9 Interesting Places and Hidden Gems in Eastern Ukraine

A flock of seabirds amid the wilderness of the Belosarayskaya Spit

photography by: Dmytro Balkhovitin/ Wikimedia Commons

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Embroiled in endless military conflicts and economic hardships, the eastern provinces of Ukraine form a cultural barrier zone between east and west. Despite the ongoing insurgency, this part of the country is literally peppered with dozens of mind-boggling places to explore. Abandoned secret facilities, a series of industrial sites that were transformed into tourist attractions and numerous natural wonders all make this blood-soaked land a forgotten gem.

Kitsiv Desert

In spite of its reputation as a seamless carpet of bucolic landscape, Eastern Ukraine is also home to its own mini-desert. Ensconced south of the village of Kytsivka, the Kitsiv Desert (sometimes referred to as Kitsivka) is a 4 Km2 strip of semi-arid land that is dominated by sandy dunes and sparse vegetation.


Originally formed by alluvial deposits of the Siverskyi Donets River over the course of millennia, the sandy enclave served for decades as training grounds for soviet tanks. As a result, the entire area is littered with old ammunition including tank shells, bullets and rusty metal scraps, which according to locals is perfectly safe to wander around due to its old age. In recent years, the Kitsiv Desert unexpectedly became an unusual magnet for intrepid hikers as well as a venue for extreme car-races.

The sandy landscape of the Kitsiv Desert

photography by: Анна Федорова/ Wikimedia Commons

Arseniy Cave Monastery

For centuries, the 4-kilometer-long segment of the Siverskyi Donets hilly riverbank, sandwiched between the villages of Bohorodychne and Tetyanivka, has been regionally famous for its religious significance. In fact, throughout the history, several monastic communities (also known as sketes), have settled across the area, completely insulated from the rest of the world.


By far the most famous of which is the Sviatohirsk Lavra, a spectacular monastery perching on a chalky cliff that is pierced by an extensive cave system, where hermits occasionally have lived and prayed in the past. While most visitors focus primarily on this lavish cluster of hilltop churches, Sviatohirsk Lavra apparently has a far lesser-known counterpart, well-hidden in the nearby woodland.


Located along a deep-forest ravine, the Arseniy Monastery is an abandoned cave complex that up until 1920 was home to a skete of 30 monks. Entirely carved out of limestone rock, the cave has historically served as a shelter, both from the hustle and bustle of the outside world and even more so, from Crimean Tatars and Bolshevik forces who plundered Sviatohirsk Lavra.


As a defensive measure, the cave system has a narrow 2-meter-long entryway that is crossable only by crawling on 4 limbs, making it extremely difficult to raid. Following a 40-meter-long corridor, the cave splits into two hallways, one of which leads to three praying rooms, including a chamber whose wall has a cross-shaped relief.


Over the years, the place has been frequented by pilgrims who decorated its rooms with works of iconography and also by curious visitors, some of whom unfortunately engraved their names on the walls. If you wish to visit the former monastery, you can either do it by a boat tour from Sviatohirsk Lavra or a wooded trail. Bear in mind that the cave is extremely dark and entails carrying a flashlight.

Arseniy Cave Monastery's dark passageway

photography by: Andrew Butko/ Wikimedia Commons

Privolnian Bridgehead

Entirely surrounded by the aforementioned Siverskyi Donets River, the low-key town of Pryvillya might seem at first just like another typical settlement amid the Ukrainian rural heartland. However, this unassuming community was one of the country’s bloodiest battlefields during World War II, occupied by the Nazi forces for nearly 400 days.


In 2010, the local authorities inaugurated a monument at the outskirts of town, paying tribute to the Red Army’s sacrifice during the battle, which is sometimes referred to as Stalingrad 2. Overlooking Pryvillya’s pastoral landscape, the pentagram-shaped memorial features a temple-like colonnade that is crowned by the upward facing “Sword of Victory” and a reddish laurel wreath.


The memorial lies in front of a cross-topped mound known as Mount Artem, one of Pryvillya’s tens of waste heaps, a vestige of the town’s ample coal-mining industry during the Soviet era. This verdant hill offers expansive views of the entire area, including the many trenches that were once used by the German army.

The Privolnian Bridgehead alongside Mount Artem

photography by: MykolaLomako/ Wikimedia Commons

Atomic Birky Ghost-Town

Despite being by far the largest country on Earth during its existence, the U.S.S.R faced a logistic challenge as its European provinces were significantly more populated than the rest of the country. On the contrary, its eastern regions were home to most of the country’s natural resources, including coal. In an attempt to cut some of the sheer cost that come with transporting large amounts of coal from Siberia to its western part, the U.S.S.R commissioned the construction of a series of nuclear power plants across the union’s areas in Europe.


Amongst the designated locations for the nuclear power plants was also the small village of Birky, situated at the far periphery of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. 778 hectares of land at Birky’s eastern fringes were allocated for the plant, alongside its own town of 30,000 people. The future city was supposed to have a plethora of modern-day amenities, including a school, a kindergarten, a clinic and also a local culture center.


While the construction works started at full speed during the mid-1980’s, the new town’s bright future was short lived. On the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, a number of strict regulations were enacted, including a building code that prohibits any nuclear facility from being built across a 30-kilometer radius from a large city. Since Birky is only 26 kilometers away from Kharkiv, the project was automatically cancelled soon after.


As of today, the only thing left of the ambitious plan are two high-rises and several unfinished foundations. More than three decades of abandonment have taken their toll as the two extant buildings fell into a severe state of disrepair. In recent years, the site’s somewhat apocalyptic scenery has attracted hundreds of dark tourism enthusiasts, making this forgotten place relevant once again.

The Birky Atomic Ghost-Town's only two buildings

photography by: Sovetskiy/ Wikimedia Commons

Bilokuzminivsky Rock

Roughly 90 million years ago, the area where today lies the small village of Bilokuz’mynivka in Donetsk province was part of a large-scale ocean. While the seawater migrated elsewhere long ago, they left a substantial amount of residue in the form of limestone across the region. Those abundant chalk deposits were formed over the course of millions of years as dead corals, shell dwelling critters and other marine animals piled at the bottom of the ocean.


Jutting out from the vast agricultural fields around Bilokuz’mynivka, the Bilokuzminivsky Rock is a 25-meter-tall limestone cliff, consists of several separated buttes. This conspicuous natural landmark in an otherwise flat area served in the past as a Cossack outpost and more recently as a military lookout during WW2. Its most famous tenant however was an Orthodox hermit named Stepan Bosyi who lived in one of the rock’s many caves, and was tragically killed during the war.


A total height of 25 meters might not seem like a lot, but when taking into account its sheer verticality, this geological oddity is equivalent to a small high rise. Thanks to its unusual appearance, the rock quickly became a hotspot for extreme recreational activities, particularly among local climbers and paragliders.

The Bilokuzminivsky Rock at its fullest glory

photography by: Константин Брижниченко/ Wikimedia Commons

Vovchansk's Abandoned Airfield

Nestled less than 5 kilometers from Russia, the border town of Vovchansk is surrounded by numerous crop fields, which alongside its food-processing plants make it a regional agricultural center. While hardly a travel destination by its own right, Vovchansk is home to a rather unusual tourist attraction, a Soviet-era airplane cemetery at the outskirts of town.


Originally part of the DTSAAF flight school, the Vovchansky Aerodrome fuctioned for decades as a training facility for Soviet pilots. Following the dissolution of the U.S.S.R in 1991, the school closed its doors and soon after was abandoned, leaving behind tens of aircrafts at the premises. Most of the former school’s L-29, Mi-2, An-2, An-24RT and Mi-8 aircrafts are neatly lined outside, in the open field, while a few others rest at the dilapidated hangar.


Interestingly, some fuselages have firmly stood the test of time, with most of their machinery still largely intact, others however are barely a skeletal shadow of their former selves. After several years where the site was fenced and inaccessible for visitors, it was completely abandoned, prompting swarms of curious onlookers as well as graffiti artists who use the defunct planes and helicopters as a canvas for their works.

A dilapidated fuselage in Vovchansky Aerodrome

photography by: rest.guru.ua

Soledar Salt Mines

Since 2014, the town of Soledar has been a constant frontline between the Ukrainian government and Russian separatists. Up until its current precarious political status, Soledar was famous nationwide for a far more positive reason, its remarkable salt mines that have became increasingly popular among locals and foreign tourists alike.


In an attempt to break free of its reliance on foreign imports during the 1870’s, the then Russian Empire decided to develop a series of underground mines across the salt-rich region of Soledar. In recent years, parts of the mines, which are owned and operated by Artyomsalt company, were reallocated for other purposes, attracting all sorts of visitors.


At the depth of 228 meters, the underground mining complex spans across a whopping 200 kilometers of passageways and chambers, all of which are carved out of salt deposits. Following a short lift journey to the salty abyss, one can visit some of the subterranean chambers, including several halls decorated with salt sculptures and reliefs, a salt-carved church and the 100 meter long and 40-meter-tall main chamber that formerly hosted a live concert of the Viennese Opera and also multiple soccer matches.


With an average temperature of 15 °C and 60 percent humidity all year round, a plethora of health benefits is ascribed to the Soledar Salt Mines, particularly for people who suffer from respiratory diseases. Whether you wish to improve your health or just have a totally unusual experience, the site’s underground sanatorium “Salt Symphony” offers rooms entirely carved out of salt rock.

One of the rooms in the “Salt Symphony” underground sanatorium, carved out of salt

photography by: Visem/ Wikimedia Commons

Belosarayskaya Spit

Whilst most of us associate Ukraine either with expansive wheat fields or dense forests, sometimes its typical landscape is interrupted by a natural oddity. Such is the case of Belosarayskaya Ornithological Reserve along the Sea of Azov, an unspoiled and protected area next to a 14-kilometer-long spit and town with which it shares the name.


Located about 32 kilometers southwest of Mariupol, the natural reserve was founded as recently as 1995 by the Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences as a measure to protect one of the region’s last extant wetlands. Punctured by dozens of small lakes, the reserve is home to 217 types of plants alongside 158 bird species, making it amongst the country’s most bio-diverse places.


Binoculars armed bird lovers will encounter here mallards, seagulls, geese, waders and swans, the latter of which tend to congregate in their own lake, aptly named the “Swan Lake”. Additionally, the narrow strip of land that is wedged between the lakes and the sea offers a remarkably serene environment to relax and meditate.

The breathtaking sunset from as seen from the Belosarayskaya Spit

photography by: Khoroshkov/ Wikimedia Commons

Zmiyevsky Cliffs

Legend has it that the rural town of Zmiiv (literally translates to Snake) in northeastern Ukraine owes its unusual name to its ancient founder, who as you probably guessed by now, was named Zmiiv. Others claim that the settlement is actually named after the ample population of snakes around, one thing is sure though, this local obsession for snakes far exceeds the town boundaries as a series of breathtaking geological formations at Zmiiv’s southern outskirts are appropriately called the Snake Cliffs, or Zmiyevsky Cliffs.


Stretching across the western bank of the Siverskyi Donets River, the verdant cliffs are not particularly tall, reaching a 30 to 40 meters height. Nevertheless, their fissured rocky surface is bestowed with a mind-bogglingly epic views of the river’s floodplains, which following heavy rainfalls, are reminiscent of a lake dotted with thousands of islands. Recent discoveries of nearby archeological remnants suggest that the cliffs were continuously inhabited for centuries due to their strategic location that overlooks the region’s carpet of open fields.

The Zmiyevsky Cliffs alongside the Siverskyi Donets River

photography by: Hymyk86/ Wikimedia Commons