures (I can only imagine how frightening it would be if we were together at the same cable car). The distance of the journey is 1385 meters and the total travel time is 18 minutes.
To be honest at some point it got a bit boring as there were no spectacular views around, just the vast green spaces and the city around. But I still found it one of the most unique things to do in Kharkiv and I’d probably ride it again as it was so much fun!
Finding pretty churches
Last but not least – since Kharkiv is in Ukraine there has to be some pretty golden dome churches, right? And there’re there, just overshadowed by other Kharkiv attractions.
While you’re admiring Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre be sure to cross the street and see Church of the Holy Myrrh-Bearers. We were there around 4pm, just in time for a beautiful bells’ concert. I don’t know if it is an usual, hourly thing or we were just lucky but it was amazing.
Another complex worth seeing is Holy Virgin Monastery, near Constitution Square. Few steps away from it you will find the Dormition Cathedral, dating back to the end of 18th century. Across the river from here there is another important temple – Annunciation Cathedral which is the main Orthodox church in Kharkiv, built in 1888.
While churches in Kharkiv are beautiful indeed I didn’t really pay all that much attention to them as there were other, so much cooler things to do in the city. But when you’re there it’s definitely worth to see them too!
Is it worth to visit Kharkiv, Ukraine?
Yes, yes and one more time yes! I really regret it took me that long to visit Kharkiv and I’m glad I eventually made it there. The city might not be your classical beauty (like Lviv or Chernivtsi) but it’s definitely interesting and offers so much to do and see. It’s a pleasant place and doesn’t feel like such a big city at all.
After two days in Kharkiv I was sad to leave. We didn’t had enough time to see all we wanted to, to find all the great places the city has and to hang out in all the cool spots around.
If you decide to go to Kharkiv yourself I bet you will be surprised too. It might not seem like one of the most obvious places to visit in Ukraine but it’s definitely worth your time.
Is Kharkiv safe?
Since Kharkiv is located in Eastern Ukraine, not far from Russian border or Donbas that is still much of a warzone there might be some safety concerns before going. But, just like with the rest of Ukraine, I didn’t feel unsafe for a second. We walked around a lot, also in the evening, we rode metro a lot and there was not a single situation when we felt in danger. Don’t forget the brave policeman protecting the city (or the metro).
Kharkiv is just your regular city. I can imagine crime exists there but there is nothing in particular you should pay attention too. Just use your common sense like everywhere else and you will be fine.
Visit Kharkiv – practical information
How to get to Kharkiv, Ukraine
We took the Intercity train from Dnipro, it was a smooth, 4-hours ride (that I slept for most part of). On the way out we took the night train from Kharkiv to Kiev, the journey was around 8 hours and it was fine as well.
Most likely you will use the train to travel to Kharkiv. There’re daily connections from most major cities in Ukraine. From Kiev you have both fast day train (with travel time under 5 hours) and night connections, the tickets for the day train starts at 290 UAH (10USD / 9EUR) in the second class and for the night train at 350 UAH (12,50USD / 11EUR) in cupe – the four beds compartment (my favorite choice in former USSR trains). From Lviv it takes 13 hours and costs 680 UAH (24USD / 20EUR) in cupe and from Odessa 11 hours and 540 UAH (19USD / 16EUR). I always buy my tickets well in advance at the website of Ukrainian Railways.
You can also fly Kharkiv (airport code: HRK) directly from Poland, United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Israel and Turkey or from anywhere else with a change in Kiev. I’m always using SkyScanner or Momondo to find the best deals on flights everywhere.
To get from Kharkiv airport to the center you can take the trolleybus no.5 (for 4UAH) or buses 115e, 119e, 152e and 255e for 6,50UAH. You can also pre-book the private transfer to have a hassle-free arrival to Kharkiv – click here for the details!
How to get around Kharkiv
We used only metro and walked around and we were fine. But there’re also trams, trolleybuses and buses serving the city. Metro can take you in all the major places and to the most important attractions as well as to the train station (red line). You can see the routes of the whole public transport in Kharkiv at eway website.
We stayed at Guest House na Naberezhnoy (8.4/10 rating on Booking) and I can definitely recommend this place. The room was modern, spacious and very clean. We could see the river and the circus from our window. The location was very good too, not far from the Constitution Square. Click here to see current deals and book the place.
Other recommended places to stay in Kharkiv:
- Aurora Premier Hotel (9.2/10 on Booking) – highly valued for the cleanliness, comfort and location. Click here to read the reviews and book the place!
- WINE & ROSE BOUTIQUE HOTEL (9.0/10 on Booking) – recommended for cleanliness, location and free wifi. Click here to see more details and book the place!
- Gostiny Dvor Hotel (9.2/10 on Booking) – travelers appreciated the location, cleanliness and comfort in this place. Click here to see current deals and book the place!
Where to eat in Kharkiv?
Besides Puzata Hata, which is always the easiest choice in Ukraine, we ate at a really good Georgian restaurant – Шотi / Shoti – if you’re craving some khinkhali and khachapuri this is a place to go to! We found the place on Foursquare and, as always, the app didn’t disappoint.
The above mentioned hipster soup place is called Супкультура (Soupculture), it’s located near the opera and Shevchenko park, across the street from Church of the Holy Myrrh-Bearers. It was found on Foursquare too.
As for coffee, thanks to Megan’s recommendations we were at Some Like It Hot and Централь (Central Cafe) but, as everywhere in Ukraine the coffee scene in Kharkiv is just amazing and a week wouldn’t be enough to check all their great cafes!
Organized tours in Kharkiv
It’s possible to visit Kharkiv with a guide. Here’re some of the tours I’ve found:
- 3-Hour Sightseeing Tour with a Private Guide
- Private Guided Romantic Tour at Night
- Highlights of Kharkiv Sightseeing Tour
I never travel without the insurance as you never know what might happen on the road (I’ve learnt my lesson). I can recommend World Nomads that offer the insurance dedicated to travelers just like you and me. Check the insurance options for your trip here!
Below you will find some books that will help you with travelling to Ukraine or just understanding Ukraine better:
- Lonely Planet Ukraine
- Bradt Guide about Ukraine
- Insane Ukraine: Your Guide to Hassle-Free Travel – written by a fellow travel blogger Lena
- Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum – one of the best writers that cover the region
- The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine
If you’re looking for other bloggers’ articles about Kharkiv be sure to check Kathmandu and Beyond, Megan Starr, Concrete and Kitsch and The Wayfarer’s Book. They all have traveled around Ukraine a lot anyway and are good resources about the country.
Map of Kharkiv
Below you can find a map with all the places mentioned in this article. You can download it (.kml file) and use it offline in maps.me application during your travels!
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