“Hero City”, “Capital of the Commonwealth of Independent States”
Another exciting trip ahead of us to a country we’ve never been, Belarus. And yet another country to tick off the list of countries visited in Europe, bringing down the count to just 6 left (out of 50!). These are already serious numbers, but also means that excluding Albania and Moldova which are quite near and “easy” to reach, the others are way farther and beyond any logical time to get there on just for the weekend or 3 days trip. So unless booking some time off coupled with the weekend, there is no other possible solution to be able to enjoy them. In any case, the remaining ones will definitely require more days for visiting as it is not the only objective getting to their capital, but also secondary cities and important places elsewhere in the country.
Flying to Minsk does not come cheap either. Not only the direct flight to/from London is seriously expensive, but also the scheduled times do not make much sense to be honest if all you have is only a few days. The flights are not daily either. In the other hand, if you look to a map, Minsk is very near Vilnius, to where you can grab some nice flight deals and very frequent. We twisted even more since the deal we found was actually with airBaltic on a London-Riga-Vilnius, and Vilnius to London. The bus from Vilnius to Minsk is 3.5 hours and is just 13 Euros, but for the sake of convenience, we managed to get the flight back from Minsk to Vilnius for almost the same price as the bus would have costed us, giving us some extra hours in Minsk as consequence and avoiding at least 2 hours on the border to enter back the European Union. Leaving the EU for Belarus is as quick as few minutes, but in the opposite direction to enter the EU the queues at the border are terribly long.
So with the flights and overland transportation sorted, the next was to find a hotel. That was an easy task, and a great deal at the DoubleTree by Hilton very near the city centre. Now, as we already knew, there was still the “most” important task to be done: getting a visa to travel to Belarus. Since we already experienced a similar process for getting one to Russia, Belarus was in a sense similar although they have introduced some extra barriers in the process. I will explain this below in a separate section so you know how to proceed.
If you have been before to Russia or Ukraine, then Belarus will be of not much difference. The capital cities all share the same spirit, urban plan and architecture. And even the metro system is designed on the same way for all, deep beneath the city, wide, clean and efficient with a rather grand design at many stations.
Minsk is a very elegant city, with beautiful architecture everywhere, very well defined avenues with a very strong austere design where big meant to be bigger, and as bigger the better. But those 1950’s Stalinist constructions came at a price; not only WWII destroyed many historical buildings, it also involved demolishing older structures and most of the medieval urban plan. While it is sad for this to vanish, in the other hand the “newer” reincarnation creates an unique beautiful and grand style. Also many of the churches and palatial buildings lost in the war or demolished by the Soviet Regime have been rebuilt with others in the process of rebuilding and planning. The city is bringing back to life some of its lost gems -which I personally appreciate it, but others believe it is merely a pastiche to recreate what is gone-.
Something that catch immediately our attention after the first few meters we walked in the city is the cleanliness of everything. I’ve only been to a city with such level of perfection and cleanliness, being Singapore. Minsk is simply spotless! And encouraging you to walk anywhere. Very comfortable and secure too, and their people, almost everyone, seem to be taken from a catwalk. The most similar place I’ve come across this “extreme elegance” was in Kiev. Now Minsk top it without equal, to the point of making us feel under dress!. But honestly, they are way too much overdressed.
Visiting the city will take you at least 2 complete days. We had in total 2 and a half, and was sufficient. Any longer would not make sense since once you are outside of the central core and the tourist areas, there is nothing else beyond imposing and intrusive yet ugly communist blocks wherever your eyes can reach. The good point of having more days and time is being able to also visit the castles of Mir and Nesvizh at 100 kilometres south of Minsk. Even knowing the hassle in getting buses, minibuses and an taxi in between, I strongly advice you to include both castles in your way when you come to Belarus. It became another of our highlights! But will tell you more in a separate guide for them.
A few notes with regards to food: it is absolutely great! If you have experienced before Polish or Lithuanian food, then it is very similar. Almost every restaurant will serve Borscht soup, either hot or cold (this is beetroot soup with fresh cut cucumbers, beetroot, boiled eggs, spices and served on its own or with boiled potatoes or boiled pasta); kalduny (stuffed dumplings, known in Polish as pierogi). Draniki, one of the most popular dishes in Belorussian cuisine, which are potato pancakes, (also found across anywhere in East Europe). Food is not expensive, nor is the great beer they have, but as everywhere you travel to, exceptions apply and you can end up in the most expensive place.
That I can strongly recommend you are:
- Cornflowers (Васильки). Inside the large shopping centre next to the main train station, in floor 3/4. You can take the lift to the 4th floor and will arrive directly inside the restaurant. They do have international and local cuisine. Ask them for traditional and they will sit you at the correct area and provide the menu for local food. Without doubt, our favourite.
- El Pomidoro (Эль Помидоро). There are 3 locations in the city, being the most convenient near the train station next door to the City Gates towers. Do not judge its name or the fact they have pizza and pasta. They do have great local cuisine! Specially the dumplings and the borscht.
- Lido (which is a chain of restaurants from the Baltic). Located by Plošča Jakuba Kolasa metro station, at Niezalezhnasti Avenue. Great for local cuisine.
For more information about Minsk check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. The country’s currency is the Belorussian Ruble (BYR). While as of May 2016 there is hyper inflation and you will be paying by the millions, from 1st of July they are cutting 4 zeros! And new notes and re-introduction of coins will take place. Now you can see the prices in both ways, say a package of coffee in the supermarket for 28900, and 2.89. The difference is huge as counting by the hundreds of thousands is quite distressing to a foreigner not used to this. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
Getting a visa for travelling to Belarus:
Apart of being a specific request to have at least 2 pages of your passport completely free and with a validity of at least 6 months after your intended arrival date into Belarus; it is a new requirement since 2015 to have a medical insurance. This is covered in any case by most of the travel insurances, so get your insurance’s coverage page printed to provide.
You need 2 ID pictures, and nice to provide although not necessary are your itinerary bookings, both the hotel you will be staying and the tickets to and from (flights, train or bus). As said, the travel itinerary is not a must, but can help to support your application.
Now, what is the “hardest” part is to get an invitation letter. That’s right, this is the very same story as for applying for a visa to travel to Russia, but more complicated. While majority of the good hotels would supply you with an invitation letter, free of charge, for your Russian visa, it is not the case for Belarus. No hotel will provide this, meaning you need to get this as an extra pay service. However, as we could not manage any further information on this, we went to the Embassy of Belarus in London with everything we had, and they made this for us without providing an invitation letter. They did check our hotel booking, bus and flight tickets, so this all helped us in our application to the point of being successful and without any issues.
The visa has a fee of £50. Of course prices will change depending where from which country you are applying, but this is the official price on the Embassy in London.
What to see and do in Minsk:
- Train Station Square One of the most famous images of the city, with the Stalinist twin towers as a grand gateway, “the City Gates”. The square is served by the metro station Plošča Lienina (Lenin Square).
-Kirava Street This main street opens from the “City Gates” on a northeast direction, parallel to the Niezalezhnasti Avenue. There are nice neo-classical style buildings along its entire length.
- Niezalezhnasti Avenue – (up to Oktyabrskaya/Alexander Square) It translates as Independence Avenue. Is the largest and principal thoroughfare in Minsk, aligned at both sides with many iconic buildings. Since 2004 it is on the Tentative UNESCO WHS listing. Together with the side streets and avenues complete the large majority of the city’s sights.
-Independence Square The largest square in the city and major transport hub and meeting point. Beautifully designed from the pavement to the lights, it is the showcase of Minsk with large austere Stalinist buildings all around.
-Belarus State University On the southeast corner of the square.
-Metro Central Control Room Building with a reminiscent of art-deco specially in its clock tower.
-City Council Perhaps not the nicest building in there yet still impressive for its proportions. Is the next after the Metro Control Room.
-Central Post Office On the eastern corner of the square with the Niezalezhnasti Avenue. In classical style.
-Hotel Minsk Right opposite the Post Office, at the other corner.
-Numbers 17 and 19 Both interesting classical style buildings.
-Kitchen Factory Located behind buildings 17 and 19 was one of the largest food processing factories in the Soviet Union, it is an unique art-deco example.
-Saints Simeon and Elena Church Nicknamed the Red Church for its red bricks all over, was built in 1910 in neo-Romanesque style. A very small bricked house on the courtyard still survives from what it used to be typical in the city before WWII and the Stalinist rebuilding program.
-Government House Impossible to miss, the largest of any buildings in here. Its massive proportions make it actually an attractive building for the lovers of huge socialist style architecture.
-Pedagogical Faculty of the University Occupying the entire western side of the square is another landmark legacy of the Soviet architectural style with its tower.
-Gorky National Drama Theatre Although not precise along Independence Avenue, it is on the parallel street, along Valadarskaha Street.
-KGB Headquarters As everyone should know by now, the KGB was the infamous Soviet secret police. It is a beautiful very large classical style building.
-GUM Department Store Farther ahead along the avenue by the intersection with Lienina Street. Like the one in Moscow on the Red Square, it is the top shopping centre for up-scale brands.
-National Bank Across the road from the GUM, this building is depicted in the 20 BYR notes.
-National Art Museum If continuing east on Lienina Street around the corner of the National Bank for just few blocks you will find the principal museum of art of the Republic of Belarus, housed in another neo-classical building. It is depicted in the 1000 BYR notes.
-Alexander Square The next important square along its core thoroughfare avenue. It is in fact the most central square in Minsk.
-Central Fountain Have become one of the symbols of the city since its creation in 1929 on the grounds of the destroyed Alexander Nevski chapel, it is known as the Boy and Swan.
-Yanka Kupala Theatre Founded in 1888 is the oldest in Belarus. Recently restored to its former glory.
-Central House of Officers Opposite the theatre along an entire side of the square. Easy to recognise as the building with large columns all grey.
-Religious and Archaeological Museum On the side of the House of Officers, it is a beautiful wing that remains from the Minsk Castle.
-President’s Palace Of huge proportions occupying the entire apple.
-Narodowa Library Across the road from the President’s Palace is a masterpiece of art-deco Soviet style architecture. Depicted in the 10 BYR notes.
-Oktyabrskaya Square Lying just side by side from the Alexander Square, at the front of the Old Town that sits behind.
-Palace of the Republic The centerpiece building in the square, a masterpiece of the Soviet architecture. Is a large concert hall, auditorium, conference centre and cinema.
-Trade Union On the corner of the square with Niezalezhnasti Avenue, built in the 19th century. Depicted in the 500 BYR notes.
- Old Town Small quadrant of the city delimited by Lienina Street to the southwest, Oktyabrskaya Square with the Palace of the Republic to the east and all along the north by the river is mostly a truth reconstruction and restoration of part of what old Minsk used to be.
-Swobody Square On the corner of Lienina with Internacyjanaĺnaja Street, is the main square of the historic town.
-Hotel Europe One of the top hotels in Minsk, recently restored.
-City Hall At the front of the Hotel Europe, was recently rebuilt to its original form.
-Saint Virgin Mary Cathedral Built under the Polish rule in 1710 in Baroque style is the seat of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Minsk.
-Embassy of France Next to the Cathedral, built of orange limestone blocks.
-Holy Spirit Church Was recently rebuilt upon original design.
-Scales Monument Telling the story on how Minsk grew after obtained the right of set up a self-government in 1499.
-Church of Saint Joseph Next to the Scales Monument, built in 1742, it is used since the 19th century as an archive.
-Holy Spirit Cathedral At the opposite side of the Virgin Mary Cathedral, is the seat of the Belorussian Orthodox Church. The current look dates back from 1741.
-8th of March Square Behind the Swobody Square towards the river. You will get great views of the old town cathedrals and churches from here.
-Saint Peter and Saint Paul Cathedral Restored in 1871, it is one of the oldest churches in Minsk. It is very worthwhile to go inside. Located by Ulica Rakaŭskaja 4 (Metro Niamiha), at the northwestern edge of the Old Town, west of the 8th of March Square.
- Niezalezhnasti Avenue – (Oktyabrskaya/Alexander Square farther east) Continuing after both squares and the old Town that lay in between and across the Svislach river, there are still some sights not to be missed.
-Belarus State Circus The next building of importance right before crossing the river. Many shows through the year comes to this prime theatre hall.
-Yanka Kupala Park Across the road from the Circus, dedicated to the greatest Belarusian language writer of the 20th century. A museum about his life is housed at the building within the park.
-Ministry of Defense Located to the north of the Yanka Kupala Park and across the bridge.
-Belorussian Bolshoi Opera and Ballet This prestigious institution housed in a grand building is just to the west of the Ministry of Defense.
-Victory Square At the intersection of Independence Avenue with Zakharau Street. It is designed as a half oval circus with the symmetrical buildings at both sides and in the middle the Victory Monument obelisk.
-Yakub Kolas Square Following the avenue farther east, this comes the next square, where you can find the Philharmonic of Belarus, in a Soviet neo-classical style building.
-National Technical University Very large and absolutely beautiful classical architecture.
-Cinema October For the lovers of fine Soviet architecture then this is a must. It’s one block after the University.
-National Library Perhaps the farther you will reach along the Independence Avenue, if by walking all the way, or otherwise take the metro to Uskhod Station. This is a very modern area of the city with a continuous construction going on, but the Library building itself is nowadays a landmark not to be missed.
- Outside of the city There are some places near Minsk worth the visit should you have the time. Among them are both castles of Mir and Nesvizh.
-Nesvizh Castle At 110 kilometres southwest from Minsk, it is absolutely worth to come and visit. It is designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
-Mir Castle West from Nesvizh, is another of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country, and complements Nesvizh as a day trip. Check the respective travel guide for both castles here.
Minsk airport is located quite far at 40 kilometres northeast from the city centre. Reaching the city centre is easy, straightforward and actually fast bearing the distance. You can take the Bus 300 for 37200 BYR, which depart every 30 to 50 minutes towards the Central Bus Station, right by the Central Train Station. Along the way it does stop at Uručča metro station which can be useful if your hotel is in this area of the city of along this metro line.
Another less frequent option is taking the train. First of all this involves taking a very short ride from the airport terminal to the airport train station itself (free of charge), and then getting on a train for 25000 BYR. Unfortunately there are only 5 trains a day, making not much sense of it, hence the bus is your best bet. We found our tickets in a combination with airBaltic, Belavia and Ryanair.
From neighboring European countries it is possible to get on an international bus or train service, specially from Berlin, Warsaw, Kiev, Vilnius or Moscow. You must check beforehand if you need any other visa requirement if you will be crossing overland any of those countries.
Within the city centre there is a great network of public transportation, however bear in mind it might be complicated the language barrier. There are plenty of buses, trolleys, few tram lines and 2 metro lines. In order to facilitate your understanding, it would be wise you print a map of the tram and metro network in both English and its Cyrillic equivalent. In the other hand, it is easy to get a ticket while getting around is the very same as you would normally do in any other city. Single tickets costs 5500 BYR.
Walking will be your best way to enjoy the city and its sights, plus what makes it even easier is that the city follows a west to east urbanism, where along the main avenue you have most of the sights nearby; but of course reaching your farthest destination on foot will involve getting a tram or the metro back to your point of origin unless you want to have another very long walk back from the National Library to the train station.
As the capital and largest city in the country, the selection of hotels is large and great. Every world hotel chain is in the city, with an ongoing addition of more large properties constantly. Getting a good deal was not difficult at all since prices are lucky for us, lower than other countries.
We stayed at the new DoubleTree by Hilton in 8 Tolstogo Street (Tolstoy Street as is written in other maps). Located just behind the central train/bus station it could not be any better place. Right at the starting point for anyone’s sightseeing tour where the usual starting/ending point is the Central Train Station. The property was large, very nice designed both outside and inside, great level of comfort with larger than average room, and of course the Hilton standards. A super comfortable bed, great breakfast, friendly and professional staff in all departments, and the nice check-in trademark cookie, always a nice touch.