The Most Underrated City: Kharkiv, Ukraine
I had no expectations about Ukraine’s second city. I like traveling to places that way with limited background knowledge about them. I purposely do next to no research; I want new frontiers with no filters or preconceptions. This way everything is a discovery and I can create my own narrative from a fresh sheet of paper.
The train stopped and we all entered the city through a grand train station that was reduced to one door, a size that could be found in a large home. We funneled in slowly into a grand interior space with high ceilings that flowed out to a massive square. The postal building on the left of the square dropped my jaw. It was designed to look like a ship.
First impressions of Kharkiv are of a clean city, the streets are wide with good pavement, the buildings are grand and impressive; it has a slower pace of life comparing it with Kyiv.
There was a young feel in the air; students walked around the sidewalks at night, street musicians filled the airwaves. And diversity. There were Arabs, Asians, Africans… all young and pumping pavement up and down the main avenue. It felt nice to see color.
The Ukrainian language dominated the eyes on signs, the Russian language dominated the ears through voice.
I was surprised with how good looking of a city Kharkiv is. I had no expectations but still, this was more than I imagined. The constructivist architecture is something I get pleasure out of looking at. The lines, and especially the proportions….
I’ve always loved metros… Kharkiv is first class on this front, with creatively designed spaces that make the imagination flow. There is design in the DNA in these people. Many of the interior spaces were also well thought out. And the bathrooms. In nice restaurants and cafes, the bathrooms were an addition to the design of the space instead of a subtraction from it, like is so commonly the case.
Architecture and design is something an interesting city needs to have and Kharkiv has this covered. But buildings and spaces only go so far. The ingredients that make a city are its human DNA. Sure there are alcoholics and people marinating in a depressed mind space on the edge of life, but there is a lot of the opposite. Perhaps I was fortunate, but I met amazing people who showed me their city.
Young people are a huge component of the energy of a place. They are usually optimistic with their minds open to the future and not beat down by life yet. This energy could be felt by walking the wide sweepings boulevards and intimate tree-lined streets.
The parks… the beautiful parks…. After this trip, I’ve realized Ukrainians are park professionals. Gorky Park is Kharkiv’s prize and there’s something there for everyone. It’s got old ladies dancing, a roller coaster, areas of tranquility, a gondola swinging over the colored trees in full foliage. Kids on ropes courses journeying through the forest. A wide promenade with benches on both sides. Music, conversations, laughter, and the sounds of birds filled the air.
The city is not the size of Kyiv, but I was expecting it to be far inferior. It wasn’t. Kharkiv is about architecture, parks, connectivity, cafes, and young people. Sprinkle in a little tough-looking guy edge, and some properly dressed up and attractive females, and you have a place in the middle of nowhere that doesn’t feel like that.
Because of the history of the city, maths and sciences weave into the fabric of the culture, and this has manifested into the large tech industry.
Kharkiv—Ukraine in general—feels free to me. There are no, no signs. There are few warnings. Kids skateboard on the stairs of the theater, people cruise around on their one-wheeled Segways, and there are no parking meters. In a way, it might be more chaotic but in another way it works and is more natural and less regulated. Let’s just say it flows and people get along fine all doing their different things.
Three days is just a scratch of the surface, and traveling is not a real gauge of any place. But I’ve traveled enough of the world to know that a good place needs a few key elements nailed down well. Kharkiv has this locked in. I will return for sure.