KHERSON IS ONE OF THE LESSER KNOWN PARTS OF UKRAINE. BUT THIS SMALL CITY IS A DELIGHT FOR THOSE WHO ENJOY SWIMMING IN CLEAR WATERS, HIKING IN CANYONS, AND BEING IMMERSED IN NATURE.
As my plane approached Kherson, I marveled at the meeting of waterways. The center of this small city, which used to be a busy port and shipyard hub, is built on the banks of the Dnieper River, which ultimately meets the Black Sea at the tip of Kinburn Spit. Yet the beauty of Kherson extends beyond its robust river and proximity to the sea. The region is also home to enchanting forests, canyons and a desert, making it one of the few places on earth where you can go river kayaking and then take a desert safari tour an hour later.
The morning of my first day in Kherson was spent on land. I meandered along Suvorov Street gazing at the historic buildings. Yet behind the façade of this grand boulevard there are myriad back streets filled with wooden homes and cheerful street art. Apparently, there is a lot below the surface in Kherson.
Founded in the 18th century by Grigory Potemkin, a favorite of Catherine the Great, the city has a fascinating past that is slowly being unfurled. Hidden beneath the lush Kherson Fortress Park, located on the former fortress grounds, are catacombs whose mysteries have yet to be unlocked. There are also hints of the city’s past in places like Glory Park, whose monuments hark back to the Soviet era, and the painting museum, which displays decorative art from the 19th century.
I took pictures of all these places but eventually we were drawn down to the Dnieper, the lifeblood of Kherson, where we'd spend our afternoon. The river not only feeds the city but also offers a host of activities for tourists such as canoeing, sailing, and jet-skiing.
To have a taste of real Ukrainian experience one should visit Chaika (seagull). The fertile nature of Chaika offers a peaceful spot with full of Ukrainian cultural elements. Ukrainian traditional architecture is the core element of the region. Other than that boat tours and mud cure are other popular attractions for wonderers.
We arrive at the waterfront, the same place where the Tysho Tysho Fest is held, to meet Igor, who looked effortlessly cool in sun-bleached cut-off jeans and a loose white shirt. He welcomed us onto his sailboat, the second such boat he has built on his own. “I grew up on the water,” explained Igor as he guided us through the Dnieper and its tributaries. “I love how everything comes together in Kherson – the sea, the river, and the delta.” Indeed, the people of Kherson seem inextricably linked to the water – the city used to be home to a large shipbuilding industry and many people keep small summer homes on the islands in the delta.
Weaving through the maze of waterways, something new caught my attention at each turn: kayakers emerging from a small stream, willows leaning over the clear water, a little boy casting a fishing line from a makeshift dock, and storks gracefully spreading their white wings as they flew away from the thicket. Such an unspoiled landscape so close to the city seems like it could only be the result of divine intervention. After a dinner of freshly caught carp at the waterfront Terrasa Restaurant, we called it an early evening because there was a lot to be seen the next day.
The second day was reserved for the canyons north of Kherson. Passing field after field of sunflowers, tomatoes, and watermelons, I could see why Kherson’s natural beauty was so well preserved – the region is a major agricultural center with little industry.
When we pulled up to the Aktovsky Canyon, the flat steppe split wide open to reveal sheer rock faces and a babbling stream. As we clambered over the boulders in this national wildlife reserve, we stopped to admire rock roses, butterflies, and turquoise
dragonflies. The path into the canyon wound past a clearing where a family had set up camp. The adults were readying lunch as the children splashed in the water, which looked particularly inviting on such a hot day.
We eventually took our reprieve from the sun in the shaded forest adjacent to Trikraty village, a short drive from the canyon over a cobblestone road. The wood was planted by Viktor Skarzhinsky in the 19th century, supposedly to woo his wife Catherine.
Strolling through this wood, you would never guess that all of the trees, mainly oaks but also ash, linden and chestnut trees, were planted by man. The vast area is also home to a number of endangered herbs and plants, as well as a rerouted river. The calls of nearby birds and the crunch of sticks and leaves beneath our feet were the soundtrack to our hike and stayed with me as we made our way back to town.
Our third and last day in Kherson was spent exploring the Kinburn Spit, a sandy steppe interspersed with wetlands and artificially created pine forests. The landscape began to shift soon after we left the city, with flat land morphing into undulating sand dunes covered in grass. We passed signs for Kherson’s famed desert, the Oleshky Sands, and the Askania-Nova biosphere reserve. Friedrich Falz-Fein established the latter in the late 19th century as a way to preserve the virgin steppe and built a thriving zoo and botanical garden filled with exotic animal and plant species.
The 4x4 bounced through marshland and barreled over sand dunes, crisscrossing the Kinburn Spit in what felt like a choose-your-own-adventure game. As we passed through forests and open fields overgrown with tall grass, the road would often split and branch off, leading to a new, unknown thrill. Yet unlike a choose-your-own-adventure game, the ending never changed: all roads led to the Black Sea.
Yet as tempting as these detours were, we continued to drive south before turning off the pavement and going off-road, ready to get lost. Our first stop was a salt flat, where shallow pools of water were tinged all different shades of pink and a mound of salt was begging to be scaled.
As we continued on our journey, we saw majestic herons flying above large pools and sparrows in excited conversation. Sand roads, which were more like suggestions, zigzagged across the spit, tempting us to follow a new path. We eventually found our way to the Black Sea coast, stopping for a rest at Kinburn Camp, a camping spot that offers yoga classes, water sports, and weekend festivities during the summer months. Swinging in the hammock and listening to the sea lap up against the shore, I felt my excitement mellow into a calm stillness.
Kherson is teeming with the beauties and bounties of nature. Life revolves around the Dnieper River, which is also the focal point of a bourgeoning tourist scene. Events like the Tysho Tysho Fest, an arts, culture and culinary festival held on the banks of the Dnieper every May and September, are reinvigorating this quiet city. This year the festival will take place on the weekend of September 17–18. Visitors can munch on local mussels, grilled fish, and traditional meat dishes while watching local musicians perform on the banks of the Dnieper or taking a yacht ride on the river.
Moreover, there are numerous natural wonders just beyond the city borders: canyons, deltas, sand spits, deserts, parks, and seas. The region still flies under the radar, making it the perfect destination for a restorative weekend getaway spent choosing your own adventure.