207,595 sq km (80,153 sq miles).
9.6 million (2013).
46.3 per sq km.
Head of state:
President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.
Head of government:
Prime Minister Andrey Kabyakow since 2014.
220V, 50Hz. European plugs with two round pins are standard.
A land of rusty tractors and tacky fashion; a Soviet state in all but name; Europe’s last dictatorship: suffice to say Belarus has something of an image problem.
Though these lazy stereotypes carry some semblance of truth, Belarus is a largely misunderstood country that’s had a bit of a raw deal of it in western media. Consequently, those who visit are often surprised to discover a multifaceted destination rich in history, brimming with culture and populated by warm and generous inhabitants, who are gradually pulling themselves from the shadows of their past.
The truth is that Belarus’ appeal might well be in its isolation. Indeed this is a destination where you can still see what life was like during the days of communism, with an abundance of Soviet iconography, especially in the big cities, allowing anyone with an imagination to visualise how things once were.
In the capital Minsk, with its clean streets and neoclassical Stalinist architecture, a cosmopolitan vibe sits alongside an intense national pride. And well it might – the Belarusian capital is a survivor, having time and time again, throughout its tumultuous history, refused to say ‘die.’
Brest is another city of interest. Nestling on the border with Poland, it is possessed of charm and history in equal measure, and probably the most Western of the Belarusian cities.
Beyond the urban environment travellers will discover wide plains, picturesque villages, ancient castles, monasteries and dense forests, not to mention thousands of lakes. National parks protect some of Europe’s oldest untouched woodlands, and some of the continent’s largest marshlands. The countryside also offers the chance to see some of the last remaining collective farms in action.
There is no escaping the fact that Belarus is a developing Eastern European country with a somewhat shady past, but for travellers who give this destination the time it deserves, there are a plenty of rewards to be had.
Last updated: 19 October 2015
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
There is little crime in Belarus but, you should be alert at all times to the possibility of mugging, pickpocketing and theft from vehicles or hotel rooms. Take extra care when travelling by train; there have been instances of theft from travellers, especially on sleeper trains to Warsaw and Moscow.
You must have a valid International Driving Permit to drive legally in Belarus. You must be able to produce ownership documents or a letter of ‘power of attorney’ at border crossings. Only originals of these documents are accepted. You must have third party car insurance or you may get an on-the-spot fine. You can only buy this when entering Belarus. Ask at Customs’ border offices for further information.
Buses may require permits for picking up passengers in Belarus, or for transiting. These permits are free. Find out when a permit is required and how to get one.
Don’t overstay the temporary import terms for your vehicle. Violation of the exit deadline may result in confiscation of your vehicle at the Belarusian border or if stopped at an in-country police checkpoint.
There may be long queues at borders. Customs and immigration can be lengthy and bureaucratic. You should ignore any private facilitators who offer to help you pass through checkpoints and border crossings.
Drivers of foreign vehicles must pay a fee to use toll roads. There are fines for non-compliance. On 1 August 2013, an electronic toll collection system was introduced. Information about the system of toll roads can be found here, including a map of toll roads and guidance on payment.
The quality of driving in Belarus is erratic. A-class highways are in reasonable condition. The condition of B-class roads varies considerably and some are impassable for periods in winter. Road works and potholes are usually poorly marked. Pony and trap combinations are a specific hazard for drivers in rural unlit areas.
You should observe the speed limit at all times. The standard speed limit is 60 km/h (37 mph) in built up areas; 90 km/h (55 mph) outside built up areas; and 100 km/h (62 mph) on motorways (Brest-Moscow). Visiting motorists who have held a driving licence for under 2 years must not exceed 70 km/h (43 mph).
There is a zero-tolerance policy towards drink-driving.
There are police checkpoints on routes throughout the country. You should stop when instructed and have vehicle documentation to hand.
See the AA and RAC guides on driving in Belarus.
Some local airlines may not observe proper maintenance procedures. For your safety, where possible, you should fly directly to your destination on an international flight originating outside the former Soviet Union.
Belarus is governed by a strong Presidential system with security forces loyal to it. The authorities show little tolerance for their opposition counterparts. The security forces have used force to disperse or intimidate opposition events. Be vigilant and avoid any demonstrations or rallies.