Minsk: former Soviet city which has to be checked out!
Ok, first off, does anyone know where the heck Minsk is? Of course you do, it is in one of the least touristy destinations of Europe and I had the pleasure of checking it out three times. Despite its current statues in the political world, the long wait and dull progress of getting a visa and their main export is building tractors (apparently), Minsk is a fabulous city to check out. Here is my guide on the city based on personal experiences.
First off – the important bits. How to get to Minsk and visas!
Before arriving in Belarus, visitors will need a visa (unless you are from Russia). Anyone arriving by air (which is bloody expensive to fly into) can obtain a visa on arrival but by rail or road, forget it, you will be sent back from where you come from or detained. For me, I managed to obtain my visas for the first two trips at the Belarus embassy in London, UK and took about three days to get which for me wasn’t bad but I was left with ‘open wallet surgery’. On my third trip to Minsk, I flew into the airport for the first time and took advantage of the new visa scheme where I didn’t have to pay for one (however you still need a visa from the embassy if traveling by road or rail) and my entry lasted for thirty days. Note that you need an airline ticket to leave the country and also you need to buy insurance at the airport which is around five U.S. Dollars and that any insurance from outside the world, even ones stating ‘worldwide travel insurance’ are NOT valid in Belarus. That’s because Belarus says so and probably just another way of bringing in extra money.
I have an interest in former Soviet Union history, the country and its satellite states (like Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan etc), the culture and I have been very fortunate to travel to a lot of Eastern and Central European countries with communist histories etc. When exploring Minsk for me was very similar to other cities like Riga, Kiev but here the one major difference was the language. It was a good job I knew basic Russian otherwise commuting would have been difficult. The official language is Belarusian which is similar to Polish and Ukrainian but most of the population speaks Russian. In recent years most young people now speak English. Despite this I found getting to know people and engage with them was more fun and easier to do than other places around this part of the world. Minsk isn’t the best, glamorous and most beautiful destination and I am not hyping it up or anything like that but it is still worth checking out and is probably the closest anyone will see with a deep Soviet past.
Ten years ago I would say, don’t be afraid of all those zeros appearing after the first number, the Belarus bank loves big numbers. I exchanged about £100 (British) and received something like 2,800,000.00 in NOTES! What the f***! I started calling it funny money whilst other backpackers call it Monopoly money. However since 2016, the currency has been simplified and all the zero’s have disappeared from the bank notes. It might also be handy to take some US Dollars or Euros into the country but ten times out of ten, I was using the local currency and didn’t have an issue with the ATM machines. There are currency exchange places but I didn’t need to use them.
What to see in Minsk?
The Church of Saint Helena and Saint Simon (Касцёл Святых Сымона і Алены)
– this red bricked neo-Gothic church was built in the early 20th century by a guy called Edward. The church is actually named after Edward’s deceased children, Helena and Simon. The weird thing about all this is that Helena saw the future church in her sleep and drafted it on paper. Her father decided to build the church as shown in that drawing and still stands today (it was one of very few buildings which did not get destroyed in the Second World War).
The church is located one end of the Independence Square (nearest metro station is Ploshchad’ Nezavisimosti, Площадь Независимости), which is massive and probably one of the biggest squares I have come across in Europe. Designed for hosting military parades and rallies (seriously!) the square also has the government headquarters, two universities (one named after a tank), the headquarters for the metro system (really important that one), the mayor’s office and some important buildings which are all governmental departments.
Underneath the square is a huge shopping mall and a great place to keep warm in the winter months but the most notable feature when walking around the square is seeing the Soviet statue of its former leader, Lenin (where it is getting harder and harder to find statue’s like this outside Russia as their former states governments are taking them down).
The other square to check out is Victory Square, which can be easily reached by going to Ploschad Pobedy metro station but is also in easy reach by foot from anywhere in the centre. The square is not only one of the country’s top visitor attractions but is also a place of pilgrimage for locals remembering those who died in the Second World War (around Eastern Europe and Russia the war is known as the Great Patriotic War).
The huge obelisk (Victory Monument – Манумент Перамогі) is the dominating feature of the square, a memorial to the country’s war dead. Around the base of the monument there are four scenes which are beautifully engraved by local sculptors depicting the partisans of the country, the army during the years of the war, the end of the war on 9th May 1945 (known as Victory Day) and the glory to the fallen heros. Also an eternal flame was built at the base of the obelisk and I have to admit, it’s nice to stand next to it while it is bloody cold in the winter months.
Nearby in the Trinity suburb which is an old part of the city (very picturesque mind you), which lies on the shores of the Svisloch river, has plenty of little streets and houses to check out with some bright colours on the facades. Around here are some Orthodox and Catholic churches but what I found interesting was the Island of Tears (Памятник Сынам Отечества).
The small island in the river with an arch bridge connecting it to the mainland has a memorial to the local people who took part in the Soviet War in Afghanistan (1980s) to which many of them did not return. It has a symbolic chapel in the centre of the memorial, with it a bronze icon of the Mother of God. Walking around I found this to be a very fitting place, peaceful, quaint and deservedly the best location for this.
Zybitskaya (Зыбицкая) is a revamped area of the city and is lively at night. Here there are around fifty bars and restaurants and is the area to go to for the locals. This area is also great to explore as its next to the riverfront.
In this area is where the Holy Spirit Cathedral (Мінскі Кафедральны Сабор Сашэсьця Святога Духа) is located which is one of the most instantly recognisable symbols of the city. This gleaming, magnificent, two-towered Orthodox cathedral was completed in 1642 as part of a larger ensemble to serve Bernadine nuns, consecration was delayed for around forty years because of the Muscovite invasions. In 1741 the original structure was damaged by fire but later reconstructed. The convent was suddenly closed in 1852 and the building was given to the Russian Orthodox Church for use as a monastery before being closed by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. Today the church has been restored to its former glory.
Across the road from the cathedral is the beautiful Church of Blessed Mother Mary (Касцёл Святога Язэпа). The crucifix at the entrance and at the altar demarcate this to be a Catholic Church. Inside the side altars are there and this church remain as a symbol of Christian existence in Belarus.
Along the River Svislach is a great place to take walks. Even in the winter months. I was walking up and down here and some mornings I would do some running in the very cold temperatures. There are some good viewpoints and a great way to get across the city to other sites as mentioned in this blog but I also love the parks along here. The city is kinda grey and concrete so to into the urban parks with beautiful trees and open spaces was nice. Even if the area is full of snow, giving the parks a wintry picture postcard scene.
Another landmark of the city was built to impress visitors to Minsk when they arrived at the train station. Once leaving the building, the first thing visitors would see is The Gates of the City. The gates are actually two symmetrical high towers which were built in the style of Stalin classicism (I love what the locals called the style!). This sort of style is a combination of late classicism, art deco and baroque. All these sorts of buildings across the former Soviet Union are distinguished by their luxury and grandeur. Things to note on the towers, the right tower has the coat of arms of the former Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and on the left is a huge German clock which is the biggest in the country. I have a funny feeling that the army took this from Germany in the Second World War as that is the story which I kept getting told about it. As well as the day time, it is also good to see them at night as they are lit up and show bring some life into the area.
Outside the centre I also checked out the biggest library in Europe (and maybe the world) which was recently built and holds over fourteen million books and is still getting filled up. Also there is a viewing platform and cafe on top to check out the views. The nearest metro station is Praspiekt Niezalieznasci and when on street level, take a close look on the apartment buildings to see colourful memorials of Soviet history like the one of the first man in space.
Sometimes the government host these parades but not as common as they used to be under Soviet rule. However I was quite fortunate on the outskirts of the city to see one of these. One moment I am drinking tea at a roadside cafe then before I knew it, hundreds of vehicles came thundering down the road. The amount of noise and the emissions the tanks, lorries, cars produced was unbelievable. A great sight to see but don’t go to Belarus thinking that this happens every day.
Amazing Street Art
I managed to check out some amazing street art on Oktyabrskaya street (or Kastrycnickaja Street which is now the new name of the street, however some online resources and maps still has the street marked as Oktyabrskaya). Tourists call this street ‘Graffiti Street’ which they shouldn’t be because here is Street Art and not graffiti. There is a lot of street art on the side of buildings in the city but this street seems to get the most attention as there is a lot of artwork here on the side of brick buildings.
Minsk, like other cities in Eastern Europe is starting to get a hipster feel in some parts of the city. This area has dance places, small shops, bars and is a great area to relax and meet other people. Looking around, I could see the creativity from the locals and the feel for the place. I had the thought running through my mind, ‘it’s a creative urban environment with a Belarusian twist’. Looking at the murals, I could see a lot of Belarussian themes and symbols, like the Zybr (the European bison). A lot of murals around here were produced by Brazilian artists who find Minsk a great place to show off their love of art. In the summer months this street also has festivals and other special events which are worth checking out, to which the biggest one is the Brazilian festival.
Just off the street there are little courtyards (some with street art) and at one end of the street is the Kristal vodka factory. To get to this area you can walk here from the city centre (or just follow the river), which would take around twenty-thirty minutes at a good pace otherwise visitors can alight at Pershamaiskaya metro station.
My favourite drinking place and accommodation recommendation
On my third trip to the city I stayed at the Doubletree by Hilton in the centre of Minsk to which my review of my stay can be found here. At the top of the hotel is the location for Bar:Dot XX1, on the 21st floor and opens at 20:00 each evening. I hosted a little meet-up here for my friends in Minsk on my third visit whom I know from previous visits. I reserved a table with a view, got a fantastic welcome from staff and the waiter/waitress service was 100% blooming fantastic. I could not fault it. The prices of drinks here a little bit expensive compared to bars on the ground floor in the city but not by much and too be honest, I had a cheap night here. I even ordered lots of chicken (not the KFC style) as there is a lot of Asian food on the menu, to which was served in under fifteen-twenty minutes. I just couldn’t fault the service. I was that impressed I paid for all five of us, which included about twelve drinks and seven lots of food and I think it came to $120! I even gave the waiter a good tip. It was one of the best service I have received on the road in a long time and to be honest, on my next visit to Minsk, I hope the bar is still here and the service is the same because this will be the first place I will come back to.
One of the main sports of the country is Ice Hockey and in the winter season, it is great to catch up on a game. The main team in the city and country is Dinamo Minsk who compete in the KHL league, the second biggest league in the world which has teams from Russia, Latvia, China, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Finland to name a few. I managed to take in two games so far and had a fantastic time out at the Minsk Arena. Tickets have to be brought in advance (especially for the big games against teams from Moscow and St Petersburg) but sometimes tickets can be brought at the arena on the day. Massive arena and great atmosphere inside. However as I am a Dinamo Riga fan (Latvian side in the KHL), I would rate my days out at Minsk Arena as Meh! Seriously, it was different for me personally watching KHL games without Riga being involved but still had a good day out and managed to have a few drinks as well.
Going for a Spa Day in Minsk
One of my favourite things to do on the road is to relax and go to the spa for a few hours. I was taken to Hotel Beijing which is in a nice parkland location next to the river on Krasnoarmeiskaya Street. On approach to the hotel, the outside facade had a nice modern-day Chinese mountain look to it and once inside the main entrance, despite the huge open spaced lobby, I felt warm, comfortable and relaxed straight away. The staff are very welcoming and informative. It wasn’t before long that I was having a nice relaxing Chinese massage (which I pre-booked in advance). The lady I had doing this wasn’t Chinese but a local, but by heck, she knew what she was doing. I had the traditional Chinese full body massage (without the oils) and after a good forty minutes, I came away feeling rejuvenated. As her hands dug deep into my back muscles, I was soothing myself psychologically away from all the stress I had from the previous months and for once, felt totally relaxed.
Afterwards it was time to hit the swimming pool which is located in another part of the hotel. This one was a little bit strange for me as the pool house was divided into two separate areas. One for women and one for men. Each area has its own sauna and whirlpool. However the main indoor pool is where females and males can swim and relax together. Then it was time for food upstairs and on the day I went, there was a special buffet going on where there were lots of cold meats, fish, pastries on hand as well as deserts. To book a visit for a massage and to see what offers there are to be had, check out the Hotel Beijing website here.
I have to admit that the food here is very similar to that of their neighbours of Russia, Poland and Lithuania. I saw more international food here than local cuisine. There are a few good restaurants to check out but a little tip, always take note what you ordered and make a note, the staff sometimes try to add extra items and rip off tourists (like they tried to do with me and a group on my second visit, they didn’t get a tip from me and they got upset about this and my response is, you won’t take off the extra items of the bill, you don’t get a tip, hopefully that gave them a lesson on how to treat tourists). This was a common theme on my first few visits but on my third visit earlier this year, I didn’t have a problem.
Minsk is a great place to visit and I am fortunate enough to have made friends and look at the place as a local. I would recommend visiting Minsk (and the rest of Belarus which is mostly fields and forests but beautiful ones at that), but just be sure to plan in advance (especially with visa applications) and plan ahead with accommodation as there are not many budget places around and mostly four/five star hotels.
Just to clarify for this blog post, my first trip was January 2008, second trip was June 2012 and third trip was January 2019.