Belarus was my last “East-European” country to visit and although I spent only five days, there are a lot of great places that Belarus has to offer.
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For U.S. citizens, Belarus required to get visa before traveling there (at the time of writing this post). The Embassy of Belarus in Washington D.C. has all the requirements mentioned very clearly. I applied for a visa at the D.C. embassy and it takes 5 working days.
The required documents to apply for a tourist visa to Belarus are:
- Application form – make sure to fill out every single field.
- Flight – confirmed bookings; I attached only the Belavia reservation (IST-MSQ-IST).
- Hotels – confirmed bookings; booked all hotels through trip.com.
- Photo – attached two passport-sized photos.
- Fees – cash only. Attach cash to your mailed application.
- Insurance – the embassy website lists Belarussian companies offering insurance. I paid $9.
- Pre-paid envelope – attached a FedEx pre-paid envelope.
With the current political situation, there are sanctions on Belarus and the airlines serving it, which meant that I had to book separate flights on Belavia Belarussian Airlines, the national airline of Belarus.
I booked international flights to and from Istanbul, and connecting flights on Belavia’s website (IST-MSQ-IST). Fortunately, they accept international credit cards for booking!
Rental Car and driving in Belarus
Most international companies (Hertz, Budget, Avis, EuropCar) have offices at Minsk airport for rental cars. But booking these can be a hassle because of the sanctions.
I used VIPCars.com to book a rental car, which was provided by ‘Inspire Rent a Car’ company (in tie-up with EuropCar).
With smooth roads and highways, and perfectly mentioned road signs, driving in Belarus is absolutely spectacular! Remember to maintain speeds and honor speed limits.
All signs are in Cyrillic script so if you don’t read that then it’s best to use Google Maps for directions.
SIM Card in Belarus
There are many providers in Belarus with competitive rates and packages. I got a SIM card from A1 Telecom – it costs BYN 25 ($10) for 25GB of data, 100 calls and 100 SMS. This data package also includes free social media (WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Telegram).
There are no kiosks or stores at Minsk airport for A1, so I stopped by the A1 store in the center and it was an easy process!
Cash or card?
Because of the sanctions, most of your U.S. or Europe based cards will not work in Belarus. Well, almost! I was able to pay for the rental car (at Minsk airport) and at petrol stations using my Visa card, but not at hotels, supermarkets or sights-to-see.
Make sure to have cash with you. Minsk airport has ATM machines to get cash, and no exchange centers at the arrivals. You can walk up to the departures and go to the exchange center. Your best option is to walk up to any bank in the center of Minsk and exchange currency.
Taxi or rideshare?
From Minsk airport, you can take bus 330E to the city center costing BYN 4.35 (exact change required). But if you’re like me who did not have any BYN or could not exchange currency at airport, you can take a taxi from the airport. It could cost about $30-50 to the city center!
The best option to travel to or from airport, or around the cities is Yandex. Download the app, setup your profile with international credit cards accepted (or pay cash), and you can get it all over Belarus (just like Uber).
Yandex is much cheaper than the taxis in Belarus and you can also avoid the negotiation conversations with taxi drivers if you don’t speak Russian! For example, I paid $12 from Minsk airport to city center on Yandex, and the taxi drivers asked for $30.
Arrived in Minsk late evening and got a Yandex taxi from airport to hotel. Next morning started with a breakfast at the hotel (Garni Hotel), and walked to Kastryčnickaja Square that hosts the Palace of the Republic (Палац Рэспублікі).
Built in 1997, and operational in 2001, Palace of the Republic is the most important place for social and political events. The 2,700-seat auditorium, 500-seat indoor amphitheater hall hosts numerous presentations, exhibitions, and concerts that are open to the general public.
Walking south-west from the square is Lienina metro station displaying beautiful murals from the Soviet era. As an avid fan of old Soviet relics, this was a sight to relish!
Designed in the classic, constructivist style of architecture by renowned Soviet architect, Iosif Langbard, Independence Square is immense and is designated for various public events. The beautiful Fountain of Three Storks features a bronze sculpture of artistically crafted storks taking flight and sits on a glass dome. The white stork is the national bird of Belarus, celebrated in local folklore as a harbinger of hope and regeneration.
Regeringshuset is a government building and acts as the functioning parliament of Belarus. This is one of the highest organs of state power in Belarus.
Church of Saints Simon and Helena is a Roman Catholic church constructed in 1910. It is known as the Red Church for its red exterior, made from bricks from Częstochowa. It was a cinema in the Soviet era!
Minsk Central Post Office
Stunning Soviet era building of the Central Post office has the Communal architecture.
National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre
The National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre is an icon of Minsk and has staged both world-famous masterpieces of European and Russian composers and national repertoire artworks. The theatre got its beginning in the 1920s on the stage of the first State Drama Theatre which knitted opera and ballet companies, chorus, and a small symphony orchestra. Various musicals and drama performances, fragments from operas and ballets were put on stage. The State Opera and Ballet Studio, opened in 1930 and headed by Anton Bonachich, an outstanding Russian singer, was entrusted with the duty of training artists for the theatre.
Minsk Central Railway Station
The main attraction of the central railway station is not the station itself, but the Stalinist architecture of two buildings at the Station Square, located in front of the terminal.
Island of Tears
Accessible via a bridge on the Svislach river, this monument commemorates the Soviet soldiers from Belarus who died in the long war with Afghanistan in the 1970s. The several huge statues depicting weeping or stoical women at the base express the pain and sadness of the mothers, sisters, and wives of their generation.
This monument faces the statue of a weeping angel on the island. It’s a great walk around this tiny island with picturesque views of the high-rises of Minsk.
Murals of Kastrychnitskaya street
Kastrychnitskaya street is the Minsk’s unofficial arts district. Brazilian street artist Rogério Fernandes have spray-painted brilliant murals on the giant facades of the street’s apartment blocks, warehouses and factories, many of which now house event spaces, galleries and hipster cafes.
President Lukashenko has allowed creative expression to flourish here with the expectation that it not spread to other parts of the capital city, which remain generally free of street art.
A dramatic Soviet mural where communism and capitalism collide in a confusing contrast of heroic sculptures and crispy fried chicken. This is the most dramatic of Minsk’s KFC outlets, who set up business in Belarus in 2015, while the Soviet sculpture that sits above the fried chicken shop was carved in the 1960s.
The sculpture, designed in the style of Socialist Realism that was popular across the Soviet Union at the time, is named “Solidarity”. The KFC was designed in the style of countless other KFCs that you’ll find across the world, from the United States to China, with the distinctive red colors of the Colonel’s enduring brand filling in for the red of socialism.
In fact, it’s probably the most Soviet KFC in the world!
Mound of Glory
A drive just out of Minsk on the Minsk-Moscow highway is this bayonet-shaped obelisks towering over the road. The unusual-looking Mound of Glory memorial honors the soldiers that fought and died in WWII, and is a tribute to an important victory in Soviet history, Operation Bagration, which liberated the region from the Nazis in 1944.
The heroism is celebrated through the four tall bayonets, surrounded by a huge ring. The inside of the ring is decorated by mosaic tributes. The more striking outer side depicts the faces of soldiers and military symbols.
I walked up the 250 steps to the top of the structure to take a closer look at the ring and the bayonets.
Stalin Line is a network of fortifications along the Western border of the former Soviet Union. This fortified line was built in the 1920s to protect against attacks from the West. But when an attack from the West did come two decades later, the line provided little defense!
A line of concrete bunkers and weapons emplacements, known as pillboxes, stretched from the Karelian Isthmus near Finland to the shores of the Black Sea. It was abandoned by 1940 in favor of a newer line being built further West at the frontier of the expanding USSR. When Germany invaded in 1941, the new line was not yet finished, and the old line was in disrepair, leaving the Soviet Union vulnerable.
To commemorate the 60 year anniversary of Great Patriotic War (World War II), this museum complex includes a collection of trenches, roadblocks, bunkers, dots and other fortifications, and all kinds of technology like radar systems, boats, helicopters, war planes, tanks and weapons. Visitors who are keen on racing around in a war machine can even try out some of this equipment.
One of the primary places to visit in Belarus, Mir Castle was built in 16th century and a fine example of Gothic architecture. Surrounded by earth ramparts, bastions at the corners, and a moat, its masonry resembles that of German churches. According to some legends, there were underground passages leading to the Nesvizh Castle.
In times of the Soviet Union, the palace served as a factory, and during the Second World War there was a ghetto and a war prisoner camp. It entered the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2000.
|Inside vs outside
Walking around the outside of the castle and the gardens is free of cost. You can even enter the center courtyard for free, but visiting the inside of the castle and the museum comes with entrance fees of BYN 16 ($6.40). Our opinion is to skip the interior as it is not impressive. Also, all the information is in Cyrillic only!
One of the main entry point in to Belarus from Poland, Brest has seen its days of conflicts for centuries, especially during the WWII when it escaped the fate of Minsk, which was laid to waste in the Second World War, but the entire Jewish population (about 44%) was killed.
With its parks laid out in beautiful sculptures, there are quite a few sights to visit in Brest.
This former main synagogue of Brest is now the cinema “Belarus”. From the outside one still can see the octagon of the original lay out of the building. In the cellar (toilets), the old thick foundation walls are visible.
Sculptures in Parks
Walking around the city center and its parks displays some amazing metallic art sculptures. The first one is Brest Millennium Monument – this 15.1 m (49.5 ft) monument has an Angel of Mercy at the top holding a cross with other bronze statues around it.
Walk right from the Millennium Monument and you will find various sculptures around the parks.
The highlight of Brest and a UNESCO World Heritage site is this complex of massive fortification built in mid-19th century by Russian Empire. This fortress has seen the wrath of WWII and after the war the incident was made up as the “heroic defense of the Brest fortress” that lasted for more than one month with everybody fighting to their death.
In 1965 the fortress was awarded with the title “Hero Fortress” and a huge propaganda complex was erected. The core of the complex, the Museum of the heroic defense of the Brest fortress and the grounds are free to visit. The territory of the fortress is where the ancient city of Brest was born, in the archaeological museum Berestye one can see results of research on the spot. The old town was destroyed when the fortress was built.
The entry of the fortress represents a huge star cut into a concrete block. The radio announcer informs about the invasion of the German army. As you walk up to the center you see “Thirst”, a large monument depicting an injured soldier trying to get some water from the river. The monument reflects the bravery of the last remaining soldiers who defended the Fortress for many days without food or water.
The main part of the memorial is the Square of Ceremonies, leading to the Museum of the Defence of Brest fortress and the ruins of the White Palace.
The Bayonet Obelisk, 100m high, can be seen from any part of the fortress, and is linked to the main Courage monument by 3 rows of tombstones. Only 216 of the 850 defenders who died here are known.
The Courage monument stands 33.5m high and tells the story of the heroic defense of the fortress through a series of carvings. There is an eternal flame which is guarded by 4 teenagers from the Pioneers Corps. Further in to the Fortress you will find the iconic Kholmsky Gate, with its bullet-riddled walls.
After a day in Brest, I drove back to Minsk for the night and caught the early morning Belavia flight out of Belarus.
Note: All values in USD, unless otherwise mentioned, are approximate and based on the exchange rate at the time of publishing. Each cost is for one adult. The exchange rate at the time of publishing is assumed to be USD 1 = BYN 2.50. This does not include international flights to/from Belarus.
|Garni Hotel (Minsk)||$232||For 3 nights. Breakfast not included. Free Wifi.|
|PaulMarie Apartment (Brest)||$50||For 1 night. Airbnb-like apartment.|
|Meals||$80||Approx BYN 200 for 5 days include breakfast, lunch and dinners.|
|SIM Card||$10||A1 Telecom, BYN 25. For 25GB.|
|Rental Car||$245||With Inspire Rent-a-car (EuropCar). For 3 days including full insurance.|
|Postal Stamps||$4||BYN 10 for stamps at Minsk, Brest, Mir.|
|Groceries||$24||BYN 60 for snacks, water, etc.|
|Stalin Line||$8||Entrance fees BYN 20.|
|Mir Castle||$6.40||Entrance fees BYN 16.|
|Total Costs||$659.40||Per person|