Minsk attractions, superstitions, little-known facts, infamous people – all these and more make Minsk sightseeing a captivating experience for worldly travellers seeking to tick off a little-known destination with surprising depth. Here are 12 ways Minsk will surprise you…
1. The language
The most commonly spoken language in Belarus is Russian. Belarusian, also referred to as ‘White Russian’, is making a comeback however as more Belarusians return to their roots.
This dominance of the Russian language is a result of the country’s former status as part of the Soviet Union. As of 2012 however, English signs have been put up around Minsk, making it possible for travellers to get around with greater ease.
2. Green thinking
Nature lovers will delight in a visit to Belarus. The country’s capital is considered a green city, with over 844,000 trees. And, at its green heart lies the Minsk Botanical Garden, the third-largest botanical garden in the world (after London and Madrid).
A day of Minsk sightseeing should, therefore, include a visit to this idyllic space, which features over 11281 species of unique plants. The city is also the fourth city to join the EBRD Green Cities initiative, which works towards a sustainable green future – certainly a far cry from the ethos of its former Stalinist-Empire era.
3. National Library of Belarus
Indulge your inner bookworm and take a deep breath in when you visit the National Library of Belarus. Although one of the less touristy things to do in Minsk, the National Library is home to over eight million items of media, making it the most extensive information and cultural centre in Belarus.
Founded in 1922, the library is housed in what is called ‘The Diamond of Knowledge’, one of the most unusual buildings in the world. This Minsk attraction resembles a glass diamond and houses no fewer than 18 reading halls.
4. A hero’s city
Minsk has had to rebuild itself on more than one occasion, having burned down 18 times in its history. In 1974, the Soviet honorary title of Hero City was consequently conferred on Minsk.
One of the most popular Minsk attractions you should add to your list is the Hero City Obelisk, which stands tall at 45 metres. Immortalising the characteristic bravery of the Belarussian nation, the obelisk is a stark reminder of how the Belarusians endured Nazi occupation for over a thousand days during World War II. Today the Obelisk forms part of the large complex of the Belarusian Great Patriotic War Museum.
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5. Fountains and sculptures
Incredibly, there are over 100 fountains dotted around the city. Minsk’s first fountain (which still works) dates back to 1874. Called ‘The Boy with a Swan’, the fountain is erected in honour of the launch of the city’s first water pipe. You’ll never guess that there are over 200 copies of the statue around the world.
Another of the poignant things to see in Minsk is the Zaslavsky Jewish Monument, which commemorates the murder of 5000 Jews who hailed from Minsk. This extremely moving sculpture features a row of terrified men, women and children lining up to be shot.
6. Lee Harvey Oswald
A little-known fact about Minsk is that it was once home to Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of former US President John F. Kennedy. Oswald defected to the USSR in the early 1960s and worked in the city as a lathe operator. It was also there that he met his wife and married. He returned to the US shortly afterwards with her and his infant daughter.
While his apartment is a private residence, visitors can still view the apartment building from outside.
7. Independence Avenue
Any Minsk sightseeing trip should include a visit to the main street in Minsk – Independence Avenue. The longest street in the country stretching a cool 15km, Independence Avenue incorporates five different squares – Kalinin Square, Yakub Kolas Square, Victory Square, October Square and Independence Square.
Throughout history, its name has changed over 14 times. But, for now, the name ‘Independence Avenue’ will remain and hopefully be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage site list. This grand Minsk attraction even has its own bus route, Route No. 100.
8. Nobel Prize Winners
Minsk boasts several Nobel Prize winners. Most notable among these is Svetlana Alexievich, an investigative journalist, oralist and historian. Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature for her polyphonic writings. A big critic of the Soviet Union, Alexievich had to flee Belarus as a result. She has since returned but remains just as outspoken.
9. The potato
At the heart of Belarusian cuisine is the humble potato or bulba in Belarusian. There are 300 potato recipes alone, which indicates how much the hearty-food-loving locals love this starch. One of the most popular of these is draniki, potato pancakes, but there are many other favourites. Interestingly, in Soviet Union times, the Russians called Belarusians bulbashi, after the Belarusian word for potato.
10. Feline fetish?
Surely, one of the most curious Minsk attractions is its Cat Museum, which features cat coffee, cat checkers, cat art. You name it, if it has four legs, fur and meows, this museum probably has it.
Of course, it makes sense that the staff of the museum bear the same moggy characteristics. These are all former strays and any visitor who takes a fancy to their new feline friend is welcome to take them home with the promise of providing a good home.
11. Street art
There’s no shortage of street art across Minsk, most notably the world’s largest mural created by one artist. You can see this gargantuan piece of artistic expression by Brazilian artist Ramon Martins for yourself on a building at 19/5 Oktjabrskaja.
Spanning an impossible 3000 square meters, this particular piece of street art is a collage of endangered animals endemic to Belarus. You’ll see bison, the symbol of Belarus, among others.
12. The bison
On the topic of these shaggy brawny animals, bison returned from the brink of extinction in the 1950s. Today the national animal of Belarus roams Europe’s final primaeval forest in their hundreds. This is thanks to the release of two bison into Białowieża Forest in the 1930s.
Have we forgotten any unique Minsk attractions or fun facts? Let us know in the comments below…