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