Frequently found near the top of lists naming ‘the least visited countries in Europe’, Belarus spent centuries under different empires before finally declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Admittedly, I’d never planned to write about my time in the Belarusian capital Minsk as a day trip. But given well-publicised events in recent months, combined with the fact that so few people venture here themselves, it felt like now was a good time to take a closer look and present the country to a wider audience. After all, Belarus has a formidable reputation – but what is it like to actually visit?
At a glance:
Republic of Belarus / Рэспубліка Беларусь (Respublika Byelarus‘) / Республика Беларусь (Ryespublika Byelarus‘)
Capital: Minsk (Мінск (Minsk) in Belarusian, Минск (Minsk) in Russian)
Currency: Belarusian Ruble (BYN)
Area: 207,595 km2
National Day: July 3rd
National Anthem: Дзяржаўны Гімн Рэспублікі Беларусь (Djyarzhaowni Himn Respubliki Byelarus’) – State Anthem of the Republic of Belarus, also known as Мы, Беларусы (Mi Byelarusy), “We Belarusians”
Highest Point: Дзяржынская Гара (Dzyarzhynskaya Hara) – 345 metres (1,132 ft)
Famous for: war memorials, tractors, potato-based cuisine
- Maksim Bahdanovich (poet, literary critic)
- Alexander Hleb (footballer)
- Victoria Azarenka (tennis player)
- Alexander Rybak (violinist, Eurovision winner)
- There are several theories as to where the name Belarus, meaning ‘White Rus’, came from. One suggestion is that it was used to describe the lands inhabited by Christianized Slavs as opposed to the pagan Baltic tribes of ‘Black Rus’, while others argue the white-colored tunics the locals once wore inspired the name.
- Known as ‘the lungs of Europe’, the Białowieża Forest covers the border between Belarus and Poland and is one of the continent’s largest and oldest forests. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, some of the trees are thought to be centuries old and around 800 European Bison, Europe’s heaviest land animal, also live here.
- According to some sources, more than 1,000 caches of buried treasure have been unearthed in Belarus during the last two centuries and they’re still turning up today. In 2018, a box of gold coins and jewelry found in Hrodna were estimated to be worth over €16,000! Some speculate that thanks to the numerous wars fought here, Belarus may harbour more buried treasure than any other country in Europe!
- Named for the 4 brothers who founded the group, the Bielski Partisans operated from the forests of western Belarus during the Second World War saving Jews from Nazi persecution. By the end of the war over 1,200 people were living in the Bielski camp, with at least 70% of them being elderly, women or children.
- Belarus entered the Eurovision Song Contest every year between 2004 and 2019, qualifying for the final 6 times. Their best result to date came in 2007 when Dmitry Koldun’s ‘Work Your Magic’ placed 6th. Belarusian-born Alexander Rybak also won the contest for Norway with ‘Fairytale’ in 2009.
Belarus has two official languages, Belarusian and Russian. Both Eastern Slavic languages that are mutually intelligible to an extent, it’s been noted that since Russian was granted equal status in 1995 it quickly became the county’s dominant language. The result can be confusing for visitors as you’ll see Belarusian names on street signs and in guidebooks, but you’re more likely to hear the Russian ones being used. Although Belarusians may instinctively switch to Russian when talking with foreigners to ease communication, the use of Belarusian has increased in recent years – even if some view using it as an act of political dissent. Although the number of English speakers is slowly growing, as it’s the only place in the world where you can use it, here are some Belarusian phrases to try out:
|Goodbye||Да пабачэньня||da pa-ba-chen-nya|
|Please||Калі ласка||ka-li las-kah|
|How much does this cost?||Колькі гэта каштуе?||kol-key heta kash-too-yeh|
|Do you speak English?||Вы кажаце па англіскі?||vi ka-zha-tsye pa ang-lis-ki|
|I don’t understand||Не разумею||nye ra-zu-myeh-yu|
|Am I allowed to take pictures?||Ці дазволена фатаграфаваць?||tsi daz-vo-lye-na fa-ta-gra-fa-vatz|
As of 2018, many nationalities no longer need a visa to enter Belarus for stays of up to 30 days, providing you arrive and leave via Minsk National airport. Always check you qualify for this before you travel! Located 42km east of the city, buses into central Minsk take between 40 minutes to an hour, but will drop you off at Minsk railway station – the ideal spot to start exploring the city from!
What to do:
Rising 11 stories above the street, the Gates of Minsk are two towers facing the railway station that have long been associated with welcoming visitors to the city. Completed in 1952, they’re typical of the Stalinist era architecture found throughout the city centre, some particularly impressive examples of which can be seen around the corner on Ploshcha Nyezalyezhnastsi or Independence Square. One of Europe’s largest city squares at 7 hectares, it features a statue of Lenin and is dominated by the vast pale House of the Government. While its scale is doubtlessly impressive, it’s also one of the few buildings in Minsk that survived the Second World War intact. Directly next door, the pretty neo-Romanesque Church of Saints Simon and Helena was consecrated in 1910 but spent most of its life as a cinema under Soviet authorities. Ploshcha Nyezalyezhnastsi is also the beginning of Praspekt Nyezalyezhnastsi, a colossal thoroughfare that stretches 15km through the heart of Minsk. Many grandiose buildings line the huge boulevard including the yellow columned front of the KGB Headquarters – local legend says the building’s tower was added so the director could watch football matches from work!
A 10-minute walk away, October Square is one of 5 squares that Praspekt Nyezalyezhnastsi passes through. Overlooked by the grey columns of the stern Palace of the Republic, in the basement of the grand Stalinist Trade Union Palace of Culture that also stands on the square you’ll find the Strana Mini Museum which opened in 2016. Displaying detailed scale models of famous sites around Belarus, it quickly became one of Minsk’s most popular attractions and makes for a great whistle-stop tour of the country. A short stroll away, Ploshcha Svobody feels much cosier surrounded with more historic-looking buildings. Despite its 19th century appearance, the white clock tower of Ratusha only dates from 2006. This site has been the administrative centre of Minsk since at least the 16th century and though closed to visitors as a working city hall, it still makes for a nice photo stop. At the edges of the square you’ll spot the green roof of the Baroque Holy Spirit Cathedral, the central cathedral of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Originally a built as a Benedictine monastery in the mid-17th century, the cathedral has survived fire, pillage and Soviet disinterest and is now revered as a lasting symbol of Minsk’s turbulent history.
Crossing over the River Svislach the quiet cobbled streets of Trinity Suburb, known locally as Trayetskaye, date back to the 1200s and are the closest thing Minsk has to an Old Town. The pretty buildings housing folk art shops, bars and restaurants are almost all restorations, though locals like to insist they’re originals. Enjoy the peace away from the city’s traffic-filled boulevards or take a stroll along the riverbank, admiring the towers of the modern Minsk skyline as you wander down towards the Island of Tears. Opened in 1996, the small island chapel surrounded by statues of grieving mothers is dedicated to those lost fighting in the Soviet Union’s war against Afghanistan. Floral tributes are still laid here, making it a poignant place to stop and ponder. A short stroll away in the leafy Yanka Kupala park, the rounded socialist façade of the National Academic Grand Opera and Ballet Theatre was first built in the late 1930s. Considered to be home to one of the finest ballet companies in the entire USSR, the theatre was renovated in 2009 and still gives world-class performances.
Heading away from the theatre, Victory Square is crowned by a 38-metre-tall granite obelisk bearing a giant Order of Victory. Honoring those who fell during the Great Patriotic War, it’s common to see newlyweds laying their wedding bouquets here. Although nearly 7km away from there square, it’s still worth heading out to see the National Library of Belarus. Known as ‘the Diamond of Knowledge’, the futuristic library was completed in 2006 and is a giant rhombicuboctahedron, towering nearly 74 metres over the streets of Minsk. Be sure to go up to the observation deck at the very top for a sweeping panorama of the city. For more traditional-looking architecture, the nearby All Saint’s Church is a gorgeous white and gold Orthodox temple that opened in 2010. Crowned by 9 golden domes, the remains of 3 unnamed soldiers who died during the War of 1812 and the First and Second World Wars are interred within its lavishly decorated interior.
At a first glance, it’s easy to dismiss the sprawling Belarusian capital as grey and grim. But those who take the time to scratch the surface of Minsk will be rewarded with a truly unique destination. The country’s traumatic history reverberates everywhere and though difficult, it offers an insight into Belarus’ very soul and helps make this part of Europe such an incredible place to explore.
A big thank you to John Skelly for patiently answering all my questions about Belarus and Belarusian culture, and for our many interesting conversations about Europe’s lesser trod corners – Дзякуй!
For a more in-depth guide to planning day trips, as well as sightseeing tips and trivia for 30 European countries, Europe in a Day – Day Trips to the Continent is available exclusively on Amazon for Kindle and also smartphones, tablets and computers with the free Kindle Reading App.
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