Located a relatively short car or public bus ride away from Kiev, Chernihiv is the rising star on the Ukraine travel itinerary. To give you an idea of just how astonishing this town is, even the locals look surprised when they finally get the chance to visit. Among some of the reasons why traveling to Chernihiv becomes more and more popular are:
- the town’s rich history and beautiful attractions
- small and walkable historic downtown with easy navigation and lots of things to see
- cheap prices for sites, hotels, and dining
- good roads (vital if you are driving by car or are a passenger of the marshrutka, the local public bus)
Lovely and welcoming, Chernihiv is one of the highly recommended day trips from Kiev. Careful: once in the town, there’s a chance you might reconsider and stay for two nights instead of one.
So, what do we know about the history of Chernihiv?
This is one of the oldest towns in Kievan Rus. It appeared in the chronicles around the year 907. In those days, the city was ruled by the Prince Mstislav, a brother of Yaroslav the Wise, then-prince of Kiev. Chernihiv’s strategic location connected it via the rivers Desna and Dnipro to Byzantium. Via Dnipro and Volga, the town held a connection with the Middle East.
By the 9th century, it grew to be one of the three main settlements in Kievan Rus, with the first being Kiev, and the third being Novgorod (currently in Russia). Because of its wealthy status, Chernihiv was always in the center of wars for power. In the 1200s, the Tatar-Mongol horde captured and burned it to the ground. Restored by the 14th century, it passed from Lithuanian to Polish crowns, and eventually ended up within the Russian Empire.
Today’s modern and rapidly developing town is part of sovereign Ukraine, but it also has lots of references to the history of many other countries. From the first college of left-bank Ukraine to the wooden houses dating back to the Russian Empire, walking this town is like exploring a unique roadmap to the past.
Top 10 Things to Do in Chernihiv
1. Start at Dytynets park
This is the heart of the city and its historic landmark. Strategically placed on the hill between Desna River and its tributary Stryzhen, this was once an old fortification with high walls. There were three gates through the city walls. Inside the fortification, there were the prince’s palace, houses of the wealthy people, and the main churches of Chernihiv.
Most of them are still there, in what turned from the fortification to the cozy green park with old trees and lots of squirrels. The Salvation Cathedral is the centerpiece of the park. It was founded by the first prince of Chernihiv, Mstislav, back in the 1030s. The cathedral survived the turbulent times and still welcomes the Orthodox worshippers. To explore its insides, you will need to meet the dress code (skirts and covered heads for women, appropriate attire for men).
Next to it stands the second noteworthy Orthodox shrine, the Borys and Gleb Cathedral. This one dates back to 1123 and represents the Ukrainian baroque architectural style. For a brief period of time, this cathedral belonged to the Dominican order but then got back to the Orthodox church.
Visit the cathedrals or head for a relaxing stroll around the park and learn more about the way the town looked back in the days. Next to these cathedrals, there is a free exhibition of the old images of Chernihiv
2. Don’t walk past the oldest collegium in left-bank Ukraine
Located next to the Borys and Gleb cathedral is the white building with a narrow porch supported by the two massive pillars. This is the first school on the left bank of Ukraine to provide secondary and then higher education to the clergymen. Its students learned Latin, Polish, Slavic, and Russian languages. Once they passed their exams of syntaxis and grammar, the young men could attend classes on philosophy, rhetoric, and poetics. The entire course lasted six years.
This collegium accepted not only children of the clergymen and the nobles but also of the cossacks and bourgeois.
3. Find the 13th cannon
As you are making your way through the Dytynets park, you will eventually reach the end of the Val – the hill, on which the old fortification once stood. The hill’s edge is lined with twelve cast-iron cannons, and all of them face the river.
Surprisingly, these cannons are here not to remind about multiple fights and battles over Chernihiv. The town got them much later, in the 1800s. At first, there were only three cannons. The writers and artists of the town hated these bulky reminders of war. The local newspapers loved it. There is even an article from the Chernihiv Hubernia Journal that informs its readers about the installation of the cannons, the great gift from Emperor Peter I.
There are in fact twelve cannons. But the locals joke that if one does not want to date a certain person, he/she would set a meeting by the 13th cannon of the Val.
4. Admire Desna from the Pedestrian bridge
A walk to this broad and tall pedestrian bridge is a journey well within itself. You will get to stroll through the old streets lined with cute and colorful wooden houses. When Chernihiv was part of the Russian Empire, only a few of its buildings were made out of stone. The rest of the town was wooden.
If you are coming to Chernihiv from Kiev on a day trip, you have probably already seen a few similar houses in the Kiev old town. However, here reminders of this lovely architectural tradition can be spotted much more frequently.
The pedestrian bridge rises above the Desna river and opens beautiful panoramas of its banks, beaches, and the flow. Walk or bicycle your way through the area, or hire a local electro-tuk-tuk and enjoy the fun ride.
5. Head to the Red Square…
…no, not that one. The Red Square of Chernihiv looks nothing like the one in Moscow. Chernihiv is a town of about 300,000 people. So, even on the weekend, its squares and parks don’t get as crowded.
This central square is a great reflection of how the generations change. Ask any older citizen of Ukraine, and he/she will tell you that the square is where one would head to for a demonstration or a formal parade. Ask a young Chernihiv local, and he/she would tell you that the square is the perfect spot to head to create or to hang out. And this is exactly what they do here.
When looking at this cozy and freshly renovated square, it is hard to believe that it was a crowded, busy, loud, and dirty central market back in the days of Kievan Rus. From the square, continue exploring the town in either of the four directions. On its eastern side, there are fun musical fountains that you can enjoy if you come in summer. In its western corner, there is a theater and an alley to the picturesque smaller square of Bohdan Khmelnitsky. To its north, begins the Miry avenue. To its south, there is a gorgeous alley of Heroes that leads straight to the St. Catheryn’s Cathedral.
6. Discover the vibrant modern life of Chernihiv
If you choose to head north from the square, you will reach the main artery of the town, the Miry avenue. Its central alley is a mix of playgrounds for the kids, modern sculpture, and lots of benches in the shadows of the old trees. On either side of the alley, there are numerous shops and cafes.
Stop by Tsapa for a cup of coffee and cheesecake, try local varenyky in Varenychna on Miry 21, or have your bowl of pasta at Pasta Basta on Miry Avenue, 44.
7. Explore a cozy smaller square
If you choose to head east from the Red Square, you will pass the theater and reach a small and cozy Bohdan Khmelnitsky square. Its centerpiece is the Pyatnitska Church and its beautiful neighbor, the massive fountain. If you come in spring, there will be lilacs blooming in this square and filling the air with the sweet aroma.
From here, dive into an off-beaten path Seryozhikova alley to find cute local shops and a lovely place Fotel with some of the best coffee and Napoli cakes in town.
Side note: Just like in Kiev, in Chernihiv, you can put yourself to a fun task to find as many murals as possible. The selection is not as big as in the capital of Ukraine, but it is still a fun side activity.
8. Stroll along the alley of Heroes
This is a meditative walk past numerous fountains and flower beds. Late spring is the best season to admire hundreds of tulips blossoming here, and if you have a choice, definitely come from Kiev to Chernihiv in May.
The alley ends at the St. Catherine’s Cathedral and the two benches at the edge of the hill. These face the pedestrian bridge and the old wooden houses and are perfect for a short break in your walking tour of Chernihiv.
9. Explore the Boldin mountain and caves
Located a short ride away from the center is the Boldin mountain. This is a unique combination of the mounds with remains of bodies buried according to the pagan traditions, a Soviet Stella erected in honor of the soldiers that died in World War II, and the Orthodox Antonievy caves.
These caves accept visitors and offer regular guided tours. The underground complex is truly unique. It dates back to the 1060s. Like in the Pechersk Lavra, the main Orthodox Shrine and Caves in Kiev, the Antonievy tunnels are narrow and dark, too. They often lead to the remains of the monks and saints, with bones on display. You will also visit the remains of the ancient underground churches.
10. Ascend the bell tower of St. Trinity Cathedral
Within a short walk from Boldina mountain, there is an old and picturesque St. Trinity Cathedral. While you may explore its insides and the inner yard, the main attraction here is the bell tower. Walk up several flights of stairs and admire the breathtaking panorama of the town. You will see the river, Dytynets, and most of the other attractions in the city center. It might also be a good idea to start your day with the bell tower as it accepts visitors till 7 pm.
How to get to Chernihiv?
By car, follow the route E95. It will take you around two hours to get to Chernihiv. The road is in good condition, with not much traffic unless there are roadworks (which sometimes happens).
By public transportation, use the red metro line and exit at Chernihivska station. Look for the yellow marshrutkas (public buses) with “Чернігів” on their destination plates. Asking the locals helps because Chernihiv sounds exactly the same both in English and in Ukrainian, and even if the person you ask does not speak English, he/she can still point you in the right direction. Here is a useful tip: it is better to ask the drivers, as the passers might not be local.
By the time we were ready to share this post, there were only two trains headed in Chernihiv direction, and both were very inconveniently scheduled during the daytime.