Leave Minsk and you're quickly in another world. The concrete landscape gives way to pastoral scenes and undulating flat green plains rich in simple bucolic beauty – a river wending its way gently past thick forests, fields of cornflowers in bloom and small villages populated entirely by pensioners. It's not dramatic, but this is the 'real' Belarus.
If you've visited Minsk before arriving, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd landed in another country when you get off the train in Brest. This prosperous and cosmopolitan border town looks far more to the neighbouring EU than to Minsk. It has plenty of charm and has performed a massive DIY job on itself over the past few years.
In the north of the country, Vitsebsk is the most obviously appealing destination for travellers, with its dramatic river, a clutch of lovely churches and the artistic heritage bequeathed to it by Marc Chagall. Also of interest is lovely Hrodna, one of the few towns in the country not destroyed in WWII.
If you're entering Belarus from northern Poland, or if you have extra time in the country, think about visiting Hrodna (Grodno in Russian). It was one of the few Belarusian cities that wasn't bombed during WWII, so it's rife with old wooden homes and, although it's a major city, it definitely has a 'big village' sort of feel to it.
The historic city of Vitsebsk (known universally outside Belarus by its Russian name, Vitebsk) lies a short distance from the Russian border and almost 300km from Minsk. Vitsebsk was an important centre of Jewish culture when it was one of the major cities of the 'Pale of Settlement', where Jews were allowed to live in the Russian Empire.
Leave Minsk for an easy taste of the gently appealing Belarusian countryside, to a world where instead of mobile-phone shops and sushi bars, the few stores you'll see will have names like 'Bread' and 'Shoes', dating from a bygone era of no choice. Don't miss the fairy-tale castle at Mir or your chance to taste a slice of traditional village life at Dudutki.
A Unesco World Heritage Site some 60km north of Brest, Belavezhskaya Pushcha National Park is the oldest wildlife refuge in Europe and is the pride of Belarus. Half the park's territory lies in Poland, where it's called Białowieża National Park. Some 1300 sq km of primeval forest survives here.
Tasting delicious farm-made sausages, cheese and bread is only a small part of the experience of a visit to the open-air interactive museum of Dudutki, located 40km south of Minsk. This completely self-sufficient farm offers horse riding, sleigh rides, demonstrations of ceramic making, blacksmithing and more.
The magical old buildings of Nyasvizh make it a great place to get in touch with Belarus' past – one that elsewhere has all too often been destroyed as military campaigns flattened the country. This quiet but green and attractive town 120km southwest of Minsk is one of the oldest in the country, dating from the 13th century.
The hamlet of Khatyn, 60km north of Minsk, was burned to the ground by the Nazis on 22 March 1943. Of a population of 149 (including 85 children), only one man, Yuzif Kaminsky, survived. The site is now a sobering memorial; tours are offered in Russian. More information can be found at www.khatyn.by. There's also an exhibit of photographs (admission BR5000).