City guide: Mystical Minsk
Comtourist spend three days in the Belarusian capital Minsk in 2006, we made a city guide with tips for what to do and where to go, plus an overview of the most interesting Soviet architecture and monuments. Visa procedures for a visit to Belarus are tedious and expensive but a city trip is well worth the effort. Minsk has plenty of historic places, beautiful architecture and places to shop eat and drink.
Minsk won’t be the first pick for many casual travellers when planning a city trip to Eastern Europe. Usually cities like Prague, Budapest, Krakow and Riga top their list, for Comtourist Minsk is an obvious destination however. It’s Stalinist boulevards, Orwellian government buildings, ever present propaganda posters, many Soviet statue’s, monuments and Hotels make it an excellent city to spend a few day’s. Minsk is starting to be a modern city, people are well dressed, restaurants are good, there are many hip bars and the economy seems to be doing reasonably good during our visit. A trip to Brest or Khatyn memorial are a good option for those who spend more then three days in Minsk.
Thing’s to see and do in Minsk
The main attractions of Minsk are it’s magnificent Stalinist architecture and the many Soviet monuments, memorials and statue’s. It will take two or three day’s to explore the city and see the most important architecture, monuments museums and more. There are also a famous opera theatres, a circus, sports games, interesting museums and many bar’s, clubs and restaurants. Shopping in a must in Minsk the Soviet style warehouses sell great folkloric souvenirs and cheap quality products, and some USSR memorabilia as well. Most hotels are giant Soviet style concrete buildings, exactly as it should be. Worth a visit around Minsk are the Mound of Glory (21km), the Khatyn memorial (60km) and fort Brest (350km).
Places to stay: Minsk Hotels
Hotels in Belarus as in most other countries of the former USSR are almost always overpriced. Many hotels are still owned by the state or local government and run as inefficient as they were during Soviet times. Not much has changed on the buildings and rooms since that period as well. The tourist pays the price for this both on his bill and with the lack of service he receives for his money. High prices aren’t good for anyone but the Soviet style buildings, service and rooms is exactly what Comtourist is looking for. Some good hotel choices are Orbita (?40), Planeta (?50) and Yubileinaya (?40). The most luxurious hotel is Hotel Minsk (?110) in the centre of the city. Comtourist’s recommendation however is the famous Belarus hotel (?40), the biggest and most complete hotel.
Comtourist recommendation: The Belarus hotel
In the former USSR and the whole Eastern block hotels were prestige object for the communist rulers and the motto was usually bigger is better. The most prominent hotels were often called after the country or its capital, in Minsk hotel Minsk and Hotel Belarus are the most famous hotels. Hotel Belarus is an excellent example of a giant concrete soviet hotel with 22 floors and 510 rooms. Some (more expensive) floors have been renovated and refurnished but most rooms have not changed since it was build. On all floors there are woman behind a desk keeping the guests key telling what you have done wrong or need to do (in Russian of course). The piece the resistance of the hotel is the swimming pool with beautifully socialist realist fresco on the walls. There is also a gym, a restaurant on the top floor, a billiards room, a club and many more services. A good web site to book a room in the Belarus hotel (and other hotels in Minsk) is www.hotels-minsk.com.
Museum: The Belarusian State Museum of the Great Patriotic war
In the former Soviet Union World War II is named "The Great Patriotic War", Moscow, Kiev and Minsk all have a large museum dedicated to show the horror of this war. 23 million soviets of which half civilians died during the war, between two and three million Belarusian died. The exhibition of the museum shows a large amount of personal items from soldiers and civilians, photo’s, Marquette’s, art and military equipment. A large section of the museum is devoted to the partisan resistance in Belarus. The most gripping part of the museum however is the holocaust section with a model of Maly Trostenets death camp where 200,000 died. Outside the museum there is a large collection of Soviet tanks, artillery, self propelled guns and much more. There is also a Lisunov Li-2 transport airplane, the Li-2 is a Soviet copy of the famous DC-3. 6,157 Li-2s in various versions have been built at the Chimky and Tashkent plants from 1939 thru 1952.
Museum: First congress of the Russian social democratic workers party
The site of this museum was the place where the Social Democratic workers party that became the Bolshevik party was founded in 1898. The museum was founded in 1923, the year of the congress’s 25 anniversary celebration. The building was destroyed by the Nazi’s during World War II and rebuild in 1948. During the fifties the building was moved towards the river to its current location to make room for Victory square. The exhibition in the small museum with 3 rooms shows a replica of the room where the congress took place, some photo’s and original documents like the first manifest of the Communist Party. Most interesting are the photo’s of celebrities who visited the museum like Fidel Castro.
Curiosity: The home of Lee Harvey Oswald
Unknown to many and a curious historical fact is that Lee Harvey Oswald the alleged assassin of John F. Kennedy lived in Minsk for three years. In 1959 Oswald an ex US marine left the USA for the Soviet Union. His trip was well planned and well prepared, he arrived in Moscow via France, England and Finland. The KGB did not find Oswald very usefully and decided to send him back to the USA. In his hotel he inflicted himself by cutting his wrist, the Russians afraid for a scandal decided to let him stay. He could not stay in Moscow however and was told he had to live in Minsk. Here he got a job with the Horizont radio factory and a nice apartment at kommunisticheskaya street near victory square. In 1961 Oswald met Marina Prusakova, a 19 year old pharmacology student who he married the same year. In June 1962 Oswald, his wife and a new born child left the Soviet Union for the United States. And the rest as they say...... is history!
Going out: Eating and drinking in Minsk
There are surprisingly many good restaurants, bar’s and clubs in Minsk. The standard of the food and service in generally good and the prices are fair. Most Minsk restaurants go either for the underground cellar look or the country-home setting look, but almost always with staff in traditional folk costume. There are many restaurants with Belarusian cuisine which is almost the same as the Russian cuisine. There are some typical Belarusian dishes however like Draniki and Manchanka (potato pancakes), kolduni and kletsky (potato dumplings stuffed with meat, mushrooms or cheese). The Comtourist restaurant recommendation is Express Krynista a Soviet style cafeteria with good food.
Public transport: Tram, metro and trolley busses
Public transport has always been well arranged in the communist world. Metro systems in the main cities were important prestige projects, for the governments. The Moscow metro is the prime example, every station is like a small palace but Minsk also has a view stylish and beautifully decorated stations. Very cheap plastic coins are valid for one ride where ever you go to (like in all ex Soviet metro systems). There is a clock on platform showing when the last metro left the station, usually it only takes half a minute before the next train arrives. The same system can be found in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev and probably in many more cities. Many interesting busses, trams and trolleybus can be seen on the streets of Minsk.
Site seeing: Minsk street propaganda
The USSR is gone for more then fifteen years but in many way’s Minsk still feels like a Soviet city. Many Soviet style decorations can be seen on buildings, some are leftovers from the Soviet era but others are clearly more recent. There are many billboards advertising the production power of the country, the fruits of the agriculture or the friendship between the army and the people. These billboards do look more modern then classic soviet propaganda bit the theme’s are still the same as during the Soviet times. In Minsk it is very clear the government used old fashioned propaganda tools to win the support of it’s citizens.
Shopping: The warehouses of Minsk
There are many good places to shop in Minsk, most notably the state warehouses like Gum and Tsum. All kind of locally manufactured luxury articles are sold here, famous is the cheap but high quality Milavitsa lingerie. The best shop to hunt for souvenirs is Suvenirnaya Lavka that exists of a lot of separate counters with goods displayed. Here you will find USSR memorabilia, Lada, Wolga and other miniature cars models, Belarus sports gear, watches and much more. Typical and famous souvenir of Belarus are wooden boxes ornamented with geometric patterns composed of multicoloured pieces of straw. A famous local alcoholic drink to take home is Belavezhskaja a bitter herbal drink, good vodka’s are Garodnya and Brest Vodka. Bookshops sell Soviet Union style books glorifying the countries production, farmers, army, history and of course the president. Most stationary shops sell photographs, posters and postcards of president Lukashenko. The giant Komarovsky meat market is an attraction not be missed, during the summer there are also many places where farmers sell their honey.