Felicity Long
Felicity Long

Clients who have an interest in sports or in Soviet history, or just have a bad case of been-there-done-that-itis, might want to include Belarus in their travel plans this year.

The country, once part of the Soviet Union, is having a bit of a moment, thanks to a few high-profile sporting events and newly relaxed visa restrictions for travelers from 80 countries, including the U.S.

History buffs may already know Belarus' somewhat convoluted history, but the short version is that it was under Soviet rule from 1922 to 1991, still retains a complicated relationship with Russia and is not part of the EU.

It is, however, part of Eastern Europe; is surrounded by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia; and is beginning to show signs of a rebirth of its cultural identity, including a partial return of the use of the Belarussian language over the more common Russian.

Why go in 2019? If you're a soccer fan, London's Arsenal FC is set to play Bate Borisov on Feb. 14 at Borisov Arena in Barysaw, about an hour from Minsk, the country's capital.

Sports fans can also attend the multisport Second European Games (the first was in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 2015) from June 21 to 30 in Minsk. More than 4,000 athletes from 50 countries will compete for medals in 15 sports during the event.

For history buffs, there's plenty to explore in Minsk. The city's Museum of the Great Patriotic War, for example, depicts the years during and directly after the Nazi occupation. Victory Square, with its massive obelisk, commemorates the end of WWII and those who died in battle, and Gorky Park, established in 1800, features a planetarium, an ice-skating rink and a 180-foot-high Ferris wheel.

And while not too many of us would laud the Soviets for the beauty of their architecture, it is nonetheless fascinating in its own right, and Minsk has plenty of examples. Given that the city was nearly decimated during World War II, Stalinesque architects had a free hand to refashion the city in their own style  and they did.

Examples of the style are everywhere, but a place to start is Independence (Nezavisimost) Square, dominated by the infamous KGB headquarters building.

Belarus also boasts two Unesco World Heritage sites: the 16th century Mir Castle Complex in the town of Mir, about 53 miles southwest of Minsk, and the 16th century Nesvizh Palace in the Kresy region, about 75 miles southwest of the capital city.

The city is also increasingly bustling with nightlife, especially in the city center, which offers dozens of bars, clubs and restaurants.

Travelers concerned about staying in grim, Stalinesque hotels in Minsk might be surprised to find that there are luxury hotels in the city, including familiar brands like the Minsk Marriott Hotel, which opened in 2016, and the historical Europe Hotel, which, after many incarnations, opened as a five-star property in 2007.

Prices, even for these properties, are a bargain compared with other European capital cities, at under $120 a night, depending on dates and room categories.

To signal interest in welcoming tourists, the government of Belarus dropped visa requirements for visitors from select countries, including the U.S., in 2017 for a five-day visit, then broadened the policy further last year by expanding the visit length to 30 days. The caveat is that visitors must enter and depart the country through Minsk Airport and can't travel on flights to or from Russia. Visitors staying longer than five days need to register with the government, which as of Jan. 2, they can now do online, and there are other requirements for visa-free entry.

Visitors can enter the country by other routes, but in this case visas are required. Further details are available through the Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in the U.S.

Finally, air access to Belarus is available via Belavia, with flights directly to the city from more than 50 cities, including Paris and London, and Minsk Airport Transfer company offers transfers to the city center for about $34, with free WiFi. The company also offers sightseeing tours.

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