So, you’ve seen the HBO series and Chernobyl is now on your bucket list of places to visit. Perhaps you had an interest in creepy, abandoned places before the series captivated audiences around the world. Whatever your reason, there are now thousands of tourists flocking to Chernobyl every year. The TV show really put Ukraine on the map as a travel destination for many. And while Europe is a hot spot for travellers in the summertime, I’ve put together a list of reasons why you should actually consider visiting Chernobyl in winter instead.
For starters, wintertime is far less busy than summer. In the middle of January this year, I visited Chernobyl at its quietest. I based myself in Kyiv between 12th and 17th of Jan, just after Ukrainian Christmas and New Year. Note that Ukraine is an Orthodox country, so they celebrate on different dates.
Yes, this period was admittedly quiet. The locals even questioned me as to why I chose to come when Kyiv was at its most idle. I had my reasons, and the city was really not as dire as you’d expect. Hostels were still buzzing with backpackers, Fridays and Saturdays still held pub crawls. There were still opportunities to explore.
In terms of my tour to Chernobyl, I was informed by my tour guide that I had, in fact, come at the best time. He told me of his experiences hosting tours with thousands of tourists over the summer. Buses would be filled to the brim and people would get hot, so agitation was not uncommon. Ironically, he likened Chernobyl at its busiest to a morbid version of Disneyland.
A chance to see the insides of abandoned buildings
What made my tour guide so awesome was his willingness to steer off the beaten path. And I don’t just mean that figuratively. He took our group off-track and inside abandoned buildings when it is actually forbidden to enter a building in the exclusion zone. Ahh yes, if there’s one thing I do love about Ukrainians, it’s their tendency to break the rules. It’s not the 12th most corrupt country in the world for no reason (according to my tour guide)!
Entering buildings became banned after large numbers of tourists started hurting themselves. They’d either fall through unstable floors, or would just generally misbehave. My tour guide told us if we were vigilant, loyal, and didn’t snitch on him (lol), that we would get a rare and exclusive experience. This is an experience that pretty much only people visiting Chernobyl in winter can get. Being a smaller group of 10 and having fewer people around meant that it would be easier for my guide to sneak us in. It also meant he could keep a close eye on any troublemakers in our group.
He was not wrong. Getting the chance to see the insides of the building is SO much better than just viewing them from the outside. If you’ve ever played the Chernobyl-inspired Call of Duty 4 multiplayer map, you’re probably familiar with the abandoned swimming pool. Thanks to my sneaky tour guide, I got the chance to see this in the flesh, not just in a video game. It’s one of the most iconic exclusion zone sites, along with the Pripyat kindergarten and sea of gas masks in an abandoned classroom (yep, I visited these too). My experience was truly one-of-a-kind.
Now, I can’t guarantee that if you go during winter you will get the same experience. A friend of mine took a Chernobyl tour in the same week, but with a different guide, and his tour guide liked to play by the rules. If you’re wanting to know the tour company I went with, contact me personally here and I will let you know. I’m not out here dropping any names because I intend on staying loyal to my dodgy-but-awesome Ukrainian tour guide.
Another short but important point to make is that if you are visiting Chernobyl in winter, you will be able to see a whole lot more. Trees are leafless, which makes way for better visibility. The region can get pretty overgrown in the summer when nature starts to take over. It makes it super hard to see the buildings. If you are already going to be playing by the rules and not entering buildings, the least you would want to be able to do is view those buildings from the outside.
Chernobyl in the snow
Although there was no snow on my trip despite being smack-bang in the middle of Ukrainian winter, I hear it’s pretty magical. If you want to know what snowy Chernobyl looks like, this blog post has some great pictures.
What’s more, the snow acts as a blanket for radiation. Yes guys, the soil in the exclusion zone is contaminated. There is radioactive dust present – no surprises there. Although it is not that dangerous to walk on the soil in most areas, you are not advised to sit on the floor. This puts you at risk of absorbing more radiation. Your tour guide should pre-warn you about this. Your tour guide is also likely to take you to radioactive ‘hot spots’ and use a dinging geiger counter to prove just how ‘hot’ some areas are.
So, if you are nervous about absorbing radiation, consider visiting when it has been snowed on. The snow will be a protective layer between you and the radioactive soil. I would like to reiterate though: YOU WILL NOT COME OUT WITH AN EXTRA FINGER IF YOU DO WALK ON THE SOIL. Follow your tour guide and you’ll be safe. May my perfect human form post-Chernobyl be a shining example of this.
My tour was a full-day experience leaving from Kyiv at 8am and returning about 7pm. It cost £83.20. There were also two-day tours where you stay in Chernobyl overnight, but I feel I got to see the best parts in one day. Like I said before, please contact me personally if you want to know which touring company I went with.