Polotsk (Полоцк Polotsk in Russian, Полацк Polack in Belarusian) is a city in Belarus, in Vitebsk Oblast. First mentioned in 862, it is the oldest city in Belarus. Now it is a city of local importance with 82000 inhabitants and with considerable architectural heritage from the times of old Rus as well as from the later periods.
Polotsk is Belarus' oldest city. Once the capital of the powerful Principality of Polotsk, arguably the earliest incarnation of the modern Belarusian state, the city is now home to a some 82 thousand people and a significant regional centre.
The exact foundation date of Polotsk is unknown. The chronicles mention it as early as 862, though it may well have existed significantly before that (it may also have been founded later, as the first written records date from the 12th century and frequently blur fact and legend). At that time eastern Europe was a sparsely populated region of impenetrable forests and marshes, yet its extensive rivers, connecting the Vikings in the north with Constantinople and Asia in the south, gave the region great economic potential, and Polotsk, sat high on the banks of the Dvina River, was no exception. Viking settlers, led by a semi-legendary chieftain by the name of Rurik, took an interest in the area and established the first recorded state at Novgorod 862. Other city-states followed, unified under the Grand Prince of Kiev, the highest ruler of what became known as Kievan Rus' (Русь - the name survives in modern Russia and Belarus, literally "White Rus'"). Though technically all the Rus' principalities were subordinate to Kiev, the Principality of Polotsk - whose territory included much of modern Belarus - existed largely outside the dynastic infighting and fratricide that characterised the politics of Rus', and as a result enjoyed relative stability and prosperity as a result.
Vladimir the Great, prince of Novgorod, recognised the importance of Polotsk and sought an alliance with Prince Rogvolod of Polotsk, asking for the hand of his daughter, Rogneda, though she was promised to the Grand Prince of Kiev, Vladimir's elder half-brother Yaropolk. Vladimir, however, was not inclined to accept second place. He wrested the Kievan throne from Rogneda's betrothed in 977, and claimed his other prize, Rogneda herself, in the same year, after attacking Polotsk and killing Rogneda's parents (though not before raping her before their eyes). Rogneda's fortunes fell further when Vladimir converted to Orthodox Christianity three years later and promptly married into the Byzantine royal family in the new Christian tradition. Vladimir's son by Rogneda, one Isiaslav, was made Prince of Polotsk, and Rogneda was sent to rule with him, to the land of her murdered parents.
From these unhappy beginnings, however, began the golden age of Polotsk under Isiaslav and his descendents. Polotsk's power reached its peak under the rule of Vseslav, Isiaslav's grandson (whose statue stands on the corner of October Street and Euphrosyne of Polotsk Street (Кастрынічная вуліца / Вуліца Еўфрасінні Полацкай)). Nicknamed 'the Sorcerer', he is said to have patroled his dominion by night taking the form of wild animals. He successfully asserted Polotsk's dominance over neighbouring Pskov and Novgorod and even held the coveted throne of Kiev for a short time in 1068. He oversaw the construction of the St. Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk. Modelled on the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, it was one of only three cathedrals in Rus' named for the Holy Wisdom of God, the others being in Kiev and Novgorod, and its construction (incorporating the bell pillaged from St. Sophia of Novgorod itself) cemented Polotsk's status among the elite Rus' principalities.
From 1240 Polotsk was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and its successor, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, before becoming a part of the Russian Empire. Belarus briefly declared independence in 1918 before becoming a constituent republic of the Soviet Union until 1991.
The easiest place to fly to is the capital, Minsk. From there you can easily get to Polack by road or train. As well you can fly to Vilnius or Riga and then travel to the city by bus.
Polack is a fairly important railway centre. There are regular direct trains from Minsk and from Viciebsk. In principle there are also direct trains from Vilnius, Riga, and other Belarusian cities, but these can be less frequent and sometimes only on alternate days. However if you can't find the train you want, consider changing at Viciebsk or at Minsk, to which trains from other cities are more frequent. Train tickets can be purchased online on the Belarusian Railway website  (use the correct name Polack in the English version of the booking search). Unless advised otherwse, e-tickets will be issued; to get on the train, passangers are required to present the passport (or any other ID) used for booking.
The train station in Polack is to the north of the centre, on Kastryčnickaja Street. To get to the centre of town and the Dvina hotel, simply come out of the station, cross over the main road and continue straight (along Hohalia Street (ulica Gogolia) to the fountain; the hotel will be on your right just as you get to it. To get to the Parus hotel continue all the way to the end of Hohal Street and then turn left.
Bus is the quickest way to get to Polack from nearby cities like Minsk or Viciebsk (though more expensive than the trains). Bus tickets can be bought from the bus station, and they don't sell out in advance so you can buy them on the day of departure. There are also inter-city minibuses known as a маршрутка (marshrutka), and the Polack-Minsk route is particularly frequent (the journey takes 3 hours). Seats on these need to be reserved by phone. The bus station in Polack is next to the train station, when getting off the bus, continue straight (in the direction the bus had come from) and you will reach some traffic lights where the train station is on your right. Then follow the directions as above to get to the centre of town.
Bear in mind that driving in Belarus can be more difficult than in the west as drivers can be fairly reckless.
If you're driving from Minsk, follow the M3 towards Viciebsk until just after Liepieĺ, and then the R46 (Р46 in cyrillic) to Polack. For the centre of town, take the first exit at the big roundabout just after entering Polack and cross the bridge over the River Dzvina. For the centre of town, take the first left down the dual carriageway. For the Parus hotel, take the first left after this and it'll be right in front of you; for the Dvina hotel, carry on straight until you get to the fountain, where it will be on your right.
From Viciebsk, follow the R20 the all the way. Take a left onto the R24 just before you reach Polack and continue all the way along this road and cross the Red Bridge over the River Palata. At the end, take a right and then first left, following the one-way system round the square. This is the main road and will take you to the centre of town. The Dvina hotel will be on your left as you pass the fountain. Continue past it and turn around at the next crossroads to be on the right side of the road. To get to the Parus hotel turn right at the same crossroads and it will be in front of you.
Local guide Larisa Yatskevich (contact) offers excellent English-language walking tours of Polotsk. Credit for much of the 'Understand' section of this guide is due to her.