Visiting Chernobyl

Visiting Chernobyl

I’ve been visiting Chernobyl since 2011; since first visiting I’ve witnessed some dramatic changes, and I’ve been fortunate to experience some incredibly unique events. I was one of the first people to fly a drone in Chernobyl, one of the first to visit inside the reactor building, and I was probably the first ‘tourist’ to drive a minibus for tours. I’ve visited Chernobyl more times than I can remember. After visiting a number of times alone, then with friends and friends of friends, I then started organising tours for anybody.

Since I’ve visited Chernobyl so many times, I’ve built up a lot of trust in the zone with the guides and guards. That trust has allowed me to experience this zone in a completely unique way, and it’s fair to say that I’ve gotten away with things that many people would not be allowed. I’ve walked Pripyat alone, completely detached from any tour group or guide, and using only my own sense of direction. I’ve abseiled from the Ferris wheel and apartment blocks in Pripyat. Climbing to the top of Duga was so good I’ve done it twice. I was even allowed to drive around Chernobyl Town past curfew, and once on a clear night I drank beers in Pripyat while watching the sun go down. In this way I’ve been very lucky!

Sarcophagus Being Built

Visiting Chernobyl – In the Beginning

The first time I visited Chernobyl was back in 2011. Back then was very different to how it might be if you visited today. Back then there was much more formality with rules and red tape. Visiting Chernobyl today is much less restrictive and the whole process is geared around tourism.

Since I first visited Chernobyl, Reactor 4 has had a chimney removed and a new sarcophagus was built over the old structure. Accommodation in the zone has changed a lot too; we used to sleep in the original Soviet hotel, or even were sometimes lucky enough to stay in an apartment used for official visitors. Now tourists stay in a tourist hotel, where the doors are locked at curfew. Even though the tourist hotel has plush showers and comfy beds, I’d still rather stay in the apartments.

My Experience of Chernobyl in 2011

I’d flown in to Kyiv, Ukraine and was backpacking around the country staying in Youth Hostels and eating cheap. I was invited by a friend who’d recently started organising tours of the radioactive zone to come and have a look. I’d done a bit of research on the area prior to my arrival, but at this stage everything was fresh to me.

Pripyat Swimming Pool

Back in 2011 when someone wanted to visit the militarised zone of Chernobyl they had to get prior permission from the Ukrainian government. Tourists were not permitted to visit as such, and I remember that technically I was supposed to be a journalist. After my friend had picked me up from the train station in Kyiv we made our way to the zone and the first military checkpoint. The checkpoints were very official places and I was warned prior that it was forbidden to film there. We had to get out of the vehicle and approach a small office for passport checks and documentation. Surrounded by military personnel with AK47-type guns, I did as I was told...

Once checked into the zone outer perimeter we made our way to Chernobyl Town. This is where the main offices were, where our hotel was, and a couple of shops and canteens to eat in. You’d be surprised how busy the place was for an abandoned radioactive zone. In the town I immediately checked-in to the main office and sat through the induction, which included lots of “it is forbidden to...” and not much else. Understandable I suppose, but it highlighted that this was in no way a holiday and we were guests of the state.

Pripyat Centre - By the hotel

After dropping bags off at the very Soviet hotel in Chernobyl Town, we then headed to checkpoint 2. Here was another passport check, another documents check and then, finally, we were given permission to travel closer to the power plant and reactor 4. En-route we made a brief stop at an abandoned village, then stopping at an old children’s nursery, before stopping again by the power plant. Taking the obligatory photograph of the power plant, I remember being excited like I was seeing the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower for the first time. Spirits were high and I was certainly excited for what was yet to come. Until this point my Geiger counter was registering normal levels of radiation, but then, as you’d expect, my counter was warning of dangerous levels of radiation. Not surprisingly, I was a little concerned.

Entering Pripyat

After lunch at the power plant’s cafeteria we drove through yet another checkpoint and into the abandoned city of Pripyat. While driving into the city I was glued to the window, soaking up every detail I could of this place. Finally stepping out of the vehicle by the Palace of Culture and into Pripyat city centre, this was like all my dreams/nightmares coming true, it was unreal. I remember thinking it was like seeing life after the end of the world had happened.

Ferris Wheel Pripyat

Before I could venture off to see the sights up close I was again instructed what not to do. Don’t go far, don’t leave this area and, of course my favourite, don’t go inside any of the buildings. Ask my school teachers, I was never good at following orders and so as soon as the guide had looked the other way, I was off inside, but only to get a stern telling off later...

Is 2 Days in Chernobyl Enough?

After my first trip I’d spent two days in Chernobyl with one night in the very Soviet hotel; I’d managed to see what I then considered everything there was to see. I’d seen Pripyat, the outside of the Power Plant, and I had all the obligatory discussions on radiation and its effects. I left the zone saying that I’d have no reason to visit again. However, how wrong I was, as soon as I was home I was planning a return visit the same year. Two days wasn’t enough for me.

If you seriously want to answer the question, is 2 days enough, you have to ask yourself what exactly you’re hoping to achieve from a trip to Chernobyl. If it’s a bucket list thing or a curiosity after watching the NBC program then yes, it probably is enough. But if you’ve longed to visit this place for some time or you really want to experience Chernobyl properly, then only 4 days will do. I learnt that the hard way. Whatever you decide, it’s likely that once you visit you’ll decide to return again, someday.

Geiger Counter on Plane


If only I had a pound/dollar/euro for every time someone asked me if I was concerned about the radiation; and to be fair before my first visit I was concerned. That, however, was the end of my concern, and the evidence was later proven to me after a holiday to Cuba. Using my Geiger counter for the entirety of a 4 day tour of Chernobyl, which included visiting the reactor building and the water pumps of reactor 4, this gave me a cumulative dose of 22μSv. This was actually lower than the dose I received flying home from Cuba on an 8 hour flight. I took the Geiger counter on the flight and as soon as we got up in the air we were in dangerous levels of radiation, the radiation levels increased as the altitude of the plane did. With my counter alarm sounding, a puzzled hostess asked what it meant. Once I explained, I asked her what she’d been told about the radiation while flying and she responded “we’ve been told it’s alright”. I guess ignorance is bliss. I’m no scientist but a Google search showed me that airline crew often suffer from the long-term effects of radiation. Holidays are probably ok though.

How Long Can You Stay in Chernobyl?

A lot of the area in the exclusion zone has normal levels of radiation, and there were many Chernobyl re-settlers who returned to the area some time after the explosion. Many of these re-settlers continued to live long lives and some are still living in the zone. By the way, the re-settlers I’ve met have always been friendly and amazing hosts when I’ve visited their home; I often enjoyed some lunch and vodka with them, too. All in all, it’s hard to say exactly how long is safe to stay in Chernobyl.

Standing On The Top Of Duga

The longest I’ve stayed in the zone has always been 4 days in one time. I have, however, heard of the odd person staying 5 days, though I’ve never known any limits applied to tourists. This all said, there’s a big difference between the outer areas and the area immediately around the power plant and the following contaminated space. You stand in parts of Pripyat and it’s only a couple of times more radioactive than normal levels, but then there are parts of the ground near the Ferris wheel which are highly contaminated. Finding the right balance between time spent in the zone and radiation received is key.

The Chernobyl Experience

Visiting Chernobyl is generally safe, it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever seen before, and it has given me some of the best experiences of my life. I’ve made friends through the zone and have also discovered myself there. When you look around and see so many man-made structures slowly returning to nature, you get a sense of freedom. Deep, I know! Wonder the streets and imagine families walking alongside, walk into the Palace of Culture and try to imagine people coming in to see a play. The experience of walking an empty city, when there’s only natural life remaining, is an experience I’ll hold forever. Chernobyl has not been just a place for me; I’ve found a unique peace there. Peace after a disaster, almost like the eternal circle of life. I’m thankful that when I look out onto Pripyat I only see one city and not more cities in rubble. Chernobyl could have been much worse had it not have been for the brave few.

Help Visiting Chernobyl

After all my visits to Chernobyl there are a few things I’ve learnt along the way. If you want any help booking a tour of the zone send me a message and I’ll forward you some links, tips and things not to miss. If I can save you some money and help you get the best tour, maybe it’s worth a beer! Cheers!