Ukraine safety: Should I visit a country at war?

Ukraine is a wonderful country, with beautiful cities like Lviv and Kiev. However, the conflict in the east has made the country less stable. Ukraine is at war, how does that affect you as a tourist? Is it safe to visite Ukraine?

The short answer is yes. However, read these travel tips before you go!

Getting in Ukraine: Don’t take the bus

Vilnius-Lviv-BusIf you want to visit Ukraine, I definitely recommend coming by plane. I travelled from Vilnius, Lithuania by bus (because there was no direct flight at the time). First of all: The bus took about 15 hours to get there, because it drives through Poland via Lublin. If you want to drive via Belarus, you need a visa for that country.

Not many tourists take this bus. I was the only one from western Europe, and also the youngest person on board. My fellow travellers were Poles, Lithuanians, and mostly Ukrainians. After getting into the bus, I immediately heard my (full) name being called in a conversation between the bus-drivers, apparently asking if it was okay that a Dutch guy stepped in. I considered asking where it was about, but the strict look I received made me think twice.

The driver did not understand any English. There was a break during the trip, and I tried to ask how much time we had, but I had trouble making myself understood. Whether I tried English or sign-language, it seemed to have no effect.

Eventually we were at the border, finally. Passports were checked and all went fine. There was this large Ukraine-sign, so I got in, yay!

Ukraine Customs

But my enthusiasm faded away quickly, as there was a second border control. The woman who checked my passport asked me to take off my glasses, and back on again. Apparently I didn’t look like the guy on the photo. I am a man of many faces 😛
So after having checked everyone else, I was called to come outside the bus.
I must admit that I was slightly worried at this point, but then again, why wouldn’t I get in?

She asked where I’m from, why I am entering Ukraine, etc. I ensured I was on holiday, because I suspected maybe they didn’t want Dutch disaster tourists due to flight MH-17 that crashed in eastern Ukraine the year before. And I’m definitely not interested in going there. After checking my photo again she wished me a “good trip”.
I thanked her and off I was to Lviv.

After entering the border, I noticed the condition of the roads became considerably worse. Some roads were blocked, so we had to take some interesting d-tours through very remote areas. I had the mixed feeling of disliking the atmosphere throughout the bus-ride and loving the adventure at the same time

You can probably avoid all this hassle by just taking the freakin’ plane, but where’s the fun in that? 😉

When you go further east to cities like Kharkiv and Odessa, you might consider to take the plane as well, because some roads are blocked and there are not many trains you can choose from, so be well prepared.

Is Lviv safe to visit?

Lviv, Ukraine, TripballThe beautiful Galician city of Lviv is most certainly worth visiting. Instead of the Stalinist architecture you may expect to find, the beautiful centre of Lviv is known for it’s Austrian and Westen influences. This isn’t as strange as it sounds. Ukraine is a huge country, and Lviv, being near the western border, has always had a very pro-Europe mindset.

During the reign of pro-Russian President Yanukovych, Lviv may have suffered the most. Therefore the city’s executive committee declared itself independent of Kiev’s rule in 2014.

If Lviv has anything worth worrying about, then it’s not the anti-western sentiment, but more about the strong Nationalist, extremely right-wing views many people cherish here.

Is Kiev safe to visit?

Kiev TankKiev or Kyiv is a huge city, with a metropolitan area of almost 3,4 million inhabitants. These people have only experienced independence since the past 25 years in this country they are so proud of, and are not letting Russia take that away from them again. This is a mindset that is very much alive in the capital, and not without reason.

The city of change

Ukrainians have seen a lot of changes and revolutions throughout their history, and also within the past 15 years. So naturally, with the new war in the East of Ukraine, the anti-Russian sentiment of the current government comes with a lot of patriotism and propaganda.

It’s hard to believe that the Russians and Ukrainians who live here once shared a national identity. As a tourist however, there’s not much to worry about. Just be careful, like in any major eastern-European city.

Is Odessa safe to visit?

Odessa Beach Ukraine

Odessa beach (Y. Kvach, CC BY-SA)

Were really going from west to east here, and as you can imagine, the safety risks in Odessa are a bit higher than in Kiev or Lviv.

Odessa is the Black Sea’s largest port, and many folks from the Crimea area live here now. Russian is the main language here.

After the annexation of Crimea, a huge demonstration of pro-Russians and pro-Ukrainians followed in february 2014, resulting in many casualties. Odessa remained an unsafe place troughout that year.. While violence in the city seems to have calmed down, incidents are not unlikely. In 2015, a couple of incidents happened, but only at night.

So go explore this beautiful city, but think twice about going out at night. The tourist industry in the Black Sea coast has dropped, so they need you!

Is Kharkiv safe to visit?

Kharkiv tripballKharkiv (or Charkov) is Ukraine’s second largest city. It has a metro network, a great infrastructure and a wonderful large square. It is a very nice city to visit with some beautiful architecture. Especially for a city so far in the east.

Like Odessa, Kharkiv has seen some violence, but terrorism and demonstrations can happen anywhere. The city is closer to the war-front, and thus more vulnerable than any of the previously mentioned cities, but the situation has become a lot safer during the past year.

Watch your pockets, be careful at crowded areas and at night, follow the news and you’ll be as fine as in any city.

What the governments say

The eastern part of Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk) is a warzone, and all governments will obviously tell you not to go there. Here’s what the US, UK and Dutch government say about safety in Ukraine:

Dutch government travel advise: “In the cities of Kiev, Kharkiv, Odesa, Zaporizhia and Dnipropetrovsk (in the east and south of the country) is an increased risk of violence. Be extra careful in these cities. Avoid demonstrations and places where many people come, as well as military installations.” The government of the Netherlands also warns that “Homosexuality is not universally accepted” in Ukraine.

UK Government travel advise:

You should take great care and remain vigilant throughout Ukraine. Avoid all demonstrations and take extra care in public gatherings.

USA government travel advise:

U.S. citizens should exercise caution in the regions of Odesa, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. Small-scale bombings and terrorism incidents are becoming more frequent throughout these regions, especially Kharkiv and Odessa.

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