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Why you should visit Minsk in 2020 – Europe’s hidden gem in Belarus

Why you should visit Minsk in 2020 – Europe’s hidden gem in Belarus

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What is there to do in Minsk?

Have you ever been to Minsk? Even know where it is? If not, you’ve been missing out on a real gem. The last communist holdout of the former Soviet Union is the relatively unknown highlight of Eastern Europe. If you’re looking for a short break with a difference, Minsk is the answer.

The Republic of Belarus, which used to be known as Byelorussia or White Russia, shares borders with Latvia and Lithuania to the northwest, Poland to the west, Ukraine to the south and Russia to the north and east.

It has a poor political reputation. Europe’s last dictatorship has Europe’s lowest scores for democracy and press freedom, is the last country in Europe to still have a death penalty, and is widely criticised for lack of political freedom with an authoritarian government that suppresses opposition.

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The Soviet history is visible everywhere in Minsk

Belarus gained independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 but still has a communist leadership and close ties with Russia. More recently there are signs of growing desire to weaken Russian influence, especially after Russia invaded the Crimea. The country is widely regarded as corrupt.

It is an anachronism in terms of European standards and much closer to Russia in its identity and culture. It’s a grey zone between east and west, and few in the west know anything about it. But they should.

During the second world war over 14 million Belarusians were murdered by the nazis and Stalin’s secret police. A quarter of the population died during some of the worst crimes of the 20th century.

There is a different picture emerging in the tech-savvy youth of Belarus, who are more aware of the rest of Europe’s view of their country than the older generations ever were.

There is a growing voice demanding true democracy and basic rights, and unless Russian influence and interference, or military strength, is allowed to take over, there is change coming to Belarus.

Belarus has problems, but head on down to the riverside on a summer evening and you will find the youth of Belarus out playing mass games of volleyball and floating around in the pedal boats eating ice-cream.

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The military past is also prominently on display in Minsk

There is a battle being fought across social media by Belarusian activists and Russian government agencies.

Regardless of your stance on the behaviour of the Belarusian government, tourism is one of the forces that can foster integration with Europe and the spread of information and awareness about Belarus that is sadly lacking across the west.

Do you need a visa for Belarus?

Belarus was always a tricky and expensive place to visit thanks to awkward visa rules. It’s now much more welcoming and offers a visa-free 30 day visit as long as you enter through Minsk airport.

Coming in overland will require a visa. Arrive by air, and all you need is proof of medical insurance and proof that you have funds equivalent to €25 per day.

In practice most people are asked to show their insurance documents and as long as you have a credit card and a handful of cash you’ll be fine.

You will probably also be asked where you are staying, so take a copy of your hotel booking confirmation, and as is nearly always the case with immigration control outside the EU, you will most likely be asked to show your return flight booking.

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Saint Simon and Saint Helena Church, Minsk

Visiting Minsk, Kiev, and Chernobyl

The popularity of the Chernobyl TV series has created a surging interest in visiting Chernobyl. The trip is indeed a “must do“. It’s thrilling, chilling, and fascinating. It will affect you in ways you don’t expect. You should go sooner rather than later.

The word that most defines Chernobyl is decay. Not just radioactive decay but also the decay of the buildings and artefacts of the hastily abandoned town of Pripyat. 34 years on from the disaster and most of the buildings are already very dangerous and at risk of collapse.

Go before it’s gone and before the traces of life as it was in 1986 fade to nothing. Chernobyl is the big draw that’s bringing people to the region but those people are also discovering just how beautiful and enjoyable the city of Kiev is.

If you’re thinking about a trip to Chernobyl, read this essential guide to tours of Chernobyl and Pripyat, and check out what’s on offer in Kiev.

Despite Ukraine’s problems in the south east in conflict with Russia, the rest of Ukraine is safe and welcoming. Like Belarus, if you want to support the people then don’t let political issues put you off.

Tourism is a large part of the economy and positively affects the lives of ordinary people.

From Chernobyl and Kiev there are two other destinations worth your attention. Both are within easy reach of Kiev thanks to very cheap and regular flights.

Chisinau in Moldova is a curious place with some fantastic wine tours, a chequered history, and an authentically traditional culture.

Minsk in Belarus is the other place that should definitely add to your Kiev and Chernobyl trip planning, and is a top recommendation in its own right.

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Getting to Minsk

Minsk International Airport (MSQ) is a 1 hour flight from Kiev’s Boryspil International (KBP). Belavia offer a couple of flights every day for around £90 return in economy on quite decent 737s.

You can also fly direct to Minsk from LGW on Belavia in around 3 hours for as little as £200 return, with flights on Monday,Wednesday and Friday. The flights are quite conveniently timed for a weekend break.

A Friday departure at 2:20pm will put you in Minsk at around 7pm, and a return flight at noon on the Monday gives you time to enjoy a hotel breakfast and a stroll by the river before making it home by early afternoon.

There are plenty of routes from the UK with one stop, including Lufthansa via Frankfurt or KLM via Amsterdam in around 5 hours, if you want to pick up some Miles & More or Flying Blue miles. These flights are typically between £200 and £300.

A much better option if you have a week is to fly to Kiev, visit the Chernobyl, and then add on a trip to Minsk. A return from Stansted non-stop to Kiev will set you back just £97 if you can stomach Ryanair.

Double that for non-stop from Gatwick with Ukraine Airlines, or pay around £150 to fly with Lufthansa or Swiss for a much better quality of service (and a chance to earn miles) but with stops in Frankfurt or Zurich.

The best option of all is routing from London to Kiev to Minsk and back to London from Minsk instead of back-tracking to Kiev. This can be done for as little as £200 for the entire trip, which is a steal. It will require separate tickets but Google Flights will help you out.

A day in Minsk

A first day in Minsk should focus on the Vierchni Horad district and the pedestrian friendly streets around the Town Hall and Holy Spirit Cathedral, and just across the river to the Trinity Hill area with fantastic cafes and riverside walks amongst the monuments.

In the evening, visit Independence Square then enjoy one of many pubs, bars, and restaurants in the centre, or stay around the riverside which comes alive with locals in the evenings.

Minsk is very easy to get around. There are cheap trams and a metro, and walking is easy even in the busiest central areas.

Streets are wide, there are signal controlled crossings or underpasses, and many of the streets are pleasantly tree-lined and peppered with statues, art, and benches. As you walk around you will notice the odd mix of old and new.

Soviet architecture and Lenin statues sit alongside a Burger Kings and TGI Fridays. Knackered old Ladas trundle along spewing fumes next to BMWs worth 100 times as much.

In the shops you’ll find a KFC next to a little old babushka in traditional dress selling hand made traditional crafts.

On the second day, stroll through Gorky Park and Janki Kupaly Park, ride the Ferris wheel, take a boat on the river, watch the street performers and enjoy some of the national dish, Draniki.

With rivers and parks, museums and monuments, churches and cathedrals, modern street art, pavement cafes with delicious local food and drink, and modern fast food outlets rubbing shoulders with striking Soviet architecture and Lenin statues, Minsk is fascinating.

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Minsk Town Hall

Minsk Town Hall and Holy Spirit Cathedral

The area around the town hall and the Holy Spirit Cathedral is pedestrianised and rammed full of beautiful building, street art, statues and monuments from pre- and post-independence eras, and load of pavement cafes and restaurants for some traditional grub.

There are several museums and galleries. In front of the cathedral is the Svislach river where you will find boats for hire, ice-creams for sale, and lots of locals enjoying a romantic walk along the embankment.

Cross the bridge to the Trinity Hill area for more cafes with superb riverfront views, ice-cold beer, and cheap traditional food like Pelmeni (dumplings) and the national dish, Draniki, a fried potato concoction that is as delicious as Pelmeni and similarly served with a healthy dollop of soured cream.

Trinity Hill is the other side of the river in the picture below.

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Boating on the Svislach river in Minsk is very popular
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Traditional food with a view of the river at Trinity Hill in Minsk

Belarusian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War

Behind the riverside cafes in Trinity Hill is a little maze of interesting side streets hiding bits of public art and more traditional restaurants or hip cafes like the Banana Cafe. Don’t miss the Sons of the Fatherland Monument and then take a post-lunch walk around the river to the Alexander Pushkin Monument.

Continue through more beautiful parkland to the second world war museum. Just look for the Hero City Stella (pictured below) and head that way.

The museum is a modern and very well presented one, full of second world war vehicles and aircraft and will easily keep you occupied for a couple of hours.

Audio guides are available and the museum is surrounded by more beautiful parks. Don’t miss Victory Park adjacent to the museum and the B52 bomber on a plinth behind the main museum.

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Alexander Pushkin monument and Svislach River, Minsk
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Hero City Stella, minsk

What to do in the evening in Minsk

Not far from the Trinity Hill cafes is the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet.

You should visit the impressive building even if you don’t fancy taking in a performance. In the evenings the riverside area is thriving, especially around the Sport Palace or head back towards the Cathedral but go under the bridge to find numerous bars and restaurants.

On another day, visit Independence Square where you will find the Lenin Statue , the KGB headquarters, and a modern underground shopping mall.

There are plenty of dining options in the centre, and the Saint Simon and Saint Helena Church is an unmissable photo spot. Look out for the impressive statue of the Archangel Michael.

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Evening at the Svislach River, Minsk

Gorky Park

You can easily have a full and very enjoyable day just exploring Gorky Park and the neighbouring Janki Kupaly Park. There are boats to rent, a ferris wheel to ride, street performers to watch and more statues, monuments, fountains, and sculptures to point your camera at.

The Victory Monument is nearby but it’s just a big column in the middle of a very busy roundabout and not worth the detour.

The parks have a great mix of very lively in the busier central areas, and quiet walks and places to sit in the surrounding park.

The ferris wheel may not be the biggest but you get a good view and you will have a bit of excitement when you look at the seemingly ancient Soviet construction and wonder just how safe it is.

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Gorky Park ferris wheel, Minsk
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The gates of Minsk

Here are more photos and maps of the things you can see and do in Minsk.

Essential Minsk

What language do they speak in Minsk and Belarus?

Mostly Russian but people in hotels and cafes speak very good English, especially the younger generations. You can get by with:

  • Da (yes)
  • Nyet (no)
  • Spasiba (thank you – spa-SEE-ba).

Most cafes and restaurants have menus in English. Cyrillic writing is easier than you think. Learn just a few letters and a lot of words are just borrowed from English. In Cyrillic:

  • p = r
  • c = s
  • H = n

and so “ресторан” is simply “restoran”, and you can probably guess what that is. A lot of words are just as easy once you know the letters.

Мінск = Minsk.

You’ll quickly pick up words like телефон (= telefon = telephone) once you learn some of the more unusual letters. It’s actually quite easy and very satisfying to learn a little Cyrillic.

Where is good to stay in Minsk?

There are a mix of modern business hotels with high standards, and older, cheaper places with perhaps not the same quality standards but which can be closer to the interesting historical areas.

The international chains will be around £100-£150 per night. Independent hostels in the perfectly located and charming Trinity Hill area on the riverside can be as little as £10 per night.

Some top picks for international chain hotels where you can earn or redeem points include:

  • Hilton Doubletree Minsk is right by the riverside and a short walk from the town hall and cathedral
  • Crowne Plaza Minsk is a cheap option not far from Independence Square. I stayed there and was not impressed.
  • Mercure Minsk Old Town was meant to open in 2019 and is theoretically perfectly located by the river close to the Holy Spirit Cathedral. It’s not clear when it will open

The best of the hostels is Urban Hostel Minsk.

Looking at mid-week dates in September, the Doubletree has King rooms for 30000 points or £140 on a semi-flex rate, which represents 0.47p per point, a reasonable value for your points.

My base value for a Hilton point is 0.3p but I normally wouldn’t redeem for less than 0.45p because it is possible to achieve much better. At 30000 points, this could be a good deal if cash rates are higher.

You can also book a river view rooms for 71000 points or more, but with cash rates as low as £160 that is NOT good value at just 0.22p per point.

I would book a standard king room either for cash or points depending on the cash rates at the time, and count on pretty good chances of getting an upgrade if you have Hilton Honors status.

When is the best time to visit Minsk and Belarus?

Peak tourism season is July and August. May 1st and May 9th are national holidays, as is Independence Day on July 3rd. All these days are surrounded with military parades, fireworks, concerts and parades, with consequently busier flights and hotels.

You can visit Minsk all year round, though winters can be very cold. An ideal time to visit Minsk is September when the weather conditions are typically very good but visitor numbers are lower outside the peak summer months.

Is Belarus dangerous?

The current FCO advice for Belarus is that Belarus is safe. Like any city, the biggest risk to tourists in Minsk is petty theft and road traffic. It’s always best to avoid political demonstrations.

Is Belarus part of Russia?

No, it’s an independent sovereign state, although there is a strong Russian influence on politics and culture.

Books about Minsk and Belarus

It says everything about the west’s surprising lack of interest in Belarus when you go looking for books about the country when researching your trip. For a country right in the middle of the competing goals of NATO and Russia, it’s almost completely overlooked.

Andrew Wilson’s Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship is the only real attempt to document the development of the Republic of Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Burning Edge: Travels Through Irradiated Belarus is a unique travelogue of an exploration to the remote borderlands of Belarus and a people still recovering from Chernobyl.

Finally, Belarus by Bradt Travel Guides is the most up-to-date travel guide.

До свида́ния, Мінск (Do Svidaniya = Goodbye, Minsk!)

Here are more photos and maps of the things you can see and do in Minsk.

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