Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

The best of Belarus: why underrated Minsk should be on your radar

The host of this year's European Games, Minsk is one of Europe's least known and best-value capitals

An aerial view of the city, which was rebuilt after the Second World War. Getty
An aerial view of the city, which was rebuilt after the Second World War. Getty

Why Minsk?

Minsk feels like nowhere else in Europe. Left in ruins at the end of the Second World War, the city was rebuilt along unremittingly Soviet lines: the centre is dominated by rule-straight avenues and vast municipal buildings. But there is more to Minsk than a lingering Cold War vibe.

The past few years have seen an upsurge of new cafes, bars and hotels, as well as new buildings such as the futuristic National Library. There has been significant Chinese investment, too: listen out for the Mandarin announcements at the airport.

The National Library of Belarus. Getty
The National Library of Belarus.Getty

With visa-free travel for up to 30 days for most visitors (including those from the UAE, Europe and North America) and the city set to host the second European Games, which begin on Friday, it’s the perfect time to visit one of Europe’s best-value capitals.

A comfortable bed

Minsk now has good choice of accommodation – from hostel to five-star. At the top end is the Hotel Beijing (doubles from Dh415; www.beijinghotelminsk.com). Enjoy the space and calm of its vast foyer, and make time for a dip in its swimming pool overlooking the River Svislach. The Renaissance Minsk Hotel (doubles from Dh488; http://renaissance-hotels.marriott.com/renaissance-minsk-hotel) also provides everything you would expect from a lodging at this level, including particularly good borscht soup, available 24 hours via room service.

In the three-star category, Willing Hotel (singles from Dh258; https://willinghotel.by/) sits right at the end of the city’s hippest street, Kastrycnickaya. The Hotel Monastyrski (singles from Dh250; https://monastyrski.by) offers rooms in a converted monastery right in the city centre.

Find your feet

The centre of Minsk is easily walkable and, like the rest of Belarus, very flat. A free walking tour, departing at 11am daily from Svobody Square, offers insight into the city’s history. It takes in the nation’s main place of Christian ­Orthodox worship, the Holy Spirit Cathedral, and Old Town or Troitskoye district – a small area of 17th century buildings that was restored after the bombing of the Second World War. This is also where you’ll find the best souvenir shops.

The excellent and cheap Minsk metro. Getty 
The excellent and cheap Minsk metro. Getty 

Getting outside the centre is easy thanks to the city’s excellent (and cheap) metro and bus services. If time allows, take a trip to the impressive 16th century Nesvizh Palace, which is a 90-minute drive south-west of the capital – hire a car or ask your hotel to organise a transfer. There are other churches and monasteries nearby as well.

Meet the locals

Kastrychnitskaya Street is the last word in Minsk nightlife – or was, until Zybitskaya, on the other side of the river, was renovated a couple of years ago. Go to Kastrychnitskaya for vast graffiti murals and a post-­industrial, Berlin vibe. The recently reopened Y is a gallery and bar space, all cool white and minimal chic.

Zybitskaya is Kastrychnitskaya’s smarter cousin, with bars such as Leone, which serves excellent food.

Book a table

The best place to try local classics such as draniki (the Belarusian take on the potato rosti), blini (pancakes) and solyanka soup is Kuhmistr on Karl Marx street (mains from Dh26).

Khinkal’nya at ulitsa ­Internatsionalnaya 25 does good Georgian food, ­including the eponymous khinkali ­dumplings, and is ­situated just behind the ­Palace of the ­Republic. Dom, at ­revolutsionaya 26, does smart modern takes on local ­cuisine, with mains from Dh30. Layka, on ­Kastrycnickaya Street, is a late-night takeaway institution that serves delicious ­sandwiches 24 hours a day.

Shoppers’ paradise

For malls, head to Galleria Minsk or Galileo Mall, both near the centre, or Dana Mall near the National Library. All three offer a range of local and international brands. Vedy has an impressive selection of second-hand books and Symbal does souvenirs and jewellery.

What to avoid

Don’t take photos of official buildings or on the metro – they don’t like it and you may even be fined. As you’ll also soon ­realise, jaywalking is not the done thing.

The unique “spaceship” design of the National Library is perhaps best enjoyed from the comfort of your taxi from the airport, though the viewing platform does offer an airy panorama over the city.

Don’t miss

The National Library of Belarus. Getty
The National Library of Belarus. Getty

As in many post-Soviet countries, ballet and theatre in Minsk are very good, and priced very affordably as well. At the beautiful National Opera and Ballet of Belarus, you can pick up tickets for Swan Lake for as little as Dh12, while a box will set you back only Dh261.

If you’re there in summer, take an evening stroll along the tree-lined Svislach river after the performance.

Getting there

Etihad flies three times a week direct from Abu Dhabi to Minsk. A taxi from the airport should cost around Dh59 to Dh73 and takes around 45 minutes. Uber and Yandex also operate here, as does a bus service, which takes about an hour and costs about Dh7.

Updated: June 27, 2019 06:29 PM

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