My friend and I recently came back from a trip to Belarus, a former Soviet country in Eastern Europe that opened itself up to tourism only about a year ago. It is considered Europe’s last dictatorship by some, as the president has held power since 1994 and has suppressed freedom of the press. The country still has close ties to Russia and speaks a similar language. We didn’t know what to expect, and were happily surprised.
Coming from Europe or North America you can stay in Belarus for five days without a visa, so that’s what we did. We stayed in the capital, Minsk, and also did a day trip to Brest, the second-largest city which is on the border with Poland. It is easily seen that Belarus has not yet become accustomed to having tourists, as almost nothing is in English (which made museums hard) and the level of spoken English is low. Everyone was helpful and kind and we felt very welcomed.
In Minsk, we started at the National History Museum, which, as I said, was difficult because nothing was in English! The National Arts Museum was much better; between needing less English to appreciate the museum, and the artists’ names and titles of the work being translated into English, we got by just fine. The museum also had what seemed to be a large collection of portraits of women, which I LOVED.
We also went to Lenin Square,which you guessed it, has a large statue of Lenin and is surrounded by the Church of St. Simon and St. Helena, the university, and an underground shopping mall.
Minsk has many pretty monuments, including the Island of Tears, which is a small peninsula dedicated to the soldiers who died overseas, and has nice views of the Svislach River, which goes directly through the city. Located nearby is the old neighborhood of Trinity Hill, which features the National Literature Museum. I hope (and believe) that in the next few years, things such as museums will start to have translations available. It will be interesting to see how Belarus changes in the coming years.
About a 10 minute walk from there are three churches grouped quite together: Holy Spirit cathedral, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, and a Russian Orthodox church. We did all of this walking, and the last two major sites in Minsk are quite a far walk, but the metro system was easy to navigate, even for us.
The first was Victory Park, which features the Great Patriotic War Museum. It is quite impressive when you first set your eyes on it, and the park beyond is sprawling and beautiful, with a small lake in the middle.
The second was the national library, a massive building with a skydeck on the top floor that provides a nice view of the city. We easily saw all of this in two days.
The next day, we went to Brest, on the Polish border. It was a four hour train ride, and it’s main site is a huge fortress stilled used today as barracks for the army. However, they have also made it a popular tourist destination with a huge statue of a face carved into rock, a couple monuments and churches, and even a museum. It was quite crowded while we were there.
In the city center there is a pedestrian street with lots of statues, two colorful churches (so pretty!) and the Museum of Confiscated and Rescued Art, featuring both items taken at the border by Customs, and also artwork saved from the many wars Belarus has had. It was such an interesting and unique collection.
Our last day we took a more relaxed approach, and headed to the Zaslawskaye Reservoir, which because of the weather (cold and a little rainy) was basically deserted. It’s a nice spot to relax and read a book for a while.
All in all, I consider Belarus one of the places that you should go to even when people tell you not to–which they did. We never felt unsafe, the cities were cleaner than the city I live in currently (!!), and the food was delicious. My favorites were the potato pancakes and potato dumplings. Yum!