I have experienced the capital of Lithuania twice, once in the freezing -10 snowy conditions in January after scoring some rediculously cheap Ryanair flights, and then again in the summer months, when I was going to use it as an inexpensive gateway to Belarus. If you only plan to visit the capital once and you want to make the most of its outdoor spaces and dont have any thermals, then I would recommend the summer option, but if you like adventure, empty museums and warming up with coffee every 40 minutes, then take a chance and head over during the winter, it made for some amazing memories.
Arrivals. You can fly direct from many UK airports to the capital Vilnius (VNO), including Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham and Belfast. From Edinburgh and Bristol you can fly into Kaunas, which is a beautiful city in itself and only a short direct train journey from the capital. If you are already over in mainland Europe a great way to see this part of the globe is by bus, as well as flying into Vilnius I have used the overnight Lux Express Bus from Warsaw, and have also flown with Air Baltic for other trips in the region. Trains aren’t that great at the moment in this part of the Baltics, but there is a direct train from the Belarus capital Minsk to Vilnius that leaves daily.
Getting into the city centre from the airport is easy too, there is a airport train that travels 16 times a day between the airport and the main train station in Vilnius, from there its a short walk or taxi journey to your destination. The translation of airport is Oro Uostas which may be handy if you plan to use one of the local buses that regularly leave between the main bus station (Stotis) and the airport, you could hop on the 1, 2 and 88, all costing €1 or another more direct bus option is the Micro Bus that also costs €1.
History Bit. The area that is now Lithuania has been inhabited by tribes in the Baltic region for thousands of years with the first king of Lithuania being crowed in the 1200’s. By the 1400’s, Lithuania was one of the largest countries in Europe as it encompassed parts of present day Belarus, Russia, Poland and Ukraine. Many wars and famines caused unrest, migration, uprisings and coups pretty much off and on until 1991 when it gained its independance from the Soviet Union after WW2. The capital Vilnius itself was first recorded in the history books in 1323 and has always played an important role in the history of the country. It was here that over 200,000 people demonstrated against Soviet rule in the late 1980’s culminating in a bloody battle that resulted in the Republic of Lithuania finally being recognised as an independant country once again, free from foreign rule.
Sights. Awarded UNESCO status in 1994, the Old Town is a great place to start with the beautiful Cathedral Square making a central point in which to visit a lot of the historic sights.
Here you can find the impressive Bell Tower which acts as a beacon across the old town ringing out every 15 minutes, and you can climb to the top for a small fee for an even better view of the city. Opposite the Bell Tower is the most important catholic building in Lithuania, The Cathedral of St. Stanislav and St. Vladislav, definately pop inside to see the stunning interior, frescos and the crypt, guided tours are available on certain days too, should you want to learn more.
The other important and must see building here in Cathedral Square is the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, now a national museum. The original palace was demolished in the 19th century, but its now rebuilt and hosts official and public events, with the museum part of the building showcasing the history of the country including architecture and folklore. When I visited in early January, I pretty much had the museum to myself, but it is a v popular tourist attraction and looked a lot busier when I walked past a few months later, so time your visit well, again guided tours are available. Cathedral Square itself is a lovely place to explore and people watch, surrounded by benches and green spaces, notable highlights are the markets that spring up at various times of the year like at Christmas, the statue of Gediminas the famous ruler of Lithuania and the lucky stebuklas tile that is said to grant wishes. Its also here where the New Year Eve celebrations take place.
Sunny day chilling by Cathedral Square
Gedinimas Hill and Tower – You cannot fail to miss this impressive 15th Century tower looking down on the city and with 360 views afforded from the top of the hill, its the reason I have been up in both in the winter and summer. It is definately easier to walk up the path in the summer than in snowy conditions, but a €2 funicular ride is available around the back should you fancy a more sedate journey upward. Once on the top there are ruins to explore, a history museum inside the tower (currently closed for renovations) and just epic views across the capital.
Summer and winter views.
Gedinimas Avenue – If you head across Cathedral Square away from the hill and bell tower and cross over the road, you walk down what is essentially the Oxford St of Vilnius. The main street of the city is full of shops, restaurants, theatres and government buildings, if you walk far enough you end up at the Parliament. Keep an eye out for the Feast of Muses sculpture outside the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre and Vinco Kudirkas Square which is named after the author of the National Anthem, as I was travelling on a budget I bought some food from a local supermarket, then found a bench and ate here watching the locals pass by.
Ausros Vartu Street – Where Gedinimas Avenue has all the shops and cafes, Ausros Vartu Street has the history, religion and architecture. There are lots of churches to explore here, St Cazimir, St Teresa and the Holy Trinity as well as the original city defensive, the Gate of Dawn built in the 1600’s, its even more important now that the other 9 gates have been destroyed. I really enjoyed just wandering up and down here and peeking my head inside the various churches and interesting buildings.
The Republic of Uzupis – Not long after the country gained its independance and freedom back from the Soviets, a small bunch of artists wanted to test the idea of independance to the max and so in 1995 decided to set up a partly tongue in cheek republic of their own, so they did and 15+ years later, its still going strong. Uzupis means ‘other side of the river’ and its only a short walk over a small bridge (over the river!) about 10 minutes from Cathedral Square to this quirky, neighbourhood inside the capital. There are cafes, restaurants, some really cool bohemian shops and art galleries as the place is still inhabitied by many local artists. Make sure you visit the angel statue, the multilingual welcome sign as you enter and pick up a copy of the constitution which includes – Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat and Everyone has the right to be happy, which I think should be on everyones constitutions dont you?
The Museum of Genocide Victims. Housed inside the former KGB headquarters this haunting building and reminder of past atrocities will stick with me forever. I am not sure if it was due to the winter weather so I pretty much had the place to myself that made it more eerie, but im pretty certain due to the subject matter, its most definately is a place for stark reflection due to the horrific nature of what occured here. The museum serves as a living reminder of the terror from when the Nazi’s and then Soviets took over this imposing building that once was a gym. Spread over a number of floors, the museum takes a no holds barred approach to telling its story. Culminating in the cells, torture and execution chambers, I needed some quiet time to take it all in once I left the museum, but I’m glad I visited as I learned a hell of a lot, but be prepared to need a little recovery period afterwards.
Ensemble of St. Anne and Bernardine Church. Standing out due to its red brick exterior, St Annes church at over 500 years old its worth a visit as is its neighbour the Bernadine Church. I visited these on the way to the Bernadine Garden, which when I visited in the January was a snowing wonderland of children sledging and ducks skating on the frozen river, quite beautiful, there is a botanical garden, fountains and a monastery here too, so make sure you give it enough time.
Once I had explored the park, I was still feeling energetic and not too cold, so I crossed the River Vilnelė and climbed the many steps up the Hill of the Three Crosses for spectacular views across the snow covered city. Originally at the summit were 3 wooden crosses said to be the site where Franciscan Friars were beheaded hundreds of years ago. These crosses eventually perished, were rebuilt, only to be torn down during Soviet rule, with a new and improved version finally being erected in 1989 once the country became independent again. Now a prominant monument of the city, its a popular spot for both locals and tourists and i’m glad I made the effort to climb up to the top, it involves a bit of a climb and a lot of steps, so bare that in mind first.
Town Hall Square, Vokieciu Street and Pilies Street are all areas I explored at length, both in my summer and winter visits. The tourist information centre is located inside the Town Hall Square, which was one of my first stops to load up on a local map and grab a few tourist leaflets, off from here are loads of shops, cafes, interesting buildings and intriguing alleyways. In the winter is was definitely quieter but there were still outdoor market selling wooly hats and local crafts, returning in the summer the cafes opened their doors and put tables outside and there was much more of a buzz, understandably as it wasnt -10!
Coffee and Cake – Coffee Inn located on Didzioji and Laisves al are just two of many locations from this Baltic coffee chain, but don’t think because its a chain its all sterile tasteless coffee and uncomfortable seating. Im pretty sure each Coffee Inn is run independently and each one has a unique vibe and style, one I visited had a bookshop inside, another a record store, and all seemed welcoming to a solo English traveller, they serve soy milk and their cheesecake was insane! Another caffeine gem I found was Second Cup which is also a chain, although this one goes further than just the Baltics, with cafes in Iraq, Ghana and soon the UK apparently. Again, friendly comfy seating, with plenty of places to charge devices, they had a really great menu of regular and flavoured coffees with soy milk options too and lots of cake!
Eats – For my first night I wanted to eat Lithuania 101, so I headed to Amatininky uzeiga a friendly restaurant serving local beers, delicious beetroot soup and stodgy potato Zeppelins which I devoured after a snowy sightseeing afternoon, then followed it by the recommended and ginormous apple pie. If you fancy something slightly less meaty, but still with massive portions, the vegan restaurant Gyvas Baras was a place I visited for lunch and dinner and then returned for another meal on my summer return. I found it a really friendly place, relaxed, and not just serving the typical falafal, but the menu included amazing burgers, mexican food, insane desserts and local beers.
Other sights to see – Explore the Jewish ghetto around Dominikonų and Vokiečių Streets, head out of the Old Town to the tallest building in Lithuania, the TV Tower for epic views of the city, and take a train for a day out in Kaunas the 2nd largest city and less than 90 minutes by train (thats a whole other blog post!)
Always be polite – Hello is Sveiki and Thank You is Ačiū! (pronounced almost like Achoo)