Can you visit Chernobyl without a guide?
Illegal explorers come in on foot at night, wading across the Uzh river, climbing barbed-wire fences, and walking 40km to Pripyat.
They camp overnight in one of the 160 small abandoned villages inside the zone, before making the final incursion the next night to explore the town in darkness, avoiding the police. This allows them to go inside buildings like the Volkhov anti-aircraft base not normally visited by tour groups due to the risk from unstable buildings, or perhaps due to political sensitivity because many official buildings still contain Soviet propaganda.
There is undoubtedly a black market for propaganda and military relics stolen from the exclusion zone. The explorers are part of the underground scene known as urban Exploration or “Urbex”, increasingly popular around the world. They even climb to the top of the Duga radar at dawn for a 150m high view of the exclusion zone wilderness.
The Ukrainian Army uses parts of Pripyat for military exercises. Bulletholes in walls and windows are becoming an increasingly common sight in visitor’s instagram stories.
Your visit will be safe and legal, but most certainly a thrilling, chilling, and thought-provoking one.
Basic facts about visiting Chernobyl
Most tours are a day trip from Kiev. Some tours involve an overnight stay at a hotel inside the zone but a long way from Pripyat. Pripyat is a 2 hour drive from Kiev, a distance of 100km. Tours can be booked easily online but should be booked in advance due to daily limits on visitor numbers and a requirement to register your passport details beforehand. Tour prices start at around £80 per person.
See our selection of the best Chernobyl tours.
Technically you’re not allowed inside the buildings in Pripyat, but most tour guides do take visitors into some of the bigger buildings that are known to be in reasonable condition and not at risk of collapse. Some visitors have been taken to the top of one of the old apartment buildings to get amazing views over the town.
Tours are only for those aged over 18, and the area is not suitable for wheelchairs or those with mobility issues.
Visiting Chernobyl has increased in popularity recently, but despite the seemingly large number of tour buses you will see at the morning pickup, daily visitor numbers are still limited. Tours follow different routes through the sites, and especially in Pripyat itself the town is so big and so overgrown with the encroaching wilderness that you will often feel like your little tour group are the only people there. It can be eerily silent, and that other tour group a hundred metres away can be completely unseen and unheard through the trees.
Outline of a Chernobyl tour
You will be given a designated meeting point in the centre of Kiev where you will wait for your tour bus to pick up the group. The buses are generally modern purpose-built European or Japanese minibuses in good condition with professional drivers. You must register with your guide as there can be many buses all picking up at the same time and you need to be on the right one.
Tours typically leave at 8am and the drive to Pripyat takes 2 hours. At the military checkpoint into the exclusion zone you will disembark the bus and have your passport checked. You will pass the Chernobyl town sign, which is great photo opportunity, before proceeding towards Pripyat.
Before Pripyat you will stop to visit some of the small outer villages. This is where you really start to experience how nature is taking over and see some of the artefacts left behind by the evacuees.
Pripyat is the star attraction and here your guide will show you around the town, including the apartment buildings, football stadium, swimming pool, and of course the fairground.
Next up will be a visit to the power station itself, where you will see the protective dome shielding the remains of reactor number 4.
You will stop at the Pripyat town sign, another iconic photo stop. There are often foxes here and sadly some of the guides and drivers are known to throw food to the foxes to encourage them to show up for the tourists photos.
Most tours head back to the town of Chernobyl that houses all the workers who operate inside the zone, for lunch in the big Chernobyl Cafeteria. Your lunch is included in the tour and everyone gets the same. All food and drink in the town is brought in from outside the zone and is safe to consume. You will need to specify a vegetarian option when you book.
Before heading back towards Kiev there are a few more important sights because Chernobyl is full of monuments and statues, such as the firefighters memorial, also known as the Monument Of Those Who Saved the World. The memorial displaying the names of the hundreds of towns and villages that were evacuated is a striking illustration of the scale of the effect this disaster had on the people of Ukraine.
There is also a fascinating graveyard of robots that were used to clear up radioactive graphite from around the reactor, most of which failed quickly due to the intense radiation destroying electrical controls.
The final stop is a little different, but equally eerie in its abandoned state, and another dream for photographers. It is the ‘Duga’ over-the-horizon early-warning radar system, or ‘Russian Woodpecker”.
Chernobyl tour itinerary
Here’s a typical itinerary of a Chernobyl day trip.
- 08:00 Pickup near Kiev’s Independence Square including passport and dress-code check
- Drive to Dytyatky checkpoint at the edge of the 30km exclusion zone
- Briefing about rules and regulations
- Sightseeing Chernobyl town
- Through the Leliv 10km zone checkpoint
- Visit the power plant and reactor number 4 and sarcophagus, viewed from a couple of hundred meters away
- Pripyat road sign
- Sightseeing Pripyat town including fairground
- Lunch at the Chernobyl canteen
- Visit the Duga radar station
- Compulsory radiation control at the 30km checkpoint
- Return to Kiev around 19:00
The tour takes about 10 hours.
What to take and what to wear when you visit Chernobyl
You won’t be allowed in without your passport.
The terrain is rough and overgrown. Buildings are collapsing. You need sturdy footwear, and it must be closed to avoid getting any contamination inside. Sandals are not acceptable. Likewise, you should wear long trousers and long sleeves, to avoid any contamination of your skin, and will not be allowed in if you don’t follow the dress code.
You will want to take your camera and memory cards and batteries, and must remember not to put your camera or your bag down on the floor or on any surface, to prevent contamination.
It can get very cold so take suitable warm layers. In autumn or winter you will definitely need gloves and hats. In summer, insect repellent may be advisable.
At the lunch stop you may find it useful to have antiseptic wipes for cleaning your hands.
You may want to take drinks and snacks to have on the tour bus, but do not take them off the bus when you explore the zone. Consuming food and drink inside the zone is not allowed. There can be radioactive particles being blown around on the breeze and these can land on your skin. They will not cause harm on the outside of your body. If you are eating, and consume radioactive particles, those particles can cause damage at a cellular level inside your body. Don’t eat or drink outside.
You should also consider wearing a head covering to prevent getting dust in your hair.
After your tour, shower thoroughly and also put your clothes through the laundry. Do this at your hotel, don’t pack them and wait until you return home.
- Good walking shoes
- Long trousers and long sleeves
- Consider a head covering
- Warm clothes in all but summer
- No food or drink
- Antiseptic wipes or hand gel
- Insect repellent
- Fully charged camera batteries and empty memory cards
- Afterwards, shower thoroughly and wash your clothes
How long can you stay in Chernobyl?
Most tours are one day. There are a few two day tours which include an overnight stay at a hotel in Chernobyl town, which is far enough away from Pripyat to be safe. During a 1 or 2 day tour you will receive radiation equivalent to a long haul flight, so this is safe. There are no tours longer than this because it would start to be unsafe and because you can not enter the exclusion zone without an approved guide, and no guides want to spend longer than 2 days in the zone with their groups. It would be acceptably safe to stay longer but in practical terms it’s only possible to stay at most for one night.
Important things to know about visiting Chernobyl
the exclusion zone is protected by armed military. You will be required to give your tour operator your passport details before the trip. Your passport will be checked at the military checkpoint and you will be turned away if there is a discrepancy. This means it can be nearly impossible to book a tour at the last minute. You must make arrangements a few days in advance to allow your passport details to be submitted. There are also limits on the number of visitors per day, so book ahead.
And remember to take your passport!
At the checkpoint there will be armed and uniformed soldiers and police, and photography is forbidden. No problem taking photos inside the zone though.
Although most of the radioactive debris has been collected and removed there is still an underlying level of radiation in the dust and in many of the objects in the zone. Don’t touch anything. Don’t lean against doors. Don’t put your bag or your camera on the floor. Most of all, do not sit on the floor!
Everyone has to pass through a radiation detector, to ensure that they don’t take out any contaminated items. Even the dust on your shoes can set off the detector. Your guide will probably tell you the story of a girl who got tired on the tour and decided to sit down on the floor. She was stopped at the radiation detector, had to leave her trousers behind, and travel back to Kiev on the tour bus in her underwear.
You will be asked to sign a disclaimer about the potential exposure to radiation hazards. Is it safe to visit Chernobyl?
What to do in Kiev
When visiting Chernobyl, you’ve come all the way to Kiev so you may as well make the most of it. Kiev is a beautiful city with many wonderful things to do, but you will also be in position to make very easy and hugely worthwhile visits to nearby Minsk in Belarus and Chisinau in Moldova. Be sure to visit the Kiev Chernobyl Museum.
Is it safe to visit Chernobyl?
Yes, it is widely agreed to be safe to visit Chernobyl for a short period. See our detailed answer here – Is it safe to visit Chernobyl?
When is the best time to visit Chernobyl?
The high season is from June to September. The best time to visit Chernobyl is simply the same time you want to visit Kiev. Chernobyl can be visited all year round, but as a day trip from Kiev it won’t be your entire trip. Decide whether you want to visit Kiev in the summer or winter. Chernobyl in winter has the advantage of snow cover and lack of foliage making for some spectacular photographic opportunities, but you must remember that this deep inside mainland Europe the winters can be bitterly cold.
If you are also planning to visit neighbouring countries like the Eastern Bloc curiosity that is Moldova and the stunning Communist hold-out of Belarus, then a desire to avoid transportation difficulties would suggest also avoiding winter.
Preparing for your trip to Chernobyl
To really appreciate your visit to Chernobyl you should know some of the history and scandal surrounding the disaster. The good news is that there are several books, documentaries and TV series that are unmissable even if you don’t plan to visit the site. See our guides to the best books and resources to prepare for your visit.
The best Chernobyl tours
Finally, you will want to take some time choosing your tour operator. The best Chernobyl tours are listed here.