The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Pripyat has since become a prominent media subject, most recently appearing in the 2019 HBO drama miniseries, Chernobyl. These portrayals have prompted a surge in tourism to the now-abandoned city. However, many critics of this spike in tourism cite the safety concerns of entering a city still registering hazardous radiation levels.
It is safe to visit the Chernobyl exclusion zone in Pripyat, provided you take the proper legal and safety precautions issued by the Ukrainian government. You must visit Chernobyl with a guide and remain on the designated routes.
Chernobyl is an intriguing place to explore for history buffs, media lovers, and avid travelers alike. To learn more about Chernobyl’s fascinating history and media coverage, the remnants of the now-abandoned city of Pripyat, and the safe and legal way to experience the city, keep reading.
The Safe Way to Visit Chernobyl
The Ukrainian government has officially declared Chernobyl an official tourist site, according to The Washington Post, which places Chernobyl among many other “dark tourism” sites. The Chernobyl exclusion zone still contains a dangerous amount of radiation, but this radioactivity remains relatively harmless in small doses.
Therefore, a short trip to the Chernobyl exclusion zone should be safe, but here are a few precautionary steps you can take to mitigate any potential danger.
Limit Contact in Exclusion Zone
Most areas of Pripyat will not subject you to exceptional amounts of radiation. However, touching any object, surface, or living thing within Pripyat will subject you to a potentially harmful amount.
Wear a Mask and Gloves
One method for limiting contact is to wear a face mask (not a gas mask) and gloves. Dust kicked up from walking through the Pripyat can easily be ingested and will contain radioactive particles. You should also refrain from touching Anything, but gloves might help provide an additional layer of assurance.
Bring Disposable Clothes
Another method for limiting contact is to wear long-sleeved, thick clothing that you would not mind disposing of after your trip. Your clothing will retain the radioactive particles you will encounter in Pripyat, and it would be wise not to keep radioactive clothing lying around the house.
Do a Guided Tour
Finally, using a guided tour will grant you a safe path through Pripyat. Some places are far more radioactive than others, and their levels can change depending on the wind. According to The Chernobyl Gallery, places like Café Pripyat and the Pripyat cemetery consistently register radiation levels between 13-22 uSv/hr.
Those levels can create serious health issues if you are exposed to them for too long. It does not hurt to have an expert along for the journey to prevent these issues from arising. Furthermore, Ukrainian law requires that tourists use a tour guide to visit the exclusion zone in Pripyat, so there is no other legal method to do so.
The Legal Way to Visit Chernobyl
Speaking of legal methods to visit the exclusion zone, the Ukrainian government has a strict set of rules for doing so. Although tourists have braved Chernobyl for decades since the radioactive blast in 1986, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky just declared Chernobyl an official tourist attraction in 2019, according to BBC News.
Here are the set of rules associated with official Chernobyl tourism.
You Are Required to Have a Guide
It is prohibited to enter the exclusion zone without an envoy officer (guide). You can find these tours online, and a typical 1-day tour costs around $80-180 US Dollars.
You Must Stay on the Designated Path
Straying from the path is strictly prohibited. With these tours come designated routes that the envoy officer will lead you on. It is imperative that you do not stray from the designated route your envoy officer takes you on.
You Must be 18 Years Old to Tour Chernobyl
The Chernobyl tour is prohibited to those who are not 18 years of age. Do not attempt to bring your children on this tour. Even accompanied by an adult, children are prohibited from touring the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
You Cannot Take Anything from the Exclusion Zone
It is prohibited and subject to criminal responsibility to take any items out of the zone. This is crucial not only for the obvious legal reasons but for your and others’ safety. Items within the exclusion zone contain harmful levels of radiation, and exposing the outside world to that radiation is not only dangerous but a criminal offense.
Always Follow the Rules
The above are things you are required to do while visiting Chernobyl. However, there is a strict list of rules to follow, so write these down and put them in your back pocket.
During your visit to Chernobyl, it is prohibited to do any of the following:
- Consume food, liquor, or drugs
- Smoke in the open air
- Carry weapons
- Sit, lay, or place personal belongings on the ground
- Touch any items, buildings, animals, and vegetation
- Violate the dress code: no open-toed shoes, long-sleeves, pants
- Abandon the tour group or route
These sections outline the essential legal and safety measures for visiting the Chernobyl exclusion zone in Pripyat. However, you may still have questions on the precautions you should or should not take and the methods you can or cannot take to visit Pripyat. The next section will detail a few frequently asked questions on the Chernobyl tourism experience.
Can You Go to Chernobyl Without a Guide?
The Ukrainian government has strict rules regarding tourism in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. For one, it is prohibited to enter and explore the exclusion zone without a tour guide, also referred to as an envoy officer. Even if it was not prohibited, I would never recommend visiting the Chernobyl exclusion zone without the accompaniment of an experienced guide.
A one- or two-day tour through the exclusion zone will likely expose you to less radiation than the flight to Ukraine. However, there are still areas in Pripyat with extremely dangerous levels of radiation, should you be exposed to them for too long.
There are plenty of additional benefits to using a tour guide during your trip to Pripyat. Many of these tour guides are academics with specific historical and cultural knowledge regarding the Chernobyl plant explosion and the city of Pripyat prior to and after the explosion. Respecting and listening to the tour guide will make your trip far more informative and, in turn, enjoyable.
Can You Go to Chernobyl Without a Suit?
Although it may deliver you peace of mind, you are not required to wear a hazmat or any other protective suit while touring the Chernobyl exclusion zone. There is a strict dress code associated with each tour, which typically includes closed-toed shoes, long-sleeves, and pants. Additional clothing or safety materials are not required.
There are some optional clothes or safety materials that will mitigate the risk of exposure you will face in Chernobyl. Many tourists recommend a face mask and gloves to limit the amount of radiation you may ingest and touch.
This does not mean you should purchase a full-face gas mask or respirator. Some precautionary measures are simply unnecessary and may only serve to cause you discomfort during your trip. I recommend picking up a pack of Enerplex Premium 3-Ply Reusable Face Masks.
If a face mask does not feel safe enough, the Chernobyl Welcome tours provide respirator masks for their tour groups on-site.
How Do You Get to Chernobyl?
Unless you are a resident of Ukraine, you will likely have to begin your journey to Chernobyl on a flight. The nearest airport is Boryspil International Airport in the city of Kiev, or Kyiv. This is fortunate as Boryspil is Ukraine’s largest airport, which will make the search for direct flights much easier. Most major European cities have direct flights to Boryspil International Airport.
In planning this trip, I recommend staying at a hotel, Airbnb, or any other accommodation within the city of Kiev. The options for shelter between Kyiv and Pripyat are scarce, and Kyiv is a charming tourist destination in its own right. I recommend picking up a copy of Lonely Planet’s Ukraine to find out what to see and do to make the most of your stay in Kyiv.
Also, most of these tours depart from Kyiv, so it is easier to simply stay in the city until then.
Before your departure date, make sure to check the confirmation for your tour to find your meeting point. Most of these tours depart from Kyiv Central Railway Station. On your departure date, make your way to the meeting point at your assigned time. Unless you have chosen a private tour, you will be picked up in a minibus with 10-12 other people and taken to Pripyat.
There are tour companies that offer group tours for more than 12 people, but I would recommend limiting the size of your tour group. It will make the experience more intimate.
Which Tour Company Should You Choose?
Various companies offer both one- and two-day guided tours through the Chernobyl exclusion zone. These companies have slight variations in the price unless you go the private tour route but skew more in terms of their quality and offer differing features.
Here is a list of some of the most popular tour companies and a brief overview of their price, quality, and features.
This company offers affordably priced one-, two-, and even three-day tours through Chernobyl at roughly $88, $299, and $439, respectively. The two- and three-day tours include an additional amount for lodging at the Hotel Rekton, Hotel Pripyat, or a luxury cottage in Orane near Chernobyl, according to SoloEast’s Kyiv tours website.
The one-day tour offers all of the major sightseeing opportunities in Chernobyl, like the Wormwood Star memorial, St. Ilya Church, and the “To Those Who Saved the World” Memorial. It also runs through Pripyat, so sightseeing opportunities like the main square, Lenin Street, the Ferris wheel, and the Polissya Hotel.
The one-day tour departs from Maidan Nezalezhnosti, “Independence Square,” at 8:00 a.m. and returns to Kyiv around 7:00 p.m. Only lunch is included in the one-day tour.
The two- and three-day tours offer all of the major sightseeing opportunities in Chernobyl and Pripyat, with additional exploration on the second day. This additional exploration includes more sightseeing opportunities but also a chance to visit and meet self-settlers in the region.
The two-day tour departs from Maidan Nezalezhnosti at 8:00 a.m. and returns to Kyiv the following day around 7:00 p.m. Lunch and dinner are included on the first day, and breakfast and lunch are included on the following day.
Overall, SoloEast Travel is an excellent option for first-timers who are looking for an affordable tour with plenty of options, sightseeing opportunities, and accommodations.
Below you can watch a video about some of the things you will experience with SoloEast Travel:
This company offers a similar Chernobyl tourism package to SoloEast Travel. ChernobylTRAVEL prices its one- and two-day tours at roughly the same rates as SoloEast Travel but does not offer a three-day tour.
ChernobylTRAVEL’s one- and two-day tours feature the same sightseeing opportunities as SoloEast Travel in Pripyat. The only major difference is that ChernobylTRAVEL’s tours take you to Pripyat first and then Chernobyl, whereas SoloEast starts in Chernobyl and ends with Pripyat.
There is only one lodging option with ChernobylTRAVEL, the Pripyat Hotel. However, there are few, if any, complaints about the lodging at the Pripyat Hotel.
ChernobylTRAVEL is also notable for featuring many exceptionally positive reviews on Trip Advisor, many of which cite the tour company’s excellent tour guides.
Overall, ChernobylTRAVEL is an excellent option for those who prioritize a tour guide who goes above and beyond over a tour company with more lodging and duration options.
Gamma Travel is a less popular tour company that offers roughly the same sightseeing opportunities as ChernobylTRAVEL and SoloEast Travel. The main difference with Gamma Travel is that they pack much more into their one-day tour, and the tour lasts slightly longer.
The Gamma Travel tour meets in downtown Kyiv at 7:30 a.m., and you do not return until roughly 8:00 p.m. Like ChernobylTRAVEL, Gamma Travel offers one- and two-day tours. The one-day tour packs in more than either of the previous one-day tours, but the two-day tour includes roughly the same amount of sightseeing opportunities.
According to Gamma Travel’s website, one of the activities listed on the second day is to “meet the local, friendly dogs,” which seems somewhat reckless as it is dangerous to pet any animals living around the exclusion zone.
The Gamma Travel tour is priced at about the same rate as SoloEast Travel and ChernobylTRAVEL, but for the two-day tour, a hotel room is not guaranteed. In this instance, the backup option is to stay in a nearby hostel.
Overall, Gamma Travel features slightly more sightseeing opportunities on its one-day tour than SoloEast or Gamma Travel. However, the company’s questionable itinerary and uncertain lodging mark it a tier below its competitors.
Chernobyl Welcome is one of the few tour companies to be a member of the Chernobyl Tour Operator Association. This tour company has a slightly higher one-day tour price at about $120, but its heightened price is warranted through its added tour features.
At the beginning of the Chernobyl Welcome tour, each member of the tour is gifted a free respirator to wear during the tour at their own volition.
The one-day Chernobyl Welcome tour is about as long as the one-day Gamma Travel tour, beginning at 7:30 a.m. and returning to Kyiv around 8:00 p.m. Similar to the Gamma Travel tour, the Chernobyl Welcome tour features additional sightseeing opportunities, including the dosimetric controls for the nuclear power plant.
According to their website, Chernobyl Welcome is also the only tour that offers the chance to meet and speak with liquidators and witnesses to the original Chernobyl power plant explosion in 1986.
There are several lodging options you can choose from for Chernobyl Welcome’s two-day tours, including Hotel Pripyat, Hotel 10, and Hotel Slavutych. The two-day tours are priced about the same as their competitor’s two-day tours.
Overall, Chernobyl Welcome is a slightly pricier option for one-day tours, but its exclusive tour features warrant its price.
ChernobylLab stands out as one of the few tour companies to only offer one-day public group tours. With a comparably high price to Chernobyl Welcome, about $125 per person, and roughly the same itinerary as any other Chernobyl tour, the ChernobylLab one-day tour does not stack up well against its competitors.
However, ChernobylLab offers private two- and three-day tours that stack up quite well against their competitors. For instance, the two-day tour is priced relative to the number of people in your private group. Therefore, if you are traveling in a group of four or more, the price per person would be less than the price of a public two-day tour with any other tour company.
In addition, the private ChernobylLab tours offer exclusive sites to their tour groups, such as a secret museum built from a restored radiation control outpost in the Ilovnitsa village.
Overall, ChernobylLab is an excellent option for those seeking an affordable private tour of Chernobyl with exclusive features that make the extra day even more worthwhile.
Ukrainian Web Chernobyl Tours
Finally, the cheapest option for one-day tours through Chernobyl can be found at Ukrainian Web Chernobyl Tours. Their pricing starts as low as $77 per person for a one-day tour, and their tour itinerary does not sacrifice Anything that is present on any other tour.
There are a few important things to note for each of these tours. For one, personal dosimeters are allowed on tour but are typically only available to rent out during your trip. If you are a radiation fanatic and would like your own personal dosimeter, I recommend purchasing the RADEX RD1503+ Dosimeter.
Another crucial tip for photographers and videographers is that photography and videography are permitted throughout the tour. There is not a single blackout zone. However, if you wish to use a drone or quadcopter, you must first acquire a permit.
Finally, be sure to make the most out of the gas station stop on the way to Chernobyl as restroom breaks during the tours are few and far between. I also recommend picking up a coffee and even a light snack as the one-day tour makes for a long day with only one break for lunch.
What Can You Expect During the Chernobyl Tour?
Although there are slight variations between each tour company, most of these tours take similar routes and visit the same places. The order you visit these places may differ between tours, and you may not be able to even see every place listed on your tour’s itinerary. However, for your edification, here is a sample itinerary for the average one-day Chernobyl tour.
- 8:00 a.m. – Tour departs from Kyiv at the assigned meeting location
- 9:00 a.m. – Midway rest stop at a gas station
- 10:00 a.m. – Arrive at Dytiatky checkpoint, where you will go through passport control
- 10:30 a.m. – Visit the abandoned village of Zalissya
- 11:00 a.m. – Begin your tour in the town of Chernobyl. Here you will likely visit
- The main square, The Wormwood Star Memorial
- Statue of Lenin
- An abandoned synagogue
- The Chernobyl road sign
- A church
- The industrial site of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
- Alley of Hope and Memory (Graveyard)
- Monument “To Those Who Saved the World”
- Prometheus Statue
- The village of Kopachi
- 1:00 p.m. – Lunch at the Chernobyl canteen
- 2:00 p.m. – Arrive in the city of Pripyat. Here you will likely visit
- The Pripyat city sign
- Hotel Polissya
- The Ferris Wheel
- The bumper cars
- The “Red Forest”
- The “Bridge of Death”
- A public swimming pool
- A middle school
- A hospital
- The Chernobyl -2 military base and Duga OTH Radar
- 5:00 p.m. – Depart from Pripyat, complete final check out at Dytyatki checkpoint
- 7:00 p.m. – Return to Kyiv
There are additional sightseeing opportunities on the two-day tour, but the itinerary listed above features the most sought-after tourist attractions in Chernobyl and Pripyat. There is also the option to tour the Nuclear Power Plant for an additional price, so if the inner machinations of the power plant interest, I recommend looking into this option.
The season you visit Chernobyl in will also affect your tour experience. In the winter, Chernobyl can reach lows of 22 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes the essential long-sleeves and gloves a bonus. For the best gloves to bring to Chernobyl, I recommend SIMARI Winter Touch Screen Gloves, so you can keep warm and easily take pictures on your phone without removing your gloves.
The History of Chernobyl
The Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion occurred before dawn on Saturday, April 26, 1986. During routine maintenance on one of four RBMK nuclear reactors installed at the plant, workers violated safety protocols and sparked a power surge within the reactor.
This caused a chain reaction of explosions within the reactor that exposed its nuclear core, expelling radioactive material into the atmosphere. Two people died in the explosion, but according to former Ukrainian Health Minister Andrei Serdyuk, the effects of that blast have accumulated a death toll of over 125,000.
The incident occurred when Ukraine was still part of the USSR, and the publicizing of the incident was delayed in part due to fears of it being a political risk. The town of Chernobyl and the city of Pripyat were not evacuated until roughly 36 hours after the explosion occurred, populations of 14,000 and about 50,000, respectively.
These evacuations led to further long-term harm as many families were permanently uprooted from their hometown, legally forbidden from returning. The few villagers who have illegally returned to Chernobyl have largely done so out of necessity.
This history will be available during your Chernobyl tour. However, I believe this information is important to learn prior to your trip for the following reasons.
Things to Keep in Mind as a Tourist in Chernobyl
As is the case when visiting any place, there are a few things you should keep in mind in order to respect the place you are visiting as a tourist.
Above all else, make sure you educate yourself on the history of the Chernobyl blast and the impact it has had on the people of Chernobyl, Pripyat, and the greater Ukrainian population. On the two-day tour, you will get to meet the people who have been affected by this incident firsthand. Having this knowledge about the Chernobyl incident will only benefit this interaction.
In addition, be respectful of your surroundings. There seems to be enough incentive here, as touching any object may expose you to harmful amounts of radiation. However, many tourists have been pictured climbing into bumper cars, entering buildings without permission, and generally straying from the designated path.
Finally, be aware of everything you bring with you on this trip. It is better to travel light to Chernobyl as Anything you bring may be contaminated by radiation. However, there are certain things you must bring with you, such as your passport. Be sure to properly conceal any important materials so as to prevent any potential contamination.
Anything that may have been contaminated during your trip should be disposed of as it is better not to keep any potentially radioactive objects lying around the house.
Enjoy your trip!