My goal to travel to every country in Europe was upended a couple of years ago when I started researching how to visit Belarus. I was eligible for a single-entry tourist visa on arrival at the Minsk National Airport, but the $480 price was prohibitive. I could have gotten a visa at a Belarusian embassy somewhere on the road, but the $114 price was still too high. In addition, the government of Belarus required me to have a health insurance policy that would cover me while in the country, adding further to the cost. When a friend of mine said the city was dull and full of uninspiring Soviet architecture I put my plans on hold.
This year, since my travel plans included visiting Copenhagen, Denmark and Stockholm, Sweden, I decided to take another look at Belarus. To my surprise, visa fees been reduced to $71 for stays of up to 90 days. Even better, since February of 2017 the country began allowing visa-free entry into Belarus for up to five days for Americans who arrive and depart from Minsk National Airport. A health insurance policy was still required, but one could be purchased upon arrival at a special counter at the Immigration entry point. I booked my flight and hoped that my friend had been wrong about Minsk being dismal.
Sunshine and Robin’s-egg blue skies greeted me as I emerged from the Minsk Airport terminal and climbed into my hotel’s shuttle. The 20-minute drive into the city led past rolling fields dotted with huge round bales of hay to Prospekt Nezavisimosti (Independence Avenue). Our route crossed three of the five magnificent squares located along this main boulevard through the capital city: Victory Square, with its obelisk dedicated to those who fought in World War One; Yakub Kolas Square, which honors the revered a Belarusian writer; and October Square, which is home to the Palace of the Republic, the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (WWI), and the residence of the president. All three were beautiful, as were the magnificent palaces and mansions that lined the avenue between them. By the time my driver turned onto a side street in the historic center, any thoughts of a dingy, Soviet city had been banished.
For the next five days I explored Minsk on foot, beginning in the center with Freedom Square (sometimes referred to as Liberty Square). In June of 1941, it was a pile of rubble. Between Nazi bombing and Stalin’s scorched earth policy, which ordered the destruction of everything that could be of use to the Germans, about 85 percent of the city was razed. Today the rebuilt Freedom Square, which is home to four churches, a former Bernardine Monastery, and the restored 16th century Minsk City Hall, is a favorite destination for artists who paint en plein air.
Another day I headed in the opposite direction to Independence Square, one of the largest squares in all of Europe. Here the Soviet influence was more visible. The uninspired Belorussian State University anchored one end of the plaza and an obligatory Lenin statue rose in front of the monumental hulk of the former Supreme Soviet of Belarus. Fortunately, the square had been “prettied up” with hanging baskets and gardens of blooming flowers, and the Red Church that stands at the center provided welcome relief from the severe Russian-era architecture. Most intriguing of all were the glass domes that ran down the center of the broad plaza. When peering down into one provided no clues I descended into the Metro station beneath the square and discovered the Stolitsa underground shopping center. With three levels of shops, restaurants, and entertainment, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Minsk.
When I’d had my fill of public squares, I headed for the immense parks found throughout the city. Though I didn’t have time to visit the Minsk Botanical Garden, which boasts some of the country’s oldest trees, I did spend a serene afternoon strolling along park trails on the banks of the Svislach River. Locals picnicked and pedaled paddle-boats on the river while soldiers from the adjacent military base lounged on benches beneath stately trees. I diverted from the river banks to Trajeckaja Hara Garden Square to see the gorgeous Grand Opera House, which looks like a giant wedding cake. But my favorite was Gorky Park, where amusement park rides are scattered around the densely forested grounds. For a couple of dollars I hopped into an open-air cabin on the giant Ferris wheel and enjoyed a bird’s eye view of Minsk.
Prior to visiting Minsk, I thought of Belarus as an ex-Soviet satellite country. The fact that it was even included in a list of European countries seemed somehow wrong. However my brief stay in the capital completely changed my view; there is no doubt that Belarus is a thoroughly European country. The staff at my hotel insisted I could walk the streets of Minsk solo at all hours of the day and night and, indeed, I felt extremely safe throughout my stay. Prices for accommodation and public transportation were astoundingly low. I bought food for many of my meals at the Central Market, which offered a huge array of booths selling everything from produce to dairy products to local honey.
Every Belorussian I met was kind and welcoming and almost everyone spoke at least some English. By the time I departed, I was convinced that Minsk was one of the most hospitable cities I had ever visited. Perhaps best of all, there were very few tourists around. Belarus, and in particular Minsk, is not yet on the tourist radar. For all those reasons and more, this is one of the few places that has made my list for a return visit. By all accounts, the rest of the country is even more stunning than its capital city, and I want to see it before it is discovered by the traveling hordes.