Why you should care
Because sometimes one neighborhood is all it takes to change a country.
Wander down Reitarska Street just about any midsummer weekend evening, and you might forget you’re deep in Eastern Europe. Sharply dressed hipsters sip cocktails and share bruschetta on elegant outdoor patios. Tattooed skate punks clack through huddles of black-clad art kids checking out a gallery show. Wineglasses clink like wind chimes as a soiree spills out of a chic salon.
Yet an all-night party district this is most certainly not. Perhaps that’s what gives Reitarska Street its distinguished yet low-key vibe: Quaint and unassuming, this three-block stretch of historic central Kiev anchors a neighborhood packed with foreign embassies. It’s home to everyone from diplomats and new wave intelligentsia to old-school denizens who’ve been living here in Soviet-style modesty for decades. Still, few people outside of Kiev have heard of this neighborhood — but that’s likely soon to change.
Since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity ousted a crooked government, Ukraine’s cultural scene has flourished with small businesses and artists. The Reitarska Street neighborhood, in particular, has fostered a community with a common vision of a more progressive, Western-looking country. Away from the bustle and occasionally gaudy attractions of downtown, the area offers a cultural respite from the typical tourist-oriented sites — as well as a glimpse of Kiev’s promise as a European hangout hub.
The neighborhood is leveraging its rich past and grungy exterior to vault it toward an exciting cultural future.
Situated in the Old City, Reitarska Street is a key part of Kiev’s rich historic fabric. Tucked in the shadow of the golden-domed St. Sophia’s Cathedral, and just a short walk from the medieval-era entrance to the city, it’s sprinkled with light-colored brick buildings that hark back to the city’s czarist and Soviet past. Once home to various cultural luminaries, some of the buildings are now officially recognized architectural structures.
To be sure, plastered with graffiti and served by somewhat patchy sidewalks, they’ve seen better days. In a way, that’s part of their charm. But now Reitarska Street is leveraging its grungy exterior to vault it toward an exciting cultural future.
Architecture lovers know Kiev is home to some delightful hidden courtyards. At Kashtan Coffee, which is tucked into one such courtyard on Reitarska Street, you’ll find something else: a pair of majestic ravens in two large cages — nearly every local says the birds have been there for as long as they can remember. Art also flourishes in the neighborhood. You can see up-and-coming Ukrainian artists featured at the one-room gallery space at the Naked Room, and that’s in addition to the stunning murals that adorn the sides of buildings depicting cultural staples like storks (big in Ukrainian folklore) and prominent poet Lesya Ukrainka. For skin art, Stroom is a discreet basement tattoo studio whose artists specialize in blackwork. If you want to feel the buzz of the neighborhood, Zigzag, an elegant eatery, serves as the neighborhood’s gastronomic — and social — centerpiece.
Before the revolution most of this probably would’ve been impossible, says Liubov Tsybulska, who co-owns Zigzag with her husband. Under President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in 2014, corruption was pervasive and society stifled by the grip of bureaucracy. Now, with Ukraine hobbling along a rocky path of reform, small businesses like those that line Reitarska Street have found breathing room — and a new impetus to plumb the creativity that drives them.
“The example of Reitarska, and the people who live and work there, is an encouraging factor for others in Kiev, and in Ukraine in general,” says Tsybulska, a former journalist who also works as an adviser to the Defense Ministry. “This feeling that there are lots of people like you out there immediately gives you strength and allows you to spread your wings.”
But whether this freedom lasts is another matter. Corruption and mismanagement persist — a fact apparent right here on Reitarska and elsewhere across the capital, where once regal but now derelict buildings serve as physical reminders. Some of the structures nominally under state protection as architectural monuments are also some of the most damaged. Corruption is why this neighborhood remains a cosmopolitan social bubble that’s largely populated — or at least driven — by the 1 percent rather than representative of the general population.
Still, even though Ukraine has a long way to go, watch Reitarska Street: Whatever happens here will provide a good picture of what the country will look like once it finally gets there.
Go There: Reitarska Street
- Location: A short walk from the Zoloti Vorota (Golden Gate) metro stop on Kiev’s green line.
- Places to visit:
- Kashtan Coffee serves up rich coffee and tasty treats. Don’t forget to visit the ravens.
- For shopping, Riot Division has locally made techwear for men, Katimo Clothes offers chic women’s apparel and street-style label Syndicate Original carries a fresh selection for all.
- Vesuvio, a humble stalwart in a neighborhood full of recent additions, is one of Kiev’s oldest Western-owned joints. Serves deliciously doughy pizza.
- Zigzag specializes in gin-based cocktails and European fusion cuisine.
- Art gallery the Naked Room showcases up-and-coming artists in its one-room gallery space.