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Visiting Pripyat, Chernobyl's Frozen Ghost Town

Then and now, Pripyat's eerie charms call out to visitors from around the world.

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  • Photo Credit: Wendelin Jacober / Pixabay

In April of 1986 the number 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant malfunctioned, leading to one of the worst man-made disasters in history. What you may not know is that the town of Pripyat, which was within the “Exclusion Zone” that was evacuated immediately following the disaster, still stands today—and you can actually go see it!

Prior to the disaster, the city of Pripyat had grown to a population of around 49,400. Built as a closed city (a settling with residency restrictions) to serve the nuclear plant, Pripyat was only 16 years old when the disaster struck, though it was only officially declared a city in 1979—just seven years before it would become a ghost town.

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Named for the nearby Pripyat River, what remains of the city of Pripyat sits in what is now northern Ukraine, in the midst of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, also known as the 30 Kilometer Zone. It has been declared a city of regional significance within the larger Kiev Oblast, or province, and it is managed by Ukraine’s Ministry of Emergencies.

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In early 1986, however, it was a bustling city, home to workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and those who supported them in various ways. The city had more than two dozen stores and malls, numerous restaurants, a movie theater, three indoor swimming pools, several gymnasiums, a city park, and 35 playgrounds. 

Shortly before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, an amusement park had been constructed in the city, meant to open in just a few days when disaster struck and the city was evacuated. The unused Ferris wheel still stands as a silent testament to the life the city could have had.

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Life in Pripyat prior to the Chernobyl disaster was probably not too different from life in any other city on that side of the Iron Curtain, with a few exceptions. Most of the people who lived there worked at the nuclear power plant, or in jobs that supported the workers in various capacities. There were factories and restaurants and even a school of the arts in Pripyat, but in spite of this, life in the city revolved almost entirely around the nuclear plant.

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  • One of four indoor swimming pools constructed in Pripyat.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Though Pripyat was a closed city, travel to and from the town wasn’t restricted prior to the disaster. This was different from other closed cities in the Soviet Union, chiefly because nuclear power was considered safe. Hence, travel restrictions weren’t deemed necessary as they were in, say, cities of military importance. Only residency restrictions were put into place: those who worked for the nuclear reactor or supported it somehow were credentialed to live in Pripyat—and no one else.

All of that changed on April 26, 1986. The Chernobyl disaster started during a safety test on the Number 4 nuclear reactor. The test was intended to simulate an electrical power outage in an effort to identify a method to keep water cooling circulation working during the gap between the time when power and down and when backup generators could kick on. Things began to go wrong almost immediately, however, and the result was the worst nuclear disaster on record.

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The reactor core ruptured as an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction was triggered. There was a deadly steam explosion, followed by a reactor core fire that went uncontrolled for eight days. This fire released radioactive contamination into the air that spread across parts of Europe and the USSR, even reaching a Swedish nuclear plant some 620 miles away.

Within two days, the city of Pripyat was totally evacuated. By April 27, 1986, what had been a bustling town of nearly 50,000 people stood empty—and it has stood empty until this very day.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was established within a short time after the disaster. Also known as the 30 Kilometer Zone it was, as the name implies, a 30-kilometer—or about 19-mile—radius around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. This area was completely evacuated, considered off-limits to civilians, and placed under military control. 

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  • Bumper cars in Pripyat's abandoned amusement park.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Over the years, the precise size and borders of the Exclusion Zone have changed, and today they cover an area of approximately 1,000 square miles of northern Ukraine. Its borders still encircle one of the most radioactively contaminated areas in the world, and the Exclusion Zone—including Pripyat—is a hotbed of scientific study into the long-term effects of radiation.

However, Pripyat itself, while probably not safe for long-term habitation, is no stranger to tourists in the modern day. Several Ukrainian companies are licensed to provide tours of the area, as spending a short time in the city will not subject visitors to a harmful dose of radiation—around one microsievert per hour, less than getting a set of dental X-rays.

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Tourists and scientists aren’t the only ones interested in Pripyat, either. Because the city was abandoned in such a hurry, it is a rare example of a ghost town that is almost perfectly preserved in the moment just before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Things are, save the for the ravages of time, just as people left them.

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On June 22, 2022, Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes premieres on HBO, proving that fascination with the nuclear meltdown persists. The documentary uses interviews and newly uncovered archival footage to explore the disaster and the Soviet Union's attempts at a cover-up. HBO is also home to the 2019 historical drama miniseries Chernobyl.

Pripyat has been used as a filming location for documentaries such as the History Channel’s Life After People, and to stand in for abandoned towns in films like The Girl with All the Gifts, where drone footage of Pripyat was used for a ruined London. The location has also fascinated storytellers, who have set films like Chernobyl Diaries and A Good Day to Die Hard within the ruined city, not to mention comic books, video games, and many more.

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Today, if you go to visit Pripyat, you will be taken to tourist landmarks such as the unused Ferris wheel, the drained indoor Azure Swimming Pool, and the Avanhard football stadium. Plants and debris have reclaimed most of the buildings, the glass in the windows has mostly been broken out, and graffiti tags many surfaces. Yet for those who visit Pripyat today, you can still almost picture the hum of life that filled the city until it was suddenly ended on that terrible day in 1986.

Featured photo: Wendelin Jacob / Pixabay