When I started to map out our overland itinerary through Eastern Europe (phase 1 of our big journey by public transportation from the Netherlands to Indonesia), I quickly decided that we have to go to Belarus. I was very curious about this hermit country. My boyfriend did not share this enthusiasm right away. He had to ‘warm up’ to the idea of going to Belarus. Because what can you really do there? My job was to convince him, so I showed him pictures of the most beautiful city in Belarus: Grodno. Admittedly, the city name does not appeal right away (my boyfriend made it a sport to turn it into God no!), but he agreed that Grodno looked good on the photos. My boyfriend was on board and this way Belarus became part of our big overland journey. Unfortunately, our visit to Grodno was a rainy one (it poured almost nonstop), but we were able to get a good impression of this Belarusian city.
5x impressions of 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.
- Russian is the main language: don’t expect that everyone speaks English in Belarus. The main language is Russian. You will make your life a lot easier if you know some basic Russian. Keep your Google Translate on standby. It is also useful to study the Russian alphabet, otherwise you can’t read much of the signs. Belarus also has their 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: have you ever seen a Belarusian restaurant in your own country? No, the Belarusian cuisine is not that interesting. Belarus is a potato country. The tastiest potato dishis the draniki. This dish often comes 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: planning a trip to Belarus means dealing with a strict visa regime. At first, it looked quite scary, but it is actually quite doable. For example, foreigners who stay in Belarus longer than five day are obliged to register with the police. Fortunately, you can do this registration online now. So that makes this process fast and easy. And in the end, nobody asked for this registration at the border. 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.
What to do in Grodno
Our main focus for Belarus was the city of Grodno, also known as Hrodna. A city in western part of Belarus, near the border with Lithuania and Poland. Grodno was founded in the twelfth 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 what you can do and see in Grodno. To help future travelers, I am sharing the Google Maps names of sights, because some sights have a different name or Russian name on Google Maps.
St. Francis Xavier cathedral
The Saint Francis Xavier cathedral is a convenient landmark for travelers. If you see this church, you are in the center of Grodno. The Sovetskaya square, where the church stands, is the starting point for a walk through the city. The light blue domes are simply stunning, but it is also worthwhile to view the interior of the church.
Name on Google Maps: Jesuit Cathedral or Hrodna.
Play board games at Nesterka
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.
Strolling over the Sovetskaya Vulica
I am a huge fan of car-free streets. In Grodno the Sovetskaya vulica is the domain for the pedestrian. Charming old merchant houses on both sides and cobblestone streets adorn this walking street. I walked up and down the street several times and saw new details every time.
Name on Google Maps: Soviet Street.
The most beautiful church in Grodno: Pakrouskaya Orthodox Church
I have a weakness 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! But you have many more beautiful churches in Grodno, such as the silver St. John Lutheran Church and the yellow St. Bernardine Church.
Name + address on Google Maps: St. Basil Church, Vulica Elizy Ažeška 23.
Don’t miss the heroic Soviet murals
If you are a regular traveler in the former Soviet Union countries, then you’ve probably seen it before. I’m talking about the Soviet murals. They are often open-air works of art that show the hard-working Soviet workers, farmers or soldiers. Opposite side of Pakrouskaya Orthodox Church you will find a beautiful Soviet mural made of concrete. It is huge, it made me feel really small as a human being, which is probably one of goals of this work.
Name + address on Google Maps: mural op Ozheshko 19.
Pay a visit to the Belarusian baristas
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. 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. I do not recommend visiting the Old Castle. The exhibition styling is really old fashioned. That said, 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. On request they make the cappuccino with oat milk.
- Coffee truck WakeCup, Sovetskaya vulica 1: a yellow café on wheels. I said Belarus was trendy, right? The lady in the mobile coffee shop also serves coffee with oat milk.
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 in Belarus?
Actually, 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.
Twin towers Kasia & Basia
Just outside the old town, up on the banks of the Neman River, are 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.
Spot the Mona Lisa of Grodno
Across the Proste Coffee on the right side you can find the Fire Museum, located in an old fire station with a beautiful watch tower (used to quickly spot every fire in the city). It was built in response to a major fire that destroyed thousands of houses in Grodno. The best thing about this building 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 much 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.
More interesting sights in Grodno:
- Zhiliber’s Park: in this little park you will find statues on benches and lampposts hugging each other. A nice area to walk through on your way to the Pakrouskaya Orthodox Church. In the former Soviet Union it is very common to use parks as amusement parks for children, so don’t be surprised if you come across a roller coaster.
- Pharmacy Museum: next to a fire and iron museum Grodno also a pharmacy museum. The collection shows what a pharmacy looked like 100 years ago. The museum can be found next to the Saint Francis Xavier cathedral.
Great Choral Synagogue
At the beginning of the last century, Grodno had a large, vibrant Jewish community. The Second World War had fatal consequences for this community. Nazi Germany set up two ghettos in 1941 and not long afterwards all Jews were deported to Auschwitz and Treblinka. The entrance to the number 1 ghetto can still be found on Zamkavaya street.
The Jewish heritage of Grodno is still visible through the beautiful Great Choral Synagogue. Built in the sixteenth century, but closed and vandalized during the Second World War. It was only in the nineties, the renovation was started. The exterior has been restored and is very impressive to see.
Name + address on Google Maps: Great Synagogue, Vialikaja Trajeckaja vulica 59A.
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 high on the banks, so you have a beautiful view of the river.
Name + address on Google Maps: Kolozha Church, Ulitsa Kolozha 6.
Overland travel & visa for Belarus
This information is valid for more than 70 countries. Always check the most up-to-date information for your country of citizenship before you travel.
Since July 2018 you can visit Belarus visa-free for 30 days, but one of the requirements is that you have to enter via Minsk International Airport (by plane). Since we are not flying during this trip (2019), but traveling over land, we were not able to visit Belarus under this visa-free regime. Still, we went to Belarus. How did we do that? Well, our options were (1) to apply for a visa in advance at the Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in The Hague or (2) to limit our visit to the visa-free regions of Grodno or Brest. Unfortunately, option 1 was quickly eliminated, because for this we had to book the accommodation through a Belarusian travel agency (otherwise they did not want to send us an invitation letter for the visa). We travel with a flexible travel schedule, so option 2 was the best fit for us. Since August 2019, it is possible to combine the Grodno and Brest visa-free regions in one journey of a maximum of 15 days (yeah!). However, during our visit in June 2019 this was not allowed yet. Grodno and Brest were two separate visa-free regions and you could only stay in one of these regions for a maximum of 10 days. We chose to visit Grodno.
To visit Grodno or Brest, you still need to arrange a few documents in advance. Visa-free sadly does not mean hassle-free. You have to arrange 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 this online via bezviz.by. This is a Belarusian travel agency who provided us with everything we needed and their only demand is that we had to purchase at least two tourist services. And this is how we got to travel to Belarus!
obligatory registration for foreigners
If you travel in Belarus for more than five 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. We stayed in Belarus longer than five days and registered online at portal.gov.by. It was actually quite easy! More information about the online registration can be found on the website of the Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in The Hague.
Would you like to go to Belarus?