Kamianets-Podilskyi is one of the most beautiful cities in Ukraine. A medieval city center, a much-photographed castle, an imposing canyon with beautiful nature and some of the Soviet past of the city. If you look at the location of Kamianets-Podilskyi, you will understand why it is one of the oldest cities in Ukraine. The old town of Kamianets-Podilskyi is situated directly on a plateau which is almost completely surrounded by the Smotrych River. Thus, the city was a fortress from the very beginning. The castle was added to it only later. But besides this spectacular natural location, there are also many man-made things to see in Kamianets-Podilskyi.
History of Kamianets-Podilskyi
Kamianets-Podilskyi was first officially mentioned in the early 12th century. However, it is very likely that the settlement began much earlier. From 1373 the town was under Polish rule and served as a fortress town and as the seat of the Podilia Voivodeship. Especially in the 17th century the city was frequently attacked and from 1672 to 1699 it was even under Ottoman rule. From 1793 the city belonged to Russia, after Russia, Prussia and Austria had divided Poland in the so-called Polish Partitions.
After a short period of Ukrainian independence from 1918, when Kamianets-Podilskyi was even the seat of the Ukrainian government, the city was incorporated into the Soviet Union in the Ukrainian SSR. During the Second World War the city was the scene of a cruel massacre in which the SS murdered more than 23,000 Jews. Then, in 1944, a big battle took place here between the Red Army and the retreating German troops. Since 1991 Ukraine is independent and Kamianets-Podilskyi became a county seat in Khmelnytskyi oblast.
The best things to see in Kamianets-Podilskyi
Due to the age of the city, many cultures have left their mark on the architecture of Kamianets-Podilskyi sights.
Kamianets-Podilskyi fortress is one of the most famous Ukraine things to see, was voted into the Seven Wonders of Ukraine and is often pictured on advertising posters in magazines and elsewhere. And indeed, the castle is imposing with its location on a hill and with the view from the Old Town with which it is connected by a old bridge. It was built already under Lithuanian rule and later strengthened under the Polish rulers.
In the fortress,next to the museums depicting the history of the fortress, there are also food stalls where you can buy traditionally baked bread. In addition, there are other more or less authentic dishes from the Middle Ages that the stands here offer. From the towers of the fortress, again, there is a fantastic view of the adjacent canyon and the old town opposite the bridge.
Wooden Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Right next to the fortress, and thus often literally in its shadow, stands the small wooden Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This church, built in traditional Ukrainian style, is said to have been commissioned by a Kossack leader who thought that the adjacent castle needed not only solid walls, but also a firm faith. Destroyed by the Turks, it was later rebuilt and, after being misused during the Soviet period as a movie theater, it now serves as a church again. A visit can be wonderfully combined with a walk through the lower parts of the canyon.
Old town of Kamianets-Podilskyi
The old town of Kamianets-Podilskyi was already divided into quarters since its foundation. In addition to the Polish quarter, there used to be a Jewish quarter and an Armenian quarter, each of which had its own religious sites. You can still see some of this division today. During a walk through the old town you will also see the many different architectural styles that have accumulated over the centuries.
The most striking building in the city, apart from the fortress, is probably the town hall. It combines several architectural eras – Renaissance and Baroque with the original Gothic. The current building was completed in 1703 and served the Polish magistrate. However, council meetings and court hearings were held here even before that. Quite a few heretics were publicly executed in front of the building. In the meantime, it also served as a police station, a court or a fire station. Today, the building houses a restaurant and a museum of the city’s history.
Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul
The Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul is not only the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kamianets-Podilskyi. To this day, services are held here in Polish for the Polish minority living here. The church was built in the 17th century under the Poles in the Renaissance style. After that, however, it was destroyed and was later rebuilt in the Baroque style.
Also noteworthy is the column next to the main entrance. This minaret was erected when the Turks occupied the city and converted the cathedral into a mosque. However, after the liberation of the city from the Turks, the minaret was not demolished. Instead, the believers placed a statue of the Virgin Mary on top. The cathedral also houses the tombstone for Laura Przeździecka. She died at the age of 21 and her family commissioned sculptor Viktor Brodzki to create this magnificient work of art.
Armenians also had their own quarter in the old town of Kamianets-Podilskyi. This included several streets and also their own market which was located a little bit aside from the Polish market with the town hall. More than a thousand Armenian families lived here in the 17th century and they contributed a lot to the rise of the town. They also had their own churches, like the one of St. Stefanos. Armenians are also said to have built the so-called Armenian Well. When it was finished, the people were disappointed. The water was salty, because in the underground it washed salt out of the rocks.
Kamianets-Podilskyi City Park
There are several bridges leading to the Old Town, but the most prominent are the Castle Bridge and the New Town Bridge. The Kamianets-Podilskyi City Park is located directly opposite the Old Town at the bridge to the New Town on the New Town side. Created as early as 1886, the terraces and the small pond are a nice haven of peace. Also from here you have a beautiful view of the old town and the New Town bridge. The small pond ends at a waterfall, from which the water then falls down into the canyon.
Church of St. George
Built in the time of the Russian tsarist empire and finished in 1861, the church of St. George is easily recognizable from all viewpoints in Kamianets-Podilskyi because of its blue roof. The church looks much more Russian than others in this traditionally not very Russian town. The architecture follows the so-called pseudo-Russian style. It also belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, that is part of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Besides the bridges, the city gates were of great importance for the city in the Middle Ages and after. Here the city was protected and duties were collected. Many of the gates have been preserved until today. There were separate entrances to each of the quarters. The most famous gate to the city is the Stephan Báthory Tower, named after the Polish king. It also served as a city watch tower to secure the old town in the northern direction.
Until the Shoah, about one third of the inhabitants of Kamianets-Podilskyi were Jewish. Accordingly, there was not only a Jewish quarter but also several synagogues in the city. The largest and still preserved synagogue of Kamianets-Podilskyi is used as a restaurant today. It was built in the Renaissance style and set directly on the rocks by the ravine. After the massacre of the Jewish population of the town, not many Jews remained in Kamianets-Podilskyi. Today there are practically no Jews left in the town and from the once rich Jewish heritage there are unfortunately only a few traces left.
Activities in Kamianets-Podilskyi and surroundings
Ride a hot air balloon over Kamianets-Podilskyi
It is little known but in Kamianets-Podilskyi the first hot air balloon flight in Eastern Europe took place in 1784. The inhabitants of the town refer to this tradition when they invite visitors to a balloon festival once or twice a year. Up to twenty balloons rise to the sky, allowing visitors to see the Smotrych Gorge and the impressive fortress from the air. Balloon flights outside the festival are organized, for example, by Yurii Moshynskyi.
Hiking through the Smotrych Canyon
What I always found most beautiful during my visits to Kamianets-Podilskyi was a visit to the canyon. The canyon wraps like a loop almost completely around the old town of Kamianets-Podilskyi. Those who want to go down can get to the valley by stairs or small roads. Behind the fortress several paths lead down to the valley. From there you can also walk over one of the suspension bridges over the river and take a walk through the more secluded corners of the gorge.
Through the Smotrych with the amphibious vehicle
Across from the town hall square, amphibious vehicles depart almost every hour. These former Soviet armored personnel carriers have been converted so that you can now drive them through the gorge and also directly through the Smotrych River. This will take you to some corners that are difficult to reach on foot. However, you have to decide for yourself if you want to participate in this neither particularly environmentally friendly nor particularly quiet activity. I had a little bit of a feeling that this is like rolling through a nature reserve in a tank. Actually, that’s exactly what it is. If you don’t mind that, feel free to haggle for the price.
Bunjee jumping from one of the bridges
Want a thrill? No problem! Because in Kamianets-Podilskyi you can even jump off the bridges. Here it goes 40 to 50 meters into the depth at the New Town Bridge. Besides bunjee jumping, ziplining is also possible.
Trip to Khotyn Fortress
If Kamianets-Podilskyi is your base for more than just one night, then you should consider making a trip to Khotyn. In this small town, right on the banks of the Dniester River, stands what I consider to be the most beautiful castle in Ukraine. It is even more spectacular than the one in Kamianets-Podilskyi. Khotyn can be reached by regional buses from Kamianets-Podilskyi bus station. Alternatively, you can go there comfortably with a tour company*.
Trip to Bakota
With tour companies you can take a trip from Kamianets-Podilskyi to Bakota. I love the landscape there, where the Dnistr River has been stopped by a dam and the landscape around this lake looks like you are in the middle of Ireland. Usually included is a boat ride across the reservoir and a visit to the monastery there. We were there by car and walked around the area, which can also be very nice.