You might not know a lot about Belarus, and you shouldn’t even be blamed for that. The main reason why the country is a blank spot on the map for many foreigners, is probably the Belarussian president, Alexander Lukashenko, oftentimes called “Europe’s last dictator.” Very strong visa barriers kept a lot of tourists from visiting the pristine nature and rich wildlife of Belarus. In 2013 for example, twenty-one times fewer tourists visited Belarus compared to the tiny neighboring country of Estonia.
But that might soon change. In an effort to improve ties with the rest of Europe and trying to boost the country’s struggling economy, president Lukashenko kicked off 2017 by signing a decree that enables citizens of 80 countries to travel to Belarus visa-free for five days, as long as you enter via the Minsk National Airport. While the rules aren’t fully stated, it appears that even arrival and departure days are counted towards the 5-day limit.
The country’s hidden gems suddenly become accessible for citizens of every European country, as well as Brazil, Indonesia, the United States, Japan, and a handful of other developed economies from all over the world, as well as some major developing nations.
Which hidden gems, you ask?
Since you’ll be arriving in the country’s capital, you might as well immediately go out and explore! It is a large city, and its surface could fit Manhattan almost five times over, so you’ll have to be selective if you don’t want to spend your entire five days in the city.
Kick off your visit with a stroll through the clean and calm Gorky Park. Get a coffee at one of the shops inside the park, ride the Ferris Wheel (the country’s largest) and dream away on the banks of the Svisloch river. When you had your fill, it’s just a 15-minute walk to the National Academic Big Opera and Ballet Theatre (a.k.a. Bolshoi Theatre of Belarus), one of the capital’s most fascinating buildings. As TravelGuideMinsk states: “the magnificent interior and exterior of the theater complemented with high-class performances leave no one indifferent.”
Also worth a visit, just a stone’s throw to the west, is the capital’s Trinity Suburb, or Troitskoye Predmestye. This small set of streets show how Minsk looked like more than four centuries ago—very cozy. Also very nearby is the touching Island of Tears, a man-made island that was erected in 1988 in commemoration of Belorussian soldiers who died in Afganistan.
After all that sightseeing, you’ll probably be hungry. Travelers should always follow the “go local or go home” motto, so why not go to the biggest local market in the republic? At the Komarovsky Market, a 25-minute walk north, you can buy any of the many local pastries, kebabs, fruits, vegetables, meats and fish.
They don’t call the Volkovysk chalkpits the “Belarusian Maldives” for nothing. The brightly colored waters combined with the white chalk shores and nearby forests are actually a consequence from the country’s mining history. It’s a must-see about 270 southwest kilometers from Minsk, but you’ll have to be very careful, since there’s no infrastructure to discover the pits. But the risk is certainly worth taking.
Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park
In the same corner of the country, bordering with Poland, is the UNESCO preserved World Heritage Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park. Its 350,605.47 acres are well known for some of Europe’s most ancient trees. Because of its age and its gigantic size, it’s also no surprise the park houses more than 250 animal and bird species, the European bison being the most famous one. But on a rainy or cold day, you can always visit the park’s zoo, library or museum.
Equally unknown as Belarus itself, is the country’s war history. During World War II, no less than one in four (some even say one in three) Belorussians died—that’s almost 30 % of its pre-war population!—because of the country’s unfortunate geographical location. When the war was over, several war memorial sites were constructed. You’ll find the country’s most majestic ones in Brest’s “Hero-Fortress.”
These concrete Soviet-era war memorials, some up to 100 ft. tall, were constructed to commemorate the known and unknown defenders of the Brest Fortress during a huge invasion that took place during Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. On the southern island of the Hero-Fortress, you can pay a visit to the Berestye Archaeological Museum. Elsewhere in the city, you can also go to the first Belorussian outdoor railway museum, the 100 years old Brest City Park, or go to shopping in Brest’s famous Sovetskaya Street.
When you’re traveling back inland, be sure to halt at the 16th century Mir Castle—also a UNESCO World Heritage. It’s an outstanding example of the fortification art of the 1500s, successfully blending Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. During World War II, it was used as a ghetto for local Jews, but now it houses a subsidiary of the National Art Museum.
Just a half an hour drive to the east, you’ll find the Nesvizh Palace. Many Belarusians think it’s their country’s most beautiful palace, with its richly diverse architecture and beautifully landscaped gardens. Thousands of people already were strolling around the ornamental lakes every year, and now many foreigners can do the same. Unsurprisingly, it also made it to UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
Braslav Lakes National Park
Back in the Ice Age, most of the northwest of Belarus was covered with an enormous glacier. As it melted away, it left behind an unusual landscapes, with hundreds of lakes in the most sophisticated forms, with bluff-lined banks, numerous peninsulas, bays and gulfs. Fishermen and their families lived on the big islands until the 1940s, but tourists gradually took over this unusual beautiful area now called “the blue necklace” of Belarus. Nowhere in the world will you find a more perfect place for a relaxing day of hiking, swimming, kayaking, fishing or epic sunset photo shoots.
With these newly relaxed tourism restrictions in Belarus, there is no better time than now to visit this beautiful Eastern European country. Have you been? Let us know what else there is to do in the comments.
* See many more pictures from Belarus by Marc Veraart on his Flickr-page.
** See many more pictures from Belarus by Marco Fieber on his Flickr-page.
*** See many more pictures from Belarus by Alexxx Malev on his Flickr-page.