Minsk, Belarus

Photo: Homoatrox [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
For years, you thought you’d been everywhere in Europe. You’d traveled to Iceland, Greece, and everywhere in between. Then the map started expanding. First, Prague, Budapest, and Bucharest became tourist destinations. Then Yugoslavia broke up and the Baltic states declared their independence. Now travelers are making their way to the rest of the former Soviet Republics. Kiev, Tbilisi, and Yerevan are among the hot spots.

Your eye is on Minsk. The capital of Belarus has remained under the Iron Curtain for much too long. Blame it on the president of the Eastern European country. At best, he’s way too chummy with Russia’s president. At worst, he’s considered Europe’s last dictator. Either way, he’s muted political dissent for long enough.

Minsk is finally starting to assert itself on the world stage. The eleventh-largest city in Europe sits along the Svislach and Nyamiha Rivers. It’s well established as the economic and industrial core of the landlocked country. Recently, it’s become a tech hub, as well. The shift quietly encouraged progressives. An artistic crowd and a cafe culture followed. Minsk is now surprisingly hip and modern.

Photo: Beijing Hotel

It’s hard to see the cool side at first. Minsk became a city in the 11th century. It was ruled by Kievan Rus, Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union in the centuries that followed. During World War II, the Axis Powers razed most of the city and the population was decimated. Minsk was rebuilt, though not reconstructed, after the war. Stalinist architecture—high-rise buildings, wide avenues, large squares—replaced the historic center. Modern styles are slowly filling in the skyline.

So after visiting Trinity Hill (the oldest surviving district), Independence Square, and a handful of churches, you turn to what’s trendy. The Museum of Modern Fine Art. Kastrychnitskaya with its street art. Oktyabrskaya with its music venues. Bistros that serve more than blinis and borscht. Coffee shops with skate ramps. Minsk is full of surprises.

The one thing still missing from Minsk is a boutique hotel. While international chains have moved in, most hotels still look very traditional. Though quite big, Beijing Hotel (yes, it’s owned by a Chinese company) is the first step in a new direction. The Svislach River surrounds the dramatic, Huizhou-style hotel on three sides. The lobby has a soaring ceiling and a fountain filled with fish. The spa features an indoor pool with panoramic windows. While upgraded suites include modern amenities like flat-screen televisions, heated towel racks, and soaking tubs. Minsk is starting to feel more comfortable than you ever expected.

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