Today’s Kiev is a city of whispers and blasé shrugs about endemic corruption. It is a city where kitsch is embodied in the extreme in what has become its most famous attraction—the dacha of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. The Potemkin village of Vozdvyzhenka is no different.
-William O'Connor, "Inside the Oligarch Ghost Town of Kiev"
Kiev is full of surprises and curiosities. Take, for example, the fact that Ukraine's capital is Europe's seventh largest city, right behind Berlin and Madrid. Or the 2014 ousted president's ridiculously opulent private estate-turned-museum, Mezhyhirya Residence. And how can one forget the UNESCO-listed caves of Pechersk Lavra and the world's deepest metro station, Arsenalna? (A 4.5-minute escalator ride!) Those are just a few of the curious treasures hiding in Kiev and it's impossible to list them all, so instead I'll share seven of the most curious urban gems I stumbled across while in Kiev.
This "beautiful wasteland of unchecked optimism" has a local and international reputation for being a ghost town to millionaires. Why? Planning for the $100 million luxury development of Vozdvizhenka began in the 1990s with construction breaking ground in 2003. After ten years, this glossy new neighborhood opened with developers smugly claiming 75% of its 398 units had sold. But something smelled fishy, and after an unexpected real estate bubble and waves of national unrest, the project stumbled and the truth was revealed: Vozdvizhenka was an insanely expensive and overambitious investment that missed the target... and destroyed a historic neighborhood in the process.
Vozdvizhenka is located in the heart of Kiev, straddling the incline between historic Podil and hilltop St. Michael's Golden- Domed Monastery. The first known settlements here date at least to 1150 AD, but nothing remains from these times thanks to a Mongol invasion and major fire (surprisingly, the neighborhood largely survived the Nazi and Soviet wrecking balls of the 1900s). And before gentrification settled into the area like gangrene, Vozdvizhenka was a thriving enclave of artisans and craftsmen, like potters and furriers to whom the streets are named after. Nowadays, the only signs of historic Vozdvizhenka are a few old buildings along the cobblestone street to St. Andrew's Cathedral and the occasional vendor selling handicrafts.
Walking through Vozdvizhenka, I joined throngs of other people wandering the streets and gazing at the neon pastel buildings with curiosity. Years after opening, the area is much more lively but an omnipresent feeling of class distinction and desolation remain. For example, it's unclear if there is a grocery store in the neighborhood yet, as developers claimed that residents don't shop for food themselves and therefore don't need one. Maybe that's why there are very few cafes, restaurants, or shops and the ones that are open cater to an uber-elite crowd. And what is that architectural style anyway? It's been described as 17th or 18th-century Ukrainian Baroque, but I think contemporary Kiev Kitsch with a healthy smattering of Art Nouveau, Austro-Hungarian, and Disneyland and a dash of Legos is more accurate. But despite so many drawbacks, I couldn't help but like bizarre Vozdvizhenka, although I could do without some of the baby vomit-hued colors. I imagined what the neighborhood would be like if outdoor seating replaced parked cars, storefronts were filled with cozy (and affordable) local shops and bars, and housing prices were reasonable for the average Kiev citizen. With some minor tweaks like that, Vozdvizhenka could easily become the hottest neighborhood in Kiev, not just a place for imaginary millionaires and backdrops for wedding portraits.
2. Green Theatre
Ukraine surprised me with its thick swaths of trees everywhere, and Kiev is especially blessed with many urban forests along the Dnieper River. Green Theatre is a treasure hidden within one of these dense city forests, and its history goes back further than its oversized concrete booths suggest. The sturdy but crumbling circular brick wall behind the rows of faded plastic seats are actually remains of a 1856 fortification around nearby Pechersk fortress. Over time and without enemies to fight off, the fortification became an obsolete and forgotten warehouse. Or at least until an architect came up with a creative re-use plan for the site.
Following World War II in the 1940s, downtown Kiev was a pile of rubble and the city was eager to rebuild. Architect Alexander Vlasov suggested the fortification be adapted into an entertainment center while Kiev's center was reconstructed, so open-air Green Theatre with seating for 4,000 was built. The theatre was popular until the 1960s when the newly-constructed Hydropark siphoned off visitors. The theatre officially closed in the 1980s before burning down in the 1990s; the site sat empty until it became a club briefly in 2011. Nowadays, thick forests have all but swallowed the buildings yet Green Theatre remains a popular place for young locals to hang out: women dressed up with props in hand for photos in the gallery ruins, doe-eyed couples cuddling on the surreal concrete furniture, scruffy men looking for a quiet place to drink.
3. Fisherman's Bridge (Rybalskyi Bridge)
A certified bridge to nowhere, the half-dismantled steel Fisherman's Bridge is an urban curiosity in the heart of Kiev. This cable-stayed bridge that connects Podil neighborhood to the Rybalskyi Peninsula over the Kiev Harbour was found unsafe for automobile traffic in the 1990s and was reserved for pedestrians starting in 2001. However, in 2009 the bridge was fenced off and dismantling began, according to Wikipedia. When I visited, it was unclear if the bridge was still being dismantled, but the slightly-apocalyptic setting has taken on a life of its own, attracting locals who come to walk around, climb the dizzying trusses, and sit on a precarious ledge and chat. Like Green Theatre, I loved how locals turned this spot into an interesting place to explore and hang out.
4. Landscape Alley
Barcelona has Gaudí's Park Güell, Kiev has Landscape Alley. In the early 2000s, when locals learned that developers would soon transform this forested strip into a large shopping mall, they responded by collaborating with various artists to create a motley little sculpture park. Landscape Alley is now an established member of the community, adding tremendous value to the neighborhood with whimsical playgrounds, eye-catching benches and sculptures, and street vendors selling snacks.
5. Street art
Kiev is known for colorful, crazy graffiti art that covers whole sides of buildings; these are a few that I spotted, knowing that this is just a sampling of what the city offers.
6. Statues & monuments
From a petite bronze nose installed on a brick wall in honor of a local writer to a sobering statue of a starving girl from Stalin's planned famine in the 1930s (when an estimated 7 million died of hunger), Kiev is covered in statues and memorials. I wouldn't be surprised if the number of monuments in the city surpassed a thousand. Old, new, classic, Soviet, funny, tragic, there is a statue for everything in Kiev.
7. Kiev in Miniature
Cities in miniature always arouse my curiosity, so naturally I would put Kiev in Miniature on this list. The open-air park is located on the same island as Hydropark and entrance is about $1, making it almost silly to pass up this little attraction. (It helps that the tiny pastel, golden-domed cathedrals look like deliciously oversized cupcakes.)