Vilnius: the gateway to the Baltic’s
I have always called Vilnius the gateway of the Baltics. The reason being its geographical location. Only a couple of hours drive southwest is Poland, to the southeast is Belarus, to the north is Latvia and a bit further on is Estonia and last of all, to the east is Russia (and a little part of Russia – Kaliningrad region to the west on the Baltic Sea coast). For me, it’s the gateway not only to the Baltics but between Russia and the rest of Europe. It’s stuck in the middle. However in Vilnius unlike its neighbour capital to the north, Riga (in Latvia), most of the population is Lithuanian whilst the population in Riga it’s 60% Latvian and 40% Russian. For me personally, Vilnius is one of very few capital cities in Europe which is not over influenced by other cultures and has somehow managed to maintain this over the centuries. Even most of the Soviet Union influence has kinda gone (apart from those horrible grey looking concrete blocks dotted all over the place which are called apartments). Anyway, what I am saying is, that there is a lot of ‘home’ culture in this city whilst most capital cities in Europe, visitors would have to go to other towns or villages or deep into the countryside to experience the culture, for example, Morris Dancing in my home country of the United Kingdom is found in small villages where no sod lives or the Sami culture of Lapland is definitely not found in Helsinki.
Vilnius is one of those cities which involves a lot of walking (the best way to explore the city) and doesn’t need any public transport. Passing every building, turning every corner there is always something to do and see. The landmarks of the city are pretty spread out but in between there is always something else to see, a restaurant to eat in or to check out a bar. On this post are the sights of Vilnius which I found really interesting and I have given out a few first time tips for first time visitors.
The sights of Vilnius
St John’s Church and Belfry – Located on the southern end of the university campus on Šv. Jono, is the marvellous St John’s Church and its beautiful facade but for me it was the belfry next to it. This is where to get a good view overlooking the old town from the heart of it. The tower being 68 meters tall (223ft), has two tiers at the top and is the tallest structure in the area.
The church itself was built around the same time when Lithuania converted to Christianity in the late 1300s but has had a lot of changes to it over the centuries. Now the facade has a Baroque style to the place and is dedicated to the two Johns, where were the Apostle and the Baptist. In the 1700s the church was handed over to the university which is located next door before the church had a lot of Gothic features added inside. One thing for sure I recommend to visitors is to check out the organ, it’s the largest in Lithuania and a lot of parts for it came from Polotsk in the 1830s. The organ is still used to this day in concerts inside the church. This church will always provide good memories for me as one of my best friends was married here in 2018 and the service was beautiful.
Nearby is the Presidential Palace where many of the country’s presidents have lived and worked since 1997, why do I say many? Because like Estonia and Latvia, there are always elections and the locals keep changing leaders and parties hoping for better times but somehow always vote in similar parties. Anyway, I don’t do politics. Let’s talk about the building. The palace has stood here since the 14th century but was much smaller but since has grown and gained a Classical appearance. Life was a bit quiet here over the centuries, apart from Napoleon spending some nights here. These days the only things worth pointing out (as visitors can’t go inside the palace) is that from May to October it is possible to enter the rear courtyard without being part of a tour guide to have a look in and also if the presidential flag is raised over the building, then the president is either at home or elsewhere in the city.
Vilnius Cathedral – Visitors to the city will probably see that the main sights are probably all churches. That’s how I feel every time I come to this amazing city. However another place of worship to check out is the main cathedral, also known as the Basilica of Saint Stanislaus and Saint Ladislaus. One of the most beautiful cathedrals I have come across on my travels in Europe, the most important Catholic building in the country dates back to the 13th century where it was first built as an Christian church. It was only recently it was closed down by the Soviets in the 1950s and was turned into a garage for truck repairs. It then turned into an art gallery before returning to a Catholic Church in the late 1980s. Inside the highlight has to be the chapel where the remains of Saint Casimir is kept and the decor inside is stunning. However on the outside of the building there are statues on the roof. There are statues of Saint Stanislaus, Helena and Casimir, however all three of them were added to the cathedral in 1997 as the originals were destroyed by the Soviets.
Outside is another belfry which part of the original fortifications which stood here and is fifty-seven meters tall. However a fun thing to do is located next to the tower. There is a tile on the floor marked stebuklas (which means ‘miracle’) which is the point where a human chain (known as the Baltic Way) started from which linked the city to Riga and Tallinn. Locals believe that turning around on it three times makes a wish comes true.
To the side of the cathedral is statue of Gediminas which has stood here since 1996. Gediminas was the guy who founded Vilnius in 1323 and was also the Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1316 until he died. Legend has it Gediminas whilst dreaming away, heard a howling wolf from this spot and then decided to move the country’s capital from nearby Trakai to Vilnius. The statue itself is made from metal however (and I never noticed this on my previous visits until my last visit), that there is a wolf on the statue which is standing underneath Gediminas and its the only part of the monument to be made of stone.
Gediminas Castle is short in distance from the cathedral but however a sturdy hike up a hill, is the remains of the castle which once stood here overlooking the capital. The tower is all that remains and houses a museum. First built in the 13th century, the castle had to be rebuilt in the 14th century due to fire. Then over the years it has been used as a prison for naughty members of the ruling classes before the Russian occupation in the 17th century where things got a bit crazy (not sure if it was a war or if the Russians were partying), but the towers and defensive walls were destroyed and never really did get rebuilt until the 1930s. I think the locals didn’t bother and just left the site with the one remaining good tower. Also to throw it out there, the castle is also the symbol of the city (visitors will notice this on artwork in the souvenir shops) and the viewing platform at the top is worth a visit. The view is amazing and can see for miles around.
On another hill overlooking the city is the site known as the Hill of Three Crosses (if looking for it on a map, it’s on Kosciuškos). Another legend (these Baltic countries love their legends, I think I found more in this part of the world than in Ireland who also love their legends), that seven Franciscan monks were crucified at this spot. The crosses were first erected in the seventeenth century, however when Stalin and the Soviets came to town, Stalin had the crosses removed and buried. Before independence from the Soviet Union, the crosses were rebuilt. They are now symbol of mourning and hope to the locals. It is also worth coming here for the views especially in the summer months.
Now I am not going to write about all the churches in the city but one to mention is the beautiful Church of St Anne on Maironio Street. Originally there was a wooden house of worship located here in the 14th century in honour of Ona, the wife of Vytautas the Great. Since then the current church was built before 1500 and it’s facade is Gothic. The good thing is about this church it hasn’t been destroyed or changed much over time. Even when Napoleon came through the city (on his way to sort out the Russians), he wanted to take the church back to Paris as he saw it as a beautiful masterpiece.
Town Hall Square – All Old Town’s in Europe have the main square but this one is very beautiful with most of the surrounding buildings have a very distinctive Baroque architecture. There are a few places worth checking out (as well as the bars and restaurants) like the Town Hall, the Basilian Monastery and a few other churches.
Nearby on Aušros Vartų is the Gates of Dawn which has stood here since 1522 and is the only remaining gate from the original defensive walls. An image of the Virgin Mary is placed here above the gate as a way that she would protect the city. The image here was produced in the 1600s, painted on eight pieces of oak (however the artisit is unknown) and later on had some gold and silver put on it. The room where the painting is located above the gate was turned into a chapel in 1706 and legend has it that people entering the room would be magically healed. Another interesting fact is that the chapel is important not only in the Catholic faith but also the Orthodox faith and because of this, stayed open when the Soviets were in town. The chapel is open to the public and to enter the room, visitors will need to go up a small door on the left hand side of the gate (from the direction of the town hall square, walking up a slight hill).
KGB Museum – I do like my Second World War and Cold War history and was glad to visit the KGB museum (also known as the Museum of Genocide Victims) which opened as soon as Lithuania gained independence from the Soviet Union and is located in the former KGB building. As well as its displays, I got to go inside cells which former prisoners well held in, to see the torture methods and the old administrative rooms where there are the remains of shredded paperwork to which the KGB tried to destroy before the Soviet Union collapsed.
Outside the Old Town
To the west of the centre on Sausio 13-osios 10, is the television tower (standing at 326 meters – 1070ft) which is a very historical place to visit as back in 1991 local people tried to defend the tower from Soviet authorities. Fourteen people died (thirteen men and one woman) who were either shot or crushed by the tanks. There are Granite markers to show where the people died. Also there is a statue of an angel with her hands up in the air. Get the right view and it will look like she is holding up the top part of the tower (where visitors can also visit the top as there is a restaurant and some amazing views overlooking the city and well into neighbouring Belarus).
Did you know that there is a breakaway republic in Vilnius. There is and it’s called the Republic of Užupis. It has its own constitution, anthem, president, bishop with two churches, one of the oldest cemeteries in the city, the Bernadine Cemetery whilst a statue called the Bronze Angel of Užupis has stood here in the centre of the district in 2002. However before the breakaway, Užupis has dated back to the sixteenth century and is one of Vilnius oldest districts. Despite this, it was also the poorest area of the city, hosted the red-light district and a lot of manual, hard working labourers lived here. When the Soviets were in town, they let Užupis go to ruin which then became the nasty area of Vilnius, all the thugs were here, drugs, shootings, murders….well, that’s a bit far fetched but it was known as the roughest district in Vilnius. Since Lithuanian gained independence in 1991, a lot of artists came here to live because of the cheap accommodation. These days the creative community hosts concerts, exhibitions, poetry events and fashion festivals.
Užupis in Lithuanian means ‘behind the river’. Talking about the river which flows through the district, check out Lithuania’s only mermaid! She lives on the embankment.
Drinks and views!
Just north of the Neris River on Konstitucijos Av. is one of my favourite bars in the city. Right at the top of the Radisson Blu Lietuva is the Sky Bar, a bar which offers the finest cocktails, beers, wines, snacks with fantastic service as well as amazing views overlooking the Old Town.
Day trips from Vilnius
In the small town of Trakai, located south-west of Vilnius and a short coach or train journey away holds a hidden gem in this part of the world. The huge Lake Galve in this area has twenty one small islands but one island stands out more than the others and it’s the island which lies Trakai Castle. With its surrounding scenery, beautiful architecture and enchanting history, this place is a great day trip especially in the warm summer months when pedal boats are on offer and outdoor bars and food stands are dotted around the town. Not to be missed!
It is possible to do a very long day trip to Riga in Latvia (about three and a half hour coach journey each way) and with all the sites, food, bars to check out, a day trip around the Old Town is possible.
Getting to Vilnius
Tallinn is very well connected and easy to get to. With flights to the airport (which is located not too far away from the city centre), airlines such as Ryanair, WizzAir and Air Baltic all fly here from various parts of Europe. The international coach services are excellent and comfortable in the Baltic’s and there are services to Riga, Tallinn, Warsaw and Minsk. Most popular coach companies is Lux Express and EcoLines.
There you have it guys, these are my recommendations of places to hit up. I have been here for quite a few times and I can’t wait to visit the city again very shortly. There is always something new to see and do every time I come here and I can tell my readers now, you will get a warm reception from the locals. They are amazing, nice and helpful. Also one last thing, Lithuania only ever had a single king: Mindaugas, who united the tribes and established a monarchy, but was assassinated a few decades later. Thought I chuck that in there.
Please note that while I was not working with any of the companies mentioned on this page and that my trip to Vilnius was all paid for by myself. I love Vilnius so much and want to show you the city through my eyes and give you the best advice possible. My reviews and experiences written about in this post are 100% genuine. I value my readers too much to lie to you. My blog would be nothing without you and your continued support!