Backpacking through Ukraine you need to visit the Chernobyl exclusion zone! It’s known all over the world as a symbol of both Communist megalomania and how close all of Europe came to a nuclear winter. Closed for almost 3 decades, this chilling site is now open for tourism and is guaranteed to give you goosebumps.

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To make your visit as cheap and interesting as possible, we’ve put together this guide for the different tours going to Chernobyl. Here, you’ll find answers to all your questions about cost, what you’ll see and of course the biggest question of them all; is it safe to visit Chernobyl?

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A Very Brief History Of The Chernobyl Disaster

The full history behind the who, what, when and how this happened is really interesting. It’s what I like to call the “Soviet stupidity problem”  but I’ll save that for a stand-alone post in the coming weeks. Here is the lite version;

On April 26, 1986 scientists made a big mistake and reactor 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant went into melt down (exploded). This explosion caused a cloud of radioactive particles to be spread across northern Ukraine, a large section of Belarus and many other parts of Europe. Over the first few months, 49 people lost their lives. The eventual death toll of this disaster is estimated to be around 4,000 people, but Soviet secrecy makes it very hard to determine the actual scale.

Reactor 4 after the day after the disaster

Reactor 4 the day after the disaster | Photo by Garvey STS

Since then a total of 350,000 people have been evacuated from a 30 km exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl. This zone is about the size of Manhattan and includes villages, forests, the town of Chernobyl and what used to be the thriving metropolis of Pripyat.

Pripyat was a model town of Communist ideals and housed 50,000 plant workers and their families. When the disaster happened they were all evacuated at the drop of a hat, leaving their thriving city as a ghost town locked in time.

This is how things remained until 2011 when the Ukrainian government officially opened parts of the exclusion zone to tourism. So now, 30 years after the world’s worst nuclear disaster, it has gone from a few hundred unofficial tourists a year to almost 10,000 visitors a year!

chernobyl exclusion zone map

What Do You See In The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone?

Small Abandoned Villages

There were around 150 villages within the exclusion zone that were evacuated after the melt down. There are a few on the highway on the way to Chernobyl, but they are very hard to spot. Most have truly been taken back by the forest.

Forest taking over a village on the way into chernobyl

Town center of a village on the way into Chernobyl

Chernobyl Town

The town of Chernobyl is 17 km from the plant and is now a pretty busy working town. There are administration buildings, shops and a church all for the workers decommissioning the power plant and building the new containment sarcophagus.

It all feels quite strange since you’ve already passed the 30 km checkpoint and think you’re entering no-man’s land. In reality, though, it really just feels like any other Ukrainian town.

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There are even some statues and memorials in town, but they are nothing to write home about. Most of them look like they are half-built or very unloved.

statue of lenin in chernobyl town

Lenin, Not the nicest man to grace the Earth

villages lost to the chernobyl exclusion zone

Each sign represents one of the villages lost to Chernobyl’s exclusion zone

Giant “Secret” Soviet Radar

The Soviets were very scared of a nuclear attack during the Cold War and this was one of their state-of-the-art missile launch detection systems. The Soviets couldn’t destroy it to hide their secrets because they were worried the vibration from the fall might disrupt reactor 4.

secret soviet radar at chernobyl

The 150 m high and 500 m long Soviet “secret” radar

The Reactor That Has Caused All The Problems

The building to the left is reactor 4 and the original sarcophagus containing the radiation from the melt down. This sarcophagus is actually failing and back in 2004 construction started on its replacement, the building to the right. By mid-2017 the new sarcophagus will be rolled over the top of reactor 4, meaning that the reactor will never see the light of day again. It has cost Ukraine and the European Union €2.15 billion to build this lovely-looking building.

Reactor 4 and its new safety sarcophagus at chernobyl

Reactor 4 and its new sarcophagus getting ready for action

The Abandoned Ghost Town Of Pripyat

Pripyat and its abandoned buildings is the place that most people associate with the Chernobyl disaster. This is where all the Call Of Duty memories came flooding back for me and it sure gives a surreal feeling of the scale of what happened.

A waiting room of Pripyat Hospital in chernobyl

A waiting room of Pripyat Hospital

Pripyats hospital in all its eerilyness chernobyl

Pripyat’s hospital in all its eeriness

The dodgem cars of Pripyats amusement in chernobyl

The dodgem cars of Pripyat’s amusement park

ferris wheel in pripyat chernobyl tours

The famous ferris wheel that was used for only one day in Pripyat

The pool at Pripyat highschool chernobyl tours

The pool at Pripyat’s high school

overgrown pripyat near the chernobyl reactor

This used to be a 2 lane main road in Pripyat

Is It Safe To Visit Chernobyl?

Radiation levels at Chernobyl explained

The Ukraine government has done an excellent job cleaning up Chernobyl. So good in fact, that the residual radiation is now lower next to reactor 4 than on the main square of Kiev!

Science Jargon Time: Understanding Dangerous Radiation Dosages

  • Single day tour: around 0.004 millisieverts over the day
  • A 2-hour flight: you’ll receive around 0.006 millisieverts
  • Nuclear worker: limit is 50 millisieverts per year
  • Lethal dose: around 4,000 millisieverts over an hour

*Millisieverts (0.001 of a Sievert) is a measure of the health effects that ionizing radiation has on the human body.

radiation level at chernobyl

0.00314 millisieverts per hour at the viewing point of reactor 4

However, this low level of residual radiation isn’t what you have to worry about at Chernobyl. The bad guys are the extremely radioactive particles (dust) around the place that haven’t been cleaned up yet.

But don’t stress! If you follow these official rules you’ll be fine;

  • Stay with your guide
  • Never go off the path into the woods
  • Even though radioactive mushrooms, berries and wild boar look tasty, never eat them
  • Don’t touch anything and if you do, wash your hands
  • Clean your shoes before getting back into your vehicle
High radation sign next to the path at Chernobyl

High radiation sign next to the path at Chernobyl

Watch Out For The Buildings Falling Down Around You

Another bad guy is the 30 year old time capsule of unmaintained buildings of Pripyat. The attraction of “ruin porn” also means that there are rotting floor boards, collapsing roofs, shards of glass and open elevator shafts everywhere. 

In 2008 the government “stopped” all tours from entering buildings due to their structural instability. Lucky for us this hasn’t stopped most tours from bending the rules a little. If you go in, watch your step!

Pripyat high school chernobyl

A hallway in Pripyat’s high school

All The Essential Information About

Tours To The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone