Five Days in Minsk

Minsk, Belarus
 

I have a confession: I was kind of dreading Belarus.

 
As much as I wanted to go and experience it for myself, I was afraid Belarus would be difficult. Throughout the month of December, I got used to the relative comforts and “Western-ness” of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland and I wasn’t entirely looking forward to revisiting a lot of the challenges that Russia presented me while I was there in the fall.

I also didn’t know a whole lot about Belarus; guidebook information was limited and I didn’t know anyone personally who had been there. And even though I met a woman, Yuliya, at my hostel in Vilnius who offered to meet me at the bus station and show me around, we only spoke for about five minutes so I wasn’t sure how reliable she would be.
 

Arriving in Minsk

 
To reach Minsk, I backtracked from Warsaw to Vilnius via overnight bus and then departed Vilnius at 6:40 a.m. for Minsk. The border crossing was surprisingly painless. Unlike when I entered Russia, we didn’t even have to leave the bus at the border – no questioning at an immigration window, no declaring anything at customs and no walking through metal detectors. I just handed over my passport with my Belarussian visa pasted neatly inside, showed a copy of my mandatory medical insurance and I was good to go.

As soon as I arrived in Minsk, I got a surprise: just like Russia did away with Daylight Savings Time, so did Belarus. And, just as my Blackberry will not admit that Russia is still on GMT + 3, it told me Minsk was on the same time as Vilnius. So when my bus pulled up to the central bus station at what I thought was an early 10:40 a.m. arrival, Yuliya greeted me full of worry because I was late – it was actually 11:40.

After gathering my bags, our first stop was the currency exchange inside the neighboring train station. While the exchange rate listed in my guidebook (published a few years ago) was 3045 Belarussian rubles to the dollar, today the rate is 8450 to the $1. So I changed my 20 Polish Zlotych for 48,340 Belarussian Rubles and 50 Euros for 530,000 rubles. Yes, within fifteen minutes of arriving I had bills totaling almost 600,000 in my wallet. Too bad they were worth less than $70.
Belarus rubles
 

Navigating the Metro

 
After dropping my luggage at the hotel, Yuliya and I headed to the Metro to meet her husband Andrei, for lunch. The Metro in Minsk is incredibly simple yet slightly confusing at the same time. There are only two lines and they cross in the center – just a fraction of the size of Moscow’s system and without the 5 minute escalator rides up and down. To ride, you buy a purple plastic token (a “zheton”), which costs 1300 rubles (about 15 cents) and looks like it belongs in a children’s board game.

Most signs are in Belarussian and announcements are made primarily in Belarussian with the occasional announcement in Russian to follow. Confusion occasionally ensues because some of the stops have Russian and Belarussian names that are quite different. For example, the Metro lines cross at the Kupalovskaya and Oktyabrskaya stations, but the conductor and the map both refer to Oktyabrskaya as Kastrichnitskaya. Similarly, later in the week, Yuliya told me to meet her at the Vostok stop, which is called Ushod on the official map.

Minsk metro
 

A surprise at the Opera House

 
That evening, I ventured out on my own to see a Russian opera, Snegurochka, at the National Opera House. My ticket cost 28,000 rubles – just over $3. Built in 1938, the opera house was recently remodeled, with marble corridors accented in gold and red velvet adorning the theater seats. A large Christmas tree provided a centerpiece for photos for nearly everyone who walked through the doors. To my surprise, the program I purchased even had an English translation explaining each act.

National Opera House,Minsk

National Opera House interior

After enjoying the opening act, I left my seat at intermission to follow swarms of well-dressed women to the ladies’ room. There, I opened a stall door and came face-to-face with the nicest, cleanest squat toilet I have ever seen (sorry, there was a long line behind me so I didn’t stop to take a picture!).

I encountered plenty of these when I visited Egypt several years ago. I was mildly surprised when I found them at the train station in Veliky Novgorod, Russia, but came to expect them in Siberia. Seeing them in a beautiful, almost brand new opera house in a capital city? Yes, I was in Belarus, but I was still fairly shocked.

Luckily, that squat toilet was probably the most unpleasant thing I encountered during the five days I spent in Minsk.
 

Exploring the city

 
Like Warsaw, Minsk was destroyed in World War II, so almost every building dates from the 1940s or later. For that reason, it seemed to lack the grit of some of the cities I visited in Russia. Sidewalks were wide and clean, many lined with brick rather than cement. Street signs stood out in bright blue and bright red.

Minsk bridge

Minsk street sign

While many buildings had a distinct Soviet feel to them, the main drag of the city was anything but unattractive. Several large squares, a couple parks and a river running through it prevented Minsk from feeling industrial or boring.

Independence Square, Minsk

Ballerina statute, Minsk

A small “old town” area featured a couple churches and a hilly park overlooking the river, all of which was nicely illuminated at night. And there was the requisite Lenin statue and a few war monuments, including a moving memorial to those who died in the Soviet War in Afghanistan.

Minsk Old Town

Memorial, Minsk

Afghan War Memorial, Minsk

Yuliya kindly played tour guide for me throughout my visit, accompanying me to the Strotchitsy Museum of Everyday Life and Architecture (an open air museum), the Belarussian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War, the National Museum of History and Culture of Belarus and the National Library (for a nice view of the whole city).

National Library, Minsk
 

Seeing the sights outside of Minsk

 
On the weekend, Yuliya and Andrei took me out of town to see the most popular sights outside of the city: castles in the towns of Mir and Nyasvizh and the memorial site at Khatyn.

While Mir and Nyasvizh are accessible by public transportation, it is more common for people to visit as part of an organized excursion. Likewise, the only way to reach Khatyn is by driving or joining an excursion (or possibly hiring a taxi). Almost everything in Belarus is extremely inexpensive by European standards, but guided tours are not, so I was extremely lucky that Yuliya and Andrei were happy to take me.  We squeezed in all three in one day, but if I had gone on my own, I would have allotted one day for Mir, another day for Nyasvizh and a morning for Khatyn.

Mir Castle, Belarus

Nyasvizh Castle, Belarus
 

Overall, Minsk was far better than I expected.

 
Minsk was my first of three stops in Belarus and definitely provided a great introduction.  Even without Yuliya showing me around, the city had an easy, comfortable feel to it – much more so than I expected. Five days proved to be the perfect amount of time to get a handle on the city, see the sites and do a long day trip.

And while I arrived in Minsk with a slight sense of dread, I left with a sense of excitement, eager to see what else Belarus had in store for me.
 

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22 thoughts on “Five Days in Minsk”

  1. Wow…I knew literally nothing about Minsk before reading your post. It’s much prettier than I would have expected. And the prices are astounding – $3 for an opera? Incredible. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Yep, the prices once you get there are super cheap. The visa was pricey ($40 for US citizens) and there aren’t hostels so I had to stay in hotels (still decently priced, ranging from $46 to $73/night), but aside from those costs I think I spent less than $200 total on everything else in 11 days in the country.

  2. Every time I read Minsk, I hear Hank Azaria on Friends saying it. Ok, that ends my knowledge of Minsk.

    Looks kind of neat if cold. I love the exchange rate. It might be worth going just to have a million thingies in my wallet. 🙂

    1. LOL. Soooo many people have told me that!

      I was tempted to take out 1 million rubles from the ATM but I knew I wouldn’t use that much and I was worried I might not be able to change them back. 🙂 As it was, I left with about 4,000 rubles as souvenirs.

    1. It was a nice city – not a ton of big attractions but enough to keep you busy for a couple days. I really wanted to check out the circus while I was there too but because of the holidays it was sold out well in advance.

  3. Katie, I love that you were able to meet up with your friend — I think it’s always more comforting to arrive knowing that someone will be there for the first few hours as you get your bearings.

    And I’m glad Minsk exceeded expectations and included a nice squat toilet for fun 🙂

    Do you go to operas often or was this for a special reason?

    1. Yeah, it was definitely nice to arrive in a city and not have to find my own my to the hotel/hostel for a chance!

      I like checking out cultural events when I travel – this opera in particular was a traditional Russian opera so I thought it would be interesting (and it was really entertaining!). The $3 ticket price didn’t hurt either. 🙂

      I also went to the ballet in St. Petersburg and Riga and a dance performance in Vilnius (that was horrible, I left at intermission!).

      1. Katie,

        Great Information! Thanks so much. I will be going to Minsk next week and was interested in going to an opera or ballet. Does one have to wear formal attire to a show? jacket? dress shoes?

        Thanks

  4. Awesome that you had someone local to show you around. I also know nothing about Minsk, and I have to second Andy’s comment about the “Friends” reference 🙂

  5. Really love your reporting on all these places! You confirmed my suspicions, Belarus isn’t as scary as it has been made out to be. In fact, looks a lot nicer than some places I’ve been to in Ukraine and Moldova. Hoping to get there one of these days, I’ve just been more intimidated by the visa process then anything else.

    1. Thanks Larissa! Nope, Belarus was not scary at all. 🙂 If you look around, I did a post about getting my visa – it was a lot simpler than I expected it to be. Since I was able to get it at the embassy in Vilnius, it was actually easier than getting my Russian visa.

    2. Hi! I’m a belarusian. It’s interesting to read comments of foreign travelers about Belarus. Some of them are funny. In my opinion Belarus is an European country with hospitable and friendly people.I’d like to recommend you to trip to Belarus in summer. Katie is right when she says about safety and cleanness of our cities.One of the most nice thing in Belarus is its nature-lots of forests(40% of territories), lakes and rivers. By the way #1 tennis player now is Victoria Azarenka she is a belarusian too. Marc Chagall(Painter),Shimon Peres (former Prime Minister and current President of Israel) were born here.
      Ask me If you have any questions about Belarus .You are welcome.

  6. Hi
    I am going to watch the Junior World Ice Skating Competition in Minsk on the 27th February. The pictures make it look amazing. I’m getting excited now, but I’m still very nervous about my gluten free diet. I was hoping you would mention shops or restaraunts that I could look out for. Can you get plain meats and vegatables when eating out? Have you managed to stay gluten free on your travels?

    1. How exciting! I’ll be honest, if you need to be super strict gluten-free, it’s tough. I found in Russia and Belarus in particular they really aren’t that familiar with the idea of food allergies in general. No matter how much I explained things to some people I met, they just didn’t get it. So I’ve done the best I could, often guessing and taking risks that I am sure many would disagree with. I am lucky in that I never had bad symptoms to begin with so if/when I have been glutened on this trip (which I am sure I have), I haven’t gotten sick.

      I tried to make my own snacks/meals when possible in Belarus, often with canned fruit (the “fresh” fruit at the time of year I was there did not look so fresh!) and there was one kind of rice cakes I found that didn’t include any wheat so I spread cheese on those for lunch or a snack. There’s also one brand of corn flakes (Ha Zdorovye) that doesn’t include barley malt flavoring like most others. Shopping in multiple shops in 3 different cities in Belarus, though, I don’t think I once saw anything labeled gluten-free.

      The hotels I stayed at generally had huge breakfast buffets that included some fruit or vegetables and sometimes eggs or potatoes or sausages (although the sausages can be questionable, I never had any reactions). But of course with a buffet, there’s the risk of cross-contact, but that was a risk I just assumed so I wouldn’t starve.

      Getting something plain and grilled at a restaurant shouldn’t be too hard – I got grilled chicken breast with veggies at a chain, Tempo Pizza, a couple times. But expecting them to do anything to avoid cross-contact in the kitchen would be a miracle.

      Definitely get a gluten-free restaurant card in Russian (I think I got mine from celiactravel.com) and bring that with you – it can at least help in restaurants. Very few people speak any English there.

      Best of luck to you!

  7. Just reading this now after 10 days in Minsk so far! The currency has changed a lot, 50 euro got me 995,000 BYR today, but the cost of metro is now 4,500 BYR so guess the prices have inflated in proportion. So cheap!

    Also got a fright today in the library, SQUAT TOILET!

    Thanks for these posts, considering no Brest now 🙂

  8. Hey Katie! I love your blog, and it was very useful since I’m planning to visit Vilnius and Minsk this summer. I just need to force… ahem, convince someone to come with me to those not-so-well-known and sometimes even frown-upon countries. I’m from the north of Italy, by the way 🙂

  9. Thank you for a great post, Katie! I’m just on my way to collect my Belarusian visa – I leave in four days. I was considering 3 days in Minsk and a day trip (with overnight) in Brest, just to have taste of it.

    Looking forward to it, especially after reading your post.

    Cheers!

    1. Hey Pedro,

      You will love Belarus! 3 Days in Minsk is perfect, try an do a daytrip out to one of the UNESCO world heritage sites.

      I spent a couple days in Brest too. Not sure where your next location is, but it’s not the most happening of places, but still pleasant. Actually the Brest Fortress was awesome and the walking street is fun for people watching…darn memories aer flooding back now haha! try not to head to Brest on a monday, lots of the museums etc are closed 🙂

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