Would you dare spend the night in a nuclear disaster zone?
In 2018, I pushed my anxieties to the side and crossed one of my lifelong dreams off of my travel bucket list: I took a two-day Chernobyl tour.
I won’t lie – I was nervous about going, and my fears only increased on the bus ride between Kiev and the checkpoint that marks the entrance to the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone.
However, when our tour bus drove past the iconic Chernobyl sign (shown above) my heart rate started to drop and I could feel the corners of my mouth turning up. I was in Chernobyl.
The next two days were a whirlwind of sightseeing, history lessons, photography and never daring to step away from the safety of the marked path.
And my overnight Chernobyl tour turned out to be one of my all-time favorite travel experiences.
In this post, I am going to explain everything that you can expect to see on an overnight Chernobyl tour. In my opinion, it is an essential travel experience for lovers of adventure, history, technology and/or nature, and the two-day experience is indescribably richer and more authentic than the one-day excursions offered by some companies. Read on to learn everything you can expect to see and do on a two-day Chernobyl tour!
Preparing for a Chernobyl Tour
There is a lot to think about when you choose your Chernobyl tour provider and itinerary. For full details about the different tour operators, prices, when to visit Chernobyl and what to pack for Chernobyl, check out my post about Preparing for a Tour to Chernobyl. It is essential reading for anyone planning to venture inside the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone. While this post focuses on what you can expect during the tour, the companion post highlights everything you need to know before you go to Chernobyl.
Chernobyl Tour Meeting Point
Every Chernobyl tour operator has their own meeting point, but most are located close to metro stations in Kiev’s city center. My tour was organized by Chernobyl Welcome, who meet at 8:00 am at the KFC on the southwest side of Kiev’s Central Railway Station (Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi). Two restaurants within easy walking distance of KFC were open early and serving breakfast at 7:00 am – McDonalds and Puzata Hata. The former is on the opposite side of the parking lot (but the same side of the train station – don’t cross the tracks) while Puzata Hata was directly in front of our bus’ parking spot.
Chernobyl Welcome had a greeter standing in front of KFC with a company sign. He met each traveler, checked their names against a list and walked them across the street to the correct vehicle. There, I met my guide, paid the remainder of the tour cost, put my bag in the back of the bus and chose my seat on board.
My tour company used small passenger vans as the primary mode of transportation during the tour. Although there was seating for about twenty people, the group size was capped at fifteen so we had some empty seats (the entire back row). I suggest that solo travelers choose one of the single seats beside the windows, but not the first one inside the door because everyone will have to climb over you to get on and off the bus. If you’re a couple, any of the double seats are fine. Our van’s interior was air-conditioned and had overhead storage (best for small purses and daypacks, as loose bottles tended to roll down and hit people in the head).
Other Chernobyl tour companies meet at different locations. Chernobyl-Tour meets about one block north along the same street as Chernobyl Welcome, while SoloEast Tours meet at the McDonalds in Independence Square.
Entering the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Kiev is approximately one hundred kilometers from Chernobyl, so your trip begins with about ninety minutes of drive time. Your guide will begin by distributing a pamphlet about the disaster and outlining the rules for your tour. There are a few super-important rules:
- Follow the dress code (read more about my dress code experiences below!)
- Do not drink alcohol (except at the hotel during designated drinking times)
- Do not smoke or use drugs
- Do not touch buildings, objects, plants or the ground
Then, your guide will turn on the documentary called “The Battle of Chernobyl”. This documentary film explores the events that led to the Chernobyl disaster and the efforts to mitigate the impact in the hours, days, weeks, months and years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. I found the film absolutely fascinating, as I was both very interested in the staffing processes and chain of command issues that led to the initial explosion taking place, and I was also horrified when I learned about the “bio-robots” – humans who were sent in to clean up the site after the radiation became too much for the mechanical robots. I suppose that I knew about these “liquidators” in the back of my mind, but hearing them be called “biorobots” and understanding that they were literally sent into conditions too hostile for actual robots was really upsetting to me. As I watched more of the film I actually started to regret my decision to sign up for a Chernobyl tour.
Fortunately, before I threw myself off the tour bus we made a quick pit stop at a local gas station with clean toilets and snacks for purchase. They were totally overwhelmed when several tours arrived at the same time, and we had to wait quite a while to purchase any food or drink. It’s much better to bring some snacks with you from Kiev, but if you must purchase them here then you can speed things up by having cash.
After the gas station it’s just a few more minutes on the bus until you reach the entrance to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. You will be allowed to get off the bus while your guide takes care of paperwork. There are some toilets here, along with a gift shop operated by Chernobyl-Tour. You are allowed to take photos of the surroundings, but not of the actual military checkpoint.
When your guide has cleared the paperwork with the security staff, your driver will pull the bus ahead and everyone on the tour will cross into the zone on foot, confirming their identity by showing their passport to one of the soldiers. If all goes well, everyone will make it inside and your Chernobyl tour will officially begin!
Chernobyl Tour: Day One
No two Chernobyl tours are the same. Guides and tour operators work closely together to space out groups across the entire exclusion zone, staggering their arrival times at the main touristic sights. This helps the site to feel just as abandoned and isolated as you would expect.
The first stop on my own Chernobyl tour was Zalesye, a tiny village just inside the boundaries of the exclusion zone. Here, we walked along a dense forest path to what remained of the town’s buildings, including an auditorium, houses and a school.
Since 2012, it has been illegal to enter buildings inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Accordingly, “I found all interior photos online”.
You can see from these interior photos that there is some logic behind not letting tourists explore inside the buildings, where the floors are often filled with holes and covered with broken glass.
In Zalesye, we quickly learned one of the secrets of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone: All of those evocative forgotten items have been carefully moved to the most striking photographic locations. It’s true that they were left behind when the villages were abandoned, but when the site was later opened to tourists those items were moved to create more of a narrative. Nobody left their English textbook delicately perched on their windowsill, and nobody threw their gas mask into a pile on the floor before boarding one of the evacuation buses.
Chernobyl Open-Air Museum of Machinery
Our next stop was the Chernobyl Open-Air Museum of Machinery. Here, we stood a safe distance away from the equipment we’d seen in the documentary on our bus. These machines included the “mobot”, shown above, which was used to push highly radioactive debris off of the rooftop at the nuclear power plant. When the radiation eventually rendered the mobot useless, human “biorobots” were sent in to finish the job. Radiation levels were so high that they were only allowed to remain on the rooftop for forty-five seconds at a time.
All of the equipment in the museum is still highly radioactive, as indicated by the yellow warning signs. It’s essential that you follow your guide’s instructions and stay behind the barriers at the museum.
The third stop on the first day of our Chernobyl tour was Kopachi Village. Kopachi was larger than Zalesye so there was more to see here, and it was spread over a larger area.
Apparently, most people head to Kopachi to climb on board its abandoned buses, which were made famous in a recent video game (I can’t remember if it was Call of Duty or S.T.A.L.K.E.R as I’m not a gamer…). Our guide told us that people sneak into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone especially to spend the night on board one of these buses.
They are braver travelers than me.
I drew the line at gingerly stepping into one bus and looking around before quickly heading back to the (relative) safety of the surrounding fields. That being said, I see the appeal of the Technicolor bus interior.
For most of your Chernobyl tour you will stay in close proximity to your guide, but Kopachi Village was one area where we could explore more freely, walking about one hundred meters away from our guide without concern. There were some buildings still standing, along with some abandoned farming equipment.
From here, we got back on the bus and drove towards the center of Kopachi, which was similar to Zalesye but more developed. Our first stop was the town’s famous abandoned kindergarten.
The kindergarten was deeply moving. Even though the items left inside had obviously been moved to create particular photo opportunities, it was evident that they had once belonged to the children of the village. Our hearts ached to think of the children who stayed in the village for one, two or three days after the nuclear meltdown due to the inefficiencies and dishonesty of the government at the time.
Kopachi Village was also where our guide introduced us to one of our first nuclear hotspots. These are places where the nuclear radiation levels remain dangerously high, and they’re usually invisible to the naked eye. It’s essential that you stay with your guide throughout your Chernobyl tour, as something as innocuous as a tree trunk or stone could be emitting life-threatening levels of radiation.
The Chernobyl Sacophagus & New Safe Confinement
On our way to lunch we made a quick stop at the monument in front of Reactor #4. Today, the actual reactor is covered by the New Safe Confinement, a domed structure built on top of the former sarcophagus that initially covered the source of the radioactive disaster. Construction on the New Safe Confinement started in 2010 and it is estimated that when it is completely finished the total costs could reach as high as €2,000,000,000. Yes, that’s two billion euros.
For security reasons, vehicles are not allowed to stop at this monument for long. Make sure you have your camera ready before you get off the van, and take your photos as quickly as possible!
The Chernobyl Cooling Tower
After lunch, we took a short drive and then set out into the forest, following the train tracks to one of my Chernobyl tour highlights: the cooling towers. These unfinished structures were built to cool the water in Reactors #5 and #6, which were never operational due to the disaster striking before they were ready for use.
Inside the tower, a graffiti artist has sprayed a harrowing recreation of a photo depicting Igor Kostin, a photographer from Kiev who was one of the few photographers allowed to take photos in the disaster zone in the days immediately following the meltdown.
I was so blown away by my surroundings that I accidentally let my guard down in the cooling towers. In the quest for the perfect Facebook profile photo, I accidentally touched one of the cement pillars holding up the structure.
I am happy to report that two months later I don’t appear to have acute radiation sickness, but I did feel pretty dumb for making such a stupid mistake. Logic tells me that lots of people must touch way more stuff, and that the pillars have surely been washed clean by two decades of rain (according to my guide!) but I still felt my heart skip more than one beat when I realized what I’d done. Chernobyl is safe to visit if you follow the rules, but for any traveler with even a little bit of anxiety, one wrong move can keep your mind from resting for weeks. Please, be more careful than I was!
From the cooling towers we headed towards the river to some abandoned science laboratories. Our guide explained that they used to experiment on mink (in the cages shown above, on the left) and they also experimented on aquatic creatures like fish and lizards.
Oddly, some of the remaining specimens appeared to be stored in food containers (don’t tell me that blue jar wasn’t meant for mayonnaise!). If ever there was a time I was glad to be a vegetarian, it was after seeing all these twenty-year-old “creatures”.
The Duga – Soviet Radar System
Should I be embarrassed that I had actually never heard of The Duga before I went to Chernobyl? Either way, I had no idea that there was a giant Soviet radar system in Chernobyl, and I had no idea that I was going to see it until I turned a corner and found myself face-to-face with the structure that towers ninety meters high and seven hundred and fifty meters long.
The objective of the Duga radar system was to notify the Soviet Union of incoming ballistic missiles, and it was pointed directly at the United States. The system was so powerful that it messed with radio signals all across Europe, despite the Soviet Union denying its existence right up until 1989. There are still conspiracy theories about the radar to this day, with some people believing it was actually part of an elaborate Soviet mind control operation…
We also had the opportunity to explore the radar’s command center and training center. These buildings had once been elaborately decorated, inspired by Soviet exploration into the cosmos, but today they are just as crumbling and abandoned as the rest of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
And with that, our first day in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone came to a close. We jumped back in the van and drove to Chernobyl Town, where our hotel for the night would await.
Our Hotel in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
We were exhausted by the time we finally reached our hotel. We were booked into Hotel Desiatka, which is considered to be the best hotel in the town of Chernobyl. It’s not much to look at from the outside, but I was pleasantly surprised by how clean and comfortable the accommodations were.
Chernobyl Welcome offered travelers the option of paying a single supplement, but they couldn’t guarantee single rooms if the hotel happened to be full. During our visit the hotel was full, so I’m glad I didn’t bother to pay extra to sleep alone. Instead, I shared a simple double room with the only other solo female on my trip. It was perfectly adequate, with clean linens, two towels per person, an electrical outlet beside each bed and a few places to hang our clothes around the room.
(As an aside, there was a couple on our trip who apparently wanted to conceive a child – loudly – in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. They were really rude to our guide when they weren’t able to get a room with a queen-sized bed. You’re in a literal nuclear disaster zone. You take what you can get, folks, and there’s no need to be rude to the guide or hotel staff about it. If you’re looking for a romantic getaway, consider an alternate destination.)
The hotel had several shared bathrooms in each section of the hallway (left, right, upstairs and downstairs). There was never a queue, and with a little trial and error you could always find a shower stall with hot (not just warm, I mean hot!) water.
Due to military regulations, once you check into the hotel for the evening you are not allowed to leave the hotel grounds until the next day. Although I was quite tired (I believe I walked about 20,000 steps on the first day of our Chernobyl tour) I wasn’t really ready to go to bed immediately after dinner. The hotel has some outdoor seating but it was mostly filled with smokers and a few street dogs that looked less than healthy, so I didn’t want to spend much time out there. Fortunately, the hotel had (slow) WiFi, so I was able to upload a few pictures to Facebook and catch up on the news before I fell asleep around nine o’ clock.
Food and Drink in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
As you may recall, I am a vegetarian. Going into the tour I wasn’t sure how dire the food situation would be, but I was prepared to tough it out for two days if need be. In fact, I visited a supermarket in Kiev and picked up a few granola bars (which turned out to be gross, but that’s another story…) in case that ended up being all I could eat. Fortunately, Chernobyl Welcome and their partners were well-equipped to serve me some surprisingly good food (for a nuclear disaster zone!).
For me, eating at the actual Chernobyl Power Plant workers’ cafeteria was one of the highlights of our trip. Although the nuclear power plant is now closed, there are still workers doing various jobs throughout the area. On Day 1, our tour visited the cafeteria for lunch. Before we could go upstairs to the food service area we had to pass through body scanners that checked each person for radiation. Then, we grabbed trays and walked down the line as the smiling cafeteria matrons loaded more and more food onto our plates.
Food options inside the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone are limited, so you need to communicate your dietary restrictions to your tour operator in advance (and confirm again on the morning of departure). Before the tour I let my guide know that I was a vegetarian, so there was a modified vegetarian meal waiting for me in the cafeteria. Everyone got a vegetarian soup and salad dish, while I was served the main course without the meat, plus some extra fruit. There was also bread on the side, and two different types of fruit compote to drink. It was way more food than I needed for lunch, but I appreciated the vegetarian option and the kind service. (Please note that the cafeteria staff absolutely do not want their photos taken. Please respect their wishes.)
For the rest of our Chernobyl tour, we ate our meals in our hotel’s restaurant. I wasn’t as impressed by the food here, but it was passable. For dinner on the first day we had salad and rice pilaf (mine was meatless, but the regular version had meat). Breakfast the next morning was a simple omelet with some sliced vegetables and bread. I forgot to take a photo of our lunch on the second day, but it was a hearty stew of vegetables and potatoes (including a lot of mushrooms… I tried not to think about where they might have been grown!) with some more bread and compote. The regular stew was made with meat, but mine was cooked separately.
There is a small Soviet-era supermarket in the town of Chernobyl that is still operational. You can purchase a few souvenirs here, along with simple drinks and snacks. Our tour stopped by on the first night (to grab beers) and the next morning (to replenish our bottled water supplies). I bought a bottle of radler here, but when I went to drink it I discovered it had some chunks that were way too reminiscent of the science laboratory specimens for me to handle, and I ended up pouring it down the sink in our hotel. You can also buy draft beer in the hotel restaurant, but only from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm as per military rules.
Chernobyl Tour: Day Two
The Abandoned Town of Pripyat
And now, what you’ve all been waiting for!
People ask about the difference between a one-day tour of Chernobyl and a two-day tour of Chernobyl. Yes, on the two-day tour you get to visit more locations inside the Exclusion Zone, but in my opinion, the best thing about the two-day tour is the extended amount of time you get to spend in Pripyat. Once home to almost 50,000 residents, Pripyat was less than three kilometers from the nuclear power plant, and its residents were among the most affected by the disaster. Today, it is a ghost town that is home to dozens of iconic, abandoned locations.
Pripyat Apartment Blocks
Our tour started with a visit to some of the city’s apartment blocks. The elevators were no longer functional, so anyone wanting to reach the rooftop for a panoramic view of the region would have to climb sixteen floors on foot, dodging dangerous debris at every turn. Of course, I would never do this, as it has been illegal to enter buildings in the Zone since 2012…
On a clear morning, the apartment roof offers views over the town of Pripyat all the way to the nuclear reactor and the New Safe Confinement at Reactor #4. It is abundantly clear just how close Pripyat was to the disaster, making it all the more shocking that the town wasn’t evacuated until two days after the explosion.
Pripyat Basketball Court & Swimming Pool
Our second stop in Pripyat was the town’s recreation facilities, including the abandoned basketball court and the abandoned swimming pool. Here, everyone on my tour self-organized so that we were all on the same side of the facility at the same time, allowing us to capture some great photos without any people in them.
Abandoned School in Pripyat
There are two different grammar schools that can be visited in Pripyat – #1 and #3. They have more items inside than the kindergarten in Kopachi, including furniture, teaching resources and children’s possessions. This is also where you can see some of the biggest collections of gas masks, like the pile shown above. Of course, visitors need to remember that these gas masks weren’t actually abandoned in a massive pile in the middle of a classroom. The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster occurred at the height of the Cold War, when every Soviet building was well-equipped with gas masks in case of attacks from the West. The masks weren’t of any use during the nuclear disaster, so they were left behind when Pripyat was evacuated. Years later, they were moved to central areas around the site to create photo opportunities for visitors.
Pripyat Hospital and Morgue
Awkward moment: Our tour guide tells us that we’re going to the mall, and loudly say, “Cool!” Everyone gives me a weird look, but I’m not surprised that a bunch of gamer boys would think it was weird that I was excited about going to the mall. We walk over to the mall and I’m surprised by how small it is. And how far from the center it is. And how many weird, slab-like beds it had. Yes, you guessed it. Our guide didn’t say “mall”… he said “morgue”.
As it would turn out, the morgue was probably more safe than the hospital, which is home to one of the most dangerous nuclear hotpots in the entire Zone. In the twenty-four hours immediately following the disaster, local first responders were brought to the Pripyat hospital, covered in radioactive material. Their clothing, and the rags used to clean their bodies, were thrown into the hospital basement. When the village was evacuated, the radioactive fabric was simply left behind. It still emits seriously dangerous doses of radiation today, and some brave stupid rogue explorers brought a bucket of rags up to the ground floor, where your guide will measure the dangerous radiation levels with their Geiger counter for all to see.
Pripyat City Center
Thoroughly grossed out, we left the small, dingy buildings for the wide open spaces of Pripyat’s former town center. We started by looking at some of the entertainment hubs, like the Prometheus Cinema (shown above) and the Arts School, both of which had stunning Soviet mosaics on their facades.
From here, we walked past one of the old administrative buildings for the nuclear power plant (with its foreboding “radioactive” sign still affixed above its front door) to the town’s hotel and cultural center. I hope you appreciate the shot I took under the curved walkway, as I got stung by an inch-long Chernobyl Bee while I was taking it. The bee then proceeded to terrorize the rest of my tour group until we left the area.
Pripyat Amusement Park
One of our final stops in Pripyat was the famous Pripyat Amusement Park. I was very surprised to learn that the park had never actually been fully operational. Rather, it was scheduled to open on May 1st, 1986, just five days after disaster struck Chernobyl. Rumor has it that the local government briefly forced the park to open on April 27, in hopes of distracting local families from the events occurring just three kilometers away.
The Claw of Death
One of the final things we saw on our Chernobyl tour was The Claw of Death. This is one of the most radioactive objects left on the site, with radiation measurements reaching 336 µSv, which is way beyond the safe level. Our group (guide included) kept a safe distance from this object, so I had to find the radiation level online on the blog of someone who has illegally explored the zone by themselves. I’ve included a photo of my Geiger counter (Chernobyl Welcome offered one Geiger counter to share between two people, and I usually let my roommate hang on to it since I had no interest in pushing the limits of permissible radiation exposure), but I took that reading far away from The Claw.
Chernobyl Factories and Reactors 5 & 6
On Day 2 of our Chernobyl tour, we spent more than five hours walking around Pripyat and the surrounding areas. It was almost 3:00 pm by the time we returned to the hotel for lunch, and we were all pretty tired. I’m not going to lie… by 1:30 I had to pee so bad that I thought I was going to die, and I was too scared to venture off the marked path into the potentially-radioactive grasses to pee in the woods. So, I didn’t take too many photos at our final stops, which included an abandoned factory and Reactors #5 and #6, two reactors that were under construction at the time #4 exploded. Still, I thought they were were among the most photogenic places we visited during the trip.
Our tour ended in the town of Chernobyl, a few blocks away from our hotel. Our guide took us to see some of the monuments that were erected in the town after the accident, including the Wormwood Star, the Alley of Memory and Hope (where each sign commemorates a town or village that had to be abandoned after the disaster) and a monument of paper cranes (a universal symbol of hope and healing). There was also a recent memorial commemorating the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011.
As my own tour came to a close and we prepared to return to Kiev, I realized that there was one thing I still wanted to do in Chernobyl. Although I had purchased postcards inside the Exclusion Zone (at the supermarket in Chernobyl town), I had resigned myself to having to mail them upon our return to Kiev. Until, that is, I noticed what appeared to be a mailbox on the wall at the town’s unstaffed post office. I had brought my own stamps with me (see my complete Chernobyl packing list in my other Chernobyl post) and was able to quickly duck across the street to mail the postcards from inside the Zone. I figured it was fifty-fifty that they’d ever arrived, but worth the risk, and I was pleased to hear that they did finally arrive in Canada about five weeks after my Chernobyl tour.
Our tour van made one final stop at our hotel in Chernobyl, where our guide ducked inside and picked up a souvenir t-shirt for every visitor. Shirts were available in male and female cuts, and sizes tended to run a little bit small (I wear a small t-shirt at The Gap in North America, but the medium souvenir shirt was slim-fitting on me). If you’re a traveler of size, ask for your shirt to be a generous one or two sizes larger than you usually wear.
Returning to Kiev
We departed for Kiev at about 4:00 pm, stopping briefly along the way to photograph some abandoned ships in the Pripyat River.
A few minutes later we passed through the final radiation checkpoint. Here, we left our bags on board the bus and walked inside the checkpoint to have our bodies scanned by the same type of machine that we first encountered in the cafeterias. Fortunately, everyone in my group was given the all-clear and we were all able to leave quickly.
While we were scanning our bodies, members of the Ukrainian military were scanning the inside and outside of our van, including the bags we’d left on board. It’s so important that you don’t put your bag on the ground at Chernobyl, as the guards here will confiscate your possession if they pick up radioactive materials that can’t be wiped or washed off.
Again, we were lucky and our vehicle was quickly approved to leave the Nuclear Exclusion Zone. From here, it was mostly a quiet ride back to Kiev as we looked at our photos and read the informational pamphlets provided by Chernobyl Welcome. We arrived at the meeting place shortly after 6:00 pm, and with that, the tour was over.
Bonus: Kiev Travel Tips
I stayed at Dream House Hostel in Kiev. This hotel has a lot amenities, including an on-site restaurant and bar, a full kitchen, laundry facilities and a comfortable lounge. They also offer great activities, including an evening walking tour (which is great in the summer heat) and bar crawls. Dream House is located at the base of Andriyivskyy Descent, the most iconic street in Kiev.
If you would rather stay in a hostel, I would recommend looking for one in the same neighborhood. If you prefer independent hotels, BURSA Hotel Kiev is a trendy boutique hotel with a complimentary a la carte breakfast. The Radisson Blu Podil is also nearby, and it offers guests amenities including a fitness center and continental breakfast.
Kiev is full of excellent, affordable restaurants, including many that offer vegetarian and vegan options (clearly labelled, on English menus, to boot!). Read all about my culinary adventures in Kiev.
Inspired to visit Chernobyl? Seriously, you need to read my guide to preparing for a tour to Chernobyl.
Have you been to Chernobyl? What was your favorite part of the experience? Let me know in the comments!