More and more people today are interested in visiting Chernobyl and the new HBO series is bound to make it an even more popular tourist destination.

I visited Chernobyl 2 years ago, when it was not even trendy yet, and truly enjoyed it. I went on a 1-day tour that departed from Kiev and that took me to all the most interesting sights, such as the DUGA, the Kopachi Kindergarten and Prypiat, which used to be the biggest town in the area, and the most lively and affluent.

In this post, I will explain everything there is to know to visit Chernobyl and will share a few tips to make the most of your time there.

tour of Chernobyl

Cyrillic characters announce visitors that they have arrived to Chernobyl

A Bit Of Information Before Visiting Chernobyl

Chernobyl Power Plant is located at about 130 km north of Kiev, close to the border with Belarus. There were four nuclear reactors in the power station, two of which where still under construction at the time of the disaster. The power station is located at 18 km north of Chernobyl, which (I admit to not knowing this) is a really ancient town, funded over 1000 years ago and famous for being a center of Hasidic Judaism in the 19th century.

In April 1986, Chernobyl counted around 20000 inhabitants. It was not the largest town of the area. That was Prypiat, which was funded in the 1970s to accommodate people who worked in the power station, and which at the time of the disaster counted 50000 people. Prypiat – an avant-guard model of Soviet town with lots of parks, was the closest city to the power plant, at about 5 km away.

On the early hours of 26 April 1986 reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant experienced an unexpected surge of power, that caused a series of explosions and a fire in the core of the reactor, with the result that a large cloud of highly radioactive particles spread in the atmosphere and was blown across Europe.

36 hours after the disaster, the Soviets enacted the 10-kilometers zone which meant that the all people and their animals living in Prypiat were evacuated. It is said that the delay in the evacuation was due to the favorable wind direction, which meant that it was actually safer to wait rather than evacuate. However, this may well be what was said in order to justify the delay in the evacuation.

Subsequently, the exclusion zone was extended to a radius of 30 kilometers, which meant that a further 68000 people were evacuated from the area, including from Chernobyl itself.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is actually much bigger than I had ever imagined: 2600 square kilometers, an area that is actually larger than Luxembourg.

Hardly anybody lives in Chernobyl today. A few years after the disaster, 3000 people returned to the area. Nowadays, only 400 of those 3000 that returned are still alive, and other than these people, the only ones around are those who work at Chernobyl Power Plant, which is currently under decommissioning and scheduled to end in 2065.

Against all odds wildlife is still present and actually thriving in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone: wild horses, bears, dears, foxes, lynxes and wolves. There’s even many stray dogs and a few cats – apparently (well) fed by the people who work in the exclusion zone. They were friendly enough to follow the group of tourists around during the visit. It somehow left me hopeful that life will come back here, too.

visit Chernobyl

A tour of Chernobyl usually starts with a visit to the city. Chernobyl today is almost completely desert.

Visiting Chernobyl Exclusion Zone 

The Best Sights

Apparently I am not the first blogger who’s made it to Chernobyl. I should have imagined that, but you know – as I had never thought to visit Chernobyl, I had never really made the effort to search for tours in the region. Anyways – this is to say that guided tours of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone have been offered for a few years now, and they are becoming increasingly popular.

Remember that you can only visit Chernobyl on a tour group, because it is necessary to follow some strict rules, for safety reasons: eating, drinking and touching anything in the area is strictly forbidden (for obvious reasons); it’s necessary to follow specific paths and some buildings are completely off limits – and only certified guides will be able to point which ones.

Read more about guided tours on my post “Ten reasons to take a guided tour at least once in life.”

These are some excellent guided tours of Chernobyl:

Chernobyl today

Throughout our tour of Chernobyl, we carried a geiger – photo courtesy of Margherita Ragg, The Crowded Planet

In order to enter the area, visitors have to go through several checkpoints. When leaving, they are checked again for radiation and should their clothes or shoes appeared contaminated, they’d have to leave them behind. Throughout the visit, guides carried a geiger, which measures the levels of radioactivity. It is interesting to see how these varied dramatically even in the space of one or two meters.

Tours of Chernobyl usually start in Chernobyl itself. Chernobyl today is completely empty: empty apartment buildings with shut windows; empty shuttered shops; what appears to be a school or a library, and on the other side a statue representing a winged angel.

Chernobyl today

A tour of Chernobyl also shows a yard with vehicles that were used in the decontamination

There’s a yard where decontaminating vehicles have been abandoned – their bright colors at odds with the blinding whiteness of the snow; and a monument built in memory of the firefighters who helped to put out the fire of the nuclear plant and died of acute radiation sickness a few days after the disaster.

One of the most incredible sights is that of the DUGA. This is an enormous radar (of which apparently nobody knew: only in 2013, when it was opened to the public, people learned about it) that the Soviets used to detect potential missiles coming from the US airspace. It’s 500 meters long, 90 meters high, and you will see upon visiting that is hardly possible to catch it on camera. It’s rumored that it was in order to provide power to such a massive radar that the Chernobyl Power Plant was built.

visit Chernobyl

The DUGA is one of the most impressive sights of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

The DUGA has been nicknamed “the Russian Woodpecker” because of the constant tapping noise it made. When I visited, it stood there, enormous and silent – an eerie sight that left me seriously speechless.

The Kopachi Kindergarten is another interesting sight. It is one of the few accessible buildings. The village – which was 7 km away from Reactor 4, was so badly affected by the radiation that it was completely buried. The kindergarten is one of the very few buildings that are a testimony of its existence.

I am not sure whether what you end up seeing is real or if it has just been staged for visitors. Either way, it feels like you are walking through a horror themed park. It looks like this place has been abandoned in a rush: there are old dolls, books and other toys scattered everywhere; the small bed frames of the dormitories left to rust; broken windows and glass everywhere.

Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Scattered books at Kopachi Kindergarten – one of the eeriest sights in Chernobyl today

The tour of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone continues to Reactor 4. This can be seen from a distance. A huge concrete structure similar to an arch was built around the reactor to prevent radiation from escaping. Apparently, the material inside is so radioactive and toxic that it can’t be removed and that’s why a structure was built around it. The entire area is currently under decommissioning – there’s still people who work there. It is not possible to take pictures of the area (besides the arch).

Doing A Prypiat Tour When Visiting Chernobyl

Prypiat generally is the last stop during tours of Chernobyl exclusion zone. I must say it was my favorite part of the entire tour of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Prypiat is the perfect symbol of a life that could have been, but never was. It is such a reminder of the damage man can cause – to nature, to other human beings, and to life in general – for the sake of power and control.

Prypiat used to be a happy city, as the old pictures showed: its young inhabitants (the average age was just 26) walking along the boulevards; shops; schools; beautiful homes; stadiums; a park; playgrounds and swimming pools. To celebrate the happiness, an amusement part was built: bumper cars, a ferris wheel, a shooting range. It was meant to be inaugurated on 1 May 1986.

Chernobyl today

The saddest ferris wheel I have ever seen: those who visit Chernobyl remain impressed by it – photo courtesy of Margherita Ragg, The Crowded Planet

Life in Prypiat stopped on that sad day of April 1986, when the city was completely evacuated. Nowadays, the ferris wheel is a sad reminder of a happiness that was never fully achieved. Nature is claiming back the city – though as it was covered in snow, this wasn’t nearly as visible as it would be during the spring and summer months.

Prypiat is now completely dead. The silence is deafening. There is nobody around, except for other visitors on guided tours and the odd dog who follows you around. On the main square, the Hotel Polissa – once the best hotel in the city – stands next to the Palace of Culture, where there used to be a boxing ring, a gymnasium, a cinema and a swimming pool.

Visit Chernobyl

A phone booth reminds me of what life must have been like in Prypiat before Chernobyl disaster

On the other side of the square, standing alone in one corner, there’s a phone booth: who was the last person to call from there? Who was he or she calling? What were they saying to each other?

Needless to say, my question – and many others I didn’t really ask out loud – is left unanswered.

Practical Tips For Visiting Chernobyl

Is it safe to visit Chernobyl?

The first question you should ask yourself before you visit Chernobyl is whether it is safe to visit. The short answer is yes: 33 years after the disaster it is safe to go. But keep in mind that, according to research, it will take at least 20000 years for the area to be finally radiation free. 

Upon visiting Chernobyl, guide explain that the level of radiation people are exposed to during a day tour of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is the same as that of a medium haul flight – in other words minimal and without any real impact. Of course, it’s important to pay attention to what the guides say – ie not touching anything (first and foremost the soil, but even not throwing snow balls), not eating anything, no sitting on the ground, wearing closed shoes, etc.

As visitors leave the exclusion zone, they have to go through an old soviet radiation control checkpoint where they are requested to place their hands while the device checks the radiation levels.

Can you visit Chernobyl independently?

The short answer is no. You definitely need a guide to visit Chernobyl, and this is for obvious safety reasons. A guide will tell you the paths where you can walk and will keep you out of trouble.

visit Chernobyl

I went to Chernobyl in February and everything was covered in snow

Guided tours of Chernobyl

Guided tours of Chernobyl are now a thing. They cost around €90 and can be bought online. Most of them depart from Kiev. They typically last a day but some even go on for two days.

This is a selection of the best guided tours of Chernobyl:

Chernobyl today

Those who visit Chernobyl should make sure to spend some time in Kiev

Where to stay and eat in Kiev

The best starting point to visit Chernobyl is Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, which has a very good selection of hotels and restaurants. I recommend spending a few days there to make the most of it, as there are a lot of things to see in Kiev: churches, touching monuments (such as those dedicated to the famine and the Ukrainian genocide), street art and much more. I particularly loved observing people fishing in the frozen Dnepr river.

With regards to hotels, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Radisson Blue. It has very good rooms; it is in a great location; and the breakfast buffet is fabulous.

visit Chernobyl

Possibly one of the best desserts I have had in years

The choice of restaurants in Kiev is fantastic. I ate at Ostanya Barykada, which is a secret restaurant that can be entered through a gift shop in an underground shopping mall. You even need a password to get in. Unfortunately, I can’t remember! What I do remember is that the place is incredibly quirky: the name (which translated means “the last barricade”) is a reminder of the struggle for independence from the Soviet Union. When I visited, there was a live band playing some fine jazzy tunes. The food is simply delicious. I had the traditional chicken Kiev and a mouthwatering dessert of apple tart, meringue, and home-made ice-cream.

Another fantastic restaurant is Shoti, which however focuses on Georgian cuisine. I tried the Georgian style ravioli and they were so full of flavor!

How to get to Kiev

Direct flights to Kiev are available from several European capitals, as well as from the United States.

Chernobyl today

One of the most interesting sights in Chernobyl is the people fishing in the frozen river

The best time for visiting Chernobyl

Most people would recommend visiting Chernobyl in the spring or summer months, when temperatures are good and the area is in full bloom. I actually suggest going in the winter for an even more eerie experience.

I visited Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on 11 February 2017 – the temperatures were freezing compared to Sardinia, where I live. I was glad I had brought my ski pants and jacket and that extra pair of gloves. The guides kept saying that it was not as cold as it had been during the previous days. Anyways, it was cold enough for me. There were 30 centimeters of snow and more on the ground. That gave the whole place a surreal aura – especially to someone like me, who hadn’t seen that amount of snow in .

Now, I know most people would think I was crazy to go when it was so cold and would opt to go when the temperatures are milder. But other than me actually enjoying the snow, there’s also another reason why I think it is better to go in the winter: radiation is carried by particles like dust and soil. Snow acts as a blanket, and makes sure that these particles don’t fly around. On a spring or summer day, a little bit of wind may cause the radiation levels to triple.

Other useful information 

Make sure to also get a good travel insurance before you visit Chernobyl. Get yours here.

Check out my post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.”

For more readings about Chernobyl, you can check one of these books:

Final Thoughts On Visiting Chernobyl

When I shared the pictures of my trip to Chernobyl to some family and friends, some of the comments I received were of the sort: “It doesn’t exactly look like a merry place;” or “that would not be a fun trip.” They were right, in a way. A tour of Chernobyl isn’t exactly a lighthearted kind of experience, and it leaves visitors with lots of questions and doubts. I wasn’t sad though – I didn’t feel the same kind of sadness or anger I felt when I visited the War Remnants Museum of Saigon, in Vietnam, or the Corner House in Riga, Latvia.

Chernobyl today

I am glad I had a chance to visit Chernobyl

In any case, I don’t think that we only ought to travel to have a good time. Traveling is also an incredible eye opener: it is a way to learn more about cultures and histories that are different from ours. It gives us the possibility to know what humans are capable of, in their constant struggle for supremacy.

Chernobyl is just that: a strong reminder that disasters can happen that may affect the entire world, and that we should strive to make this world a better place for all.

Yes, I am glad I had a chance to visit Chernobyl, and I think it is really worth going.

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Find out everything you should know to visit Chernobyl - via @clautavani

 

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