VILNIUS, LITHUANIA — Some destinations fly under the tourism radar. This Baltic beauty is no exception. While Lithuania’s capital has always featured everything a camera-wielding tourist could hope for — lots of Medieval history and an Old Town filled with over 2,000 picture-perfect Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings — it's only now hopping onto a lot of tourists’ “must see” lists.
Better late than never, I guess, for a city that is without a doubt one of Europe’s most stunningly beautiful capitals. Unlike its counterparts, though, it remains relatively inexpensive to visit and in these days of over tourism in capitals like London and Paris, Vilnius is becoming even more attractive to travellers.
However, the word about Vilnius is spreading fast and things are quickly changing here. In 2019, for instance, the city saw a surge in tourism — foreign arrivals were up 9.25 per cent from the year before. And with travellers looking for safe havens to visit in this post-COVID-19 world, Lithuania, whose coronavirus numbers were among the lowest in Europe — less than 2,000 cases and less than 100 deaths — will be in high demand.
While Vilnius is a treasure trove of history, what appeals most to first-time visitors is the city’s haughty youthfulness, which is on full display on the al-fresco terraces that line the Old Town’s charming streets. Students from Vilnius University — it's one of the oldest in Central Europe — partake in a café culture that rivals anything you’ll find in Prague, Paris or Vienna. Politics is always on the menu, of course, but the city’s young like to gather here before heading to nearby entertainment streets like Islandijos and Vilniaus where the best bars and clubs are located.
Above: Vilnius University, left, and the city's Old Town are very popular with tourists and locals alike.
Vilnius is certainly a rising star in Europe and is being promoted by some famous Hollywood types — the city is the ancestral home of Canadian actor William Shatner, he of Star Trek fame, and singer Pink, both of whom are constantly touting Vilnius’ virtues to anyone who will listen.
The Old Town is the place to start exploring. The district’s fabulous collection of UNESCO World Heritage buildings are mostly gathered around the striking Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus — known simply as Vilnius Cathedral by locals — and the city’s historic Town Hall.
The imposing cathedral is built on the site of a former pagan temple and sits next to Vilnius’ defensive wall, which was completed in 1522. Lithuania’s patron saint St. Casimir rests in the cathedral, which features traces of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. It’s been rebuilt several times as a result of frequent fires, wars and unstable soil under its foundation.
A visit to the catacombs under the great church is a must for any visitor. Many famous Lithuanians and Poles are buried in the eerie underworld, including the heart of Polish king Władysław IV Vasa — the rest of his body resides in Wawel Cathedral in Kraków.
The defensive wall’s artillery bastion mesmerizes visitors with its wonderful collection of ancient armaments — canons, artillery, armour and guns, some dating back to the 15th century. From the bastion’s observation deck one gets stunning views of Vilnius' sprawling skyline.
Another structure that offers great views of this handsome city is Gediminas Castle Tower, which crowns a small hill near the city centre and can be accessed by lift or walking. A small museum in the three-storey brick castle — it was originally built of wood in 1409 — displays items from the 14th to the 17th centuries.
Above: A youthful vibe hangs over the city's many districts.
The Old Town’s Church Heritage Museum, housed in the former St. Michael the Archangel Church, is a place you can get lost for hours admiring sacred art and learning about Lithuanian’s rich culture.
Among Vilnius’ great collection of holy places, the Church of St. Anne and Bernadine stands out from the rest. St. Anne's was constructed in 1500 and its striking brick exterior has not changed much over the last 500 years. Legend has it Napoleon was so impressed with St. Anne’s gorgeous Gothic architecture that he thought about dismantling the massive church and take it back to Paris as a souvenir.
The church and the 19th-century bell tower that rises beside St. Anne’s have become inseparable symbols of Vilnius.
Another of the city’s important religious places is The Gate of Dawn, or Sharp Gate. Originally one of the 10 gates in the city’s defensive wall, The Gate of Dawn is the only one that survived. Its was first mentioned in 1514 and in the 17th century a separate wooden chapel — it was later replaced by a brick version — was erected nearby and now houses the city’s famed golden image of the Blessed Virgin.
Cold War buffs will be intrigued by Vilnius’ Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights which is housed in an infamous prison where many Lithuanians lost their lives while the country was under the iron rule of the former Soviet Union. The museum is located in the former KGB headquarters across from Lukiškės Square and reminds us of one of the country’s darkest eras.
One of the most intriguing areas in the Old Town to explore is Pilies St., the oldest and most ornate thoroughfare in Vilnius, which in ancient times lead to the Russian and Polish borders.
Above: Public art is everywhere in Vilnius, where many young artists come to practice their craft.
Kings, queens, popes and noblemen travelled this street on their way to Vilnius Castle. Pilies St. was first mentioned in 1530 and part of Vilnius University and the city’s remarkable botanical gardens, along with some of its most impressive buildings, are located along this street, which drifts off into Market Square.
Compact Vilnius (pop. 538,000) is a collection of small districts and touring them gives visitors an insight into everyday life in lovely Lithuania.
The smallest district, Užupis, certainly beats to a different drum. That’s because it’s home to Vilnius’ young artists, entrepreneurs and intellectuals. In 1997, on April Fools' Day, residents of Užupis sarcastically declared their independence and backed it up by introducing their own flag, money, constitution and even an anthem.
Užupis is separated from the Old Town by the Vilnelė River and its streets are lined with lots of funky art and wall murals.
The Glass Quarter is equally intriguing and once was home to the city’s vibrant Jewish community. The area started out 600 years ago and was home to the Goldsmiths Guild, which was founded in Vilnius in 1495. The quarter is still home to many jewellers, fashionable art shops, cozy restaurants, the city’s famed chamber orchestra and the legendary Stikliai Hotel.
Another great area of Vilnius to explore is the Stotis District, the former transportation hub that’s being transformed into as urban oasis of culture and nightlife. Its where the city’s main rail station (circa1862) is located and a trendy place where youthful Lithuanians like to call home.
Stotis sits right next to the Old Town and features many historic buildings of its own, like the treasured Halės Market, which dates back to 1906.
A short distance from Vilnius is Žvėrynas, a community whose roots go back to the 16th century. It features over 100 brightly coloured wooden homes and was once a resort town for the privileged of Vilnius. The area is now a Garden of Eden featuring parks and lush gardens.
The best way to end a visit to Vilnius is by visiting the Hill of Three Crosses, which looks down on the Old Town, the botanical gardens and the Vilnele River. The 12-metre-high Three Crosses monument has become a symbol of national pride and can be seen from almost everywhere in this incredibly beautiful city that is about to become a bucket list must for tourists worldwide.