Chernobyl: A Complete Guide to Visiting One of the Most Radioactive Places on Earth

Chernobyl: A Complete Guide to Visiting One of the Most Radioactive Places on Earth

I remember the first time I heard about Chernobyl. It was through a Hollywood movie in the early ’90s, just a few years after the disaster took place. For years I was intrigued by it and wondered if I could ever see such a historic and impactful place in person.

Then, when Chernobyl opened to the public in 2011, I knew that it would become a must-do stop on my round the world trip

Just recently, I had the opportunity to experience first-hand what it’s like to visit Chernobyl and on this post, I’ll share that experience with you as well as all the tips you need to plan your trip to Ukraine and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

What Happened in Chernobyl?

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred on April 26, 1986, at 1:23:40 am when the No. 4 nuclear reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded during a rushed safety test to help develop a safe backup procedure during an electrical power outage.

During that test, the RBMK reactor exploded after an unexpected surge of energy occurred, something scientists believed was impossible at the time. This type of RBMK reactor was common in all of the Soviet Union.

Chernobyl Destroyed Reactor
Historic image from 1983. Image by Laski Diffusion / Wojtek Laski / Getty

Due to the explosion, a plume of highly radioactive dust spread all over the region, contaminating everything in its path. Roughly 36 hours later, several cities were evacuated and abandoned – including Pripyat, the closet city to the power plant with over 49,000 residents.

Chernobyl is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history and is one of only two nuclear energy disasters rated at seven —the maximum severity— on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the other being the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan.

This nuclear disaster was so catastrophic that it is considered as one of the catalysts that brought down the Soviet Union just a few years later. 

After the disaster, two exclusion zones with rigorous military control were set around Chernobyl: one expanding 10 km around the plant and another one at 30 km. The 10km zone is the most contaminated area due to its immediacy to the power plant. 

The exploded reactor #4 was encased in a massive concrete and steel sarcophagus designed to limit radioactive contamination of the environment.

Planning a Trip to Chernobyl

Today it is possible to visit both of Chernobyl Exclusion Zones as the radiation levels have gone down substantially, but still, many parts of the 10km zone are highly contaminated with elevated radiation. 

The 30km zone, on the other hand, has now reached almost normal levels of radiation and the government is thinking of opening it in the future when they have certified that every inch of the zone is clean. That’ll take a while.

Chernobyl Ferris Wheel in Pripyat
The ferris wheel in Pripyat.

You can visit Chernobyl on a day trip from Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine. There are dozens of tour companies with a wide range of prices from just $50+ to $400+. The experience, though, will vary drastically depending on the company and type of tour you choose.

It’s important to know that you need to book your trip with at least a week in advance to have enough time to send a copy of your passport and get the government’s approval to visit the exclusion zone.

I learned about this when I made the mistake of booking at the very last minute on my first attempt to visit Chernobyl in 2012.

Doll at Pripyat Kindergarten
Doll at Pripyat’s Kindergarten

Another mistake I made on my second attempt in 2018 was booking my trip on a holiday (Ukraine’s Independence Day). Chernobyl was closed by the military. So, don’t book your trip on a holiday.

It was on my third attempt that I finally made it there!

Right now, I’d recommend booking your trip with at least a few weeks to a month in advance given that Chernobyl has become a popular destination since the recent HBO series, Chernobyl. Tourism there has skyrocketed so much that Ukraine’s government is considering turning Chernobyl into an official tourism site.

Pripyat's Elementary School
Pripyat’s Elementary School

Which Chernobyl Tour to Take

There are dozens of companies to visit Chernobyl and they all offer similar experiences. You have the option of doing a group or private tour, and a day tour or a two-day tour – spending a night in Chernobyl.

After much research, I decided to go beyond the typical one-day tour to the exclusion zone. Normal tours take you around the abandoned city of Pripyat, the Duga radar, and to the memorial viewpoint just outside the power plant. 

Pripyat Kindergarten toys
Toys at the Pripyat Kindergarten

But, I also wanted to go to the nuclear power plant itself. Day tours do not take you inside the power plant, just around it. Some two-day tours do, so if you want to into the power plant, make sure that it takes you to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP).

For this, I chose Chernobylwel.com two-day group tour to the exclusion zone and the ChNPP. While this tour cost 429 Euros, I have to say it was worth every penny!

Chernobylwel.com also has the cheaper one-day tour and two-day tour (their most popular tour) for those who only wish to see the Exclusion Zone and Pripyat. I do recommend this company based on my experience.

For even more budget-friendly options, other companies offer these tours below which are great, highly-reviewed alternatives.

 

 

When to Visit Chernobyl

You can visit Chernobyl at any time during the year, but the visual experience will vary depending on the season.

During the summer months, it’s when you’ll see the contrast of decaying buildings with an all green and lush landscape. If you’re looking for clear blue skies, these are the best months to go. Also, these are the warmer months in the mid-80s Fahrenheit (30s Celsius).

During spring you’ll see more colors in the foliage. Come autumn and you’ll see more reds, orange, and some falling foliage, which starts to add to the eerie feeling that Chernobyl and Pripyat are known for. The weather now is a hit and miss too, as you might get some cold foggy days now and then.

Pripyat Elementary School
The Elementary School in Pripyat

Winter, on the other hand, is the eeriest of them all, especially when there’s fog around and the ground and buildings are covered in snow. These are the coldest months too, so have that in mind when planning your trip as you’ll spend a lot of time outside walking the city.

I visited in late October and I had a nice mix of eerie foliage with foggy mornings and clear-blue sky afternoons. While it was getting cold then, it was still manageable to spend hours walking outside.

My Experience at the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Around 7:30 am, I met the guys of Chernobylwel.com at the meeting point in Kyiv to begin the two-hour journey to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Along the way, I mentally replayed scenes from the HBO series and other documentaries to keep fresh the images and see how familiar or similar things looked once there.

If you haven’t seen the HBO series, I highly recommend seeing it. It does an excellent job of showing the events and how they impacted the region. I also recommend seeing this documentary available on YouTube, it is one of the best documentaries about Chernobyl.

When we arrived at the 30km checkpoint, we had our entry tickets and passports checked, and we were given a dosimeter we’d be wearing for the entirety of our time in the exclusion zone. 

Chernobyl Dosimeter I wore during my visit
The dosimeter I wore during my visit.

This dosimeter measures the total radiation exposure each person gets, just to make sure no one is overexposed. 

While there are highly radioactive places in Chernobyl, no tour takes you to the dangerous areas. Additionally, those spots with high radiation we do get to see are only visited for brief periods.

There are three elements to how much radiation exposure you get: the time spent in the radioactive area, the distance from the radioactive spot, and how protected are you (clothes). This is why they recommend we wear long pants and long sleeves.

Right after we crossed the checkpoint, we drove straight to the first village, Zalissya.

The Zalissya Village

Zalissya Village is just 3km away from the city of Chernobyl. Now, even though the power plant is named after the city of Chernobyl, they are roughly 20km apart. Back when the power plant was built, it was the closest biggest city in the area. 

What most people refer to as Chernobyl is the city of Pripyat, which was built next to the power plant to house the nuclear plant workers. Today, Pripyat is the main focus of most tours to Chernobyl. So yes, Pripyat and Chernobyl are two different cities, contrary to popular belief.

Zalissya, on the other hand, was a small village with roughly 3,000 people. To me, this was the perfect introduction to the Zone. 

Chernobyl Zalissya Cultural Center Building
The cultural center at Zalissya.

There we walked among small institutional buildings like their cultural center, and schools, as well as many abandoned houses from middle and low-income residents. Seeing these buildings was like looking back at the Soviet way of living. 

Sure, they are dilapidated, nature is taking over them, and most if not all buildings have been looted, ransacked, or cleared by the liquidators (the name given to the military who had to clean, destroy, and bury many of the contaminated artifacts in the zone).

But, whatever remains, still tells a vivid story of who lived there and how they lived. 

Even the way these buildings were looted tells a lot about their former use and local beliefs. For example, when you enter the Cultural Center, you’ll see the wood flooring is all broken. In Soviet times, locals used to hide some of their valuables and money under the floor – as they didn’t believe in Soviet banks. 

Inside the Cultural Center in Zalissya.

When the village was fully evacuated in an instant, people didn’t have the chance to get their valuables out. Looters, on the other hand, saw this as an opportunity. Many of them returned to the exclusion zone weeks after the explosion, risking their lives to steal something.

As we visited the houses, we could clearly distinguish the middle-income ones versus the poor ones. The latter weren’t ransacked. Their furniture was not valuable enough to steal. So, today, you still see their beds, pottery, clothes, and much more; almost intact.

A low income home in Zalissya.

Inside a home in Zalissya
The sleeping area for an entire family in a low income home.

Vehicles can also be seen around the village, mostly stripped down to their shell. And, seeing a vehicle in a village means that person was either wealthy enough or important. 

The Lada was the main car produced by the Soviets, and even though they boasted that they produced millions of cars per year (just like the Soviets boasted that they were the best at everything), their production was quite limited. 

Anyone who wanted to buy a Lada had to wait up to 5 years on their waitlist to get their car manufactured and delivered. 

A Lada in Chernobyl
One of those famous Ladas.

The City of Chernobyl

Still in the 30km Zone is the city of Chernobyl. Well, today it is more of a village. Right now, Chernobyl is the only place in both exclusion zones where people live in – the workers of the Chernobyl power plant. 

Standing at the Chernobyl Sign
The entrance sign to Chernobyl. This is the only place where you’ll see “Chernobyl” written in the entire exclusion zone. Except for the street sign memorial (below).

Before the explosion, just over 14,000 people lived there, but at the moment, only 1,000 workers live in Chernobyl. But, they don’t live there permanently. They have two shifts of 500 people that rotate every two weeks to reduce their radiation exposure. Imagine having to move every two weeks?

In addition to these workers, there are roughly 50 “illegal” self-settlers in Chernobyl. These people used to live there before the disaster and wished to move back to their homes – some even two weeks after the explosion. Surprisingly, most of them are in decent health.

In terms of the city, there’s not much to see at Chernobyl as it is a plain working city, but there are a few memorials to Chernobyl, Fukushima, and an “avenue” of road signs with over 200 city and village names. These were all the affected and evacuated villages after the incident. 

Avenue of signs in Chernobyl
Over 200 signs mark the names of the cities evacuated.

Since Chernobyl (and everything in the exclusion zones) must be kept as a museum, you can still see one of the few remaining statues of Lenin in Ukraine.

Entering the 10km Exclusion Zone and Pripyat City

This zone is the one with the greatest radioactive fallout and unlike the 30km zone, certain areas still have highly dangerous doses of radiation.

Our first stop… lunch! 

There’s one cafeteria in the zone, located near the power plant, and it’s mainly there for the plant workers and tourists nowadays. One of the most curious things was that to enter the cafeteria, we had to pass through a full-body radiation detector. 

The dosimetric scan at the cantina
The dosimetric scan to enter the cantina.

You step on it and place your hands on the machine, and in a matter of a few seconds, it will grant or deny you access to the cafeteria, based on your radiation level. We were all fine, of course.

After lunch, it was finally time to visit Pripyat!

Pripyat city did not exist when the Chernobyl power plant was built. It was built in the 1970s just two kilometers away from the plant for its workers’ convenience. Pripyat was planned as a model city with luxuries not even Moscow had back then, like a supermarket! 

Pripyat Supermarket
The supermarket

It’s hard to believe supermarkets did not exist in most of the Soviet Union, but people back then were given limited in their food rations and they used to get them at local markets. Supermarkets, on the other hand, allowed you to get more food (beyond your ration) at a premium.

In addition to the usual cultural center, schools, hospital, and residential buildings, Pripyat also counted with an amusement park, cafes, a cinema, a pool, a race track, and more. 

Living in Pripyat meant you were “high class.” People were so proud of living there that they used to take their wedding shots by the “Pripyat 1970” sign. The city was still under construction, with only four of its seven micro districts built.

Pripyat sign in Chernobyl
Pripyat’s sign. At the moment, the radiation level here is around 1.70 uSv/h.

Yet, it reached a population of over 49,000 people; mostly young with an average age of 26 years old. Pripyat was evacuated over 36 hours after the Chernobyl disaster. People were told they’d return to their homes three days later, but that was a lie.

What’s ironic is that it was the nuclear plant what gave birth to Pripyat, and what brought its demise. 

As we entered the now barbwire-gated city, we were given Geiger-Muller counters to measure the radiation everywhere we went. Unlike the dosimeters on our necks, the Geiger-Muller counters do tell us the amount measured at the moment.

They are always emitting that weird cracking sound that intensifies as more radiation is measured in the air – until it goes berserk with a loud alarm telling you the radiation levels are crazy high! 

One important aspect of radiation is that when it spreads, it does not fall like an even blanket. Instead, it falls with bigger concentrations in certain areas, and it also accumulates in other spots like water drainage and low points (since the water carries it there to accumulate as it drains). 

This is one of the reasons we have the Geiger-Muller counters, to notice how radiation increases and decreases as we move around. 

Prypiat’s Hospital 

The first stop was probably the most interesting and significant to me, Pripyat’s Hospital. The hospital has such a significance on the Chernobyl disaster since it was here where the injured firefighters were brought after the incident. 

These firefighters didn’t know the dangers they were being exposed to when fighting the fire, and all of them suffered because of that.

Two of them died that night and the rest died within weeks and months either here or at hospital No.6 in Moscow – which had a radiation department. Surprisingly, Pripyat’s hospital, which is next to a nuclear power plant, didn’t have one.

Pripyat's Hospital
Pripyat’s Hospital

As firefighters were brought to the hospital, they were stripped of their contaminated clothes, which were thrown in the hospital basement.

Those clothes are still lying there, and today, the hospital basement is the second most contaminated place in all of the exclusion zone, only after the reactor itself. 

Spending just 30 minutes in that basement, with full protective gear, is enough to get a lethal dose. For comparison, most places in the 10km exclusion zone have relatively low radiation. You’d need to spend 8 years there to get a harmful dose of radiation. So yeah, a two-day trip is fine. 

Anyway, a few years ago some crazy person ran down that basement, picked a piece of clothing and brought it up to the hospital lobby.

Since 2012, when a school collapsed due to the effects of time and lack of maintenance, entering buildings in Pripyat is forbidden.

Normally we wouldn’t be able to enter the lobby to see that piece of clothing, but our guide knew how much we wanted to see it and the building itself, so she allowed us to go in with proper care and if we were extremely quiet. 

We were a small group of eight travelers, so it was easier to sneak in and out several buildings.

I was one of the first to go into the hospital, and as I stepped in through one of the broken windows, our guide suddenly yelled “STOP! Don’t move.”

Someone had moved the firemen’s clothing and placed it right on the window sill. I was standing just inches away from it.

“Step away from it and don’t touch it,” she followed.

Chernobyl Pripyat Hospital Firemen Clothing
The small rag of clothing from one of the firemen. It still emits a lot of radiation!

It may be a small piece of fabric no bigger than a washcloth, but still, to this day, it is emitting lots of gamma and beta particles. Of the two, the beta particles are the more dangerous ones and the ones you acquire when touching things. This is why we don’t touch anything in the 10km exclusion zone.

We were allowed to get close to it to measure it with our Geiger-Muller counters and get that experience of Geiger yelling with its hysterical beeping, “are you out of your mind! Get the fuck out of here!”

I got my Geiger-Muller counter as close as I could without touching the fabric and measured up to 36.76 microSieverts per hour (uSv/h). This was the highest reading on my trip – including inside the power plant.

In the basement, readings can go over 500 uSv/h. I hear the small piece above can still reach up to 200 uSv/h.

We then followed through the hospital hallway, quickly looking at each room we could. (Of course, we didn’t go to the basement).

Exploring Other Important Buildings in Pripyat

As we walked around Pripyat, we visited the river café with its beautiful stained glass, the cultural center, the supermarket, and the building that today has a radiation symbol at its entrance. This is where Boris Shcherbyna and Valery Legasov worked during the disaster. It was their center of command.

Chernobyl Pripyat Hotel and Radiation Center
The building Valery and Boris used as their headquarters during the disaster.

I enjoyed seeing the Prometheus Cinema. While its interior is haunting with its broken screen and the two rows of seating that are still standing, the exterior still has a beautiful mosaic that shows how Pripyat must have been the “it” place to live in.

Pripyat Cinema
The beautiful mosaics at the cinema.
Pripyat Cinema
Inside the Cinema.

But, beyond the hospital, I think the buildings that impacted me the most were the kindergarten and the elementary school. It was surreal being able to enter these buildings that still feel like they are stuck in a state of chaos.

Pripyat Elementary School Interiors
The Elementary School

Pripyat's Kindergarten Interior

Pripyat Kindergarten
Pripyat’s Kindergarten

While the elementary school is quite somber; in the kindergarten, dolls, trucks, toys, clothes, and books are scattered around everywhere. A lot of furniture still fills several rooms. But the most impactful of all were the gas masks.

Since it was the cold war, every school in Pripyat had a gas mask for each kid. Today, these open boxes with hundreds of gas masks are just lying there, as a testament of the paranoia that plagued the Soviet Union (and even the US) back then.

Gas Masks at Pripyat Kindergarten

Gas Masks in Chernobyl Pripyat

The Amusement Park and Stadium

As a model city, Pripyat had an amusement park with a ferris wheel, bumper cars, and other machines. 

It’s a popular belief that the amusement park was never used. In fact, it was used for six months before the disaster, but it was going to be inaugurated on May 1st, 1986. It never happened, of course.

Pripyat Amusement Park

Pripyat's Amusement Park Bumper Cars

Seeing the skeletal remains of the merry go round, bumper car rink, and even the ferris wheel was not only surreal but also quite creepy. Nature is slowly eating this city.

Just next to the amusement park is the stadium. Today, there are no remains of the running track itself, but some of the bleachers still stand there. Contrary to the amusement park, this stadium was never used or inaugurated.

They built the track with the wrong measurements, so they needed to fix it before inaugurating the complex. And again, that never happened. 

Pripyat Stadium
Pripyat’s Stadium

The Living Quarters

We also ventured to some apartment buildings and explored some of its apartments and rooms. Since I went there late October, it was already night time by the time we got there.

Pripyat residential buildings
Some residential buildings in Pripyat.

As you can imagine, this added a sense of creepiness to the whole experience. But, with our phone’s flashlights and headlamps, we ventured in. 

You can still see some furniture in some of the apartments, but not much as most were emptied by the military (called liquidators) during the cleanup. 

Pripyat apartments

Pripyat apartment building

By now, we had spent over four hours in Pripyat, so it was time to head back to Chernobyl to spend the night at their one small hotel. 

Visiting the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP)

The following day was all about the ChNPP. We were finally going into the nuclear plant. Of course, reactor #4 exploded, so it’s impossible to go in it and come out healthy and alive, but reactor #3, which is just next to #4 and basically a still operating replica, is much safer. 

The Arch over Reactor #4 Chernobyl
Standing in front of the arch that covers Reactor #4 in Chernobyl.

Having said that, you can visit the control room at the #4 reactor on certain visits (Monday, Wednesday and Friday).

Unlike when wandering around Pripyat where we could break the “no entering buildings” rule now and then, the tour inside the ChNPP is very strict. There is absolutely no deviation from the plan and they are always watching you.

Before going in, you’re given yet another dosimeter and you sign a release stating that you’ll follow the rules, otherwise they could kick you out, detain you, and deport you from Ukraine. 

Once in, you go through a passport check and immediately visit the bunker inside the power plant. 

This bunker has the emergency living quarters for the plant’s employees as well as a conference room to manage any potential disaster. Every space is constantly measured for radiation and that conference room is the safest place at the power plant, with barely .13 uSv/h.

After the bunker, then we proceeded to put on our overalls which are required for the rest of the visit, given that we will be getting closer and closer to the exploded reactor.

Golden Corridors of Chernobyl
The Golden Corridors of Chernobyl. The lead metal used here reduces the radiation in the corridors.

In the over two-hour visit, our ChNPP guide gave us a detailed account of the events of April 26th, 1986 as well as how everything worked and still works in the power plant.

We visited a monitoring center where two workers sat in front of a lot of panels measuring the energy running through the ChNPP. Even though Chernobyl no longer produces energy, it is still operational as a distribution center. Other nuclear plants in Ukraine produce the energy, yet Chernobyl distributes it.

Monitoring the energy in Chernobyl

The computer room feels like a museum to the 1980’s computing power. It is a huge room full of machines yet the total computing power was less than 800kb. 

The Computer Room in Chernobyl.
The Computer Room

Further in was one of the most impressive rooms in the plant was the control room of reactor #3. It is the same as #4, but better preserved. It looks exactly the same as seen on the HBO series of Chernobyl. 

This is (like) the room where every bad decision was taken that fateful night. Here’s where you can see the A3-5 button that was supposed to shut down the reactor, yet served as the detonator.

Control Room in Reactor 3 Chernobyl

The Control Room at Reactor #3 Chernobyl

The Control Room Chernobyl

Beyond this room, it was time for us to put on our breathing masks and gloves. We would now enter the main circular pumps room next to the reactor and go as close to reactor #4 as possible – this is the thick concrete wall that separates #3 from #4. 

This wall also serves as a memorial to Valery Khodemchuk, who was the first person to die due to the disaster as he died with the explosion. His body was never recovered and he is entombed in the reactor.

Valery's Memorial in Chernobyl
Valery’s Memorial in Chernobyl

Valery might have been the first one to die by the blast, but he was not the only one. There are no exact records but it is estimated that approximately 30 men died from immediate blast trauma and acute radiation syndrome (ARS) in the seconds to months after the disaster. It is estimated that long-term deaths caused by radiation-related cancer range from up to 4,000 to 16,000.

The time we spent in the main circular pumps room was very limited due to the high radiation. Every second we spent there our Geiger-Muller counters were singing like crazy with its readings going all over the place from 20 to 30+ uSv/h.

The circular pumps room in Chernobyl
The Circular Pumps Room

We only spent a few minutes there and we were told where we could stand and where not. As I explained before, radiation doesn’t fall evenly, so there are spots in the room that are more radioactive than others.

Norbert in the circular pumps room in Chernobyl
Some quick shots taken in the brief time we had in the circular pumps room – the most contaminated area during our ChNPP visit.

After culminating the visit, we went out of the power plant to get a close-ish look at the dome over reactor #4. For decades, the reactor was covered by a steel and concrete shell known as the sarcophagus.

This was a protective shell built haphazardly over the exposed reactor immediately after the explosion to contain the radiation. But, in the 2010s a new protective arch was built to cover the sarcophagus and slowly dismantle it and clean the reactor in the coming decades. 

The arch in Chernobyl

The Duga Radar

Another highlight of the trip was seeing the Duga Radar, famously known as the Russian Woodpecker due to the repetitive sharp noise created by its strong radio waves.

This was a top-secret project, so it was built deep in the forest where no one would see it from afar. But, whoever managed to see it, they were told it was a giant tv antenna. 

Duga Radar Chernobyl

The Duga Radar was a Soviet over-the-horizon radar that bounced signals off the ionosphere to peer over the Earth’s curvature. It was supposed to serve as an early-warning missile defense system to protect the Soviet Union from missile attacks from the US. This was the Cold War, after all.

Unfortunately, it never worked. Soviet scientists lacked a full understanding of how the ionosphere works, dooming the project to failure before it was even built.

The most embarrassing thing about the project is that it cost over 8 billion Soviet rubles. Back then the ruble was paired 1:1 with the dollar.

The Duga Radar - Chernobyl

Radioactive Signs at the Duga Radar

The impressive thing about the Duga radar is its massive scale! Once I laid eyes on it, I was struck by the sheer scale of it and by its odd “mad scientist” aesthetics. It still stands at a towering 492 feet (150 meters) high and extends almost 3,000 feet (700 meters) in length. 

Unfortunately, like everything else in Chernobyl, the radar was left to rot after the disaster. When walking next to the giant structure, you’ll notice how parts of it were dismantled at one point.

People thought it would be smart to sell its metal parts, but no metal can leave the exclusion zone due to its contamination, so they left the pieces on the ground, adding to the eerie feel associated with the zone.

Duga Radar Corridor
The 700 meters long corridor that served as part of the radar.

The Reactor #5 Cooling Tower

The cooling towers are not part of typical tours, but so far we’d behaved like a good sneaky group, so our guide allowed us to visit the cooling tower that is now symbolic with most modern nuclear plants. 

This cooling tower was never finished, so you can still see the scaffolds on the top rim of the tower. 

Reactor 5 cooling tower Chernobyl

Cooling tower art in Chernobyl
Some stunning art inside the cooling tower

Walking inside it gave made me feel so small! The acoustics there are insane too. Drop a small rock and its echo could be heard a mile away. 

We all walked silently, until when we were ready to leave, when we all clapped and “woo-ed” just to get the echo experience. We then ran away from the tower! We didn’t want to get caught there.

Kopachi Village

Last but not least, is Kopachi Village. I’m almost certain you haven’t heard of Kopachi, but this was the closest village to the power plant. With just over 1,100 residents, this small village didn’t seem to be as important as Pripyat to local authorities. It wasn’t even evacuated until almost two weeks after the explosion. 

After Kopachi village was evacuated by the authorities, all the houses were bulldozed and buried, as an experiment. 

The government did not recognize the fact that burying these highly-contaminated houses would drive radio-toxins deeper into the environment and seep radioactive isotopes into the water table. 

This was the only village that suffered this fate given that most of its structures were made of wood. Authorities there were worried that the village could catch fire at some point, causing a forest fire in the area. 

A forest fire would be catastrophic as it would raise the radioactive isotopes back to the surface and release radioactive ash into the air.

Kopachi Village Kindergarten
The bed frames at the Kopachi Village Kindergarten.

The only traces left of the village today are a series of mounds containing the remains of each house, and the kindergarten which wasn’t bulldozed. Careful when walking around the school, as the ground is still highly radioactive in this village. Some parts of the soil around it still measure 10+ uSv/h.

While in the kindergarten building, you’ll see several creepy dolls, children bed frames, and more of that eerie Chernobyl feel.

Debunking Myths

Like most eerie places around the world, there are dozens of myths about Chernobyl. While I don’t know all of them, I can at least debunk three of them:

No, there are no mutants

While several deformed fetuses developed in the years following the disaster, no mutant-like person or animal roams around the zone. So no, you won’t see a two-headed cow or whatever. There are lots of dogs and puppies around Chernobyl. It is safe to pet them. You can just wash your hands later with cold water. 

Puppy in Chernobyl

No naked miners

The HBO series shows the miners working naked. While it’s true their conditions were hot and extreme, they never dug naked. At most, in their underwear.

No bridge of death

This bridge is famous, and even the HBO series claims that no one on the bridge survived. This is false. The explosion happened at 1 am when most people were sleeping, so they were not going to just stand there with their babies and whatnot. The bridge doesn’t even have the best view of Chernobyl. 

Reactor 5 and 6 under construction in Chernobyl
The view of the unfinished reactor #5 and #6. Those construction cranes are still standing there since 1986.

Is Chernobyl Safe to Visit?

Definitely! There are still radioactive places in the Chernobyl zone, but their radiation levels are now much lower than in 1986. Most of the radioactive isotopes have gone deep into the soil.

Although, there are areas that are still highly radioactive. But as long as you follow the rules and don’t stray away from where your guide is taking you, you’ll be safe. You’ll only be visiting moderate to low radiation areas.

The stained glass at the cafe in Pripyat.
The beautiful stained glass at the cafe in Pripyat.

To have an idea, the total dose of radiation you get from one day in Chernobyl is around 3 uSv (microSieverts) and 4-5 uSv on a two-day tour. This compares to the amount of radiation you get during a one to two-hour flight.

Those entering the power plant get a slightly higher dose, but still safe. To have an idea, the safe limit at most nuclear plants around the world is 100 uSv per day.

In the words of Anatoly Dyatlov, “not great, not terrible.”

Other Important details you Should Know When Planning Your Trip to Chernobyl

Getting to Kyiv

The best way to get to Chernobyl is by flying to Kyiv, Ukraine since most tours start there. You can find the cheapest flights to Kyiv on Skyscanner and Kayak.

Soda machines at the cafe in Pripyat
The Soda machines at the cafe in Pripyat. This was pretty modern at the time in the Soviet Union.

Where to stay in Kyiv

I stayed close to the train station as that’s the pickup area for most tours, including Chernobylwel.com’s. I stayed at the Ibis Kiev Railway Hotel and recommend it. (Book it here or check its reviews on TripAdvisor).

In previous visits, I’ve stayed closer to the center, which is a better location overall if you want to sightsee the city. I recommend staying at the KievInn. (Book it here or check its reviews on TripAdvisor).

Alternatively, if you’re looking for a budget accommodation, I also stayed at the TIU Khreshchatik Hostel, which is pretty cheap and quite sociable. They have private and dorm rooms available. (Book it here or check its reviews on TripAdvisor).

Travel Insurance

Given that this is not a typical tour, you should buy travel insurance. I recommend WorldNomads as it’s one of the best adventure travel insurance out there.

Don’t Forget your Passport

Without it, you won’t be allowed into the Exclusion Zone.

Have Proper Clothing and Shoes

You need to wear long sleeved shirts or jackets and long pants/trousers. You must also wear covered shoes. If the guards see you dressed impreperly, they will not allow you to access the Exclusion Zone.

Take Snacks

Take some snacks with you as there’s only one canteen near the power plant and one small market in Chernobyl city.

Chernobyl snack shop

Take Enough Cash with You

Depending on your tour, you may be asked to pay cash during pickup. Also, take cash to pay at the cantina (if your lunch is not included) and at the small shop at night (if staying overnight). There’s also a souvenir shop in the cantina and at the 30km checkpoint, but they also accept credit cards.

No Pregant Women or Under 18 Years Old

Unfortunately, if you’re under 18 years old, you can’t visit Chernobyl. Additionally, for health and safety reasons, pregnant women aren’t allowed into the Exclusion Zone.

Entering the Control Room in Reactor #4

It is possible to enter this room as part of the ChNPP tour, but it is open for tourists only on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for a special price and with special protective gear for a limited time. The Control Room #4 is still highly contaminated. Make sure you plan your visit so the ChNPP day falls on one of the above mentioned days.

The ChNPP is closed on the Weekends

If you’re doing a private tour, make sure not to plan your ChNPP for Saturday or Sunday as the power plant will be closed. If you’re doing a group tour with the ChNPP and one of those two days falls on a weekend, your company will accommodate the schedule so that the visit to the ChNPP falls on a Friday or Monday.

Some Safety Rules you Should Follow when in Chernobyl

  1. Don’t act like it is an amusement park. Even though radioactivity levels have decreased significantly, it is still a very contaminated place.
  2. Taking pictures of security measures and the military is forbidden.
  3. Do not touch anything or sit on the ground. Except for where you stand on, avoid contact with any contaminated surface. Sitting on the ground significantly increases the risk of contamination.
  4. Avoid additional exposure. You’re not allowed to wear shorts, short sleeve t-shirts, skirts, or any other open types of clothing during your visit. Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts/t-shirts.
  5. Do not take any item originating from the Zone. Not only it is dangerous for your health, but also strictly prohibited by the law.
  6. Do not eat or drink when outdoors. You can swallow radioactive dust along with your food – and they will remain inside your body.
  7. Do not consume alcohol or any drugs. You must be sober and in adequate condition while in the Zone.
  8. Do not smoke anywhere except in designated areas. They are extremely paranoid about fires in the Zone. Fires cause the radiation particles that have gone deep into the earth to rise to the surface, thus re-contaminating the Zone.
  9. Entering buildings in Pripyat is forbidden, but as you saw, some guides break this rule now and then. Do not enter buildings in Pripyat without your guide’s permission. Also, don’t step on any rusted metal (stairs or pathway) as they could collapse at any minute.

Lastly, is it Worth Visiting Chernobyl?

Well, if the last 5,700 words didn’t give it, then I’ll say it here. Hell yeah!! Especially with Chernobylwel.com as they did an excellent job at showing the best of the Exclusion Zone.

Also, before going, I do recommend reading about Chernobyl and seeing as much as possible to grasp the importance and significance of this place. As an example, check these stunning historic images and these Facts vs Myths of Chernobyl. Lastly, you can see this whole experience on my Instagram stories highlights.

Chernobyl: A Complete Guide To Visiting One of the most Radioactive Places on Earth

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2 thoughts on “Chernobyl: A Complete Guide to Visiting One of the Most Radioactive Places on Earth”

  1. I’m an amateur photographer and looking for a photography workshop in Chernobyl. Is there a tour company that caters exclusively with photographers within your organization?

    1. Hi Juan –

      I’m not part of the tour company; I just wrote about my experience with Chernobylwel.com. But, I highly recommend you contact them as they offer private tours that can focus on photography. These guys have toured Chernobyl and Pripyat hundreds of times, so they know all the cool spots and nice perspectives. I recommend you check their two-day tour as it is their most popular option. You could contact them and ask them about the photo ops and if it’s better to do a private one instead.

      Even if it’s not a photo-specific tour, you still have the chance to photograph pretty much everything! Mine wasn’t a photo tour, yet I was able (and given time) to capture everything I saw.

      Hope this helps!
      Norbert

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