While planning a summer road trip through the Baltics, our eyes kept being drawn towards neighboring Belarus on the map. Part of the former Soviet Union, Belarus is nestled between the Baltics, Poland, Ukraine and Russia, but is often overlooked as a tourist destination. As a cultural crossroads, Belarus has a rich history which has been strongly shaped by the events of the last century. Having enjoyed our travels to other off-the-beaten-path parts of Eastern Europe, like Moldova and Romania, and with our interest in World War II and Soviet-era history, we thought Belarus had all the elements of a place we would like to explore. When we learned about a visa-free scheme that allowed us to enter and leave the country through Minsk National Airport, we booked a quick flight from Vilnius to spend a weekend seeing all Minsk had to offer.
What To See
Minsk was on the front lines of battle during World War II, and consequently suffered great losses with most of the city reduced to rubble by the end of the war. Strategically important as the capital of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Soviets undertook a massive campaign to rebuild Minsk in grand Soviet style following the war. The wide boulevards lined with stately buildings, massive public squares, concrete apartment blocks, and abundant green parks form the foundation of the city you see today.
Despite the fact that the city appears classically Soviet in many ways, there are small pockets of pre-WWII buildings to be found as well, forming an interesting juxtaposition between old and new. The most recognizable part of the “old Minsk” can be found in the Upper Town, a warren of small streets lined with historically significant churches and buildings. The striking 17th century Holy Spirit Cathedral is an iconic city sight, as is the whitewashed City Hall, built in 1582, and the baroque Cathedral of Saint Virgin Mary, located across the street. Although the Upper Town is historic, much of what is there has been rebuilt, giving the area a slightly inauthentic feel—buildings looked historic but not aged. Nearby, we also stopped by the oldest active church in Minsk, the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, built in 1613. Located just outside the Upper Town, the historic church is now sandwiched between newer Soviet apartments, making the striking contrast between old and new all the more real.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Belarus has maintained closer ties to Russia than any of the former Soviet republics. Consequently, there are many elements of a visit to Minsk that feel like stepping back in time. We certainly experienced this “time warp” in a very extreme way when visiting the Moldovan breakaway republic of Transnistria, but unlike Transnistria, Belarus has welcomed western influences and commerce. The streets of Minsk today feature a mix of neon-lit western brands interspersed with older-looking local stores occupying the ground floor real estate along the grand boulevards. (As a perfect example of this paradox, McDonald’s and TGI Fridays share the same street corner as the historic Russian department store GUM.)
As other former Soviet republics have made concerted efforts to distance themselves from that part of their history, Belarus holds on to the relics of that era. One of the most striking examples can be found in Independence Square. Known as Lenin Square during Soviet times, a massive statue of Lenin still stands outside the Supreme Soviet building. Built in 1934, the hulking building survived World War II and houses the Supreme Council today. Also on the square you can find the Church of Saints Simon and Helena. Built in 1910, it was closed by the Soviet authorities in 1932, used as a cinema for decades, and finally returned to the Catholic Church in 1990.
Traveling northeast from Independence Square, Praspiekt Niezaliežnasci (Independence Avenue) offers Minsk’s best examples of the post-war Stalinist Empire architectural style. A whole city block is occupied by a yellow neo-classical building housing the KGB (Praspiekt Niezaliežnasci 17; it would be easy to walk by and not even know what it was). Beyond that, October Square is ringed by several important buildings including the grand Trade Union Palace of Culture and the residence of the President of Belarus. One block further, you find the Belarusian State Circus building. With many other Soviet-era circus buildings in other cities falling out of use in recent decades, the Minsk circus is still going strong (though unfortunately the circus was not in town at the time of our visit).
Beyond the circus building, Independence Avenue passes between two parks (Gorky Park and Janki Kupaly Park) before crossing the Svislach River, approaching what we feel is the most striking square in the city, Victory Square. The center of the square features a 38m obelisk celebrating the Soviet victory over the German invaders in the Great Patriotic War (WWII). You can cross under the busy traffic circle to the monument via underpasses, and it’s well worth a closer look—the base of the obelisk holds four bronze reliefs with detailed scenes from the war. Also accessible via the underpass is Memorial Hall, a space directly below the monument honoring those named as a Hero of Soviet Union.
The narrative surrounding victory in WWII continues at the Belarusian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War. Unlike other WWII museums we have visited, this one takes a decidedly pro-Soviet slant (complete with the USSR flag flying proudly atop the building), and focuses on the victory over the Nazi German invaders during the conflict. Opened in 1944, was museum was the first in the world to cover WWII, and today has a massive collection of memorabilia including tanks, planes, artillery, photos, uniforms, partisan documents, and more. The museum moved to a new purpose-built gleaming metal and glass building in 2014, next to the pre-existing 45m obelisk celebrating Minsk as a Soviet Hero City.
Our last excursion in Minsk was a trip on the Minsk Metro out to Komarovskiy Market, which allowed us to check out the historic metro as well as see the massive food market in action. The Minsk Metro, built in the 1980’s, is not nearly as opulent as the Moscow Metro, but a few of the stations we saw had interesting decorative elements. Of particular note are the Belarusian national motifs on the columns in Plošča Jakuba Kolasa, and our favorite Plošča Lienina (Lenin Square) where the station still features a hammer and sickle in the middle of the platform and a bust of Lenin that has a shiny nose after being rubbed by countless passers-by in their travels.
Of all the places we visited in the city, Komarovskiy Market was where we got the best sense of the real Minsk. Featuring an enclosed central hall and outdoor vendors as well, we were able to see locals going about their daily food shopping. The indoor hall has meat and eggs, breads and other baked goods, honey, nuts and herbs. The vendors outdoors had the late summer bounty on full display: fresh dill, cucumbers and tomatoes, melons, and some of the most delicious local blueberries we have ever tasted. Kvass carts are scattered throughout, selling the fermented brown bread drink popular in this region, and we enjoyed strolling through the market with a kvass in hand.
Where to Eat
Belarusian cuisine reflects the nation’s position as an cultural crossroads, with influences coming from neighboring Poland, Russia, and the Baltics, as well as the historic Jewish population. While local dishes were harder to find during Soviet times, there has been a revival of the national cuisine recently bringing back dishes that nearly disappeared a century ago. The food is rich and flavorful—the type of comfort food typical of much of central Europe. In summer, cold beetroot soup is on every menu, a refreshing starter that is bright pink thanks to the addition of sour cream. Potatoes feature prominently, either in the form of draniki pancakes or as a side to hearty meat stews. Dark rye bread is a staple at every meal.
There are a number of great restaurant options that serve up tasty local fare at very reasonable prices. With lots of restaurants serving more European and international menus, we did some research to find good, authentic Belarusian options. Centrally located U Frantsiska has a nice, cozy basement location and a menu that features many traditional Belarusian dishes, including specialties that would have been part of noble feasts. Their home-brewed dark beer is a delicious way to wash it all down. At Talaka, the basement location is decorated like a traditional hunting lodge and big, wood-covered menus are filled with local specialties. Rounding out the traditional restaurants, Kamyanitsa is a bit of a walk from the Upper Town, on the other side of Gorky Park. With a medieval ambiance, this restaurant serves abundant portions of Belarusian specialties like machanka panskaya, a cream-based meat stew used as a dip or sauce for pancakes. For something a little more casual, Lido is a Latvian chain that’s popular with locals and tourists alike. It’s essentially a large, self-service food court offering Belarusian and regional dishes, all good quality and incredibly inexpensive. We visited their restaurant right next to Komarovskiy Market, where we had a tasty, filling lunch for just a few rubles.
Where to Stay
We always enjoy historic properties, and for our stay in Minsk we booked a room at Hotel Monastyrski, a former Bernardine monastery, in the heart of the Upper Town. Founded in 1624, the monastery functioned until the 19th century when it was turned over to the city and served other assorted purposes such as housing military units and as a prison. In the last decade the property underwent extensive renovation to open as a hotel, preserving and rebuilding what was possible in the historic structure. The hotel was more modern than we were expecting from a from a former monastery, but it provided a convenient location for our time in Minsk—we were able to walk almost everywhere—and the room was comfortable and clean.
Getting There and Away
The country’s proximity to the Baltics inspired our visit to Belarus, but the visa free program made the trip much easier. Since early 2017, residents of 80 countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the European Union could stay in Belarus as tourists for up to five days visa-free—this was increased to thirty days in July 2018. There are some restrictions, though: the visa-free stay is only valid if you fly in and out of Minsk National Airport. In addition to a valid passport, visitors also need to show proof of health insurance. Our European Union health insurance cards were sufficient, but anyone without sufficient insurance can buy a cheap policy for Belarus on the spot. Finally, visitors are supposed to show that they have at least 25 euros for each day of their trip, but we were not asked to provide that when we arrived.
Belavia is the national airline of Belarus and they fly from most European capitals to Minsk National Airport. Located 42 km (26 miles) from the city center, the airport is not well connected by public transportation. We couldn’t find the official taxi stand, so we used Uber to get us to the city. Traffic was slow, but the ride was still cheap. We used Uber again to return to the airport.
Minsk is connected to Lithuania, Poland, and Russia by train, but a visa is generally required to enter the country by land.
Our time in Minsk was enlightening in many ways, and really allowed us to see the dichotomy of the place. Often described as “the last dictatorship in Europe,” the current president has been in power for over 20 years and much of what happens in the regime harkens back to practices found in the USSR. At first glance the city can appear to be a relic of Soviet times, but it’s obvious that the country is starting to look west. Shopping malls with western brands are dotted throughout the city, and international hotel chains are opening new properties. Neighborhoods, such as Trinity Hill, are undergoing renovations, and new shops and cafes are open for visitors. The loosening of the visa process sends a clear signal that Belarus is ready to receive visitors from all over the world. Things are certainly changing in this country at the crossroads between the EU and Russia, and our weekend adventure exploring Minsk gave us a nice glimpse into the Belarus of today.