It's still snowing in Finland and seems like the summer is months away but if we ignore the ice age that is happening outside we can say that the summer season is near. This means that students like me are working on the final assignments and completing the courses. I and my class have been working on a project for a Scandic hotel chain this whole school year and we had the final presentation in Helsinki a couple weeks ago.
We had a nice terrace space booked for us to celebrate a successful project. After a couple of cold drinks, we started to joke around about a weekend getaway. A friend of mine who had a birthday coming up on the following weekend told that there was a good flight deal for Belarus for the following day.
'' Let's go to Belarus ''. Well, sold! He didn't really need to convince me or our other friend.
We just instantly decided to do it. -- But wait, what about the visa? --
Well, turns out that Belarus has decided to allow visa-free travel for the European Union citizens who are flying through Minsk airport, for 5 days in order to boost the tourism and to move towards the rest of the Europe.
The next afternoon we jumped on a plane to Belarus. I did not have any idea of the currency or basically anything at all. We had not booked any accommodation so we were lucky that we could stay with a friend of our friend's sister. Later we found out that the hotels in Minsk are rather expensive and there are only a couple hostels, which were overbooked. So make sure to book your accommodation well beforehand if you are tight on budget.
We flew with Belavia, the flight took only a bit over an hour and the service was surprisingly good. Despite the fact that the flight was only about an hour long, we got a decent sandwiches and cup of coffee/tea. Once we landed in the Minsk airport, all I saw was green fields and a strange ufo-looking airport. Where on earth had I arrived in?
The border control went quickly without any hassle, they were asking about my travel insurance but that's all. Once we were in the country we took a bus to the main train station where we met our host, Dara.
The first impression of the country was: It's so CLEAN and SPACIOUS. Everything was in order, no rubbish in sight nor crowds. It certainly didn't have this typical busy capital atmosphere. To be honest, I had no expectations whatsoever and I went there with an open mind and got surprised positively. I had the impression that there was not much to do or see in Minsk, but a weekend we spent there wasn't really enough to see the main attractions.
The atmosphere was quite exciting as the city was preparing for a big celebration which took place on 9th of May. This day is called Victory Day which is celebrated in former Soviet countries which is held to celebrate the victory of Soviet Union over Nazis in the second world war. The whole city was decorated with Belarusian flags and posters! I wish I had known, so I could have stayed to see the parade and the celebrations.
The local people seemed a bit reserved, which is understandable as they are not used to seeing tourists (other than Russian speaking) too often as the visa has been quite hard and expensive to obtain. The locals hardly speak any English so the communication was a bit hard, but after all, we managed pretty well. If you ever travel to Belarus, I suggest learning at least some basic phrases in Russian!
Moving around in Minsk is easy! They have a nice underground that works well and is very inexpensive. The easiest way to purchase a ticket is to go to a ticket window and buy a violet plastic coin that you'll have to drop to the machine to enter the metros. There are also buses and trams but we didn't really need to use those.
When it comes to eating, it's rather cheap. However, we found it a bit difficult to find a place where to eat. I'd suggest eating somewhere a bit outside of the centre to have better meals and prices.
Minsk is definitely not a place to go shopping. There are not many international brands presented there, only a few. Also, it was rather hard to even buy postcards as there were no souvenir shops. For souvenirs head to the old town where there are a few little stands that sell some magnets, keychains and matryoshka dolls.
It almost felt like the time had stopped, the Soviet influence was very visible but then again, the city was functional and had everything that a modern person would need. However, from time to time, I really felt I had stepped on a time machine back to the Soviet times as I could still see the red flags waving in the wind and when standing in front of a huge grey building and a gigantic statue of Lenin, I swear I got a bit confused.
I'd highly recommend visiting Minsk and Belarus if you are looking for a unique and different experience. It is certainly not a typical European destination and you will not find any significant attractions, but the atmosphere is worth the experience. Those who are interested in history and still want to witness the Soviet Union influence, Minsk is a perfect place to do that.
Stay tuned for the post about 10 best things to do in Minsk!