Would you know how to locate Vilnius on the map?
Don’t worry, you are not the only one!
In fact, Vilnius is said to be the G-spot of Europe!
No one knows where it is, and when you discover it it’s amazing! (Hahaha!)
So how about getting to know the charming Lithuanian capital and former center of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania a bit better?
What’s so special about this Eastern Europe enclave?
Where do I begin?!
One of the best-preserved old towns in Eastern Europe
This charming maze of narrow alleys in the historic center of the Lithuanian capital makes up one of the best-preserved examples of Northern European medieval architecture.
Formed by 70 streets and alleys and 1487 buildings, Vilnius’s old town is a hodgepodge of various perfectly synchronised architectural styles: starting with Saint Ana’s Gothic Church, the Radziwill Renaissance Palace, and its impressive baroque university and neoclassical Presidential palace.
A mixture that is due, in large part, to the complex historical legacy of the city.
But since this settlement’s foundation in the Stone Age, Vilnius has undergone many changes.
Founded in 1323 by the Grand Duke Gediminas, Vilnius always attracted many Jewish and German merchants thanks to the generous tax exemptions the city afforded them.
For centuries it became a home for those fleeing religious persecution or strict trade union regulations.
In fact, the city’s coat of arms represents Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travellers!
This liberal attitude was present in the city’s philosophy for many centuries, and today it’s reflected in its wide variety of neighborhoods and religious buildings of all denominations – Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Orthodox Ruthenians.
For two centuries after 1569, it was the co-capital of the largest empire in Europe back then – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Later, Vilnius resisted the Russian Tsarist and Soviet occupations.
Sadly, though, during World War II, the city suffered constant air attacks by the German army, and the temporary Russian occupation, leaving it in ruins, dispossessed of its wealth, and much of its population either deported or imprisoned.
In 1991 Lithuania gained its freedom and independence, after many years of popular opposition to the Soviet regime.
Since then, Vilnius has evolved rapidly to become a modern and cosmopolitan city.
Even so, its old town is beautifully preserved and revolves around its main artery, Pilies Street (translated as Castle Street).
It is a relatively short street that links Cathedral Square with the Town Hall Square.
Now, if you want to enjoy the pleasures of modern life (shops, outdoor markets, cafes, restaurants, breweries, etc.), head to Pilies St.
If you fancy something different, follow me!
A (near) Republic with its own constitution
If there is something I’m 100% sure that will fascinate you even more than the ancient city of Vilnius – which by the way was named World Heritage Site in 1994 – it’s the adorable Republic of Užupis.
Initially one of the neighborhoods where the many Jewish immigrants settled in the city, Užupis was abandoned after World War II and during the first years of Soviet occupation it became totally derelict.
But after Lithuania’s independence, this little area became the favourite hot spot of artists and the “bohemian type”.
And one fine day in 1997, they decided to declare the Independent Republic of Užupis.
And it’s still standing!
Today, this peculiar republic has its own constitution, its president, seven bridges and two churches!
And just a little secret:
Walk through Užupis, pass by the popular Tores restaurant, continue about 200 meters and right after the local school on the left, climb the grassy slope.
And there you have it – one of the least vantage points Vilnius but one of the most wonderful spots from where to admire the old town church towers and rooftops!
Vilnius City Opera
Vilnius loves classical music.
That’s a fact!
The Russian-American violinist Jascha Heifetz was born and discovered to be a prodigy in this city.
Violeta Urmana, the famous mezzo-soprano spends more time on the stage of La Scala in Milan than in her native Vilnius, but you may find her performing here occasionally if you are lucky.
Directed by Dalia Ibelhauptaite (wife of British actor and director Dexter Fletcher), the musical productions here are bold, ambitious and spectacular, and always work with the best Lithuanian vocal talents.
Is opera expensive in Vilnius?
General admission starts at € 20.
St. John’s Church and bell tower
Climb this church’s bell tower (open from May to October) and you’ll have a wonderful panoramic view of Vilnius’ old town.
And if you don’t feel like the added exercise, you can ride the elevator to the bell tower, but I highly recommend you work those gluts!
Once you get to the open balcony at 60 meters high, you’ll be able to admire the German Gothic, Italian and French Baroque architecture, as well as the Russian Orthodox domes and the labyrinth that is the Jewish quarter, surrounded by Vilnius’ green hills.
Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, Museum of Genocide Victims
Thousands of Lithuanians were arrested, interrogated, tortured and executed in these cells between 1958 and 1987.
And now the cells are open to the public.
Initially a courthouse, this building became the headquarters of the Gestapo in Vilnius after the Nazi invasion and played an important role in the murder of much of the country’s Jewish population.
After such a sad period in the city’s history, many of those who entered this building came out only to be deported to the Siberian gulags.
Really, it will open your eyes to the harsh realities of the Soviet regime.
It is one of the museums best valued by foreign visitors and a must-visit to understand the recent history of Lithuania.
Represented in the local currency, the Gediminas tower is the only building standing in the old Vilnius Castle.
The climb to the tower through the leafy Sventaragio park is a must.
From the top of the hill, you’ll have the old town on one side and modern Vilnius’ skyscrapers and contemporary buildings on the other.
And on your way down, use the funicular and stop at the foot of the National Museum of Lithuania.
The Stikliai Hotel (Glass Blowers) was the first five-star hotel that opened in Vilnius after its independence in 1990.
Despite being a top of the range hotel, it’s not at all overpriced as you can get a double room for about €144.
It’s located in the old Jewish quarter, with easy access to the city’s main attractions.
But the reason I’m telling you about the Hotel Stikliai, is because of its comfy greenhouse – one of the favourite local leisure spots.
So enjoy a drink with the locals, taste their delicious organic fruits from their farm in Dubingiai, 50 km north of the city, and walk across the street to the “Ponių laim paste” bakery – from the same owners – to indulge in their scrumptious pastries!
Vilnius’ Botanical Garden
Vilnius University houses a beautiful botanical garden founded in 1781 by French professor Jean-Emmanuel Gilibert and later expanded by James Cook’s partner, botanist Georg Forster.
In 1974 it was located in Kairėnai, on the outskirts of Vilnius, in the woods of an old summer house.
In the month of May an incredible variety of Balkan lilacs blooms, in June the rhododendron collection is impressive and, its Japanese gardens are to die for throughout the year.
You can even go horseback riding or in carriages (although I’m not a fan of this type of activities!), and you can even enjoy a picnic or a barbecue at the garden tables.
The entrance will cost you around € 1.50.
Puckoriai Hidden Valley
You’ll have to navigate a fairly jarring road that bears the name of Stepan Bathory, a prince of Transylvania who ruled Lithuania and Poland in the 16th century.
But it’s only about 7kms long!
And once you reach the forests of Puckoriai east of the city, it will all have been worth it.
Past the small soft drinks stand and climb up to an impressive lookout.
Here, the sandy cliffs drop 70 meters down to the lush Vilnius river valley.
You can even descend to the river and continue to the Belmontas waterfall and the nearby restaurant.
And there you have it!
That’s a real quick snapshot of the gorgeous Vilnius!
You might have thought you could explore this little Balkan jewel in just an afternoon.
But it’s not like that at all.
To do justice to the many monuments, buildings and churches of interest scattered throughout its streets, you will need much more than just few hours.
And if you don’t have time, a second trip is a must.
And most of all, take care of this precious city!
Let’s see how long we all manage to keep it as pristine as it still is!