Kyiv may not be the first city that comes to mind for Christmas travel. However, visiting the Ukrainian capital during the festive season may change your mind completely. In December and January, this eastern European metropolis becomes a sparkling winter wonderland, with a variety of cozy markets and tasty street food, not to mention its impressive ancient cathedrals and traditional celebrations.

Get into the festive spirit on St Nicholas Day

Ukraine celebrates St Nicholas Day on 19 December. This day feels like a rehearsal of Christmas, with people gifting each other sweet treats. A few days earlier, on 16 December, the Christmas fair at historic Kontraktova Ploscha in Kyiv officially brings the holiday spirit to the capital, with pretty rows of wooden houses selling various local delights, handmade goods and warm wine. The country’s main Christmas tree is erected on 19 December on St Sophia’s Square, next to the magnificent St Sophia’s Cathedral; come at 5pm to see the stunning moment when the tree is illuminated with myriads of lights. This year it will feature more than 500 toys and 3km of garlands. For the best view of Kyiv’s Christmas fair, head to the top of St Sophia Cathedral’s bell tower.

Join in the New Year’s Eve party

Each year, Folk Ukraine initiative designs the festive winter look of the Ukrainian capital. This season the theme is Northern Lights, so you can expect a visual adventure across the various locations of the celebrations. The New Year’s Eve in Kyiv may well be the biggest open-air party in the entire country. Thousands of people flock to two main festive locations, St Sophia’s Square and Kontraktova Ploscha, to enjoy concerts, great street food and plenty of entertainment for children. Usually, the New Year celebration takes all night; take your pick of endless Kyiv bars and clubs and join in the revelry. Needless to say, lots of horilka (vodka) and bubbly are involved.

Experience traditional Orthodox Christmas

While the celebration of New Year has a party feel, Christmas in Kyiv is a whole other story. This is a more solemn holiday focusing on the family and tradition. As the majority of the Ukrainian population is Orthodox, Christmas is celebrated according to the Julian calendar on 7 January. One of the most important traditions is Svyatyi Vechir (Holy Supper), when families gather around the dinner table with 12 dishes representing 12 months of the year. To get a sense of this holiday’s true spirit in the authentic setting of a Ukrainian village, head to the Pyrohiv Museum of Folk Architecture which organises a Christmas celebration with singing, dancing and sampling of festive dishes.