Belarus is one of the countries that often gets overlooked by tourists. One of the main reasons is a lack of the world famous tourist place in this country, such as Eifel tower in France or Taj Mahal in India or Pyramids in Egypt. Another reason is a lack of tourism marketing. Even if you are looking for a different and authentic experience for your next vacation, this country will not rank up in the suggested tours of the agency. There are also plenty of “experts” who have never visited Belarus and have strong opinions about this country based on media news.
My experience was so different than many people had prepared me for. You might have heard that Belarus takes you back to the USSR. Although Minsk and suburbs have some accents people used to relate to Soviet Union (order, prices, product choice, transport), there are many other aspects that often get overlooked. Through this article, I would like to show you a small part of this country from a touristic point of view. This post is a mini guide for people who wish to visit Minsk independently.
Set right expectations
Belarus is mainly famous for pristine forests, castles, and rich culture. In the past, Belarus was called the land of castles, because of the numerous fortifications constructed by citizens to protect themselves from wars. Unfortunately, most of the castles were destroyed throughout the history. Nevertheless, there are still several sights that government takes care of.
If you take Minsk (the capital), this is not the city with numerous thousand years old heritage sights. Minsk was completely destroyed during the World War II and rebuilt afterward. Calling back to the history, Minsk was burned 18 times. It’s a city-phoenix that can impress with its architecture, spotless streets, order and green public spaces. It is a digital detox city where is no surplus of advertisement boards hanging everywhere. If you stay at least one-two days in Minsk, I suggest to spend them in the following way.
Visit a castle or two
Just 1.5 hours away from Minsk there are two historic castles: Mir and Nesvizh. Mir castle is one of the oldest castles dating back to the 16th century. Nesvizh is Radziwill’s family residential castle named one of the most beautiful castles in the area. Both castles are listed as UNESCO heritage sights. I’ve chosen Mir, because of the convenient bus schedule that day. You can visit both castles if you wish as they are just 30 km from each other.
- Price: 10 BR (~ 5 EUR) – adults, 5 BR (~2.5 EUR) – students.
- Guide: My personal advice is to explore castle independently without a group. Firstly, you can save money if you are traveling on a budget. Secondly, you can spend more time in each room. If you are a history lover, there are many interesting spaces inside the castle. Moreover, they have audio guides for 2 BR (~ 1 EUR) in several languages. There are around 150 numbers marked around the whole castle. You can listen to the history of each area and spend there as much time as you wish (within the working hours of course :D).
- Time: If you would like to get into the history of the castle, I suggest reserving minimum two hours. Working hours: 10.00 – 18.00 daily.
- Transport: I’ve taken early morning bus at 8.30 from the central bus station in Minsk. I suggest taking a morning bus since next options are around mid-day and later. The journey is 1.5hr and costs 5.5 BR (~2.5 EUR). Once you arrive in Mir station double check the bus schedule. When I was there, there was a bus option at 13.10, 15.40 and 18.00. You don’t want to skip the bus!
What if you skip the bus?
I’ve got you covered 😉 There are mainly two ways you can go about it. You can try to hitchhike. Here is a challenge that not so many people speak English. I’ve found one family who came by car and was planning to leave within two hours to Minsk. You might try your luck. On the other hand, you can explore the Mir village till next bus arrives. Buses normally come once in 2.5 hr. What are the highlights of the village:
- Streets with different architecture houses
- St Nicholas Church
- Orthodox Church
- Museum (close to the Orthodox church)
- Mir Lake and park near the castle
Minsk overall is a very friendly, spacious and calm city that you can’t say about many capitals in the world. One of the most striking aspects of the city is cleanliness. There are many people who daily take care of the streets to make them beautiful and spotless. Though Minsk is a big city, most of the sightseeing points are situated close to or at the Prospekt Nezalezhnosti (name of the main street). If you find accommodation there, most probably you will not need to bother about the public transport.
If you ask the local people what to visit in Minsk, they find this question challenging. Here is a good map with sightseeing points and several walking itineraries developed by tourism website. I personally suggest starting your walk from main gates & railway station to Prospekt Nezalezhnosti. Prospekt Nezalezhnosti is around 11 km long. You can walk it through till Yakub Kolas square. On the way, you will see Circus, Victory Square and many other architecturally interesting places. There will be several green public areas where it is just nice to sit and relax near a fountain or a river.
From Yakub Kolas square you can come back to the Park Janki Kupali. You can cross the bridge from the park and visit Old Minsk, National Opera and Ballet Theatre and Island of tears. From there you can walk back in direction of Railway station through Nemiga street. On the way, you will see Church of St Simon and Helena and Pischalauski Castle. This will be a one-day itinerary.
- Minsk Gates that serve as a symbolic entrance to the city as you go out from the train station.
- Prospekt Nezalezhnosti – the longest street in Minsk with numerous points of interest: Victory Square, Yakub Kolas square, Independence square, National Academic Theatre, National Library.
- Old Minsk with numerous parks, Island of tears and Opera and Ballet theatre.
- Church of St Simon and Helena
- Nemiga street – one of the oldest streets of Minsk
- State War Museum – If you are a museum person you can visit the state War Museum in Minsk. The Second World War had devastated Belarus and have taken ¼ of the population. The memory and war topic are very important for Belarus nation.
Minsk in the evenings
I strongly suggest taking an evening walk as well. With all the city lights, it looks very beautiful.
Belarus is currently changing from millions of rubles to new money. New Belarus ruble equals to 50 US cents. They still use old money in the shops and you might receive cash in both old and new money. Looking in the picture, I can assure you that coins on the right side are 10 times more valuable than all the notes on the left.
You can see often the exchange points in the city center and at the railway station. Give preference to USD, EUR and Russian Rubles if you are bringing foreign currency.
As I mentioned previously, Belarus is a socialist republic. This means that almost in any industry the state is the main player and there might be few private companies. Just for pure curiosity I’ve looked into hotel options and found prices quite expensive for the Eastern Europe (comparing to other capitals). Luckily, there have appeared few hostels during last few years. The price starts with 20 BR (~10 USD) for 10 people room up to 30 BR (~15 USD) for four people room.
I recommend taking place in tower hostels. It is convenient, just five minutes walking distance to railway station and close to sightseeing points. I was staying in In Tower hostel and I had only one neighbor. There are separate rooms for women and men. My neighbor told she was staying there for two weeks and the maximum number of people in the room were three people. Why to pay more?
Food in Minsk
Belarus cuisine has its own accents that differ from other Eastern European countries. It’s still a potato area with numerous dishes made form potatoes. You can try soups with mushrooms, meat, beans and potatoes. They are quite concentrated with ingredients. Belarus has also many varieties of meat dishes. To give you a price overview from different places, the lunch in a budget café is around 15BR (~7.50 USD). My dinner in Lido – it’s kind of canteen on Prospekt Nezalezhnosti with many food options – was 7.50 BR (~3.7 USD). Breakfast – two takeaway pancakes cost 5 BR (~2.5 USD). If you find some better deals, please share in comments, I’m going to visit this city again ;).
I’ve also bought some light food from the grocery shops. You will find mainly Belarus and Russian brands. You can buy a bun and a drinking yogurt within 2 BR (~1 USD).
Fast impressions about Minsk:
- It’s very safe, especially the city center. You will see policemen roaming along the streets every now and then, though nothing is happening.
- It’s very clean. In the mornings you will see many people and machines cleaning everything in the city. The green areas are taken care of. Even outside the city center the probability to see garbage on the streets or wall art is close to zero.
- It is very spacious, yet caring. This city takes care of every participant in the traffic whether it’s a bus, cyclist, pedestrian or car. Everyone has a separate area and don’t conflict with each other.
- There are many Government buildings you can’t take pictures of.
- It’s not English friendly destination. Street names are only in Cyrillic letters and many people have difficulties explaining directions in English. Nevertheless, they will do their best to help you out.
- Minsk is very beautiful at night due to lightened buildings, fountains and parks.
- Prices for the same service are plus minus same everywhere.
- Very good roads everywhere, even outside the city.
- It’s very challenging to find WIFI unless you are in a hostel/hotel or a café (double check if the café has a Wi-Fi).
- Belarus people are super nice and warm. Before coming to Minsk I’ve met several Belarus young people in exchange projects. When I came to Minsk somehow everyone I’ve met from students to retired grannies was very helpful, understanding and with a sense of humor.
- People talk very accurately about the politics and president. After the protest of 2011 you can notice some fear and indifference in many local people when it comes to politics.
- Update 2017: Belarus has opened visa free travel to 80+ countries. Check out if that applies to you.
I found quite little information about Belarus in English comparing to the other countries, thus I hope this mini guide will be helpful review if you plan a visit. With overall stability in Belarus, I think the information in this post will be relevant many years ahead.
As for me, I’m planning to visit Belarus again for nature tourism and take a walk again around one of the spacious capitals in the world. If you have been to Minsk, what other tips would you share for the first comers?
Cover Image credit Julian Nitzsche