I don’t know what to tell you about Uman, Ukraine.
I ended up in Uman because I was “slow traveling” across Ukraine and found myself with a few extra days between Odessa and Kiev. I read that Uman was a logical stopping point between the two cities, so I added it (along with Vinnytsia and Zhytomyr) to my itinerary. My guidebook said that Uman had a lovely park and I was happy to have the chance to stretch my legs after spending a few days in Odessa, which is lovely but not really walking-friendly.
My hotel in Uman was just a little bit too far away from the bus station to walk with my backpack (without my pack it would have been fine), so I asked a taxi driver to take me to my hotel.
As we began driving, he turned to me, pointed and shouted, “TEL AVIV! TEL AVIV!”
I was quite confused. I smiled and said, “Nyet. Ya iz Canada.”
This did not satisfy my taxi driver. He continued to yell, “TEL AVIV! TEL AVIV!”
This didn’t seem like the time to argue, so I smiled and said, “Horosho.”
(I don’t actually speak Ukrainian or Russian, but I’ve picked up a few survival phrases during my travels.)
We drove on for a few more blocks, seemingly at an impasse, until we turned a corner and the landscape changed. Suddenly, I was not seeing the Cyrillic alphabet that I had become accustomed to. Instead, all of the written word around me was in Hebrew – a language I very much could not read.
My taxi driver pointed at some men on the sidewalk and once again shouted, “TEL AVIV! TEL AVIV!”
Doing a double take as we drove past, I realized that the men he was pointing at were Hasidic Jews, with long beards and a black kippah on their heads.
Between the taxi driver’s shouting, the Hebrew signage and the Jewish men on the street, I realized that I had stumbled across a city that would offer some very unexpected surprises. A quick Google search in the back of the taxi informed me that I was only a few meters from one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Hasidic Jews, and that the business of religious tourism had long overtaken the business of “we have a pretty park” tourism. I learned that Uman is home to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and that while it sees tourists year-round, if my visit had happened during Rosh Hashanah I might have been joined by more than 40,000 other visitors (almost entirely men!) who visit the site each year on the Jewish New Year.
In the end I spent about thirty-six hours in Uman, which was ample time to visit the park, chat with a few people at Rabbi Nachman’s tomb, explore the city center and seriously reflect on the pros and cons of visiting Uman, Ukraine.
Hotels in Uman, Ukraine
There are three main types of Uman hotels: typical Soviet-style hotels (and mini-hotels), Hebrew-speaking hotels targeting Jewish pilgrims, and hotel complexes outside of the center that cater to families and special events. If that sounds appealing to you, awesome! If that doesn’t sound appealing, well, at least hotel rooms are cheap…
Fortecya Hotel, Uman
I stayed at the Fortecya Hotel in Uman. I chose it because I had a hard time understanding the town’s layout from online maps, and I read a review that mentioned that although Fortecya Hotel wasn’t right in the center, it also wasn’t too far away from the action. I figured that it was a safe bet, and while it wasn’t super convenient, it was fine for a one night stay… and it was so cheap!
Fortesya Hotel is about one mile, or one and a half kilometers, from central Uman. Situated right on the river, it has some gardens behind the hotel and apparently hosts weddings and other special events. There is ample outdoor parking here, and it’s on such a quiet little street that I would imagine it’s very safe. My private double room is shown above. Clearly, it was very simple, but it also cost less than $15 USD, including a hot breakfast (eggs, toast, some vegetables and black coffee). You can definitely walk into the center (I did, twice!) or you can take a short footpath (uphill, but it’s like, two minutes) to a bus stop where regular local minibuses run into the town center.
If you would prefer to stay right in the center and you’re not on a pilgrimage, Uman Hotel is probably your best option. It has a nice, central location close to shops, restaurants and the daily market, and it has a wide selection of room types ranging from rooms with shared bathrooms to spacious suites. Uman Hotel is often sold out, so grab a room while you can, or consider Fortesya Hotel a solid alternative.
(Randomly, there is also a hotel called Uman Hotel in Finland. My link will take you to Uman, Ukraine hotels, but if you’re not using my link, make sure you’re not accidentally booking a room in Finland!)
Hotels for Pilgrimages to Uman
There are a number of hotels and apartment rentals specifically designed for pilgrims coming to worship at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslev. These hotels are located close to the pilgrimage site and usually have Hebrew-speaking staff. My top hotel recommendation for pilgrims to Rabbi Nachman’s tomb is Hoshen Hotel, which has modern facilities, staff who speak Hebrew and a restaurant serving highly-regarded kosher food. Book Hoshen Hotel early, as it tends to sell out quickly.
If Hoshen Hotel is unavailable, Hotel Melania is also within two blocks of the rabbi’s tomb, while Berki Home may be the closest apartment rental to the site. There are several kosher supermarkets and restaurants within easy walking distance of all three.
Things to Do in Uman, Ukraine
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Uman actually had some signage directing tourists to the town’s few tourist attractions. As you can see, the following tourist attractions are identified:
- The tomb of Rabbi Nachman
- Sofiyivka Park
- The obelisk
- The Pearl of Love fountain
- The market
It’s pretty hard to wander around Uman without stumbling across all of these tourist attractions. I hit up most of them during my visit, and I’ll share my opinions and experiences below.
Sofiyivka Park and Dendrological Research Center
The main reason I visited Uman was to see Sofiyivka Park, as my Lonely Planet guidebook hyped it up big-time:
Sofia Pototsky was a legendary beauty, and Uman’s stunning park is her husband Count Felix’s monument to her physical perfection. Having bought Sofia for two million zloty from her former husband… the Polish count set to landscaping this 150-hectare site with grottoes, lakes, waterfalls, fountains, pavilions and 500 species of tree. The result, completed in 1802, was Ukraine’s answer to Versailles.
I’ve never been to Versailles, but I’m pretty sure that’s it a wee bit nicer than Sofiyivka Park. As you can see, the park didn’t have particularly interesting gardens (and the gardens that existed weren’t maintained very well), and the fountains and sculptures were nothing special. Apparently it is something of a dendrological research center, so if you’re super-obsessed with Tree Science you can contact the park in advance to organize an English-language Tree Tour (expect to pay about $30 USD). Also, if you’re super-obsessed with Tree Science, please tell me all about your obsession in the comments. Otherwise, regular admission is about $2 USD, or 60 hryvnia.
A few weeks earlier I’d visited the gardens at Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, where admission was free but the gardens and grounds were spectacular, so Sofiyivka Park felt like an even bigger let-down in comparison. I wandered from one end of the park to the other in less than two hours, and left thinking, “I came all the way to Uman for that?”
Traditional Architecture in Uman
See that blue building? That is my most-stolen pin on Pinterest!
When I left Sofiyivka Park, I wandered back to Uman’s city center along some side streets. This led me through residential communities and towards the tomb of Rabbi Nachman (more on that below). Although there wasn’t a lot to see, there were some pretty buildings that ranged from the blue, corrugated-metal house with floral curtains, to the pink palace that might be a dentists’ office (or a dental school?) based on my amateur reading of that sign. Off of the main streets, residents appeared surprised to have a foreign tourist wandering along their streets.
Uman’s City Center
That’s the obelisk. There you go.
I did have a bit of a soft spot for Uman’s town center, as it genuinely felt like it was straight out of 1985. In addition to some single-story shops and a few little public plazas and very small parks, there is also an old tank commemorating World War 2 and the turquoise church shown below.
This is not too far from the market stalls, which I would argue are not a tourist attraction in their own right. If you’ve never been to an Eastern European market you might enjoy poking around and taking a few photos while they’re open in the morning and early afternoon, but otherwise you can feel free to skip Uman’s markets.
The Pearl of Love Fountain
Uman’s Pearl of Love Fountain opened shortly before my visit to Uman, and I don’t think there was any English-language press coverage of the fountain at the time I visited. Thus, I didn’t know it existed and I didn’t go to see it. However, my understanding is that it is very similar to the summertime fountain show in nearby Vinnytsia, where lights, sounds and water are used to create some evening entertainment around 9:00 pm. In fact, I stole that photo from my own post about Vinnytsia.
Uman’s city council says the Pearl of Love fountain will operate nightly from early May through late September, on Ostashevske Lake (visible on Google Maps as “Ostashivs’kyi Stav”).
Hasidic Judaism in Uman, Ukraine
I need to preface this part of my post by saying that I’m not Jewish and I know very little about Judaism, so I might use the wrong words (or an alternate spelling – I tried to rely on Wikipedia) when discussing Rabbi Nachman and the pilgrimage site in Uman. If you think I’ve misspoke, please let me know in the comments!
As I mentioned in my introduction, when I planned my trip to Uman I was unaware that the town was a major pilgrimage site for many Hasidic Jews. However, my taxi driver’s shouting quickly alerted me to this side of Uman’s tourism industry.
As I understand it, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov founded the Breslov branch of Hasidic Judaism in the early 1800s, and for the next few years he grew his following and spread his teachings (which are much better explained by Wikipedia than by me). He moved to Uman in 1810, at the age of thirty-eight, but tragically died from illness later that year. As Nachman did not name a successor, he is still considered to be the leader and figurehead of Breslov Hasidism, more than two hundred years later. Today, followers of Breslov Hasidism flock to Uman to visit the site where Nachman is buried, trickling in year-round and flooding into the city in massive numbers during an annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage.
Visiting Rabbi Nachman’s Tomb as a Female Traveler
My first stop was the actual site of Nachman’s tomb. All of the signage was in Cyrillic and Hebrew, and at first I wasn’t even sure if I could enter the site as a non-Jewish female. A security guard did flag me through the narrow front gates, and after following a short path I found myself in a courtyard with a few tables selling religious goods (books, icons, candles, etc.) and soliciting donations.
I was a little hesitant in approaching the men working at the tables out of fear of seeming rude or ignorant, but after a few minutes of pretending to look at the goods for sale, I just came out and said, “I’m not Jewish and I don’t really know anything about this place… can you tell me anything?”
The man was really nice and he briefly explained that I was at the tomb of an important Hasidic rabbi and that people came from all around the world to visit. He also asked if I was married, and when I said that I wasn’t he asked if he could perform a blessing so that I could find a husband. I agreed, he asked my mother’s name, did a bit of blessing in Hebrew, did a bit of blessing in English and pointed me towards the women’s prayer area.
As a female, I was not allowed to enter the part of the site where Rabbi Nachman’s actual tomb is located (I think?). I truly don’t know a lot about Judaism, but it appeared that women were relegated to something of a “study room”, with rows of pews set up with many different religious texts available for reading. There were only women and children in this room, and they seemed equally divided between religious reflection and browsing Instagram. After spending a few minutes here, I left the complex and went out to the surrounding neighborhood.
As I left the area, I happened across some other foreign visitors. I don’t know exactly where they were from, but they were an older couple and they were speaking… and shouting… and even crying… in French. From what I could understand, the woman was very angry about not being allowed to visit the actual tomb itself. It did not seem negotiable, and the security staff were avoiding eye contact with the couple. Again, if you’re a female traveler and visiting Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s tomb site is very important to you, please contact someone locally to confirm what opportunities are available for women.
(By the way, that blessing DID NOT WORK.)
Exploring Pushkina Street and the Neighborhood Around Rabbi Nachman’s Tomb
I have never visited Israel, so I have very little experience with the Hebrew language and alphabet. At first, I was shocked to see that there was an entire neighborhood in Uman, Ukraine that operated almost entirely in Hebrew. However, as I spent more time in the streets around Rabbi Nachman’s tomb it became clear that this was the language that best met the community’s needs. Wikipedia notes (but does not cite) the fact that an increasing number of Jewish families have recently immigrated to Uman from Hasidic communities in Israel and the United States, and that a Hebrew school may be opened shortly.
Since I can’t read most of the signs posted above, I can only guess as to what they’re advertising. I didn’t need to read Hebrew to see what kind of shops and services had popped on the streets around Rabbi Nachman’s tomb, including kosher supermarkets, kosher cafes and souvenir shops. Interesting, most of these businesses operated exclusively in US dollars, and at prices comparable to their US counterparts (see Ukraine’s Most Expensive Smoothie, below). I asked around online about the prevalence of US dollars in this neighborhood, and heard some interesting ideas. One person mentioned that a lot of pilgrims will travel directly from the airport to Uman via tour bus, and not stop at a currency exchange or visit any other part of the country. This answer definitely makes logical sense, and it highlights how religious tourism has overtaken other forms of tourism as the key money-maker in Uman.
Though I’m still not sold on Souvenirs Trump.
Restaurants in Uman, Ukraine
Uman’s restaurant scene leaves a lot to be desired. Restaurant options in town are few and far between, while the cottage-style restaurants dotting the countryside around town have erratic opening hours and limited menu options. On my first day in Uman I actually struggled to find anywhere to eat lunch, which is a rare occurrence in my travels. Fortunately I only had to seek out two (and a half?) restaurants in Uman (one for lunch, one for dinner and one for a mid-afternoon snack) because Fortesya Hotel included breakfast in its room rate.
Fortunately, I stumbled across a lovely restaurant in Uman. Moya Pasta is a small Italian restaurant where the food is cooked fresh to order, in an open kitchen that you can see from your table. It was very clear that the staff cared about the food and service, and I really enjoyed my fresh pasta salad dish (especially because the sauteed mushrooms and pasta were still warm). Their menu includes pizzas, Italian-style pastas, Asian-inspired noodle stir-fries, big salads and more. Moya Pasta is about two blocks away from the central bus station on Shevchenka Street.
I’m sorry you have to see that photo, but rest assured that as bad as it looks, it actually tasted worse. Again, dining options in Uman were very limited, and I found myself at Pizza Celentano for dinner. I ordered the vegetarian pizza, which clearly came with an assortment of watery frozen vegetables strewn on top (plus, they charged me extra for cheese, even though the menu said it came with cheese?). Pizza Celentano felt more like a fast food restaurant than a real sit-down option, but it was open, the pizza had no meat and I was hungry. In retrospect, I would have rather gone back to Moya Pasta for a second meal.
Y’all, this “smoothie” from Uman Shake cost FIVE US DOLLARS. And it was nothing but frozen fruit (strawberries and mango) blended with water! Water! Two smoothies = one night in an Uman hotel room!
I couldn’t resist having a smoothie from one of the numerous smoothie restaurants near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and considering the prices (which were all posted in US dollars) I was expecting them to be significantly more interesting, maybe with some plant-based milks, natural sweeteners or even superfood powders. But no, it was frozen fruit and water, blended together, for five dollars. I would imagine that prices are similar at all the smoothie places on this street, so you really need to decide just how badly you need that nutrient boost. If you can wait, I’d recommend checking out the smoothie list at Momo instead (more details on my post about vegetarian food in Kiev).
More Restaurants in Uman
One of the top-rated restaurants in Uman is Frantsuz Restaurant, according to TripAdvisor. However, I had difficulty reading the menu (which was only in Ukrainian) and the staff couldn’t be bothered to welcome me or ask if I needed help with anything. Considering they were otherwise empty, a simple “hello” would have gone a long way. I also noticed a restaurant called Black Bull that was open, but I assumed it wouldn’t be a top choice for vegetarians and didn’t look at the menu.
The Bus from Kiev to Uman, Ukraine
Personally, I traveled from Odessa, Ukraine to Uman, Ukraine via a regular intercity bus. It wasn’t especially comfortable (and certainly didn’t have any services like onboard WiFi or complimentary snacks…) but it got me from Point A to Point B and it wasn’t expensive. I will say that I was very glad I didn’t stay on the bus all the way to its final terminus… in Prague… a trip that takes almost thirty-six hours!
I booked all of my bus travel in the Ukraine on this website, which targets local travelers rather than foreign tourists. This site shows the dozens of daily departures between Kiev and Uman (mostly departing from the Central Bus Station at the Demiivska Square metro station) with an approximate travel time of four hours. Trips back to Kiev, or onward to other cities in Ukraine, will depart from the same bus station in Uman where you arrive, and there is a supermarket across the street from Uman’s bus station where you can stock up on snacks and drinks for your bus trip. No matter which bus you reserve, you should not pay more than 250 UAH (or, $10 USD) for the bus trip from Kiev to Uman.
Uman isn’t the only relatively-unknown town I visited while I was in Ukraine!
Check out my travel guides to Zhytomyr (home to a fascinating space exploration museum, and easily doable in a day from Kiev) and Vinnytsia (a nice overnight trip from Kiev if you like summer strolling by the river).