While Lithuania might not be the first country one thinks of when travelling to Europe, its capital Vilnius is definitely worth a stop. It’s the European capital of culture for 2009, and for good reason – Vilnius is packed with character.
A long and turbulent history has resulted in an edgy, engaging city. Quirks are everywhere, from the Frank Zappa statue to the self-proclaimed republic in the centre of the city. It’s awesome, but Vilnius won’t be to everyone’s taste.
The 20th century was not a happy time for this area of the world: Polish, Nazi and Soviet occupation have all left their damaging mark on the city and its people. Buildings and streets are sometimes in disrepair, though a lot of rebuilding is going on. However, all this does mean that it’s off the beaten path, and there are fewer camera-toting tourists to obstruct your view of this eccentric city.
Vilnius is a river city which can be considered in terms of the old town, Uzupis and the new business developments. Most of the old town was a Jewish ghetto during World War Two and it contains the town square plus many historical buildings and beautiful churches. Cathedral Square is a major landmark as is Gedeminas hill. Uzupis is a break-away republic within the capital itself; sit with a Baltic beer by the little river and watch all the artists and other denizens get together for a quiet drink themselves.
Name: Vilnius, Lithuania
Place: Capital of Lithuania, south-east of the country, in the Baltic region of northern Europe
Population: Around 550,000
Languages: Lithuanian. English, Russian and Polish are widely spoken
Known for: European capital of culture 2009, breakaway republic of Uzupis
Temperatures: Cold. Freezing in winter, average high of 20 in summer
Airports: Vilnius International Airport (VNO) 7km south of Vilnius
Price of a pint: 5.50LTL (€1.60) (“litas”)
Price of a dorm bed: 35LTL (€10)
Price of a public transport ticket: 2.50 LTL (€0.72)
Toilets: Look for the letter M or an upwards-pointing triangle for women, the letter V or a downwards-pointing arrow for men
The Old Town Hostel is full of character, though the bathroom layout is a bit strange. We’ve heard good things about the Berdinau St and Lintinterp guesthouses too; both are in the Old Town.
Business travellers may wish to stay in the Raddison Astoria which is probably the nicest hotel in town and has an excellent Sunday brunch.
Food in Vilnius, at least as we experienced it, was hearty, filling and basic: beef and potatoes feature heavily. Maybe we missed something, but years of war, occupation and want seems to have left Vilnius with a cuisine focussed on enjoying the simple things. Of course, the usual range of European- and Asian-style foods are available at restaurants throughout the city.
Lithuania’s popular beer, Svyturys, is served everywhere; there are different types including a quite flavourful lager and a darker porter-style beer. Spirits are also big and Lithuanian vodka packs a powerful punch! Make sure not to buy the cheapest or your eyes will be left watering.
If you like walking, you’ll find the tourist-friendly areas of Vilnius to be quite accessible by foot. Wandering around the streets and squares is a great way to spend your day: you’ll run into markets, little churches and strange combinations of modern and soviet-era design almost everywhere.
Buses and trolley-buses create a low-cost network that runs through the city. Buying tickets from a newspaper kiosk will save you a little and also save you having to deal with the bus drivers; like everywhere they can be a bit scary if you meet the wrong one.
Taxis are reasonably priced; like everywhere in the world, don’t get into a taxi with a dodgy driver. At the start and end of the day traffic jams are common, even in such a small city, so walking is definitely advised then.
Uzupis constitution highlights
Everyone has the right to live by the little river, while the little river has the right to flow by everyone.
Everyone has the right to die, but it is not a duty.
Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat.
Everyone has the right to be happy.
Everyone has the right to be unhappy.
No one has the right to violence.
Everyone shall remember his name.
Attractions — free
The old town contains most of Vilnius’s free attractions, and the Gate of Dawn is a good place to start. It’s the last of the original town gates, and while it’s plain from the outside, the inside is ornate and beautiful. In the old town, there’s the Archcathedral Basilica, which contains a beautiful chapel of St Casimir. In the square outside the Cathedral, see if you can find the lucky wishing tile with the word “miracle” written on it in Lithuanian (“stebuklas”). Apparently if you stand on it, make a wish and turn around three times, your wish will come true.
There are a lot of other beautiful churches to see, including St Ann’s, and St Peter’s and Paul’s, and of course a visit to the Frank Zappa statue is a must, but the best free attraction is Uzupis – a breakaway republic within the city. There’s a little river, an angel statue, and a constitution helpfully printed in three languages and displayed prominently on a wall. Have a beer by the little river and ponder some of the tenets – it’s your right.
Attractions — paid
Gediminas castle is a well-restored tower, and provides the best view of Vilnius, situated as it is on a hill behind Cathedral Square. You can walk up or take the funicular. The Lithuanian National Museum is also worth a visit, as is the Museum of Genocide Victims, located in the former KGB headquarters.
25km north of Vilnius is the “centre of Europe”, and if you think that’s worth the trip you should also see the rather overpriced European Park, which is full of sculptures by more than 70 artists.
Attractions — seasonal
There’s always something happening in Vilnius. There’s a book fair in February, the huge Kaisiukas fair in March each year, and the Vilnius arts festival in June. August and September seem filled with celebrations, fireworks, concerts, raves and film festivals, and like most European cities, Vilnius has Christmas markets each year. Plus, basketball is the sport du jour, so if you’re in Vilnius during the season, catch a basketball game and soak up the electric atmosphere.
Every four years, Vilnius hosts the huge Song Festival, which features massed choirs, ethnnographic music and dance. There were 35,000 participants in 2007, with many more people present as spectators.
This year Vilnius is the European Capital of Culture. Each year the EU choses two or three cities to showcase their cultural offerings. During the year, the city puts on big celebrations and invests into local arts, sculpture and gives the town a facelift. All the events above will be happening on a much larger scale than normal and there will be plenty more events during the year. For more information about the schedule, visit culturelive.lt.
Vilnius is covered by Lonely Planet’s Europe on a Shoestring (Lonely Planet Shoestring Guides), and Lonely Planet Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania (Lonely Planet Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). Rough Guides have the The Rough Guide to The Baltic States – 2nd Edition, and you can get a comprehensive free guide to Vilnius as a pdf download from inyourpocket.com.
Where to next?
As always, explore more of Lithuania before leaving the country. Consider a day trip to Trakai, a national park about 30km out of Vilnius, or to “Stalin’s World” (officially known as Grutas Park) a huge garden full of Soviet-era statues a few hours away by coach.
To further explore Lithuania, go to Kaunas then Klaipeda. Kaunas is Lithuania’s second-largest city, and Klaipeda is a nice little port town with a relaxed atmosphere. It’s also the gateway to the Curonian Spit with its huge sanddunes and petite holiday homes. The hill of crosses at Saiuliai is also worth a visit.
If you’re heading south, then travel down to Warsaw by coach; or if you have the visa, head east to Minsk – also by coach. We haven’t heard anything good about rail travel here and didn’t dare use it ourselves.
If you’re wanting to explore the Baltics more – and who wouldn’t – your first stop to the north would probably be Riga (the capital of Latvia) then onwards and upwards until you hit Tallinn and cross over the strait to Finland.
The Lithuanian national airline collapsed earlier this year, meaning there are only a dozen airports in the world that will take you to Vilnius. It really limits your options to go for a weekend break, but arriving and leaving by coach as part of a larger Baltic or European tour is painless and convenient.
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