VILNIUS is a cosmopolitan and thoroughly modern city that is relatively compact and easy to get to know, with a variety of inexpensive attractions and a lively nightlife. Its numerous Baroque churches jostle for space amid glitzy restaurants and dilapidated old buildings that line its cobbled streets, while the student population lends the place a tangible air of energy and optimism. Beguiling, and sometimes downright odd, Vilnius has an addictive quality.
At the centre of Vilnius, poised between the medieval and nineteenth-century parts of the city, is Cathedral Square (Katedros aikštė). To the south of here along Pilies gatvė and Didžioji gatvė is the Old Town, containing perhaps the most impressive concentration of Baroque architecture in northern Europe. West of the square in the New Town is Gedimino prospektas, a nineteenth-century boulevard and the focus of the city’s commercial and administrative life. The traditionally Jewish areas of Vilnius between the Old Town and Gedimino prospektas still retain some sights, such as the synagogue.
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Vilnius has a reasonable amount of hotels, although budget choices are relatively thin on the ground and should be booked well in advance, especially in summer. The growing crop of moderate-to-expensive hotels are modern, business-oriented affairs, but there's also a nice choice of characterful, cosy places in stylishly restored old buildings. The Old Town is a good place to look, or the area around Naujamiestis ("New Town") and Gedimino prospektas just to the west, which is within easy walking distance of the attractions. There are also a few options on the rapidly developing north bank of the river Neris.
Other inexpensive options include an increasing number of hostels and B&Bs – the cheapest way of staying close to the Old Town. Hostels are basic compared to their counterparts in Western Europe: rooms are often cramped and very simply furnished, though invariably clean, and the staff usually enthusiastic and friendly.
Cathedral Square is dominated by the Neoclassical cathedral, dating from the thirteenth century when a wooden church was built here on the site of a temple dedicated to Perkųnas, the god of thunder. The highlight of the airy, vaulted interior is the opulent Chapel of St Casimir, the patron saint of Lithuania. Next to the cathedral on the square is the white belfry, once part of the fortifications of the vanished Lower Castle. Between the cathedral and the belfry lies a small coloured tile with stebuklas (miracle) written on it, marking the spot from where, in 1989, two million people formed a human chain that stretched all the way to Tallinn, Estonia, to protest against Soviet occupation.
Immediately behind the cathedral stands the Grand Dukes’ Palace (Valdovu rumai), a 21st-century reconstruction of a Renaissance palace that fell into ruin at the end of the eighteenth century. Rebuilt more-or-less accurately by following old paintings and drawings, the courtyard-edged complex now holds a sumptuous collection of furnishings and artworks displayed in over thirty rooms, reflecting the opulent style in which Lithuania’s Grand Dukes might once have lived. Opened in summer 2013, it’s one of Lithuania’s best-labelled and best-presented collections, and also comes with gift shop and café.
Watering holes in central Vilnius, especially in the Old Town, range from faux-rustic taverns with wooden benches to swish designer bars with minimalist decor. Most places serve a wide range of food, and the locals are as likely to visit them for lunch or dinner as for a session of serious drinking. A few close at 11pm or midnight, although the majority stay open into the early hours, especially at weekends.
Vilinius has several large mainstream clubs attracting a friendly, relaxed crowd with an unsophisticated mixture of Western, commercial dance tunes and Lithuanian and Russian techno. In addition, many of the establishments have DJs or live music at weekends. Entry fees can be anything between 10 and 35Lt.
Vilnius's theatre scene is interesting and varied, although performances are invariably in Lithuanian (or Russian) except on the rare occasions when visiting companies are in town. However, the language barrier shouldn't prevent you from from enjoying shows by the best of the contemporary drama companies, from whom movement and stagecraft are often just as important as the text.
Vilnius has a rapidly growing choice of restaurants, offering everything from Lithuanian to Lebanese cuisine in all budgets. Many Vilnius restaurants serve the kind of cuisine you find in most northern European countries: meat-and-potatoes, schnitzels and chops. An increasing number, however, are serving traditional Lithuanian food, such as cepelinai, koldunai and blynai, in folksy surroundings. In addition there's no end of pizzerias and a handful of ethnic restaurants around the centre.
Many of Vilnius's cafés offer much the same food as those places that call themselves restaurants, but in more informal surroundings and at sometimes significantly cheaper prices.
On Kalinausko Street, the bronze head of rocker Frank Zappa is perched on a column against a backdrop of street art. Civil servant Saulis Paukstys founded the local Zappa fan club and, in 1992, commissioned the socialist-realist sculptor Konstantinas Bogdanas to create this unique sculpture.
Rising behind the cathedral is the tree-clad Castle Hill, its summit crowned by the red-brick Gediminas Castle – one of the city’s best-known landmarks – founded by Grand Duke Gediminas, the Lithuanian ruler who consolidated the country’s independence. The tower houses a little museum, with displays of armour and models showing the former extent of Vilnius’s medieval fortifications. The view of Old Town from the top is unparalleled. Take the funicular from the courtyard of the Applied Art Museum.
Gedimino prospektas, running west from Cathedral Square, is the most important commercial street. On the southern side of Lukiskių aikštė, a square around 900m west of Cathedral Square, is Gedimino 40, Lithuania’s former KGB headquarters. The building also served as Gestapo headquarters during the German occupation and, more recently, the Soviets incarcerated political prisoners in the basement. It’s now the Genocide Museum (Genocido aukų muziejus), its torture cells and execution chamber making a grim impression. Well-labelled, detailed exhibits on Soviet occupation, deportation and Lithuanian partisan resistance are upstairs; the optional English-language audiotape commentary is worthwhile if you want a detailed prison tour.
The Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum (Valstybinis Vilniaus Gaono Žydų Muziejus) is housed in three separate branches. The Jewish History Exhibits has displays upstairs on Jewish partisan resistance, life in the Vilnius ghetto, and an exhibit on Lithuanians who risked their lives to save Jews during the Nazi occupation. The Green House, slightly uphill contains a harrowing display on the fate of Vilnius and Kaunas Jews during World War II, including eyewitness accounts, and many extremely disturbing photographs with some captions in English. Guided museum tours in English can be arranged, as well as “history of Jewish Vilnius” tours. The Centre for Tolerance inside a restored former Jewish theatre, houses some excellent twentieth-century Jewish artwork, as well as fine religious items and an excellent display in English on the second floor charting the history of Jews in Lithuania from the fourteenth century until the present day.
Before World War II, Vilnius was one of the most important centres of Jewish life in eastern Europe. The Jews – first invited to settle in 1410 by Grand Duke Vytautas – made up around a third of the city’s population, mainly concentrated in the eastern fringes of the Old Town around present-day Vokiečių gatvė, Zydų gatvė and Antokolskio gatvė. Massacres of the Jewish population began soon after the Germans occupied Vilnius on June 24, 1941, and those who survived the initial killings found themselves herded into two ghettos. The smaller of these ghettos centred on the streets of Zydų, Antokolskio, Stiklių and Gaono, and was liquidated in October 1941, while the larger occupied an area between Pylimo, Vokiečių, Lydos, Mikalojaus, Karmelitų and Arklių streets, and was liquidated in September 1943. Most of Vilnius’s 80,000 Jewish residents perished in Paneriai forest, 10km southwest of the city.
Today the Jewish population of Vilnius numbers only five thousand. The city's one surviving synagogue is a Moorish-style structure built in 1903 to serve a congregation that belonged to the Haskalah ("Enlightenment") tradition – a nineteenth-century movement that aimed to bring Judaism into line with modern secularism. Originally known as Choral Synagogue, owing to the (then innovation) use of a boys' choir during services, it was a popular place of worship for wealthier, westernized Jews pre-World War II, and now serves the whole of Vilnius's remaining Jewish community.
About 100m north of the cathedral is the Lithuanian National Museum (Lietuvos Nacionalinis Muziejus), which traces the history of Lithuania from prehistoric times to 1940 through an interesting collection of artefacts, paintings and photographs, including a display of wooden crucifixes and ethnographic reconstructions of peasant life. A little further north on Arsenalo, a separate department houses the much snazzier Prehistoric Lithuania Exhibition, displaying flint, iron, bronze and silver objects and covering the history of Lithuanians up to the Middle Ages.
On the north side of the River Neris, the National Art Gallery (Nacionalinė Dailės Galerija) houses a permanent display of eleven galleries of Lithuanian art since 1900, as well as temporary exhibitions. The works are organized to indicate how art changed in response to political circumstances such as World War II and Soviet repression; check out the photo documentaries of Antanas Sutkus in particular.
The Old Town, just south of Cathedral Square, is a network of narrow, often cobbled streets that forms the Baroque heart of Vilnius, with the pedestrianized Pilies gatvė cutting into it from the southeastern corner of the square. To the west of this street is Vilnius University, constructed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries around nine linked courtyards that extend west to Universiteto gatvė. Within its precincts is the beautiful Baroque St John’s Church (Šv Jono baznyčia), founded during the fourteenth century, taken over by the Jesuits in 1561 and given to the university in 1737.
Napoleon Bonaparte, who stayed in Vilnius briefly during his ill-fated campaign against Russia in 1812, is said to have been so impressed by St Anne’s Church (Šv. Onos Bažnyčia), on Maironio gatvė, that he wanted to take it back to Paris on the palm of his hand. Studded with skeletal, finger-like towers, its facade overlaid with intricate brick traceries and fluting, this late sixteenth-century structure is the finest Gothic building in the capital. Just south of St Anne’s a bridge over the River Vilnia forms the border of the self-declared independent republic of Užupis, home to a flourishing population of artists, bohemians and yuppies (note the locks on the bridge: lovers fasten them here and then throw the key in the river to symbolize their union). Stroll up from Užupio Café across the bridge to see the psychedelic art gallery with weird and wonderful creations suspended above the river. Some of the buildings here are in dire need of repair, but there is a trendy feel to the area.
West of Užupis, Pilies gatvė becomes Didžioji gatvė as it heads south, with the restored Baroque palace at no. 4 housing the Vilnius Picture Gallery (Vilniaus Paveikslų Galerija), with a marvellous collection of sixteenth- to nineteenth-century paintings and sculptures from around the country. The colonnaded Neoclassical building at the end of Town Hall Square (Rotušės aikštė) is the Town Hall itself. The Contemporary Art Centre (Suolaikinio meno centras or SMC) lies behind it, hosting modern art exhibitions with interactive elements and a good café. East of the square is the striking St Casimir’s Church (Šv. Kazimiero Bažnyčia), the oldest Baroque church in the city, dating from 1604, and possessing a beautiful interior including a marble altarpiece. South of here, Didžioji becomes Aušros Vartų gatvė, leading to the Gate of Dawn (Aušros Vartų), the sole survivor of the nine city gates. A chapel above the gate houses the image of the Madonna of the Gates of Dawn, said to have miraculous powers and revered by Polish Catholics; open-air Mass is held on Sundays.
Around 30km west of Vilnius lies the little town of Trakai, a mix of concrete Soviet-style buildings merging with the wooden cottages of the Karaite community. The former capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Trakai was founded during the fourteenth century and, standing on a peninsula jutting out between two lakes, it’s the site of two impressive medieval castles and makes for a worthwhile day-trip from the capital.
Once you arrive, follow Vytauto gatvė and turn right down Kėstučio gatvė to reach the remains of the Peninsula Castle, now partially restored after having been destroyed by the Russians in 1655. Skirting the ruins along the lakeside path, you will see the spectacular Island Castle (Salos pilis), one of Lithuania’s most famous monuments, accessible by two wooden drawbridges and preceded by souvenir and rowing-boat rental (15Lt) stalls. You can also rent yachts here. Built around 1400 AD by Grand Duke Vytautas, under whom Lithuania reached the pinnacle of its power during the fifteenth century, the castle fell into ruin from the seventeenth century until a 1960s restoration returned it to its former glory. The history museum inside displays artefacts discovered while excavating the site.
Trakai is home to three hundred Karaim, Lithuania’s smallest ethnic minority – a Judaic sect of Turkish origin whose ancestors were brought here from the Crimea by Grand Duke Vytautas to serve as bodyguards. You can learn more about their cultural contribution to Trakai at the Karaite Ethnographic Exhibition. You can sample kibinai, the Karaite culinary speciality – a mincemeat pasty – served up at the cafés arounds; wash it down with gira, a semi-alcoholic drink made from fermented bread.