Minsk is the largest city in Belarus, the country touted as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” With strict visa restrictions and relatively unknown attractions, Minsk sees very few tourists. But now with visa-free travel for 5 days, Belarus may soon be seeing more visitors than ever! Chances are if you’re headed to Belarus, you’ll be visiting the capital, Minsk. Here are 17 things to do in Minsk!
1) Independence Square
This square is one of the main squares in the city, and is actually one of the largest in Europe! Chances are you’ll pass through here if you’re walking around the city center, as it’s close to the train and bus station. There’s a big underground shopping mall underneath the square as well!
2) Church of Saints Simon and Helena (the Red Church)
Located on Independence Square, the Church of Saints Simon and Helena is also known simply as the Red Church. The Roman Catholic church was built in 1910, financed by a Belarussian-Pole—the church is named after his two children. During the Soviet era, the church was turned into a cinema, and was only returned to the Roman Catholic Church in 1990.
3) Parliament and the Statue of Lenin
One of the large buildings on Independence Square is the Parliament building. It’s one of the few buildings that survived Minsk’s destruction in World War II, and it is the most important building of state power in the country. Most notable is the statue of the leader of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, outside the Parliament—one of the rare examples of seeing Lenin statues still in public (and not in a museum)!
4) City Gates
Directly across from the train station are the City Gates, two symmetrical Stalinist towers. You can see the biggest clock in the country on the left tower, and the symbol of the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) on the right tower.
5) Gorky Park Ferris Wheel
There are still a lot of remnants from the Soviet era throughout Minsk. Gorky Park is a nice and pleasant park in the city center, but it’s worth a visit for the old school amusement park rides! The ferris wheel gives nice views of the surrounding area in the city center and was definitely my favorite.
6) Great Patriotic War Museum
So many places in Eastern Europe were absolutely devastated by World War II, and Minsk is no exception. The Great Patriotic War Museum (as WWII is known in many former Soviet countries) was one of the best museums I’ve been to on this topic—and trust me, I’ve been to a lot. There is so much information, all arranged into separate halls and topics throughout the massive museum. There are displays of tanks, a recreated insurgent hideout, and more. The Victory Hall was also a highlight. The narrative of Belarus’s involvement in the war is easy to understand—there’s information in English (and English captions) for everything.
7) Victory Square
Another one of Minsk’s main squares, Victory Square is located close to Gorky Park. Its main attraction is the 38-meter column commemorating the victory over the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War. The Eternal Flame is lit beneath the column, and underneath the square is a large memorial hall with names of soldiers awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union for their actions during the war.
8) Trinity Suburb
Minsk was destroyed during World War II, so there’s no medieval “Old Town” type of neighborhood left. Trinity Suburb is Minsk’s answer to so many of the European Old Towns, recreated in the 1980s with picturesque buildings. It’s not authentic, and not very large either, but it’s certainly worth a stroll.
9) Isle of Tears
This park was one of my favorite places in Minsk. The park is on a small island, with a memorial commemorating the Belarussian soldiers who died in the Soviet war with Afghanistan from 1979-1989. The chapel is designed with the grieving figures of women (mothers, sisters, wives, etc.), and the memorial of the little boy is a fountain that drips tears. It’s touching and poignant, and one place you must visit in Minsk.
It’s not usual for me to recommend visiting a KFC on the blog. But when the KFC looks like the one above, you absolutely have to visit! I can’t find much information on the sculpture above it, but the juxtaposition of the Soviet artwork and the American (globalized) KFC is just crazy. Finding it can be a bit tricky, as the intersection is where the street names change. But it’s at the corner of vulica Nemiga (vulica Maksima Bahdanovica) and prospect Pieramozcau (vulica Lenina).
11) National Library of Belarus
This library is probably one of the most interesting architectural designs I’ve ever seen. Built in a rhombicuboctahedron shape, the functioning library also has an observation deck on the 23rd floor. Unfortunately, the library is so far away from the city center that you can’t see any of the central attractions from the observation deck. However, it’s still fun to see the city from above! The closest Metro station is Uschod. Also nearby is the large All Saints Church. The library looks crazy cool lit up at night!
12) Zair Azgur Museum
This small museum is dedicated to the life of the Belarussian artist Zair Azgur. The museum is housed in his former home and workshop, and is filled from floor to ceiling with old Soviet statues. From politicians, soldiers, world leaders, and communist heroes, you won’t believe what’s packed in this small area. There are 21 statues of Lenin alone! The museum is free to enter, but there are no information boards and the guides only speak Russian. However, I did get a nearly hour-long tour (in Russian) of all of the notable statues by a very nice woman named Natalia. The museum is also very difficult to find, down a residential street (and also near some sort of police/military establishment…), but if you’re interested in Soviet sculptures this museum is a must.
13) National Opera and Ballet Theater
One of the most notable buildings in Minsk is the Opera and Ballet Theater. The original building dates from 1933, although it underwent renovation in 2009. Some of the reliefs on the theater are done by Belarussian artist Zair Azgur. The theater is located in a pretty park with large fountains!
14) Belarussian State Circus
Another important building in Minsk is the Belarussian State Circus. The circus is still active today, so if that’s your thing you can book and go see a show. But you should see the large circular building anyway, just for the fun statues outside.
15) KGB Headquarters
Yep, you read that right: the KGB still exists in Belarus. The huge yellow building, located on Nezalezhnastsi street, is home to the Belarussian secret police, and it’s perfectly fine to walk past it. I’m not sure if you’re allowed to take photos of the building, but I was able to get a few snaps as I walked. There’s a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the original KGB (the first secret police organization of the Soviet Union was called the Cheka), in the boulevard nearby.
16) Freedom Square/Upper Town
It took me a while to find out the official name of this area, but there’s a large park and lots to see. There are lots of interesting sites around the square, including a few pretty churches, a handful of museums, and the reconstructed Minsk Town Hall.
17) Cocktails at El Pushka
I don’t think this list would be complete without a shout-out to El Pushka, one of my favorite bars I went to during my entire 6-week trip. The bar is a Hispanic-themed bar, complete with sombreros and music to match, and the cocktails are amazing. My favorite was the mojito, but honestly I don’t think you could have a bad one. The bartenders are like wizards. Zybickaja street and the area around it is one of the best places for drinking. If you only go to one bar in Minsk, it should be this one!
The Basics: Minsk is the capital of Belarus, with a population of nearly 2 million people. Belarus has a population of about 9.5 million people. Belarus is not a member of the European Union and is not in the Schengen zone. The country and government still have close ties to Russia, and the official languages are Belarussian and Russian. Everyone will understand and speak Russian—I felt like I used more Russian in Belarus than in Russia, just because Minsk is so un-touristed, and because of that not as many people speak English. The currency is the Belarussian Ruble (BYN), which is a different currency to the Russian Ruble (RUB). Belarus recently changed their currency (basically cutting off a few zeros at the end), but I didn’t have any problems with money or conversion rates when I was there. If you’re staying longer than 5 days, you’ll need a visa. I also just want to add that Minsk is the cleanest city I have ever seen.
Getting Around: Minsk has a Metro system with two lines. It can be confusing to read the map though, but most maps number the stations. Most of city center Minsk is walkable, but it is definitely easier to get the Metro if you’re going to the National Library or the Great Patriotic War Museum. There are buses and marshrutka (shared minibuses) as well.
Where I Stayed: I stayed at Revolucion Hostel in Minsk, which I really liked. My private room was simple but clean, there was a big common room and a balcony, and a small kitchen for cooking. A lot of people there were Russian (or Russian-speaking) and seemed to be living there, so there wasn’t a lot of a social atmosphere. The wifi also didn’t work very well in the room, so we needed to go to the common room to get on the internet. But the location is excellent, and within walking distance to most of Minsk’s main attractions. I’d stay here again! You can check out my full review here.
If you have the time, I definitely suggest taking a daytrip to Mir Castle while in Belarus. Minsk is such an interesting city, and I’m so glad I got to experience it now, while it is still firmly off the beaten path with very few tourists.
Have you ever visited Minsk or another city few people visit?