Borders have a magnetic pull for me, which gets stronger the closer I get. Belarus wasn’t in my travel plans until I looked at a map of the Baltic states. Minsk is practically just down the road from Vilnius, so it seemed logical to visit after my visit to Lithuania.
Initially I wasn’t going to go because of the visa rules. I recalled reading a blog post where a visa cost $420 plus a bunch of paperwork. I checked in case there is a different price for Australians, and it turns out that there is now a free 5-day visa for 80 countries. The visa is only available for arrivals and departures from Minsk airport, so I booked the appropriate flights.
There are no forms to submit before you arrive, just the immigration card that will be issued on the flight. When you arrive at the airport there is a obligatory medical insurance that you have to buy, which is payable at a desk before immigration. It works out at around 1 Euro per day, which can be paid in Euro. You will get an insurance form like this.
Here are the full details of the five-day visa-free entry.
I arrived in the evening and the pre-paid taxi booth was shut, and finding an official taxi was a challenge. There was the usual scrum of unofficial taxi touts, but I didn’t feel lucky on my first day in a new country. In the end I got the bus into town, which is about 45 minutes drive.
The bus stopped on the main street near where I was staying (yay for pre-loading Google Maps), so I jumped off and walked. I arrived to a city filled with young and beautiful people, modern shops, and clean and wide streets.
There are new malls here, and I even passed a YO! Sushi on the way to my hostel. It helped that I was a warm late-summer night and there were lots of people out and about. This was not what I was expecting.
A model Soviet city
Most of Minsk was destroyed during World War II which gave town planners a blank slate to remodel the city into a model Soviet city. The Belarus House of Government is a big chunky block of a building with a statue of Lenin in front, and that sets the tone for the government buildings of the city.
Nezavisimosti Ave (Independence Avenue) is the main street, and is lined with imposing commercial and government buildings.
The landmark I wanted to see the most was the “Solidarity” sculpture. This Soviet modernist piece features heavily-chiseled workers striving towards a glorious communist paradise. Or something like that. It sits above a KFC, which I am sure the Colonel never imagined such a work of political art sitting above one of his restaurants.
If you are arriving by train then you will be greeted by the City Gates, built in the Stalin Empire style.
There are World War II monuments everywhere, such as the Tank Memorial at Central Square.
And the monumental Victory Monument greets you as you enter the city on road from the airport.
Look out for the old cinemas as well, such as the Moscow cinema.
Beyond the central city area the suburbs are more of a Stalinist hellscape, with rows of apartment towers. I visited at the end of summer, and even then it was getting cold. It must be a bitterly freezing place to walk around in the winter.
And not much of an old town
No one comes to Minsk for old architecture, but if you want a taste of old Minsk there is a remnant of the old town at Trinity Hill. This little neighbourhood is an approximation of what the old town looked like. The houses are 19th-century style and the streets are of a walkable scale.
While I enjoyed the variety of post-war Soviet modernist buildings, I have a hard time getting onboard with the straight and wide streets. I have the same feeling as a pedestrian when I walk the wide streets of the USA. Everything feels further away than it needs to be. Having said that I did appreciate the wide footpaths without any motorbikes on them.
I saw an exhibition which was promoting the idea of turning one of the inner city streets into a reclaimed urban park, along the lines of the Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul. I hope they get to do it.
Minsk Coat of arms
Just putting it on the record that Minsk has one of the coolest coat of arms in Europe.
Great Patriotic War Museum
It’s hard not to mention the war when talking about Minsk. The whole city feels like a war memorial with most of its buildings built after the war, and grand war monuments everywhere.
You rarely hear about Belarus in the general narrative of World War II as it’s filed under Operation Barbarossa and the Nazi’s drive towards Moscow.
Over 2 million Belarusians died during the war, which was over 25% of the population. Imagine living in a time when 1/4 of the people you know died in a war. You can understand why the city is one giant war memorial.
The Great Patriotic War Museum was the first war museum I have visited from the Soviet perspective. The museum has information in Belarusian, Russian, and English (German being a notable absence). There are lots of war remnants, from personal articles to tanks and firearms, and it’s presented in a matter-of-fact way. No need for propaganda when Nazi atrocities speak for themselves.
Having visited war museums around the world it was interesting to visit one that didn’t have any mention of allied activities. Not even a photo of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at The Yalta Conference. This was the biggest battle in the history of mankind after all, and this is the story of Belarus in WWII.
Tanks for the warning
I assume this is a direction for the war museum and not pointing west for Russian tanks.
Isle of Tears
Another moving war monument is the Isle of Tears. Before the current war in Afghanistan there was the Soviet–Afghan War, which was fought from December 1979 to February 1989. Growing up in the eighties this was a steady backdrop to the 6 o’clock news of that era.
The Isle of Tears is in the river that flows through the city. The monument features statues of the women of Belarus mourning the loss of loved ones.
The memorial features a weeping angel that actually weeps. It is rigged up with a pipe so tears are streaming from its face. It made me wonder what will the Afghanistan war memorial look like in Washington D.C, if/when the current war concludes.
There are two metro lines in the city which form a cross, with the junction in the historic centre. If you are just making a short visit you don’t need to use it. I wanted to see some of the stations, such as Lenin Square (Plošča Lienina).
Flat White coffee culture has arrived in Minsk so I was able to get a good coffee every day. I was staying near Stories Croissants and Coffee, which has fresh croissants daily. There isn’t a bakery culture here, only kiosks selling old pastries, so this was a good place to start the day.
Another great cafe is at Manufaktura, which is centrally located off a street lined with other cafes and restaurants.
Getting to Minsk
With the 5-day visa only available as a visa on arrival, flying into Minsk is the easiest way. Belavia offer the most flights so I ended up flying in from Vilnius and out to Berlin. I booked flights with Yayama, which made booking tickets on Belavia much easier.
If you have a visa then getting a train from Vilnius would be a good option as it is just over 2 hours.
Where to stay
I based where to stay on the metro map, figuring that anywhere near the cross point of the main two lines will be suitable. I stayed at the Revolucion Hostel in a private room. This was within walking distance to the main sites and is near some bars and cafes. Search for more hotels in Minsk here.