Visit Belarus visa-free
Belarus has long-time been considered as a closed hostile country. Since regaining its independence in 1991, Belarusian state has been constantly improving tourist facilities in order to raise country’s attractiveness. The tedious visa procedures can now be forgotten. As from 2018, Belarus has introduced a 30-day visa-free stay for foreign visitors. More than 80 countries qualify to that procedure. The only condition is to arrive to and depart from the Minsk International Airport except for flights departing to and from Russian airports. Another way to enter Belarus without a visa is to pass through the so called “Brest-Grodno” territory, this time for the duration of stay until 15 days. Entry is possible through several checkpoints and by other means of transport like train or car as opposed to arrival through Minsk that is only permitted by air. Prior to travel, visitors must obtain an appropriate document issued by a local travel agency registered in Belarus.
Belarus invites with its rich historical heritage, Soviet architecture, welcoming people and relatively cheap prices. Since most of the major cities, like Minsk, Grodno or Vitebsk have been almost thoroughly damaged during the World War II, it is interesting to learn how the country managed to rebuild itself in a remarkable way. Belarus has been occupied for centuries. In the 16th century it has become a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Later between 17th and 18th century, the country became the part of the Russian Empire and remained so until the 20th century. Later on, the Red Army proclaimed the creation of Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic in the beginning of 1919. In 1941, Belarus was occupied by Germans and entered into several years of war that caused a lot of damage and suffering. In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened, that left a part of the land contaminated, resulting in an Exclusion Zone in the south-eastern part up to the present day. Independence was finally claimed in 1991 with the fall of Communism.
Itinerary suggestion for one week
Day 1: If you arrive through Minsk, spend at least one full day here. Stroll through the wide avenues like the Indepence Avenue to explore the imposing Soviet architecture and taste some traditional food from the wide choice of restaurants.
Day 2: Visit Mir and Niasviz Castles, both classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Situated around an hour drive from Minsk, the visit can be combined together as the castles are around 30km one from another.
Day 3: Consider going to Vitebsk where you will most possibly have the whole afternoon to visit this picturesque city.
Day 4: You will only need a couple of hours to take a tour of Polotsk, the second town of Vitebsk region.
Day 5: On the way to the west of the country, stop by Lake Narach, the biggest lake of Belarus and discover its surroundings by bike.
Day 6: Discover Grodno (or Hrodna), a small city at the Polish border.
Day 7: Spend the last day in Brest, famous for its impressive Brest Fortress featuring the huge stone soldier Valour.
If you have limited time in Belarus and are not driving, you can also choose to stay 1 or 2 days in Minsk, take an excursion from there to visit Mir and Niasviz Castles and take a round trip to Brest by train. It is quite convenient and cheap to take a train in Belarus. For instance, an express business-class train from Minsk to Brest will take around 3 hours one way. You can check the timetable to any destination and browse for tickets on this website: https://pass.rw.by/en/?c=true
The capital of Belarus, Minsk offers a twist of modernity with its fine restaurants and cafes and of the imposing Stalinian architecture. Most of the Soviet buildings are situated on the Independence Avenue such as the Palace of the Republic on October Square or KGB Headquarters. Some other interesting architecture can be seen beyond the main avenue which include a spectacular Soviet bas-relief above the KFC restaurant or the Red Army tank next to the Army Palace. There is also a small Old Town situated on a hill. The city counts several green spaces, one of the most popular parcs is the Gorky Park. You can take a ride there on the Observation Wheel that offers a nice view of the city. Not far from Gorky Park, Belarusian State Circus is an impressive building with entertaining shows which are a mixture of figure skating and circus. If you are looking for some traditional mouthwatering food, you should go to Kuhmistr restaurant, situated a few meters from the Tank Monument.
You can opt for a guided walking tour in Minsk with a local so you will not miss out on things. You can choose from one of the following excursions:
2. Mir Castle Complex
The Mir Castle (Mirsky Zamok) is an impressive complex from the 16th century classified as UNESCO World Heritage Site, located 90km south-west of Minsk. It used to serve as the residence of the Radziwill family, a powerful magnate family originating from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. The interior has been restored after the war and was transformed into a museum. The area around the castle is picturesque. The other side of the artificial lake offers a splendid view on the castle. Around the town square, there are two cute churches, an orthodox one and a Roman catholic one.
3. Niasviz Castle
Another royal residence of the Radziwill’s, the visit to Niasviz Castle can be combined with the Mir Castle since they are situated 30 km one from another. Like the Mir Castle, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. People come to this castle to learn about its history through a museum audio-guided tour. Belarussian families like coming here for a stroll on sunny days to enjoy its bucolic surroundings.
If you do not have a car, then the best way to visit the Mir and Niasviz Castles is to get a round-trip transportation with a pick-up at your hotel. It covers both castles on a day trip:
Today Vitebsk is a charming and vibrant city and its difficult to imagine that it was almost completely destroyed during the WWII. The landmark of Vitebsk is its magnificent Annunciantion Church dating from the 12th century and reconstructed after the War. The other prominent church is the Holy Resurrection Church on Suvorova street in the Old Town. There is also a museum dedicated to the Belarusian painter Marc Chagall.
Polotsk does not have any particular charm. If you are visiting Vitebsk however, you should stop by Polotsk to take a quick tour. Climb up the hill to the Saint Sophia Cathedral. There is also a monument on the town square dedicated to the Belarusian alphabet letter “Ў”.
6. Lake Narach
Belarus is famous for its natural landscape with thousands of lakes. Lake Narach is the largest lake of Belarus surrounded with pine forest. The best way to visit the area is to rent a bike or a boat for a day. When renting a bike, do not forget to check if the tyres are in a good condition. It turned out we had a flat tyre after several dozen of km of cycling in the middle of nature. We hitchhiked to get back to town, but imagine two people with two bikes, it would be a miracle to see a van crossing. Finally, a Belarusian driver stopped with his big car and even demounted the bikes so that they could fit! Sooo cool of him 🙂
The region is also famous for its health centres and sanatoriums. Most of them were built in the 60’s tough and Belarusian state has been trying hard to modernize them. Therefore, Lake Narach is not a hype destination with 5-star spa resorts.
7. Grodno (Hrodna)
Situated at the Polish and Lithuanian borders, Grodno is at the crossroads of various Eastern-European cultures. The landmarks of the city are the Old and New Castles that served as a summer residence of Polish-Lithuanian monarchs. Moreover, the Pakrouskaya Orthodox Church is a beautiful orthodox church with pink facade. Opposite the Lenin Square, stop by the small but picturesque Park Zhilibera featuring the “Love lock bridge”.
The last spot to see on a road trip is Brest in Belarus (not Brest in Brittany in France!). It is famous for its Brest Fortress with its massive rock statue called Valour representing the soldier’s head next to a 100-meter-high obelisk. According to the Lonely Planet, CNN once put it on a list of the world’s ugliest monuments; you will either strongly agree or strongly disagree. I think that the statue is impressive! What do you think?
The Fortress was recognized by the Soviet Union as the Hero Fortress in 1965 in honour of its defense in June 1941 when the Germans attacked the city. Some other attractions in Brest include the St Nicholas Curch, a charming yellow church with blue cupolas decorated with golden stars. Ther main pedestrian street Sovetskaya has some cosy cafes, restaurants, and shops.
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