August 30, 2020

Top 10 Things to Do in Minsk

Belarus is in the news for the wrong reasons at the moment and may seem to be an unlikely choice for a trip. One of the least visited places in Europe, not least because visas were hard to get (a situation that has now changed for the better for most countries), it still remains mostly undiscovered. Minsk, the capital, is an intriguing city. A case of East meets West, but where the upper hand still remains Soviet.

Here are our top 10 things to do in Minsk.

1. Visit KFC
This is not an advertorial for one of my most hated fast-food restaurants (the chips are OK, except at Kuala Lumpur airport where they somehow manage to serve them lukewarm). Yet it shows the changes afoot in Minsk. A towering post-war sculpture by Anatol Yafimovich Arcimovich sits atop the first KFC outlet in Belarus, opened in 2015.

You do not have to go inside the KFC and I would actually advise against it as there are plenty of great speciality restaurants a stone throws away on Plosca Svabody, but the contrast between two ideologies is rarely as explicit. The KFC is close to Niamiha Metro Station.

2. Head to Independence Square to see Lenin
Very few statues of Lenin are still in place, let alone one of this size. The statue of Lenin full-on orator mode stands in front of the Belarus Parliament, one of the very few buildings in central Minsk that survived the terrible destruction of the Second World War.

The square was the location for May Day parades and other celebratory events in Soviet times, although in more recent times it has been the location for rallies and protests against the current leadership.

Photography of the Parliament building is, in a throwback to Soviet days, totally prohibited. So be creative...

3. Get up close to a T34 Tank 
To fully understand modern Belarus you have to see how the nation suffered during the Great Patriotic War (World War II). The War Museum is one of the best in the world, actually opening before the war had finished in 1944.

Through dioramas, displays and military hardware, the museum tells the story of Nazi occupation and the eventual liberation which resulted in the death of a quarter of the countries population and almost total destruction of many of its cities.

Some exhibits are quite confronting, the thigh bone of a soldier pressed into their water bottle comes to mind, but the museum is unmissable whilst in Minsk.

4.  Go underground
The metro is not only an efficient and cheap way to get around Minsk, it is also an architectural delight. Reminiscent of the Moscow Metro, no two stations are alike. Each was designed by different artists and sculptors.

Completed in 1984 communist statues and stern Soviet designs mix with folky wistful art. It is worth going up and down the two main lines and visiting every station. A good guide to the different stations is here. My personal favourite is Kastrychniyskaua Station with its ornate Soviet industrial murals with airships.

Again, the authorities deem the metro to be vital infrastructure and photography is prohibited.

8. See where Lee Harvey Oswald used to live
The assassin who shot JFK (or possibly not if you tend to believe in conspiracy theories) main claim to fame before he moved back to Dallas, was that he defected to the USSR in 1959. He was given a job, and a rather cushy apartment at  #4, Vulica Kaminisycnaja.

The building still looks rather upmarket, and no tours are, as yet, offered. Oswald got bored of Minsk and eventually returned to the USA.There was a distinct lack of good bars and restaurants in the 1960's in Minsk, certainly not the case today.

5.  Shop for fresh food at the Monskiy Komarovskiy Market
Take a break from history and head to the largest undercover market in Minsk. The main hall is full of cuts of meat, some that you would not ordinarily see, as well as impressive mountains of cheese.

My favourite stalls were devoted to local honey, and a fresh strip of honeycomb was one of the best snacks I had while in Belarus. Note that photography is not encouraged but possible without being too obvious.

Hard to get to by Metro as there is no nearby station, grab a Yandex cab using the app. A cheap and easy way to navigate Minsk without having to speak Russian fluently.

6.  Read a Book
Or to be more specific head to the National Library (Uschod Metro station). There are books in English there, but the thing to see is the Library itself. One of the only buildings I know that are in the shape of a rhomnicuboctahedron. Try saying that after a few of the local ales.

Very modern-looking and very shiny. Although I have to say I was more impressed with the Soviet mosaics of space exploration on the apartment buildings on the other side of the road from the library.

7. Investigate the KGB Headquarters
But not too closely. Perhaps fitting, as Belarus is viewed by some as the last remaining dictatorship in Europe, that it also boasts the last surviving internal security service known as the KGB in Europe.

Elsewhere it has been renamed and is more commonly known as the FSB in neighbouring Russia.
Housed in an imposing neo-classical building on Independence Avenue it is surrounded by cameras and loitering Policemen. Another place where photography is strictly forbidden.

8. Drink a decent beer
Minsk has a number of breweries and cool bars to relax in after a hard days sightseeing. The main national brewer, Alavaria does run brewery tours but is not that responsive to requests that are not in Russian. Owned by multinational brewer Carlsberg, its product is pretty average.

However, there are some great microbreweries and bars to go to. My two favourites were the Craftman, a traditional pub with a wide selection of local beers, English speaking, and with good bar snacks, alongside Pub 1067, which can really be described as a micropub. A tiny bar hidden beneath an apartment block with a great selection of beers and incredibly friendly staff. A real gem of a bar.

9. Look up at the street art
Thanks to the Brazillian Embassy in Minsk sponsoring a street art competition, and bringing in artists from Brazil to show the locals what is possible, street art has exploded across Minsk, particularly in the suburbs where drab grey buildings are now a riot of colourful murals.

Head to the area around Oktjabrskaj Street in the south of Minsk to see some of the best works. The area is also a fertile ground for eclectic pubs and cafes.

10. Take a day trip to Nezvizh Castle
About an hour outside of Minsk is Nevizh a stunning castle built in the sixteenth century. Due to the wars and rather elastic international boundaries, the castle has been part of Poland, Russia and now Belarus.

Inside are ornate rooms and small exhibits of clothes, kitchenware and small arms from Victorian times, but I found the view from the outside of the castle and its moat and walls to be the most impressive part of my visit.

It has to visit by public transport, you will find your hotel or hostel will offer tours for around US$50 per person. This also includes a visit to Mir Castle, which I found less interesting as it has been substantially rebuilt and has become a bit of a tourist trap.

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  1. I'm a travel enthusiast, and your blog has become my go-to guide for off-the-beaten-path adventures. Your recommendations for lesser-known destinations and hidden gems have introduced me to places I never would have discovered otherwise. Your blog fuels my sense of curiosity and exploration!

    1. Thanks Ras. Lovely comments. I hope you travel to some of these great places. The blog has been a bit quiet recently but will be getting some big updates soon.