Belarus, the enigmatic nation on the edge of Russia, has long been Europe’s final frontier, but now it wants your attention. For the first time, visa-free travel is possible for citizens of 80 countries, for visits up to five days. We don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Thanks to an emerging foodie scene and an array of historical sights, Belarus shines like the golden cupola on top of one of its Orthodox churches
Once you’ve landed at Minsk National Airport, make your way to the Hotel Monastyrski in the old town. This former 17th-century monastery on a pedestrianised alleyway slinking down to the Svislach river just oozes character and will be your base for two days of exploring the Belarusian capital – a venture best undertaken on foot.
“It’s a great walking city,” says Valzhyna Mort, a USA-based poet born in Minsk. “Some buildings might remind you of Moscow, others of Paris, others of Washington DC, but overall it’s a very unique look.”
The old town, Verkhni Horad, provides a great backdrop for an exploratory stroll. Minsk blossomed here in the 16th century, but its origins date back to the 11th century, when it was a key trading post at the confluence of the Svislach and Nyamiha rivers. “It’s older than Moscow,“ says Andrei Burdenkov, who runs excursions for Minsk Tours. Centuries of conflict laid waste to relics from this period but Ploshcha Svabody (Freedom Square), dominated by the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, built in 1642, emits a palpable whiff of history.
Happy hour is kicking in along Zybitskaya, with hookah smoke wafting out of patio bars where competing DJs fill the street with lounge beats. Grab a drink – Private House is a good bet – then dine at nearby Bessonitsa (Insomnia), where a stylish clientele tuck into salmon tartare and oxtail risotto.
You won’t have to stray far as the night progresses. On summer weekends, the entire area erupts into a giant street party. Music streams through apartment windows while the masses give themselves over to dancing in the open air. Not the Minsk you might have expected, but who’s complaining?
Fuel up properly because Minsk’s main drag, prospekt Nezalezhnostsi, beckons. “It’s the world’s finest and most comprehensive example of post-WWII Stalinist empire style,” says Daria Melnikova of BelarusTourService. Start at ploshcha Nezalezhnastsi (Independence Square), where a statue of Lenin fronts the gargantuan government building, a fine example of interwar Constructivism. Just north-east is the Central Post Office. With its neoclassical columns and soviet-themed friezes, Valzhyna Mort thinks it looks like a palace. “It’s nice to go inside and send some postcards,” she says. Continue past the imposing KGB Building to the sweeping ploshcha Oktyabrskaya (October Square). Further on, Ploshcha Peremohi (Victory Square) is marked by a 130-foot monument to victims of the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known.
Duck into y˘ Bar, hidden in a courtyard just off ploshcha Peremohi. This is a favourite hangout for local creative types and revels in its Belarusian identity – the letter y˘ in its name is unique to the Belarusian alphabet. This is one of the few places in Minsk you’re likely to hear people speaking Belarusian, as opposed to the more popular Russian. Plus there’s an adjacent gallery showcasing local talent.
Jump on the metro at Ploshcha Peremohi and head four stops out to Uschod and the National Library, a giant Rubik’s Cube of a building. President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, is known for his love of spectacularly garish buildings, and this icon of 21st-century Minsk is perhaps the flashiest of them all.
A traditional Belarusian dinner is in order at folk eateries Talaka, Kukhmystr or Kamyanitsa, which serve tseppeliny (huge potato dumplings), manchanka (pancakes with gravy) and the national dish, draniki (potato pancakes). The latter come in various shapes and sizes and are stuffed with meat, cabbage, mushrooms or anything you can dream up.
For a nightcap, head to the bars of the old Jewish Quarter, centred on vulitsa Internatsyanalnaya (International Street) and vulitsa Revalyutsiyanaya (Revolution Street). Pinky Bandinsky is great for cocktails, followed by live music at rowdy TNT.
Minsk is one of those cities that only really get into gear in the afternoon. Indeed, the Great Patriotic War Museum is one of the few attractions to open before lunch. Belarus lost a quarter of its population in the war, and here the nation’s tragic tale is brought to life through dioramas, maps, multimedia presentations, and old weapons. It’s built in the shade of monolithic shards of glass, just over a mile north of the old town.
Head back to the old Jewish Quarter for a light lunch of patatas bravas and gazpacho at buzzing Tapas Bar. Then, walk off lunch with a stroll along vulitsa Internatsyanalnaya, where a handful of tsarist-era buildings gracefully hold out among the megaliths of modern Minsk.
It’s time to experience rural life. “With verdure and with light, thou gleamest with light, newly / I see in thy expanses visions all-enchanting,” wrote national poet Janka Kupala of his homeland. The famed travel writer Colin Thubron was more circumspect – a land “haunted by absences” and populated by “frosty-eyed Brueghel peasantry”, he wrote in Among the Russians (1983). Decide for yourself at the Dudutki open-air museum, 25 miles south, where blacksmithing demonstrations and food tastings will surely endear you to country life.
Back in town, take in a night at Minsk’s very own Bolshoi, the National Opera Theatre, with, say, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake or Verdi’s Aida. The 7pm start time demands an early supper or a late dinner; either way, take it at the capital’s best restaurant, Bistro de Luxe. This is contemporary Belarusian cuisine at its finest, seamlessly mixing French and Russian accents – mouthwatering poulet au vin mingling with khaladnik (cold beetroot soup) and rabbit.
Yesterday’s trip to the countryside was just a taster. Hire a car and set your sites on the Unesco World Heritage-listed castles of Mir and Nesvizh. Start with Mir Castle, a turreted, fairy-tale affair reflected magnificently in a mirror-like pond. About 52 miles south-west of Minsk, it is Belarus’s most photogenic sight. The castle is the work of the Radziwills, a family of nobles who controlled this area in the 16th century when it was under the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. On summer weekends the courtyard fills up with musicians, cultural performers and food vendors; at other times it’s a perfect place to enjoy some quiet time with a cup of kvas, a refreshing fermented-wheat beverage.
About 18 miles south of Mir is another impressive Radziwill creation, the Nesvizh Palace. With 30-plus staterooms refurbished continuously between the 16th and 20th centuries, the palace would not look out of place in Saint Petersburg. Think period furniture, crystal chandeliers, glazed fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling portraits of bygone aristocrats. There are several restaurants in the grounds, so have lunch before you head inside, and hire an English-speaking guide to get the most out of your visit.
You could be forgiven for staying in Nesvizh or Mir for the night. Both castles incorporate hotels, and once the crowds go home you can explore these bucolic villages at your own pace. However, we recommend continuing to Brest, on the Polish border, three hours south-west of Nesvizh.
You’ll arrive in Brest just in time for happy hour and dinner on the city’s charming car-free vulitsa Savetskaya (Soviet Street). Have a drink at Art Cafe, which has a huge beer selection and the friendliest staff in western Belarus, then stroll north to Times Cafe for a healthy meal of caviar crepes and blueberry and goat’s cheese salad.
Brest is known to be more Europeanised than Minsk, but its big draw could not be more soviet: the Brest Fortress. Here, in 1941, a small band of soldiers held out against a superior German force and became soviet legends. The siege of Brest was “the grandest of all tales in Soviet WWII mythology,” says Leonid Ragozin, a Moscow-based journalist. Three museums document every detail, with high-tech multimedia displays complementing musty Soviet-era dioramas. Outside sits Courage, a mammoth statue that CNN once put on a list of the world’s ugliest monuments.
Have lunch outdoors at Traktir u Ozera in the city’s central park – shashlyk (meat skewers), perhaps – then dip into shops and cafes along vulitsa Savetskaya. At weekends, locals congregate and kiosks appear selling khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread) and chebureki (meat-filled turnovers).
Your last night in Belarus. Travel-themed Jules Verne has a suitably global fusion menu. The carpaccio di vitello topped by slabs of parmesan is to die for, as is the strawberry-cream semifreddo.
Head back to vulitsa Savetskaya to watch the evening unfold before ending the night at unpretentious Korova. No bouncers or dress code here, just exceptional cocktails and talented musicians playing to a dance-happy crowd. Don’t stay out too late: you’re heading back to Minsk early, in time for your flight home.