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Sep 30 2014

Vilnius: One of my Favourite Cities

I had never been to Lithuania, didn’t know much about it, didn’t know anyone who had ever been, and there were other places I wanted to visit first.  So, going to Vilnius was far down my list of places to go.  That didn’t change when I met a couple of students at a hostel in Warsaw who were doing their Erasmus Programme in Vilnius.  They didn’t rave about Lithuania, so there was no reason to put it higher up on my list of my places to visit.

I honestly wasn’t expecting to go anytime soon, but my mum changed that.  While I was wandering aimlessly around part of Eastern Europe, my mum was in the UK looking for somewhere to go on holiday.  As she hadn’t been to Lithuania, she had gotten it into her head to go, so she booked a one-way ticket for herself and my dad to Vilnius.  As I wasn’t that far away, I decided to meet up with them and see a bit of Lithuania.  If it wasn’t for my mum, I wouldn’t have gone.

Having been, it would have been a real shame to miss out because I loved Vilnius and so did my parents.  In fact, it is my mum’s favourite city.  She liked it so much, we had to literally drag her to the airport.  I’m not kidding!  Considering the fact that I wasn’t fussed about going, it has turned out to be one of my all-time favourite cities.  There are so many reasons why I love this city: It’s very beautiful, clean, relaxed, orderly, and the food is delicious.

A City Steeped in History

Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, is the second biggest city of the Baltic States.  The Old Town (Senamiestis) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is one of the largest surviving medieval old towns in Northern Europe.  The name originates from one of the rivers that runs through the city, Vilnia.

The city and country have had a difficult time over the years.  In the 17th century, Vilnius was occupied by Russian forces.  It was pillaged, burned, and its population massacred.  Then, it was looted by the Swedish army during the Great Northern War.  In the 18th century, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague, which killed about 35,000 residents and, if that wasn’t enough, there were devastating fires.

It became part of the Russian Empire, Habsburg Empire, and Kingdom of Prussia, and, in the 19th century, the city was taken by Napoleon.  For a few years, Vilnius was annexed by Poland until the Second World War when the whole of Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union.  During the Holocaust, 95% of the Jewish population of Lithuania were murdered by German units and Lithuanian Nazi collaborators; most of which happened a mere 10 km west of the Old Town.

Of course, there are reminders of its harrowing past, but you can see how the city and its residents have moved on.  It’s a surprisingly orderly city that has a relaxed feel about it.  It doesn’t feel too big, too cramped, or too busy.  It’s one of those cities where the longer I stayed, the longer I wanted to stay.

Cathedral Square

Cathedral Square, Vilnius

We stayed for a couple of nights by Cathedral Square.  That gave us the chance to explore it without having to wander too far.  It’s hard to believe that the open, spacious square you see today was once densely populated.  Where Russian military parades used to take place, now festivals, fairs, and New Year’s Eve events are held.  An annual music festival was on when I was there, so I got to see and listen to traditional music and dance.

It is thought that people used to worship the Baltic pagan god on the site of Vilnius Cathedral.  The first cathedral was built in the 13th century, although it has been rebuilt numerous times over the centuries, mainly due to fires.  This is the main Roman Catholic cathedral in Lithuania and the place where the coronations of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania took place.  During the soviet regime, it was turned into a gallery and didn’t regain cathedral status until 1989.

The Bell Tower is thought to be one of the original towers remaining from the medieval city walls of the Lower Castle that once stood there.  An alternative idea is that it was once a small pagan temple, which was demolished and the bell tower was built in its place.  Whichever version is true, the oldest part of the bell tower is from the 13th century and the newest part is from the 19th century.  You can climb up to the top of the tower for a good view, but mind the narrow steps and your head the higher you go.

Gediminas Castle
Gediminas Castle, Vilnius

The original castle complex comprised 3 castles: The Upper, Lower, and Crooked Castles.  The latter was burned down by the Teutonic Knights and never rebuilt.  The only remains of the castle complex is the Upper Castle, which is a relatively short walk up from Cathedral Square or a funicular ride up.   What you see today is from the 15th century.  You get great views of Vilnius and the surrounding area from here.

Gate of Dawn

The Gate of Dawn, Vilnius

The Vilnius city walls were built for protection in the 16th century, comprising nine city gates and three towers.  During Russian rule, the city walls were destroyed, and, by the beginning of the 19th century, only the Gate of Dawn remained.

Town Hall Square

Town Hall Square

This square was the original place for trading and events in Vilnius.  It is now a place where you can chill out and relax with a coffee or have a bite to eat while enjoying a view of the town hall and square.

St Peter and St Paul’s Church

St Peter and St Paul's Church

This is outside of the old town.  It’s one sight you shouldn’t miss when you go to Vilnius if architecture is your ‘thing’ because it’s a stunning piece of baroque architecture.  There is so much to look at and take in when you get inside.  It is very impressive with all the statues and frescos.  The boat-shaped chandelier made of glass beads that you can see in the photo (top right) is dedicated to St Peter who was a fisherman.  It’s a wonderful example of Lithuanian Baroque architecture.

Uzupis Republic/Uzupio

Uzupio, Vilnius

Uzupis is a descriptive name for a neigbourhood in Vilnius.  In Lithuanian, it means ‘on the other side of the river’ and Uzupis is, in fact, located on the other side of the river Vilnia.  It has been likened to Montmartre in Paris, probably because it’s a haven for artists, but also like Christiania in Copenhagen because, in 1997, it declared itself an independent republic.

Food

Delicious food in Vilnius

Al fresco dining is a big thing in Vilnius, which is great because you can make the most of the fabulous summer weather, indulge in great food, while enjoying the stunning surroundings that have made the old town a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I don’t generally travel to sample local food because I’m vegetarian and choice is often limited.  Not only did I not have any trouble finding vegetarian food, but the standard and quality of the dishes in many places was very high.  They really do take pride in their work.  The best meal by far was at a restaurant in Uzupio.  The restaurant didn’t look like anything special, but we could see all the care and attention that went into creating each dish.

My mother and I have a bit of a sweet tooth.  We were well-catered for in Vilnius.  There are an array of fabulous desserts.  One day, we ordered a ice-cream sundae each as a snack until we had lunch.  The thing is, once we had finished, we didn’t have room for anything else until dinner time.

Riverside walks

Vilnius riverside

Vilnius is one of those cities that is best enjoyed and experienced on foot because there are so many beautiful buildings to marvel at and photograph.  One of those walks should include a walk along the riverside.

City Tours

Vilnius City Tour Bus

There are two companies that offer city bus tours or you can go on a walking tour.  We went on one of the bus tours, which gave us a great overview of the city.  It helped to work out what to explore further on foot.

Accommodation

Vinius accommodationConsidering the fact that I wasn’t going to go to Vilnius at all, I ended up there twice.  We stayed in a hotel, but spent most of the time in two apartments.  Staying in different parts of the city gave us a completely different perspective, as did staying in different types of accommodation.  Where you stay can have a big impact on your experience.  Well, that’s what we found.

The first apartment we stayed in was fantastic.  You can see what it was like from the above photos.  It’s the best apartment I have ever had the pleasure of staying in.  The owner has retained its charm with the way it has been decorated and furnished.  We could have stayed there a lot longer.  Unsurprisingly, it’s a popular apartment, so we could only stay for a few days, having booked it at the last minute.

Summary

I was only there for a few days each time I stayed in Vilnius, but I loved it and so did my parents.  There is so much more to Vilnius, but you really need to go and explore it for yourself.  All I will say is that it’s the only place I’ve heard my mum say she would consider living.  That’s the best recommendation my mum could ever give.

Location

Transport to Vilnius airport

The bus and train station are across the road from each other, which is convenient.  You can either get a bus to the old town or walk.  I walked the first day.  I wasn’t sure where I was going so, to get to the Gate of Dawn, it probably took me slightly longer.  I would say it’s only about a 10-minute walk.

Getting to/from the airport by train cost us only 2.50 LTL each.  You can buy the ticket when you get to the station and it’s only a 7-minute journey.  Then, like Berlin Schönefeld, there’s a corridor that links the train station to the airport terminal, so you won’t get wet going from one to the other if it’s raining.

You can also get an airport shuttle bus from the bus station.  Strangely, the tourist information office knew nothing about this.  It’s the number 88 bus and it takes people from the airport to the old town.  You can buy a ticket on board (cash only) or from anywhere that has the sign in the photograph above (bottom right).

Vilnius airport might be relatively small, but it’s well-equipped with free WiFi throughout.  There’s also a lounge/cafe upstairs before you go through to the gates, which has power sockets, so you can charge up electrical items and do some work while waiting for your flight.

As always, I have marked some of the places mentioned on the map below.

Have your say

Have you been to Vilnius?  If so, what did you think of it?  If not, would you consider visiting?

About the author

Teresa Keane

Teresa has been to almost 60 countries. She started travelling independently at the age of 38 when she gave up her job, rented out her house, put her possessions in storage and spent a year travelling the world. It changed her life. She now creates, publishes, & promotes online travel content and is an experienced freelance trainer & EFL teacher.

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