Difference between revisions of "Minsk"
Revision as of 01:00, 12 February 2013
Minsk  is the capital and biggest city of Belarus. It is situated on the Svislach and Niamiha rivers. From 1919-1991 it was the capital of the Former Byelorussian SSR. It is also the capital of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
The city was 80% destroyed during World War II and as such was rebuilt in the 1950s to the liking of Stalin. Large Soviet-Bloc style buildings make up a large portion of the city. For this reason Minsk is a wonderful place to visit for those interested in the Soviet Union and are interested in seeing it almost alive.
English is rarely spoken, and tourism is not a priority in Minsk. It would be wise to learn some key phrases in Russian (which is the default language, but Belarusian may also be spoken or understood).
After passing the customs (first comes the Visa Office on the second floor, second - passports control, third - customs control), you find yourself in one of the dim arrival halls on the ground level. Each of the two halls offers a currency exchange booth (only one of them functions - the one at sector 5-6, 24/7 but with lots of stupid "technical breaks"), a newspaper kiosk sector 5-6, 3rd floor, and lots of private taxi drivers. ATMs are few and badly marked, but they do help in avoiding the queues at the exchange booths. Car rentals (Sixt and Europcar) are located at the sector 5-6, on the far left. Departure hall on the third floor is more bright and comfortable, with a 24/7 restaurant and few other place to eat (open 9—21) as well as a small souvenir shop and a bank office.
Upon departure, you have to go through a very slow security control before you are allowed to check-in. The area behind the check-in features several duty-free shops and pricey bars with limited choice of snacks. The whole terminal is covered by decent wireless internet from Beletelecom, but you have to purchase an access card (very cheap, though) at their office or at the newspaper kiosk in the departure hall (before check-in).
Getting to the city by public transport is a tough job. The airport is served by regular buses that run every 45-60 minutes from Moskovsky or Vostochny bus terminals. The bus stop is well hidden so that many passengers do not even know about them. In the arrival hall, you won't find a single sign indicating the buses, but don't be confused: the bus stop does exist! It is next to the terminal, close to the exits 3-4, and designated by a small plate with the timetable written in Russian. The buses are punctual, and bring you to the city in 30 min for 5000 rubles. Tickets are purchased from the driver. You can go to any of the bus terminals, but it is advisable to get off at the subway station Uruchye and continue to the city center by subway (as most people do). On the way back to the airport, leave the subway station through the front exit, turn right, and find the outermost bus stop. There is again a small, well-hidden plate with a timetable. The schedule is also available on-line  (type НАЦ АЭРОПОРТ МИНСК in the search form). Alternatively, travel to Moscovskaya Metro Station, walk forward for 500 meters and turn right to arrive at Moscovsky Bus Station.
Unless you are prepared to a strenuous search for the bus, taxi is the only option. There is no official taxi service, yet private drivers abound. The ride to the city center should not cost more than €25—30, and bargaining is recommended. If you prefer official service, call a taxi from any company in the city and pay the same price. To reach the airport by car, leave the city by Nezavisimosti Avenue and follow the M2 highway.
Flight connections to Minsk are somewhat scarce. Belavia operates regular flights to Moscow (6 times a day), Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad (1-2 flights a day) as well as Tbilisi, Prague, Kiev, and Riga. It also has flights to major European airports, but none of these destinations are served on an everyday basis. Alternatively, you can fly to Minsk with Aeroflot (Moscow, twice a day), Lufthansa (Frankfurt, 1-2 times a day), Austrian Airlines (Vienna, twice a day), LOT (Warsaw, once a day), and Aerosvit (Kiev, once a day). Although low-cost airlines do not serve Minsk, most of the available carriers offer cheap tickets every now and then. If you are unable to find a cheap ticket or a suitable connection, consider flying to Vilnius, Moscow, or Warsaw and traveling to Minsk by train. However, the overland travel may require an additional visa and generally causes more bother than the arrival by plane.
Minsk-1  is an old airport in the very center of the city. The airfield is still in operation and, until recently, was used for domestic flights. As of April 2011, these flights are canceled with a faint chance of resumption. Unless the airport is permanently closed, it might be interesting to visit the terminal building, a fine example of Stalinist architecture, and watch small airplanes scattered around the airfield.
The width of the train tracks is different in Poland and in Belarus, so if you choose to arrive by train please be prepared for long wheel changing. However, if you are arriving from say, Kiev, Moscow, or Lviv (Lvov) you need not worry about this. Plus as an added bonus, the prices are substantially cheaper from CIS countries.
There is almost always a daily train leaving from Lichtenberg station. It leaves at 13:49 and arrives the next morning at 9:30 or so. Note: This is the train en route to Russia.
There is always a daily train leaving Tsentralnyi Vokzal (Central Station) station (at the eponymous metro stop in Kiev). It leaves Kiev at 18:22 and arrives the next morning at around 06:00. A 4 person berth should cost around 47 USD.
From Minsk, train #86 leaves at 20:51, and arrives in Kiev the next morning at around 09:00. A 4 person berth should cost about 47 USD.
The trip is about 10 hours. There is one train a day that departs from Central Station at 20:35 which arrives in Minsk around 8:00.
From Vilnius, Lithuania, the train takes about 2.5-3 hours. You will be given a card with two sides to fill out, and the guards at the Belarussian border keep one. You need to keep the other one for your hotel to stamp, and give it back to the guards when you leave Minsk. There are two stops. You should have your insurance and invitation letter (if you're a tourist) out to show the guards. The train from Vilnius is pretty cheap: around €15-20 one way if bought in Lithuania. Also quite comfortable. Check schedules at 
There are also trains from Prague and other European cities.
Overnight train leaves Moscow about 23:30 and arrives Minsk about 06:30. No stop at the border for passport checks, so a good nights sleep in the 2 berth cabins.
There are several bus routes from Vilnius central bus station to "Avtovokzal Vostochniy" bus station in Minsk. The Minsk bus station is not very close to downtown, however you can have a taxi ride with 10 000 rubles (less than €4). The bus also drops passengers off outside the railway station (look out for two Stalinist towers) in the centre of Minsk before proceeding to the Vostochniy (Eastern) station. The bus service takes up to 5 hours and costs around 36 litas (be prepared to spend more than 1.5 hours at the border). Due to the bad quality of the train service, bus ride should be preferred.
Driving in, while possible, requires knowledge of the border system. This is a border of European Union, so control is very strict. Crossing it can take 2 hours. They may check your bags. Without knowledge of Russian, Belarusian or Polish, this can be very hard. There is a very long line of cars at every border crossing. However, if you have passport, VISA and car registration papers prepared, act honest and helpful and arrives as a tourist in a personal car the border crossing can go very smoothly and be over within 45 minutes.
Get around by using bus, tram, or subway or rent a car. First three are cheap and reliable. The subway is noted for being clean and safe. Additionally, each subway station is decorated uniquely. For instance, the station at Oktober Square is decorated in the theme of the Communist Revolution. The station at Victory square is decorated in a victory theme, and the Lenin Station includes a bust of Lenin and a host of hammer and sickle reliefs.
A panoramic English-language map of the centre of Minsk that shows every building individually is widely available from bookshops and kiosks for 5000 rubles. It also has a conventional map showing more of Minsk and some tourist information. It is worth buying a copy as early on in your visit as you can because it makes getting around on foot easy and fun.
The subway (Minsk Metro) is the most reliable transport system around Minsk. The Minsk subway consists of two lines crossing at the very city centre, the red line runs from the northeast to the southwest (currently being expended with three more stations) while the blue line runs from the the west to the southeast. Train depart every 3 min and are almost never late. You can buy tokens at a window inside the station. One ride costs 1500 rubles (as of April 2012), but if you speak no Russian, just give 3000 rubles and stick 2 fingers up. Make sure you hold on because it goes very fast. For those staying a week or longer, a 10-day or a 14-day pass may be a good option.
Taxis are cheap as well. You will notice 15 000 rubles will already be on the meter.
You may also rent a car to travel around the country. Rates depend on period of hire and start from $20 US a day. There are offices of Europcar, Avis, SIXT and other rental companies.
Regional trains from Central Station are also cheap. A trip from Minsk to Gomel (5 h) with a cabin for 4 cost 20000 rubles and almost never full.
Local goods are usually bad quality, but there are several things that are worth buying. Some wool and linen clothes - you can get very good stuff for little money. Linen in all forms is a special bargain. Typical is a woven patterned linen tablecloth, excellent quality, 150cm x 300cm (about 5 ft x 10 ft), for 34,280 Belarus rubles, approximately $16.25 US (10.30 euro, 8.25 GB pound) (as of May 2008). Womens housery "Milavitsa", is widely known across former USSR. This good quality, and cheap as well. Various types of cosmetics - firstly brand-name, are called "O2". Vodka produced by Brest spirit factory, is probably the best in the world. This easily outperforms Stolichnaya, Absolut and Smirnoff. Generally, the Minsk Airport has a very reliable duty free shop with rich choice of fragrances, spirits and souvenirs. There is no sense to get international brands- usually it costs 20-50% more than European average.
Belarussian cuisine is similar to that of the rest of Eastern Europe but particularly Russian and Ukrainian. Generally it features heavy-fat potato dishes, mushrooms, soups and baked meat.
The quality of Western European cuisine (Italian, French...) is not amazing. The average level of cafes and restaurants is low but there are several good places in the center of the city. The price of a meal at these places should cost between 20,000 and 40,000 rubles. The list of the restaurants -> 
A typical drink is "Kefir", which is a sort of sour milk, similar to yogurt.
"Krambambulya" is a traditional medieval alcohol drink which you can buy in most stores or order in a restaurant. It's a pretty strong drink but its taste is much softer than vodka.
Please note that a foreign guest must get registered with the local police department - Department for Citizenship and Migration within 5 business days. This means that you can arrive in Belarus on Tuesday and leave on Sunday without the registration stamp. Most hotels process the registration automatically upon check-in while many apartment rentals might be reluctant to provide registration. Check if the rental service offers registration service and at what price.
On the web you can find a lot of cheap offers to rent a flat. Average price is about 50 USD for the night. There is also a good rental service provided by  . They rent rooms in good quality in the center of Minsk. They also provide assistance for Visas.
You might receive a call to your hotel room late at night offering a "massage". To avoid being woken up it is worth unplugging your phone.
Minsk is a very safe and clean city especially compared to neighbouring capital cities like Kiev or Moscow. Unlike most Central and Eastern European cities, there are very few homeless and drunkards wandering the streets. Although locals might insist otherwise, Minsk is a city where you really must go out of your way to find trouble, even at night. If you are in need of assistance, there is a strong police presence in the city centre. However, their ability to speak English in most cases will be severely limited.
Be careful when photographing government buildings and the monument to Lenin at Independence Square. While you might be observed and kindly ushered away from the monument, photographing government buildings can lead to trouble with authorities and even arrest. Be mindful of what you are photographing.
While not seen as frequently as in Kiev, be aware of cars or delivery trucks moving on sidewalks. In some areas of Minsk parking is limited forcing drivers to manoeuvre and park their vehicles onto pedestrian lanes.