Phileas French

Travel Writer

Phileas French

Phileas French

Travel Writer | Exploring every country in the world, one adventure at a time

Is it Safe to Visit Minsk as a Solo Female Traveller?

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According to a Skyscanner survey a few years back, Minsk is the second least visited European capital (Chisinau, Moldova is the first, fact fans). That meant that when I visited Minsk alone a couple of weeks ago it wasn’t quite as easy to get a handle on what I could expect as it would be if I’d been hopping off to Paris or Rome.

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I’ve written previously of one potential hazard that a visit to Belarus from the UK might be seen to hold: elevated blood pressure as you try to negotiate the obscure and larcenous visa process. The national airline, Belavia, is fairly no-frills, but as a direct route into Minsk from London, the airline has an enviable safety record. The only blot on its copy-book is an unfortunate Valentine’s Day incident back in 2008 when one of its aircraft was destroyed in Yerevan, but no-one was killed.

Minsk International Airport is currently under much-needed reconstruction, but the dismal arrival queue at passport and visa control still takes you back to the Soviet era, even if glimpses of the airport architecture hadn’t done so already.

One issue that I won’t be including on my top three hazards/annoyances list below is the situation in Ukraine. They might be neighbours and Ukraine was certainly a conversational topic with anyone I spoke to during my time in Minsk, but I felt no sense of threat despite the proximity. From the airport onwards I wasn’t aware of any increased security or volatility, and Belarus has very visible military everywhere anyway, as well as monuments to past conflicts.

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The centre of Minsk is surprisingly pleasant to walk around, with many of the key sights within easy walking distance.

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As most guides will tell you, the Belarusian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War History is unmissable. It forms a brutal and graphic introduction to the sheer horror Belarus experienced during World War II, and dispels any residual queries you might have had about why Minsk doesn’t seem to have many buildings which pre-date 1940.

One of those buildings however, is the lovely Dom Vankovichei, part of the National Art Museum of Belarus. I stumbled across it by accident because the rare sight of a classical old mansion caught my eye. It’s a period home partially dedicated to the story of the life and achievements of artist Vankovich Valentia. Apart from some crossed wires regarding photography which I get to later in this piece, it’s a pleasant place to spend an hour.

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The McDonalds in Minsk is the busiest that I have ever seen anywhere, bar none. It makes an implicit statement about the hunger for anything resembling Western commercial culture amongst young people in Belarus – a TGI Friday's looms garishly directly opposite.

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Beze Coffee Shop on the same enormous main street, Nezavisimosti Avenue, suited me for its hybrid of decent lunch options, coffee and cakes. Service at Beze operates in geological time but that suited me, as you can linger for ages over a latte without getting hassled.

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My hotel, the Planeta, was a pretty basic three star, but it had five bars, free wifi, taxis right outside and friendly staff, making it a good option for women travelling alone. Although perhaps ten to fifteen minutes’ walk from the centre, the existence of so many eating and drinking facilities on site is great if you don’t want to go out every night. There’s a slightly eccentric Italian restaurant with a dance floor right behind the hotel, L’Osteria. On my visit it seemed to represent a non-threatening introduction for a girl on her own to the fabled Minsk nightlife, in which Minsk by all accounts punches slightly above its weight.

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Many would continue to term Belarus a “police state” or “Europe’s last dictatorship”. I don’t want to shy away from these labels and what has prompted them, but I have to call it how I see it, and I my trip and personal safety was not negatively impacted on in any way by a sense of surveillance, police hassle, corruption, bribes or xenophobia. I was careful about what I put out on social media about Minsk whilst in Minsk, and I’m sure that everyday life is hard for the majority in Belarus. It just seems only fair to report that in March 2014 after the initial visa red tape, you can get in and out of Belarus with relative ease and little hassle.

Recommend/not recommend:

Cautiously recommend for a short trip, as even though it feels safe for women, the attractions are relatively limited and it might be preferable to roll into a two-centre trip with its delightful neighbour Vilnius, Lithuania.

Three Biggest Everyday Hazards or Annoyances:

1)      Language barrier. English is not widely spoken and I felt frustrated that the fragments of useful Russian I picked up years ago in Moscow had been forgotten. From negotiating with taxi drivers to asking for restaurant recommendations or directions on the street, it’s undeniably restricting, and would probably ratchet up to highly stressful if you were in any situation where rapid and accurate communication was important, like a police station or a hospital. I had a bizarre ten minute problem in Dom Vankovichei when I couldn’t fathom why three staff members were following me like a criminal after I’d paid admission. It turns out they wanted to charge an extra fee for me to take photographs, and then made it their life’s work to ensure that I didn’t take pictures, but I hadn’t grasped what any of the initial monologue around this was about.

2)      Soviet standard customer service. I’m sure it’s greatly improved from what it was, and Belarus is a relatively poor and under-visited country. Even so, surly, frowning babushkas and weird rules and regulations calculated to extract a bit more money from you are the norm. I was so irritated by the peculiar opening times and extra fees associated with my hotel spa that I never used it. The main department store, GUM, takes this lack of service ethic to such a hilarious extreme that it’s so-bad-it’s-good: you don’t come to Minsk unless you want a bit of a taste of the former USSR.

3)      Not-so-clean air. Just as with my last piece on Kosovo, the vast majority of people seem to smoke in Belarus. I felt so excluded in Minsk that I ended up having one very ill-advised cigarette myself after years of abstinence. It may sound melodramatic but my smoking didn’t mix at all well with Belarusian air pollution, and my reward of a cough I can’t shake is a rather unwelcome souvenir.

Other Useful Links

These are a few good sites which give upbeat advice on getting the most out of Minsk.

Sean Keener at bootsnall writes well and addresses a few unhelpful cliches.

The Minsk Nightlife site actually gives a good overview of many things Minsk, not just after hours.

For a general picture, this Belarusian tourism site is less irritating to read than the Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor information on Minsk.

Phileas French

 
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Comments 7

Guest - ElroyFCopney on Thursday, 18 June 2015 00:46

Wonderful site you have here but I was curious if you knew of any user discussion forums that cover the same topics discussed in this
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Thanks a lot!

Wonderful site you have here but I was curious if you knew of any user discussion forums that cover the same topics discussed in this article? I'd really love to be a part of community where I can get feedback from other knowledgeable individuals that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Thanks a lot!
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Hey there! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a collection of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community in the same niche. Your blog provided us valuable information to work on. You have done a marvellous job! my blog post - har vokse price

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Wonderful post but I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this topic? I'd be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Kudos! Here is my page ... http://mebelglad.com.ua/?option=com_k2&view=itemlist&task=user&id=6336
Guest - mykellyrogers on Tuesday, 22 April 2014 02:03

Hmm. Maybe there's a reason why Minsk is not visited by tourists. My colleagues who went to Chiang Mai, Thailand, were also frustrated because of the language barrier. Maybe that's also one of the reasons not many people go to Minsk.

Hmm. Maybe there's a reason why Minsk is not visited by tourists. My colleagues who went to Chiang Mai, Thailand, were also frustrated because of the language barrier. Maybe that's also one of the reasons not many people go to Minsk.
Guest - Emma French on Monday, 28 April 2014 14:07

I wish it was more on the map for international travellers because there's plenty to see. I must confess, I've got that terrible British thing of just speaking to everyone in English (unless I'm in France/Italy) and hoping that they understand me. This is currently being politely tolerated by my hosts in Georgia and Armenia, as it was in Belarus...Thanks for your comment! Did you colleagues enjoy the sights of Chiang Mai; I'd love to go?

I wish it was more on the map for international travellers because there's plenty to see. I must confess, I've got that terrible British thing of just speaking to everyone in English (unless I'm in France/Italy) and hoping that they understand me. This is currently being politely tolerated by my hosts in Georgia and Armenia, as it was in Belarus...Thanks for your comment! Did you colleagues enjoy the sights of Chiang Mai; I'd love to go?
Guest - Natalie on Saturday, 22 March 2014 17:40

Hello everyone and dear author) . being a local person, this article was extremely interesting to read. It's not the first article or opinion about my city I have heard in my life, but this one seem more like an enumerating of our disadvantages;) but some points really strike me:
1) the author seems to be disappointed with a spartan room in her 3 stars hotel... Well, those who have been to London's 3 stars hotels, would you complain?;)
2) Belarus visa application is as complicated for the British as British one for us, so it's quite fair.
3) the ad on the billboard is a scene from a great movie about one family, 3 generations of which were military men, who were protecting their motherland, for example in WW2 Yes, we promote patriotism, non LGBT;)should we apologiste?;)
4) I am not a blind patriot, I wont deny the flaws we have, but in my humble opinion , the beauty of the world is in it's diversity, not in searching for the faults only...thinking outside of the box, broadening the horizonts, taking historical background into consideration, I guess, that's what traveling should teach us
Thank you for visiting and thank you attention

Hello everyone and dear author) . being a local person, this article was extremely interesting to read. It's not the first article or opinion about my city I have heard in my life, but this one seem more like an enumerating of our disadvantages;) but some points really strike me: 1) the author seems to be disappointed with a spartan room in her 3 stars hotel... Well, those who have been to London's 3 stars hotels, would you complain?;) 2) Belarus visa application is as complicated for the British as British one for us, so it's quite fair. 3) the ad on the billboard is a scene from a great movie about one family, 3 generations of which were military men, who were protecting their motherland, for example in WW2 Yes, we promote patriotism, non LGBT;)should we apologiste?;) 4) I am not a blind patriot, I wont deny the flaws we have, but in my humble opinion , the beauty of the world is in it's diversity, not in searching for the faults only...thinking outside of the box, broadening the horizonts, taking historical background into consideration, I guess, that's what traveling should teach us Thank you for visiting and thank you attention
Guest - Emma French on Saturday, 22 March 2014 19:34

Hi Natalie,

This is a really interesting comment and I really appreciate you taking the time to make it. I couldn't agree more with what you say and I'm sorry if some of the queries or observations in my piece stood out more than the positives. It's slightly my style in general as a writer to be rather quizzical and to point out odd experiences I have as well as fun discoveries that I've made. It's particularly great to have the background to the ad explained and I'm sorry that I was being slightly cheeky about it, my bad. I liked Minsk a great deal and just today was encouraging friends on my personal website to visit it.

I read your comment three times - there was lots in there and once again, thanks for pulling me up where I deserved it and for your interesting thoughts. Maybe next time we can check Minsk out together :-)

Phileas

Hi Natalie, This is a really interesting comment and I really appreciate you taking the time to make it. I couldn't agree more with what you say and I'm sorry if some of the queries or observations in my piece stood out more than the positives. It's slightly my style in general as a writer to be rather quizzical and to point out odd experiences I have as well as fun discoveries that I've made. It's particularly great to have the background to the ad explained and I'm sorry that I was being slightly cheeky about it, my bad. I liked Minsk a great deal and just today was encouraging friends on my personal website to visit it. I read your comment three times - there was lots in there and once again, thanks for pulling me up where I deserved it and for your interesting thoughts. Maybe next time we can check Minsk out together :-) Phileas
Guest
Monday, 20 November 2017