When Magisters announced the opening of a new office in Minsk, I became rather excited as I knew I would have an opportunity to travel to the city where I had spent a number of years of my childhood, but hadn’t been back in over 20 years. I was intrigued to see what had changed and eagerly anticipated to see the city and what surprises laid ahead…
The first revelation came as soon as I crossed the border – the roads resembled more a German autobahn rather than the pothole infested roads I was accustomed to in Russia and Ukraine. The quality of EU standard roads in Belarus is the envy of Slavic neighbours.
As I drove into Minsk I was stunned to see it unchanged – just the way I had left it in 1986. The same boulevards, the same buildings with new construction harmoniously fitting in with the old and many parks in the city centre. The city is tranquil, unhurried, with few people out on the streets.
The city was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War and no old buildings have remained except, miraculously, the Catholic cathedral in the heart of the capital built in the early twentieth century. This red-coloured edifice survived not only war but also the Soviet years of atheism and is surrounded by Stalinist architecture. It is also one of the few places in Minsk where you can hear the Belarusian language as Russian is the official State language and is widespread around the country.
Two things immediately meet the eye – the cleanliness of the city and the very large number of security police on the streets. Such a large police force made me feel uneasy especially on the thoroughfare the President drives through on his way to work. A word of advice – stay clear of the Prospekt Pobediteley at 11 AM – the time the President cortege whizzes by. The police dogs are at hand to keep order.
Soon you get used the vast presence of the police especially when you understand that Minsk has a crime level close to zero. I suppose everything has its benefits!
There are few cars driving around the streets. The locals consider a traffic jam if you haven’t passed two sets of green lights. The traffic police are uncompromising although the parking fines are relatively small – an equivalent of $5 US dollars.
The wide boulevards, visible police presence and Stalinist architecture bring back memories of Soviet times. Indeed, one could think that they travelled in a time machine back to the 80’s were it not for western brand shops and German sedans cars driving by.
Many of the hotels have changed little from Soviet days. However, there are two or three decent hotels with English speaking staff although slightly lacking a customer service approach. When choosing a hotel in Minsk – the 4 star Hotel Victoria should meet your requirements.
I am not a big connoisseur on nightclubs and therefore cannot advise on nightlife in Minsk. It seemed to me that people in Minsk go to bed very early – by 8PM the streets were almost empty.
But what I really do like is a great meal out, especially tasting local cuisine. And Belarus has some great dishes. Belarusians are unfairly stereotyped that they eat only potatoes. In addition to the many ways in which Belarusians cook potatoes, there are wonderful dishes made from fish, meat, mushrooms, etc. I would encourage you to visit the restaurants Talaka and Rakovski Brovar, with authentic dishes of Belarusian cuisine. These restaurants are very popular among visitors as well as locals, so book a table in advance. The service is a bit slow but the food is mouth-watering.
For a more Mediterranean menu, one of the best places to go is the 7 Roomsrestaurant, considered one of the most upmarket venues in Minsk with a stylish interior and good food.
When talking about food you notice the quality of Belarusian food is very high as it’s all organic and freshly grown, especially milk produce. The natural taste again reminded me of my childhood. And no matter where you buy them – in the supermarket or the legendary Komarovsky market – as a result you get fresh, tasty organic food.
If you come to Minsk in the winter – you’ll have a wonderful chance to enjoy winter sports. A new ice arena has just opened 30 km from Minsk. As have two local ski resorts with Olympic skiing track. You may bump in to President Lukashenko here, as he is a great fan of the sport.
Mir Castle and Dudutki are two wonderful open-air museums. In Dudutki you not only admire old buildings and Belarusian life, but can buy souvenirs made from straw. Alternatively there is a good section in the souvenir shop on Independence Avenue.
It was great to be back in the city where I had spent a number of years of my childhood and I look forward to coming back again.
Iryna Nikitina is Chief Operating Officer at Magisters Kiev office