24 Hours in Minsk
While the group stage of the IIHF 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship in Belarus is finished, the most interesting play-off matches, including the finals, are right around the corner.
This is a great opportunity to visit Minsk which has already welcomed more than 17 thousand tourists from EU countries who have benefited from the visa-free regime.
Some guests have managed to visit interesting places outside of Minsk, such as the magnificent Mir and Niasvizh castles. But Minsk itself, with its moderate prices and Soviet-style charm, is increasingly becoming an enjoyable destination. This short guide provides some tips how to spend a nice day in the capital of Belarus.
Breakfast, Art and Shopping
Enjoying a tasty breakfast is a prerequisite for a fulfilling day full of adventures. News Café and My English Grandmother are ideally suited for this purpose, though coffee and tea lovers will also enjoy places like Coffeeberry, London, Guru or La Crête d'Or - all of which are located near Lenina street.
Then go on to visit the National Art Museum located in the same area to see masterpieces by famous Belarusian and Russian painters.
During the ice hockey championship, the museum is also presenting the paintings of world-renowned Belarus-born Chaim Soutine and Marc Chagall as well as a collection of Medieval Belarusian books and luxurious Slutsk belts.
After the exhibition, experience Soviet-style shopping at GUM and TSUM or buy ceramic and linen souvenirs in special shops on Freedom Square and Independence Avenue.
Belarusian Cuisine and Green Walks
If you are hungry after visiting the museum and doing a bit of shopping, visit a café to enjoy very nutritious Belarusian food. Restaurants like Kamyanitsa and Stary Gorad offer a variety of traditional Belarusian dishes such as draniki (small fried potato pancakes), machanka (a meat dish usually eaten with pancakes), Kvass and the alcoholic drink Krambambula.
A hearty meal will greatly energise you for the walk from Independence Square to Victory Square along the Independence Avenue. The UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List notes the Avenue as the only place in the world where the Stalin's Empire style has survived in complete ensemble form.
Enjoy fresh air, a catamaran trip or cycling at Park Horkaga and Park Yanki Kupaly that provide a green perimeter around the central part of Minsk. Then take the metro to visit the 74-meter tall National Library shaped as a rhomb-cube-octahedron. As one of the most unusual buildings in Eastern Europe, it has an observation deck overlooking Minsk.
Dinner and Old Town Stories
In the evening go back to the centre to visit Niamiha – the oldest part of the city that was first mentioned in 1067 in connection with the battle between the forces of Kievan Rus’ and the Principality of Polatsk.
Just five minutes away from the Niamiha metro station, the Trinity Hill/Banlieu overlooks the Svislach River with mostly 19th-century buildings. Then visit the Island of Tears (Vostrau Slioz) nearby that commemorates all Belarusian soldiers who have been killed abroad, though it focuses primarily on those who served the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
Continue your walk to the Upper Town, making a short stop at the Baroque Peter and Paul Church (6:40 pm) – the oldest survived stone building in Minsk (1612). The Upper Town was the centre of commercial, cultural and religious life before the Russian revolution. It includes Freedom Square and Minsk City Hall - a former symbol of self-government rights.
Regardless of your religious views, it is worth taking a visit to either the Roman Catholic archcathedral church of Blessed Virgin Mary (18th century) or the main Orthodox Holy Spirit Cathedral (17th century). These beautiful buildings survived many years of wars and anti-religious campaigns during the Soviet era.
After a short promenade around the area, choose a restaurant for dinner. The Upper Town and the neighbouring area are home to arguably some of the best cafes and restaurants in the city, including the Spanish-style Tapas Bar (great for quesadillas, paellas and red wine), Bistro de Luxe, Times Café, Boulevard, and Grand Café located in a splendid Stalin's Empire style building. Reserve places in advance to avoid queues and a lack of free tables, especially in the evening.
After dinner, take an evening tour around the city. In contrast to some of its neighbouring capitals, Minsk is well-known for its safety and cleanness.
The city has a special charm after sunset, so experience it by travelling down Independence Avenue and Karla Marksa street which looks like a place you could find somewhere in Paris.
In apparently trying to continue with the French motif, the authorities of Minsk made many buildings in the centre beautifully illuminated in a manner that resembles Lyon.
Fresh Beer and Night Life
Having grown a bit tired after a promenade, consider having a pint of beer in some of Minsk's famous pubs. According to JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, even the half-giant Rubeus Hagrid himself had a disagreement with a vampire in these pubs.
The Upper Town is a very appealing place as it has increasingly become the centre of Minsk's nightlife. It includes a diverse range of cafes from Czech-style Staramesny Pivavar with its own brewery to the more stylish Bessonica (Insomnia) or the lively Cherdak (Attic) with parties. Most of them work until at least 2 am.
Alternatively, consider visiting the bar Sweet and Sour or night clubs such as Blondes and Brunettes, Robinson, Re:Public, Dozari or Madison before heading back to your hotel.
Despite the stereotypes about the "Sovietness" of Minsk, it contains many cosmopolitan places which combine high quality service with a regional uniqueness. Many foreigners from Western countries find the city unusual and note that the list of its merits extends well beyond its cleanness and safety.