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Kyiv: Saint-Sophia Cathedral and Related Monastic Buildings, Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra

By Allyson Twilley

Note: Until the war is over, we do not recommend visiting Ukraine, and we can’t know until then to what extent its UNESCO World Heritage sites have been damaged.

Note added September 2023: This site has been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger list.

What are Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra?

Saint Sophia Cathedral and Related Monastic Buildings

Saint Sophia Cathedral, the oldest standing church in Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv, was built in the early 11th century, during the Kyivan Rus period. It was the main Christian church of the Kyivan Rus capital. Designed to rival the Hagia Sophia in Byzantine Constantinople, Saint Sophia Cathedral is an outstanding example of Byzantine architecture, monumental art, and decorative art from the early 11th century. In fact, Saint Sophia Cathedral boasts the largest preserved collection of mosaics and frescoes from that period.

Saint Sophia Cathedral is also surrounded by various monastic buildings constructed in the Ukrainian Baroque style during the 17th and 18th centuries. One such building is the ornate, blue and white Saint Sophia Bell Tower, which overlooks Saint Sophia Cathedral and Sophia Square (aka Sofiyskaya Square).

On the left, the bell tower in white and blue with a gold domed roof. On the right, Saint Sophia's Cathedral, white with green domes and one larger gold dome.

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra

Located in the Pechersk neighborhood in central Kyiv, Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is an Orthodox Christian monastery founded in 1051 A.D., after the Kyivan Rus state officially adopted the Orthodox religion. Incredibly, although founded almost 1,000 years ago, Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is still an active monastery today.

Orthodox Christians consider Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra to be the holiest site in Ukraine. Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is renowned for its golden-domed churches and its ancient underground caves (where the monks originally lived, studied, worshipped, and were buried). The word lavra means “monastery,” and the word pecherska means “of the caves” – so the name Pechersk Lavra literally translates to “monastery of the caves” in English.

An ornate gateway in white with painted images in each panel and gold dome above it.
Lower Lavra

Why are Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra a UNESCO World Heritage site?

Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra are architectural and artistic masterpieces, and they also had a significant spiritual influence in Eastern Europe over the centuries. According to UNESCO, Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra bear “exceptional testimony to the centuries-old Byzantine cultural traditions of neighbouring countries in general and of Kyivan Rus’ in particular.” Further, with relics of saints buried in its caves, Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra has been one of the world’s most important Christian pilgrimage sites for centuries.

What can you expect on a visit to Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra?

Saint Sophia Cathedral

With its green and gold domes, the exterior of Saint Sophia Cathedral exemplifies the Ukrainian Baroque style. When you venture inside the cathedral, its Byzantine architecture and decorative art are on full display alongside some Baroque features. The colorful frescos, mosaics, domes, arches, and gilded iconostasis are stunning. Stepping inside Saint Sophia Cathedral feels like traveling back in time to the Byzantine and Kyivan Rus eras.

Beside Saint Sophia Cathedral, at the entrance to the site, is the striking blue and white bell tower, which resembles a wedding cake. Climb up to the top of the bell tower for great panoramic views of Kyiv!

An ornately painted and very tall interior: images of saints, angels, etc. surrounded by gold.
St. Sophia dome interior

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra

Situated on a plateau overlooking the Dnipro River, Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra occupies 28 hectares and is divided into two areas: the Upper Lavra and the Lower Lavra.

The Lower Lavra is home to the active monastery, several aboveground and underground churches (including the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin, the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross, and the Church of the Conception of St. Anne), and two sets of underground caves (called the Near Caves and the Far Caves) that were dug by monks beginning in the 11th century. Both sets of caves are open to the public.

The caves serve as the final resting place for the colorfully clothed, naturally mummified bodies of more than 100 monks, which visitors and religious pilgrims can view through glass cases. The monks’ bodies are fully covered with cloth, so visitors cannot actually see any mummified body parts, aside from an occasional toe or finger. In the cool, dry environment inside the caves, the monks’ bodies were naturally preserved without embalming. The lack of bodily decay is religiously significant to the devout, who believe the bodies of these holy men have healing abilities.

The Upper Lavra is operated by Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture. Notable sites in the Upper Lavra include the Dormition Cathedral, Trinity Gate Church, the Refectory Church of St. Antony & St. Feodosy, St. Nicholas Church, and the Great Bell Tower. Climb the 174 steps to the top of the Great Bell Tower, and you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views of the Lavra and Kyiv!

There are also several museums in the Upper Lavra. Make sure to stop by the Museum of Microminiature, which features the incredible minuscule creations of artist Nikolai Siadristy, viewable only through a microscope. It’s a must-see!

A simple white-walled tunnel, only wide enough for one person at a time.
Entrance to the caves

Are Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra worth visiting?

Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra are definitely worth visiting during a trip to Kyiv! Although I personally would not make a special trip to Kyiv for the sole purpose of seeing Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, each site is certainly worth a few hours of your time if you are spending a couple of days in Kyiv. That being said, religious pilgrims likely would consider Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra and Saint Sophia Cathedral to be worth a special trip.

I would allow about an hour and a half to explore the inside of Saint Sophia Cathedral and climb to the top of the Saint Sophia Bell Tower.

For a visit to Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, I would set aside about two and a half hours, although some visitors might want to spend a little longer there. During my two-and-a-half-hour guided tour, I had time to walk around the Upper Lavra and Lower Lavra, go inside a few of the most significant churches, explore the Near Caves, climb to the top of the Great Bell Tower, and visit the Museum of Microminiature. However, it is worth noting that Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra was not busy when I visited, and there were no lines to get into the caves or the museum. Therefore, I was able to see a lot in a shorter amount of time.

What sorts of travelers would like Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra?

Travelers interested in art, architecture, and history (especially religious history) would enjoy visiting Saint Sophia Cathedral and the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra.

Due to their religious significance, both Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra would also interest religious travelers and Christian pilgrims. This is especially true for Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, which is considered the holiest site in Ukraine.

Claustrophobic travelers may not want to venture into the underground caves at Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, but there is still plenty for them to see aboveground there.

Tips for visiting Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra

Saint Sophia Cathedral

Today, Saint Sophia Cathedral is a museum, not an active church. Because it is not an active church, women do not have to cover their heads while inside the cathedral.

There are various ticket options for visiting Saint Sophia Cathedral and the related monastic buildings, so make sure to select a ticket that includes entry to the cathedral itself.  

To listen to the audio tour inside Saint Sophia Cathedral, bring your smartphone and earbuds with you. QR codes are posted on displays inside the cathedral. The QR codes link to audio clips that explain the significance of each area. The audio clips are available in multiple languages, including English, German, and Ukrainian.  

A centered view of Saint Sophia cathedral: sides are mostly white with arched windows. Roofs are green and domed, except the central one which is gold.
Saint Sophia Cathedral

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra

Visitors are not allowed to take photos or videos inside the caves, so keep your phone and camera inside your bag or pockets while in the caves.

Because Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is an active religious site, visitors should dress modestly to enter the caves or religious buildings. Shorts and tank tops are prohibited for both men and women. Men must wear long pants and shirts with sleeves. Inside the caves and churches, women must cover their heads—ideally, with a headscarf, although they may be able to get by with pulling a jacket hood up over their heads. In addition, women must wear skirts or dresses that fall below their knees. Short skirts/dresses are prohibited. Also, women are not supposed to wear pants—not even long pants. However, if you show up wearing clothes that do not meet the dress code, apron-like coverings are available at the entrance to the caves.

The caves are dimly lit, but you can buy a small candle at the entrance to the caves to better light your way.

I strongly recommend booking a guided tour of Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. It was very helpful having a guide to provide background information and explain the significance of what I was seeing. I do not recall seeing information placards while walking around the site (other than in museums in the Upper Lavra).

Where are Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra?

Although both sites are in central Kyiv, Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra are located about 2.6 miles (4.2 km) away from one another.

As in most European cities, driving is not the best way to sightsee in central Kyiv. Although there are a few public parking lots and garages in the vicinity (within approximately half a mile of Saint Sophia Cathedral), driving to Saint Sophia Cathedral would only be advisable for travelers who are just passing through Kyiv in a car and want to make a stop at the cathedral. For travelers who are staying in Kyiv, the best options are to ride the metro or take an Uber or taxi.

Saint Sophia Cathedral

Saint Sophia Cathedral is located on Sofiyskaya Square in Kyiv’s historic center at the following address: Volodymyrska Street, 24, Kyiv, Ukraine, 01001.

The two metro stations closest to Saint Sophia Cathedral are the Maidan Nezalezhnosti Station (located 0.4 miles or 700 meters away, an 8-minute walk) and the Zoloti Vorota Station (located 0.6 miles or 950 meters away, an 11-minute walk).

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is located in the Pechersk area in central Kyiv at the following address: Lavrska Street, 15, Kyiv, Ukraine 01015.

The metro station closest to Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is the Arsenalna Station, which is located 0.9 miles (1.4 km) away from  Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. It takes about 20 minutes to walk from the Arsenalna Station to Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. Upon exiting the Arsenalna Station, proceed to the main road—Ivana Mazepy Street (which eventually turns into Lavrska Street). For those who prefer to ride the bus instead of walking, there is a bus stop across from the Arsenalna metro station on Ivana Mazepy Street.

Parking options near Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra are limited. Avoid the frustration of trying to find a parking space near Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra by taking a taxi or Uber or by walking from the Arsenalna metro station.

There are multiple entrances to Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. Inside the grounds, a pathway connects the Upper Lavra and the Lower Lavra.

For more information about Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, including opening hours and admission fees, see Saint Sophia Cathedral’s official website and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra’s official website.

Text and photos provided by Allyson Twilley of Traveling Twilley, a travel blog focusing on international destinations (including Ukraine). Allyson enjoys planning “out of office” adventures and helping others do the same.

Have you been to Saint Sophia Cathedral or Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra? If so, do you have any additional information or advice about this UNESCO World Heritage site? Please add your comments below!

Text: Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra / Kyiv, Ukraine. Images: above, Saint Sophia Cathedral; below, the entrance to the lower Lavra.

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