Vilnius: why you need to visit Lithuania's capital, with its stunning art, gothic prisons and curious history
Walkable, compact, rich in history both dark and inspiring, and beautiful UNESCO-listed buildings, Vilnius is well worth your consideration for a city break
Northern Europe does not garner as much tourist attention as the countries south of it might: certainly, you hear more people planning summer holidays to, say, Italy, than Lithuania. But travellers are missing out. With its rich political and social history, stunning natural and architectural beauty, Vilnius is a jewel in the crown of the Baltic.
It has a rich, storied history. Lithuania was one of the last European nations to adopt Christianity at the end of the 14th century, though the city of Vilnius itself has Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Ruthenian Orthodox quarters. It is a bijou city, though, and the Vilnius Catholic cathedral dominates the main square (known as Cathedral Square, Katedros Aikste), looming over the surrounding streets and buildings as people go about their day.
Make a wish on a miracle tile
It is a city full of quirky features. Just outside the Catholic cathedral is a tile - the 'Stebuklas', or 'miracle tile.' It demarcates the endpoint of a human chain across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. On 23 August, 1989, two million people joined hands across the Baltic Way, protesting Soviet occupation in neighbouring Belarus. This is the largest unbroken human chain to this day. Now, the locals believe, if you stand on the Stebuklas, close your eyes and turn around three times clockwise, jump and clap once, your wish will come true (only if you don’t tell anyone what it is, though).
The influence of this period in history, which was just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, is clear to see throughout the city. If you, like me, are fascinated by history, the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights – also known as the “KGB museum” (it is located in the Soviet secret police’s former HQ) is a must to learn about the darker aspects of Vilnius' history.
Vilnius also has a fascinating artistic history. Painted over the brutalist areas which were influenced by the soviet occupation are new artistic murals, and there is an entire street dedicated to literature. Conveniently named ‘Literati Street’, this is an area of the Vilnius Old Town which has become a shrine to the works of writers who lived and worked in the city, and it is a joy to walk down.
Swing by the republic of Užupis
Vilnius is proud of its rebellious history. One of its neighbourhoods, Užupis, is particularly idiosyncratic. The community is a self-professed - if unofficial- republic. This riverside neighbourhood is a bohemian mecca - home to artists, writers and musicians. Its 'constitution' can be read on Paupio Street. 'Quirky' is the vibe, and it's an excellent haunt for cafes, street food, and independent stores. Make sure to hit up the Užupis Border Control to have your passport stamped.
Every April 1 is Užupis Day- and celebrations are apparently pretty lively. I wandered up through a cobbled square to an innocent looking water pump - every April 1 free beer is given out at the pump to anyone and everyone in the surrounding area.
Hot air balloon rides are not an everyday occurrence for me - well, I’m hardly alone in that. I put my life in the hands of the very capable ballooning company ‘Ballooning.LT’. The icy grip of the night was still tight at 5am when our pilot invited us into the basket. We were taken to a remote field outside of Vilnius and near to the town of Trakai- wind permitting we were to fly over the town and it’s castle- however the elements weren't on our side. This didn’t take anything away from what was an amazing trip, however.
Being suspended above the landscape in almost complete silence- other than the occasional burst of the flames which kept us airborne- was utterly arresting. Being up above the hustle and bustle of the motorways and then the quiet farmland of this country was contemplative and moving. The landing, however, was a totally different story.
I had no idea just how rough a landing in a hot air balloon could be. In order to bring the basket to a stop, the passengers need to lean on one side to bring the basket and it’s now deflating balloon to a complete stop. This was a relative success. The odd early morning excursion wasn’t over just yet either.
There is a ritual which comes with your first hot air balloon flight. Once landed, passengers are supposed to mark the occasion with a ceremony incorporating the three elements of balloon-flying. The first element is heat- for this part you have your hair singed by the pilot using a lighter. The next is the ground- which provides somewhere to land- and for this I had mud smudged on my head. The third and final element is wine, and this dates back to the story of the first balloon flight hundreds of years ago. When the first two pilots crashed in a field, the farmer who owned the field was not best pleased. As a form of peace offering, the pilots gave a bottle of wine to the farmer.
It is for this reason that, at shortly before 9am on a Friday morning in a field in Lithuania, I found myself drinking red wine.
A trek through Trakai to its castle
After the bumpy landing, the ballooning team dropped me off in Trakai. I walked through its quiet streets and out towards its main landmark- the truly beautiful gothic castle (not before I stopped off at a chocolate cafe called AJ Sokoladas for a gorgeous breakfast of strong coffee and cheesecake).
The castle was built over a period of around 200 years, and was a regular home to Vytautas the Great, a leader beloved in Vilnius - in the 1300s, he stood for Lithuanian independence and allied with the Teutonic Knights to oppose a union with Poland.
The courtyard of the castle is wide open and was once occupied by stables. Now, it used to provide visitors with the chance to stand in gallows or be locked up in a cage on wheels, once used to parade criminals around the castle to be heckled for their crimes. I couldn’t pass up the chance to be locked up. My crime? Maybe not enough coffee from the chocolate café I visited that morning- the early start for my balloon ride was catching up with me.
The castle was ransacked by locals before restoration began. It has now been carefully reconstructed as a monument to a time when the Kingdom of Lithuania stretched across vast areas of Eastern Europe.
Back in Vilnius and the city was bouncing, and the sun was shining down. Ironically on the sunniest of my afternoons in Lithuania turned into the literal darkest, with a visit to Lukiškės prison. Shut down as a municipal facility just 4 years ago, the prison had previously been open and operational through a turbulent era for the country. For 115 years it was surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. Now it has been reborn as an artistic venue - Lukiškės Prison 2.0 – housing the works of 250 creators and artists.
I confess, I was more fascinated with its former purpose. The influence of the Soviet era was clear as I made my way around the buildings. Communist party symbols were etched into the walls of cells and there was a cold, hardened atmosphere. Deep in the depths of the prison was a floor dedicated to those inmates who were sentenced to death. The dingiest area of the prison, there was a chilling feel to these cells which previously held some of the most dangerous prisoners in the facility.
There was a strict policy on where you could and couldn’t take photos in the prison, but we were encouraged to take photos of one cell in particular. Naturally, this piqued interest and I couldn’t have predicted what was behind the door- a cardboard cut out of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Lithuanians, I was informed, do not take kindly to the tyrant.
Where to eat and drink in Vilnius
My first night, I dined at the incredible Nineteen18. The website describes itself as ‘intimate’ and with just 42 seating spaces they’re not wrong. The luxury eatery is located in Senatorių Pasažas, a historic building in the Vilnius Old Town. I was wined and dined with a 10 course meal consisting of everything from salmon, to caviar and- to complement the dessert and to add a bitter taste to the sweet- ants (crucial to the restaurant’s ecological philosophy, they were locally sourced). Unmissable.
Dinner on the second evening saw me visit Dziaugsmas. An idiosyncratic restaurant in the Old Town, it's ideal for sampling the best of modern Lithuanian cuisine. With an unassuming exterior, the interior is stark, rendered in sleek black marble, putting the focus on the food. And what food! I devoured, appreciatively, a tuna steak with roasted vegetables and a taste of local whisky. The kitchen is headed up by Martynas Praškevičius, purportedly the country's best chef, and showcases exclusively Lithuanian produce, with a micro-seasonal focus. I loved being told the story behind each course by the courteous, attentive wait staff. What a meal.
Vilnius' chilled out bar and pub culture is a fabulous draw, particularly for thirsty UK tourists. There are multiple bars on Savičiaus, a street just around the corner from the town hall. My favourite was a little one called Špunka. A small bar, it was brimming with character and life as I made my way through the merry crowd to order my drink. A good pint of lager will set you back around four euros. Grab a seat outside if you can.
Where to stay
I stayed in the Artagonist, a rustic hotel tucked away on the cobbled streets of the city’s Old Town. A modern and stylish hotel inhabiting a building which dates back to the 15th century. The hotel had a clean cut design style and gave me easy and swift access to the city’s key attractions.
Good to know:
Local currency used
Lithuanian, although English is widely spoken.
Vilnius is two hours ahead of the UK.
Do I need to tip?
Around 10 per cent is standard.
Navigating the city
It's very small, so easy to walk around, but with trams and buses you'll not struggle to get around. Get a - vilniecio kortele Vilnius’s version of the Oyster card. It costs €1.50, and you can load it up for certain time periods, which range from 30-minute tickets (€0.65) to 10-day ones (€15).
How to get there
Direct flights to Vilnius go from London Luton or City airport with Polish airline Lot.