Why should I go? You’ve savoured the mild old-Communist chill of Prague, Cracow and Budapest, and you are ready for something a little more heavy-duty. Moscow? Fine, if you don’t mind gathering cobwebs while you wait for the visa. Step forward Kiev, capital of Ukraine and the eastern Europe that EasyJet forgot.
A 3-hr flight from Heathrow and you can be pacing through Mariinsky, a bracing white-winter park, towards a hearty dinner of dumplings. Kiev is austerely beautiful: the late-afternoon sun tinting the gold cathedral domes pink; the monks shovelling snow off the monastery steps; even the monstrous Stalinist masonry along Khreshchatyk boulevard, as you wander to Independence Square. Then nightfall, bringing the neon bling of a housey club. Go now – you’ll always have Paris.
What do I do? Dress like an auditionee for Doctor Zhivago – winter turns abruptly brutal – then, suitably muffled, go for gold. The skyline is blistered with gilded domes, like brilliant flaring beacons in sharp sun. First stop has to be St Sophia’s Cathedral (10am-5pm; 25p), Kiev’s oldest extant church: 11th-century ancient, it packs an instant punch with its mosaic Virgin Orans (Madonna in prayer), 18ft tall, and shuffling visitors linger in awe. Don’t climb the bell tower in heels, with a hangover or if prone to vertigo. Otherwise, do: it’s a fantastic city high, all distant roof tiles and swooping side streets.
At the other end of Volodymyrska is St Michael’s Monastery (9am-8pm; free), snow-loaded against a blue sky that beautifies its iced-gem cupolas. Inside, it smells pungently of priest’s myrrh, waved in censers. It is faded-frescoed, yet, for all its apparent antiquity, just seven years old, a faithful rendering of the 11th-century original, flattened by Stalin in 1936.
From here it’s a lovely, tottery walk down cobbled Andriyivsky Uzviz – past some of the most photogenic facades of classic Kiev – to the jumble of Podil, the old mercantile quarter. At the top, if you’re lucky, a wedding may be spreading down the steps of St Andrew’s Church: billowing baroque by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, architect of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, which explains the familiar palette of whipped cream, marine-green and gold.
At the bottom, in Podil’s cat’s cradle of artisanal streets, prepare for grim imagery at the Chernobyl Museum (Prov Khoryva; 00 380-44 417 5422; 10am-5pm; 40p), which documents the world’s worst nuclear accident. Rather more uplifting is the Pecherska Lavra, or Caves Monastery (9am-4.30pm; ?1), a short cab ride away. On a chill day, iron-grey before snowfall, it’s a magical place. Established in 1051 to promulgate Orthodox Christianity, it is burrowed with flickering catacombs holding centuries’ worth of mummified monks. Legend has it that entering the gateway absolves you of half your life’s sins.
Where do I party? Try Tsar (Grushevskogo 1v; from 10pm; ?10), for its Felliniesque mansion grandeur, Romanov-worthy chandeliers and big house sounds; better still is Barsky (Baseynaya 4; from 10pm; free), a louche pleasure dome of dancing girls and great French DJs. Where do I stay? This year’s model is the glinting Hyatt Regency Kiev (A Tarasova 5; 44 581 1234, www.hyatt.com; doubles from ?319). It’s a glassy stunner, with 234 groomed rooms and a vertiginous lobby of bobbing bubble lifts. Traditionalists may prefer the Premier Palace Hotel (T Shevchenka 5-7/29; 44 537 4500, www.premier-palace.com ; doubles from ?200), a grand lady built in 1909, big on Italianate gilt elegance and socialist-realist art. The Ukraina (Instytutska 4; 44 279 0347, www.ukraine-hotel.kiev.ua ; doubles from ?73) is an unfancy but atmospheric Soviet throwback, rising Gotham-like behind Independence Square.
Where do I eat? Deruny – potato pancakes with veg, pork or beef – are central heating in midwinter Kiev. Savour them for ?4 a portion at O’Panas (Tereshynkivska 10), as serenading musicians twang away. Khutorok, on Naberezhno-Khreschatytska, inhabits a creaky timber vessel moored on the Dnieper River. It peddles classic Ukrainian cuisine with volleys of vodka – order red salmon caviar for ?9. If stodge overwhelms, try Grill Asia, at the Hyatt Regency Kiev (see Where to stay), savouring grilled pork chop with apple sauce (?13) in meditative, louvred surroundings.