OK, I’ll admit. I may be using a little bit of artistic hyperbole in calling Vilnius –the capital of Lithuania – a secret. But compared to its fellow Baltic capitals, Riga and Tallinn, the city seems to be floating well under the radar.
As a result, I didn’t really know what to expect when we decided to weekend in Vilnius. In reality, I was just keen to tick all of the Baltic counties and their respective major cities off my bucket list. But, given the lack of research I’d undertaken, Vilnius did not disappoint.
Driving into the capital, the first thing that struck me was just how green it is. Later, Dan commented that it looked like someone just decided to build a metropolis within a park. And he was right. Vilnius boasts a beautiful river with grass lined banks, manicured parks and and tree-lined streets. And to top things off, luscious hills surround the city.
When it comes to accommodation, we’re usually Airbnb devotees. But after a successful stay at our ‘eco hostel’ in Laheema National Park in Estonia, we decided to test our luck again and book a hostel. So, we chose to stay at the Downtown Forest Hostel.
Located in the artsy district of Užupis (more on that later) the hostel boasts a mix of private rooms and dorms, as well as camping, caravan and motorhome pitches. Like all good hostels, there’s also a bar. But this drinking hole stands out from the crowd with its own beer garden and dedicated BBQ area.
Added touches provided by Downtown Forest include organised walking tours, bike rental and free, fresh coffee each morning. So, it’s safe to say, we were more than impressed with our lodgings for the weekend.
Where to Go
The two main areas of interest in Vilnius are the Old Town and the aforementioned Užupis.
Vilnius Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the largest medieval old towns in Northern Europe. As such, visitors can expect to find an array of awe-striking architecture, charming winding streets and elaborate religious monuments.
On the other hand, Užupis operates as Vilnius’s bohemian quarter. The free town declared itself independent from the rest of Lithuania in 1997 and even enjoys its own tongue-in-cheek constitution and independence day. Today the area is home to a number of inviting bars and cafes, as well as countless art shops.
While the Old Town and Užupis have kept visitors busy up until now, a new hipster area is emerging around the city’s central station. It’s there that BBQ restaurant Keulė Rūkė is located – but as a vegan, I’m not intending to talk about the food.
The eatery gained global attention in 2016 thanks to its mural that depicted world leaders Vladmir Putin and Donald Trump locking lips in an intimate embrace. The image has since been doctored to show the pair blowing smoke in each other’s mouth instead. But, nevertheless, the symbolism is still all there.
There’s also the train station bar itself – Peronas. Located directly on the platform, the drinking hole is a pretty cool place to sink a beer and watch the locomotives pass by.
What to Do
If your visit to Vilnius happens to coincide with a Friday evening, make sure you check out Open Kitchen. Perched conveniently between Užupis and the Old Town, this open-air food market is the best place to get your weekend rolling. Expect food stalls to suit ever appetite, live music and plenty of beer on tap.
Church of St. Peter and St. Paul
When I first Googled Vilnuis, the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul was one of the first sights to catch my eye. The building boasts a jaw-droppingly intricate interior which features 2,000 stucco figures each carved by Italian Baroque sculptor Pietro Perti.
Unfortunately, we managed to time our visit to coincide with Sunday morning mass, which is still well attended in these parts. As a result, I had to try and snatch photographs between hymns and sermons, before making a run for it out the door. If I was to go again, I’d probably check opening and mass times.
Hill of Three Crosses
While Lithuania may be more famous for its other Hill of Crosses, Vilnius boasts a holy hill of its own. People have placed crosses atop of the mound since the early 17th century, to mark the spot on which seven Franciscan friars were said to have been beheaded. Today, a permanent monument stands in their place, alongside a small observation deck from which hikers can soak up the view.
Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn
While we didn’t queue to see the painting itself, we did stop by the Chapel of the Gate of Dawn to see what the fuss was about.
The catholic painting after which the chapel is named, features an image of the Virgin Mary. She is situated at the city gates and is believed to keep Vilnius and its citizens safe. According to legend, when the Swedish invaded the city in 1702, the painting came to the rescue. She caused the city gates to fall, crushing four Swedish soldiers in the process.
Literary Street is a celebration of the authors and written works that are either Lithuanian in origin or have a link with the country. Plaques dotted down the street honour one person or book, and include some pretty surprising additions.
Cathedral Square is the centrepiece of Vilnius. There may be far prettier churches dotted around the city, but none of them are as imposing as the St Stanislaus and St Ladislaus of Vilnius. Set in its own spacious square, the cathedral boasts a distinctive bell tower and serves as the heart of Catholicism in Lithuania.
Founded in the 16th century, Vilnius University is the oldest uni in the Baltic States. And while a place of higher education mightn’t be the most obvious place to visit on your hols, it’s actually a charming place to wander around.
The campus is composed of a number of Baroque, Classical and Gothic buildings set around 13 picturesque courtyards, the prettiest of which is the impressive Alumnatas.
Church of St. John’s
Also on the university campus is the Church of St. John’s. While the church’s interior is impressive in itself, the building’s main draw is its iconic bell tower. Standing at 69 metres high, it is the tallest building in Vilnius Old Town and offers spectacular views across the entire city.
Church of St. Anne
St Anne’s is one of the Old Town’s most prominent landmarks. Situated on the banks of the Vilnia River, it is easily recognisable thanks to its flamboyant Gothic style. So striking is the church, that rumour has it Napoleon wanted to carry the structure back to Paris with him on the palm of his hand after spotting it during the Franco-Russian War.
Given that we were only in Vilnius for a weekend, I’m sure there’s plenty more to see and do. So, if you have any recommendations for the city. Feel free to leave them in the comments below.