Lying deep behind where the former Iron Curtain once cast its oppressive shadow, the city of Vilnius probably remains the least visited capital city from any of the Baltic countries.
Yet, slowly, it’s starting to be appearing more and more on intrepid travellers’ itineraries.
And what a city full of surprises it is!
With its chequered past, it’s probably one of the last places you’d expect to see such a cosmopolitan mix of Soviet and religious history now standing hand-in-hand with a brimming artistic cauldron of life and art.
Located in south-eastern Lithuania, Vilnius is the second-largest city in the Baltic states – behind only Riga; the capital of Latvia.
With a population approaching 600,000, the city remains a healthy mix of historical intrigue and modern entertainment; allowing for a wide range of tastes and preferences to be satisfied during any visit.
The origins of the city’s name come from the nearby Vilnia River which roughly translates as ‘ripple’. Over the centuries the name has been chopped, changed and adapted before finally settled upon the modern day version; Vilnius.
Vilnius is the historic and present-day capital of Lithuania. Archaeological findings have suggested that the city also acted as the capital of the Kingdom of Lithuania and later that of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Its history dates back to the early 1300s with the first recorded mention of it coming in 1323 as Vilna, when the Letters of Grand Duke Gediminas were sent to German cities inviting Germans to settle in the city.
As with much of the region – including each of the three Baltic states – Lithuania and, by association, Vilnius fell under the control of numerous powerhouses following the start of the First World War. Initially falling into German hands, a tangle of Polish and Soviet power-struggles eventually saw the latter finally take charge of the nation.
The Second World War saw German invasion once again but, by the time the war finished in 1945, the Soviet army were again in full control.
The Soviets would remain in power until the early 1990s when Lithuania declared its independence; causing years of struggles with Moscow and Russian troops.
However, 30 years later, Lithuania now stands proudly by itself and, while the city of Vilnius holds many reminders of the Soviet-controlled days, it now thrives on its own merits.
So, what should a first-time visitor to the city make sure they see to get a taste of this nation’s historic sites while also sampling some of the quirkiest street art in Eastern Europe?
It was a question I asked myself. But even before I stepped foot out of my front door, I also wanted to find out what I should know about Vilnius and Lithuania.
As with a lot of my trips to the Baltic region (don’t ask me why), I had booked this one with a friend for December meaning that we were in for a very chilly reception when we landed.
To say it’s cold in Vilnius in December is an understatement. It’s stupidly cold!
Average highs for the month get to a balmy −0°C with the daily mean usually settling at −2 °C. Therefore, warm, clothes are a must! Pack gloves, hats and scarfs and, most of all, pack layers.
The weather in the city for December is often wet and snowy which can look beautiful but can also become a hazard. On average, there are 21 days of rain in the month each year with only 25 hours of actual sunshine! The city can look slightly dark and gloomy if poor weather does set in.
The next thing to note is the currency. Making life that bit easier, Lithuania joined the Euro on 1 January 2015, replacing the former currency known as the Lithuanian Lita. At the time of writing, £1 sterling would get you around €1.17.
So while you won’t get many Euros in exchange for your Pounds these days, Lithuania is a relatively cheap country to travel in. A pint of beer (because that’s always a good way of judging a local economy) costs around €3.50 at most, while a three-course meal for two in a mid-range restaurant – with drinks – can be as cheap as €41 total.
Language is the next issue that many travellers will quickly encounter.
According to the 2011 National Census, 78.5% of Lithuanians speak at least one foreign language. Out of that number, 63% of Lithuanians speak Russian, 30.4% – English, 8.5% – Polish, and 8.3% – German.
For English speaking visitors with limited foreign language skills (myself included) it can be useful to have a few basic Lithuanian words in the locker. Thank you (ačiū), please (prašau), hello (sveiki) and goodbye (atsisveikink) are a good place to start.
Also remember to take plug converters. There are two associated plug types for Lithuania; types C and F. Plug type C is the plug which has two round pins and plug type F is the plug which has two round pins with two earth clips on the side. Lithuania operates on a 230V supply voltage and 50Hz.
The most important thing to know is that Vilnius is a fun, exciting and friendly city. And now, with the Iron Curtain fully open and dismantled, tourists and visitors can now indulge and embrace what this beautiful city has to offer.
As you’d expect, flying is the fastest, and easiest, way to get to Vilnius.
Located just 6km (3.7 miles) south of the city boundary, Vilnius Airport has one runway and welcomes around 5 million passengers through its gates every year.
Remember, these are budget airlines so don’t expect any luxuries onboard.
At the time of writing Ryanair were operating direct flights to Vilnius from London Luton and London Stansted – as well as from Liverpool and Leeds/Bradford International. In comparison, Wizz Air operates flights only from London Luton and Liverpool.
The good news is that it is pretty cheap to fly to Lithuania from the UK. When my friend and I took the trip we flew with Ryanair from London Luton on a return ticket for two for just £187.23 in total. This included a flight out to Lithuania leaving the UK at 6:35am with a return on a mid-morning flight three nights later.
Yet prices seem to have fallen even further. Searching for a return flight in December, it’s possible to fly with Ryanair from London Stanstead for just £77 in total; (although this will likely go up higher when you take into account baggage costs and speedy boarding). Even still, it’s a good price.
Flying from London Luton will put the price up a little bit, coming in at around £105 for two people returning, but still remains affordable.
Where to stay
When you stay in an artistic, quirky city you should, in my view, get accommodation that matches. The Artagonist Hotel fits that description perfectly.
Located in the centre of the city on the quiet Pilies g. side-street, my friend and I managed to bag a standard double room for just £257.79 for three nights; including breakfast.
The hotel is a warm and welcoming place. In the reception area, you get your first taste of its artistic flair with a huge mural filing the wall behind the check-in desk.
Once checked-in, a small lift will take you to your room’s floor where a classy, yet comfortable, abode will await.
Each room has a certain individuality to it. Bold and colourful decorations, wall hangings and other art work adorn the living area and a number of the rooms also boost nice views over the surrounding city.
As you would expect in this day, wi-fi is supplied to hotel guests for free. An added bonus – especially after spending a cold day outside in Vilnius – was that our room had a heated floor in the bathroom. Just removing your shoes and socks and standing on the floor fills your body with a warming glow.
My friend took things a step further however. After a particularly tiring day on the streets of the city, she spent a good 30 minutes laying on the bathroom floor letting the heat warm her up.
Each morning, in the basement of the hotel, a plentiful breakfast spread awaits guests. A full continental selection of foods are on offer and should set you up for a busy day exploring the city.
Vilnius International Airport lies around 8km from the city centre and a car can make the journey in around 15 minutes.
The best bet to get from the airport to your accommodation is to jump in a taxi for around €20. It’s a little on the steep side price-wise but it at least drops you exactly where you need to go.
If you are looking for a cheaper alternative route from the airport to the city then you can opt for either a bus or a train.
The cost of the journey by train is under €1, and takes just eight minutes. The Vilnius Airport bus will take you to the city in 20 minutes for €1 while the minibuses cover this distance in 10-15 minutes for just €1.50.
Once you’ve safely arrived in the city, the easiest way to travel around Vilnius is by foot.
While Vilnius is efficiently served by buses and trolleybuses from 5am to midnight – with single-trip tickets costing just €1 when bought from the driver – it is easy enough to take to the streets and stroll through the city to see what’s on offer.
Again, there are numerous taxis available around the city should you need to catch one but unless you are in a major rush, or have got lost, then walking really is the best way to see the main city sights and keep expenses to a minimum.
A good first port-of-call is the Gates of Dawn.
This city gate in Vilnius is one of the capital’s most important religious, historical and cultural monuments and remains a major site of Catholic pilgrimage in Lithuania.
Built between 1503 and 1522 as a part of defensive fortifications for the city, the Gates of Dawn is an impressive entranceway into the old city. In the 16th Century, city gates often contained religious artefacts intended to guard the city from attacks and to bless travellers.
Also at this site, the Chapel in the Gates of Dawn contains an icon of The Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy. For centuries the picture was one of the symbols of the city. Thousands of votive offerings adorn the walls and many pilgrims from neighbouring countries come here to pray.
Architecturally stunning from the outside, visitors who wish to enter the Chapel of Gates of Dawn and the nearby The Church of St. Teresė can do so for free all year round.
As may be suspected by the number of churches, synagogues and other religious buildings, religion still plays a very important part in the daily lives of the Lithuanian people. Therefore, during a trip to the city a visit to the impressive Vilnius Cathedral – or The Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus to give it its full name – is a must.
Built in the centre of the city, the cathedral was constructed on the site of a former pagan temple and next to Vilnius’ defensive castle. Over the years it has been rebuilt many times, mainly due to being destroyed by fire, and has a 57m bell tower which remains one of the symbols of the city.
Its stunning classical architecture draws visitors to its doors and into its sanctum where it’s clean, light walls and open and airy space provides a beautiful setting for prayer; reflection and the occasional photograph.
Vilnius itself is a relatively low-lying city compared to a number of its European counterparts.
A great vantage point in the city is from the Hill of the Three Crosses at the top of Kalnai Park near the heart of the old town.
The site – also known as the Bald Hill – has a rather gruesome history according to legend. It’s said that atop this hill, seven Franciscan friars were beheaded. To mark this site, wooden crosses have been pitched there since the early 17th century; becoming yet another symbol of the city and an integral part of the city’s low-lying skyline.
Nowadays, the hill is home to three striking stone crosses that rise above the treetops and look out over the city.
From this vantage point – in particular of an evening when the sun is setting – this quiet and secluded spot makes for an enchanting panoramic view of the surrounding city.
Back on street level, Vilnius is a maze of winding small roads and backstreets, beautifully colourful buildings and charming architecture.
Across the entire city a smorgasbord of eye-catching street-art (images of Vladimir Putin kissing Donald Trump for example), art museums or old abandoned churches litter travellers’ paths. But it’s inside the old town itself that one of the quaintest and most surprising aspects of Lithuania culture has come to the fore.
It’s here that travellers will find the seemingly quiet and unassuming Užupis neighbourhood hidden away. Yet while it may appear quiet for most of the time, the people are passionate and lively when required.
It’s fair to say that an area like this, normally, would be relatively unremarkable. Small homes provide shelter to locals and businesses go about selling their wares.
Yet, what makes Užupis special is that since 1 April, 1998, the district has declared itself an independent republic (The Republic of Užupis), and formed its own constitution.
As part of declaring its own independence the residents of the area declared their own flag, unofficial currency, president, cabinet of ministers, an anthem, as well as an army of 11 men; which has since been retired; fortunately without having to see battle. Each year – on 1 April – the residents of Užupis celebrate their independence on Užupis Day.
This splintered-off district is quite small being only about 148 acres in size. To date it has around 7,000 inhabitants, nearly 1,000 of which are said to be artists. The district is also separated from the old town by the Vilnia River on one size while another plays witness to a series of steep hills.
There are plenty of interesting places for travellers to visit in Užupis. The district contains the Bernardine Cemetery, one of the oldest cemeteries in the city and – in the district’s main square – a statue of an angel blowing a trumpet was unveiled on 1 April, 2002. This is known as the Angel of Užupis.
It wasn’t the first sculpture to adorn this spot though. A year earlier the giant Margustis Easter Egg stood where the Angel of Užupis stands today as an oversized placeholder. When it took its spot in 2001 it was seen as symbolic to the revival taking place in the neighbourhood.
However, when the Angel was unveiled in 2002, many locals were still very fond of the giant egg. The decision was then made to relocate it to a small square on Pylimo Street, where it stands today. Then, in 2003, artist Lijana Turskytė painted the egg to give it an Easter vibe.
It could be said that with its vast numbers of artists, Vilnius is a city of quirky art. None, perhaps more quirky than that of the Lucky Belly.
This piece is located in the very centre of the city on Vilnius Street, and built into the wall of the Novotel and Business Centre. Alongside the sculpture is a message stating that you have to rub the belly if you want to achieve success in business.
The brass belly attracts a lot of passing tourists; all of whom give the sculpture a little touch on the hope that perhaps some of the Belly’s luck will rub off in their direction. It remains unproven if this has ever worked!
Romas Kvintas – the creator of the sculpture – joked that he took inspiration from looking at his own belly while making this piece. What remains truer is that the sculpture is based on an old legend about a former Mayor of Vilnius who, in the 19th century, was interested in one poor local family consisting of two talented and successful sons: one became a trader and the other a famous jeweller.
Marvelling at the success of such a poor family, the mayor asked the mother how she managed to raise her children to become such successful people. The woman supposedly answered, “what you stroke – grows”. By this she meant that she used to stroke one of her son’s arms every morning and the other son’s tummy.
Where to avoid
A strange piece of art that takes a bit of explaining is the memorial to American music legend, Frank Zappa.
First thing to point out is that Zappa has absolutely no link to Lithuania – let alone Vilnius – at all. None!
Yet it was Zappa’s free spirit which was seen as extremely relatable to the Lithuanian people.
The bust of the musician’s head got its first whiff of life when artist Saulius Paukštys visited the States and, on his return to Lithuania, concocted the story that he had become great friends with Zappa himself! It was all an elaborate lie, but Zappa caught the attention of other artists in Lithuania and became a symbol of freedom.
Soon after, sculptor Konstantinas Bagdonas, known for his busts of Lenin during Soviet times, created the legendary Zappa statue as a sign of a new era of post-Soviet Lithuania.
Once completed, the Zappa monument was originally supposed to be erected next to the M. K. Čiurlionis Art Gymnasium, but teachers at the school rejected this idea as the sculpture closely resembled the famous Lithuanian composer the school was named after.
At the time it was feared that the American artist’s music might have a bad influence on the youth. As such, the monument was placed in its current location, where it was unveiled on 17 December 1995; sadly some two years after the musician had passed away following a battle with prostate cancer.
I’d say that, unless you’re a huge Frank Zappa fan, don’t go out of your way to find this piece of street art. There are thousands of examples of more relevant art throughout Vilnius so taking the time to find this one feels like a waste to me.
If you’re passing it, then sure take a look, but certainly don’t set aside time to hunt it out.
Great places to eat
There are plenty of great places to grab good quality and tasty local food in Vilnius. If, like me, you venture there around December then you’ll not fail to notice the abundance of food and drink on offer at the city’s Christmas market. A glass or two (or three or four) of warming mulled wine is a must!
However, for a quality evening out in comfy surrounds then Gaspar’s Restaurant is a prime choice.
Recognised as one of the best restaurants in Lithuania, Gaspar’s thinks of itself as a home away from home, where there team of people care for the restaurant as if it was there own.
Their devotion to Lithuanian culinary heritage, and their ability to demonstrate the chef’s passion for his food makes Gaspar’s an experience worth savouring.
This small, intimate restaurant is unassumingly located in central Vilnius on Pylimo g. just to the west of the city’s Old Town.
First thing to say is that, due to its size, booking in advance is most likely essential.
The next thing to note is that it’s not the cheapest of menus available in Vilnius. However, for the extra money you’ll spend, you’ll get an undisputable quality experience. To give you some idea a three-course meal you’ll look at around €40 – €50 per person plus drinks.
For that price though you get superb food. The mains range from seafood including grilled octopus and turbot to meat dishes made up of the most tender lamb and dry-aged beef sirloin.
For those looking to push the boat out a little more can indulge in the sumptuous seven-course tasting menu for €75 per person – rising to €120 per person with a wine pairing.
Aside from great food, those those who are looking for somewhere to grab a quiet drink, with a splash of local flair, need look no further than the quirky bar; Who Hit John.
This place is seriously tiny! Located in the heart of Vilnius’ historic Old Town this atmospheric bar is steeped in real charm. It only seats around 15 people comfortably, though you could just about cram 20 people in there.
A real favourite with locals, the bar is known as John by those who frequent it regularly. The service is warm and friendly and they stock a small but decent range of quality beer.
It’s also open very late, which is a plus, allowing you to drink into the night with friends old and new.
When my friend and I pitched up at the bar here on our last night in Vilnius we very quickly got speaking to two guys sat on the opposite side of the bar showing just how easy it is to make friends here – or it could be that my friend is very good at getting random strangers to talk to her.
There is so much to see and do in Vilnius that it would be impossible to fit it all into a short stay in the city. And one traveller’s experiences within the city will vary greatly from another’s.
Vilnius, while small in stature, is big in heart and a trip to the Lithuanian capital will give travellers a different feel to anywhere else; even to those who have visited the other Baltic countries.
The local people are friendly, welcoming and truly appreciate visiting guests who show an interest in learning about their culture and country.
A trip to this stunning city can act as a breath of fresh air with its amazing mix of history and local flair. Any visit to Vilnius is sure to be one that will live long in the memory long after the wheels of the plane leave Lithuanian soil.