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Key sights in Chernobyl
While there’s enough to see around Chernobyl and Pripyat to fill several days, what may stay with you afterwards is the all-pervading atmosphere of stillness and sadness.
The Chernobyl power plant, and the nearby workers’ city of Pripyat, now perhaps the world’s most famous ghost town, are usually visited as a day-trip from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev which lies 130km to the south. It’s always safest and easiest to join a guided organised tour. Some tours of the far east of Europe, taking in Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus, include a day here, but if you want the full immersive experience with plenty of time to look around, then consider a specialist Chernobyl holiday that puts the focus of the trip on this completely unique destination, with time to explore beautiful Kiev, too.
Our Chernobyl Holidays
Among the most affecting landmarks in Pripyat is the amusement park, which local families never had the chance to use since it had only just been completed when the explosion happened. The Ferris wheel is an iconic image of Chernobyl. You’ll be able to look around, but with care, as some of the most contaminated areas in Pripyat are found here.
Chernobyl Museum, KievAn essential counterpart to Chernobyl guided tours, this informative museum was created to emphasise the scale of the disaster and encourage more openness, to ensure such an event never happens again. Situated in Kiev, two hours from Chernobyl, the museum has film of the evacuation and efforts to extinguish the fire, protective suits and many artifacts from Pripyat.
Duga radar systemKnown as the ‘Russian Woodpecker’, the Duga radar system was part of the Soviet anti-missile network, and didn’t appear on any civilian maps, though it can be seen from miles around. A visit to the set-up forms part of many organised Chernobyl tours, and while it’s in a state of industrial decay, one can’t help but be impressed by the sheer scale.
Palace of Culture
A must-see when in Pripyat, the Palace of Culture was effectively a large community centre with a cinema, theatre, swimming pool, gym, library, dance halls and even a shooting range. Young residents would regularly attend discos here, and it would have been a major hub for recreation. Now, of course, like everywhere else in the city, it is a tumbledown relic filled with broken furniture and piles of discarded furniture.
PripyatA Soviet ‘model city’ built for the workers at the nearby Chernobyl power planet, Pripyat was evacuated in the 36 hours following the explosion, but not immediately. This delay was likely caused by the government’s inclination towards secrecy and was responsible for many falling sick. Today Pripyat is a living museum, as residents had only minutes to fill a suitcase once the evacuation was ordered and were forced to leave most of their personal possessions behind.
Reactor Number 4On April 26th 1986, Reactor Number 4 at the Chernobyl Power Plant exploded after a safety test went badly wrong. The incident, and the resulting urgent evacuation, became one of the most controversial events of the 20th century. A massive steel structure now protects the reactor, and on a visit to Chernobyl you can learn about the incredible containment efforts that were, and still are, involved.
Located downwind of the Chernobyl plant, the forest received a significant dose of radioactive fallout, enough to kill off much of the vegetation and turn it a rusty colour, hence the name Red Forest. It’s not safe to enter, but within the trees there are many species of animal flourishing including wild horses, wolves, lynx and bears.
Self-settlersDespite being housed elsewhere after the exclusion zone was set up, some villagers chose to return to their former homes. Today a handful of them remain, living self-sufficient lifestyles with little help from the state. Guided tours of Chernobyl will sometimes visit these self-settlers to hear their first-hand accounts of the explosion, the evacuation and life since.
Our top Chernobyl Holiday
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Things to do & not to do
Things to do in ChernobylWhile you will have the freedom to wander around quite a lot, it’s essential to follow the rules laid down by your guide at all times. There is very little risk of harmful exposure to radiation when visiting Chernobyl, but the level of decay in the buildings you’ll be visiting means you need to watch your step. You must wear long sleeved tops and trousers, as well as closed shoes, but otherwise no protective gear is required.
Expect to be deeply moved by the whole experience. Everywhere you will see signs of lives uprooted and never returned to, and of course there are constant reminders of the heroic self-sacrifice made by those who were first on the scene and attempted to contain the fire. This is not disaster tourism, and any sense of excitement you feel on arrival is likely to quickly turn to something more sober once you hear the stories of your guide.
Combine your tour of Chernobyl with a visit to the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev. The museum’s motto is: “There is a limit of sadness, anxiety has no limits”. Its aim is to help visitors appreciate the true scale of the disaster, and prevent anything similar ever happening again. Among many fascinating exhibits are films shot at the time of the evacuation.
Things not to do in Chernobyl
It’s not a good idea to collect any souvenirs from Chernobyl. It might impress friends to tell them the teapot you’re serving them from is a genuine artefact, but the chances are it’s radioactive and prolonged exposure to it in your own home is not going to do you any good. Plus, of course, why would you want to pocket anything from such a place?
Don’t be under the impression you’re the first to go – Chernobyl is not a new frontier for the intrepid traveller, people have been visiting in the thousands since 2011, and many more sneaked in well before that. Many items have been posed for photos by other visitors. You will see dolls wearing gas masks for instance, and great piles of furniture dragged out of apartment blocks. If you want to travel responsibly in Chernobyl then look, but don’t touch.
There are still radiation hotspots around so don’t be freaked out by beeping Geiger counters. Some areas, such as the fairground, the kindergarten and the Red Forest, are more contaminated than others, but your guide will ensure you stay well away from them.
CHERNOBYL TRAVEL ADVICE
Peter Wybrow from our travel specialists Regent Holidays has first-hand knowledge of touring Chernobyl and Pripyat:
“Two things I would recommend are trying to get to the top of one of the apartment blocks, for amazing panoramas over the area, and always following your guide’s advice. There are dangers in wandering around Pripyat and not only from hotspots of radiation. Many of the buildings are falling to pieces in places, and so much metal has been looted that there are even manhole covers missing.”
Why visit Chernobyl?
“I think the main reason I would recommend a visit to Chernobyl is simply because there’s nowhere else like it on Earth: once a thriving city and power plant, and now a barren ghost town entirely reclaimed by nature and wildlife. It’s very sad, but also immensely interesting, and walking around with a guide really brings the story behind it to life, something you don’t get from simply reading about it.”
“Don’t overlook the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev for a very interesting counterpart to a guided tour. And we also suggest going south of Kiev to the Strategic Missile Forces Museum for more Cold War curiosities – it’s an underground former nuclear base where you can explore the missile silo and even the command post.”
Clare Stockman from our travel specialists Explore on the realities of exploring Chernobyl and the exclusion zone:
Why go now“I’d seen many photos and read a lot about the history of Chernobyl before I visited, but it still took my breath away. The truth of the accident is more harrowing, the site is much bigger, and the buildings left behind more incredible than I’d imagined. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is deteriorating as it ages and so there’s no better time to visit than the present. As time goes by it won’t be possible to reach everywhere that we can today and eventually it may not be possible to see much all, so if you’re interested in the learning more about the tragic accident and Soviet history that surrounds it, or you love urban exploration and abandoned architecture then now is the best time for you to go to Chernobyl.”
Photography tips“I travelled in the height of winter, when the snow was thick on the ground and there wasn't another visitor to be seen. The wintery and cold conditions turned out to be perfect for photographing and discovering the Exclusion Zone. There are no leaves on the trees, so you can see more of the buildings that have been reclaimed by the forests and the deserted streets seem all the more eerie with just the odd animal track indented in the snow. Chernobyl looks immensely different in every season, so I'm hoping to return in spring, summer and autumn to experience each one. You can take photos and video all around the Exclusion Zone; the only places where there are restrictions in place are at the guard points and at the power plant itself – although you can take photos of the massive structure now entombing Reactor Number Four. I’d recommend bringing an extra memory card with you and if you’re travelling in winter then also a spare battery, as they don’t normally last as long in the cold conditions.”
What to wear“Before you leave the Exclusion Zone they will measure the level of radiation on you and in very rare cases you might have to leave an item of clothing behind, if it registers too higher reading, so I’d suggest wearing older clothing and shoes. It’s important that you wear closed toe shoes with sturdy grip, long sleeves and trousers, and that you avoid clothing with lots of metal zips and poppers.”
More about Chernobyl
Visiting Chernobyl and the rigorously maintained exclusion area around it is to step into a Soviet time capsule, where time stopped on 26th April 1986 and mankind stared unwillingly into the nuclear abyss.
People have been visiting in their thousands since 2011, but the big question remains: is it safe to visit Chernobyl - learn why touring the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident isn’t as dangerous as some think.