The first time you heard of Minsk was probably in FRIENDS when David the Scientist Guy told Phoebe that he’s going there, but mistakingly saying it’s in Russia (Season 1 Episode 10), most likely because not so many people would have heard of Belarus then or known where it is.
Even if you’ve heard of Minsk and Belarus before, you probably didn’t hear so many good things about it and wouldn’t be expecting much out of it. At least that was my experience, having been told by a Belarusian how depressing it is and how the country is way behind on living standards or touristic attractions like food quality, accommodation quality, etc. Of course, as a seasoned traveler, I don’t let things I hear determine my judgement of a country before I experience it myself. But I got to say, I was not off to a good start with the visa!
In case you’ve not heard yet:
According to the Presidential Decree, effective from July 27, 2018, foreign citizens of 74 countries* can enter Belarus for up to 30 days** and exit from the territory of Belarus only through the State border checkpoint of the Republic of Belarus “Minsk National Airport”. (Source)
Being a Lebanese passport holder but with a work and residence permit in Germany, I was told that getting into Belarus through Minsk National Airport would be a breeze, as foreigners who want to stay in Minsk for up 30 days without a visa will have to travel through Minsk National Airport… That I wouldn’t even need a formal invitation letter from our Belarusian project partner, as I was visiting for business purposes. But when I came to board my flight to Minsk from my layover in Kiev airport on Ukranian Airlines (UIA), I was told otherwise, and denied boarding… And hence started the longest night of my life, of staying in the airport, trying to sleep unsuccessfully, and researching my options while waiting for updates and help from our Belarusian colleagues.
It turned out that the problem was that I have an EU residence permit, instead of a multiple-entry Schengen visa, although it is of higher status but the airport crew and the passport control have to follow protocol to the letter. Without a multiple-entry Schengen visa in my passport, I needed an invitation form, called Ходатайство, from the Ministry of Education that basically says I can get a visa-on-entry when I arrive to Minsk airport.
Of course, when I first got that form through email, and showed it to UIA boarding crew, and was told I can be granted the right to board, I thought that’s it… That’s the visa. I made it. Little did I know that I would still have to go through the real visa process once I get to Minsk Airport, which involved filling an application (which wasn’t too hard), taking biometric photos with an ancient photo booth that has terrible quality photos (better always carry your own!) which cost 10 BYN (Belarusian Rubbles), almost 4 EUR, and paying 90 EUROS for a single entry visa for a week. They do take payment in Euros, and there is an ATM right there by the desk that gives out multiple currencies just in case. If you’re wondering if that just happened to me because I have a Lebanese passport, it also happened to my colleague that joined our trip, and has a Jamaican passport with even a permanent Spanish residency. Additionally, all arriving visitors will have to purchase obligatory medical insurance that is right at the passport control checkpoint but is quite cheap, and depends on how long you are staying in the country. For example, I had to pay 6 Euros for a week visit. And right when I thought I was ready to go through the control, the office tells me that I have to wait for an officer who will just come ask me some routine questions about my visit. Luckily I had my Belarusian colleague with me and he helped with the translation, because as you will find, not so many officials speak English that well. So basically, unless you’re an EU citizen or has a tourist Schengen visa on your passport, you’ll have to go through this. Keep in mind, that you will also need to be registered at the local police station for the duration of your visit. Your hotel will register you, and when you check out, they’ll provide you with a small piece of paper with your stay dates that you will need to show to passport control when you are exiting the country. Normally, you need to register for the entire duration of your stay if you stay for more than 5 days; in my case, I was staying at the hotel for 5 days, and then for 2 nights on my own, but did not have to re-register since I was leaving on a Sunday, but had I stayed for longer or wasn’t leaving on a Sunday (which is excluded from registration), I would have had to pay a fine.
Now that I finally got through the checkpoint and into Minsk, into my comfortable bed in the nice Monstrasky hotel, let’s get to the fun part!
Here are my 5 reasons of why you should explore Minsk, if hopefully you don’t have to go through such a visa process:
#1 Beautiful and Interesting Architecture
Walking around the city was quite a sight for the eyes. You get to see interesting architecture, without being overwhelmed by high-rise buildings or a lot of “copy-paste” buildings. You’ll come across some beautiful catholic churches, soviet governmental buildings like the KGB, statues spread across the city including the famous Lenin statue, quaint residential buildings, and many other buildings that stood out like the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre, the Belarusian State Circus, the National Library of Belarus (which lights up quite interestingly at night), etc.
One added motive to exploring the city is the cheap and convenient transportation means. You have metros across the city, although I didn’t have the chance to take one. You have taxis on call, which are much more affordable than getting them off the street (your hotel can call them for you, and their details are in the business card in the image gallery below), and also trains that are for as low as 25 cents that can take you outside of the city (but don’t expect anything fancy haha).
#2 Clean Streets with Cozy Quarters
Apparently the city is quite known for its cleanliness, not that I heard about that before I was there. So it was quite a nice surprise! Compared to some very fancy European cities like Paris, there was absolutely no trash or littering anywhere to be found around Minsk. There were no beggars or street vendors pushing touristic stuff on you, so walking around the city is quite a peaceful experience, especially when you go through the quaint cozy quarters that are spread across the city. When you do want to buy memorabilia, you will find them in different cute kiosks or inside the popular local department stores ГУМ (Gum) and ЦУМ (Zum) that have a variety of items.
#3 High Quality but Affordable Arts and Culture
Although I wasn’t in the best mindset, having been sick throughout my trip in Minsk, I still couldn’t miss going to the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre for The Flying Dutchman Opera. The fact that a ticket only cost 7 EUR didn’t deter me from pushing myself to make it at least through half of the performance, even though I barely understood anything with a German opera and Russian subtitles. The performance was quite professional and high class, and the theater itself was quite beautiful… You can hardly believe the ticket cost less than a movie ticket at a German cinema theater. So you’d have no excuse not to dress up all fancy and spend a classy cultural evening in Minsk!
For another taste of arts and culture, be sure to take a stroll in the arts quarters to enjoy some very colorful murals, one of which a local claimed to be the biggest mural in the world haha, art galleries and exhibitions, and graffitti by Brazilian artists, part of the Brazilian Urban Art festival, Vulica Brasil, that takes place in that street every year.
#4 Delicious Variety of Food
I was also told prior to my visit that food options can be limited in Minsk, but that wasn’t the case at all. There were plenty of highly rated restaurants to choose from, from different cuisines such as Italian, Asian, Georgian… In fact, finding good Belarusian cuisine was the trickiest part, but again, I was very sick and couldn’t manage to explore enough to reach any. Prices also range from cheap to pricey, depending on what you’re looking for. For example, a 3 course lunch at Milano Cafe, with big portions and delicious food, cost 20 BYN (about 10 EUR) which can be pricey by local standards but is quite a catch by Western European standards for examples. Cheaper options are also available, without sacrificing taste and quality, at Georgian restaurants like that seemed quite popular with the youngsters.
You can watch video updates about all the above and more interesting things from around Minsk in my Instagram highlights, as well as highlights from many other locations.
Also, on a last note…