Crimea: Ukraine's Peninsula on the Black Sea
Last updated March 28, 2014
UPDATE for 2014: Crimea in the news
As of March 2014, following the dramatic Euromaidan events in Kiev, Crimea has effectively been annexed by the Russian Federation. It is unclear what this means in terms of access to the peninsula, but it is clear that Crimea is a more dangerous place than it used to be. There is a lot of anti-Ukrainian and anti-West sentiment. The Crimean Tatars have taken a defensive stance and are strongly opposed to joining Russia. There is a risk of ethnic and politically motivated violence, most likely against ethnic Ukrainians, Tatars, and those who protest against Crimea joining the Russian Federation.
In the future citizens of many countries may need Russian visas to visit the peninsula. Most likely, the number of vacationers from Ukraine — typically 70% of all visitors — will plummet this season, while numbers from Russia will remain roughly the same or possibly rise slightly at best.
Crimea's claim to fame
Crimea is the name of the Ukraine's diamond-shaped peninsula that juts out into the Black Sea. Crimea is one of the most fascinating corners of Ukraine, with the most varied scenery and climate, the most ancient history, and the greatest opportunities for tourism. The climate of the Crimea's South Shore is near-mediterranean, making Crimea's beaches a prime vacation destination for millions of Ukrainians and Russians and growing numbers of foreigners each year. Health resorts abound on the peninsula, which is famous for its mineral waters as well as wines. Just a few kilometers from the Black Sea, the Crimean Mountains rise to 1500 m above sea level.
Crimea is rather different from the rest of Ukraine. Most of the population is ethnic Russian, and the peninsula has a distinctly Soviet feel. Lenin statues are commonplace and pro-Russian sentiment is tangible. There is both a powerful brain drain and fairly large numbers of interesting visitors from Ukraine and Russia who are attracted by the climate, nature, and history — including backpackers, artistic types, hippies, yogies, naturists (nudists), etc. etc.
- Read about investing in real estate in Crimea.
When to go
Crimea's high season is July and August, when most people take their summer vacations. However, it can get scorching hot and crowded during these months. May and June have beautiful weather, albeit with cold water temperatures. September and early October are perfect all around, with far fewer vacationers and warm sea water. In late October you can see a lot of fall color around the peninsula and the water is starting to get chilly, but it is still a nice time to see other sights. Spring in Crimea begins in early April and is especially scenic, with Crimea's wide variety of flora all in bloom. Winter is pretty much a dead season, but if you follow weather forecasts and know the peninsula well you can find appropriate places to visit even in January. Many locations along the South Shore — from the Cape of Fiolent to Novyy Svet — can get warm enough to sunbathe if the sun is out and there is no wind.
The northern Black Sea is not as warm as some seas, but the water reaches 22-25° C during summer months and is often warm enough to swim in till late October. However, a day or two of strong winds in the summer can cause chilly water to reach the surface and stay there till it warms, so it is hard to predict water temperature based on air temperature alone. Go here for current water temperatures at Black Sea resorts (in Russian).
Getting to Crimea
last update: 2010
Crimea's transportation hub is Simferopol. Here is Crimea's only airport (timetable in English) with flights from other Ukrainian cities and a few international destinations, and this is where most people get off the train to travel to Yalta and Crimea's South Shore. Planes fly to Simferopol from Kyiv Zhuliany airport every day and cost between $35 and 60 USD one-way. Train tickets are much cheaper — around $7 USD for third class, $10 for second, and $20 for first. All the trains are overnight (14-16 hours) and have beds for sleeping (more on traveling by train in Ukraine). Trains go to Simferopol, Sevastopol, Kerch, and Feodosiya. Other destinations — particular the South Shore — must be reached by car or bus. Yalta can best be reached by taxi ($40-50 USD), trolleybus ($2), or bus ($4) from the Simferopol train station (100 km trip), but buses and minibuses run from Sevastopol as well.
If you are planning to visit Crimea during the high season, book plane or train tickets far in advance (three weeks or more). At other times of year, one or two weeks is usually enough.
Transportation within Crimea
Crimea, like most of Ukraine, has an efficient transportation network consisting mostly of private minibuses, or marshrutki (more on traveling by bus in Ukraine). These inexpensive buses reach almost all places of interest. The hard part is finding out where they stop and which buses go where! You may have to do a lot of asking around like the Ukrainian and Russian tourists do.
Crimea's most famous resort town is Yalta, which became a prestigious vacation destination in 19th century Tsarist Russia after the first road was built from Simferopol. Sevastopol, Alushta, Sudak, Yevpatoriya, Saki, Koktebel, and Feodosiya are also well-known resorts. Sevastopol on the west end of the peninsula is more of a regular city than a resort; it is an navy town with shipyards and the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea fleet. Sudak has some awesome sights, and its beach front area has been very nicely developed. Yevpatoriya and Saki on Crimea's west coast are known for their soft sand beaches (most other beaches in Crimea are composed of pebbles).
While each Crimean resort town has its unique set of sights and historical monuments, they are all alike in certain ways — there is always a beachfront area full of restaurants, discotheques, hot dog stands, musicians, jugglers, caricaturists, "find out how powerful your punch is" stands, and locals selling everything from trinkets made in China to fresh milk. If you enjoy hanging out at crowded beaches in the daytime and having fun at night, these resorts are for you. You'd probably enjoy spending a couple days in each town as you move down the Crimean coast.
If you'd like more solitude, Crimea has plenty of that to offer, too. There are hundreds of secluded health resorts and hundreds of kilometers of undeveloped coastal areas. Here you may come across folks who spend the entire summer living in caves by the beach, groups that spend weeks practicing yoga or meditation in remote corners of the peninsula, and of course nudists who have congregated in Crimea since Soviet times.
Outdoor recreation in Crimea
Crimea's varied relief and scenery provides wonderful opportunities for all kinds of outdoor recreation — hiking, cycling, mountain biking, horseback riding, spelunking, rock climbing, hang-gliding, scuba diving, windsurfing, and even skiing. Local travel agencies that specializing in outdoor recreation are available to organize these activities.
The Crimean Mountains are home to magnificent caves, forests of beech, oak, pine, juniper, and endemic species, windswept mountain plateaus, called yayly, and curious "cave cities" dating back to the Middle Ages. The most popular mountain areas are accessible from Simferopol and the old Tatar town of Bakhchisaray, but you can also an aerial tram that goes from Miskhor (between Alupka and Yalta) to Ay-Petri mountain at 1200 m above sea level. Here there is even downhill and cross-country skiing in the winter.
Crimea's history is extremely complex and reaches back to antiquity and even prehistory. The settlement of Hersones near present-day Sevastopol was an outpost of Greek and Hellenic culture for two millenia. Bakhchisaray was the seat of the Khans' rule for several centuries. The city of Kerch is 2600 years old and was founded one year after Rome. Crimea has been settled and colonized by Skifs, Sarmats, Greeks, Genoans, Venicians, Armenians, Jews, Turks, Khans, Russians, and Ukrainians. In Crimea Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all have left their distinct mark. With few exceptions people of these different faiths coexisted peacefully.
Part of Crimea's unique flavor comes from the presence of Crimean Tatars — mixed-blood descendents of all the ethnic groups that inhabited the peninsula before Ekaterina II annexed Crimea at the end of the 1700s. The Tatars were deported to Central Asia by Stalin after WWII (allegedly for helping the Germans), and Russians and Ukrainians were moved in to take their place. As a result much of the local color and cultural heritage was lost. After perestroika the Tatars began moving back, acquiring land and building homes and businesses. They are known for their industriousness, national cooking (which you can get a taste of at any Crimean resort), and 'eastern' mindset. The Tatars practice a very moderate form of Sunni Islam and speak fluent Russian along with their own language, Crimean Tatar, which is mutually intelligible with Turkish.