Having spent the better part of the last several months trying to get a chance to visit Lithuania/Vilnius, the necessity of getting a new working visa to Russia served as my chance to do so. Not only was I excited to take care of business (i.e. the visa), but I was able to cap off the hat trick of visiting all of the Baltic countries! Honestly, I had no idea of what to expect, other than a basketball-mad country (which, as my free walking tour guide succinctly put it, is the second religion). That being said, I was pleasantly surprised during my brief time visiting!
After the 75-minute flight from Moscow late Thursday night, my first impressions of Vilnius Airport was that of a comfortably small one; it probably would take about 20 minutes to walk through all of the terminals. As I arrived in the dying hours of the night, I was very thankful for the proximity of it to the city center. Despite having little light to see, I really liked how quaint and retro the old town felt. As a general, I like cities that have cobbled streets (the Baltic countries adhere to this, especially), so there was a certain homely feel to it. My hostel, the excellent Filaratei Hostel, was located in the heart of the Bohemian neighborhood of (the self-proclaimed Republic of) Užupis. Before I move on, I need to explain Užupis. During the Soviet era, this neighborhood was part of the most neglected areas in the city, and as such, it was a place where one didn’t want to hang out at. Fast forward to 1997, however, where, after a significant overhaul, it “declared” its independence on April 1 (as part of the tongue-in-cheek bit), in a local restaurant; said restaurant is where the “politicians” of the republic meet and do their things. The best part is that you can even get a FREE stamp that commemorates your visit to the quirky republic, and I absolutely made sure to do this! A two minute walk up the street brings you to their constitution, which helpfully enough is in 23 languages. The gist of the neighborhood is that it’s where creativity and peace can thrive, and having walked around the area for several days, you really got that vibe! For starters, it genuinely seemed like it was its own little world within Vilnius, as the houses mostly were new and very aesthetically pleasing. Plenty of small little restaurants, cafes, and studios lined the cozy streets, as well. Finally, as a nod to the neighborly renaissance, the flag is that of a white hand with a hole in its hand. “Wait, what does this have to do with anything?” you might be wondering. It’s a bit of a joke, as was explained to me, that as soon as artists get money, it disappears-a bit like a hole in your hand, eh? When combined with the proximity to the Old Town (roughly a 10-15 minute walk), it was the ideal location to stay in the city!
As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, Old Town was very close to my lodgings. As such, I did a fair bit of walking around. Unlike the other Baltic capitals, I found Vilnius to be even easier to walk about. Another difference separating Vilnius with Riga and Tallinn was the fact that the good folk (i.e. the city’s excellent tourism board) of Vilnius put up handy signs to guide tourists around. There was a sign for the town hall, but it was rather unnecessary given that it was around the corner smack dab on the main square. Further down the street past it was the Gate of Dawn, which is one of the holiest places in Lithuania. I concede that I didn’t manage to visit it, but that’s for a future return trip!
Saturday was dedicated to spending a pleasant few hours on a walking tour, which, as so often happens, was worth it. Our extremely jovial guide, Matilda, took us through most of the Old Town, especially to small, tucked away places. The first gem was where the old synagogue of Vilnius was formerly located. Since the old Grand Duchy of Lithuania and its successor the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were so tolerant, many of Europe’s Jews flocked to Vilnius. Given the sheer amount of adherents to Judaism, they wanted to build a grand synagogue to reflect their status. This is where regulations came into play, as the Catholic Commonwealth’s legislation said that no buildings could be higher than the churches. All right, said the Jews, we’ll build the synagogue into the ground instead. So, when adding the depth with the height, it technically became the highest place of worship in all of Vilnius. How’s that, eh?! Sadly though, the presence of Judaism suffered an irreversible blow during the years of the Nazi occupation and of the Lithuanian Socialist Republic. It is telling that contemporary Lithuania’s population is roughly 3 million souls, but as some historians have calculated, it would be closer to 5 million with the addition of the lost Jewish population from over the years. Further along on the tour, we stopped by the fantastic Literature Street. One couldn’t help but notice all the busts and plaques and signs along the walls, but that was part of the charm. See, Lithuanians are very, very proud whenever they appear in foreign culture as, well, you don’t exactly hear about the country. As such, the walls along this street are lined with tributes to any and all authors out there that mention anybody or anything about this Baltic country. Do you guys know the infamous Hannibal Lecter? In the novels, he was from Lithuania, meaning the author, Thomas Harris, is now immortalized on a plaque. The moral of this is, if any authors or aspiring authors want to channel the spirit of David Hasselhoff and become famous in another country, write about Lithuania. It doesn’t have to be solely positive by any means, as Milda explained, as any mention is good news for Lithuanians. The last place we stopped by was at the Palace of the Grand Dukes, with the Hill of Three Crosses overlooking it. It was a fitting end, stopping at where the old Vilnius city walls used to be.
Lining Didžioji, the main street, were an abundance of cafes and restaurants that refreshingly were packed with locals and tourists alike; it was refreshing to see a relative lack of overly touristy places combined with a maintained sense of Lithuanian soul. However, if one diverged onto the side streets, especially on Stiklių street, you were treated to an abundance of hearty restaurants and bars. In particular, I would recommend Alinė Leičiai. While it’s known for the alcohol (I’d personally recommend trying the mead), the food is uniquely Lithuanian as well. While I limited myself to a soup that purportedly serves to clear your head after a night of drinking (sans me actually needing the medicinal aspect), it was top notch. One of my regrets was that I couldn’t patronize more of the extremely enticing eateries scattered around the old town. Should traditional cuisine not tickle your fancy or if you crave plenty a juicy, sizzling burger, Meat Lover’s Pub is tucked away a little further down on Šv. Ignoto street. Now, with a name like that, you would hope it lives up to the billing. Fear not, as it did and more! Upon entering, you are greeted by the menu on the wall. It wasn’t the biggest menu, but the quality more than made up for it! Be prepared, as you will need your knife and fork to eat it-the burgers are massive.
One of the musts when in Vilnius is the Museum of Genocide Victims, which is located in the old KGB prison. As I covered last year when in Tallinn and Riga, there has been a noticeable history of deportation and resistance to occupation within the Baltic states under the Soviet regime. Much like their Baltic brethren, Lithuania was no exception to this. The common trend was to ship off the locals to Siberia and to the far eastern fringes of Russia, especially with minimal, if any, appropriate clothing. As such, there was a tragic amount of death and horror among the Lithuanians. One somber aspect of the museum was seeing the photos and trinkets of the families as they tried to adapt to the harsh life so far away from their beloved homes. Now, a fair portion of the populace wasn’t ready to put up with Soviet rule. Lithuanian partisans (aka resistance fighters) spent the war years fighting off the Nazis and Soviets, which attested to the sheer willpower and determination to regain independence. Throughout the museum, I was able to see pictures of the partisans themselves, along with the weapons they used and their means of communications. I knew that Latvians also formed a sort of resistance, but by comparison, the Lithuanians had a much more comprehensive and elongated struggle; it was interesting to see the contrast between the two countries. Further along, there were other displays dedicated to the equipment used by the KGB to weed out and squash the resistance, which was actually fascinating. Now, after strolling through the first two floors, it was time to see the cells. Like with Tallinn’s Patarei Prison, the cells here were tiny. Immediately to your left after walking down the stairs, you saw the solitary confinement cells, which made me wince just imagining the plight of the unlucky souls detained there. Just imagine this: having so little room you had to stand up the entire time. And that was after the cells were enlarged. Further along the hallway, you saw other rooms where the prison guards stayed as well as where general prisoners were thrown into. Thankfully, there were no execution rooms that I could spot, and so I turned back from this grim reminder of a bleak chapter in Lithuania’s long history. Overall, it took me two hours to see everything, and I would recommend budgeting between 90-120 minutes in the museum. Also, it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so plan accordingly.
As I’m writing this in my apartment in Moscow, I yet again have been blown away by a country I honestly didn’t know much about. Vilnius was an extremely hospitable city that was fantastically walkable, and I cannot say enough about it despite the short time I was there. A return trip is definitely in the cards! Ačiū!
- Free walking tours depart at 12 every day in front of the Town Hall.
- Expect to spend between 7-10 euros for an average meal.
- It’s far easier to pre-book taxis than to try and get flag one from off the street.
- The area of the train station towards the southern part of the city is sketchy. While I didn’t go there, I met a fellow American wandering around Old Town who got mugged there. Be absolutely careful when around there.