When my tour guide handed me a personal Geiger counter to check radiation levels for a day trip to Chernobyl, the last remnants of my jet lag haze quickly lifted. I knew this was some serious business.

“We are 15 people now,” Igor quipped. “Hopefully we will be 15 in the evening.”

Igor, with company Chornobyl Tour, proceeded to detail the safety instructions as we drove from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city, to the site of the 1986 nuclear meltdown that has more recently become a tourist draw.

In the van, we watched a video about the disaster and then spent several hours walking around abandoned settlements, ruins punctuated by eerily placed old dolls, yellowed pages of tattered school books and broken glass. We stopped at the now fully encased reactor that was destroyed as well as the empty village of Prypyat, once home to nearly 50,000.

Igor helped us through a final radiation checkpoint to make sure we had not exceeded our exposure limits (all clear!) before heading back to Kyiv.

Our tour was part of a five-day fam trip to Ukraine organized with the help of local company JC Travel Ukraine. Groups can arrange customized excursions throughout Ukraine utilizing their company, which emphasizes a true local experience.

Not one to forget its past, Kyiv sets its turbulent political history in plain view. Our group visited Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, the site of many student rallies and protests, and in 2014 bloody political clashes that left as many as 100 dead. Memorials to the victims surround the square.

We also visited Mezhygirya, the former residence of ex-President Victor Yanukovych, who rented the space from 2002 until his ousting in 2014 in the wake of the deadly protests. He abandoned the grounds and fled to Russia after his government’s unpopular decision to strengthen ties with Russia instead of the European Union.

“In three days he packed up the house and used two helicopters to flee,” my guide said. “He was afraid he would be assassinated.”

The picture of opulence, our tour included the centerpiece Honka clubhouse, replete with gold leaf, marble and crystal, a pool table and a piano modeled after the one from John Lennon’s Imagine video.

While Kyiv pays homage to its past, the bustling city is a vibrant European center—a mix of golden-domed cathedrals and modern skyscrapers set on the banks of the Dnipro (Dnieper) River, fourth-longest in Europe. It has removed thousands of statues of Lenin and other Soviet monuments as it looks to the future.

We met with the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, a former professional boxer and as he informed us a former city tour guide.

“This city has some special energy,” he said. “Americans talk about a building that is 100 years old and say it’s amazing. We have buildings 700, 800 years old.”

He also emphasized the benefit to Americans that there are no visa requirements to enter Ukraine, and that Kyiv is flush with five-star hotels and quality cuisine at half the cost of most U.S. restaurants. There is also easy access via Ukraine International Airlines, which flies nonstop from New York’s JFK and starting in June will fly nonstop to Toronto. It also offers connections from more than 60 cities thanks to agreements with Alaska Airlines and JetBlue.

We started our whirlwind city tour from our host Opera Hotel, a luxury property with decadent themed suites and space for 250 in its Symphony and Maestro conference halls.

Walking distance to the beautiful Opera House, we also visited the frescoes and mosaics of the St. Sophia Cathedral and Monastery complex, ornate St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral and the Christian pilgrimage site Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Monastery with catacombs containing mummified Orthodox monks.

Aside from sightseeing, we sampled local culinary fare such as borscht soup and chicken Kiev. Even more creative were the infused vodkas, including my favorite, the horseradish vodka at Pervak Ukrainian Restaurant. We also sampled local food and drinks at trendy Ostannya Barykada. Its entryway is marked by 72 backlit hands representing the number of years the country spent as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

From Kyiv we took a short flight to western Ukraine’s capital city and cultural center of Lviv, bursting with a student population of 150,000. New on the meetings market, Lviv has a range of conference halls and more than 70 hotels, including our host Leopolis Hotel.

“Lviv is the last diamond that has not yet been discovered by the world and Europe,” said Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi, who we met with at Lviv’s Town Hall. “It has its own atmosphere. Kyiv is the heart of Ukraine; Lviv is the soul of Ukraine.”

Host to numerous food and cultural festivals, the city’s creative edge is reflected in a string of themed eateries owned by !Fest. We experienced a few, including a tour of a “coffee mine” with a stop to drink torched coffee concoctions.

We also sampled suds at Pravda Beer Theatre brewery. Groups can rent the space for up to 600 and hire an orchestra to entertain.

We had appetizers at The Most Expensive Galician Restaurant, gorged at Mons Pius set in an old Armenian bank, and topped off our tour at the Drunk Cherry, sipping cherry liqueur outdoors amid the energy and faces of today’s Ukrainian youth.

CVB Contact Information

Kyiv CVB

Lviv Convention Bureau