Ukraine is beautiful, big, diverse and largely undiscovered. It is considered one of Europe’s last travel frontiers. Traveling through Ukraine you will find the Black Sea coastline, the Carpathian mountains, UNESCO World Heritage sites, the best coffee in Eastern Europe, medieval towns, 11th-century mosaics and frescoes as well as a culture of food, dance and song that is rooted deep in tradition.
In Ukraine you’ll glimpse life under post-war communism and their Soviet legacy as well traditions and festivities of the Hutsul people from the Carpathian mountains and the gold-domed cathedrals throughout the country. Ukraine might be famous for it’s Orthodox churches, but you if you visit, you will realize, it’s the openness of the people and their enthusiasm to share their country and it’s history that is most memorable.
Ukraine is big. In fact it’s Europe’s biggest country (not counting Russia, which isn’t entirely in Europe). One of the best ways to tour Ukraine is with someone who knows the culture, speaks the language and truly loves the country. Lucky for you, I have a connection to share!
Visiting Ukraine on a Cobblestone Freeway Tour
I visited Ukraine in May of 2017 on a Cobblestone Freeway Tour. I’m going to say it now and get it out of the way. The tour was amazing and I fell in love with Ukraine! I could have chose to only write articles focusing on what I loved about Ukraine, but that wouldn’t share my whole experience. A huge part of the experience (and why the trip was so great) was the tour and our guides. Not only did we have two guides with us for the entire trip, but they also brought in local guides and experts in most of the towns we visited and for many of the individual places we visited.
The Facts & Nothing But the Facts: Cobblestone Freeway Tours offers more than a dozen tours to Ukraine. There are tours for each season as well as a photography tour of Ukraine, a Christmas in the Carpathians tour, a dance festival tour and more. Click here for a full list of Ukraine Tours.
The man behind the tour company? It’s Vincent Rees.
In 2011 Vincent Rees founded Cobblestone Freeway Tours. He is an expert in Ukrainian dance, art, and culture. Vincent was a member of the world renowned Ukrainian Shumka Dancers. He also has a masters’ degree in Ukrainian Folklore from the University of Alberta. I dare you to find anyone more qualified to tour you around Ukraine!
Cobblestone Freeway Tours Philosophy
Vincent’s goal with Cobblestone Freeway Tours is to explore places off the beaten path. He takes you to visit villages and the countryside, unique restaurants and galleries as well as bigger cities. His goal is to give you a non-typical experience. Every Cobblestone Freeway tour is uniquely handcrafted and designed to coincide with a festival or event related to the local culture. Vincent says “It’s our desire to connect with traditional culture and old ways of living on our tours”.
5 Reasons You Should Do an Organized Tour in Ukraine
- You Won’t be Able to Read Anything! The Ukrainian alphabet is written in Cyrillic script. The alphabet comprises thirty-three letters. Twenty-one letters represent consonants (б, в, г, ґ, д, ж, з, к, л, м, н, п, р, с, т, ф, х, ц, ч, ш, щ), ten vowels (а, е, є, и, і, ї, о, у, ю, я), and two semivowels (й/yot, and ь). For example, here is the word Borscht written in the Ukrainian alphabet: борщ.
- You’ll See More than the Big Cities: Tour operators such as Cobblestone know the country. You’ll get off the beaten path and into the countryside. You’ll explore areas of the country that you most likely won’t know to visit.
- You’ll Visit Quirky Museums: Most first time visitors to a new country won’t know about the most unique museums and experiences (especially outside of the major cities & towns). Who knew there was a museum devoted to the Easter egg (Pysanka Museum) in the tiny town of Kolomiya? Vincent knew and he took us!
- You Have an Interpreter: The guides all speak Ukrainian. Anytime you want to chat with a local, a store owner or anyone else during your tour, your guide can translate. That’s huge!
- You’ll Experience the Local Music, Dance & Art: This is the most important reason to visit Ukraine with Cobblestone Freeway Tours. Music and dance are a big part of Ukrainian culture and as I mentioned above Vincent is a Ukrainian dance, art, and culture expert. Included in your tour will be many wonderful cultural experiences including concerts by local folk musicians, dance performances, attending a Hutsul wedding as well as visiting a folk art college.
Cobblestone Freeway Ukraine Tour Overview:
I took a 13-day tour that began in the medieval town of Lviv. The tour then took us into the Carpathian mountains, to the historical region of Bukovina, to the capital of the Ukraine and finally the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. I don’t take a lot of organized trips with tour companies. In fact, the last time I went on a trip with a tour company was to Russia in 1994. Sort of ironic, huh?
This tour embraces the culture, the food, the people, the music and dance, the cities and countryside. I truly feel like I experienced Ukraine and it’s diversity. We traveled throughout the country by bus and train and here is a list of the places we visited on our tour which included:
My Cobblestone Freeway Ukraine Tour Itinerary:
Cobblestone Freeway offers tours throughout the year to Ukraine or you can work with them to customize a tour. Below is an overview of the tour I took including details of what we did each day.
We spent three days in the medieval city of Lviv. The old city center is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is officially the city of lions, but many unofficially call it the Paris of Ukraine. It is also the most “European” city of Ukraine. The heart of the city is centuries old with charming old streets, fountains, an opera, quaint hotels and wonderful restaurants. The medieval center is very walk-able and where you’ll find world-class chocolate, a unique coffee mine tour, a secret anti-Russian restaurant that requires a password to enter and great shopping. If you head out of town a bit you’ll also find a wonderful brewery and St. George’s Cathedral.
Day 1: Arrival, hotel check in and free time to explore the city.
Day 2: Breakfast at our hotel. City tour by foot that included strolling through the main market square and quaint cobblestone streets where we visited the different ethnic districts of medieval Lviv. Our tour included the famous Armenian Cathedral, beautiful statues, and a tour of the Opera house while learning about the people, history and architecture of Lviv. Lunch at a secret Ukrainian Insurgent Army Restaurant known as Kryivka. In the afternoon a brewery tour. Dinner was in a restaurant housed in a 300 year old building that was once an Armenian bank. We ended our evening with a haunted history tour of Lviv.
Day 3: Breakfast at our hotel. We jumped on a bus for a tour of Castle Hill (High Castle), St. George’s Cathedral, a Greek Orthodox museum in Austrian Lviv, and Lychakiv Cemetery which originally opened in 1786 and was built during the Austrian-Hungarian period. We enjoyed lunch at a traditional Ukrainian restaurant that focused on Galeician cooking and represented the multi-cultural local cuisine. After lunch we headed back to the medieval city center to visit the famous Lviv Chocolate Factory (and to enjoy some delicious desserts), tour a local restaurant known for it’s unique medieval torture devices, and a tour of the Lviv Coffee Mine. We then had some downtime to rest or explore on our own before a wonderful dinner with a folk music performance.
Hotel: I stayed at Vintage Boutique Hotel, a charming B&B in the medieval city center and just a few minutes from the main market square.
Yaremche & Kolomiya
Day 4: Breakfast at our hotel. Check out of hotel and boarded a private bus to begin our journey to Kolomiya for lunch and a visit to the Pysanka Museum (Easter Egg Museum). Next we headed to the Yaremche, in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast* to visit a traditional outdoor craft market on the Prut River and see our first glimpse of Ukrainian nature and countryside.
* Ukraine consists of 24 Oblasts (similar to a region, state or province). An Oblast is considered a type of administrative division in Slavic countries and some countries of the former Soviet Union.
Day 4: After our visit to Yaremche we continued our 4th day by heading to the ski resort town of Bukovel, located in the Carpathian Mountains. Hotel check in and free time to explore the resort before dinner at one of the resort restaurants.
Day 5: Breakfast at resort restaurant. Explore the ski resort including a ride on the chair lift and guided tour of the mountain. Option to ride the zip-line roller-coaster and hike or have free time to explore. Lunch at a local restaurant. Free time in the afternoon or option for spa treatments. Dinner at one of the resort restaurants followed by optional traditional Ukrainian hot tub experience or spa treatment.
Hotel: We stayed at the Bukovel Hotel, which are rustic cabins at the base of the ski resort.
Day 6: Breakfast at our hotel. Check out of hotel and board our private bus to begin two days of Hustul culture in the Carpathian Mountains. Our first stop was in the town of Verkhovyna, known for their superstitions and placing mirrors on the outside of their homes to ward off evil spirits and reflect away dark energy. Here we had the chance to wander through the town, to shop, or view the church and statues. Next we headed to the village of Kryvorivnia and the Hutsul Grazhda Museum which represents a typical Hutsul home from the 1800’s. While we were in the village we also had a chance to visit an authentic Hustul church. Next we headed to a traditional village in Bukovets to learn about Hutsul wedding traditions and enjoy a Hutsul feast. Check into hotel and dinner on our own.
Hotel: Our hotel was the wonderfully quirky Maetok Sokils’ke located in the town of Tiudiv. The small town is also located in the Carpathian mountains. In summer you can take advantage of the small ski area behind the hotel and in summer enjoy the pool. There are wonderful gazebos around the property where you can appreciate the beautiful view and sip tea or enjoy a glass of wine.
Day 7: Breakfast at our hotel. Check out of hotel and board our private bus and continue our journey through the Hutsul region. Our first stop was Kosiv, which is the biggest town in the region and has a daily open air food and craft bazaar. Most of the shops sell handcrafted items and folk art that are handmade. Next we visited a local arts college for a tour. For lunch we headed to the small town of Sheshory for an authentic Ukranian feat at Arkan. In the afternoon, we had a special visit to meet the costume collector and ethnographer Bohdan Petrychuk, who showed us his extensive collection of traditional Hutsul collection of clothes, coins, plates, fabrics and so much more. In the late afternoon we headed to Chernivtsi (which is only one hour from the Romania border) to check into hotel. Dinner on our own this evening.
Day 8: Wonderful buffet breakfast at the hotel. Visited the towns of Khotyn and the very important architectural landmarks within the city Khotyn Fortress that was constructed between the 13th-15th centuries and located on the Dniester River. After, we headed to the historic city of Kamianets-Podilskyi for lunch at Pid Bramoyu and to visit the Kamianets-Podilskyi Castle, which is a former Ruthenian-Lithuanian castle and later a three-part Polish fortress. We headed back to Chernivtsi for a very special evening performance by folk group called Gerdan followed by, yet again a delicious dinner at Hopachok featuring regional Ukrainian cuisine.
Day 9: Tour of the Chernivtsi University (a UNESCO site) followed by lunch at Panska Huralna and siteseeing of the city. That evening we took the night train to Kyiv which is about 500 kilometers.
Hotel: While in Chernivtsi, we stayed at the Bukovyna Hotel. The hotel is well located and the suites are good and affordable. The breakfast buffet is a highlight and includes a wide range of local and organic products.
Kyiv was the capital of the ancient Kyivan Rus state, which broke up in the 12th century, long before any state known as “Russia” came to exist. Today, Kiev is the capital city of Ukraine, The city is located on the Dnieper River and most famous for it’s gold-domed churches.
Day 10: Arrived to train station in Kyiv (City of Golden Domes) and headed to our hotel to check in. Breakfast at hotel followed by a Kyiv City Tour where we visited St. Volodymyr’s cathedral, the Golden Gates, St. Sophia’s Cathedral ( a UNESCO site). We had lunch at a restaurant on St. Andrews Descent (Andriyivskyy Descent); one of the oldest and most popular streets in Kyiv. The afternoon was open for free time to shop or explore the city. We enjoyed dinner at O’Panas, a wonderful restaurant with local Ukrainian flavors located in the middle of a park.
Day 11: Breakfast at hotel. Morning tour led by Kiev expert and journalist Paul Niland of Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square); the location of the protests that occurred during the revolution of 2013-2014. Lunch at the perogie place called Katiusha. In the afternoon we toured Kyiv Lavra Cave Monastery (a UNESCO site) followed by a walk through the WWI Park Museum. In the evening we enjoyed another beautiful and delicious dinner at Shynok Saw with a performance by the folk group Rozhanytsia.
Hotel: While in Kyiv we stayed at the Ibis hotel, a contemporary budget hotel near city center with a surprisingly good breakfast that goes beyond the basics.
The Chernobyl disaster, also referred to as the Chernobyl accident, was a catastrophic nuclear accident that happened in April of 1986. Chernobyl is about 2 hours from Kyiv and we visited with SoloEast. I had no idea what to expect when we arrived at Chernobyl and struggled deciding what photo to show to represent this area. I had assumed Chernobyl was merely a nuclear power plant that had a meltdown. In fact it encompasses 2600 square kilometers and 96 villages were evacuated during the disaster.
What I learned is there are many faces to Chernobyl and in the end I chose two photos for this article. The first photo is the reactor that melted down, which is now covered. The second photo is from one of the many buildings that have been deserted; and is from one of the school classrooms.
Day 12: Breakfast at hotel followed by full day visit to Chernobyl with the SoloEast tour company.
The tour with SoloEast starts during the drive from Kyiv, where they show documentaries and news footage of the most serious nuclear reactor disaster in history. There are 12 checkpoints within Chernobyl and many rules to be followed to stay safe from radiation, as some zones have more radiation than others. The experience is sad, overwhelming and beautiful all at the same time.
We spent a full day touring Chernobyl which included crossing through passport controlled checkpoints, visiting abandoned villages, memorial sites, and of course visiting the sarcophagus of Reactor #4 from a 270 meter distance. During the tour our guide constantly check radiation levels of the areas we visited with a Geiger counter and when leaving the final checkpoint, Dytyatki we had to walk through compulsory radiation control.
Day 13: Tour ended & flew home.
Experiencing Ukraine Culture
If I haven’t given you enough reasons for visiting Ukraine on a Cobblestone Freeway Tour, I’ve got a few more below!
Food is always first for me. In fact, I’m going to writing an article solely about the food in Ukraine. Some of the best-known Ukrainian dishes are Salo (salted pork fat with, or without garlic and pepper), Borshch (cabbage and beet soup, usually with pork or beef meat, served with sour-cream), Varenyky also known as Perogies (large stuffed dumplings, can be stuffed with potatoes, cottage cheese, curds, or meat), Holubtsi (cabbage rolls stuffed with rice and minced meat), Banoosh (cornmeal that is cooked similar to polenta and served with crumbled cheese and mushroom sauce), Potato Pancakes also known Latkes (grated potato, flour and egg, and often also have grated garlic or onion).
Ukrainian Iconic Domed Churches
You’ll find gold onion-shaped domes on the top of the cupolas of orthodox churches throughout Ukraine. The domes are one of many mystical symbols of the church. These churches are built in the same style as the Russian Church. In Ukraine, especially in Kiev, the domes of the churches where the typical Byzantine rounded style. Later, especially after the Mongol believe that because this style was more popular in the far North of Russia, it had a practical application, and the shape helped the large amounts of snow common in the region to fall of easily.
The Lush & Green Ukrainian Countryside
If you want to ‘get local’ and see the real Ukraine, I would highly recommend spending time outside of the Kyiv and other bigger cities. There is abundant farm life, traditional villages, beautiful churches and parks, and fields of yellow canola flowers. You will also find abundant history some terrific food. We laughed, danced in
Ukrainian people have lived through plagues, a Mongol invasion, dozen foreign rules, attempts at national assimilation, numerous wars and military conflicts, including two world wars, genocide and Soviet rule to finally gain true independence. They are also in general a country of people who are religious, love music and dance, and embrace their history. You’ll find there are differences not only in landscape, but the people from Western Ukrainian to Eastern Ukraine to the countryside. Just like any other nation, there is quite a variety of people in Ukraine. If I had to sum it up, I’d say the people of Ukraine are proud and will go out of their way to chat about their country and what they love about it.
Ukrainian Music & Dance
Traditional dances and songs have evolved in all corners of Ukraine over the centuries. Traditional Ukrainian dance is often fast paced and the costumes tend to be beautiful and elaborate, many times they are hand embroidered. If you want to truly understand Ukranian culture, attending an authentic music and dance performance is a must. As well as the traditional performances
Cobblestone Freeway Tours Resources & Info:
I interviewed Vincent about Ukraine and you can listen to the podcast here: Ukrainian Travel Expert Vincent Rees of Cobblestone Freeway Tours
If you are ready to learn more about Ukraine and are interested in an organized tour, I highly recommend Cobblestone Freeway Tours. You can find them at www.cobblestonefreeway.ca or call +1 780-436-7482.
The company also provides handcrafted cultural travel experiences to; Croatia, Poland, Serbia, Hungary Ireland and Costa Rica more.
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If you liked this article about the Exploring Urkraine with Cobblestone Freeway Tours, you’ll love 52 best things to do in Ukraine
Traveling To Ukraine Soon?
Indispensable Items to Pack for Ukraine
- Pick up the Lonely Planet guide to Ukraine.
- Get a good quality mirrorless camera for getting amazing photos of the many beautiful sites in Ukraine. I use the Sony Alpha a6000 .
- Weather is unpredictable, so bring a lightweight umbrella and rain jacket (even in summer you may find areas chilly and rainy).
- Waterproof hiking boots. I love Keen because they are lightweight and super comfortable.
- A great cross body travel bag. Cross body bags prevent theft and are much easier to access.
Read More About Ukraine
While I was an invited guests of Cobblestone Freeway Tours for this trip to Ukraine, this is a totally independent and honest review based on my experience.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.