Strolling Kyiv: Gray Skies Smiling at Me

We’ve found that one of the best times to visit Europe is in the Fall. Cool, erratic weather and persistent rain convince many visitors to stay home … but not us.

With the right attitude and good rain gear, even gloomy skies and unpredictable downpours can’t wash the color and fun out of a trip to Kyiv.

For most tourists, their best color memory will be the city’s beautiful churches. Kyivites are serious about religion, but that doesn’t mean their churches are conservative, somber affairs. From deep, rich hues to delicate pastels, color is the rule rather than the exception and these iconic cathedrals are a veritable religious rainbow brightening the cityscape.

A population of 3 million residents guarantees diversity – particularly in post-Soviet Kyiv. You don’t have to look far to see splashes of color and whimsy. From wall-spanning mosaic cats and color-coordinated food displays to a witness-to-the-revolution floral clock in Independence Square – all grab the eye.

And on our walk around town, something else grabbed our attention … food.  We searched out Chicken Kyiv of course, sampled varenyky in all varieties, and washed it all down with a frosty, Ukrainian beer. Luckily, we stumbled on a popular, not-a-tourist-in-sight cafeteria restaurant which was the perfect place for sampling small portions of local favorites.

Trying new foods is always a high point when traveling, but one thing we knew but hadn’t properly planned for was restaurant menus and grocery labels in Cyrillic. Most people in Kyiv speak Ukrainian or Russian, and English is in short supply. The Cyrillic alphabet has 33 letters, 16 of which don’t exist in English. If you think this ratio means a 50% chance of getting what you expected … you’d be wrong.

Morning coffee brought the point home. I just wanted milk for my coffee – white bottle, grazing cow on the label … must be milk. Right? Let me tell you, coffee does not taste the same with yoghurt. Eww! Thankfully, there was a mini-market close by where I bought the who-would’ve-guessed milk pyramid.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

61 thoughts

    1. And the strange thing was that it tasted very salty – which must have been some strange chemical reaction. I’ve since learned to taste what I’m about to put in my coffee. 🙂 James

  1. How interesting! I would never have guessed that the churches in Kiev would reflect the colors of the rainbow. I would have guessed that they would be more sober! Terrific photos.

    One can get some unpleasant surprises when ordering if a menu on can’t understand, that’s clear haha. Sometimes I’ll look at what others are eating and if it looks good I’ll just point to it when the waiter comes and make it clear that I want that too. Seems to work.


    1. Peta, getting good local food requires getting off the tourist track. And the farther off the tourist track one gets the less chance there is of having English on menus, or with waitstaff for that matter. In these situations pointing is the only reliable choice. You may not know what the food is but at least you’ll know that it looks good. And hopefully the taste will follow. 🙂 ~ James

  2. Too funny! Yes, it’s one of the experiences of travelling the path less beaten. We too have had some ‘surprises’ along the way and always with a laugh – although the pyramid milk is a new one for me. I would never have guessed!!

    … I am thinking however that getting a beer was no problem 😉

    1. Joanne, one of the certainties of Eastern Europe is easy, cheap access to beer. As a friend of mine said: “It’s just cereal in a can!” As for the milk pyramid, is that not the most efficient packaging yet? It doesn’t get any simpler than that. But I’m beginning to understand why hard core travelers drink their coffee black. ~ James

  3. At least it was yogurt, not something totally bizarre. 🙂 I’m one of those people who always hope for blue skies and sunny days when I travel. But I guess I should adjust my attitude a little bit when rainy days come. After all, I’ve seen cool images of places around the world in what is supposedly not-so-good weather.

    1. Bama, we use a travel zoom camera, and honestly, it doesn’t handle gray, overcast skies well. I’m sure there’s some way to tinker with the settings to overcome this issue, but that would defeat the purpose of keeping our photography easy. Like you, we usually just hope for blue skies. ~ James

    1. Leslie, we were a little surprised by all the colorful cathedrals in Kyiv. I assume they were all built before the communist takeover. Luckily the communists had the good sense to let them be. ~ James

  4. I learned Cyrillic when I went to Russia. I’m usually lousy at languages but didn’t find it too hard. My problem was arriving in Crimea in 2006 with a Lonely Planet that only had Ukranian, when the locals all spoke Russian… Fortunately I was also carrying Bradt.

    1. Kathy, we have a little English/Cyrillic alphabet cheat sheet we keep with us. We pay particular attention to things like where our bus is going. Cyrillic can make even the simplest things a chore, but that’s just part of the deal. ~ James

    1. Joyce all is going well so far. Those ladies in the photo had some of the prettiest canned food I’d ever seen. Not sure about the taste but it sure looked nice. It was great to see you two and to get a chance to visit with Scott and Tish. Love, JH

  5. Interesting post. Kyiv looks lovely, especially all those colourful churches. And that cat is amazing! I had yogurt in my tea one morning in Japan 😦 Ewww is right.

    1. Sorry for the taste test Alison, but it’s good to know someone is in the same boat with me. I didn’t mind the yucky taste so much, but I didn’t like getting dressed and wandering around in the rain to find milk. Not a peaceful way to begin the day. 🙂 ~James

  6. I would have assumed the same as you regarding the milk. Trying different food is one of my favourite things about travelling though. Recently had a day in Asia where I ordered several things with no idea what I was getting and didn’t like any of them (still not sure what it was i ate!) but at least I know for the future!

    1. Fi, I enjoy the Far East, but experimenting with food there can be a walk on the wild side … literally. In my corporate days I spent a few months in China, and attending banquets with all their delicacies was always a culinary adventure. And because I didn’t want to offend anyone I pretty much had to try everything. Hoo boy! ~ James

  7. I am seriously suspicious around food and drink when we travel. Fine to leap off cliffs and raft over unknown rapids but an unrecognizable food, forget that. I have to say the cow on the white bottle is very misleading. A very disappointing start to the day.

    1. Don’t feel badly Sue. Everyone has a limit to their adventure tolerance, and it’s wise to know one’s limits. Also, just think of all the food products that come from cows. It could have been worse. I shudder to think of ricotta cheese in my coffee. ~ James

  8. Shoulder seasons are my favorite time to travel. Less tourists and more “real” interactions. Love the cat. And the clock is beautiful. Overcast days can make the colors seem more vivid. I try to leave out the sky when I can on those days – hard to do when you are taking pictures of beautiful church domes though.

    1. Laura, I don’t remember the last time we traveled during high season. The crowds are a nuisance, and even worse, prices are so much higher.

      On photography, we use a travel zoom camera and gray skies give its auto light meter fits. There doesn’t seem any way to trick it, so we usually have to tweak the light in the photo app. These Kyiv shots were particularly tough. ~James

  9. Love the churches and what a pleasant surprise! I assumed it would all be grey and dull. Sounds like you had a great time in Kiev. (in spite of the yoghurt fiasco) Did you have perogies? They are my favourite food in the world!!

    1. Darlene we were surprised by all the color as well. Most of the cathedrals were pre-Communism, so luckily nothing was done to change that. But once outside the historic center, everything changes. The huge, ugly communist-era housing blocks are the very definition of gray and dull. As for food, we found a hidden cafeteria where it was totally fine to pick and choose so we tried bits of lots of different dishes and sweets. Perfect. ~James

      1. Olena, we tried varenyky in all forms, and were never disappointed. It’s nice, filling, comfort food, so it’s no wonder that it’s so popular. ~James

  10. Fall travel is wonderful, indeed. I like the lower costs, fewer crowds, seasonal foods and festivals, sweater weather, and colorful foliage. The lower angle of the sun also produces some softer light for nice photos. I really enjoyed hearing about your adventures in Kyiv. How was the chicken?

    1. Joe, as you know, now is the time to be just about anywhere in Europe. The weather has been fine, and other than a few passing showers the cool temps are good. I feel for folks that are forced to put up with the high season BS in all its forms. As for the chicken, nothing suffers from the addition of butter. 🙂 James

  11. Some of our best travel experiences have been in autumn, probably my favorite season. I have also had the misfortune of buying yogurt instead of milk for my coffee…yew is right!

    1. LuAnn, after that episode I taste what I’m about to put in my coffee. It’s taken a while, but we’ve figured out that in most places in Europe milk and all sorts of cream have the percentage of fat posted on the container. Yogurt usually doesn’t. That helps but now the key is to get cream that’s un-sweetened. This getting my coffee right takes planning. 🙂 ~James

  12. I have only been to Europe twice – both times in the fall – and it was great. I don’t have anything to compare it to, but the crowds were thinned out, the weather was pleasant during the day and a little chilly but nice in the evenings.

    You’d think after all these years you’d get milk for your coffee correct. I accidentally bought salt toothpaste the other day in Thailand even though I can now read Thai so it happens. Good luck with your coffee and travels.

    1. Jeff, I’ve got most of the milk products down in Europe but it was tricky business in Kyiv. The Cyrillic label on a milk-looking bottle and a grazing cow had me totally flummoxed. And they got the last laugh because I’m not that crazy about drinkable yogurt. But salt toothpaste … never experienced that one . ~ James

  13. You guys made me smile with this post, from your opening remark about braving the weather, to the colorful displays in the city, to the yogurt in the coffee. What would travel be if it wasn’t for these spontaneous, unique and “trying” encounters in local restaurants and bars. I hope you could take the rest of the bottle home for breakfast.

    I’m so looking forward to more exotic locations to travel. North America just doesn’t offer the same opportunities and almost appears boring… 🙂

    “Cool, erratic weather and persistent rain convince many visitors to stay home … but not us.” My first reaction to this sentiment would was “True! I’d stay home.” But then, despite not liking the cold and rain, I realized that Mark and I have been doing plenty of visiting and hiking in the rain lately. And, I have to admit, that’s much better than sitting in a 19ft van all day.

    1. Liesbet, for us, travel just about anywhere generates travel tales. But it seems that with all the unknowns and new situations foreign trips are more fertile ground. And we hope that looking back we remember the experience with humor, which is almost always the case.

      When it comes to bad weather, we do what active folks like you and Mark must do when planning a hike: hope for the best but plan for the worse. And ultimately we don’t always persevere in really crappy weather. We decided long ago that we see what we see, and if we miss something because of miserable weather, well so be it. Travel is a about having fun and isn’t a forced march. ~ James

  14. We’ve found when menus are printed in Cyrilic or Arabic or you-name-it, old-fashioned pointing is the way to go. We’ve pointed at pictures on menus and pics in guide books. Heck, one time we pointed to the people behind us and said, “We’ll have what they’re having!” Worked out pretty well, I might say.

    1. I hear you Rusha. Pointing never goes out of style, at least for us anyway. While it might be considered rude in some circles, most of the folks we run into in our travels are happy to have your business in any form. My contention is that if you do it with a smile, you can’t go wrong – well until the wrong food shows up. 🙂 ~ James

  15. We’ve just returned from London, England. I like cream in my coffee and I discovered that pouring cream comes in yogurt containers. It’s also much thicker than the cream we get at home.

    1. The best indicator I’ve discovered just about anywhere I travel is the % fat label on the carton. Good ol’ American style half and half is approximately 10%. Whipping cream can be 20-30% and boy oh boy doesn’t it taste great in coffee. I’m in Sibiu, Romania and have been using whipping cream. I’ll be hopelessly addicted by the time I get home. ~ James

      1. Kyiv is my native town. To grasp its unique atmosphere I, personally, would recommend going on guided tours around the city. Nowadays, it won’t be a problem finding a professional city guide speaking English. They create very creative excursions and routes. No doubts, you will find out interesting facts about Kyiv that no Wikipedia or Google know…I miss my home sooooo much from across the ocean. Don’t get me wrong, Philadelphia is a nice city with a lot of historical heritage but Kyiv is and will be my number 1!

      2. Thanks for the commment Olena and for dropping by the blog. Even though the weather didn’t really cooperate, we really enjoyed our time in Kyiv. This was our first trip to the Ukraine, and based on what we saw, we would like to return and see more. We rented a small apartment in the center and it was perfect. I think that many western tourists hear the news about the troubles in Ukraine and are worried that a trip there could be risky – which as you know, isn’t true. This is unfortunate, because Kyiv has lots to offer as I’m sure the rest of the country does as well. ~James

      3. First of all, thank you for using “Ukraine” without the definite article “the”. As a language specialist I come across this type of mistake million times!
        Secondly, foreigners do feel nervous traveling to Ukraine and it’s understandable due to the war in our Eastern part but Kyiv is safe, thank goodness! My future husband was so brave he crossed the ocean to visit me in the terrible time—mid February 2014 when dozens of people were shot in the heart of Kyiv. At that time it was terrifying around but nowadays, thanks to our Ukrainian patriotic warriors the major part of my homeland is free from Russians.

        By the way, if Crimea ever comes back to Ukraine, your family should definitely visit it. The Crimean peninsula has unforgettable historic palaces, beautiful mountains and warm sea.

        Anyway, thank you again for the post popularizing Ukrainian tourism.

      4. Olena, it sounds like, for a couple of reasons, you’re the perfect person to ask about the proper name of your home country. I’ve never been sure where the useage of the article “the” came from. Am I wrong, or sometimes is Crimea called “The Crimea?” As for safe vs unsafe areas to visit: in my experience, there are always places that are truly unsafe to visit and these areas are obvious. However, doing a bit of research and using common sense will determine if a place is really safe or if it’s just the news outlets trying to sell an attention-grabbing story. I wouldn’t hesitate returning to Ukraine, and hopefully, one day I will see Crimea. Thanks for your informed comments and opinions on Ukraine. ~James

      5. I think “the” article makes pronouncing certain geographical names easier, they roll off the tongue smoothly. Regarding the proper usage of “Crimea”—it doesn’t need the definite article, though you should say “The Autonomous Republic of Crimea” and “The Crimean peninsula”.

        You are welcome. It’s been over 25 years since I started learning English and becoming a professional interpreter/ translator I feel like my grammar is better that my husband’s, who is a native speaker😎 Anyway, you are always welcome. A girl can leave Ukraine, but Ukraine can never leave a girl.

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