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