- Idiots Abroad (the Sequel)
- Barcelona: Russians, Strikes, Lingerie Billboards and Man Buns
- Welcome to Mallorca! OK, Time to Leave
- My quick taste of Andorra and France
- Belarus: the More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
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If you are into castles and find yourself in Belarus, you should definitely consider visiting two UNESCO heritage sites: Mir and Nesvizh Touring both is doable in one day, since they are located only about twenty minutes apart. Most tourists come here from Minsk (about 1.5 hour drive one-way), but it ends up being a very long day.
Instead, you may want to consider doing what we did: overnight in a VIP suite in one of the most impressive European castles of its day. I wanted my whole family to come with me, so my mom ended up hiring a driver with an old Soviet-style bus, in order to transport all of us. About half of the seat belts didn’t work, but we somehow survived.
So, let me take you on a tour of Mir and Nesvizh, the crown jewels of Belarus architecture.
You can read short history of Mir castle on Wikipedia It was built in the 16th century, back when this neck of the woods was part of Lithuanian-Polish commonwealth. It switched hands several times and during WWII was converted to Jewish ghetto by Germans. Unfortunately, there was no happy ending.
The entry price to museum portion is $6 for adults, $3 for kids. You can see more details on this page There is a hotel located on premises, but I don’t see a way to reserve it online unless you are a Belarus citizen. Besides, I really think you should overnight in Nesvizh castle (more on that later).
In front of Mir castle with my parents, sister and nephews
Huge courtyard in the middle
View from one of the towers
Belarus hipsters of the olden days
Pictured above is one of the more interesting exhibit items: the armor of the Winged Hussar knight. The feathered look is something that is unique to Lithuanian-Polish commonwealth. The Winged Hussars were an elite fighting unit, which was a legend in its day. Not to glamorize the war, but they were so skilled, once they defeated a Russian army that outnumbered them 5:1. You can see an article on them with a video presentation.
An interesting tidbit for American history buffs: according to this article, “In the United States, the Polish count and Continental Army General, Casimir Pulaski (named the father of US cavalry), trained George Washington’s troops in methods that were derived from those of the Winged Hussars.”
Bottom line on Mir: it’s an incredibly interesting castle and I highly recommend you visit it while you are in Belarus. My American husband and sister-in-law thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, they liked it better than Nesvizh. Speaking of…
You can read short history of Nesvizh castle on Wikipedia Built in 16th century, the castle has definitely seen its share of drama and intrigue. At one point it was even a royal palace, the most impressive structure in this part of Eastern Europe. Here is a story of one famous 16th century resident: “Barbara Radziwill, a beautiful Queen of Poland and Grand Duchess of Lithuania, died young, at age of only 30. The circumstances of her death are still causing controversy. Her reign as queen at the side of Sigismund II Augustus only lasted five months, after a secret marriage and early signs of illness. There’s a theory that she was poisoned by her mother-in-law, however not proven.”
You can view visitor information on this page Unlike Mir, the building here has a refined structure to it, more of a fairytale castle feel rather than a fortress. Keep in mind, a lot of what you are seeing is the restored version.
The park is accessible to the general public, but there was hardly anyone there on a weekday
The hotel portion is split into two parts. The cheaper rooms are located in the area outside of the main castle building, which was converted from stables. Don’t worry, the rooms are simple but have all the modern conveniences aside from A/C. This is where reception is located as well.
If you come this far, though, I highly recommend you splurge on a fancy VIP suite. It’s located in the castle itself, though you won’t have an access to the museum portion. We paid $215 all-in for one night, which included breakfast, fancy set of toiletries and nice bottle of champagne. In exchange, we got this:
A foyer of our VIP suite
Dining room that doubled as a sleeping area for my kids and sister-in-law
The beds were OK, definitely suitable for kids and those used to sleeping in hostels
Master bedroom (king bed was very comfortable)
My favorite part was the fact that we had views of the courtyard as well as the lake
We were the only guests staying in the castle portion that night, so we had the whole place practically to ourselves. They gave us special cards that allowed entry to the castle/hotel complex, and aside from two security guards, there was nobody else around.
Can you think of a better deal for $215 per night? I can’t. We’ve stayed in European castles before, but certainly not in VIP suites. And we definitely didn’t have the whole place to ourselves at night. Since I’m cheap, the rest of the clan stayed in the “stables” portion of the hotel.
I was able to use points from Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard to offset the cost, and you can see all the details on how you can book your own stay in this post. Read Nancy’s write-up on credit card bonuses that will help offset travel expenses for places like this castle, where hotel points won’t be of any use.
Should you add Belarus to your European itinerary?
It really depends. If it’s your first time visiting Europe, I would have to say No. Don’t get me wrong, I love my home country and believe it has a lot to offer. That being said, if this might be your only visit to the Old World, I recommend you focus on countries like Italy, Germany, France and England. Got a few extra days? Add Greece, you won’t regret it.
However, if you are a europhile who has seen it all (except for far flung corners of the continent), consider adding Belarus to your itinerary. If you happen to have Belarus heritage in your family, this trip will, obviously, have more meaning. You may be surprised by how many famous people in Hollywood have Belarus roots. Did you know that Scarlett Johansson’s mother was born and raised in Minsk? Several great grandparents of Gal Gadot (the star of “Wonder Woman” movie) are also apparently from Belarus. Speaking of, I think that movie is a bit overrated, but I digress…
Belarus has recently introduced a new law. USA citizens (among other nationals) are now allowed a 5-day Visa-free stay in the country as long as they fly to Minsk airport. I will warn you, flights from Western Europe to Minsk can be expensive, but that’s where miles can come in handy.
You should probably stay one or two nights in Minsk (see Trip Advisor page for listings of top sights). It’s a very nice city, and I have some fond memories of it since I lived there while attending a university. But if you’ve been to London, Venice or Prague, you probably won’t be impressed. If you are into old Soviet architecture, you will love it!
As far as safety is concerned, Belarus is definitely no North Korea. Don’t loudly criticize the local government or attend political rallies, and you will be fine. Don’t steal, murder or run naked in public, and nobody will bother you. Minsk is like any large city, so all the common warnings apply here. Ladies, during rush hour watch out for male creepers on the subway and buses. I wish I could say that Belarus doesn’t have man-pigs, but unfortunately, some issues are universal. Though most Belarus men are perfectly decent, I assure you.
Many young people speak some English, so they will be your best bet as far as communication goes. There are a few chain hotels in Minsk, and the staff there is usually fluent in English as well. We’ve stayed in Crowne Plaza once and enjoyed it, so that’s a good option if you can find award availability. Hampton by Hilton Minsk City Center is a good deal at 10,000 points per night (used to be only 5,000 Hilton points).
Few years ago I have helped Stefan from RapidTravelChai blog connect with a local driver (a family friend) who drove him around Belarus. Apparently, he had a good experience. If any of the readers are interested in going to Belarus, I will be happy to do it for you as well. Be aware, I can’t vouch for anything. I simply know people who know people, that kind of thing. But at least you will have some form of reference, not to mention, pay a lot less cash.
If you do decide to stay overnight in Nesvizh castle, I recommend getting a room for your driver. A basic one in the “stables” costs only $36 per night. Or you can just put him in the living room of your VIP suite and hope he is not a murderer. Personally, I think the “stables” room is a better idea.
So, who is making plans to visit Belarus after reading this post?
Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.