You know what I love? I love a free visa! Starting in February of 2017, citizens of 80 countries can obtain the Belarus 5 Day Free Visa upon entry, as long as you enter and exit through the right places. One of those places is Minsk International Airport, so we got online and booked our tickets. We couldn’t wait to visit this country that has been virtually closed off to the Western world for decades. We wanted to explore Minsk and its environs for the full five days, finding the best things to do, see, and of course…eat!
A Belarus and Minsk Guide
Where is Belarus? Where is Minsk?
Belarus was a new European country to add to our list, but to be honest I wasn’t exactly sure where it was. For the last couple of years, since we are so close to Eastern Europe, we’ve been having fun discovering all these former Soviet Bloc countries, and especially their capital cities. We were excited to learn more about Belarus. Bordered by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, and Ukraine, Belarus is really in the center of the east. Its capital, Minsk, is almost right in the center of the country, so it’s easy to get to other places as well. While we were there, we drove outside the city to visit two of their UNESCO World Heritage sites.
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The Nitty Gritty on the Belarus 5 Day Free Visa Rules
According to the Belarus website, there are 80 countries that are allowed to fall under this special program. Are you a citizen of one of the 80 allowable countries? Check the list here. To take advantage of the program, there are only three criteria. 1. You must enter and exit from Minsk International Airport (and not coming from or continuing on to Russia). 2. Have a minimum of 25 Euros per day for the length of your stay. 3. Have or purchase Belarus Health Insurance to cover at least $10,000.
Luckily, there are plenty of flights in and out of Minsk, from a variety of European locations. We flew Ukraine Airlines in and out of Kiev, Ukraine. It was a quick flight and the cost was very reasonable. Arriving at the airport, I was a little worried about going through customs, but it went extremely smoothly. As we were waiting in the passport line, I realized there was a kiosk in the room selling health insurance and everyone was being directed to it before being stamped for entry. We immediately got out of line and headed over there to buy ours. It costs about $5.00 per day per person, and all we had to do was tell the cashier how many days we were to be in the country. It was quick and simple, but we were running out of American dollars, because we didn’t know beforehand that we had to do this. The insurance office takes dollars and euros, so be prepared.
With our insurance receipt in hand, we handed our papers to the customs agent. He didn’t ask any questions, took a cursory look, stamped us and we were in the country. I was surprised. I had more questions and scrutiny entering many other countries. Apparently getting into the country is easy, and there shouldn’t be any problems unless you overstay your five days. I had read that there is a hefty fine of about 550 euros if you get delayed without just cause. Luckily, we built in a little wiggle room and didn’t have any problems getting out of the country either.
Getting from the Minsk Airport to the Center of the City
As we had only carry-on luggage, we were quickly through the small airport and on to the bus to the center. Exiting the building, the bus, number 300, was right there outside the gate, easy to find. You can buy your tickets from the driver who walks back and forth making sure everyone has paid. It costs 4 BYR each and an extra .40 for suitcases. The airport is about 40 kilometers from Minsk, and there are two major stops on the route. At the first stop, Uručča, about half the bus got off, locals and tourists alike. From there you can get a public bus or metro into different parts of the city. We rode it to the end, which is the Minsk train station, and from there we had to take a local bus to the old part of the city where our hotel was located.
I highly recommend staying in the Manastyrski Hotel, as it right in the middle of the old town and has many restaurants, pubs, shopping, and events there. When we arrived there was a Korean festival going on where everyone was playing games, eating fest food, and enjoying the sun. It was great watching everyone, especially the teenagers, getting into the K-Pop concert. The Manastyrski is the old monastery that has been renovated, and is gorgeous with arched hallways, dark wooden trim, fantastic desk attendants, and a decent breakfast. Being central, we could walk or take public transportation all over to visit the museums and other sights. I would say it was one of the better Minsk hotels.
Getting Around Minsk
We found it extremely easy to use Minsk public transport. There are buses, trams, and metros that run frequently and on time. There weren’t that many cars, and many times we’d be walking around and the wide boulevards would be completely empty, so driving was pretty easy as well. Tickets for any of the public transportation are cheap, about .25 USD) per ride. You can buy the bus tickets from the attendant that rides the bus. They wear a bright vest, so you can easily tell who they are. They are always watching who is getting on and off. Metro ticket offices were open whenever we rode the subway, so that wasn’t an issue either. You buy a token to put in the machine to enter.
Driving in Belarus
We rented a car for one day, and found navigating around the city and its environs rather simple. We were warned that our GPS would not work well outside the city limits, but the roads we took are well signed and easy to read. To be able to drive, we just needed a valid license (not even an international license). We rented from Avis, and the most difficult part of renting a car was finding their office. If you decide to rent, and you don’t pick your car up from the airport, call and ask for directions to the rental office. It will probably save you some time. Gas prices were cheap, not like in other parts of Europe. It was about $2.50 per gallon. We always get a little uneasy with rental agencies if they seem to be really picky when going over the car, but we just pointed out every single scratch beforehand and didn’t have any problems with our turn in. For the driving we did, we didn’t encounter any tolls, and except in the very center of Minsk we had no trouble finding parking. Going out and trying to see both Mir Castle and Nesvizh in one day would have been very difficult without a car. The people we ran into who took the bus had to choose which one they wanted to visit.
Where to Eat in Minsk
There are plenty of places to eat, from cheaper cafeteria-style food to high end. The national chain, well really it’s a Latvian chain, is called Lido. You can find them all over the city, and most of them are huge. It is a cafeteria style restaurant where you can fill up for about $5.00 per person. It’s a great place to go to try different local dishes as well.
One of the restaurants that was recommended to us, the Kuhmistr, we ended up going to twice. The food was inexpensive and delicious, and to make it even better, each night they had a couple singing and playing traditional Belarussian songs. It came across a bit touristy, and there were definitely other tourists there, but more than half the restaurant was filled with locals, so that always makes me feel better.
Minsk, and Belarus altogether is a great place to visit! We highly recommend you take advantage of that 5 day free visa. It’s a bargain.
What would you do in Belarus if you visit? What other questions do you have?
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