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August 7th, 2020 | By: Matthew Williams
Vilnius is Lithuania’s capital city and it is a fascinating place to visit. With its gorgeous Old Town centre designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and arresting architecture around every corner, you can just imagine what gems await you! Amongst all this history you will experience a lively city with a booming craft beer scene driven by almost 20,000 university students. This youthful edge brings the historic charm of Vilnius to life and makes it a fun place to visit. You could spend weeks in the city and keep finding new things, but if you only have a few days we have whittled down our top 10 things to do in Vilnius to help you plan your trip.
One of the best ways to explore any city is by foot and Vilnius is no exception. This historic city has a wealth of hidden stories and if you join one of the Vilnius with Locals Tours you can hear the best of them! This enthusiastic group of knowledgeable young guides will take you on an informative adventure across different parts of the city and really bring it to life. There are a number of different tours to choose from. The Vilnius Free Tour will take you around some of the city’s most notable monuments, buildings and areas over 2 hours beginning at 10am and 12pm at the town hall. For something a bit more out there, you can also opt for the Alternative Tour which takes you around Vilnius New Town, its Soviet past and intriguing artworks. There is also a Ghost Tour, a Soviet Tour, a Jewish History Tour, a Food Tour and even a tour of the sites featured in the recent Chernobyl series. With Vilnius with Locals you can cover the whole city and learn all about its fascinating past and exciting present!
Vilnius has one of the largest surviving Medieval old towns in Northern Europe and visitors can still marvel at the remaining Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Classical buildings throughout the centre. The city was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for over 500 years between the 13th and 18th centuries and over that time saw a unique combination of architectural influences. The dukes managed to create a multicultural city where people of different cultures, religions and languages lived side by side to create a fusion of Eastern and Western style which you can still see today. Make sure to spend time wandering the streets an enjoy a drink on an outside terrace to take the historic character of this marvellous city.
One of the best surviving buildings in Vilnius’s Old Town is the former palace of the Grand Dukes, which has been fully restored and is now a museum. Considering that the building has been destroyed and rebuilt successively over the centuries since its foundation in the 4th century, you would never guess from its gleaming white exterior. You can choose to explore up to four different routes through the museum each detailing different periods in the building’s and the country’s history from its very beginnings to the present day. The palace has striking wooden ceilings in its ceremonial chambers and you can even see the former ducal throne room, fully restored with its plush red velvet. It is one of the top places to visit in Vilnius and one of its most interesting museums.
One of the city’s best-known monuments, Vilnius Cathedral or Cathedral of St. Stanislav and St. Vladistav is a neo-classical masterpiece that wouldn’t look out of place in Ancient Greece. The monumental building was constructed in the 18th century on the site of a former gothic church, which was constructed on the site of a pagan temple to the Lithuanian thunder god, Perkūnas. Today the striking baroque interior of the cathedral is simply mesmerising, especially in the chapel of St. Casimir with its painted cupola. Make sure to book a tour of the crypt for your visit and see the tombs of illustrious figures in Lithuania’s history, such as Grand Duke Vytautus the Great from the 14th century.
Vilnius has an illustrious Jewish history which started in the 8th century when Jewish merchants and craftspeople were encouraged to settle in the city by the Grand Dukes. The city was rich in synagogues and schools and was even known as the ‘Jerusalem of the North’. By the eve of the Second World War the Jewish population of the city had grown to around 100,000 people with an active community forming a vital part of Vilnius’s character. Sadly over 90% of the Jewish population was murdered during the Holocaust, however the Jewish influence on the development of the city and their history can be explored in the city Holocaust Museum. If you want to find out more about what remains of Jewish Vilnius, make sure to join the Vilnius with Locals Jewish history tour.
For an insight into the Soviet history of Vilnius and Lithuania, spend some time exploring the Museum of Genocide Victims. After World War II, Lithuania was brought under Soviet rule and the country only gained independence from the USSR in 1991. It was the first state to break away and this now proud nation has created this museum to commemorate those who were tortured and killed for resisting the regime. The museum was formerly the HQ for the KGB in the country and still has the basement prison where you can find out about the brutal activities that took place between the end of the war and independence. It is an important place to visit to understand Lithuania as an independent country today, but it can at times be a challenging experience.
Yes, you read that correctly, there is a country within the city of Vilnius which declared itself independent in 1997. Roughly translating as ‘other side of the river’ this area on the banks of the Vilnia River was left abandoned after the war and during the Soviet times became a haunt for artists and bohemians. This creative group of painters, poets, musicians and writers declared a republic, which is not recognised by any country in 1997, yet has its own constitution, a president, a whole government apparatus and will even stamp your passport for you! It is a fun place to visit to see the many artists at work in their workshops and artworks displayed in the many galleries. Užupis is also home to quirky shops, bars and restaurants where you can always find something a bit different. Make sure to keep an eye out for the angel blowing a horn, the symbol of the area.
If you are a fan of a nice cold beer, you will have plenty to choose from at one of Vilnius’s many lively bars. You will find many locally brewed craft beers in the city as well as beers from across Lithuania and Europe. It is a fantastic place taste something new and some of the best bars include Craft & Daft, Bambalynė and Bar Bukowski. Most of them have their own tipples on tap and they range from full-bodied blondes to sweet dark ales. No matter your preference you will find it and maybe even find something you have never tried before! If you are looking for some great live music with your beer, then make sure to head to Vejai’s, where you will also find local cider.
Vilnius is a centre for the reinvention of traditionally heavy gamey Lithuanian dishes. While still heavy on the dumplings and game meat, such as partridge and venison, you will find a variety of restaurants turning these staples into sophisticated pieces of culinary art. If you want to give them a try (and why wouldn’t you??) make sure to check out Ertlio Names and Sweetroot during your stay. If it is more comfort food you are looking for, then you have to try one or several of the moreish kibinai, which are pastry parcels stuffed with savoury or sweet fillings. You can find some of the best ones in Vilnius at Pinavija Café and will struggle not to try one of everything!
One of the more energetic things to do in Vilnius is to take a hike up one of its two main hills. The country is relatively flat, so these hills have extra significance in the city and you simply have to make it to the top for fabulous views over the city! Hill number one is Gediminas Hill with its ancient 10th century tower, which once had a defensive fortress attached. From here you can enjoy wonderful views over the Old Town with its Baroque spires and cupolas. You can also avoid the steep climb from the city by taking the funicular. Hill number two is the Hill of the Three Crosses. This monument was first erected in the 17th century in memory of a group of Franciscan monks who were beheaded by pagans 300 hundred years earlier. During the Soviet period they were destroyed and were only replaced in 1989 with the current white crosses at the crest of the hill. It is a wonderful location to watch the sunset over Vilnius!
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We are Jacob and Taylor. Travel is our passion and we love sharing our experiences here at The Travelling Souk. Our hope is that you would be inspired by this little blog to try something new, embrace an adventure, and live life to the fullest.