Last week we visited Galveston Island for a couple of days, followed by a weekend in Houston. Whether you’re there for a week or just a few days, both cities have lots of fun and off-the-beaten-path things to do that won’t break your budget! Whether you’re a NASA fan or love lying on the beach, this area has you covered.
I have to admit, we arrived in Minsk a little travel fatigued. It was our 26th country on this trip, and we’ve been traveling for over a year. But as Chris and I spent more time in Minsk, the city really began to grow on us and we kept discovering more fun areas to explore. Since hosting the 2019 European Games, the country has rushed to modernize, including a free visa for most nationalities (if you arrive by air to Minsk). If you take your time and get to know it, Belarus might surprise you.
We spent nine days in Minsk, which is a huge sprawling city. Nearly everything in Minsk was built after World War II, as it was almost completely destroyed. In fact, some stories even suggest that Stalin purposefully allowed Minsk’s destruction, in order to re-build it as a huge “premium Soviet city” on the road to Moscow. In any event, for fans of Stalin Empire architecture, this city is a gold mine.
We took the free walking tour, which met at City Hall, and explored the area of town that includes Gorky Park and the National Ballet And Opera Theater (in fact, the building was meant to be the base for the largest Lenin statue in the world).
On another day, we explored the Kastrychnitskaya Street area, near the train station. The area used to be industrial factories, but now pubs, cafes, food trucks, art spaces, and huge murals are transforming this block into a creative space. The week we were visiting coincided with a 2 week initiative of Brazilian artists visiting to create several new murals. Plus lots of delicious food stops along the way!
For just .65 Belorussian Rubles (30 US cents), you can hop on any of the stylish metro stops and travel across the city. We took a metro from Lenin Station (huge hammer and sickle of course) up to the National Library. It’s a huge, modern glass building housing ten million items, and for just $2 you can take an elevator up to the 23rd observation platform for a view of the whole city.
Probably the most interesting part of Minsk is Independence Avenue, also called Prospect Niezalieznasci. 15 kilometers long, eight lanes, and flanked on both sides by giant Soviet brutalist buildings, it’s supposedly the longest such street in the world. I’m not sure about that, but I can say that walking along the various full block-long buildings such as the Central Post Office, the GUM department store, the old KGB building, the State Circus, and the History Museum can really make a citizen feel small (which was exactly the intent of Stalinist architecture). Small cogs in a huge state wheel.
We took a train to visit Vitebsk, a city in northeastern Belarus, close to the Russian border. We spent three days there and…. well, we had a hard time filling those three days with things to see. We visited the Marc Chagall Museum (he lived most of his life there), and we had Mexican food. Twice. Lots of churches. We found a Soviet-style canteen (what we’d call a cafeteria), which had delicious draniki (potato pancakes served with sour cream or sometimes mushroom sauce). We took some naps.
From Minsk, we also took a day trip to Mir castle, one of the four UNESCO world heritage sites in Belarus. It’s a 16th century Polish Gothic Castle, once owned by the Radziwill family. Only 70 km away from Minsk, it’s an easy bus trip (6 Belarussian rubles, buses at 8:40 am, 9:40 am, 11:50, and 2 pm). Entry to the castle is 4 rubles ($2).
From Mir, we headed back to Minsk. Our “must-see” list complete, we spent the last couple of days just roaming around, gazing up at immense buildings and admiring the ornate interiors, while peeking behind and between buildings to find interesting paintings, mosaics, and statues.
Use my Google map to find just a few of the fun things to see around Minsk.
Ukraine is fairly new to the tourism scene, and is less-traveled by western tourists. But there’s still a lot to do in this sprawling country, and in fact, some of the things to do here are so uniquely Ukrainian that they can’t really be done anywhere else! Read on to discover some of the adventures Chris and I had during our two weeks in Ukraine.
Hit the beach:
For centuries people from northern climes have flocked to the Black Sea near Odessa to “take the waters” of the sunny south. There are busy party beaches within walking and tram distance of Odessa’s downtown, such as Arkadia and Ibiza. If you prefer a quieter beach scene for your holiday, take the commuter train heading south and visit any of the beach towns the train passes through. We spent three lovely days at Zatoka, about 50 km from Odessa, and loved the relaxed atmosphere there.
Explore the catacombsunder Odessa:
The city of Odessa was built with blocks of limestone mined from tunnels near the city in the 19th century. In later years, these same tunnels were used as an extensive network of bomb shelters and command centers in case of a Cold War attack. Now, visitors can visit the Museum of Catacombs to learn about the 2000 km of tunnels, or take a tour through the “wild” catacombs themselves. We went with Leonid and had a great time exploring the creepy but cool underground. Don’t sign up if you are claustrophobic or afraid of the dark!
Free Walking Tour
Of course, nearly every major city in Europe offers free walking tours now, but there’s only one in Odessa! We walked the city with Svetlana for two hours, taking in sights such as the Potemkin Steps, the Odessa Opera House, the “Flat” House, and more. It’s a great way to orient yourself to a new city, plus you learn a bit about the history of the place and get tips on local bars and restaurants. These guides live on the tips they earn, so please tip them according to how much you enjoyed the tour and the time they put into it.
Odessa City History Museum
This was our favorite museum in Odessa. It’s situated in a beautiful 19th century historical mansion, and details the history of Odessa from early Greek fishing village, up through the Cossacks, the Russians, and World War II. We visited on a Friday, so the dates/times in Google maps are wrong (it said they are closed). The museum costs just 30 Hrievnas (just over $1). It’s located just off the lovely City Garden off Derybasivska Street (the main pedestrian street in town).
Chernobyl Exclusionary Zone Tour:
Most people over the age of 35 remember the events of April 1986, when news emerged that the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine was severely damaged and had spewed radioactive gases that reached all the way to Scandinavia in just a few days. The area was promptly evacuated and until 2011, only workers involved in the on-going clean up effort could visit inside the Exclusionary Zone. Tours began running a few years ago, and now, with a new 1.5 billion Euro cover over nuclear reactor number 4, visitors can do a one- or two-day tour to the the Zone. Since the new HBO miniseries debuted in May 2019, Chernobyl has seen a 40% increase in tourism. For visitors who want to learn more about the disaster but don’t have the time or funds to visit the site, there is also a Chernobyl Disaster Museum in Kiev.
Street Art and Craft Beer
Not only do we love drinking local beers at small breweries, but we also love looking at amazing street art that pops up in cities. On our walking tour of Kiev, we passed by several large-scale murals and wanted to find more information on them. We were super happy to find this blog post from “What Kate and Kris Did” that not only detailed the art murals, but planned a route around Kiev that encompassed several beer stops along the way! A win-win situation for us. Be sure to check out their other posts on Ukraine as well.
We love to eat, and trying out some local delicacies is always high on our list when we visit a new place. You definitely cannot leave Ukraine without tasting some beef stroganoff (created in Odessa), salo (sliced pork fat served with garlic, herbs, and black bread), and of course borscht (beet soup with beef chunks). Some other favorites of ours that we tried were okroshko (cold yogurt soup with egg, ham, cucumber, and onion), caviar, and kvas, a non-alcoholic malt beverage served ice-cold on hot days. A really fun place to try some Ukrainian specialties in Kiev is Ostannya Barykada (The Last Barricade)- a secret, underground restaurant that will give you a short tour and explanation of the 2014 revolution which took place in the square just above the restaurant. You need a password to enter- hit me up on Twitter or Instagram and I’ll tell you what the password is!
Study a Modern Revolution
Maybe when you think of revolutions, you think of one’s in the past like the French Revolution or the American Revolution. Well, in this part of the world, revolution is a daily occurrence, with some Ukrainians still fighting their big brother neighboring country Russia for portions of their land, such as Crimea. In late 2013, a revolution erupted on the Maidan, or main square, in Kiev. Over the next several months, partisans fought for Ukraine’s freedoms and to drive repressive forces out of the city. To learn more about the “Revolution of Dignity”, you can join a short walking tour, daily at 10:30 am, or visit the Complex of Heroes at Independence Square.
Of course, there’s so much more to Ukraine than just Kiev and Odessa, but our time was limited and we found these two cities to be fascinating. We hope to get back to Ukraine one day and explore the east and the west parts of the country as well.
Have you visited? What was your favorite part? Let us know in the comments below.
Chris and I took a bus that wound through the vast sunflower fields and bumpy roads of eastern Romania. We crossed the border with relative ease (15 minutes on each side), and arrived in Chişinău, the capital city of Moldova. We rented a spacious “apartment-hotel” there, unpacked our bags, and spent a few days getting to know the area.
Moldova is not a very large country, and it has no access to the Black Sea. Once part of the Principality of Moldavia, later part of the Russian Empire under the name of Bessarabia, the town was a staging ground for a war between the Ottoman and Russian empires. Later they joined the Kingdom of Romania, but were annexed to the Soviet Union in 1945. With the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Moldova achieved independence.
We spent a few days in the capital city, Chişinău (pronounced “Key-she-no”). It’s a very flat, walkable city, with a small lake and recreation area on one side, and a long main boulevard of monuments and public buildings. We stopped by the Ionika Hostel for a great map of the city (check out their very cool rooms). A number of the buildings in Chişinău were built by Russian architect Alexander Bernardazzi, over a period of 25 years from 1850-1875 (he later moved to Odessa and constructed many of the buildings there). It’s not hard to spot the design similarities in Bernardazzi’s work in Chişinău , or the white limestone marble he used from nearby quarries.
As it turns out, those limestone quarries near Chişinău make excellent wine cellars, and now two of the largest cellars in the world run tours of their vast caves. You can visit Cricova– where Putin celebrated his 50th birthday- or Milestii Mici– the largest wine cellar in the world, certified by Guinness in 2007. There’s over 60 smaller wineries in Moldova to visit as well if you get out of the capital city area.
We hired a taxi with our Yandex taxi app to take us the 15 km to Milesti Mici (100 MDL), and did a one hour tour and tasting. You need your own vehicle to drive through the tunnels, or you can use the taxi you arrived in (310 MDL/ $20 for the tour; 150 MDL for the taxi). A tour guide rides with you and explains the various streets underground (all named for different wines), and you get out of the car a few times to look at specific points of interest.
The cellars remain a constant 12 degrees Celsius all year round, and MM’s holds 65 million liters of wine, in bottles, oak barrels, and stainless steel tanks. They have 200 km of tunnels, with 55 km currently in use. Altogether, their wine cellar is the size of Monaco, and includes a secret room that sheltered 50,000 bottles in the years that Gorbachev prohibited alcohol. After the tour, you can do a tasting, which includes 3 jugs of wine, some meat-and-cheese snacks, and live music. We were glad we had the taxi for the ride home after tasting the white wine and the dessert wine, and finishing off the jug of red wine!
In 1992, there was a brief military conflict in the breakaway region of Transnistria. Since then, it’s been ruled by a joint control commission of Russia, Moldova, and Transnistria. No United Nations countries recognize it as a country, although the breakaway entities of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh do. Transnistria doesn’t actually call their “nation” by that name- it’s the name of the region- they call it “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic”. They have their own passports, visa, and currency.
Anyway, whether you consider it the “country that doesn’t exist”, a nation, an autonomous region, or just part of Moldova, we went for a visit to its capitol, Tiraspol. It’s a one hour ride on a mashrutka bus, with a very brief stop at their border for a free visa. We had a hotel reserved for two nights, but they stamped us in for two weeks.
We explored the city with Anton, a local tour guide who offers both a one-hour (tip-based) free walking tour, or a six-hour extended tour to a few places nearby. Tiraspol is full of Brutalism-style architecture, a curving river, and leafy parks. Once a thriving factory region for the Soviet nations, many of the factories are now closed, leave behind an empty, abandoned atmosphere. However, people do still live here! Our guide said that renting an apartment in one of the blocks of Soviet flats costs just $100 a month. Some people call Transnistria “the land that time forgot”, but to be honest, I thought it looks like so many other small towns across the former Soviet nations (or anywhere, really, that once thrived and now does not). With tourism, the Internet, and a growing economy, I predict this area will be joining the “modern age” sooner rather than later.
Train station mural
From Transnistria, we head to Ukraine. Off to see what adventure we can find near the Black Sea!