Discovering Vilnius: Lithuania’s Dynamic Capital

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If I asked you to find Vilnius on a map, could you? Before moving to Latvia, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to. I recently explained three times to a friend – who’s French, mind you – that Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania and I still don’t think she fully knows where I went in May. The city isn’t exactly world famous, which is a real shame, because it’s a fabulous place. Luckily, Vilnius is only four hours south of Riga and easily reached by bus, making it a perfect weekend destination.

One of the first things I was immediately struck by in Vilnius was its profusion of young people – and I’m talking locals, not stag parties, though there were plenty of those, too. The energy in the city was palpable! This is thanks in large part to Vilnius University, one of the oldest in northern Europe, which is located in the heart of Old Town. We popped by on a Saturday, so the courtyards around which the University was formed were mostly empty, though we didn’t have to search very hard for the students; the city’s cafes and parks were packed!

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Vilnius University was founded in 1579.

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It was an interesting contrast to see such a young, vibrant population going about its business in an old, medieval town. The historic center of Vilnius may not be as well-preserved as Tallinn or as architecturally diverse as Riga, but it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right and a rewarding destination to explore.

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Town Hall Square.

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The “Gates of Dawn,” the only surviving entrance through the 16th-century Old Town wall.

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Lithuania officially came into being in the 13th century when Mindaugas unified several Baltic tribes into one state; He was crowned its king. Every subsequent ruler went by the title “Grand Duke,” as the state became the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which eventually encompassed Belarus, Latvia, and parts of Ukraine, Poland, and Estonia. The Grand Duchy reached its apex in the 15th century, when it was the biggest country in Europe.

In the 14th century, Grand Duke Gedinimas built himself a castle on a hill near the ruins of an older stronghold. The castle’s red-brick tower was restored in the 1930s and today houses a small museum about the site’s history. Of more interest to me was the panoramic view from the top. With ochre rooftops and green rolling hills, Vilnius is stunning.

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Gediminas’ Tower and the Upper Castle Museum.

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Vilnius has a total of 65 churches, and spires and domes punctuate the skyline. Roman Catholicism is the country’s primary religion, but the Eastern Orthodox and Protestant faiths are also well represented. While I didn’t enter many churches during this all-too-brief visit, I did admire the fanciful Baroque and soaring Gothic architecture!

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Hot air balloons float above St. Casimir’s Church.

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15th-century St. Anne’s Church appears to have swallowed the equally-old Church of St. Francis and St. Bernard.

Lithuanian King Mindaugus converted to Christianity in the 13th century and had a cathedral built in Vilnius on the site where the pagan God of Thunder was previously worshiped. The current iteration of Vilnius Cathedral dates to the 1780s and is most notable for its ornate chapel dedicated to St. Casimir, patron saint of Lithuania.

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Be sure to climb to the top of the Vilnius Cathedral Belfry next door, which just reopened to visitors after a decade-long restoration. The precariously-leaning tower was originally part of the city’s defensive wall, and converted into a belfry three centuries later. While the view from the belfry’s top-floor windows isn’t nearly as sweeping as that of nearby Gediminas’ Tower, it does provide an interesting perspective of Cathedral Square and the surrounding neighborhoods.

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Another Cathedral Square attraction not to be missed is the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. Although the 15th century palace was destroyed, the government of Lithuania has erected a faithful reconstruction to house an exceptional museum. The ruins of the original palace are on display, along with artifacts such as jewelry and pottery uncovered during excavations at the site. The museum’s top two floors utilize period furnishings to recreate the ancient ceremonial halls, from the throne room to the chancellery.

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We stopped by the Museum of Applied Art, which is located near the steps to Gediminas’ Tower in the Old Arsenal building, and features an ecclectic assortment of exhibits. At the time, these included a display of woven textiles as well as an extensive collection of women’s clothing and accessories. Curiously, ABBA songs were being played throughout the museum.

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Dig it, the dancing queen…

No trip to Vilnius would be complete – or so I’m told – without a meander through the Republic of Uzupis, the cheeky “country” that was established smack in the middle of town. Once inhabited by the city’s Jewish population, most of the district’s buildings were left empty after WWII and fell into ruin. Squatters and artists moved in and, after Lithuania regained independence, the bohemian neighborhood flourished. But for all the fun street art and legendary history, I was hoping to find more shops and cafes in Uzupis. Hopefully the “republic” will continue to grow!

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On my first day in Vilnius, I had the pleasure of meeting up with fellow expat blogger Elizabeth from In Search Of, who took me to Pinavija bakery for the best kibinai – traditional Karaite pastries – in town. Pinavija is the kind of place where locals queue patiently while in-the-know tourists titter with anticipation like a puppy about to get a treat. And what a treat! The strawberry kibinai were so scrumptious I returned the next day for more.

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I’ll take all the strawberry pies, please.

Another cafe I would have returned to (had I discovered it sooner) was Atelier Grill, where I enjoyed one hell of a pulled-pork barbecue sandwich. (And I grew up in the southern USA, so I don’t make that statement lightly.) This one came with homemade potato chips and a heap of tangy slaw that went perfectly with a citrusy Lithuanian wheat beer.

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My most memorable dinner was at Kitchen, where I enjoyed Continental cuisine along with a killer Old Town view. I recommend the beet and pear salad, which was accented with a generous amount of goat cheese, pine nuts and fresh mint. The pasta with rabbit ragu was also quite tasty, and surprisingly light. Finish with a cold lemoncello, especially if you’re dining on the balcony on a summer evening!

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Vilnius Travel Guide

Have you been to Vilnius? What interesting spots there should I hit up next time?

34 thoughts on “Discovering Vilnius: Lithuania’s Dynamic Capital

  1. I love the mix of history, culture, lanscapes, and food in this post Heather – that makes for a pretty comprehensive guide! It’s funny because my sister went to Vilnius and the first thing she told us about it was how young and dynamic it seemed… I read another blog post that dismissed Vilnius as not particularly attractive or interesting, but this totally disproves it: I had no idea it was so pretty and colourful! The picture with the reflection in the puddle is just stunning btw, it looks like an Impressionist painting 🙂
    Camille recently posted…Tasting the Good Life in Parnu, the Summer Capital of EstoniaMy Profile

    • Thanks so much, Camille! I thought Vilnius was super interesting and kicked myself for not staying longer. I’m already planning another weekend to check out all the things I missed!

    • I recently had a pulled pork sandwich in Riga and it wasn’t nearly as good. Definitely check that place out!

  2. I haven’t visited the Baltics, but they are on my list! Apart from pretty architecture I spot some delicious food there and I’m loving it!
    Anna recently posted…Day trip to NafplioMy Profile

    • Thanks so much, Elle-Rose! Catching the sunset between the pillars was a total surprise! I actually had an ice cream cone in my hand while rapidly snapping shots with the other 😀

  3. I love the smaller towns that you can visit in a couple of days
    Or a weekend. This seems to be a really charming place.
    Glad you enjoyed your visit.

  4. Enjoyed your trip report and learned about a few restaurants, even as a resident of Vilnius Old Town.

  5. Thank you for the great, easy to read article on Vilnius. Since leaving Lithuania in 1944 I had been there twice on business. Sadly, each time I did not have enough time to explore the city as you did. However, even then the visit left a very special memory of places in the old city, the streets filled with friendly people and great food which was available almost everywhere. Thanks, keep up your writing. AV

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Al! I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Vilnius and am already plotting a return. I must also get to Kaunas and the Hill of Crosses! Lithuania has a wealth of culture and history to explore.

  6. I most certainly would not be able to find it on a map ::hangs head in shame!!!::

    But it looks like such a beautiful city to visit, and I would certainly have a grand time throwing back a few of those pastries in the cafes!;-)
    Jess @UsedYorkCity recently posted…A NYC Summer Brunch CruiseMy Profile

    • No shame! I could still only point to the general location. Tallinn and Riga are on the coast, but Vilnius is landlocked. Tricky!

      And those pastries alone are worth a trip! 🙂

  7. Another wonderful post with beautiful photos! Vilnius sounds lovely, and now I am extra excited for our trip there next month for the Vilnius Marathon. We may not have time to see much, but hopefully we can see some of these things and then go again! 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Deena! I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much you can see. It’s a very walkable city – just like Riga! I think it took 20 minutes to walk from the bus station to our Old Town hotel, and that’s only because we took two wrong turns. 🙂

  8. Where is the in depth reportage from Stockholm ?😆 looking forward to it.
    /your friends from Café Opera.

    • Hello, Pär! It’s nice to hear from you! I’ll be writing about Stockholm as soon as I edit the 1,500 photos I took during the trip. 😉 I have two posts I’d like to share about Riga first, and then I’ll focus on the all the delicious Swedish food. I’m still thinking about those meatballs!

  9. Thank you, Heather Hall, for nice words about my home town. For those coming to Vilnius I would highly recommend to take Vilnius Free Tours with locals – young guides not only show you less touristic spots but also will recommend the best places to eat or entertain. Believe me, there are so many good places opening currently that even not all locals know them. BTW, I like Pinavija’s kibinai as well 🙂

    • Hi Daiva, thank you for the tip about the free tours! I will definitely look into that for my next visit. It’s always more fun to explore someplace with a local who can give excellent food recommendations 🙂

  10. Awesome report. Vilnius is a great city, however I’d recommend you to visit also Trakai. Both of them are connected with mysterious ties for centuries.

    • Thank you, Julius! I very much want to visit Trakai and plan to go back soon. It looks absolutely gorgeous in the photos I’ve seen!

    • Lithuania is well worth a visit! I hope to go back soon to check out a few more spots, like Trakai castle and the Hill of Crosses. So many places, not enough time…

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