Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, the southernmost country of the three Baltic nations on the Baltic Sea.
Like my previous post on Riga, the capital of Latvia, Vilnius is a small city that has a lot to offer. In 2009 Vilnius was voted the European Capital of Culture, and it certainly lives up to this award, with hidden surprises across the whole city.
Another recent surge in interest in this Baltic nation has been driven by the filming of HBO’s Chernobyl in the city. As Vilnius was part of the Soviet Union it has a large concentration of Soviet style architecture. However – do not fear. The city isn’t just filled with grey cinder block buildings!
A great place to stay is on the southern side of the Neris River as there are many hostels, Airbnbs and hotels on offer for any price range.
I think a great starting point is the Gate of Dawn. This is the only surviving gate out of five from the original city wall, dating back to the early 1500s. It contains a shrine to the Virgin Mary. During the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 1500s to the 1700s it was known as the “sharp” gate, as it was the most southern point of the city.
The historic centre (Old town) of Vilnius became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1994. This old town is the centre of culture for the city, and it contains buildings from various periods, including gothic, baroque, neoclassical and renaissance.
While you walk through the streets you will come to St Anne’s church, which is a lovely gothic style, red brick 16th century Catholic Church. For architecture and history buffs it has quite a flamboyant gothic style, with lots of floral designs and shapes.
Like most European cities, churches are scattered all over the old town. St Nicholas church was built in the 14th century and in the early 1900s was the only church in the country that would do services in Lithuanian (the rest remained in Latin).
Cathedral Square is a focal point, with large open spaces, important landmarks, locals relaxing, tourists snapping away and street performers doing what they do best.
The first thing you’ll notice is the Monument to Grand Duke Gediminas. He is important to Lithuanian history as he was the founder of Vilnius, the ruler of Lithuania for 25 years, and was responsible for moving the capital from Trakai to Vilnius.
Right by the monument is Vilnius Cathedral. Also known as the Cathedral Basilica of St Stanislaus and St Ladislaus of Vilnius, this cathedral is the main Roman Catholic Cathedral of Lithuania. The current cathedral built in 1783 and is in a white neoclassical style. Inside there are frescoes and paintings dating from the 16th to the 19th century. During the Soviet period the Cathedral was used as a warehouse as the regime did not want people to practise religion within the USSR. Masses started again in 1988.
At the front of the Cathedral is the Vilnius Cathedral Bell Tower. This 13th century bell tower allows you to climb to the top for €4.50, and gives you great views of the old town.
Just behind the Vilnius Cathedral is the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, which has been turned into a museum of art and archaeology of the region. Originally built in the 15th century it was extended and built upon during the 16th and 17th centuries. A tour of the museum will cost you €7.00.
To the left of the Cathedral you will find the National Museum of Lithuania, which will cost you €3.00 to explore to understand the history and culture of Lithuania over the centuries. At the front of this museum you will find the King Mindaugas monument, who was the first known grand duke of Lithuania and its only Christian king.
To the right of Vilnius Cathedral you will come to some gardens. Within them you will see locals enjoying a day out, with children running around and playing in the fountains, with sculptures scattered throughout the area for you to enjoy.
This then leads to Gediminas Castle. Perched upon Castle Hill, there are two ways to reach the top, where you will find Gerimina’s Tower of the Upper Castle. There is a trail you can walk which isn’t too difficult, or you can catch the funicular railway for €1.00 one way or €2.00 for a return.
The open air ruins of the castle date back to the 15th century and the tower is open for you to climb to the top. This will cost you €5.00 and gives you a magnificent panorama of Vilnius from the observation deck. It is higher than the Vilnius Cathedral Bell tower.
One thing you’ll notice on the walk up is the Three Crosses. Originally known as Bald Hill, the Hill of the Three Crosses was rebuilt in 1989 as the Soviets pulled the original ones down in 1950.
According to legend this was the spot where seven Franciscan friars were murdered. The original wooden three crosses were built in the 17th century, but because wood rots they were replaced in by concrete ones in 1916.
At the base of these crosses is an observation platform, which gives you an amazing view of the entire city. If you want to save money, this is the viewing platform for you.
Like Riga, Vilnius also has an important museum you must visit. The Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights is located in the North Western part of the old town, ironically within the old KGB headquarters and prison.
The entrance cost is only €4.00, and it goes into the brutal history that locals in Lithuania and the Baltic states faced under Soviet rule post WWII.
This is a really important part of Lithuanian history. Large proportions of the Lithuanian community were imprisoned, tortured and executed for opposing the Soviet regime.
The museum also goes into detail about those that defied the system and the three Baltic countries that formed the Baltic Way, a chain of two million people from all three countries protesting Soviet rule.
One thing I did not expect to see – but really appreciated – within the city of Vilnius was the amount of street art you could find around every corner of the city, along with a very cute restaurant and cafe scene that had outdoor areas for you to people watch.
This really showed how trendy the city has become.
I suggest walking the surrounding areas of the old town as you never know what street art you will find.
Another area that is pleasant to walk along and enjoy the scenery is the Neris River. The river has a walkway on both sides for pedestrians to ride their bikes, walk or go for a run and enjoy the fresh air on beautiful days (in the middle of winter this might not make it to your itinerary).
One historical fact about Vilnius is that before WWII, it contained one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, with 100,000 living within the city (which was about 45% of the population at the time) and 160,000 in total across the country. There were over 110 synagogues in the city alone. Sadly, following the Nazi invasion in WWII many Jews fled or were murdered, leaving the current population at around 2,000 (census in 2005).
There is only one remaining active Synagogue within Vilnius, known as the Choral Synagogue of Vilnius. This place of prayer only dates back to 1903 but is beautiful and is important for the Jewish community that remains within Lithuania.
One stop that I sadly missed on my adventure to Vilnius was Uzupis. The Uzupis Republic is a small bohemian republic that is located in the eastern part of the old town (I literally missed it by a block on my visit!).
This area is known for its art and in 1988 it declared itself independent.
This is a fun little stop for country counters of the TCC (Travellers Century Club), Nomad Mania and MTP lists.
My trip to Vilnius was only for three days but it certainly has a lot to offer. I love travelling to these sometimes underrated cities across Eastern Europe, as they have just as much if not more to offer than other destinations across Western Europe.