I lay on the cool grass by a picturesque lake while a dry hot sun cast the last rays of the day. It was a Sunday and the locals were busying themselves at Victory Park enjoying the weather and the fountains. It was a scene that could be any one of a number of European cities, but it was Minsk, one of the least known capitals in Europe at the heart of Belarus, the country that continues to keep the West at arm's length in the 21st century.
Minsk has a unique flavour that is quite unlike anywhere else in Europe. Until February the entry rules of tourists was onerous and complex but that has now improved (see 'Visas' section below) and the country is opening itself up to visitors.
My first impression of Minsk was not what I had expected, having travelled in Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet countries extensively already. The city and most of the country had been decimated in World War Two and so I was prepared for cold grey weather, concrete high rises and locals with faces etched with hardship.
Instead the centre of Minsk was lovely, green and picturesque. From my hotel, Hotel Belarus, a quintessentially Soviet construction, I could see the boating lake that stretches north to south bisecting the centre and surrounded by parks and footpaths. On the opposite side from my hotel was the new ‘old town’, a charming area that felt every bit an old rustic eastern European village but had only been built relatively recently in order to recreate in some small way what had been there before the Nazis razed much of it to the ground during World War Two.
The centre of Minsk is very pleasant to walk around, especially as the temperature during my visit was close to the 30 degrees C. mark. The people are friendly and helpful when they can be, but English is not well spoken so a little bit of Russian (or Belarussian) goes a long way.
Minsk is not the kind of city you may well have assumed if you are from ‘the West’. With its huge statue of Lenin and fluttering Soviet flags, it does feel like a film set from a cold war movie. Yet, it is colourful, friendly, well organised, clean and spacious. The food is good and the vibe is young and upbeat. Unlike many of the main tourist centres in central and eastern Europe, there is very little of historical value left in the city, but the architecture does not evoke the post war drabness of certain parts of the ex-USSR. The city has a sense of its own identity. While there are still issues around political and social freedoms in Belarus, the country seems to be ready to welcome tourists and, as such, Minsk is worth the journey.
Sights to see
The Great Patriotic War Museum is well worth a visit. It is housed in a large building at the entrance to Victory Park and the Soviet flag still flies from the roof. Some of the exhibition blurb is in English but an audio guide is essential to enjoy the full experience. As you may expect, the Soviets’ allies, the US and British, very much play second fiddle here compared to the war on the Eastern Front and special mention is given to the suffering of the Belarussians during the 1940s, which is not something that has received extensive publicity in the West.
Independence Square has two notable sights – the eye-catching Red Church and the giant Statue of Lenin outside Government House. Most tourist publications warn that you may have problems if caught taking photos outside this government building. I did and nothing happened so you should be OK if you do it subtly and quickly but then again you could catch the nearby guards in a bad mood and end up with your camera confiscated. The statue is extremely imposing and it may be hard to resist the urge to take a snap of something that epitomises Communism.
Victory Square sits in the middle of a busy road (vulica Zacharav) where a towering obelisk is etched with images dedicated to the heroism of the defence of the nation in the war. In front, an eternal flame burns. There’s also a lovely coffee shop nearby with good wifi called Coffee & Kaba on praspiekt Niezaliežnasci. Just a short walk round the corner is the house where Lee Harvey Oswald lived when he defected to the USSR years before assassinating JFK.
Places to eat
Lido (praspiekt Niezaliežnasci) offers affordable local food in a canteen style self-service restaurant. There’s a selection of traditional Belarussian food, mainly meats, and more standard options like pizza and salad. It can get very crowded.
Chumacky Shlyah (vulica Miasnikova) offers tasty Ukrainian food a short walk from Independence Square. There’s even a very calm pet rabbit in a hutch to pet. I was told it wasn’t for the menu even though there were a lot of game dishes.
Places to stay
There are some lovely options in Belarus. I chose Hotel Belarus (Storozhevskaya), which is in the centre and a short walk from the main sights in the middle of the park and approximately £40 per night. It is a renovated communist era hotel with a well-equipped gym and swimming pool with sauna. The tiling in the pool has grand images of heroic strong figures striding around purposefully. The buffet breakfast is plentiful, especially the salty porridge. The rooftop restaurant is expensive but the views are lovely. There is also an ATM and a money exchange bureau in the lobby. The rooms are non-descript – comfortable but small and unextraordinary. The bath is massive so good news if you enjoy a long soak.
Double Tree (praspiekt Pieramožcaŭ) is a safe pair of hands (£90) but offers nothing unique. Located on the edge of the boating lake (on the opposite side to Hotel Belarus), next to an upscale shopping complex. It is worth considering if you want the familiarity of a quality chain hotel.
New rules that came into force in February 2017 has made it much easier for citizens of around 80 nations to visit Belarus. The rules allow visa-free entry to Belarus for a period not exceeding five days upon entry via Minsk National Airport, (except for flights departing to and from Russian airports). All EU, Canadian, Australian and USA citizens are included in the visa-free program.
The national airline is Belavia and provides the quickest and simplest way for most tourists into the city.
The metro is quick, cheap and efficient, although not that easy to navigate. There are often taxis around the hotels and they do have a reputation for overcharging foreign tourists but they are convenient too. However, if you like to walk the centre of Minsk is a lovely place to stroll through when the weather is fine.