With the introduction of the five-day visa-free entry for citizens of more than 80 countries (including Australia), there hasn't been a better time to visit this surprising capital. Contrary to its bleak reputation you'll find a clean and modern city with fashionable cafes, bars and galleries, and an entire neighbourhood of striking street art. Much of the Brutalist architecture of the Soviet-era is still here but thanks to the vigour that comes from 22 universities the city has a progressive edge. With Minsk gearing up to host the European Games in 2019 and World Ice Hockey Championships in 2021 the city is forging ahead, with new hotels, infrastructure, transport and entertainment options (rsti.by; mfa.gov.by).
The Belarusian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War tells the story of hardship and heroics during Nazi occupation. Here you can peruse everything from dioramas to historical documents, propaganda art to weaponry (warmuseum.by). For the best of Soviet-era architecture walk along Praspyekt Nezavismosti (Independence Avenue), or if religious architecture is more your thing don't miss the Church of Saints Simon and Helena (Red Church). The National Art Museum has more than 30,000 items in its collection (artmuseum.by).
Draniki, or potato pancakes, may well be the national dish of Belarus. Served with homemade sausage, scrambled eggs and green onions these doughy delights make a hearty breakfast or lunch. Vasilki on Independence Avenue (opposite the KGB headquarters) serves the best in town. Another insider secret is a coffee shop on Kirova 11 (no name, down a set of steps) run by an ex-Soviet pilot. The owner brews his own coffee from a Bedouin recipe and serves it with a slice of traditional cake. Zybitskaya Street is the lively restaurant and bar district, but for forest berries, smoked meats, spices and nuts head to Komarovka markets.
There are two must-dos in Minsk. Firstly, drink vodka – everything from Minsk Kristall to herb-infused balsams. Central on Independence Avenue 23 is a classic bar from Soviet times. Secondly, attend an evening at the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre. One of Europe's biggest theatres, the Bolshoi presents opera ranging from Aida to La boheme, and ballet performances such as The Nutcracker and The Little Prince. Don't miss the back-stage tour (bolshoibelarus.by).
Oktyabrskaya Street is the street art strip of Minsk. The factory owners have moved out and the students have moved in, converting old warehouses into event spaces, cafes and galleries. It all began in 2014 when the Brazilian Embassy launched a street art festival, which has now become an annual event drawing local and international artists. For a different view of Minsk ride the old-school Ferris wheel in Gorky Pork for the princely sum of three rubles ($2).
Hotel Monastyrski wins the travel trifecta for location, ambience and friendliness. Housed in a former 17th century monastery this 48-room hotel is on the best street in the most atmospheric part of the old town. Next door to the Holy Spirit Cathedral and steps away from the Svislach River with its riverside cafes, walking path and museums, you'd be hard pushed to find a better location. Add in English-speaking staff (not so common in Minsk), original architectural elements, traditional sauna and a fine restaurant the Monastyrski really punches above its three-star weight (monastyrski.by).
The Miniature Museum, housed in the Palace of the Trade Unions, is a great introduction to Belarus' best-loved buildings – from the Red Church to the National Library – all hand-painted in miniature. Opened in 2017 there are currently 18 exhibits, but at a construction rate of one every four months there will be more than 70 models by 2022 (belarusmini.by).
Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of the Belarusian Touristic Union and the Embassy of Belarus in Australia.