How to spend the ultimate weekend in Minsk

Belarus – and its intriguing capital – wants to come in from the cold. Since 2017, British visitors (along with citizens of 80 other countries) no longer need a visa if they arrive and depart from Minsk Airport, making the city a doable destination for an offbeat weekend away. And this summer, the maximum stay went up from five days to 30.

Its main Dinamo Stadium has also just been modernised, as Minsk gears up to host the 2019 European Games. Characterised by long avenues and neoclassical grandeur, the city is one of the world’s cleanest, while gardens and verges are feverishly tended by an army of workers.

What to do

Remembering heroism

The Mound of Glory monument complex is the most striking of Minsk’s many war memorials. The huge modernist sculpture topping a massive earthwork was the mammoth work of architects and sculptors A Bembel, A Artimovich, O Stakhovich, L Mickiewicz and B Lapcevic. Opened in 1969, it commemorates the huge battle of 1944 which eventually sent the Wehrmacht packing and liberated Minsk from three years of horrific Nazi occupation. Situated on the Airport road, it makes a perfect first or last stop in Minsk. Open daily except Mondays, 10.30am-3pm.

Harvey’s House

A curious historical footnote can be found at No 4 Vulica Kamunistyčnaja (literally Communist Street). This was where Lee Harvey Oswald lived having defected (the KGB paid his rent) from 1959 to 1962 – before he tired of life in the USSR, returned to the USA, and killed John F Kennedy. No memorials mark the spot, but you’re guaranteed to spy other sightseers taking photos of the upmarket apartment block (you can’t go in, sadly).

Stately squares

A monumental axis runs roughly north east to south west. At the top is Victory Square, with an obelisk in the centre and Cyrillic slogans on top of surrounding buildings. Next is the windswept October Square, with the Palace of the Republic sitting on one side. Human rights demonstrations against Belarus’s authoritarian regime often take place here. Finally there’s Independence Square, which was known as Lenin Square in Soviet times. A statue of old Vlad stands in front of the Parliament building. There’s also the central Catholic Church here and a vast shopping mall underneath the square.

Where to stay

Trinity is an arty, friendly hostel that has dorms and some private rooms, as well as a cafe-bar. Dorm beds from 20 BYN (£8) and private rooms from 60 BYN (£25), room only.

Crowne Plaza is the grand old duke of upmarket hotels in Minsk. It’s housed in a historic building, featuring a range of facilities like a spa, perfume shop and disco. Decor is best described as “dictator chic”. Doubles from 190 BYN (£74), B&B.

The Westerner friendly Doubletree includes a coffee shop and chic monochrome colour scheme that feels very modern by Minsk standards. Doubles from 220 BYN (£87), B&B.

Where to eat

Hopping cheap and chic Thai joint Mai Thai is always packed, and rightly so. You can get all the Thai classics here in the middle of a lovely wood-panelled room, festooned with cool modern finishing touches like oversized lamp shades. There’s a nice outdoor terrace too. Open daily, noon-11pm.

Vega Burger will even get meat eaters licking their lips with bespoke veggie burgers and other vegan food including soups, salads, falafel and cakes. It’s relaxed and inexpensive; open daily, 11am-10.30pm.

Where to drink

Bask in the Shoreditch vibes of Surf Coffee. There’s a skate ramp inside, raw chocolate on the counter and a neat no-smoking garden around the side too. Based right next to the HQ of the Commonwealth of Independent States, it’s also perfect for people watching people pulling up in their armoured Audis. Open Monday to Friday, 8am-11pm; weekends, 10am-11pm.

Huligan Bar checks all the boxes: post-industrial space, attractive clientele (though almost everyone in Minsk is attractive) and great graphic design posters. There’s an interesting range of electronic music on the decks and live too. Open daily, 8pm-midnight; Friday and Saturday 8pm-4am.

Where to shop

Kali Laska is a cool charity shop where you can pick up all sorts of vintage threads as well as the sort of Communist era kitsch furniture that isn’t cool anymore but definitely should be. Open daily noon-6pm. It’s part of the wider Korpus 8 precinct, a kind of cultural centre that also hosts markets and food stalls as well as live music. 

There’s no denying the sleekly lit architecture of Minsk’s brand new mall impresses like the old Soviet GUM department store would have done when it opened in the 1950s. With Western brands like Next and Mothercare and local designer boutiques, Galleria is a popular destination for Minsk’s fashion conscious middle-class, and perhaps shows the country leaning ever more westwards. It’s also perfect for a coffee and a snack, plus there’s a supermarket for picking up provisions. Open daily, 10am-10pm.

Architectural highlight

HIgh-rise Ulitsa Nemiga has a huge communist concrete relief sculpture called Solidarity – which now has a KFC beneath it. The superblock of shops and flats behind it thrillingly juts out over the six-lane avenue and includes the sort of stairs, plazas, platforms and podiums skateboarders dream about.

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

BYN (Belarus Ruble)

What language do they speak?

Belarusian and Russian

Should I tip?

10 per cent

What’s the time difference?

GMT+2

What’s the average flight time from the UK?

Three hours

Public transport

Minsk has a fast, clean, cheap and simple Metro (65 BYN/25p per ride) with station names and announcements in English

Best view

Gorky Park’s handsome observation wheel gives a panoramic view over Minsk. From 2.3 BYN (80p) per ride

Insider tip

You’ll need to buy compulsory health insurance from a booth at the border for £2 per day if you can’t easily prove you have a policy that covers Belarus, so dig out your travel insurance documents and take them to present to the guard along with your passport

More information

belarus.by/en/travel

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