I took a trip to Minsk a few years ago with a friend and we had a very memorable visit! Given that Belarus is fairly isolated within Europe, I didn’t really know what to expect, but the experience far exceeded my expectations! While visitors will undoubtedly be interested in seeing the Soviet-influenced legacy and architecture, I was also impressed by the rich history, hearty cuisine, and the hospitality (…even the Belarus official website lists hospitality as the #1 reason to visit).
I had to apply for a visa through the Belorussian Embassy in Washington– which was a bit of an ordeal– but they’ve recently pushed to increase tourism and liberalized their visa process, so visitors can now visit visa-free for up to 30 days. Take advantage of this opportunity! While Belarus is starting to gain attention from tourists, I recommend visiting while it is still relatively low on most peoples’ radar.
A friend and I took a bus to Minsk from Vilnius, Latvia, passing through some small towns with Soviet-bloc style buildings with Lenin statues. Arriving in Minsk, I was immediately struck by how clean and orderly it was… you don’t see any litter or graffiti around town. As you might expect, it also felt very safe.
You don’t see advertisements around town, per se, but there are plenty of state-sponsored billboards, as well as banners promoting the military, workers, and national unity.
We stayed at the Hotel Yubileiny, which was pretty nice and centrally-located. The receptionists all wore olive-drab dress uniforms and quite serious during all of our encounters. After checking in, my friend and I met up with another friend from Minsk and we took a tour of the city.
Downtown Minsk is delightful! There are wide boulevards and several well-maintained parks throughout the city. I particularly enjoyed walking through the GUM, a large, Soviet-style department store, which has clothing, jewelry, souvenirs and more practical items for sale. Other highlights include the National Art Museum, History and Culture Museum, the large Holy Spirit Cathedral, the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet, and the State Circus. The Belorussian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War provides a very interesting (and sometimes graphic) account of military history, with a focus on WWII.
The food is hearty and delicious, with lots of soups, stews, potato pancakes and dumplings. We ate at a traditional restaurant downtown, but I can’t recall the name– it might have been the Kamyanitsa Restaurant. After mulling my options, I chose the “Culinary “Tale Tavern” by the best masters of gourmet chefs from serving SUPER DISH!” (Because how could you not choose something with a name like that?) The food and service was first-rate, and I would highly recommend this place if I could remember its name : /
Outside of the city center is the Belarus National Library, a unique, multi-faceted orb-like building that lights up in various colorful patterns at nighttime. In addition to its large book collection, it also has an observation deck for views over the city. Moving beyond the glow of the library, we decided to check out the nightlife scene in town. We somehow ended up at Club Next, which was filled with wild colors and an interesting selection of electronic dance music. It was empty when we first arrived and reminded me a bit of a Bond villain hangout, but it became lively as the night went on. NB — it doesn’t get very good reviews these days, but we enjoyed the quirky atmosphere.
Something for Next Time: If there’s one thing I regret about my trip to Belarus, it’s that I didn’t have more time. Minsk is an amazing city, which I hope to explore further soon– because this visit didn’t do it justice! I also will prioritize a visit to the city of Brest, with its famous Hero Fortress and WWII exhibits recounting the fight against the Nazis — an important historical site of particular fame in Belarus.