Uplifting religious architecture
The double-towered Holy Spirit Cathedral (pl Svabody) is the Old Town’s most striking landmark, but the ‘Red Church’ (pl Nezalezhnastsi) is perhaps the most eye-catching of Minsk’s religious buildings. This Roman Catholic church has holiness layered into its very foundations: the bricks were brought all the way from Polish pilgrimage site Częstochowa. It was twice repurposed into a cinema but is now the heart of Minsk’s Catholic community. Admirers of the classic onion-domed Orthodox churches should make for the star-spangled Church of St Mary Magdalene (vul Kisyalyova).
Poignantly beautiful memorials
The WWII saw Minsk all but flattened. A succession of previous occupations and other conflicts also scarred the city. Explore Minsk’s dark history through its memorials, often astonishing in design and scale. At the ‘Island of Tears’, statues of mourning women and weeping angels gaze out in remembrance of those lost in the 1979–89 war with Afghanistan. On the riverside near the National Museum of the Great Patriotic War, the silver ‘Road to the Future’ sculpture resembles lightning striking the shore. But the loveliest is surely beneath the eternal flame at Victory Circus: an underground memorial hall is dappled with soft amber light from above.
Sipping your way around the city
Want to knock back vodka? You won’t be disappointed by Minsk’s local spirits, from innocent-looking Minsk Kristall vodka to local Balsam – which gives as morbid a hangover as this tarry brown liquid forbodes. Minsk is also a haven for hop-heads. Settle in to U Ratushi for light and dark brews plus live music, or line your stomach with rustic cuisine at Rakovsky Brovar brewery-restaurant. If your tastebuds are pointing west, enjoy the Belgian flavour of Gambrinus (gambrinus.relax.by) or nine Bavarian brews on tap to wash down bratwurst at BierKeller (bierkeller.relax.by).
Sleeping in a converted monastery
No need to take religious vows to bed down in this historic building. Manastyrski Hotel, with elaborate iron chandeliers casting shadows along every corridor, is as atmospheric as it gets. This charming hotel within a converted monastery is right in the middle of Minsk’s Old Town, and retains all the Gothic trimmings of its spiritual past. But instead of rising at dawn and spending your days in sombre contemplation, you can test out the sauna and bar-hop the lively Old Town. Living like a monk never felt so decadent.
A world-class war museum
From the moment you see Belarus’ Museum of the Great Patriotic War, the building alone will intrigue you. A burnished dome seems to emerge from the ground, surrounded by angular mirrored shards. Inside, the museum experience is immersive, with vast dioramas of scorched earth and rubble to evoke wartime Minsk. Stories of partisan soldiers are told in a series of wooden shelters, just like the ones built by forest-dwelling Belarussian soldiers. Biplanes and tanks are amassed in a huge atrium. Between the Molotov cocktails and glaring propaganda posters there’s fascinating detail on the human stories: families torn apart and acts of astonishing bravery that won’t fail to leave you gripped. The Hall of Victory, flooded with light, is a fittingly dramatic finish.
Bird’s-eye views from a space-age library
The 23rd floor of the National Library of Belarus has the best aerial view over the city’s ever-changing skyline. Lines of tower blocks extend into the distance, huge Soviet murals adorn buildings, and a forest of cranes busily shape central Minsk: it’s a captivating view, if not a classically beautiful one. But it’s the library building itself that seizes the imagination. This modernist marvel looks like a cut diamond – if the diamond were rendered in Soviet slate grey and balanced on a mirrored UFO. As an architectural creation, it’s divisive but unforgettable. As a bonus, you’ll find one of the city’s best coffee stops, Graf Café, at the top.
It’s an assassin’s former home city
Minsk affords a glimpse into a rather unexpected chapter of history: the assassination of JFK. Lee Harvey Oswald declared that he was renouncing his American citizenship before making his way to settle down in Minsk; visitors can see his former apartment on vul Kamyunistychnaya 4. Minsk was Oswald’s home for years before he begged for the return of his American passport, returned to the US and on a fateful day in 1963 changed the course of American history...
Rustic local cuisine
Visit a traditional Belarussian restaurant and you’ll wonder how locals stay so svelte. Pancakes dipped in rich pork broth (machanka), dumplings and solyanka soup are staples of Belarus’ button-popping cuisine. While local palates increasingly look west, with French cafes and Italian pizzerias dotted across the city, wear your stretchy pants for at least one Belarussian feast. The bare-brick walls, stained glass and traditional embroidery at Kamyanitsa restaurant (kamyanitsa.by) are the perfect backdrop. Try draniki (potato pancakes), herring-stuffed tomatoes and slabs of grilled pork, ideally between sips of the excellent homemade honey and horseradish liqueurs.
If ever a craft made much of scant source materials, it’s Belarussian straw weaving. Before you raise an eyebrow at swapping your roubles for straw, fix your eyes on Belarus’ elaborately woven Christmas decorations, baskets and sculptures. If you don’t think these delicate items will survive the journey home, brightly painted matryoshka (Russian dolls) and some frankly bizarre Soviet kitsch (Stalin fridge magnet, anyone?) are sure to sate your urge to shop. Minsk’s Stolitsa underground mall is full of excellent handicrafts stalls.
It’s surprisingly easy to visit
‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ isn’t a fortress hidden behind endless paperwork, nor is it hard to navigate for visitors. Once you’re in, you’ll find English signs across the efficient metro system and at tourist sites. The war museum has extensive English explanations, and most restaurants have an English-language menu. From mid-February 2017, citizens of 80 countries can travel to Minsk airport visa-free for stays of up to five days. For longer stays or if travelling by train, you do need a visa – check the requirements on Belarus’ official website (belarus.by). Reserve accommodation and request a booking confirmation on headed notepaper to submit it with your visa application. When you crane your neck at Minsk’s architecture, glug cellar-room beers or cruise the museums, you’ll be glad you made the effort.