No matter if you have just finished the hit mini-series, Chernobyl by HBO, or are simply interested to know what actually happened in Chernobyl and want to travel to Chernobyl to see first-hand what it is like to be at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, you are in the right place.
This travel guide will provide you all the information you need to travel to Chernobyl from which tour to pick to things you need to prepare before you visit Chernobyl. Without further ado, let's begin with a brief history on what went down at Chernobyl power plant in 1986.
- Chernobyl Itinerary Map
- What Happened in Chernobyl in 1986?
- Where is Chernobyl Located?
- Can You Visit Chernobyl?
- Is Chernobyl Safe?
- When to Visit Chernobyl
- How to Get to Ukraine
- How to Get to Chernobyl
- Which Chernobyl Tours to Pick?
- How Many Days Should I Spend in Chernobyl?
- Chernobyl Tour Costs
- Where to Stay in Kyiv
- Travel Insurance
- Things to Prepare Before You Visit Chernobyl
- Chernobyl Tour Itinerary
- Meetup at the Meeting Point in Kyiv
- Passing Through the Chernobyl Checkpoint
- Visiting Chernobyl City
- Marvel at the Duga "Woodpecker" Radar
- Kopachi Town and an Abandoned Kindergarten
- Visiting the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Reactor #4
- Have Lunch at Canteen 19
- A Close Look of Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor #4
- Explore the Abandoned City of Pripyat
- Is Visiting Chernobyl Worth It?
Chernobyl Itinerary Map
What Happened in Chernobyl in 1986?
A Brief History of Chernobyl Disaster
On April 26, 1986, at exactly 1:23:40 AM local time, the Chernobyl power plant reactor #4 located in Ukraine, then part of the USSR, exploded. The accident happened during a safety test that was supposed to help develop a safety procedure during an electrical power outage.
Due to several factors from the need to rush the test to the design flaws of the RBMK Nuclear Reactor, a common nuclear reactor used all over the USSR, an unexpected surge of energy occurred causing the explosion and exposing the graphite moderator to the air.
Because of the explosion, a plume of highly radioactive dust was sent into the air, affecting millions of people all over Europe and the world.
The one city that was hit hard the most was Pripyat, a modern Soviet town built to house the Power Plant workers and their families just north of Chernobyl Power Plant.
36 hours after the explosion, the Soviet evacuated all 49,000 inhabitants of Pripyat away from the 10km zone, leaving all their belongings and the entire city abandoned.
The evacuation zone was then increased to 30 km as the plume and the radioactive fallout continued to be generated from the explosion. Another 60,000 inhabitants from the town of Chernobyl were later evacuated as well.
Soon after the disaster, a gigantic concrete sarcophagus was built over the reactor #4 explosion site to confine the amount of radioactive contamination being released into the air.
Cause of the Chernobyl Disaster
There are several things that went wrong that day that caused the Chernobyl disaster and it all boils down to the need to rush, breaching the protocols during simulated power outage safety test that eventually destabilized the reactor causing the power surge and the flawed design of the control rods in the RBMK reactor.
In order to bring the reactor in control again, the workers at Chernobyl had to initiate the shutdown procedure by pressing the AZ-5 button to shut the reactor down which should have worked but due to a flawed design in the RBMK reactor's control dos, it caused a power surge instead which led to the explosion and the exposure of the core, pluming radiation into the air, affecting millions of people.
When Did the Chernobyl Disaster Happened?
The Chernobyl explosion happened on April 26, 1986, at exactly 1:23:40 AM local time. At that time, the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor #4 power surged due to the defect fail-safe procedure leading to an explosion that blew the roof off, dispersing large quantities of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere.
The people at the power plant during the explosion and the firefighters that were called that night to put out the fire were the first to be seen affected by the radioactivity with some of the firefighters pronounced dead in 2 weeks after being exposed.
3 months after, the death toll climbed to 31 people and more among the evacuees followed several years after due to cancer and heart failures.
How Many People Died in Chernobyl?
This is still a topic of debate as there are no actual record present and the number of deaths of radioactive-related illness is hard to conclude due to how long the deterioration process is.
There are several estimates that ranged from 4,000 people, which was reported by the UN to 200,000 people, reported by Green Peace. It will take many more years to be able to conclusively say how many people died from the Chernobyl disaster.
What is conclusive is the number of deaths immediately after the disaster which is 85 deaths, 31 from the initial blast and the 54 from acute radiation syndrome.
After the disaster, a concrete sarcophagus was elected over the Chernobyl reactor #4 to confine the spread of radioactive contamination from the explosion.
The concrete sarcophagus wasn't perfect though as it was only built to last for 30 years and as it deteriorated, new safe confinement was constructed in 2017 with the help from several countries around the world and then moved on top the reactor #4.
This is what you will see today if you travel to Chernobyl disaster zone, not under an old concrete or a ruin left from the explosion.
Where is Chernobyl Located?
The Chernobyl Power Plant, the town with the same name and Pripyat are all located within Ukraine, only 10 km away from Belarus. The power plant and its towns were built near the Pripyat river that flows from Russia through Belarus, merged with Dnieper river and into the Black Sea.
If you want to visit Chernobyl, you will have to travel to Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine and go from there. From Kyiv, it is only a 2 hours drive to Chernobyl.
Can You Visit Chernobyl?
Yes, you can. If you get yourself to Kyiv, Ukraine, you can easily buy a tour to get access to Chernobyl town, the front of the power plant and the abandoned town of Pripyat.
Is Chernobyl Safe?
My Kiwi friends found some sketchy-looking barrels while exploring an abandoned structure in Chernobyl.
Due to the efforts to confine the contamination like liquidating buildings, tearing down wooden structures, and removing the topsoil from the area, most of the accessible area in Chernobyl is quite safe for a day visit.
While I was on the tour, we were given an instrument that kept track of how much radiation we had accumulated over the period we were in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and it came out to about 2 - 3 mSv which is an equivalent of a one hour flight on a plane.
Not great, but not terrible (if you know what I mean 😂).
There were some areas that the Geiger counter was beeping with the radiation ranging from 5 mSv on some random ground to almost 50 mSv at one of the cars on the iconic Pripyat amusement park's Ferris wheel.
The dangerous things you should watch out for in Chernobyl is the crumbling buildings that may collapse at any moment. Be sure to step carefully when you are exploring Pripyat's crumbling structures.
Another dangerous part of Chernobyl is the unmarked forest area where the radiation remains high so do not go stumbling around bushes and forests when you are in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Throughout Chernobyl, there are several radiation control checkpoints that you will have to go through on your way out, so if you pass all those checkpoints, it means that you are safe and have not been exposed to radiation for too long.
To conclude, with all the precautions they are doing, it is safe to say that Chernobyl is safe to visit with a tour.
When to Visit Chernobyl
Depending on what you want out of the trip, the best time to visit will vary from person to person. Chernobyl is great to visit all year round but if you want clear weather, go in the summer from June - August, but be prepared for the heat as it can be quite hot with a temperature at around 30°C.
If you want to see Chernobyl in more colorful light and more manageable weather, visit during Spring or Autumn where the trees turn orange and the weather not too hot.
If you want to see Chernobyl in its eeriest time, visit Chernobyl in winter. The white snow on ruin buildings, dry treesm and the white foggy sky will make Chernobyl even eerier than it is.
How to Get to Ukraine
Chernobyl is located in Ukraine and one of the closest city you can fly into is Kyiv (Kiev), the capital city of Ukraine, so we must get there first. If you are coming from the US, there is a direct flight from New York to Kyiv via Ukrainian Airline that you can take directly to Ukraine or you can fly via several European airlines like KLM, Lufthansa, and Air France.
If you are in Europe, you can either fly with a low-cost airline like Ryanair, so you can simply travel by train from any of the main European hubs like Berlin, etc. Although, the time it takes to travel will increase considerably if you chose to use trains (24 hours from Berlin to Kyiv).
Last but not least, if you are in Asia, the simplest option is to fly directly from Bangkok to Kyiv via Ukrainian Airline. They are cheap and fly direct to Kyiv in 11 hours.
For entering the country, if you hold an EU passport, you should be able to travel to Ukraine without having to get a visa but if you are not, you might be eligible to get an electronic visa instead of having to apply it yourself at the closest Ukrainian embassy.
Wondering if you are eligible to apply for a Ukrainian E-Visa? Here is a Complete Guide on How to Apply for a Ukrainian E-Visa.
How to Get to Chernobyl
Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is located 2 hours north from Kyiv and can only be reached with an organized tour. Since the area is still pretty much radioactive and dangerous, the entire exclusion zone is shut off from the public and can only be accessed via one checkpoint where you will only pass if you are with an organized tour, so don't even bother trying to get there independently.
To get to Chernobyl, you will have to book an organized tour either from abroad or when you are in Kyiv. In the next section, I will provide you with options for your Chernobyl tour.
Which Chernobyl Tours to Pick?
There are several companies that run the tour all of which are based in Kyiv. They run pretty much the same way with a Duga Radar visit, Chernobyl Reactor #4, Chernobyl town, and Pripyat, all costing the same or in a similar range. Here are a few of the Chernobyl tour companies that run every day:
Chernobyl Tour is the original tour company that has been running the tour for years. They even have their own souvenir shop with items bearing their name right at the checkpoint into Chernobyl.
Their tour groups are a bit more crowded than most but you will get a few more perks like more hours at the exclusion zone, a visit to the open-air exhibition of robots used in the clean-up, etc.
A one-day trip with Chernobyl Tour cost from 99 - 149 USD depending on how many days in advance you book the tour. If you want the cheapest price, book it at least 4 days prior. This goes for all the tours listed here as well.
You can book the Chernobyl Tour here: Book a 1-Day Chernobyl Tour.
There are several other tours like Go2Chernobyl, GAMMA Travel, Chernobyl Exclusive Tours, Solo East and Soviet Wonders that are great options if you are looking for a tour that is not too crowded. I went with the Soviet Wonders and there were only 14 of us in a group. The itinerary for both are pretty much the same and the price are both at 99 USD if you booked 4 days prior or 149 USD if you booked last minute.
There are several other Chernobyl tours you can pick here: Browse Chernobyl Tours.
How Many Days Should I Spend in Chernobyl?
After picking a tour company, you will have to choose how long you want your tour to be. Most of the travelers I met in Kyiv, including me, go with the one-day tour that leaves Kyiv at 7:30 AM and arrives back at 7:00 PM - 9:00 PM. This is the cheapest options, leaves the most often (every day) and do not require a minimum number of people to be met before going.
If you want a more unique experience, you can go with a multi-day Chernobyl tour instead. With a 2-days Chernobyl tour, you will be spending one night in a dorm in Chernobyl town while covering more areas in the exclusion zone. For 3+ days, it's the same as 2-days tour but you will also have a radiation survival training while covering even more places in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Chernobyl Tour Costs
Depending on how in advance you book your Chernobyl tour and how many days you want to be in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the cost of the tour will range from 99 USD to 319 USD.
If you book your Chernobyl tour 4 days prior it will cost you 99 USD per person whereas if you book your tour last minute, it will cost you 129 USD per person.
For 2-days and 3-days tours, it will cost you 249 USD and 319 USD per person respectively.
These prices include everything from lunch at the worker's canteen to all the transportations. For multi-day tours, accommodation and other meals are also included as well.
Where to Stay in Kyiv
Budget: Kiev Central Station Hostel (Budget) - 10 USD/night (Dorm) - Great hostel located in a quiet street of Kyiv. Most of the attractions are all reachable on foot in 30 minutes.
Mid-Range: Heart Kyiv Apart-Hotel (Mid-Range) - 48 USD/night (Double Room with Air Conditioning)
If you are looking for travel insurance to go along with your trip to Ukraine, I would recommend WorldNomads.com, which is what I use to look for travel insurance that fits my kind of adventure. They have a simple and flexible search system that allowed me to find the right insurance for the right amount of time at an affordable price in seconds. If you need travel insurance, give WorldNomads.com a try.
Things to Prepare Before You Visit Chernobyl
Since you will be passing through military checkpoints and spending one full-day at the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, there are several things you need to prepare for the trip:
- Passports: Please make sure you bring your real passport (not your ID or a copied version) with you as you will NOT be let in at the checkpoint if you do not have your real passport.
- Long Sleeve Shirts and Trousers: You will need to wear a long sleeve shirt or a jacket and trousers to protect you from minor radiation when you are visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The guard won't let you in unless you wear proper clothes.
- Wear Covered Shoes: Same goes for shoes. Since you will be walking around abandoned buildings, you will need to wear proper covered shoes to avoid accidents and radiation.
- Pickup Location: Make sure you know where your tour pick-up location is. Each tour company has their own pick-up location and they will not wait if you are late. They often send the location via your email or otherwise, they should tell you exactly where when you book it.
- Water and Snacks: You will be walking mostly in the sun all day so you will need to prepare enough water to last you the whole day. Also, if you tend to get hungry easily, be sure to have some snacks with you as there is only one shop at the checkpoint and you will be in Chernobyl exclusion zone for 2 - 3 hours until lunch. Most of the tours will stop at a gas station outside of Kyiv when going to Chernobyl, so you can buy some from there.
Chernobyl Tour Itinerary
Meetup at the Meeting Point in Kyiv
When you arrive in Kyiv and have your Chernobyl tour booked 3 days prior you will receive an email with an instruction on how to get to the pick-up location for the next day. Read carefully where the location and make sure to be there on time on your tour day.
Different tour companies have different pick-up location but all will eventually travel together to Chernobyl. For example, if you are with Chernobyl Tour, the pick-up location is usually the KFC in front of Kyiv Central Train Station and the pick-up time is around 7:30 AM.
Keep in mind that these pick-up locations and times are from my personal experience and it might change for you so be sure to check with your tour company before leaving.
The process of registration is pretty simple. Your guide will ask to see your passport and you can choose to sit where ever you like in the minivan. If you want a great seat, be sure to come earlier than the appointed time. They will drive by some really cool places like the Red Forest and the Bridge of Death without stopping so if you want to see them, sit by the window.
The minivan is spacious and comes equipped with air-conditioning which is a godsend in mid-summer Ukraine. After everyone arrives, you will then be driving to a gas station outside of Kyiv where you can stock up water and snacks for breakfast and throughout the day.
Depending on how hot it is outside, you will need at least 2 liters of water for the day. Keep in mind that many of the places you will be visiting are exposed to the sun so if it is clear outside, be sure that you have enough water for the day.
After the gas station, it will take around 1.5 hours to reach the first checkpoint in Chernobyl where all the tour buses will have to register and pass through.
Passing Through the Chernobyl Checkpoint
At the first checkpoint, you will have to get off the bus and wait until the guard comes and check your passport and scan your ticket which should be given to you by your tour guide at the checkpoint. It usually takes around 15 minutes as they have to check your passport one by one for each tour running that day.
After checking your passport, you will have to walk through the barrier and you will be given a radiation dose meter that will track how much radiation you accumulate throughout the day and you will be able to see the result at the end of the tour.
After the checkpoint, you will continue towards Chernobyl town.
Visiting Chernobyl City
Chernobyl town is one of the first city to be evacuated during the 1986 nuclear disaster. Over 14,000 inhabitants of Chernobyl city were evacuated 30 hours after the explosion which left the city abandoned until now.
Nowadays, the workers of the clean-up initiative and small numbers of locals have moved into Chernobyl city and are currently living there. This will also be the place you would stay if you chose to do a multi-day Chernobyl tour.
When you arrive in Chernobyl City, you will still be able to see the remnants of its past but you will also be able to see life striving with locals living in their homes like nothing happens, general stores packed with supplies and hotels for daring tourists.
Your tour will take you to the Monument of the Third Angel and the Star Wormwood memorial, which display all the town around Chernobyl that has been wiped out and moved from the map due to the Chernobyl disaster.
If you remember the HBO mini-series first episode with the firefighters braving their ways to extinguish the fire, you will also get to visit the Fire Department there and see the Monument to the Chernobyl Liquidators dedicated to these heroic firefighters at the day of the disaster.
Marvel at the Duga "Woodpecker" Radar
After driving around Chernobyl, the tour will drive you into a forest and drop you off so you can walk up to one of the largest secret constructions in the Chernobyl, the Duga "Woodpecker" Radar.
The Duga Radar was a Soviet over-the-horizon radar that is part of the early-warning missile defense system built to detect a missile attack from the US. It was so secretive that they grew tall trees around the area to prevent people from spotting it from afar.
This construction is so massive and used so much power that they had to build the grid within the range of Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
The reason why they call it the "Woodpecker" radar is because of how sharp and repetitive the broadcasted radio wave was. It also appeared without warning and can be heard by many amateur radio operators who then dubbed the signal as the "Russian Woodpecker".
You will be able to walk around the grid for 15 minutes while your guide explains how the Duga Radar works. After spending time exploring the Duga Radar, you will have to backtrack your way to the bus and continue on to the Chernobyl power plant.
Kopachi Town and an Abandoned Kindergarten
On your way to Chernobyl Power Plant, you will stop at Kopachi Town and its overgrown abandoned structure, once a kindergarten. This is where you will start to feel the true eeriness of Chernobyl.
Within the abandoned structure, there are several areas on the ground that are highly contaminated still so be careful where you walk around the area.
Within the kindergarten, you will see all sorts of things left over from the evacuation like creepy dolls, toys and children bed frames that remind you how alive the city must have been before the disaster.
Visiting the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Reactor #4
After stopping at the kindergarten, you will start to go towards the Chernobyl Reactor #4 where your guide will stop and explain what the Soviet planned to build in the area.
Apparently, they were planning to build 10 reactors to supply energy to all the USSR. They were building the fifth one not too far from Reactor #4 before the disaster happened.
You can also see the newly built confinement covering reactor #4 from the road. It is one of the largest mega projects in the country with the help of many nations in Europe. The total cost of the confinement is estimated to be €2.15 billion (US$2.3 billion).
Have Lunch at Canteen 19
After 2 hours in Chernobyl, it is time for lunch. With all the tours I mentioned here, you will be having lunch at Canteen 19, a canteen built for the workers of the clean-up of Chernobyl.
The food is actually really good if you asked me but some in my group didn't like it. It comes with chicken, borscht, rice and strawberry juice and it is often included in the tour. If not, you will have to pay somewhere around 10 USD for the meal.
Another fun thing to do here is that you will have to go through a Soviet-style radiation detector where you will have to put your hands on both sides of the machine and it will tell you if your radioactivity level is in comply with the law and it will let you into the canteen.
A Close Look of Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor #4
After lunch, you will continue towards Reactor #4 where you will stop at the entrance in front of a monument dedicated to Chernobyl victims where you can take photos and listen to how the old sarcophagus was built and how the new safe confinement were rolled in to replace the concrete one.
Your guide will also show several photos of Reactor #4 after the explosion which you can no longer see as it is under the new safe confinement. It is chilling to think that all the bodies of people who lost their lives in the reactor including those from the crashed helicopter are still in there, unretrievable for the next hundred years.
Explore the Abandoned City of Pripyat
After visiting the explosion site itself, you will then be dropped off at Pripyat, the city that was hit the hardest in the 1986 disaster. This is where the most interesting part of the tour begins.
You will be dropped off at the Pripyat town square, while your guide shows you what the square looked like before the evacuation, a chilling reminder of the catastrophe that be fell upon the people living in Pripyat.
From the square, you will be exploring Pripyat on foot where you will get to check out the abandoned supermarket, a restaurant and the Palace of Culture Energetik, all of which are completely abandoned and left for nature to take over.
From the Palace of Culture Energetik, you will continue behind the building into an opening where you will see the iconic Pripyat's Ferris wheel and other amusement park's machinery.
The amusement park was never actually open to the public as it was supposed to open on the 1st of May 1986, only 4 days after the Chernobyl disaster. At the amusement park, you will see the iconic 26m high Ferris wheel, bumper cars, swing boats, and several shooting games, all of which are deteriorating and overgrown.
One of the most contaminated areas in Chernobyl we've seen is a random spot under one of these cars of the Ferris wheel. The Geiger counter reads 45 microsieverts or around 0.0045 roentgen, which is not great but not terrible 🤣.
After the amusement park, you will then walk to the Avanhard Football Stadium, an abandoned stadium in Pripyat. You can barely see the running track nowadays as the forest has grown in its place.
From the stadium, you will walk toward the Pripyat river that gave the name to the town. Along this river, there is an abandoned pier that was to connect Kyiv with Pripyat. The photo your guide will show will remind you of how significant Pripyat was back in the days.
After the abandoned port, you will continue to another scary place, the abandoned infirmary (Hospital 126 as it was known in the USSR) where most of the initial victims of radiation were treated before they were sent to Moscow.
Within this infirmary, there is a place in the basement where the nurses stored all the contaminated clothes of the firefighters in right after the disaster.
It has become one of the most radioactive places on earth so much so that your regular Geiger Counter will overload if you put the instrument in the room. Needless to say, I won't be going in there without proper gear.
Amidst all the abandoned structure in the overgrown forest of Pripyat, you will find an abandoned school where the building had collapsed exposing one of the classrooms. Within these rooms, the student tables, chairs and textbooks are still there, untouched by anyone after it was abandoned.
Last but not least, you will be visiting an abandoned living quarter where you will be able to see what was abandoned and what was left after these homes were evacuated in 1968.
After exploring Pripyat, your tour will take you back through the checkpoints where you will have to go through another radiation detector machine to make sure you are not contaminated and your guide will take your dose radiation monitor to calculate how much radiation you have accumulated that day.
Usually, the result will be around that of the radiation when you are on an airplane for 1-hour.
After you go through the checkpoint, your tour will drive you back to Kyiv which should take around 2 hours depending on traffic and they will drop you off the same place they pick you up.
Is Visiting Chernobyl Worth It?
Totally. I have always been very interested in visiting Chernobyl to learn about the disaster first-hand years before the HBO mini-series came out and with the show raising awareness of the tragic event, you will definitely learn a lot more while visiting each location, knowing how it played out in the show.
If you are visiting Chernobyl to learn about the situation, you will definitely enjoy yourself but if you are just there looking for beautiful scenery, getting stunning photos of yourself and view, you will thoroughly be disappointed. After all, Chernobyl is not an amusement park, it's a disaster zone.
And there you have it, a complete guide on how to visit Chernobyl. I hope you will be able to visit Chernobyl and learn about it first-hand some day. If you are planning a trip and have any question, feel free to ask me in the comments below.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by BucketListly where we will follow our founder, Pete Rojwongsuriya around the world as he singlehandedly travel alone and experience different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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