The historic Ukrainian capital is the urban beacon of courage and resilience leading a defiant nation against a murderous aggressor. It is, like the rest of Ukraine, a place of inexhaustible courage in the face of daily tragedy.
Kyiv is a city of many faces. The Dnipro, one of Europe’s largest rivers, divides Ukraine’s capital into two different worlds: the right bank with its historical center, administrative buildings, cafés and restaurants and the residential left bank.
With its cheaper real estate, thanks in part to an undiminished stock of towering Soviet-era apartment buildings, the left bank is home to many of 2023 Honorary World’s Best City Kyiv’s families. But new, even larger residential towers have sprung up over the last decade. Big shopping malls provide plenty of opportunities for entertainment, and no geopolitical crisis, contentious election or looming threat of Russian invasion have stood in the way of new investments: construction cranes are everywhere.
Kyiv’s cheap and efficient subway makes it easy for left bank denizens to make their way across the river to the heart of their capital. On a hot day they might first get off at Hidropark, a metro station on an island, to relax at one of its beaches. The mighty Dnipro lapping at their feet connects over two dozen Ukrainian cities to the Black Sea, provides drinking water and hydroelectricity to many of their fellow citizens and forms an indelible part of the country’s heritage, glorified by national poet Taras Shevchenko as the symbol of Ukraine’s fate.
The nearby Trukhaniv Island offers more recreation, with bars, restaurants, beaches and concert venues — frequented by some of the country’s most cutting-edge performers—and showcases memorable views of the charming Podil neighborhood.
Once downtown, a visitor might cross the new “glass bridge” (targeted by Russian bombardment on Oct. 10 but still standing) toward the parliament building and Maryinskyy Park, popular for a stroll with dogs or children. On the other side, historic Podil is home to more parks, small squares and hidden murals and courtyards. In Kyiv, cafés with minimalist, modern interiors share the streets with centuries-old churches and monasteries.
One of these is the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, a beautiful complex of church buildings on a hill. Founded as a cave monastery in the 11th century, the complex is older than the city of Moscow.
Those after something more modern might try 100 Rokiv, an innovative restaurant that serves traditional Ukrainian borscht alongside more daring inventions, like a dish of “edible bees” with acacia honey, black pepper and berry sauce.
After dinner comes dancing, with electronic music particularly big here in recent years. Closer, an underground venue near the city’s Muslim cemetery, gets rave reviews. But Kyiv’s best bars and clubs have no signboards: they’re hidden away in secret courtyards that only the locals know about. Not to worry, though, Kyivans are friendly—and happy to take their foreign friends to their favorite places.
Because the foreigners are back. For the capital of a country under relentless attack, Kyiv now looks surprisingly normal. That is, until recently, when over a few days in October, a wave of self-destructing Iranian-made drones launched by Russia started terrorizing the city’s skies and killing citizens. Remarkably, cinemas, restaurants and theaters remain open; stylish young people drink their filter coffee with their dogs and laptops; during rush hour, traffic jams once again clog the city’s arteries. The city’s impressively deep subway built at the height of the Cold War so it could serve as a bomb shelter is once again doing what it does best: whisking people around for just eight hryvnia, or 20 cents, per ride.
How different things looked in February, when Russia launched its illegal war against Ukraine. Pundits around the world predicted the city’s imminent fall. Rockets rained on peaceful apartment blocks. Half of the city’s residents left. A column of Russian military vehicles stretched for kilometers on its murderous advance into the city.
Although the Russians intended to capture Ukraine’s capital in three days, they never came close. Facing determined resistance and crippled by their own incompetence, they soon abandoned their ambitious plans. A few months later, most Kyivans returned home. This isn’t the first time Kyiv has sprung back to life. The city’s history is full of wars and revolutions — after each of which it inevitably blooms again in a 1,500-year cycle of devastation and rebirth.
During the Second World War the city center suffered terrible damage at the hands of both the Soviet and German armies, and was then rebuilt by German prisoners. During the reconstruction, thousands of swiftly growing chestnut trees were planted around the city in a scheme to green it as fast as possible. Since then, chestnut leaves have become one of Kyiv’s most recognizable symbols: they’re on metro tokens and in the logos of independent coffee shops.
In 2014, the city’s center was again the site of brutal violence. People from all over Ukraine streamed to their capital to stand against the corrupt regime of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. A tent city in Independence Square remained through months of bitter cold and police brutality. In the end, more than 100 people were killed by the authorities right in the city’s heart. The protesters chanting “Ukraine is Europe” all the while celebrated their victory. Yanukovych fled to Russia and Ukraine embarked on a democratic political transformation with an ambitious program to root out corruption.
In the years since, the city’s infrastructure has shown notable improvement. Buses were replaced, parks and squares renovated and the once-chaotic parking situation has improved, leaving more space for biking and walking. Just before the war began, the European Investment Bank signed a €100-million loan agreement with Kyiv’s mayor to renew the city’s trolleybus and metro fleets.
Sometimes the development leads to conflict. Even before the Euromaidan revolution, locals in one of the city’s most picturesque areas fought to preserve it from destruction. Landscape Alley, a place featuring breathtaking views and many works of modern art and sculpture in the open air, was threatened by development plans to fill this historic area with expensive high-rise buildings. Activists united and asked artists to fill the street with their work instead, making it a destination. After a long confrontation, the activists won: the sculptures and murals will remain. Such conflicts between local residents and developers are a common story in the Ukrainian capital: in order to save their neighborhood from unwanted development, its residents must tap their creativity and resourcefulness. That spirit is something the Russians didn’t know about, or didn’t want to believe in. And that’s why they never had a chance.