A flaw during a routine late-night safety test in Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant generated a powerful explosion that put an estimated 400 times more radioactive material into the Earth’s atmosphere than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

And, now, tourism is booming at the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster as fans of the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” travel to see the infamous Reactor No. 4 and the now-abandoned town of Pripyat.

So, what’s the draw to this post-apocalyptic town, and more importantly, is it safe to visit the Exclusion Zone?

A sense of danger

More than 33 years later, Ukrainian officials insist the area is safe for tourist, even stating radiation exposure is less than you would gain from an overseas flight. Tourists entering the Exclusion Zone can only go on a supervised tour and must exit through a checkpoint to test for radiation. Guides also carry Geiger counters – devices used to measure radiation levels – and call out measurements around “peak” spots like the underground shelter where the first meetings took place after the disaster.

The ruins of the Chernobyl reactor – now covered by a massive steel and concrete structure – are still highly radioactive and will likely remain so for several thousand years. Visitors are restricted to certain areas and are not permitted to wander on their own, touch any structures or plants or remove anything from the zone. There also is a strict dress code policy to ensure all the parts of the body are always properly covered. 

Experience history

Whether it’s the history or the appeal of visiting a place frozen in time, several thousand flock to Chernobyl every year. It’s the only place in the world where you can see first-hand the dangers of nuclear power and the effect it can have on the environment if something goes wrong.

Guided tours allow visitors to stand feet away from the ruined reactor itself and visit the ghost town of Pripyat, once home to 50,000 people who mainly worked at the plant.

Hospital hallways and schoolrooms with abandoned gas masks give visitors a surreal glimpse into life during one of the world’s biggest nuclear crises. And an amusement park – set to open just days following the disaster – has become a symbol of the Exclusion Zone.

Visiting Chernobyl

Getting there is a lot harder than just buying a ticket and hopping on a plane. Most guided tours depart from Kiev, Ukraine, about two hours south of the Exclusion Zone. Reservations are required weeks if not months in advance. Costs run between several hundred and several thousand dollars depending on how long you want to spend there, if you’re traveling in a group or alone and what kind of access you want. Search single-day, overnight, private or group tours and see reviews on GetYourGuide and Viator

Warmer months attract larger crowds, so if you’re willing to invest in a quality parka, the winter might be the time to go. Before you book your accommodations, check the tour confirmation to find your meeting point. There are plenty of hotels and Airbnbs in Kiev. Several-day tours in the Exclusion Zone often include overnight stays in one of the few operating hotels in the restricted city of Chernobyl. There is no concept of “hotel for tourists” in the Zone, so do not expect the usual services and facilities from such accommodations.

Start or end your trip with a visit to the Kiev Chernobyl Museum, which gives visitors the history of Chernobyl and the chance to see some interesting films shot during the time of the evacuation.

Even though Chernobyl has been open to the public since 2011, there’s nothing like tourism inspired by the big screen.