Vilnius Historic Centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that, even in the depths of winter, is stunning to behold. It has retained a wealth of well preserved Gothic, Baroque, Classical and Renaissance buildings to see. Then when you’ve worn your feet out, there are excellent restaurants and bars to enjoy. Make the most of 48 hours in Vilnius.
Rather than travelling direct from the UK I was arriving in Vilnius from Riga. In the 21st Century, there are obviously a variety of options for how to get between these two Baltic cities. For the price, going by bus is, to me, a no-brainer. Prices start from just €7 for the 4 hour trip with Lux Express and take you to and from the central bus stations in both cities, rather than the out of town city airports. The buses also come with twice the legroom you’ll find on the aeroplane, seatback entertainment systems and free tea and coffee. To top it off you also get to appreciate the great views of the countryside.
Arriving at Vilnius train or bus station does not immediately inspire confidence in the city. The neighbourhood you have to walk through to get to the old town is hardly what one would call salubrious. My hotel, the Grotthuss Hotel, was also down what appeared to be an alleyway of questionable repute. The steel shuttered windows and the graffiti suggestion to ‘smoke weed’ did not feel particularly welcoming. In fact, the hotel was lovely and it didn’t take long to feel safe in the city. The greatest risk seem to come from melting snow and ice falling off the roofs onto the head of unsuspecting tourists, as they ambled along the pavement.
A Tale of Two Cities
You might think when you’ve seen one Baltic state Old Town you’ve seen them all, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, both Riga and Vilnius appear to be overflowing with churches but beyond that, the two are very different. The narrow cobbled streets are there in both but Vilnius also possesses grand open areas with wide streets, sadly full of cars. The architecture is different too. You will find far more Neo-Classical and Baroque styles in Vilnius, whilst Riga is home to a dense concentration of the Art Nouveau. Vilnius Old Town has a much more lived-in feel, not so much set aside for tourists as Old Riga feels. They also have very different histories despite their proximity and the shared experiences of the last 100 years.
The ‘Classic’ Sites
You’ll find a grand collection of ‘classic’ sites to see in Vilnius and these can easily be covered in a day. The Neo-Classical Cathedral, Three Crosses Hill, Gediminas Castle Tower, St. Anne’s Church, the Gates of Dawn etc. and they are all worth a look in their own way. It’s a bit of a hike up the hills but worth it for the views. You’ll get to see the Old Town on one side of the river and the glistening, towering skyscrapers of modern Vilnius on the other.
If your interest is in recent history then a trip to the Museum of the Occupation and Freedom Fights is one for you. It isn’t for the faint-hearted though. You’ll find it in the old KGB headquarters and admission includes a self-guided tour through the KGB prison and execution room. The latter has a video showing exactly what happened in there.
Quirky Things to do
When you’ve exhausted the list of must-see’s check out some of these quirkier offerings.
The Republic of Užupis
Be sure to visit the self-declared Republic of Užupis, nestled beside the River Vilnia in the heart of Vilnius. This micronation, set in the artistic quarter, has its own constitution, flag, government and currency. You can even get your passport stamped, although bear in mind some countries consider this type of stamp defacing a passport. One nice art display worth a look at is an augmented reality piece by the riverside. Download the app, hold it up to the art and the characters come to life. Sadly the hedgehog on the wall is not part of the active display. He may be downloading the app himself!
Around the city, there are also 15 talking statues. You’ll find the map and further information can be found here. Find a statue, scan the QR code with your phone and let them bring the past to life. I did find getting close enough to some of the QR codes was a little tricky.
Museum of Illusions
If you’re a science nerd or even just someone who likes to be amazed then lose yourself for an hour or more in the world of illusion. Even if you’ve ‘seen it all before’ the Museum of Illusions on Vokiečių has so many mind-bending exhibits I’m sure something will leave you flummoxed and confused. Make sure you go with a friend and take pictures, lots of pictures. At €10 it’s not cheap, but I felt it was money well spent.
Where to Eat and Drink
If you like cats then there is only one place to eat in Vilnius. The Cat Cafe on Gedimino pr. The food is good; I especially liked the chocolate cake with cherries. Rich, tasty and well presented.
But no one really comes for the food though. It’s the cats. It’s all about the cats. A chance to stroke the gorgeous kitties and if you’re really lucky, have them come and make a fuss of you. There are at least 10 of them, usually sleeping, but not averse to a good stroke. These cats are treated like royalty!
If your taste is more for medieval Lithuanian fare then try out Lokys at Stiklių str 8. Here you can tuck into such treats as roast boar or venison, quail, game sausages or if you are feeling adventurous, beaver meat stew. The portions are a good size (the photo below is quite deceptive) and the food is delicious.
Vilnius is bursting with bars and is renowned for its craft beer scene so you can’t really go wrong but if you’ve had a medieval banquet you can stroll across the narrow medieval street and find Bambalyne at Stiklių g 7. This cellar bar has a good vibe, a wide range of beers to choose from and rock music playing in the background.