Going on a Pripyat and Chernobyl tour was the highlight of my trip to Kiev. Before I went, I had a number of questions about how the day would go, and I made a few mistakes that nearly caused me to miss out on a tour entirely. Here’s everything I wish I knew ahead of my Chernobyl tour, from how to pick the right company from the ones that offer Chernobyl tours to what to wear and when to book the actual tour (hint: the earlier the better).
Listen to the Episode: What Happened at Chernobyl?
How to take a Day Trip from Kiev to Chernobyl
Since it’s not possible to take a solo trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone without a tour company, it’s important to research and plan for your trip ahead of time. Unless you are intending on being in Kiev for more than a week, you should already have your seat on an organized tour booked before you arrive in the city.
What to Look For in a Chernobyl Tour Company
Since you have to book an organized tour, you want to pay attention to what the tour company is offering before you book. Additionally, this is not the kind of tour you want to book based solely on price since your tour company will control what you can see and do during your entire experience.
Some things to look for:
- Is their focus on education? If you want to learn about Soviet and Chernobyl history, make sure to book a company where the reviews mention that they learned a lot during their experience.
- Where’s the pickup point? Some places pick up at hotels, but my tour picked us up at Maiden Square near the McDonalds.
- Do they have many reviews? You don’t want to book a tour without a number of reviews.
- How many days ahead of time you need to book. Each company needs to get clearances for every tour participant, and some companies tend to sell out. It’s recommended that you book at least ten business days in advance for them to get you the necessary clearances. However, some companies have a longer required time, especially if you’re trying to book a private tour or go on a two-day tour since these two options have even more limited availability than the typical group tours.
This organized Chernobyl and Pripyat tour covers the exact itinerary I went on and they specifically outline that they use the drive from Kiev to Chernobyl to play documentaries about the disaster so you’ll be able to get context ahead of time. I also recommend listening to my interview about Chernobyl which goes over what happened before and how the site turned into a tourist destination.
Things to Do at Chernobyl and Pripyat
You will follow your tour guide for the entire day, so you won’t have the options to pick and choose what to do while you’re there. However, here are the general sites.
Tour Chernobyl – The Town
We started our day in the town of Chernobyl, seeing the village houses and the famous Chernobyl village sign.
Visit Duga, the Russian Woodpecker
This was one of the coolest things about the day. Some people were climbing the structure, but I stayed on the ground because of my general fear of heights.
See the Reactors and learn about the Disaster
This is the part that I went in prepared for the most, but I still learned so much about what happened in 1986 and beyond. (Listen: What Happened at Chernobyl?)
The highlight for many, exploring the Atomic Town of Pripyat offered a glimpse into what Soviet life was like.
What to Wear to Chernobyl
The Chernobyl dress code has been designed with safety in mind. The gist is that you have to be entirely covered except for your face, neck, wrists, and hands.
The Chernobyl Dress Code
- Pants Only (no skirts, leggings, or shorts).
- Long sleeve shirt (no tank tops or short sleeve shirts).
- Closed-toed shoes (no sandals or flip-flops).
- A hat (I had one with me but wasn’t required to show it).
I don’t know what would happen if you showed up in a dress with leggings, but I didn’t want to risk it. Showing up in inappropriate clothing is considered a safety hazard and will result in not being admitted to the Exclusion zone. I was wearing a three-quarter sleeve shirt and a jacket since it was May and I hadn’t packed a longer top. No one questioned me, but I wore the jacket most of the morning. No one in my group tried to strip down into lighter clothing, despite the May heat, because of the dress code.
One thing to keep in mind, too, is that you will spend most of your day walking. If you do a two-day tour, you’ll spend an even greater portion of both days walking.
In winter (October through April) there is always a chance for snow. Make sure you bring clothes appropriate for the weather.
What Gear to Take with You
You don’t want your day bag to be too full since you’ll carry it a lot, but there’s some basic gear that you need. I had both my Nikon D810 and my Apple iPhone 7 Plus with me. This meant I could get a good mix of shots in a lot of different situations. I didn’t take a tripod on this trip with me, but I don’t believe you’re allowed to use a tripod or a drone there. Ask your tour company if you want to bring these with you.
Because it’s a long day and there’s so much to photograph, you’ll want a backup charging bank and a phone charging cable and to keep your phone powered. You’ll also want headphones so you can zone out before and after the documentaries during the long drive each way. For your main camera, I suggest having a backup battery and a backup SD Card. Otherwise, have your camera battery fully charged and have room for more photographs than you normally take in a full day. I took about twice as many photos as on a normal day trip. It would be absolutely terrible to get there and have your camera battery die or not have room on your primary SD Card for photographs, so in this situation, I advocate being a little over prepared.
Food and Snacks at Chernobyl
Day tours to Chernobyl last twelve hours. On my tour, there were three times when we could buy food:
- Stopping to fuel up at the gas station in the morning on the way
- Lunch at the hotel
- At the convenience store right after lunch
I suggest bringing water, any other drinks you want, and enough snacks to get you through the day, as it could potentially be eight hours between lunch and when you get back to the city and can eat dinner. No one on my tour bought anything other than some small souvenirs at the convenience store (see below). Lunch was local cuisine and was scheduled around lots of groups availability, so theoretically your lunch could be anytime between 11 am and 2 pm.
Lunch was the same for everyone on our tour. If you have food allergies or dietary restrictions, let your tour company know ahead of time so they can let you know what the options are in your specific situation.
Chernobyl Packing List
Now that we’ve chatted about the dress code, what gear to take, and the food situation, here’s is my overall Chernobyl packing list. Most of this you will want to bring with you to Kiev and will use throughout your trip, but some of this (like snacks) you can pick up the day before. Items in bold are required to get into Chernobyl.
- Long sleeve shirt
- Pants or jeans that go to the ankle or further. If you’re a woman, make sure these are stretchy enough that you can comfortably squat to use the bathroom in the woods since there are no toilets inside the 10km zone.
- Closed-toed shoes comfortable enough to walk in all day
- Day Bag (I use one similar to this)
- A Hat
- Sunglasses and Case
- Tissues, Toilet Paper, or Kleenex
- Travel Sized Hand Sanitizer
- Your Passport (Ukrainians can use a National ID)
- Passport Holder
- Cash for food and any souvenirs you want to buy (see below).
- Camera (I used my Nikon D810)
- Primary SD Card
- Spare SD Card
- Spare Camera Battery (I use this spare Nikon Battery that goes with my camera)
- Smart Phone (I used my Apple iPhone 7 Plus but I’ve switched to a Samsung 8)
- Backup Charging Bank
- Phone Charging Cord (I used this phone charging cable)
- Headphones (for the drive up and back)
- Water and other drinks for the day (no alcohol!)
- Snacks for the day
- Your Travel Insurance Policy information (at least have it available on your phone) in case of emergency. (I never travel without a current World Nomads travel insurance policy. When visiting a place like Chernobyl, where you’ll be walking through lots of glass and debris, you’ll be especially glad to know you’re covered).
- For visiting from October through April, bring winter boots and cold weather clothes in case of snow.
Souvenirs at Chernobyl
In my opinion, this is a huge missed opportunity. However, since you’re not allowed to take anything from the Exclusion Zone due to radiation risks, I can see why they don’t have a big permanent store. The only time we could have purchased souvenirs was at the small convenience store that we visited after lunch. The selection was very small, and it didn’t seem to be a huge focus for the store’s sales. I didn’t buy anything, but I wish they’d had a larger selection and I would have got something. There is also a delicate balance of what kinds of sales here would be tasteful considering the disaster, but I would have loved to see a selection of books and other educational materials like posters.
Chernobyl Safety Issues
One of the biggest questions people ask before going on these tours is “Is Chernobyl safe?” Chernobyl is safe to visit, but there are two categories of safety to pay attention to.
There are places in Chernobyl, like the machine cemetery of Rossokha village, which are still considered dangerous to visit. However, the places that are cleared for tours to go are safe and regularly tested for radiation. My tour guide had a radiation detector that would go off occasionally and we’d stop and talk about what the different acceptable levels were. Don’t go off your tour guide’s prescribed path, and you’ll be fine.
On the way out, everyone will go through a machine that tests your radiation levels. Once you get the all-clear, you’re free to go.
I have heard personal stories of people having issues with radiation levels messing up their cameras, but I know these people went on multiple multi-day tours. I haven’t heard of anyone having issues with radiation after only doing a one or two-day tour.
While everyone’s main concern is radiation, the bigger safety concern for me is that the buildings are crumbling. Technically tour guides aren’t allowed to take people into buildings (and every once in a while the guards will force the tour companies to follow this rule). However, many of the companies (but not all) will take people into the buildings.
These buildings haven’t been repaired or maintained in over thirty years. Any building that is neglected and left to the elements for multiple decades is not going to be structurally sound. Additionally, there are piles of rubble and glass in almost every building you enter, and there are some structures where people climb up high off the ground. Double check that your up to date on your travel insurance and your tetanus shots before you go.
I never felt unsafe, but this also seems unsustainable in the future without securing the buildings.
To prepare for the glass and debris, I suggest making sure you have a current travel insurance policy and make sure you’re up to date on your tetanus shots.
Rules for Visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
- You must be 18 years of age or older to enter.
- You must follow the dress code.
- No alcohol and no signs of drinking prior to the tour.
- You must have your passport with you.
- You must attend with an organized tour.
- No weapons, firearms, fireworks, etc.
- No smoking.
- Do not take anything with you from Chernobyl (souvenirs purchased at the convenience store are the only exception).
- Follow your guide’s instructions at all times.
- Obey posted signs.
Frequently Asked Questions
These are the questions I’ve seen get asked the most often about Chernobyl and Pripyat tours.
Can You Visit Chernobyl without an Organized Tour?
No, all visitors to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone must be accompanied by a permitted tour guide with an officially recognized company. There are some independent bloggers who run tours to Chernobyl (and these are fantastic tours), but they partner with local companies to get in so that they have access to the site.
My Tour Company Asked for My Passport Number. Is that normal?
Yes, this is perfectly normal. They have to give your passport information to the government, and it has to match your passport exactly, otherwise, they can deny you entry. You give your passport info to your tour company ahead of time, and then this info will get checked against your passport twice. The first during check-in with your tour company and the second is when you arrive at the border of the exclusion zone. Here is when the actual border guards will check your passport for entry.
Will My Tour Stop at the Chernobyl Museum?
No. The Chernobyl Museum is in Kiev, not near the disaster. If you want to go, you’ll need to visit on another day of your trip.
Can You Visit Chernobyl without Your Passport?
If you are not a Ukrainian citizen, you must have your passport to enter the Exclusion Zone and it must match the information you gave at registration exactly. Ukrainians can use their national ID.
Does my Tour Company’s Insurance Policy cover me?
No, and most companies explicitly state this when you are signing up. You should make sure you have your own policy. I have used World Nomads continually for two years, and I’m very happy with their coverage.
More about Traveling Ukraine
- Chernobyl Today: 30 Pictures that Show What Life is like at Chernobyl Now
- Ukraine Packing List: What to Pack for Ukraine for Women and Men
- Listen: The History of Kiev and Travel Tips
- Listen: What Happened at Chernobyl?