Or, The Soviet Hotel: Wifi is a privilege, not a right.
David and I typically stay far away from hotels on our travels. Our normal gripes about them include high prices, lack of character, and crappy food. However, as I started to research accommodation in Ukraine, I found the apartments and hostels available lacked a certain charm. Charm that could, coincidentally, be found at the old Soviet hotels scattered across the nation, in cities big and small, touristy and not. The Soviet buildings certainly oozed character in an “if these walls could talk” kind of way, and we ended up paying relatively low prices for well-enough appointed rooms in our Soviet hotels in Chernivtsi, Kharkiv, and Kyiv. It turns out, crappy food was the only preconceived notion about hotels that held true among the Soviet hotels of Ukraine.
We stayed in grand Soviet buildings for the majority of our time in Ukraine – only in Lviv did we opt for an apartment instead. We understood at the get go that we’d be sacrificing some of our usual amenities to stay there (like a kitchen and washing machine, for example), but we couldn’t resist the siren song of these imposing structures. David and I are not used to staying in luxurious places, and as it happens…these places aren’t very luxurious, either. We didn’t end up paying too much of a premium to stay in these hotels throughout Ukraine, and we were happy to have the extra support we assumed would be available at a hotel rather than an apartment. First things first: Do not expect such amenities. But we’ll cover in that in a few.
The following is what you can expect to experience at three prominent Soviet hotels in Ukraine – specifically the Hotel Bukovyna in Chernivtsi, the Hotel Kharkov in Kharkiv, and the infamous Hotel Salute in Kyiv.
Holovna 141, Chernivtsi
Chernivtsi was our first stop in Ukraine – we arrived in the early afternoon after easy flights from Riga to Kyiv then Kyiv to Chernivtsi. We added the city to our itinerary somewhat last-minute, but after hearing its praises from Kami at Kami and the Rest of the World, I was excited. As it turns out, Chernivtsi’s tourist infrastructure is lacking – tourism in the region is in its nascency, and we didn’t see another tourist the whole time we were there. We decided to stay at the flashiest hotel in town: Hotel Bukovyna, a looming Soviet edifice sitting directly across from Chernivtsi University’s (droopy and kind of sad) botanical gardens.
The thing is that, at Hotel Bukovyna, prices are low. Tourism comes from neighboring regions, like Northern Romania, and prices cater to them. We usually travel quite frugally (we try to not spend more than $50 a night on accommodation no matter where we are in the world), but when we found out we could get Hotel Bukovyna’s VIP Suite for around $100 USD, we decided it was the right time to live out our rockstar fantasies.
The VIP suite was bigger than our house in Seattle. Giant jacuzzi tub, water nozzles in the wall whose purposes I couldn’t identify, about a million TVs, and tons of mini vodka bottles. We were tempted to throw a huge rager, but then remembered that we do enjoy a good 9pm bedtime.
Our main impetus for reserving the VIP room was because it was the only class of room that gave guests access to the VIP breakfast. Never ones to turn down a classy brunch, we leaned in to our new upgraded status (despite never really changing out of jeans and birkenstocks the entire trip). And now I’m going to keep it real with you. The VIP breakfast was normal breakfast in a velvet rope apportioned section of the hotel’s main restaurant, which upon reflection, had far more indoor smoking happening than the cheap seats.
All this said, I’d stay there again. Actually I’d probably stay in the VIP room again, but opt out of the breakfast. That is, unless you’re a fan of liver and dill in the morning. Sorry, made you think about it.
Hotel Kharkov must have loomed large over Kharkiv’s Freedom Square (Площа Свободи) at one point in time, but it certainly doesn’t anymore. Despite not appearing to be on the economic up-and-up, Kharkiv has a few very contemporary buildings – the type I typically associate with Chinese investment. One of these, The Premier Palace Hotel Kharkiv, has replaced Hotel Kharkov as the largest hotel on the block, obscuring the humbler Soviet hotel’s views over the square.
The hotel itself is an interesting combination of frustrating and intimidating. The concierge couldn’t point me to a restaurant on the map that might have a vegetarian dish (and I was speaking to him in Russian), and we found three on the block adjacent to the hotel. Walking into the hotel’s restaurant felt like walking to the gallows. We received full Eastern Ukrainian freeze from the hotel staff from the start to the end of our stay there.
That said, the hotel did have some amazing views (not over the square, mind you, but of the view 180 degrees from it), seen particularly well from the budget rooms on the upper floors. Our friend, Gloria, stayed in one of these rooms, and despite questionable features like an unplugged mini fridge, it had far more character than our soulless suite room ten floors below. Counterpoint to this is that you have to ride the scary antique Eastern Bloc elevator 14 floors to get there. Or ascend the dimly lit, effortlessly creepy stairwell. Choose Your Own Adventure meets Soviet Ukraine, I suppose.
We made the mistake of, yet again, reserving the rooms with breakfast included. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, I’ll get a yogurt and some cereal from the grocery store next door. So really the key takeaway is, no breakfast at the Soviet hotel.
Rooms at the Hotel Kharkov were reasonable, but not cheap. Gloria’s basic room on the 14th floor was around $20USD a night, while David and my “suite” was closer to $50. But what they don’t tell you is that the nightly rate includes that invigorating feeling that you might get murdered or trafficked in the lobby – for FREE! And, by the way, if you don’t want to see Turkish sex tourists, what are you even doing in Eastern Ukraine?
Ivana Mazeri 11B, Kyiv
For anyone interested in the concrete arts (Brutalist, Futurist, or Constructivist – it’s arguably all three), you’ll already know about the Hotel Salute. My coven of raw cement loving bloggers have all been there before – including Megan Starr, who included the building in her write up on Soviet architecture in Kyiv. This was the first hotel we booked for this trip because of its iconic status, way back in January (which, they told me, was the soonest they could guarantee a rate due to the volatility of the Ukrainian hryvnia).
We had arrived to Kyiv on one of the new-ish high-ish speed trains (the exact same model that was considered “middle class” in Korea over ten years ago) from Kharkiv, and hopped in a minivan that could accommodate all of our bags, stuffed with loot acquired over the previous few weeks.
If I’m being totally honest, the real star is the building’s interior. Spit-shined chrome panels line the ceiling. Overstuffed, illogically shaped blue couches littered the lobby. Aside from the check in counter, there was also an exchange booth, DHL center, and a store selling, among other things, a Hello Kitty rotary phone stoned with plastic shiny bits.
Who needs acid when your interior designer is on acid, right?
The room the three of us shared was perfectly well-equipped, if not a little boring compared the the buildings flashy exterior and lobby. We stayed in a suite again – the largest room available in the hotel, and paid $90USD per night. Oh, and I’d be remiss to mention one more amenity offered at the hotel: A strip club.
For whatever reason, we thought that there was a hookah bar in the strip club, so went to check it out (guess who’s been to a strip club now?). We arrived, were explained what was on offer, none of which was hookah. Rather, you could pay a fee (around $15USD for men, $20 for women), for a lively strip show. Shocked that the strip club could be so conservative to charge more for women to view, and for absolutely no other reasons at all, we retired for the night.
To be honest, the Hotel Salute isn’t the most conveniently located option in Kyiv. It was fine for us, but it’s about a 30 minute, or 3km walk to Maidan, and further if you want to go to Podil or Andryivskyi Descent. But, you are close to Arsenalna Station, the deepest metro station in the world, the Kiev Pechersky Lavra, the most visited tourist destination in Ukraine, and the Motherland Monument.
Bonus: Soviet Hotel schwag
I’ll be damned if these hotels don’t like to slap their names all over random products. But as a connoisseur and borderline hoarder of free things, I was delighted. Shower caps, tea sets, the worst bathrobe you’ve ever felt, and disposal bags for lady items. I grabbed up and stuffed my cheeks with sundries like a chipmunk preparing for winter. So next time you’re at my house, and you are applying hand lotion or are in need of a shitty sewing kit, you have the Hotels Bukovyna, Kharkov, and Salute to thank. Girl, that shit’s imported.
When considering staying at a Soviet hotel, it’s best to have the correct frame of mind to temper your expectations. These hotels will not give you the same caliber of luxury or sheet thread counts as provided at Starwood hotels. Rather, you should expect to have an interesting cultural experience – harkening back to times when Intourist controlled all parts of travel within the Soviet Union. More bare bones and utilitarian (even the health spas, or sanatoriums, scattered throughout the former USSR are less luxurious than they are practical – despite existing in some of the most ostentatious pieces of architecture I’ve ever seen) than a Sandals resort, a stay in a Soviet hotel can provide insight into what it was like to travel in the Soviet golden age, monogrammed shower caps and all.
It’s also worth mentioning that many of the grandest Soviet hotels are now under management of the world’s largest hotel chains. The Iveria Hotel in Tbilisi, once home to refugees, is now operated by Radisson Blu, while the Hotel Viru in Tallinn, location of the former Estonian KGB headquarters, is owned by Finnish hotel group Sokos. I think its a great use of existing architecture for these companies to keep these hotels’ architectural legacies alive, and certainly less wasteful than razing them to the ground, but a huge part of me wishes for the ability to see what those buildings looked like in their heydays.