Vilnius in Lithuania markets itself as “the ‘G’ spot of Europe”. Not a bad selling point!
“Not many people know where it is, but once you find it, it’s amazing!” boasts the city’s clever tourism marketing campaign.
The truth is that Vilnius is an extremely interesting city which is almost as amazing as its marketing sales pitch. And there are plenty of surprises for visitors.
- The Big and Little Ghettos – a rich Jewish and Holocaust history.
- Gediminas Hill and Tower – one of the most visually striking sites in the city.
- Cathedral Basilica – the historic hub of Vilnius.
- The “Republic” of Užupis – artistic quarter with a difference.
- The Monastery Quarter – oozing with historic treasures.
At first sight, Vilnius is reminiscent of Prague in the Czech Republic, with its pretty cobbled streets and alleyways, peppered with historic buildings.
It’s easy to get lost in the maze of winding alleys but Vilnius’ compact city centre means it’s always straightforward to find your way back to where you started from.
A good starting point for exploring the city is the main Town Hall square from where you can dive down one of the many characterful side streets or relax in a charming cafe.
Nearby you’ll find Pilies Street, historically the city’s main trading street, now lined with cafes and gift shops. The buildings read like an architectural text-book, with a mix of styles embracing Renaissance, Gothic, Classical and Modernist.
Don’t miss the street’s inner courtyards with open arched galleries and labyrinthine alleys.
The House of Signatories was where Lithuania signed the Act of Independence in 1918. You can visit the memorial hall where it took place as well as a small museum… worth a very short detour.
As you walk down Pilies Street away from the Town Hall square, you’ll reach one of the most attractive areas of the city – Sventaragio. You can’t miss the giant statue to one of the city’s founding fathers. Further along you’ll reach the lovely River Neris waterfront.
Nearby there’s the distinctive ‘leaning’ Cathedral Bell Tower and adjacent gleaming white Basilica. The tower has a strange clock that does not show minutes or have hands!
It was just my luck that the Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Vladislaus was swathed in green awnings, but, once inside, the treasures of this Classical building compensate for that minor disappointment. The cathedral vaults and the ‘miraculous’ Sapieha Madonna are highlights.
Not far away is the Royal Palace of Lithuania, the old castle ruins and the Gediminas Tower set in a large wooded parkland.
Sadly I can’t tell you much about the striking Gediminas Tower, other than it looks splendid sitting atop a conical mound. It was closed during my visit due to flooding and subsidence… but it looks impressive from a distance. I’m told there are fine panoramic views of the city from the top.
The Jewish Quarter
Vilnius was once one of Europe’s biggest centres of Jewish culture and learning. Before the Holocaust there were over 110,000 Jews living in the city, almost half of Vilnius’ population.
The city was known as ‘the Jerusalem of the North’.
But after 1940, life changed dramatically in Vilnius with the invasion of the Nazis. Thousands were murdered and sent to their deaths. Today there are barely 2,000 Jews living in the city and much of its Jewish history has been swept away.
Despite this, it’s still easy to find some notable Jewish sites and discover the history of the Lithuanian Jews or Litvaks. A good starting point is the Big and Little Jewish ghettos where you can follow the Jewish heritage trail.
Dotted along its route are reminders of the Jewish past including street signs in Hebrew, the old Jewish library and the ruins of the former Great Synagogue.
The area between Didžioji Street to Dominikonų and Vokiečių Streets was once the heart of Jewish life in Vilnius – until the Holocaust.
During the Nazi occupation, the Small Ghetto was created in the Stiklių quarter of the city centre and 11,000 Jews were herded into a small area until it was liquidated.
The larger ghetto in Vilnius operated from 1941 to 1943 with around 29,000 Jews living there. Nearly all of them were sent to Paneriai woods outside the city where they were executed.
The main entrance into the Big Ghetto is at 18 Rūdnininkų Street, easily spotted because there’s a memorial plaque with a street plan of the ghetto.
Zydu Street is my favourite area of the ghetto with its atmospheric alleyways, cobbled streets and old buildings painted in gold, beige and white.
Žemaitijos Street was once the home of the largest Judaism library in Europe, which was destroyed during the Second World War.
There are other reminders of Vilnius’ Jewish past too, from old street signs to faded painted names on buildings and architectural clues… but you have to look closely.
The old Jewish hospital is easily missed because there’s no heritage signboard, but a trip through its courtyard reveals a once-different world.
Further along Zydu street, you’ll reach a boxy, rectangular, white building on the site of the former Great Vilnius Synagogue which was the spiritual centre of the Lithuanian Jews from the end of the 16th Century.
Today you have to look a little harder for signs of this Jewish heritage.
If you go around the back of the present building, you’ll see the ruins of the synagogue which have been excavated over the last couple of years. It’s a tragic reminder of how the Jewish community was destroyed during the Holocaust.
On your travels, it’s easy to miss many of the Jewish points of interest – which is why I’d recommend getting the Jewish heritage guide mentioned above.
There are also expert guides and I was lucky enough to be shown around the area by one of the Jewish museum’s leading experts.
That’s why I can tell you that this was once the entrance to the old Jewish ghetto which had a 10 foot barrier running across the street. It would be impossible to know this without an expert pointing it out.
Dotted around the ghetto quarter, you’ll discover statues and monuments to some famous Lithuanian Jews.
The Gaon – Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman – lived in the 18th Century and became a world-famous religious figure and Jewish icon.
He was the man who put Vilnius on the map as the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’. Also look out for his memorial statue and a plaque on his former house.
Not far away is another monument, this one to Tsemakh Shabad, a legendary Jewish doctor. He was renowned for his charity work and was one of the early pioneers of a Jewish ‘welfare state’.
If you’re interested in Jewish history, don’t miss a trip to the Tolerance Centre and the State Gaon Jewish Museum which host exhibitions about the Holocaust.
The Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius is another must-see attraction but is not without controversy. Housed in the former headquarters of the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania in 1941, it has displays about the Lithuanian partisans, the Nazis and the Russians.
The prison cells, execution and torture chambers in the basement are exactly how the KGB officers left them upon leaving Lithuania in 1991.
On the edge of the city, it’s worth a visit to the city’s old cemeteries which are bursting with history. The Rasu Cemetery is the best of the bunch with ornate graves, monuments and strangely decorated tombstones.
Further afield, visitors can take a trip to Paneriai woods, the site of mass killings during the Holocaust in 1941-43. About 100,000 people, including 70,000 Jews, were murdered at Paneriai. There’s a small museum and memorial on the site where the atmosphere is extremely muted.
In recent years, archaeologists have uncovered an escape tunnel dug by a group of Jews. Only 12 prisoners managed to escape successfully, and joined a partisan unit in the forest.
The Monastery Quarters
Vilnius is a magnet for tourists who love churches, monasteries and Christian sites. You can’t go far without seeing a church spire or tower on the skyline.
The Monastery Quarter is a must if this is your type of thing. I didn’t have enough time to complete this part of the city, but the Church of the Holy Cross and old Hospitaller Monastery are worth a look.
The nearby University also has strong roots in Catholicism and boasts the impressive Great Courtyard, smaller courtyards and the adjacent St John’s Church.
Another district of the city – called the Quarter of Three Confessions – is a must for lovers of Baroque architecture with its ornate churches and chapels.
I was gutted to miss the Chapel at the Gate of Dawn which, apparently, has a glorious picture of Mary in brilliant gilded and golden metals.
Clearly, I need a return trip to Vilnius to do full justice to this side of its history.
Vilnius has no shortage of restaurants, bars and cafes – there are plenty of places to eat and drink ‘al fresco’ during the summer months.
Don’t worry about your wallet as food is reasonably priced and the portions are piled high… although it’s easy to overdo the ‘stodge’, if you’re not careful.
Vilnius is one of Europe’s cheapest capital cities for eating and drinking. Craft beers are also popular if you fancy trying the local ales.
Lithuanian food is similar to Czech and German cuisine with giant helpings of dumplings, cabbage, potatoes and hearty meat dishes.
I was struck by the wide choice of meats which included wild beaver (surely, a protected species?), rabbit, venison and assorted game birds.
I opted for the ‘selection of wild meats’ which was excellent, but I’d absolutely no idea what I was eating. “What meats are there in this dish?” I asked. “Wild ones” came the reply!
At least I avoided the ‘skilandis’, cold-smoked pig’s stomach stuffed with minced meat and garlic.
The most dramatic dish was the ‘Zeppelin’, large boiled potato dumplings made from grated raw potato, filled with minced meat or cottage cheese. It was quite a challenge to finish one off – and isn’t recommended for anyone on a slimming regime.
As an alternative, you could try the smaller potato dumplings which often come with mushroom or berry fillings.
If that doesn’t appeal, there’s plenty more down-to-earth stodge including kugelis (potato loaf), potato salad, potato pancakes and boiled potato (sometimes with a meat filling).
The national obsession with potatoes doesn’t stop there. I skipped the vėdarai or ‘potato sausages’ – pork intestines stuffed with grated raw potato, baked in a wood stove. My colleagues couldn’t decide if they were disgusting or different.
Another popular dish is pancakes with fillings of fruit or berries, others ‘plain’, made from yeast-raised dough, and served dipped in sour cream or berry jam. Quite tasty.
Red berries pop up on with great frequency on the meat dishes too – venison with berries, wild meats with berries and game with berries. The list is endless.
Even the Lithuanian wines are frequently described as ‘berry flavoured’.
For a starter you can try marinated herrings with boiled potatoes, deep-fried cheese batons, or rather gloopy-looking ‘cold beetroot soup’. My deep-fried ‘pig’s trotter’ resembled a tub of lard with batter on it and was almost inedible… but was good for building up my winter fat supplies!
Another good choice is Lokys on the same street – don’t miss the old cellar underground which is very atmospheric.
Down in the Town Square, there are many different cuisines on offer including Lithuanian, Italian, Greek and Jewish. The theatre area is also worth checking out for eating places and bars.
What the guide books don’t tell you…
Vilnius is relatively small and compact for a capital city – and taxi prices are low – but only if you book them ahead of time. Avoid taking a taxi off the street – there are very few ranks anyway.
Uber is a good option so make sure you have the App.
Airport taxis can be a rip-off, as in many cities – and prices can vary wildly. Once again, book ahead if you can, or try to negotiate a decent price.
Most of Vilnius is walkable but a hire car is sometimes a useful option, if you want to travel further afield.
With a car you could drive up to the spectacular Trakai island castle, a Gothic masterpiece from the 15th Century.
Alternatively, try something different – the surreal Hill of Crosses near Siauliai features 57,000 crosses on a hillside.
Eating out is mostly cheap but be aware of the city’s relaxed attitude to service. It’s best not to rush anything! There seemed to be little sense of urgency in the cafes and restaurants which I ate in.
Put bluntly, the service isn’t always great but – on the plus side – the atmosphere is very chilled out. There are plenty of outdoor sitting areas, although my favourite restaurants were in courtyards just off the main streets.
Don’t think about looking for an English style sandwich shop! In an infamous incident – known as ‘Sandwichgate’ – I had a near meltdown when I had to wait 50 minutes for takeaway open sandwiches.
They just don’t get the strange British habit of putting ‘tops’ on bread… or making the classic takeaway sandwich. Forget it – and just eat a proper lunch in the cafe.
There’s not a bad choice but most hotels charge around £100 per night. You can knock down the price by staying on the edge of town or up by the airport. I spent one night at the good quality budget Ibis Styles Hotel (near the airport) which has a regular free bus to and from the city centre – it takes around 15 minutes.
Pre-booked taxis from hotels on the edge of town are cheap.
Weird stuff about Vilnius…
Vilnius is full of oddities so here’s a list of interesting trivia…
- Paganism was big until the late 1300s. Lithuania was the last pagan nation in Europe.
- Underground pagan altars have been found underneath the city. The Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Vladislaus in Vilnius has pagan altars in its vaults.
- Gediminas built his castle in Vilnius on the spot where he’d dreamed of a howling iron wolf.
- Vilnius has strong Russian roots – a large area of Lithuania was annexed by Tsarist Russia in 1795. The country didn’t fully win back its freedom until 1990.
- Strange but true… there’s a bizarre statue to American musician Frank Zappa in Vilnius. Zappa never visited Lithuania and has no links with the country, but he was seen as a symbol of artistic freedom when Lithuania gained its independence from Russia.
- During World War Two, 40% of Vilnius’ buildings were destroyed.
The Verdict on Vilnius?
So did Vilnius hit my ‘G spot’?
It definitely scored top marks for its history, culture and food with a different twist. The museums are often small and less impressive than in some European capitals though.
Vilnius is a good alternative to Prague and Krakow, and it’s compact enough to be able to cover the main sights over a long weekend.
It’s cheap and easy to fly to from Leeds or Stansted with Ryan Air.
Food and drink is inexpensive but sometimes ‘oddly described stuff’ on menus. Anyone for the “quail – beloved of charming Lithuanian ladies” or “game sausage praised by peasants”?
My only regret?
Not having time to visit the “Republic” of Užupis on the edge of the city centre. This alternative artists’ community is just my kind of thing… and clearly something I need to go back for.
What wouldn’t I rush back for?
I’ll be giving the potato dumplings and beetroot soup a wide berth next time… and avoiding takeaway sandwiches!