I’m going to start this post by saying that I absolutely loved Minsk. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I imagined it to be hard to navigate, with no tourist infrastructure and the same dilapidation and visible poverty that you can see in cities like Chisinau. I think part of my misconception was because I knew so little about the place; I don’t know anyone else who has visited.
My preconceptions turned out to be wrong: I found English language signage and handy tourist maps and signposts around the city, friendly, helpful people (many of whom spoke some English), spotlessly clean streets and parks and a huge mix of architectural styles from different periods, all meticulously well looked after (possibly even over restored in some cases…!). The public transport system is cheap and easy to navigate, there are lots of free wifi hotspots about and you can even take an uber.
So, if you’re spending a few days in Minsk, here’s my guide to what you should do. I hope you enjoy this under-visited city as much as I did!
1. Take a trip back in time at The Belarusian National History Museum
This museum comprises both a history and natural history section. It isn’t huge, but there are some interesting displays about the early history of Belarus, including some very cool VR headsets that let you experience how some of the country’s now ruined sites would have looked in their heyday.
There’s also an interesting display about the development of the Belarusian currency, and another about the different faiths which have a presence in the country. It’s definitely worth spending an hour or so here to pick up the basics of this country’s complex history.
You can find all the details for making a visit here.
2. Explore the city’s soviet past through its architecture.
Minsk has an amazing selection of architecture to ogle at, from the ultra-modern National Library of Belarus to the Stalin-era grandeur of the Central Post Office and the City Gates (see below).
The city also boats an impressive collection of constructivist buildings: designed in the 20s and 30s this architectural movement favoured clean lines, geometric shapes and modern engineering techniques. Examples aren’t hard to find in Minsk, and there’s also a handy guide you can print off which covers the most famous examples, such as the Bolshoi Theatre (see below).
You can download the guide here.
There are also lots of interesting socialist modernist buildings and artworks around the city, including the Moscow Cinema and the Minsk Musical Theatre.
Below: The Minsk Musical Theatre and The Moscow Cinema.
3. Fill up on hearty Belarusian cuisine.
Treat yourself to some Belarusian specialities at Vasilyki, a restaurant in central Minsk with rustic-themed decor and serving staff in traditional dress. I opted for dumplings in a cream sauce, with wild mushrooms and lots of dill, washed down with a glass of tart cranberry mors. There’s a small deli adjoining the restaurant where you can pick up some snacks and sweet treats such as chocolate-coated cream cheese bars (syrniki) and kommunarka-brand chocolate, with its cute, retro packaging.
You can check out the menu and address for Vasilyki here.
4. Explore Belarusian history and see the country’s major sights in tiny form, at the Belarus in Miniature Museum.
Housed in a grand, neoclassical building adjacent to the Palace of the Republic, this museum presents a collection of famous Belarusian buildings in detailed, miniature form. The accompanying audioguide not only talks you through the history of the buildings but also offers information on how to visit them.
The models light up to show how the buildings look at different times of the day, and there are some very sweet little details to look out for, such as a ghost haunting one of the palaces. It’s an unusual but really well presented little museum, and perfect for those on a short, first trip to Belarus who won’t have the chance to explore beyond Minsk (next time!). There are also two very sweet photo opportunities at the end, including the one below where you can pose in a traditional Belarusian kitchen.
For opening times and more details check out the website here.
Below: The building which houses the museum.
5. Understand Belarus’ role in World War II and explore the history of the partisan movement at the Museum of The Great Patriotic War.
This enormous museum and memorial complex is a must-visit, with hall after hall of interesting and well displayed exhibits. The section on the partisan resistance against the nazis is a real highlight here, with recreations of partisan forest huts and displays on the ingenious equipment they used in their fight. There is also a big display of soviet military vehicles and planes, and a glass domed memorial space on the top floor (see below).
6. Take a stroll through some of the oldest parts of Minsk.
Minsk’s Old Town is meticulously well looked after, with cobbled streets, baroque churches, bronze statues and green spaces to relax in. There are museums to check out too, such as the Carriage Museum, and shops selling traditional handicrafts and souvenirs.
7. Shop for quirky gifts and specialist goods at the Moskovsko-Venskii shopping centre and the GUM.
The GUM was the place to go for luxury goods during the soviet period, and this department store has hardly changed since. It’s opulently decked out with marble and chandeliers, though the goods on offer are more everyday than high-end. It’s a good place for picking up souvenirs and any everyday essentials you might need on your trip. Nearby, the cafe in the Tsentralny building is the perfect place to continue the soviet experience – this cheap and cheerful cafe has no seats, just ledges to stand at, and is decorated with socialist realist murals and opulent chandeliers.
For specialist goods and local, design-led gifts check out the Moskovsko-Venskii shopping centre. Here you’ll find loads of craft shops selling yarn, beads and dressmaking fabrics alongside specialist retailers selling board games, comic books and more. ‘Mushi Shop’ and ‘Zorka Venera’ are two of my favourites, selling locally designed jewellery, prints, bags and gifts.
Below: The exterior of Minsk’s GUM
8. Discover Belarus’ rich artistic heritage at the State Art Museum of Belarus.
The main entrance to the museum is a grand, neo-classical edifice and the interior of the first few halls reflects this, with high ceilings, polished parquet flooring and masterpieces by artists including Ilya Repin. As you progress through the museum there is a huge, unexpectedly light and airy post-modern extension, which features an excellent selection of twentieth century art and design, including socialist-realist canvases, mid-century glassware and a rotating programme of displays on artists of that period.
It’s a lovely art museum that differs from some I’ve visited in this region in that it never feels stuffy or staid; the exhibitions and displays are engaging and the range of works on display reflects a broad collection.
To find out more about the museum follow this link.
9. Ride the opulent metro out to the quirky National Library of Belarus (and enjoy a panoramic view from the roof).
The Minsk Metro shares the grandeur of its bigger, Muscovite cousin, and a ride on it is a great opportunity to admire this feat of engineering and its opulent decor. It’s a short metro ride out to the National Library of Belarus, a gem shaped, glass structure of which the country is (rightly) proud. For a small fee you can access an observation deck for panoramic views across the city, and there’s even a glass window in the lift which elicited a collective gasp of excitement from a group of schoolchildren with whom I was sharing the ride.
In Britain it’s easy to take the existence of enormous, long established libraries (such as The Bodleian & The British Library) for granted, as repositories of our national language and culture. In countries that have only recently gained or regained independence however these new libraries (often in landmark buildings, such as the ones in Pristina and Riga) have an important place in the psyche of nations whose national language and culture may have been suppressed, their literary culture destroyed by war or oppressive regimes. The National Library of Belarus is certainly an unusual design, but it is also one which is striking and memorable. At night it glows like a giant disco ball, and how many libraries can do that?!
You can find out more about the library here.
10. Visit the haunting Island of Courage and Sorrow, and relax by the river in the Trinity Hill area.
The Trinity Hill area is a restored quarter of nineteenth century houses painted in pastel hues, with cobbled streets, courtyard bars and cafes with seating areas overlooking the river. The nearby park offers a huge expanse of pristine grass, perfect for relaxing or enjoying a picnic, all a short walk from the city centre.
The Island of Courage and Sorrow, adjacent to Trinity Hill, is a monument to Belarusian soldiers who fell during the first war in Afghanistan. It is a moving tribute, with huge statues of grieving mothers and widows surrounding a small chapel. Located on a man-made island on the river, it’s a good place for peaceful contemplation.