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. Indeed, the city was immortalised in the early work of Marc Chagall, the city's most famous son. who grew up and studied here before moving to St Petersburg, where his career began. With its relaxed atmosphere, attractive centre and diverting museums, Vitsebsk makes for a pleasant side trip or stopover on the way through to Russia.
The city was all but wiped off the face of the earth during WWII, with just 15 buildings still standing by the time of the Nazi withdrawal. Indeed, coming into Vitsebsk, you may be inclined to turn around and leave again, as the grey suburbs and heavy industry on the city's outskirts are particularly unappealing. The main drag, inventively named vul Lenina, runs parallel to the Dvina River, while the perpendicular Kirovsky Bridge crosses the river and leads via vul Kirova to the train and bus stations.