Located in Eastern Europe, Belarus is bordered by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia and Ukraine. Formerly known as White Russia, it gained independence in 1991. Despite being internationally isolated (this is the only country still using the KGB), nature-lovers and culture enthusiasts will be overwhelmed by charming 12th century villages, historic landmarks, folktale sceneries and countless lakes. Exploring its deep forests, courageous travelers might be confronted with elks, lynx, bears, wolves or even have to hide from a European bison.
The Belarusians love their potato dishes, baked meat, mushrooms and soups. Pork sausages and draniki (potato pancakes), kolduni (stuffed potato dumplings) and kotleti (pork cutlets), or fresh fish are favorites served with a salad similar to American chicken or potato salads. A few shots of the regional samagon (moonshine) serve as a digestive – make sure somebody else is driving back! A tip of 10 per cent is sufficient, but don’t forget that tipping in Belarus is against the law. In order to avoid ‘Montezuma’s revenge’, follow the simple rule: peel it, boil it, or forget it.
When to Go
Cool and moist summers, cold winters; in-between continental and maritime.
In summer, temperatures lie between 60°F and 80°F, fall is rainy, and winter (October up to May) makes you shiver at 32°F to 5°F, occasionally down to -22°F!
Getting There & Away
It can become quite a hassle to get to Belarus, so this is more a place for adventurous travelers. Minsk-2 International Airport is located 25 miles east of Minsk. Due to fuel limitations, only a small number of domestic flights get up into the air. Trains connecting the big cities are rather cheap; buses are often jammed and neglected by the cleaning personnel. Driving in Belarus is challenging because of poor road conditions, restrictions to fuel and spare parts, and annoying recurrent traffic police checks.
Health & Safety
Despite the after-effects of the atomic energy disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, food is regarded as safe except in certain banned areas. When taking part in a street demonstration, you will be arrested within minutes and kept in custody for up to 24 days, and to deal with the KGB might not contribute to the joy of traveling. Nyet! Do not take pictures of government or military installations. Medical insurance cover is obligatory for your stay in Belarus. Abstain from drinking tap water; its chemical contents may even lead to skin rashes.
Three days in Minsk
Daytrip to Dudutki
Two days in Hrodna
Two days in Vitsyebsk
A day at Brest Fortress
A week along the shores of Narac Lake
Minsk: a mind-blowing experience. Apparently a European capital, this is the place to visit if you intend to see the Soviet Union still alive. You can shake a sickle at numerous colossal, Soviet-bloc style buildings that dominate most of the city. Don’t miss a ride on the underground; each subway station is decorated individually.
Dudutki: if you have only time for a one-day tour from Minsk, this dusty, sleepy village should be it. Visit the open-air museum and watch the Belarusian country life of the 19th century. Stroll around, climb an operating windmill, detect a 100-year-old working farm, admire the traditional crafts in ancient wood-and-hay huts, or go horseback riding.
Hrodna: 175 miles west of Minsk; doubtlessly the most pictorial city of Belarus. It has plenty of undamaged ancient buildings having endured WWII better than anywhere else.
Vitsyebsk: Marc Chagall’s birthplace and often named the cultural capital of Belarus, this city is also well-known for special performances by the worldwide successful National Academic Dramatic Theater. In November, the International Festival of Modern Choreography hosts dance companies from all over the world and the ‘Slaviansky Bazaar’, a gigantic Slavic music festival, takes place in a spectacular amphitheater.
Brest Fortress: the main Soviet WWII memorial shows all that was right and wrong with the Soviet Union. You can learn about the misery of the beleaguered forces and the battles between attacking Germans and defensive Soviets.
Narac Lake: the biggest of the tens of thousands of lakes in Belarus. Here you can relax from all the hustle and bustle and go fishing with the locals in a beautiful environment. Other gorgeous lakes include the Braslay lakes (155 miles north of Minsk) and Selyava Lake near Borisov (62 miles northeast).
Cultural sightseeing: with a historical heritage dating back to the 12th century, Belarus has plenty to offer culture-lovers.
Natural sightseeing: whether you want to go fishing at one of the thousands of lakes or study the (sometimes unexpected) wildlife in the numerous woods – unspoiled environment is all around you.
Shopping: in general, the quality of local goods is considerably low, but you can buy really cheap wool and linen clothes. Ladies should bear the ‘Milavitsa’ brand in mind, famous for women’s top underwear across the ex-USSR, which is of good quality and inexpensive so fill up your cabinets! Vodka, distilled by the Brest spirit factory, is almost certainly the number one in the world and easily puts Absolut, Smirnoff and Stolichnaya to shame.
Eating: long-established recipes and techniques, together with homemade bread and cheeses provide a mouthwatering experience.