The first thing you’ll notice about downtown Minsk in the dead of February is the cold that lashes your face as you wander the wind-swept boulevards surrounded by towering concrete. The capital of Belarus, ruled by a strongman often described as “Europe’s last dictator,” was rebuilt in a distinctly communist style after being heavily damaged during World War II. Monumental buildings dominate the landscape, which is orderly but intimidating. The second thing — and the much better thing — to notice might not be so obvious: its delightfully bourgeois bars.
Drinking in Minsk? Why, da! A rising middle class with expendable income has spurred the opening of modern hangouts in recent years, and despite the city’s dour exterior, its social scene is surprisingly bustling.
You’ve just dined like a king near the corner of Karl Marx and Lenin streets.
Begin in the reconstructed Old Town, a sterile neighborhood of flashy eateries that feels vaguely like an Epcot Center exhibit. Just off Zybitskaya Street, the district’s main drag, there’s Banki-Butylki (Jars-Bottles). The shelves of this sleek, smartly designed bar of metal, dark wood and polished stone are lined with brand-name booze and, on the back wall, jugs of colorful homemade liqueurs packed with complex flavors ranging from nutmeg and honey to cherry and aloe. If you elect to knock back a sample set of these fruity home-brews served in mini-Mason jars, you’ll partake in a quintessentially Slavic habit — but in the kind of bar you’d expect to find in Manhattan or San Francisco.
Next, wander toward the city center, where the sweeping Independence Avenue is lined with massive buildings bolstered by columns or topped with spires — a living museum of grand Soviet architecture so well-preserved that it still lends an eerie utopian feel. Some of the city’s coolest spots are tucked into corridors between these hulking structures.
Like Sweet & Sour, a quiet and classy bar for cocktail fanatics. Genteel, black-tie-wearing bartenders and a painstakingly decorated interior might make you think you’ve wound up in an elite midcentury cigar lounge. Here, you can sip exquisitely crafted (and, at around $6 to $7 per drink, democratically priced) cocktails dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Co-owner Sergei Zablotsky, who opened Sweet & Sour in 2010, prides himself on providing a simple pleasure — and being ahead of the curve. “This is the first bar of its kind in the former Soviet Union,” he says. “There were no bars like this in Moscow or Kiev.”
In case you’ve refreshed yourself a bit too much, rest up: A rejuvenating breakfast awaits. Elegant yet understated, with a muted ivory decor and checkered tile floor, News Café, also downtown, serves up heaping English breakfasts, delicious poached eggs and a salmon omelet to die for. Their Mata Hari, a brandy-and-chai-infused vermouth cocktail pairs well with a French breakfast of cheese and fruit. Discounting the $15 price tag — but factoring in the carefully primped, iPad-toting clientele — it’s a truly bourgeois experience that’s loaded with irony: You’ve just dined like a king near the corner of Karl Marx and Lenin streets.
It’s easy to write off Eastern Europe as mysterious and unwelcoming when you’re caught up in Cold War–era stereotypes. So do yourself a favor: Keep an open mind, and let Minsk do the rest.
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