Chernobyl travel guide

To visit Chernobyl, and the rigorously maintained exclusion area around it, is to enter a place frozen in time. The urban and natural scenery here has lain virtually deserted by permanent human occupation since 1986; a completely unique, almost apocalyptic environment – eerie, saddening, thought-provoking and deeply moving.
This is the scene of the world’s worst ever nuclear accident, a permanent memorial not only to that tragedy but also the immense courage and self-sacrifice of those that fought to contain it.
The area around Chernobyl has been reclaimed by nature and vegetation has slowly enveloped roads, buildings and vehicles. Wolves, lynx and wild boar live without fear of man in the forest. There is also the human side to Chernobyl, in the now elderly people that chose to defy the original Soviet government evacuation order and return to their homes, and who are welcoming to curious visitors interested to hear their stories.
Read our Chernobyl travel guide for more details.

Chernobyl is…

still dangerous in places, but not when you travel as part of an organised, guided and responsible tour.

Chernobyl isn’t…

just a memorial to a nuclear tragedy. It’s also a monument to courage, and a place where one can really appreciate the resilience of nature.

A rushed goodbye

Lying 130km north and a two-hour drive from the Ukraine capital Kiev, close to the border with Belarus, is the scene of the worst ever nuclear disaster. On 26th April 1986 in the early hours of the morning, engineers conducting a safety test cut power at the Number 4 reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Not realising the reactor was unstable, the engineers triggered an explosion, which blew the lid from the reactor and exposed the core to the air. This fuelled a fire that raged for 10 days. Two people died immediately, and nearly 30 firefighters perished from intense exposure to radiation in the effort to extinguish the fire. Meanwhile a toxic cloud, containing more than 400 times the amount of radioactive material than that generated by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, spread across Europe. When it was detected a few days later in Sweden, the Soviet Union was forced to acknowledge the accident and the scale of the disaster began to become clear.

Within 36 hours of the explosion, almost 50,000 people were evacuated from the nearby city of Pripyat, where plant workers lived with their families. They left behind them the remnants of daily life: shoes under the bed, plates of food in the fridge, children’s drawings on the tables. None of them were ever allowed to return.

Around 135,000 people in total were permanently uprooted from their homes and lives, as an exclusion zone stretching 30km in every direction was created. Entire communities disappeared, leaving Chernobyl, Pripyat and the surrounding area completely deserted except for scientists and engineers in protective suits. Since the disaster, these individuals have observed up close a perfect study in how a landscape recovers after a nuclear accident.
Estimates of how many deaths and illnesses can actually be traced directly to the Chernobyl disaster are varied and controversial. Certainly some 5,000 cases of thyroid cancer can be attributed to contamination, though most were treated successfully.
Chernobyl was a defining moment of the 20th century, when mankind stared into the abyss and was forced to confront the realities and risks of nuclear energy. The incident contributed to Glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union.
In 2011, the Ukrainian government declared the area safe enough for people to visit, though not for anyone to stay for a prolonged period of time, farm or develop. Since then, thousands of curious travellers have come to Chernobyl to see for themselves a completely unique landscape, and a stark reminder of the need for nuclear safety. If you’re keen to see it for yourself, there is only one practical and safe way of exploring Chernobyl and that is part of an organised and guided tour.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Chernobyl or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

What does visiting Chernobyl entail?

Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town? We danced and sang, and the music played in a de boomtown
Ghost Town – The Specials
Thousands of people visit Chernobyl, Pripyat and the exclusion zone around them every year. Most are on day trips, usually from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. Small group tours of the far east of Europe, that take in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, often include a day in Chernobyl, or join an in depth Chernobyl tour, of five or six days, which involves staying overnight at a hotel in the city of Chernobyl, 18km south of the reactor. Some of these tours run year-round, too, so you can see Chernobyl in the snow.
Within the 30km exclusion zone there is another smaller, 10km zone. Crossing between them you pass checkpoints where you’ll need to walk through full-body radiation scanners. But beyond that there is, perhaps surprisingly, almost no form of authority around (except for near the plant, of course), so in practice you can pretty much go wherever you want.

If staying overnight, expect simple accommodation, comfortable enough, with shared bathrooms and typical Ukrainian food. An evening curfew applies. At the hotel you’ll see mostly other tour groups, occasionally a few government employees, scientists or engineers (the liquidators) involved in the ongoing clean-up operation. Reactor 4 is now covered by a gigantic metal sarcophagus, the largest movable structure in the world, which you can approach but of course not enter. The mammoth clean-up operation has been going on for several decades now and, though scaled back, will continue for many years to come. Staff are regularly rotated for their safety, and it is possible, though unlikely, that tour itineraries may be disrupted by events on the ground.

Chernobyl guided tours

During the daytime, guides will lead you around the key landmarks, mostly focusing on Pripyat. You’ll walk along Lenin Street and through the main square, see the huge Palace of Culture, which was a hub for community activities, the police station, the hospital, the school, the docks and the football stadium. Pripyat was a Soviet ‘model city’, affluent and full of life before the disaster.
One of the most haunting sights is the fairground, dominated by the skeletal frame of a Ferris wheel, which has become an iconic image of Chernobyl. The fairground was scheduled to open a few days after the explosion – the wheel, the dodgems and the carousels never entertained paying guests.
The official line is that buildings are not safe due to crumbling infrastructure rather than radiation, and should not be entered. In reality however it is at an individual guide's discretion where groups go depending on local conditions and their interpretation of the rules. The contents of buildings will likely have been moved around by previous visitors. Recommended is climbing to the top of an apartment building, perhaps 15 storeys or so, to appreciate the extent to which the city has been reclaimed by vegetation. It’s an entirely unique environment, terribly sad and terribly interesting – an apocalyptic hellscape and paradise for photographers.

Is it safe to visit Chernobyl?

Official Chernobyl guides carry two different types of Geiger counter around with them but they're mainly for reassurance. The level of radiation you’ll be exposed to in Chernobyl is less than you’d get on a transatlantic flight – we live in a radioactive world after all. There are certain lingering hotspots you’ll be clearly told to avoid: the Red Forest, so named because the wind blew so much fallout here that the vegetation died off; the dodgems in the fairground, where dust settled in the bottom and was never cleaned out, and not a place to sit down and pose for a photo.

In fact, the most perilous aspect of wandering around Chernobyl relates to the infrastructure rather than radiation. Over the years the buildings have become dilapidated and metal thieves have also weakened structures. Many manhole covers are missing so you must watch your step and there is broken glass everywhere.

You may well encounter wildlife such as tame foxes. Other wildlife, including lynx, wolves, bears, giant catfish and wild horses, are known to be thriving in the area since people left them to it, but sightings are rare. You may stop for lunch at the Chernobyl canteen, requiring another full body scan. All food, of course, is brought in from outside.

Self settlers

Following the disaster, evacuees were permanently resettled elsewhere, but not all were content to leave their homes forever. Some decided to return, defying government restrictions, and have lived self-sufficiently in the villages around Chernobyl ever since. Today there is only a few of these self-settlers left – they are elderly and usually quite impoverished. To earn money they sometimes sell handicrafts to visitors, and your guide may encourage you to bring them bread and other snacks which can be purchased on the way, in return for hearing a few of their stories.

Wandering Pripyat and the countryside around can be a deeply emotional experience. You will see memorials to the doctors and firefighters involved in the early efforts to contain the fire, a summer camp for local children now faded and ramshackle, and hear moving accounts of those that lived through the disaster. Chernobyl is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and hopefully something the world will never see again.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Yasemin Atalay] [is isn't: peter wybrow: Chernobyl 2016 Regent Holidays] [A rushed goodbye: peter wybrow: Chernobyl 2016 Regent Holidays] [What does it entail: Hugh Mitton] [Guided tours: peter wybrow: Chernobyl 2016 Regent Holidays] [Self settlers: peter wybrow: Chernobyl 2016 Regent Holidays]