I have always wanted to go to Belarus. This hermit country piqued my interest. My boyfriend did not share my enthusiasm. He had to ‘warm-up’ to the idea of going to Belarus. So I showed him pictures of the most beautiful city in Belarus: Grodno. And it worked, my boyfriend was on board. This is how Belarus became part of our big overland journey from the Netherlands to Indonesia. Unfortunately, our visit to Grodno was a rainy one, but we were able to get a good impression. In this blog post, I will show you 11 wonderful things to do in Grodno, plus my first impressions of Belarus and practical visa information. Grab a cup of tea, because it is a long one.
WHat is it like traveling in Belarus?
So Belarus, what can you expect from this country? It is often described as the ‘the last dictatorship of Europe’. I almost never hear anything about Belarus on the news and when you hear something, it is often negative. Moreover, I know very few people who have been to this country, so I really did not know what to expect in advance. Now that we’ve been there, I like to help other travelers by sharing our impressions.
first impressions of Belarus
- Russian is the main language: not a lot of people speak English in Belarus. So keep your Google Translate ready. Belarus also has its own language (Belarussian) and it is not the same as Russian. For example, the Belarusians don’t say spasiba (thank you in Russian) but dzjakoej.
- The food is so-so: Belarus is a potato country. The tastiest potato dish is the draniki. This dish is often served with a lot of smetana (sour cream). But besides the draniki, the food is in my opinion not that interesting.
- Belarus is very affordable: of all the countries that we so far visited during the overland trip, Belarus is the absolute middle. Not crazy expensive, not dirt cheap.
- The visa regime is manageable: take for example the obligatory registration for foreigners who stay in Belarus longer than five days. You can do this registration online now and the process is quite easy. In the end, nobody asked for this registration at the border. But maybe we were lucky.
- No Uber but Yandex: Yandex taxi is the Russian answer to Uber and everyone in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus is using it. It works exactly the same as Uber, the app is available in English and you can add your credit card to your account.
11 Fantastic Things to do in Grodno
Our main focus for Belarus was the city of Grodno, also known as Hrodna. A city in western Belarus, near the border of Lithuania and Poland. Grodno was founded in the 12th century, but has only been part of independent Belarus since 1991. Over the centuries, the city has been under the rule of Poland, Lithuania, Russia and Germany. This multicultural background also explains the architecture in this city. You see a bit of everything. Let me show you 11 top things to do in Grodno.
1. Visit St. Francis Xavier cathedral
The Saint Francis Xavier cathedral is a convenient landmark for travelers. When you see this church, then you know you are in the center of Grodno. The Sovetskaya square, where the church stands, is the perfect starting point for a walk through the city. The light blue domes of the St. Francis Xavier church are simply stunning, but iI also recommend taking a look inside.
Name on Google Maps: Jesuit Cathedral or Hrodna.
2. Play board games at Grodno drama theater
Nesterka Vegan Bar was our regular hang-out in Grodno. It is the only vegan restaurant in the city. Not a problem in itself, because they serve a delicious vegan burger! Nesterka also has an extensive collection of board games. We played a game of Russian monopoly and it went surprisingly well! Nesterka is also located in one of the most iconic buildings of Grodno: the drama theater building. The building is a beautiful example of brutalist Soviet architecture.
Want to see more brutalist Soviet architecture? Read my article about Skopje, the capital of Northern Macedonia.
Name + address on Google Maps: Nesterka Vegan Bar, Mostowa 35.
3. Take a stroll on the Sovetskaya Vulica
I love car-free promenades. In Grodno, the Sovetskaya vulica is the domain of the pedestrians. Charming old merchant houses on both sides and cobblestone streets adorn this walking street. I walked up and down this street many times and saw new details every time.
Name on Google Maps: Soviet Street.
4. admire the Pakrouskaya Orthodox Church
I have a fondness for Eastern Orthodox churches. The domes and soft pastel colors: they are often a sight for sore eyes. A perfect example of this is the Pakrouskaya Orthodox Church. I fell in love with those beautiful pink colors! And there are many more beautiful churches to see in Grodno, like the silver St. John Lutheran Church and the yellow St. Bernardine Church.
Name + address on Google Maps: St. Basil Church, Vulica Elizy Ažeška 23.
5. Don’t miss out on the heroic Soviet murals
If you travel regularly to former Soviet Union countries, then you’ve probably seen it before. I’m talking about the Soviet murals. These are open-air works of art that show the hard-working Soviet workers, farmers, or soldiers. On the opposite side of the Pakrouskaya Orthodox Church, you will find a beautiful Soviet mural made of concrete. It is huge and made me feel really small as a human being (which is probably one of the goals of this work).
Name + address on Google Maps: mural op Ozheshko 19.
6. Discover the local cafe culture
In Grodno I saw a surprising number of trendy coffee places. The most charming cafes are located on the Zamkavaya Vulica. Here are my favorites:
- Nasa Kava (meaning: Our Coffee), Zamkavaja 11: the most beautiful coffee place in Grodno. The coffee is delicious and can be served with oat milk on request. The menu is in Russian, but the gentlemen behind the bar can also speak English. Recommended!
- Proste Coffee (meaning: Just Coffee), Zamkavaja 18: coffee bar near the Old and New Castle. We decided to have a coffee here after our visit to the Old Castle. By the way, I do not recommend visiting the Old Castle. The exhibition styling is outdated. Having said that, they are renovating the place, so it may be better in the future. Back to the coffee. Proste Coffee is a small cozy coffee shop and they can also make a cappuccino with oat milk.
- Coffee truck WakeCup, Sovetskaya vulica 1: a yellow cafe on wheels. How hipster is Belarus? The lady in the mobile coffee shop also serves coffee with oat milk.
7. Quirky Grodno: Dive into the iron history
When I heard that Grodno has a museum of irons, I first had to laugh a little. But then I really wanted to go to this quirky museum. How often do you have the chance to visit an iron museum? And in Belarus of all places?
Actually, the term museum might be an overstatement for what it is. There are actually two rooms that are completely stuffed with irons in all shapes and sizes. The exhibition was managed by a very enthusiastic lady who only spoke Russian or Belarusian. Luckily, there was a Russian couple visiting the exhibition as well who didn’t mind translating for us. Our initial thought was to check out the museum for 10 minutes or so, but we stayed for a full hour taking a look at every ironing machine in the room.
Name + address on Google Maps: Интересный музей (Interesting Museum, Zamkavaja vulica 18, 1st floor, white door. Admission fee is 5 BYN per person.
8. Check out Twin towers Kasia & Basia
Just outside the old town, on the banks of the Neman River, you can find two pastel-colored water towers called Kasia and Basia. Nobody really knows where these names come from, but there are a couple of possible narrative circling around. One of the stories mentions that an accountant named Basia worked in the yellow tower and a manager called Kasia worked in the pink tower. Well, we may never know the truth. Nowadays the twin towers are used by local artists as a workshop.
Name + address on Google Maps: Bashni ” Kasya “I” Basya “/Башни ” Кася ” и “Бася“, Ulitsa Sverdlova 2.
9. Spot the Mona Lisa of Grodno
Across the Proste Coffee on the right side, you can find the Fire Museum. It is located in an old fire station with a beautiful watchtower (used back in the day to quickly spot fires in the city). The station was built after a major fire that destroyed thousands of houses in Grodno. The best thing about this building now is the facade with the wall painting of sixteen firemen and women. There is something special going on with this painting. Something I did not realize at first when I looked at it, but I only learned about later. One of the people in the painting has the face of the Mona Lisa. Can you spot it?
Name + address on Google Maps: Muzei Istorii Pozharnoi Sluzhby G Grodno or Firewatch Tower, Zamkavaya vulica 19.
10. Visit the Great Choral Synagogue
At the beginning of the last century, Grodno had a large, vibrant Jewish community. The Second World War had, as we sadly all know, fatal consequences for this community. Nazi Germany set up two ghettos in 1941 and not long afterward all Jews were deported to Auschwitz and Treblinka. Entrance to ghetto number 1 can still be found on Zamkavaya street.
The Jewish heritage of Grodno is still visible through the beautiful Great Choral Synagogue. It was built in the 16th century, but it was closed and vandalized during the Second World War. It was only in the nineties that the renovation works started. The exterior has been restored and is quite impressive to see.
Name + address on Google Maps: Great Synagogue, Vialikaja Trajeckaja vulica 59A.
11. enjoy Sunset at St. Boris & Gleb church
Tip for the late afternoon: take the stairs down to the river nearby the Old Castle. A great area for an afternoon stroll along the river Neman. A little bit further down the river, you can find the beautiful St. Boris & Gleb Church. This is one of the oldest active churches in Belarus. From a distance, it may look like an old shed, but up close you can see the unique colors and patterns in the stone wall. The church, just like the city center, is located high up on the river banks, so you have a beautiful view of the river.
Name + address on Google Maps: Kolozha Church, Ulitsa Kolozha 6.
Overland travel & visa information for Belarus
It is possible to visit Belarus visa-free, but you have to enter by plane. Since we were traveling overland this did not apply to us. Our options were (1) to apply for a tourist visa in advance or (2) to limit our visit to the visa-free regions of Grodno or Brest. For option 1 we had to book all accommodations through a Belarusian travel agency. Otherwise, they refused to send us an invitation letter for the visa. Option 2 was more flexible, so we decided to visit the visa-free region of Grodno. Since our trip in 2019 a number of things have changed. It is now possible to combine Grodno and Brest in one trip of a maximum of 15 days. And it is also allowed to visit whole western Belarus visa-free, also for a maximum of 15 days.
Visa-free travel Grodno: requirements
Visa-free sadly does not mean hassle-free, you still need to arrange a few documents in advance. You need to request an invitation letter (permit) in advance from a Belarussian travel agency and you have to buy a Belarusian travel insurance policy (with a minimum coverage of € 10.000). We arranged everything via bezviz.by. This is a Belarusian travel agency who provided us with everything we needed. Their only demand is that we had to purchase at least two tourist services.
registration for foreigners
Good to know: if you stay in Belarus as a foreigner for more than 10 days, you are obliged to register. Before you had to go to a police station for this, but nowadays you can do this online for free. The website is portal.gov.by.
And there you have it: a list of things to do in Grodno. Would you like to go to Belarus?
Visa information: always check the current information for your country of citizenship before you travel.