St. Sophia’s is Kiev’s oldest Orthodox cathedral, commissioned in 1037 by the scholarly Prince Yaroslav the Wise to give thanks for a military victory that lead to peace in Ukraine and a period of great cultural flowering. With 13 domed cupolas, all topped with green and gold, the cathedral was built next to his palace and had an interior of incredible lavishness, covered with Byzantine frescoes, mosaics and gilded ornamentation. As well as being a place of worship, it acted as a political meeting place for diplomatic negotiations and hosted the first school and library of the fledgling Kyivan Rus, a loose political federation of today’s Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Much added to and altered over the centuries, the complex survived fires and political unrest; the magical turquoise, white and gold bell tower was added in 1752 and the cathedral exterior underwent a Baroque facelift in the mid 19th century. Under Soviet occupation the cathedral was nearly torn down and replaced with a memorial park but miraculously those plans were scrapped. Amazingly the original 11th-century interiors and frescoes have remained largely intact and among the Biblical scenes portrayed on the walls are portraits of Prince Yaroslav’s family as well as secular images of jugglers, musicians and acrobats.
Now UNESCO World Heritage-listed, St Sophia’s and its grounds are one of Kiev’s most impressive visitor attractions; a small museum of Ukrainian history is found in the 18th-century refectory, where highlights include models of the medieval city and fragments of mosaic from the cathedral.
Volodymyrska Street, 24, Kiev. Open Fri–Tue 10am–6pm; Wed 10am–5pm. Admission adults 50 UAH, students & children 25 UAH; bell tower only adults 10 UAH, students & children 6 UAH; grounds only 3 UAH. Take the metro to Zoloti Vorota.