Impressions Of Minsk, Belarus

Filed Under: Travel

Just a few weeks ago I visited both Tallinn and Riga, and I shared my thoughts on the cities in previous posts. Both cities exceeded my expectations, and delighted me.

I’ve just spent the past couple of days in Minsk, Belarus. As you might remember, we were trying to decide between visiting Minsk and Vilnius for this trip, and opinions were pretty split as to which city was more worth visiting. Since we decided on Minsk, I hope to check out Vilnius soon.

So, what did I make of Minsk?

What I was expecting of Minsk

Maybe it first makes sense to share my expectations of Minsk. Based on what people had told me, my expectation was that Minsk would be a blast from the past, and that it would look like what you may have expected several decades ago.

Belarus is also often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship. Furthermore, for a long time it was tough to go there as a tourist, as it’s not too long ago that they opened it up as a visa free destination for many nationalities.

So based on that, my expectation was that Minsk would look like a city from decades ago with nothing but Soviet architecture, old cars, lots of military officers everywhere with big hats, and people who weren’t friendly. I expected that I’d find it fascinating but not actually to be a pleasant place.

That’s of course an over simplification, but I’m trying to phrase it this simply in hopes of painting a picture of roughly what I was expecting.

What Minsk was really like

Minsk was so much more modern than I was expecting, the people were friendlier than I was expecting, and all around the city just seemed more pleasant than I was expecting.

Yes, there was some architecture along the lines of what I was expecting, but way less than I was anticipating.

The subway stations were beautiful, which I was expecting.

There were a good number of statues and monuments.

But then the city also had a beautiful setting, with lakes and tons of greenery.

The city also had a modern, charming side, with lots of cafes and restaurants, and even some beautiful malls.

Also I’ve never seen a city with as many amusing street signs as Minsk. I’m not sure if it they were supposed to be entertaining, or if I’m just easily amused.

The cat museum also had some interesting art…

Minsk: intriguing or boring?

Like I said, when I first wrote about Minsk, it seemed to get polarizing views from people who had been. Let me once again emphasize I’ve only spent 48 hours here. Obviously that doesn’t make me an expert on the city. Rather it’s usually a timeframe in which I can decide whether there’s more to a city that I want to see or not.

I can’t decide if I’m intrigued and fascinated by Minsk, or just ready to check it off my list.

I found Minsk to be a much more modern city than I was expecting, with people who were friendlier than I was expecting, fairly good food, and low prices (as you’d expect). I will say that for a city of two million people, it did feel sort of dead, and I wondered where the people were.

So I don’t know what to make of Minsk. I guess I’m happy that Minsk is a more pleasant place to live than I was expecting (at least from the outside). There was some interesting architecture and beautiful subway stations. But I’m also not sure I’d recommend it as a destination beyond that, at least based on what I saw.

Tallinn and Riga are much more beautiful with a more lively atmosphere (and that’s to be expected). If you simply want “fascinating,” I think a place like Uzbekistan is more interesting. To me, Minsk felt like a cross between Warsaw and Tashkent.

Am I completely off in my impression of Minsk, or…?

  1. Your father is adventurous for his age. Curiosity and inquisitiveness is the mark of a healthy human mind. Wish one political close minded political party understood that.

  2. @Debit – Forgive me if I misunderstood, but I believe his father was on the last trip with him. This trip he is with Andrew.

  3. Oops. Yeah. His trip reports are too confusing when so many of them come overlapping and I only see the pictures don’t read anything, just like donald trump.

  4. Thank you for the report and the awesome photos. I love social realism art and soviet era architecture.

    To understand a nation (city), one has to understand its history. The 1941 Battle of Minsk which involved 6,500 tanks, took the lives of 1/2 million people. Belarus was the hardest-hit Soviet republic in World War II. During that time, Germany destroyed 209 out of 290 cities in the republic, 85% of the republic’s industry, and more than one million buildings. The Nazis called for the extermination, expulsion or enslavement of most or all Belorussians for the purpose of providing living space in the East for Germans. Casualties were staggering at 3 million (about a quarter to one-third of the total population). The population of Belarus did not regain its pre-war level until 1971, full 30 years. See the 1985 Soviet realist film “Come and See” to get a glimpse of what really happened there. I know this occurred 70+ years ago, but one has to be aware of it to understand why this city is so empty or full of “dull” soviet style architecture.

  5. @debit – have you dried the tears off your face from the 2016 election yet? Not enough tissues at home??? Seriously though, save the political stuff for somewhere else… It’s redundant and childish.

    Thanks, signed the entire population of the blog except you.

  6. Did you have to show proof of medical insurance valid in Belarus? I saw this on the State Dept site:
    Show evidence of a medical insurance policy with at least 10,000 Euros of coverage valid throughout Belarus.

  7. @Kalboz, I nominate your comment for post of the year. Very educational and insightful. We need more comments like yours on here!

  8. @Anthony I was in Belarus last year and when entering the country u need to show valid medical insurance covering every day that u are there even if ure fight is at 130 in the morning like mine was u need to show the insurance u can usually purchase it in the arrivals hall in Minsk. But it’s a lot simpler and will possibly save u a lot of problems if u purchase it before.

  9. No thanks,
    Had enough share of communist shitholes in my life, en exposed my life to finally enjoy Freedom, unlike some clueless privileged first world unhinged regular commenter.

    I wish him/her a mind opening trip to wonderful Venezuela! he will enjoy every minute of it.

  10. @Kalboz

    Don’t forget the Soviet repression of Belarus as well pre-WWII. Just Google “Soviet repressions in Belarus”.

  11. Seriously, between WAW & TAS?! Wow… MSQ is a clean, pre-planned Soviet city. People are not very friendly compared to the neighbouring countries, and inherited very much the Soviet mentality. Minsk is proper – a good showpiece for the gov’t – with rather little to do, perfectly nice to visit. Tashkent is a completely different world – also a pre-planned Soviet city (the former was levelled in WWII, the latter in an earthquake). But TAS still has plenty of old buildings and fascinating museums.

    Warsaw, on the other hand, is a modern, young city, inexpensive and forward-thinking, with endless things to do. If you think Warsaw is like Minsk or Tashkent, you haven’t been to Warsaw (which, if I recall, is correct, since you went, stayed at the Bristol, and took the hotel limo both ways).

  12. Kalboz, as a citizen of country occupied by Soviet terror regime I strongly resist your Soviet-biased comment about Belorussia and intend to give a balanced picture here.
    Belarus people tried to regain independence 1918, as did other oppressed nations after fall of czarist Russia. Unlike Baltic countries, Poland etc…they did not succeed.
    Immediately afterwards, the Polish–Soviet War ignited, and the territory of Belarus was divided between Poland and Soviet Russia, The Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic exists as a government in exile ever since then; in fact, it is currently the world’s longest serving government in exile.
    In the 1920s and 1930s, Soviet agricultural and economic policies, including collectivization and five-year plans for the national economy, led to famine and political repression in East Belarus.
    Polish government did not treat Belorussian minority very well neither.
    In 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union together invaded and occupied Poland, marking the beginning of World War II. The Soviets invaded and annexed much of eastern Poland, which had been part of the country since the Peace of Riga two decades earlier. Much of the northern section of this area was added to the Byelorussian SSR, and now constitutes West Belarus.

    Your facts about II WW atrocities are generally correct, although I would like to add that half a millio, who died in Battle of Minsk were mostly Soviet army soldiers, not civilians.

    The Army Group’s 2nd Panzer Group demolished the Soviet frontier defenses, defeated all Soviet counter-attacks and encircled four Soviet Armies of the Red Army’s Western Front near Bialystok and Minsk by 30 June. The Red Army fought back fiercely and large numbers of Soviet troops broke their way out. The majority of the Western Front was enclosed within, however, and the pockets were liquidated by 9 July. The Red Army lost 417,729 men against Wehrmacht casualties of somewhat over 12,157.

    Belarus did not get much love after II World War neither.
    Joseph Stalin implemented a policy of Sovietization to isolate the Byelorussian SSR from Western influences. This policy involved sending Russians from various parts of the Soviet Union and placing them in key positions in the Byelorussian SSR government. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev continued his predecessor’s cultural hegemony program, stating, “The sooner we all start speaking Russian, the faster we shall build communism.”

    Nowadays, while officially die-hard ally of Russia, current Belorussian leadership under Lukashenko is said to be extremely distrusting of Russian real motives and has so far blocked most of Russian attempts for stregthening military ties or creating confederation of some sort.

  13. This post didn’t make me want to run out and book a trip to Minsk. Maybe I will swing by if I am in the region but will be much more likely to visit places like Ukraine first. I didn’t find warsaw very interesting, although krakow was great.

  14. I liked Minsk. It has a lot of parks and green spaces, it’s pleasant and walkable and I like the Soviet architecture.

  15. @Debit
    Electoral College votes—Trump—304
    Electoral College votes—Clinton—227

    Trump won 2,626 counties
    Clinton won 503 counties

    Get over it.

    Uh, Hillary lost big time.

  16. Germans are racist towards the Polish nation. In fact, the Polish economy is booming and infrastructure is improving, to the point where many cities are more advanced + cleaner than those in Germany. Warsaw has changed so much and is still evolving.

  17. kiev/kyiv is better, been to warsaw for 2 days and the only decent thing to see is the building given by stalin in the 50s to warsaw. The old town while good looking seems to be like the same as lviv, the buildigs are starting to look like other european cities like in berlin. Minsk also doesnt have many things to see after a few days. Kiev on the other hand has motherland statue, airplane mesuem, orthodox churchs and a great looking street in the city centre.

  18. Thanks for the really interesting photos. It is telling that a statue of Lenin remains, even though many such statues were toppled after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The building architecture is much as I remembered when I traveled across the Soviet Union via Trans-Siberian Express in 1976. Stayed overnight in Irkutsk and the average citizen was unfriendly, some even hostile, because being friendly with foreigners was enough to get you in deep trouble, so it was safer to be just the opposite. Also, Minsk was where Lee Harvey Oswald lived and worked and met his future wife after he defected to the Soviet Union. Though, understandably, I don’t suppose that is something the city wishes to remember. I would love to see a trip report for Tashkent, any plans for that?

  19. Interesting, thanks Lucky for the report.

    Also agree that @Kalboz’s comment added much depth and context, so thanks for that, brilliant commentary.

    @MK tried to add some depth too and it shows us how little we understand about these places.

    I am not sure a one or two day visit can give us what we need to read these countries in any accurate sense, but I am glad to see someone at least discussing Minsk on a major travel blog. Well done!

  20. @Jill,
    Wow, you get double mileage points for pointing out the critically important county vote total . So much more important than that pesky popular vote! And Ben, please feel free to delete my comment and any others rehashing 2016 so we can get back to travel.

  21. I travelled to Kiev last June 2018 –3 months ago– to visit Chernoble. Kiev is fascinating. Open, friendly, and lots of HAPPY people about, with musicians and many fountains. Loved Chernoble tour, fully in english. Never made it to Minsk or Azerbaijan, –by choice.

    I flew Ukraine International Airlines,from Milan, which I am told is best way to Minsk from Milan, with connection in Kiev. Both countries have english announcements and signs on Metro.
    Just as in Tbilisi, I was thrilled that as Americans we go through same passport line as locals since neither country requires visas.

  22. Friendly reminder for those planning trip to Belarus –
    Visa-free entry for westerners only works if you arrive at Minsk airport (and not from Russia)
    Land crossings still require visa .

    PS emptiness is indeed somewhat noticable, especially comparing to Kiev or Moscow.
    I think people are generally trying to keep a low profile.
    And it is not (yet?) a very popular tourism destination

  23. It was definitely a quite bad idea to explore Minsk alone. With some lokals you would have seen another Minsk – lively, friendly and free. Unfortunately, the time to visit is also important. Late spring and summer evenings – that’s right to see, hear and feel the atmosphere of the city.
    Just try couchsurfing next time. You will be surprised by hospitality and sincerity 🙂

  24. A little bit about architecture and history:
    For centuries Belarus/aka Litva/ was on a crossroads between West and East, and it defined it’s history.
    Before WWI Belarus had a large number of estates with great mansions, and a number of significant castles, the western part of the country still filled with the ruins and in eastern part everything was razed to the ground. After the Revolution Bolsheviks were methodically destroing all that reminded locals about their past, their culture, and BTW their language as well. Total Russification. Russian csars (200 years), Bolsheviks and Soviets were completely decimating historical landscape.
    It will give you a glimpse why belarusians so reserved.

    Also, If you make friends with the locals, especially young ones, they will open their hearts, show you the city, and you will see that many things are happening there.

    I left Minsk 25 years ago and it changed a lot. When I visit the city I feel like a foreigner, except for speaking local languages. Just the other day I found an essay by a lovely Norwegian traveler who used couchsurfing to connect with locals.
    Here is the link, enjoy:

    P.S. it’s always helpful to read about the history of a place you travel to.

  25. There is no apparent limit to American, shitty fast food chains’ expansion desires. I saw Burger King and KFC in that pic and immediately felt bad for those poor Belarussians who see and frequent those “bastions” of American capitalism.

  26. Interesting that you mention lots of greenery.
    There is a lot less than there was twenty years ago – various parts of parks have been sold off to developers for flats, which has angered many ordinary locals.

    It’s a playground for rich Muscovites (where casinos are banned).
    They buy those new flats as diversifcation!
    And get to know the long-legged ladies of Belarus.
    That is part of why it feels empty.

    Another reason is that the post-war streets were laid out under Stalinism with plenty of space between buildings so that it is easy for tanks to control any people’s uprising.

  27. Love it—I was just in Minsk last week too haha—spot on. Beautiful city, in it’s own way. Minsk was hit really badly, which is why the city has so many of the Stalin-esque motifs… including my favourite, the huge, super wide streets haha. Personally, I prefer Ukraine, but I will visit Minsk again… because doing the Rochelle Rochelle by train is 100% on my bucket list.

    RE: Insurance—yes, you’ll have to show you have it. I’d just buy it at the kiosk before Immigration… it was €4 for five days. Immigration was super easy… I actually was asked more questions coming into Helsinki this week than I was coming into Minsk haha.

  28. In Belarus, the road is better than in Lithuania. There are not many people in the city because everyone is at work, this is a special political system, a hybrid of socialism and capitalism, most of them work in enterprises during the day. There are no homeless people or drug addicts on the streets. The yellow and blue pyramid on the street is not a signpost, but an advertising poster of the Moscow Kuklachev cat theater. This famous Russian circus trainer came on tour to Minsk, where the date is specified from 20 to 21 October.

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