Not many Europeans would know much about Belarus, unless you are from the former Soviet Union. It is a relatively closed country and as a consequence not many would go to for a visit. Recently, I went there for work and so had the chance to see it for myself. I didn’t know what to expect and had very little expectations, but Minsk provided a very positive surprise. Unfortunately I got to see only Minsk and with the hindsight I would have stayed a couple of more days to explore some other parts of the country.
To some extent the time has stopped in Belarus and you have the impression you’re stepping back to the times of the former Soviet Union, starting with the airport building and the immigration lady that takes a magnifying glass to inspect your passport and the visa (do they really think I’d be forging a Belorussian visa?). Minsk was almost completely destroyed during WWII and so it was rebuilt in a very soviet style – Stalinist style as they promptly corrected me. Roads and streets are extremely wide with impressive buildings and typical blocks of flats. Since it was January, there was plenty of snow and the temperatures were bitterly cold, but not many cars on the streets.
There is not much to see in Minsk, but the centre of the town is actually very cute. The main road – Independence Street (Prospekt Nezavismosti) – is wide and all the important government buildings and shops are there. It’s nice to walk from the independence square towards the North to Kastrichnisaya square and (if not frozen yet) to the Victory Monument.
There are plenty of nice cafes where you can warm up from the bitter cold outside. As well as plenty of high-end shops and the traditional Gum and Tzum department stores.
Minsk has a small old town that is not far from the intersection of the independence and Lenin streets, with the liberty square (Ploshchad Svobody) as its centre. It only consists of a couple of streets and churches.
All in all, the centre gives you enough sites for an hour or two depending on how cold it is and how much time you want to spend browsing the shops. Another sights worth seeing is the Great Patriotic War Museum and in particular the National Library. The latter is a diamond shaped monumental building with an observation deck on top. They provide guided tours explaining all the details about the library, including the rail system used to transport books around. Definitely the highlight of this Eastern European architecture and a must see in Minsk.
A nice experience in Minsk, I found, was taking the public transportation. It really transports you back to the Soviet times. I’d definitely recommend taking the metro, even if you don’t need it as it’s very cheap.
There are no taxies on the street so if you need one make sure you call it, but Uber works quite well so that might be easier.
Belorussian food is not very varied, it mostly consists of potatoes (lots of them) and meat. The selection of vegetables and fruit is very limited. However the soups are quite good and they are excellent in the cold weather. Their national dish is called ‘draniki’ very similar to latkes or other similar grated potato dishes. They can be plain or filled with things, usually meat.
For traditional food I would definitely recommend Kuhmeister in the centre and Rakovsky Browar, a small scale brewery.
Kastrichnickaya street is the hipster area of Minsk nowadays with bars and restaurants. Enzo is an excellent gastropub there really good for burgers and beer. For a more modern and (almost) fancier experience the wine bar Svobody.4 in the old town serves some delicious food and has an impressive selection of imported wines.
All in all, I really liked Minsk and it definitely exceeded my expectations (maybe because I didn’t have many). It would describe as very orderly and clean. I think it’s nice for a could of days or an extended work trip.