Three itineraries to help you plan a trip around Ukraine by train

My initial idea was to map out a comprehensive Ukraine-by-train itinerary. One that uses train travel between Ukraine’s towns and cities, and avoids journeys by cramped marshrutka or inconveniently-timed buses. I thought it would be straightforward to plan a train-only itinerary that started in Kyiv and looped around the country via Lviv, Odesa, Dnipro and Kharkiv, incorporating several other towns of interest. However, this turned out to be more of a challenge than I anticipated and the post has ended up a lot longer and with a lot more itinerary variations than I intended. We’ve taken a lot of trips by train in Ukraine, but they are usually interspersed with road travel and I now realise why that is!

Ukraine by train itinerariesLviv railway station

So what’s the problem?

During the day, fast intercity trains operate between Kyiv and Ukraine’s major cities, but when it comes to crisscrossing Ukraine by train things get more tricky and a lot slower. Train travel in Ukraine is cheap but can be excruciatingly sluggish on the more rural lines.

But train travel has an undeniable charm, and it conjures up images of unhurried and relaxed journeys. On a practical level, it is usually more comfortable (and safer) than road travel. We always opt for the train over bus travel and know that many travellers feel the same way.

In what follows, I’ll start with the simplest Ukraine-by-train itinerary and then build up to a journey that covers as much as possible but without too many crazy routings.

This isn’t a what-to-do post. Instead, it is a practical guide to planning an itinerary by train. I’ve included timings for the fastest trains with the most sociable timings but, as these are subject to change, you should double-check before finalising your plans. You can check timetables and also ticket availability on Ukraine Railways website.

All of these itineraries include at least one overnight journey. Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe and sleeper trains are the best way to cover large distances. We have mixed feeling about sleeping on trains; although many travellers are enthusiastic about them and backpackers actively opt for them as a way of saving money spent on a night’s accommodation, we sometimes find that we sleep so poorly, it’s a false economy because we need to book either a late check-in or early check-out, and take the best part of the day to recover. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice.

Please note there are seasonal changes to some train timetables and the example timings listed below are based on October/November 2020 schedules.

UKRAINE BY TRAIN ITINERARY 1: Ukraine’s ‘Golden Triangle’: Kyiv – Lviv – Odesa – Kyiv

A short, highlights-of-Ukraine itinerary visiting Ukraine’s three best-known destinations. Because of the vast distance involved in traversing Ukraine, this itinerary includes two overnight sleeper trains.

Ukraine by train Itinerary 1

Kyiv to Lviv

There are around ten trains a day between Kyiv and Lviv departing from Kyiv-Pasazhyrsky station. Most services leave in the late afternoon and evening and the most useful timings for travellers are 6:50 am / 1:45 pm (6 hours, 55 minutes) and 2:07 pm / 7:57 pm (5 hours, 50 minutes). There are also a handful of overnight services, arriving in Lviv in the early hours of the morning.

Lviv to Odesa

There are no daytime trains between Lviv and Odesa. A daily overnight service offers First (2 berths per compartment) and Second (4 berths per compartment) class carriages at 10:24 pm / 8:43 am (10 hours, 19 minutes).

On Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday there is a further overnight train which only has Second and Third class: 9:41 pm / 10:04 am (12 hours, 23 minutes).

Odesa to Kyiv

The overnight sleeper train from Odesa to Kyiv operates daily with First (2 berths per compartment) and Second (4 berths per compartment) class: 10:23 pm / 7:10 am (8 hours, 47 minutes).

Odessa Passage Odessa Ukraine-4Odesa – an overnight train journey away from Ukraine’s major cities

UKRAINE BY TRAIN ITINERARY 2: Ukraine’s best cities: Kyiv – Lviv – Odesa – Kharkiv – Kyiv

An extended version of the first itinerary, adding in Kharkiv. Although Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-largest city, it is often overlooked by tourists. One of our favourite things to do in Kharkiv is to visit the constructivist Derzhprom building on Freedom Square. The State Industry Building (Derzhprom) was constructed in the 1920s and is now on UNESCO’s tentative World Heritage List).

Ukraine by train Itinerary 2

Follow the Kyiv to Lviv and Lviv to Odesa steps in itinerary 1.

Odesa to Kharkiv

The Odesa to Kharkiv journey is another overnight train. There is a daily service at 10:40 pm / 10:05 am (11 hours, 25 minutes) and on Monday, Wednesday and Friday a second option: 7:21 pm / 8:31 am (13 hours, 10 minutes). Both have First and Second class sleeper carriages.

Kharkiv to Kyiv

There are around six trains each day between Kharkiv and Kyiv with InterCity express trains making the journey in less than five hours. Conveniently, they are spread throughout the day: 7:15 am / 12:01 pm (4 hours, 46 minutes), 1:11 pm / 5:56 pm (4 hours, 45 minutes) and 6:36 pm / 11:29 pm (4 hours, 53 minutes). There is also an overnight service if, by this point in the itinerary, you can’t get enough of sleeper trains!

History Museum of the Southern Railway Kharkiv Ukraine-4Visit Kharkiv by train and visit the History Museum of the Southern Railway

UKRAINE BY TRAIN ITINERARY 3: The ultimate rail trip: Kyiv – Vinnytsia – Chernivtsi – Ivano-Frankivsk – Lviv – Odesa – Dnipro – Zaporizhzhia – Kharkiv – Poltava – Kyiv

This is as close to an ultimate Ukraine by rail itinerary as I could conjure up. In addition to Ukraine’s most-visited cities, it gives you a chance to get off the beaten path whilst having the security of travelling by train which can be much easier to navigate than buses and marshrutkas if you’re not familiar with the country or speak the language. This route includes three overnight trains which provide budget travellers and backpackers with a good way to save money.

At a glance, this route may look illogical and you may be wondering why the itinerary backtracks to Lviv before continuing to Odesa.

I have become a lot more acquainted with Ukrainian railways timetables than I had intended so you’ll have to trust me when I say this is the more logical way to do things. Whilst there is an overnight train from Chernivtsi to Odesa, this train is a real slow chugger and the route goes via Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv, Ternopil and Khmelnytsky taking a ridiculous 18+ hours. That’s correct – back in the direction from which you’ve just come!

Excluding time in Kyiv, we recommend allowing at least 3 weeks for this itinerary. If you don’t have that long a shortened version could be Kyiv – Vinnytsia – Chernivtsi – Ivano-Frankivsk – Lviv – Odesa – Kharkiv – Kyiv. This would be manageable in a 2-week timeframe.

Ukraine by train Itinerary 3

Kyiv to Vinnytsia

Around eight or nine daily trains leave Kyiv-Pasazhyrsky station for Vinnytsia with the journey taking, on average, 2½ to 3 hours. Early risers will benefit from the shortest journey time (2 hours, 20 minutes) by taking the 06:50 am / 09:09 am InterCity service.

After the early morning option, most trains depart in the afternoon and evening. Good choices include the 2:55 pm / 5:44 pm (2 hours, 50 minutes) and 4:30 pm / 6:53 pm (2 hours, 25 minutes) services.

Vinnytsia to Chernivtsi

Take the overnight train from Vinnytsia to Chernivtsi: 11:07 pm / 07:57 am (8 hours, 50 minutes). Note this service only operates on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.

If you don’t relish the late departure, you could skip Vinnytsia and take an overnight train straight from Kyiv directly to Chernivtsi: Kyiv-Pasazhyrsky to Chernivtsi at 8:05 pm / 7:57 am (11 hours, 52 minutes) or 10:22 pm / 10:22 am (12 hours).

Palace Residence of Bukovinian and Dalmatian Metropolitans Chernivtsi University Chernivtsi Ukraine-6The Palace Residence of Bukovinian and Dalmatian Metropolitans at Chernivtsi University

Chernivtsi to Ivano-Frankivsk

Trains from Chernivtsi to Ivano-Frankivsk operate daily (except Thursdays) at 6:04 am / 7:58 pm (approx. 2 hours). An alternative is the 3:35 pm / 6:13 pm service (2 hours, 38 minutes), however, this one is not daily so check the schedule.

Ivano-Frankivsk to Lviv

There are several departures to Lviv, but a good option is the daily InterCity service which runs non-stop from Ivano-Frankivsk to Lviv: 9:05 am / 11:06 am (2 hours).

Lviv to Odesa

Take the overnight train from Lviv to Odesa, as detailed in Itinerary 1: 10:24 pm / 8:43 am (10 hours, 19 minutes).

Odesa to Dnipro

It’s another overnight train, so make sure you plan your itinerary so you have sufficient time in Odesa to recover from the previous journey and enjoy the city! The timings are 8:59 pm / 8:48 am (11 hours, 49 minutes), with a choice of First, Second or Third class sleeper carriages.

 

Poplavok Restaurant Dnipro Ukraine-1Dnipro will appeal to travellers with an interest in Soviet-era architecture

Dnipro to Zaporizhzhia

It’s a comparatively short journey from Dnipro to Zaporizhzhia and there are two options daily: 1:12 pm / 2:31 pm (1 hour, 19 minutes) and 6:58 pm / 8:26 pm (1 hour, 28 minutes).

Zaporizhzhia to Kharkiv

The next journey has truly horrible timings: 1:35 am / 5:58 am (4 hours, 23 minutes). Note this train has a fortnightly schedule, meaning that on week 1 trains run on a Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and week 2 on a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It’s a complicated system so I recommend double-checking online.

If these timings make you shudder, you can travel directly to Kharkiv from Odesa and skip Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia. These cities will appeal most to those travellers who are drawn to the Soviet legacy in Ukraine. If this is not you, consider this shortened version of the itinerary. Of course, the other option is to forgo the challenge of travelling only by train, and jump on a bus which will take a similar length of time, but with more sociable timings.

Kyiv’s main train station (left) and Ukraine’s railway in miniature at the Children’s Toy Railway in Dnipro (right)

Kharkiv to Poltava

Three intercity trains operate daily between Kharkiv and Poltava (continuing to Kyiv). They are 7:15 am / 8:53 am (1 hour, 38 minutes), 1:11 pm / 2:51 pm (1 hour, 40 minutes) and 6:36 pm / 8:15 pm (1 hour, 39 minutes). Note that these trains depart from Poltava-Kyivska station, but a couple of evening trains also leave from Poltava-Pivdenna (Poltava South).

Poltava to Kyiv

There are several trains a day between Poltava Kyiv but the fastest are the intercity trains. To avoid arriving into Kyiv late in the evening, you’ll want to take this one: 8:55 am / 12:01 pm (3 hours, 6 minutes). Trains depart from Poltava Kyivska station.

Alternatively, you could skip Poltava and take the train directly from Kharkiv to Kyiv:

Kharkiv to Kyiv

There are around six trains each day between Kharkiv and Kyiv with InterCity express trains making the journey in less than five hours. Conveniently, they are spread throughout the day: 7:15 am / 12:01 pm (4 hours, 46 minutes), 1:11 pm / 5:56 pm (4 hours, 45 minutes) and 6:36 pm / 11:29 pm (4 hours, 53 minutes). There is also an overnight service if, by this point in the itinerary, you can’t get enough of sleeper trains!

Visiting Ukraine’s Tunnel of LoveOne of Ukraine’s most famous railway tracks – the Tunnel of Love in Klevan

Other places in Ukraine you can visit by train

These places don’t logically fit into the above itineraries but it may be useful to know of the options when planning your own itinerary.

A variation on Itinerary 3

You can take the train from Vinnytsia to Kamyanets-Podilsky and from Kamyanets-Podilsky to Chernivtsi (and vice versa). However, the train from Kamyanets-Podilsky to Chernivtsi departs at a very anti-social 4 am, and the journey takes 4 hours. In this case, we recommend taking a bus which can take less than 2 hours.

Train to the Carpathians

There is a line that travels from Kyiv via Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk to Yaremche and Rakhiv in the Carpathian mountain region of Ukraine, and another from Kyiv which goes via Berdychiv (a town with an interesting Jewish history and good for a short visit) and Lviv to Mukacheve (also in the Carpathian region) and Uzhhorod which is close to the border with Slovakia. They are two different branch lines, so you can’t, for example, take a train from Mukachevo to Yaremche.

The Tunnel of Love

You can also visit what is perhaps Ukraine’s most famous stretch of railway track, the so-called Tunnel of Love. You won’t travel along this part of the line (pictured above) which is now reserved only for occasional local freight movement. It’s not a convenient option though; the overnight service from Kyiv arrives in Klevan just before 4 am. There’s nowhere to stay in Klevan and a better base for exploring the Tunnel of Love is Rivne, where the train stops 20 minutes prior.

Ukraine Rail Map

Do not be fooled by the spiderweb of multiple train routes in Ukraine on the map below. All of these towns and cities are not as connected as they look! I struggled to find a clear route map of Ukraine’s train lines in English, so if you know of one, please let me know.

Ukraine rail map


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