Minsk is a fascinating city, where the ancient Orthodox churches, the old Sovietesque architecture of the USSR and the more modern, slick, glass-fronted buildings, mingle to create a unique gem in Eastern Europe. These days, for many, this city represents a better glimpse of what life was once like in the Soviet Union compared to most Russian cities. A wander through its older districts feels like stepping back in time, yet around the corner may lie hipster cafés, KFCs and sprawling shopping malls. It is certainly a city of vibrant contrasts, a place where you will be richly rewarded for overcoming the hurdles of bureaucracy and venturing out to this far corner of Eastern Europe.
After staying in the €5 per night Hostel X.O. in Vitebsk, we opted for some luxury in Minsk, staying in the striking “Hotel Belarus”, the towering white structure rising high above the shores of a wide bend in the Svisloch River. By booking directly on their website, a modern room can be booked for approximately €40 out of season. If on a tighter budget however, there are many hostels scattered across Minsk for between €5-10 for a dorm room.
Free Walking Tour
Before setting off to wander the streets of Minsk, we would highly recommend taking the daily free walking tour (http://freewalkingtour.by/). This tour of approximately three hours is a fantastic way to get to grips with the city upon your arrival, giving you a glimpse of the main tourist sights within walking distance of the city centre, and allowing you to grasp the complicated history behind this ancient city.
Some of the below monuments and sights are actually included on this tour, therefore we would recommend doing this tour on your first morning in Minsk to avoid retracing your steps.
Communism Vs. Consumerism
This KFC in the centre of Minsk is one of those locations we saw many photos of when researching Minsk before our visit, highlighting the old, strict communism of Belarus under the USSR, and the more modern influence of capitalism here. The exact location of this bizarre contrast was difficult to find online, however. In the end, we discovered it by chance at this street intersection.
Independence Square houses several distinct buildings, centered around a stark statue of Lenin. The Red Church, The Belarus State University and the Supreme Soviet building (pictured below) are all situated in this sprawling square.
Holy Spirit Cathedral
The Holy Spirit Cathedral is the central cathedral of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Originally built between 1633-1642, and reconstructed after a damaging fire in 1741, today it is one of the best examples of a traditional Orthodox church in Belarus.
Island of Tears
The Island of Tears is a small island located in the middle of the Svisloch River in central Minsk. It is a haunting monument dedicated to the lives of the Soviet soldiers who lost their lives during the Soviet-Afghan War between 1979 and 1989. The figures sculpted around the outside of the monument represent the grieving wives, mothers and daughters left behind by those who perished fighting abroad.
Minsk’s Bolshoi Theatre
The Bolshoi Theatre of Minsk, built in the 1930s is another impressive, surviving structure from before the Second World War. If you have the time (and suitable attire!) the theatre is a highly recommended location to see some of Belarus’ finest orchestras, ballet performances and theatre.
The Apartment of Lee Harvey Oswald
An interesting bit of Minsk related history is that Lee Harvey Oswald, before his alleged assasination of JFK, had sought refuge in the Soviet Union (in today’s Belarus) in October 1959. After initially entering the Soviet Union on a tourist visa, his request for citizenship was denied. Upon his last day in Moscow before being removed from the country, he slit his wrist in his bathroom hotel.
After being treated for several days in a Moscow Hospital, his request was reconsidered, and approved by the Soviet authorities. Although, he had hoped to study at Moscow Univesity, he was instead sent to Minsk to work as a lathe operator at a local factory. He resided here in Minsk from October 1959, marrying a local woman, Marina Prusakova, before moving back to the US in June 1962. His apartment during this time was not far from the city centre and can be visited today for a cost on private arrangement with the owner.
Victory Square holds Minsk’s largest monument to the Soviet soldiers who lost their lives defending Belarus during World War Two. Above the surface stands a 38 metre obelisk with a 3 metre replica of the “Order of Victory” (the highest military decoration awarded for World War Two service in the Soviet Union) sitting on top. Beneath the surface lies a memorial hall with a highlighted glass wreath at its centre. Adorning the walls are the names of all 566 natives from Belarus who earned the title of “Hero of Soviet Union” for their deeds during the war.
Great Patriotic War Museum
The Great Patriotic War Museum is a worthwhile visit, containing hundreds of artifacts from the Second World War. You can easily spend two hours or more wandering between the exhibits, which culminate in a special room dedicated to those who lost their lives during the war.