The kingdom of Kievan Rus thrived until 1240, when the Mongols sacked Kiev. The Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as the center of politics, drifted north to Moscow and Russia's Golden Ring; Kiev would never again hold such sway over the world.
There is plenty still standing to remind one of Kiev's medieval roots, such as the Andreevsky Spusk street market. This is set on a downward-spiraling street of the same name, which since ancient times has formed a direct route between Kiev's aristocratic upper town and Podol, the merchants' quarter. The street is packed with vendors selling the rare worthwhile souvenir—an artisanal jewelry box or czarist-era ruble notes—among the many trifles, such as a wooden mace and a busted Red Army watch.
To see how locals shop, there is Bessarabsky Market, in the city's center. Here, women in head scarves sell fruit, vegetables, caviar, fish, meat, sausage, honey, and flowers in a rotunda dating to 1912—the furious, and often loud, commercial activity monitored by a Lenin statue standing opposite. The shopping experience looks timeless, and yet what's being sold these days is a remarkable contrast to the sparse offerings during the Soviet era.
Also in Kiev's center, on Khreshchatik, the Passage complex and nearby Marki bazaar carry high-end Russian and Ukrainian fashion designers such as Alena Akhmadulina, NB Poustovit, and Olga Soldatova. These shops, which emerged after the Soviet collapse, are often filled with the girlfriends of rich young businessmen.
It's not hard to find a taxi in Kiev, as almost any Ukrainian in a cheap Russian Lada or Volga will stop and take you wherever you want to go, after haggling over the price. Without a working knowledge of Russian or Ukrainian—both of which are spoken here—it's impossible to avoid paying double. I flag down a car and cruise away from Andreevsky Spusk along the Dnieper, which flows southward past Kiev for 400 miles before emptying into the Black Sea. The Dnieper was once known as Slavutich, meaning "Slavic river." These days, slavutich is etched in cursive across the blue labels of Kiev's mainstay local beer, several tall glasses of which are landing on my table right now.
I'm in a restaurant called Khutorok, which my friends have assured me offers Kiev's most authentic Ukrainian dining experience. It's situated in a wooden houseboat docked on the Dnieper. The waitresses wear traditional Ukrainian peasant dress, ill-fitting and laced with colorful stitching, and look as if at any moment they will ditch the city and harvest what the good earth has yielded. Sitting around the table are many of Kiev's new power players—financiers, construction bosses, publishing magnates, Internet kingpins, and wildcatter Americans who arrived in the early days of the free market and who now rake in the spoils of their entrenched companies. Everyone is yelling and reaching across the table for meat—fist-sized chunks of grilled pork, chicken, and veal.
The meal has arrived in local crockery; and the food is savory and substantial, as is the way of the Ukrainian kitchen. In addition to the carnivore's delights, there is, of course, borscht, with thick dollops of sour cream floating on the beet broth. Also vareniki, the Ukrainian dumpling filled with potato, salmon, cherries, or meat and vegetables. And blini with black pyramids of sturgeon caviar—which is currently banned from export, giving the meal a whiff of the illicit. (I have often fielded questions about the "black market" in Kiev. My answer: You can buy anything here—a Hollywood movie before its theatrical release, a military escort, pirated computer software—all are a single phone call away.) Meanwhile, someone corrals a round of horilka, the Ukrainian national drink, which is vodka usually blended with honey and hot red pepper. It burns going down, and leaves a scalding aftertaste.
Khutorok aside, there are plenty of new restaurants popping up in Kiev these days, such as Belvedere, on Dneprovsky Spusk, which has a Continental menu and is frequented by the mayor of Kiev, Leonid Chernovetsky. Ikra, on Saksaganskogo, has excellent seafood, along with an oyster bar and a fine slogan: if it's fresher, it swims. For top-shelf Georgian, Kazbek is the place to go, and for French pastries and desserts, there is the Wolkonsky Patisserie & Café, in the Premier Palace Hotel. For a quiet few hours, decompress at Babuin, a bookstore, café, and bar on Bogdana Khmelnytskogo.