Recently, I was looking for cheap flights to Tbilisi, Georgia. As luck would have it, the cheapest flights that I could find all made a stop in Minsk, Belarus.
Having already traveled through much of Eastern Europe, including visiting Chernobyl and other cities across Ukraine, riding the Trans-Siberian Express and exploring rural Romania, the opportunity to explore another Eastern European country was very appealing. And with the government very recently having relaxed visa restrictions for citizens of many countries, the timing seemed perfect. I was going to Belarus!
As luck would have it, my visit to Belarus took place shortly before the government opened the borders even further. When I was in Minsk, travelers were restricted to five days of visa-free travel. However, in the middle of 2018, the laws were changed to give most travelers thirty days of visa-free travel in Belarus. As long as you fly in and out of the Minsk International Airport, don’t connect through an airport in Russia and come from one of the eligible countries, travelers are now free to spend an entire month exploring this fascinating country.
It’s no wonder that Belarus has finally been recognized by Lonely Planet as one of the Top 10 Countries to Visit in 2019!
Because my time in Minsk was very short, I had to make the most of every minute in the city. Luckily, I followed my own advice for making friends while traveling and connected with another cool traveler on the bus from the airport into the city. (Note: Keep reading for information about how we got from the Minsk airport to the city center!) We were staying in the same hostel and spent the next four days exploring Minsk together. Although we spent a ton of time just wandering around and taking in typical daily life in Minsk, we also found all sorts of cool things to do in Minsk, from scenic walking routes to stunning architecture to more than one crazy, vodka-fueled night on the town. Keep reading to discover some of my favorite experiences from my five days in Minsk!
#1 – Walk Along the Minsk Waterfront
On my first morning in Minsk, I set out to explore the area around my hostel. The hostel scene in Minsk is booming, and there are now great options right in the city center, like Trinity Hostel & Tours (which is only about one hundred meters from where I snapped this photo) and Loft Hostel (slightly further afield, but really close to some excellent coffee shops and restaurants).
For me, a walk along the river was the perfect way to get acquainted with Minsk. I quickly discovered that this was not a city of leisurely strollers… despite the picture-perfect weather, there was almost nobody else to be found. It was so quiet that it was almost otherworldly.
#2 – Pause at the Isle of Tears
On the northeast bank of the river, about five or ten minutes by foot from the bridge in the city center, The Isle of Tears is one of the most striking and solemn monuments in Minsk. Sometimes called The Island of Courage and Grief, this memorial pays tribute to the Belarusian soldiers who were killed in the Afghan War.
It’s possible to walk inside the monument, as the interior displays the names of the almost 800 soldiers who were killed between 1979 and 1989. On a windy day, the bells inside the altar catch in the breeze, making melodies of remembrance. If you’re in Minsk on February 15th, an annual ceremony is held here, to mark the day that Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan.
#3 – Explore Old Town Minsk at the Trinity Suburb
You may notice that the buildings on the riverbank near the Isle of Tears look so much lovelier than the block-shaped Soviet monoliths in other parts of the city. This is because you’re looking at Minsk’s Old Town, which, unfortunately, is anything but old.
These pretty pastel buildings form the Trinity Suburb (Troitskoe Predmestye), a development dating back to the early 1980s that attempted to recreate some of the region’s more traditional architecture. There are a few different museums housed in the mansions here, along with shops selling artisan handicrafts, a few cafes and restaurants, and residential buildings.
#4 – Cozy Up with Kittens at the Cat Museum
I don’t think you can understand how excited I was to see a sign for Minsk’s Cat Museum.
I think it was my third or fourth day in the city, and I had already had my fill of Soviet architecture, orthodox churches and cheap vodka (more on all of those topics to come). I was ready for some things to do in Minsk that were a little bit more out of the ordinary.
That’s when I saw this sign.
In my imagination, the Cat Museum was going to contain a large number of intricate, elaborate dioramas, showing everything from the first moon landing to the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, and inside every exhibit there would be well-trained cats – in costumes, of course – acting out these famous historical scenes.
Alas, this was not the case.
The Cat Museum in Minsk is actually more like a cat cafe. It is located in a converted apartment that has a few rooms, each with different decorations and lots of free-roaming cats. I learned that the owners rescue cats from the streets of Minsk and care for them with the funds raised through the operation of the Cat Museum and its attached bakery-cafe.
So, if you’re an animal-lover looking for a way to make a difference during your time in Minsk, consider spending an hour or two at the city’s Cat Museum – and making a generous donation too!
#5 -Marvel at the Holy Spirit Cathedral
One of the most iconic buildings in Minsk, the Holy Spirit Cathedral is in the very heart of Minsk. The church, built in the 1600s and recently renovated, is the home of the Belarusian Orthodox Church.
The interior is typical of Orthodox churches, with little seating but many ornate decorations. Many visitors come to see the Mother of God Icon (sometimes called the Minsk Icon), which was supposed thrown into the river in Kiev by Tatar invaders, and then miraculously found downstream in Minsk.
The public squares around the Cathedral are busy with concerts, festivals, street vendors and other entertainment, and this is one of the best places to take panoramic shots of the city and river.
#6 – Experience Authentic Belarusian Nightlife at U Ratushy Restaurant and Pub
Of all the things to do in Minsk, an evening visit to the U Ratushy Restaurant is perhaps the most unforgettable.
Located in central Minsk, within a block or two of the Cathedral, U Ratushy is a large, multi-level restaurant and bar. Decked out like Grandpa’s ancient cabin in the woods, this place recalls simpler times, when beer was cheap, food was greasy and music was of the live, accordian-tinged kind.
I stumbled across U Ratushy on my first evening in Kiev, on my way back from one of the trendier restaurants down by the river. I could hear loud music coming from inside, and I wasn’t quite ready to go to bed, so I decided to check it out.
I couldn’t stop smiling from the moment I walked through the doors. Jam-packed with locals, everyone inside was having a great time. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer – although lots of people tried to welcome me and engage in small talk, nobody spoke more English than “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?”
That was fine, because it meant I got to enjoy the ear-shattering traditional music being played by the live band (accompanied by 100+ drunk Belorussians singing along, and occasionally dancing!), and I also got to watch the locals go from surly (over their first post-work drink of the evening) to elated (three or four drinks later).
The next night I dragged my new travel friend back to U Ratushy, and he fell in love right away. We ended up going back for at least one or two drinks every night of our visit. We didn’t stay for dinner, but it looks like they have a great menu of traditional Eastern European foods (though I’d guess that the vegetarian options are limited!).
#7 – Climb the Stairs to All Saints Cathedral
The tallest church in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Minsk’s Church of All Saints is a new construction that was opened to the public in 2010. The church was actually closed for renovations during my visit, so I didn’t get to go inside. However, I was able to visit the adjacent Trinity Church, a traditional wooden church (similar to those I saw all over the Maramures region of Romania) that was built by hand by six carpenters. The carpenters used traditional techniques, like cutting the wood with an axe rather than sawing it down to size.
#8 – Tea Time at My English Granny Cafe and Restaurant
Confession: I hate blueberries.
I’ve actually always hated all berries, which I’ve heard makes me a bad vegetarian.
However, a breakfast at My English Granny in Minsk changed all of that… and, bizarrely, it wasn’t because of anything on their menu.
My English Granny was recommended in many guidebooks as an interesting place to eat in Minsk – decorated like a traditional English tea house, it was known for having trendy breakfast and brunch options beyond the Belorussian standards.
Because it was a nice day, we took a seat on the covered terrace on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. We ordered our breakfasts (I think I had an omelet and my friend had syrniki – cottage cheese pancakes) and sipped coffee while waiting for our food to arrive.
As we were waiting, a teeny, tiny old woman, looking like the perfect babushka in her ankle-length floral skirt and kerchiefed hair, walked past our tables carrying a bucket of blueberries. The guys at the table beside us obviously wanted to help her, so they bought the entire bucket from her. The grateful woman hobbled off, and the guys started munching on their berries.
When they offered the berries to us, I was tempted to decline because I hate berries… but I also didn’t want to be rude to these men who had kindly bought the berries and were now kindly offering some to us. So, I took a couple of berries in the palm of my hand. I noticed they were much smaller than the kind we can buy in the supermarket in Canada… maybe half the size.
Gingerly, I put a few berries in my mouth and let them pop against my tongue. Was this a trick?
These little berries bore almost no similarity to North American supermarket blueberries. The texture, the flavor… they were absolutely delicious!
Sure, my breakfast at My English Granny was good, but it will always be memorable for introducing me to wild berries – the local, organic, hand-picked, fresh-picked, babushka-picked kind that are related to supermarket berries only in name. That breakfast reminded me to give things – not just blueberries, but people, ideas and activities too – another shot, as they could be completely different when experienced in a new or different context.
#9 – Marvel at the Minsk Hero City Memorial and Monument
It’s hard to describe exactly how little money I spent in Minsk. Most of the things to do in Minsk are free, as they are mostly attractions that you can see from outside. By the morning of my fourth day in the city, I realized I had spent less than $75 USD since I’d arrived, and felt that I’d earned a little splurge. So, I checked into the Victoria Hotel & Spa, a four-star hotel that was close to the city center and just across from Victory Park, and spent an hour in their sauna later that night.
The Victoria Hotel & Spa put me in a great location for exploring Victory Park, and my first stop was at the Minsk Hero City monument. In most of the former USSR, World War Two is known as The Great Patriotic War, and cities whose people demonstrated exemplary heroism received the Hero City designation. In the 1970s, Minsk was given this honor in memory of those who fought and died during the city’s 1,100-day Nazi occupation.
The Hero City Obelisk stands forty-five meters tall, with a gold star on its top. In front of the obelisk, a feminine statue representing the Motherland stands proud, and the gold and silver panels around the obelisk hide the entrances to the Belarusian Great Patriotic War Museum.
I’ve been to a lot of war museums and have never left feeling more optimistic about our future (especially today…) so I decided to opt out of visiting the museum. If you’re interested in visiting, use Google Translate to check out the museum’s official website.
#10 – Spot the Stunning Soviet Mosaics and Murals
All along Praspyekt Nyezalyezhnastsi, or Minsk’s most important thoroughfare, you’ll find typical Eastern European apartment blocks decorated with massive mosaics created by Soviet artist Alexander Kishchenko and other artists.
Kischenko is best-known for the tapestry-like designs that showcase the city’s cultural, militaristic and scientific history, including this detail from his “City Builder” design.
We took the metro from the city center up to the Maskoŭskija Cemetery (just in front of All Saints Cathedral) and then walked back to the city along Praspyekt Nyezalyezhnastsi. This is a great seven-kilometer walking route, as it takes you past some of the city’s prettiest parks and most interesting buildings, including the mosaics shown above, and should place you close to one of my favorite restaurants in Minsk – the self-service cafeteria Lido – and Loft Hostel in time for lunch or dinner. Plus, the entire walk is downhill!
#11 – Snap a Photo of the World’s Coolest KFC
I saved the second-best for third-last! (The last one is obviously the best.)
Everyone who visits Minsk tops in their tracks when they see the city’s bizarre KFC restaurant, a landmark of capitalism installed underneath one of the city’s most famous Communist monuments.
This building used to be the city’s House of Fashion, or central clothing department store, and the Soviet Realist relief on top is called “Solidarity”.
Most locals walk past without giving the building a second glance, but it seems to stick in the mind of every traveler who visits Minsk.
#12 – Shoot to the Top of the Futuristic National Library of Belarus
As a die-hard lover of crazy Soviet architecture (I actually keep a copy of CCCP – Crazy Communist Constructions Photographed – beside my favorite armchair) I wasn’t going to miss out on the chance to check out the new National Library of Belarus in Minsk.
A trip to the National Library of Belarus is absolutely one of the most iconic things to do in Minsk, as the city proudly plasters its image all over their promotional materials. Built in 2006, the library technically takes the shape of a rhombicuboctahedron (a three-dimensional shape made from eight triangular panels and eighteen square panels).
The interior of the library is not particularly interesting and is not well-equipped to welcome visitors. However, at the very back of the building there is an elevators that whisks travelers up to the open-air viewing platform on the twenty-third floor of the building. From here, you get stunning views over the river and city below. Downstairs, on the twenty-second floor, there is a small cafe.
A ride on the elevator costs 3.5 BYN, which is less than €1.50.
#13 – Drink Vodka. Full Stop.
Speaking of BYN, or the Belarusian Ruble, check out the prices for vodka at the local supermarkets in Minsk!
At present, one Belarusian ruble is worth about €0.40, meaning most of those bottles of vodka clock in at less than €3. If Minsk is the last (or only) stop on your trip, consider picking up a few bottles of vodka at the supermarket and hosting a Belarusian vodka tasting night upon your return.
Prices are much better at local supermarkets than at the airport duty-free shops, so shop early and wrap your purchases securely in your checked baggage.
How to Get From the Minsk Airport to the City Center
Since I published this post three days ago, I’ve had several emails asking me how to get from the Minsk Airport to the city center!
Don’t worry – it’s really easy to get from the airport to Minsk’s city center! After you pass through customs and immigration, go to one of the currency exchange offices or ATMs to get some local currency, as you have to pay for your transfer in cash. Ask for at least a few small bills.
Exit the terminal and walk down to the far left side of the terminals, close to the arrivals area (doors #5 and #6). Here, you’ll find a clearly-marked bus stop (albeit with no English signage). Don’t worry about the ticket machine – you can pay cash to your driver once you’re on board.
The route is served by regular buses and private minibuses, and the cost is usually about 5 BYN. You might have to pay a small surcharge for your luggage.
The bus from the Minsk Airport to the city center will take about one hour, and it will drop you off at the central train station in the city center. Buses depart approximately every hour, according to the schedule on the airport’s website.
If you’ve got a lot of luggage, or would prefer a faster connection, you can get from the Minsk Airport to the city center in a taxi or rideshare. There is an official taxi booth inside the airport that will organize a ride for 30 BYN, or you can use the Yandex taxi app to organize an Uber for about the same price.
Have you been to Belarus? Let me know your favorite Eastern European travel destination in the comments!
Love reading about Eastern Europe? Make sure to check out my posts about Ukraine, including Kiev, Chernobyl and off-the-beaten-path destinations.