A quick Web search on Minsk will give you the basics: It is the capital and largest city (2007 population of about 1.8 million people) of Belarus. It is also the headquarters of the Commonwealth of Independent States, an alliance consisting of former Soviet Republics. You may also read that Minsk is only appealing to Soviet Union enthusiasts, the city having been heavily damaged during World War II and rebuilt to Stalinist standards in the 1950s. There are even claims that tourism is not much of a priority, the most morbidly alluring curiosity being the bottom left apartment at 4 Vulitsa Kamunistychnaja, the former residence, during his defection to the USSR, of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man believed to have murdered American President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
Sadly, most Web sites (and even local residents) don’t take into account some of Minsk’s other curiosities. For example, there’s a grand yellow building with a row of high columns in front of it located near the start of Independence (aka Francyska Skaryny) Avenue. Most guides and guidebooks say that this is the Ministry of Internal Affairs. It’s actually KGB headquarters! Fifteen or so years ago, if you pulled out a camera you were pushed away and asked silly questions; today, you can snap as many photographs as you like.
If meeting locals is more your speed, go to the public gardens in Ploshad Svobody Street near GUM (the state department store at 21 Nezavisimosti Avenue) or near the fountains on Oktyabrskaya Square. Belarusians are very tolerant people, always open to communication. Young people often speak foreign languages (at least on a basic level), mainly English, because it is taught at school. They certainly will be helpful should you need to find your bearings. Older people might enjoy the calm of the Botanical Garden (opposite 93 Nezavisimosti Avenue).
When with friends, tell them you want to try samogon (the traditional local moonshine [alcohol]) and draniki (potato pancakes usually served with sour cream). Draniki can be found in most restaurants and cafes, but samogon is not as common. Go for a tour to Zaslavl’ or Dudutki (30km and 40km from Minsk, respectively) to feast on both and enjoy some traditional music. The best pancakes are of course homemade, but in Minsk, go for places like Rakovsky Brovar (12 Vitebskaya Street; they also boast having the best beer in town) and Talaka (18 Rakovskaya Street; folk style, very popular among young people).
Keep in mind that visiting Belarus can be like stepping back in time in terms of money and payments. While many big shops, restaurants, hotels and bars are equipped to take credit cards, you shouldn’t always count on it. Long lines at ATMs, dinner breaks at exchange offices, holidays and days off make dealing with finances quite unpredictable. Sometimes, even if you see a Visa or MasterCard sign, the cards are not accepted. It is best to have a reasonable stash of cash (the equivalent of US$100 in local currency, the Belarusian rouble [BYR]). When you do need to exchange, the best rates are offered by Minsk Transit Bank (MTB), which has offices right at Victory Square (17 Zakharova Street) and at the Minsk Hotel (11 Nezavisimosti Avenue).