Warning: This post may trigger you to seek food immediately.
When we first arrived in Kyiv in 2013, one of the first questions we asked our colleagues was, of course, "Where can we get some good food in the city center?" Their recommendations all started a bit like, "Well, there's this great Ukrainian place..." or "There's a really good pub..." but there was very little in Kyiv beyond Ukrainian food and some chain restaurants like T.G.I. Friday's. I still don't know if it was the Euromaidan Revolution that sparked the creative change or if it was something already at play that happened to coincide with the time, but big changes started to take place around April of 2014. These changes evolved into the Kyiv you see today that is hugely gastronomic. I'll take you through a slice of my favorites, from desserts to meals, and the trendiness of the places that serve them.
Everyone who knows me knows that if there's any room in my belly after a meal then I'm getting dessert. Kyiv is like the capital of desserts. They have mastered the macaroon to near Parisian standards, along with a damn good cheesecake and any type of mousse you can imagine. Not to mention the sponge cakes and the eclairs. That is just a short list.
Seeing as Kyiv started out five years ago with not much more to offer than its national cuisine, it has come a long way. Gone are the days when McDonald's was your only option for some American comfort food. Gourmet burgers can be found at nearly a dozen places around town. In addition, there are several places that also sell gourmet hot dogs and I have yet to try an example that I don't like. At one particular establishment, Dogs n Tails, you can enjoy a gourmet hot dog, a super fancy cocktail (Dogs = hot dogs, Tails = cocktails), and then play some good ol' American pinball for free before you head out the door. There are plenty of other meat places to engage the carnivore, including several really fantastic steakhouses (my favorite located right next door to our building by the opera house), shashlik (like a skewered kebab) at any of the Georgian, Turkish, or Crimean establishments, and even an "all you can eat" style Brazilian slow-roasted meat place. To name a few. And yes, there's even Dr. Pepper.
The creative dishes and types of cuisine are endless. There's your classic Italian food and sushi, Mediterranean food and Vietnamese, and yes! Asian food has become quite popular over the past couple of years with Kyiv going from exactly zero Vietnamese places to around 8 really decent ones! We can even get our favorite dish from China, the spicy, deep friend green beans, at more than one Chinese restaurant. Kyiv has introduced us to several types of food we had never tried before. I tried my first Georgian food in Kyiv, which has grown to become one of my favorite categories. Georgian food consists of a lot of bread and cheese, but also of spices and walnut paste mixed into something heavenly. The last picture in the gallery below is one of khachapuri, a delicious Georgian "pizza" made with a special type of cheese and an egg on top. There are actually many, many variations of how you can do khachapuri, but it always involves bread and cheese! Crimean Tatar food is also very tasty and reminds me of Ukrainian food with a Middle Eastern flair. The first image below is one of cheburek which is a pocket stuffed with filling of your choice (meat, cheese, mushrooms, etc.) and then deep fried. Always served with sour cream and so tasty!
Of course, Ukrainian food will always hold a special place in my heart. Diruny, or potato pancakes fried in freaking amazing lard, have got to be my favorite thing. They can be topped with caramelized onions, mushrooms, or dill... but there's always sour cream! The dumpling of Ukraine is called verenyky and are little pockets of heaven. They can be filled with so many things and are either savory (potato, cabbage, mushroom, meat) or sweet (most commonly cherry). Syrniki is my favorite Ukrainian breakfast food. It is made with a dry cottage cheese (not the slimy wet stuff we eat back home) and is then formed into little patties with some added spices like cinnamon. Fry them briefly and then bake them in the oven, serve with some berry jam and sour cream (of course!) and it's a tasty little piece of paradise. News flash: Chicken Kiev is not really a Ukrainian dish, but you can get it in some places around town. Picture cordon bleu but with a full stick of butter in the middle instead of cheese. Too much for me. Ukrainian food also helped me discover my love of beets. I had honestly never really even tried this vegetable, and the color kind of creeped me out before Ukraine. Now, it's something I crave! Two of my favorite Ukrainian dishes with beets are borscht soup (red in color cuz of those beets) and vinaigrette salad, which contrary to its name, doesn't even use vinegar. It's just diced beets, potato, pickles, and sometimes peas. Sounds and looks very strange, but it is so delish.
Kyiv is coffee central, and makes some really good espresso-based coffee. I've honed my love for a good cappuccino in this city and can even judge good coffee from bad (at least in my opinion!) Kyiv also makes one type of coffee that I'd never tasted before coming here, which is called the Raf Coffee. I looked it up and apparently it was invented in Russia and you really can't find it many places outside of Ukraine (and I presume also Russia) at this point in time. The main difference is that when the milk is steamed it is done with cream added as well (and I think also the espresso). The result is a very creamy coffee drink. Heaven. Another first I've had here in coffee is the "caramelized" coffee. Why hasn't anyone thought of this before? Make your cappuccino, sprinkle sugar on top of the milk foam, and blow torch the thing. It's like a coffee creme brulee and it is the best of two worlds in one drink.
Finally, presentation. Kyiv is all about the presentation, from how the food is put in front of you, what it's served on, and the environment around you. Just look back through these images I've posted. Restaurants in Kyiv are so creative. I always remind myself to look up because the light fixtures are often one of the most creative pieces of the room. Ukrainians are incredibly creative (this will be a separate post because there's just too much to say about it) and this comes out not only in their escape rooms, but also in their restaurants and cafes.
Where do we find all of these spots? In Ukraine it's best to use the app Foursquare, which is much more commonly used by locals than TripAdvisor or Yelp. We often search "trending" to see which places are new and what is good there. Really there are far too many good places in Kyiv to even try and list them all!
As much as we will miss Kyiv and her plethora of sensations for the taste buds, we have the opportunity to live in another food culture hub with our upcoming move to Beirut, Lebanon! Soon, food tour 2.0 will commence in a new city. We can only look to the future and hope our new experiences will be half as good as they were in Ukraine.
Escape quests. Part puzzle, part team building, part real-life video game, and heaps of enjoyment. From the very first room we ever completed (in Prague back in October 2014) Rex and I have been hooked. Especially since we've discovered how well Ukrainians do escape rooms.
What are escape quests? No, they're not scary. That is, as long as they don't have live actors, which we've learned that on occasion they do (ask ahead of this might be an issue). The near global theme is that you are "locked" in a room with a theme and a mission. In almost every case the mission involves solving a crime, saving an important document or masterpiece, or finding out how to escape the room before something drastic based on the room theme takes place. For instance, in a recent room that we did by Vzaperti called "Victorian Detective," the goal was to solve the crime, recover a special coin, and then either send it to the police or to help the criminal (our choice). But we had to figure it all out in 60 minutes. Or another room by the same company called "Maya: End of the Era" in which we were tasked with literally saving the world from the apocalypse in only 60 minutes. On occasion we're actually meant to be the bad guy. In the room "Not a Thief" by Pod Zamkom in Kyiv, we were playing the part of robbers trying to break into the bank safe and make off with the gold bars before time was up or the police came to get us.
Regardless of the theme, it's a chance to get away for an hour of the day and do something different. You get to solve puzzles, work together with your friends, and enjoy the immense creativity put into designing the room. There's rarely been a room that I did not enjoy at least in part.
Eastern Europe is known for its escape room scene. Budapest is one of the supposed origins of the escape quest, and entrepreneurs in Kyiv have delved into the challenge of creating new rooms with exciting themes and creative and different puzzles. The escape room evolution has gone from earlier rooms with mostly padlocks and black light puzzles, to incredibly creative puzzles in the "next generation" rooms where most mechanisms are magnetised and often you see almost no padlocks at all. I've found that Ukrainians in general are extremely creative and artistically talented people. This spills over into their escape rooms as the puzzles and decor are seriously some of the best that we've seen anywhere. And trust me, we've seen a lot of these rooms. In Kyiv alone we've completed 32 rooms by 9 different companies. Elsewhere in the world we've completed an additional 12 rooms. This weekend, we head off to Budapest to knock out another 9 rooms, strategically planned after analysing several blogs by likeminded folks who love the game. 9 rooms in about a day and a half. Yes, it took some plotting. There will (hopefully) be a separate post on our thoughts from the weekend.
Clockwise from top left: KadRoom's Indiana Jones, Pod Zamkom's Double Game (teams challenge one another), Vzaperti's Matrix, and Vzaperti's Victorian Detective
I might as well lay out our highlights from our escape questing in Kyiv, Ukraine. We wish we'd have recorded in more detail throughout the years exactly what we loved about these rooms, but alas, we rated them only on two factors: Fun and difficulty from 1-5 stars for each.
Thanks to all our friends who have made these rooms so much fun and successful and feel free to link here to our Budapest adventures!
Until coming to Kyiv, we never knew exactly how efficient and amazing public transportation could be. In China we often used public buses, which worked fine... except when there was traffic. Kyiv's metro system was like a whole new world for us, and one that we will miss immensely when we leave, especially now that we know we're moving on to Beirut where there is next to no public transport.
The Kyiv Metro system started construction in the 1950s during the Soviet Union with only one line at the time (today's red line). What we see of the metro system today with 3 lines was only completed in 2013, right around the time we arrived in Kyiv. There are still a few "ghost" stations that appear on maps but do not exist as stops, and I have no idea what the future plans are for these.
The metro lines themselves get you to almost anywhere you need to go in town. The best part is not having to deal with traffic, which in the city center can be seriously congested. If given the option to get home from school by taxi or metro I'd choose metro every time as it's just so efficient. The next best part is that trains come around every 1.5-2.5 minutes during peak travel times. So if we just miss a train in the morning on the way to school it only puts us a minute or so behind schedule.
Metro stations in the city center are deep. In fact, Arsenalna metro station is the deepest in the world at about 105 meters. It's said they were built this way to double as a bomb shelter if needed, considering that construction took place mostly during the Cold War. Most of the stations in the center are also extremely ornate, with different chandeliers, murals, mosaics, and even remains of some Soviet-era designs carved into walls. The Moscow metro is known as a tourist destination to explore the station art, and Kyiv stations deserve the same recognition.
Above: Timelapse of building the Kyiv metro as it exists today (Wikipedia)
Each morning our route to school goes something like the following:
Routines are a funny thing. My coffee lady sees me coming and starts preparing my cappuccino with an extra espresso. There's a little old man who arrives to beg for money like clockwork in the exchange tunnel between Palats Sportu and Tolstoho Stations. He's kind of a jerk because he yells at anyone who stops in the area to sell their wares or hand out business cards (I guess it's "his" spot). Between us exiting the metro and walking to school we pass the same people who are part of our daily routine. One family, a large man and wife with their two kids, always pass us as they head towards the metro. We've watched their kids grow taller over the past 5 years and we can judge whether we're late by where we pass them! There's a blonde woman in her 20s with really curly hair who we also pass daily. I once saw her as I was coming up the escalator at my home station and she was going down, probably heading home from work. We've never acknowledged each other in all the hundreds of times we've passed by school, but this day we both stared... a routine reversal that was out of context! There are a few others who we always pass as well and it will be strange for this to end in June.
Pictured above: 1) Entrance to Zoloti Vorota Metro station, 2) The tracks at the Tolstoho platform where we exchange to blue line, 3) One of the "art trains", 4) The ornate Zoloti Vorota station
While riding the trains between stations, you can occupy yourself with reading the adverts and practicing your Cyrillic (sometimes you even catch a word!), watching the interactions of people around you which can be quite entertaining, or doing what most locals do by delving into your Kindle. It's pretty much pointless to carry on a conversation while on the train because they are incredibly loud as they move down the tracks.
One thing about using public transportation is that you really get a feel for the different people who make up a community. You have your fancy pants people, men in suits and very well-groomed and ladies with heels I wouldn't be caught dead wearing. You have your rough-looking construction workers, usually carrying heavy duffel bags on their way to or from work and looking a bit on the grimier side. The smell of vodka mingled with unwashed bodies is not uncommon, especially among men in the morning. In winter, you have loads of fur and fake fur on people's jackets, even though the vast majority of it faces outward which does little for actual warmth (science). You have children as young as 10 years old (sometimes younger) traveling on their own because why not? And you always have someone trying to cut in front of you in the escalator queue... usually an older woman, cuz babushkas don't give a damn.
Riding the metro during rush hour sure brings out my passive aggressive nature. Someone shoves me from behind to exit the train door faster? I stick out my elbows so they cannot get past me and I move more slowly. People coming up the one-way stairs in the wrong direction to try and get ahead? I pretend like I'm reading my Kindle and hit them really hard with my elbow (jerks). There's a lot of "oops, did my bag/elbow just hit you?" happening on purpose when people try to run or push past me. Just don't be an asshole when you're riding with thousands of your fellow humans in a train car or moving through a crowded tunnel. That's all. (Rex will probably laugh at this paragraph)
In short, I'm really going to miss this fast, efficient, and extraordinary form of transportation. My goal is to never have to own a car ever again (really just too much stress), but of course that will all depend on where life takes us far into the future. It's sad that more cities never invested in making underground systems of transport, as it's definitely the way to go and probably reduces the pollution and traffic congestion in cities by extreme amounts.
Pictured above: Shevchenko Park in Kyiv
I love the snow. Literally everything about it. Okay, maybe not the slush. Thankfully, this week we finally got some snow in Kyiv. I spent my school days gazing dreamily out the window - yes, even sometimes while I had class. There's nothing more mesmerizing that watching fat snowflakes falling from several floors up. Sometimes they swirl with the updrafts and currents and it's fun to see where the wind comes and goes. One day this week we even had sparkly snow! I've only seen this phenomenon a few times, and before I thought that it had to do with sun and snow happening together. I've changed my hypothesis on this, as I saw the snow sparkle when it was falling in the evening once it was already dark. The flakes were tiny and any time you looked closely they were perfect, six-armed crystals. I now think that they sparkle because the snow was happening during colder than normal temperatures. It was about -10°C on this day and usually you don't see snow when it's this cold. Maybe I'll ask someone with a degree in Meteorology (joke because I have one and don't know the answers to this stuff).
Pictured above: Some of my favorite snow scenes from around Kyiv. Left to right: 1) Overlooking the Dnipro River, 2) a sunny day at St. Sophia's Cathedral, 3) a night walk through Shevchenko Park.
Likely one of the reasons why I love the snow so much is because my relationship with snow and ice has been mostly positive. I have a feeling that this would be a different story if I had to drive my car to work every day. Luckily, Kyiv has an amazing metro (subway) system with trains that come every 2 minutes during peak times. I cannot imagine what traffic in this cobble-stoned city center would be like without the metro. Also, I really can't imagine driving in the snow and ice and really would not want to. The metro will probably be a Kyiv entry all of its own.
Some of my favorite experiences in the snow have been:
I have not fully met my bucket list of snow activities while living in Kyiv. I always wanted to try skiing again (bunny hill only) and I always wanted to try sledding. I'd love to walk across the Dnipro River, but I might be too nervous to do that. Maybe one day if we have a few moments to spare at school after a snowfall I'll borrow a sled and try it out somewhere.
Pictured above: Rime (frozen fog) on plants on a below-freezing day
Living the first 30+ years of my life in places where "cold" was 10°C (about 50°F) I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into when we first committed to Ukraine and all the horrible stories about winter. Yes, it can definitely get cold here, but surprising not as cold as what I've read about living some places in the mid-west USA. The coldest temperature I've experienced in my 5 years (as per my trusty indoor-outdoor thermometer) was -20°C, which really felt no colder to me than -10°C. A strange thing is that once it's damn cold outside it doesn't feel any more cold once it gets colder. That said, I've also learned to calculate whether or not it's -15°C based on whether or not the mucus in my nose freezes. Sounds strange, right? Feels strange, too. But it's like a little built-in thermometer. On the rare occasion when it's that cold I usually wrap a scarf around my mouth and nose to keep the lower half of my face warm. This fogs up my glasses so I take them off, but it also coats my eyelashes with moisture and then that moisture freezes! I saw the strangest photo on Instagram from a girl in Russia who had done this until a thick layer of ice crystals formed on her eyelashes. It looked freaky-cool and now I'm waiting for the temperature to drop again to try it. I've even heard stories from teachers about getting to school to find their hair has froze due to not drying it completely before leaving their house. All the things you'd never think about.
Finally, we can't have a post about the "snow globe" without a picture. So here it is. Whether we end up in a new location that has seasons (unlikely) or not, I hope that one day I will once again live somewhere that snows.
We've made the incredibly difficult decision that this will be our last year in Kyiv, Ukraine. We first came to this city in 2013 and only a few months later the protests began on Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square in the center of the city (only a few blocks from our house). Since then we've watched this city, country, and people struggle, overcome, and evolve into what is now an up-and-coming completely hip cafe city (or at least this is how we see it). In other words, I've grown quite attached to Kyiv. Sure, there are still quirks, but you learn to accept and cherish them instead of always judging. While we're here I want to take the time to reflect on some of the things I've grown to love about the city and people who have hosted us for the past five years.
Wintertime in Kyiv... some complain, but I absolutely love it. I am lucky to have an apartment with a spectacular view over a city landmark (the National Opera House) along with heaters that work very well and not all people have these comforts, so perhaps I am an exception to the rule. I love watching the snow fall as I look out over the opera house. A friend of ours once described it as a snow globe view and that's definitely how I see it. If I were to find a cheesy snow globe featuring the opera house for purchase it would be mine in a heartbeat. The past two years there has been a laser light show projected onto the opera house each evening near curtain call. Even though it's sponsored by Rafaello and is sprinkled with advertising it's quite a sight. I'm impressed with how creative people can be and how they can manipulate light in such ways.
Also there's the Christmas market. We've been lucky each year to arrive home from the holiday just before Ukrainian Christmas, which is celebrated on January 7th as per the Julian calendar. With the market still abuzz at St. Sophia's, we wander around to see the lights, watch people, and sip glintvine (mulled wine). Some years there is snow making the scene even more magical, but this year it was almost 10C as we walked around on Christmas day. Sure, the market wares are not unique and once you've seen one you've seen them all, but it's such a fun atmosphere and is definitely something that I'll miss.
Finally there's the Nutcracker ballet, which gets some extra shows around this time of year. We've watched it at least twice and the music takes me back to childhood. The dancing and backdrops are always impressive. I feel like we haven't taken advantage of enough of these shows in our time here. The opera house and all its shows will probably be a future post.
There's more to Christmas time in Kyiv than this, but these are my standouts. That said, I am looking forward to experiencing how the holiday season is celebrated in our next destination!