The capital of Belarus is studded with Soviet-era structures
The capital of Belarus is studded with Soviet-era structures

Minsk city guide: Where to eat, drink, shop and stay in the Belarus capital

UK visitors no longer need a visa to visit this intriguing city

Christopher Beanland
Tuesday 06 November 2018 16:23
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Belarus, and its intriguing capital, wants to come in from the cold. Since 2017, British visitors – along with citizens of 80 other countries – no longer need a visa if they arrive and depart from Minsk airport, making the city a viable destination for an offbeat weekend away. And this summer, the maximum permitted stay went up from five days to 30.

Its main Dinamo Stadium has also just been modernised, as Minsk gears up to host the multisport 2019 European Games. Characterised by long avenues and neoclassical grandeur, the city is one of the world’s cleanest, with gardens and verges feverishly tended by an army of workers.

What to do

Remembering heroism

The Mound of Glory monument complex is the most striking of Minsk’s many war memorials. The huge modernist sculpture tops a massive earthwork, was the work of architects and sculptors A Bembel, A Artimovich, O Stakhovich, L Mickiewicz and B Lapcevic. Opened in 1969, it commemorates the huge battle of 1944 which eventually sent the Wehrmacht packing, and liberated Minsk from three years of horrific Nazi occupation. Situated on the airport road, it makes a perfect first or last stop in Minsk. Open daily, except Mondays, 10.30am-3pm.

The Mound of Glory monument commemorates those who fought in the Second World War (Getty/iStockphoto)

Harvey’s House

A curious historical footnote can be found at No 4 Vulica Kamunistyčnaja – Communist Street. This was where Lee Harvey Oswald lived after defecting – the KGB paying his rent – from 1959 to 19622, before he tired of life in the USSR, returned to the USA, and killed John F Kennedy. No memorials mark the spot, but you’re guaranteed to spot other sightseers taking photos of the upmarket apartment block, although you can’t go in, sadly.

Stately squares

A monumental axis runs roughly northeast to southwest. At the top is Victory Square, with an obelisk in the centre and cyrillic slogans on top of the surrounding buildings. Next is the windswept October Square, with the Palace of the Republic sitting on one side – human rights demonstrations against Belarus’s authoritarian regime often take place here. Finally there’s Independence Square, known as Lenin Square in Soviet times. A statue of old Vladimir Ilyich stands in front of the parliament building. There’s also the central catholic church here, and a vast shopping mall underneath the square.

Victory Square is one of Minsk’s most beautiful public spaces (Getty/iStockphoto)

Where to stay

Trinity is an arty, friendly hostel with dorms and some private rooms, as well as a cafe-bar. Dorm beds from 20 Belarusian rubles (£8) and private rooms from BYN60 (£25), room only.

Crowne Plaza is the grand old duke of upmarket hotels in Minsk. It’s housed in a historic building and features facilities including a spa, perfume shop and disco. The decor is best described as “dictator chic”. Doubles from BYN190 (£74), B&B.

The Crowne Plaza is one of the city’s more upmarket hotels

The westerner-friendly Doubletree includes a coffee shop and chic monochrome decor that feels very modern by Minsk standards. Doubles from BYN220 (£87), B&B.

Where to eat

Hopping, cheap and chic Thai joint Mai Thai is always packed, and rightly so. You can get all the Thai classics here, in the middle of a lovely wood-panelled room festooned with cool modern finishing touches including oversized lamp shades. There’s a nice outdoor terrace too. Open daily, noon-11pm.

Vega Burger offers up tasty vegan and veggie fare

Vega Burger will even get meat eaters licking their lips, with its bespoke veggie burgers and vegan food, including soups, salads, falafel and cakes. It’s relaxed and inexpensive; open daily, 11am-10.30pm.

Where to drink

Bask in the Shoreditch vibes of Surf Coffee. There’s a skate ramp inside, raw chocolate on the counter and a neat, no-smoking garden around the side too. Based next to the headquarters of the Commonwealth of Independent States, it’s also perfect for people watching people pulling up in armoured Audis. Open Monday to Friday, 8am-11pm; weekends, 10am-11pm.

Surf Coffee brings an injection of trendiness to Minsk

Huligan Bar ticks all the boxes, including post-industrial space and great graphic design posters. There’s an interesting range of electronic music on the decks, and live too. Open daily, 8pm-midnight; Friday and Saturday 8pm-4am.

Where to shop

Kali Laska is a cool charity shop where you can pick up all sorts of vintage threads, as well as the sort of Communist-era kitsch furniture that isn’t cool any more, but definitely should be. Open daily, noon-6pm. It’s part of the wider Korpus 8 precinct, a cultural centre that also hosts markets and food stalls as well as live music.

Kali Laska is a cool, vintage charity shop

There’s no denying the sleekly lit architecture of Minsk’s brand new Galleria mall impresses like the old Soviet GUM department store would have done when it opened in the 1950s. With western brands including Next and Mothercare, and local designer boutiques, Galleria is a popular destination for Minsk’s fashion conscious middle class, and perhaps shows the country leaning ever more westwards. It’s also perfect for coffee and a snack, plus there’s a supermarket for picking up provisions. Open daily, 10am-10pm.

Architectural highlight

HIghrise Ulitsa Nemiga has a huge communist concrete relief sculpture called Solidarity – which now has a KFC beneath it. The superblock of shops and flats behind thrillingly juts out over the six-lane avenue, and includes the sort of stairs, plazas, platforms and podiums skateboarders dream about.

The city has many beautiful churches (Getty/iStockphoto)

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

BYN (Belarus ruble)

What language do they speak?

Belarusian and Russian

Should I tip?

Yes, 10 per cent

What’s the time difference?

GMT+2

What’s the average flight time from the UK?

Three hours

Public transport

Minsk has a fast, clean, cheap and simple Metro (BYN65 [25p] per ride) with station names and announcements in English

Best view

Gorky Park’s handsome observation wheel gives a panoramic view over Minsk. From BYN2.3 (80p) per ride

Insider tip

You’ll need to buy compulsory health insurance from a booth at the border for £2 per day if you can’t easily prove you have a policy that covers Belarus, so dig out your travel insurance documents and take them to present to the guard, along with your passport

More information

belarus.by/en/travel

The writer flew with Air Baltic from London Gatwick via Riga (airbaltic.com).

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