With international travel still pretty problematic, what better time than to explore your own country a bit more? With that in mind, we took a road trip across East Ukraine, stopping in Poltava on the way to Kharkiv. And I have to say, I was very pleasantly surprised by Poltava! I think it is among the nicest medium-sized cities in Ukraine.
Here are a few of my favourite things to do there:
Eat breakfast (or have coffee, lunch…) at Chichikov
Yes I know, it might seem strange to start my post with a cafe recommendation instead of a tour of the sights, but that’s just testament to how much I love this place.
It’s no secret that my favourite meal of the day is breakfast, and my favourite time of day is morning. If all meals could be breakfast, that would be pretty ideal for me. Anyway, this has quickly become one of my favourite breakfast spots/cafes in all of Ukraine, and I had to stop for breakfast 2 Saturdays in a row.
Everything here is just so nice. In the summer they have all the tables outside, but you don’t find yourself sitting on a plastic chair at a wobbly tin table – instead they have heavy wooden tables and comfortable leather sofas out there for you. Meals are served on really beautiful china plates and cups with real (silver?) cutlery and real napkins which I am a huge sucker for.
The food and especially coffee are also amazing. Do yourself a favour and order the almond raf coffee (pictured below). It’s now probably my favourite coffee in the world. If you’re not familiar with Ukrainian coffee culture, a raf is something like a pre-sweetened latte. Apparently the recipe originates in Russia and consists of espresso, cream, sugar and vanilla sugar. As such it’s obviously a bit sweet, so don’t order it if you like your coffee bitter and dark, but seriously do order this almond raf if you ever make it to Poltava, it is heaven in a cup.
I think the prices are ‘high’ for a small Ukrainian city, but compared to Kyiv they are pretty cheap and in any case more than worth it.
So, once you’ve had your fill of caffeine and sirniki (the Ukrainian national breakfast of cheese pancakes with sour cream and sometimes fruit, jam or honey), you might have the energy for a stroll around some of what Poltava has to offer.
Walk down Sobornosti street
The great thing about Poltava is that most of what you would want to see, especially on a short stop-off for just a day or night, is located on one long street – Sobornosti Street. If you arrive in Poltava and don’t have a huge amount of time, and you want to get the city’s vibe in a nutshell, just head to this street and you won’t go too far wrong.
This street is mostly pedestrianised, and hosts a whole load of different restaurants, cafes, pubs and street stalls. If you’re looking for a place to eat, this is definitely your best bet. I’m not going to drop any particular restaurant recommendations because basically Poltava has all the usual suspects: Georgian, Ukrainian and Italian with sushi thrown in for good measure. Outside of the big 3-4 cities in Ukraine (Kyiv, Lviv, Odessa and Kharkiv) you are unlikely to find any more ‘exotic’ cuisines than the above-mentioned four. Still, you can’t go wrong with Georgian in my opinion and we did eat at ‘Tot Samiy Barashek’ which wasn’t bad. There’s also the ubiquitous chain ‘Mafia’ which you can always rely on for an average-quality pizza, pasta or sushi at basically any time of the day or night. A lot of people look down on Mafia a bit but it’s always a good fall-back in my opinion.
The local ‘speciality’ of Poltava is called ‘galushky’ or ‘halushky’ (not to be confused with the Slovak halusky which I am a huge fan of) – it’s basically a kind of dumpling which is rather similar to vareniky, but in any case you should probably try it since it’s particular to the region.
At one end of the street there’s a round park called Corpus Park, which is good for a short walk and maybe a beer or something since there’s a pizza place inside the park with a beer garden outside.
From there you can walk underneath the road via a rather dingy underground mall, then make your way down the pedestrian street.
At the other end, after about 10-15 minutes walk at a leisurely pace, you’ll find Assumption Cathedral and the Rotunda of People’s Friendship.
At the end of the road you’ll find this beautiful example of a typical Ukrainian orthodox church or cathedral. I didn’t go inside, but it’s set within a nice park area and you can definitely walk around and enjoy the outside.
The Rotunda of People’s Friendship
If you walk around the Cathedral and come out on the other side you’ll come to possibly Poltava’s main monument – the Rotunda. This curved monument was built in 1909 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Poltava – more on this later since it’s a key part of Poltava’s history and actually quite an important event in the development of modern Europe. I was surprised that I didn’t know anything about such a major event, but that’s UK-centric school curricula for you I guess.
I don’t normally talk a huge amount about history because it’s not my biggest interest or area of expertise, but I think that it would be a shame to stop in Poltava without realising its relative importance in the history of Russia and Europe.
Anyway, in any case you should visit the Rotunda because it’s pretty spectacular and is set on a hilltop with probably the best view to be found in the area.
In the evenings it seems like a lot of people come up here to walk, drink, talk or listen to music. It’s definitely a bit of a focal point for local people as well as a good place to visit as a tourist.
Visit the field of the Poltava Battle, burial mound and Saint Sampson’s Church
As I mentioned before, you can get a pretty nice overview of the best of Poltava just by strolling all the way down Sobornosti Street from the Park at one end to the Rotunda and view at the other, with a few stops on the way. I definitely recommend that.
However, you should also not miss the biggest historical site in Poltava, which is a little further out of the city centre, but also worth seeing.
Firstly you should take a look at St. Sampson’s Church. Construction began on the church in 1841 and was completed in 1848 on the site of a mass grave of Russian soldiers who died during the Battle of Poltava. Over time, various small changes and additions have been made to the church, but it still stands there today, facing the burial mound where countless Russian soldiers are buried.
Next you should visit the burial mound itself.
The Battle of Poltava, which took place in 1709, is a surprisingly important event not just in the history of Poltava, but also of Europe. The battle was a huge victory for Peter I of Russia, aka Peter the Great, over the Swedes led by Field Marshal Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld. It is widely believed by historians to have been a major factor in the decline of Sweden as a major European power and the rise of Russia as one of the strongest nations in North/Eastern Europe. Apparently none of the 44,000 Swedish soldiers ever returned home, whether they were killed or taken captive.
Of course, whilst Russia were victorious in this battle, they also suffered considerable losses, which this burial mound commemorates.
The whole area features quite a number of memorials to both sides, with engravings in both Swedish and Ukrainian or Russian.
On the opposite side of the road you can find the battlefield itself and the museum which is built on the site. I did not enter the museum but I am sure it’s worth visiting if you have more time and an interest in learning more.
In front you can see a statue of the victorious Peter the Great.
Not too far from the site there are also several stone monuments to commemorate those on both sides. If you walk or drive to the end of the road you’ll see the stone cross which was built as a memorial for the fallen Swedes who took part in the battle.
All in all this is a very interesting site with a lot of very important history behind it, and I very much recommend setting aside some time to explore the whole area with its several different monuments and memorials.
Who knew there was so much interesting stuff to see and do in Poltava? I’m sure I didn’t give adequate time and attention to visiting everything there is to be seen here, since it was just an overnight stopover on the way to Kharkiv. I will definitely consider a longer stay next time since it’s such a nice city.
Let me know what you think about Poltava in the comments!
Don’t forget, I have a series of posts on what to do in lots of smaller Ukrainian cities beyond Kyiv, Lviv and Odessa. Check the Ukraine tag to find out more!