Belarus is off the radar of most travellers, but this rarely explored corner of eastern Europe has just given them the legislative equivalent of a come-hither glance: loosening entry requirements to allow citizens of 80 countries to visit visa-free for up to 30 days, as long as you arrive and leave by air via Minsk airport.

Mir Castle perfectly reflected in a tranquil pond © Greg Bloom / Lonely Planet

In recent years Belarus’ lively capital, Minsk, has caught on as an alternative weekend break. While Minsk’s worthwhile museums and impressive dining and nightlife scene make for a thoroughly enjoyable experience, visiting for even just five days allows you to cut your teeth on provincial Belarus, a famously flat land of fairytale castles, rolling sunflower fields, forgotten schtetls (Jewish villages) and enchanted forests. You can’t do it all in five days, but with careful route-planning you can cherry-pick a few of the best spots.

First, the logistics. Assuming you’ll want a day or two in Minsk, you’ll be left with three or four days to explore the provinces. There are some great day-trip options to fill a couple of days using the capital as a base. Alternatively, head to the pleasant western Belarusian city of Brest, where you can overnight.

Impressive inner courtyard at Nyasvizh Castle © Greg Bloom / Lonely Planet

Day trippin’

The major rental car agencies are well represented in the Belarusian capital, road rules are straightforward and provincial roads organised and traffic-free. Top on your hit list should be a pair of 16th-century castles that lie within a 90-minute drive southwest of the capital – Mir and Nyasvizh.

Both castles are Unesco World Heritage sites and both are legacies of the Radziwills, a family of Lithuanian nobles that rose to prominence under the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Nyasvizh Castle is an enormous complex whose 30-plus rooms comprise a museum detailing the history of Radziwills and the area under Lithuanian, Polish and Russian rule. The opulent interior evokes the great tsarist-era palaces of St Petersburg. Mir Castle wows with its impossibly picturesque exterior. Its five towers reflected perfectly in an adjacent pond, the castle has become the poster-child for Belarus tourism. The two castles are just 35km from each other, making them a perfect day-trip combo.

Helicopters lined up at the Stalin Line Museum © Greg Bloom / Lonely Planet

If you want to linger another night in Minsk – and who would blame you, given the wealth of restaurants and cracking nightlife – plan a second day of excursions out of the capital. You have a few choices, but the first on our list is the fascinating Stalin Line Museum, 25km northwest of the capital. It’s an impressive collection of Soviet war paraphernalia in a sprawling field that once formed part of the ‘Stalin Line’ – a defensive bulwark that stretched more than 1000km along the Soviet Union’s western border before WWII. Original bunkers have been restored, and you can even take a joyride in a Soviet tank. It’s an absolute must for WWII buffs and nicely complements the superb Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Minsk.

The Stalin Line Museum can easily be combined with a visit to the moving memorial in Khatyn, one of many Jewish villages wiped out by the Nazis in WWII. If you prefer something more uplifting, head south of Minsk to a pair of interesting open-air folk museums: the Dudutki interactive museum, where you’ll sample homemade samahon (moonshine) and salo (cured pork fat), and the authentic Museum of Folk Architecture & Rural Lifestyle in Azyartso.

Traditional windmill at the Dudutki open-air folk museum © Greg Bloom / Lonely Planet

Westward bound

It’s also easy to combine your visit to Minsk with a stay in Brest for a couple of days. Save time and money on accommodation by taking a night train – an experience in its own right. Or you can take the daily business-class express train, which leaves Minsk in late afternoon and gets you to Brest in less than four hours.

Brest is easily the most interesting Belarusian provincial capital, and its cobbled walking streets, centuries-old churches and leafy parks provide a perfect antidote to monolithic Minsk. Just west of the city, the Bug River forms the border with Poland; the locals will often approach you to make conversation in broken English.

The lovely 200-year-old St Nikolaiv Church in Brest © Greg Bloom / Lonely Planet

Brest is a great place to spend a day or so, with excellent restaurants and unpretentious bars and clubs. Enjoy a cosmopolitan meal at the city’s top restaurant, Jules Verne, then join the lively crowd for shots and no-holds-barred dancing at Coyote Bar or Korova.

Brest’s main attraction is the Brest Fortress, a rambling collection of war and art museums in restored 18th-century buildings at the confluence of the Bug and Mukhavets Rivers. A small band of Red Army soldiers held out here for a month against the invading Nazis and became Soviet legends. Some truly fantastic chunks of Soviet realism, including the notorious Courage Monument, honour these men.

The monolithic Courage Monument at the Brest Fortress © Greg Bloom / Lonely Planet

You can walk to the Brest Fortress in about 30 minutes from vul Savetskaya, the city’s pedestrianised central street, via vul Holholya (Gogol St), a boulevard lined with trees and quirky statues built into gas street lamps – collectively known as Alleya Fonary. Indeed, you can walk almost anywhere in Brest, which is a huge part of its appeal.

On your last day, take a taxi to Belavezhskaya Pushcha National Park, a last refuge of Europe’s largest mammal, the European bison (zubr, locally). The experience, like many in Belarus, is tinged with Soviet nostalgia – think bus tours to the ‘home’ of Ded Moroz, the Soviet Santa Claus. A more rewarding way to explore the park is by bicycle hired at the park entrance (€5). If you time it right (ie at dusk between October and April), you might even get the ultimate reward: spotting a zubr in the wild.

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Mary Magdalene Orthodox church and dome, Minsk. Image by Sir Francis Canker Photography / Getty Images


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