Andy Mossack returns to Vilnius to catch up on how the city has changed since his last visit.
Early December and Vilnius was having her first snow of the winter. Lucky for me then, as it turned the old town into a perfect festive picture postcard. Fairy lights, Christmas markets and seasonal art installations adorned shops and hotels. And at its centre, in Cathedral Square opposite the Palace of the Grand Dukes, an impressively illuminated Christmas tree installation featured 96 giant snowflakes. It was so bright I swear I could feel the old city beaming from one ancient corner to the other.
Vilnius has always been a magnet for bohemian art and creativity, but I got the sense, even with Covid to contend with, that things had really moved on. There was a vibrancy about the place that wasn’t there when I last visited. It was like the shackles had finally come off and everyone seemed to be enjoying the ride. Lithuania has come a long way since its independence from Russia in 1991. The drinking water filtration is state of the art, the internet is one of the fastest in Europe heralding a digital revolution, the food scene has improved beyond all recognition, and the old town has enjoyed significant investment for renovation and tourism.
Pretty impressive for a city so scarred from conflict yet celebrating its 700th birthday in 2023, a birthday so special they’re starting the countdown as early as 2022. I get the feeling this is going to be a party that will run and run.
So, let’s take a wander with new eyes around Vilnius’s ancient old town and find out just what’s waiting for you with open arms.
Walk the Old Town
The beauty of Vilnius’ UNESCO World Heritage status Old Town is its ease to wander around. Its ancient, cobbled streets are lined with baroque, gothic, renaissance, and neoclassical architecture, all comfortable standing side by side hiding a myriad of courtyards and alleyways. Pop through an arch and discover a church, nip down an alley and find a courtyard of art galleries. And if you need a drink, snack or dinner, the cafes, restaurants, and bars are literally everywhere.
Pilies Street is the best orientation setting. It splits the town in two as the main artery, running from Cathedral Square to Town Hall Square so you’ll never be far from it. Talking of orientation, Vilnius Castle atop a steep hill just behind the Duke’s Palace offers a bird’s eye view of the entire city. It is fun to walk the cobbled path up and back but there is also a funicular you can ride for €2 return or €1 one way. The castle was once the main defence for the city, but the Gediminas Tower is the only complete structure left standing. The museum in the tower has some fascinating artefacts found on the site dating back to the 10th century.
The Station District has quickly emerged as the city’s trendiest neighbourhood since I was last there. While Riga enjoyed the benefit of the Baltic Sea for shipping, Vilnius had its railway network to connect it with Europe. What was once a very dodgy district is now teeming with art, street murals, Art Nouveau buildings and the Halės Market on Pylimo Street. A huge indoor market that’s been offering fresh produce there since 1906. The station itself is worth a look too. Just outside is the pOrtal, an installation where you can peer into a live feed from Lublin in Poland, while even the platforms offer trendy eateries.
This self-proclaimed Republic and Vilnius’ smallest district pretty much defines Vilnius’ bohemianism. Tongue in cheek, it has its own mock constitution which you can read on mirrored boards in 35 languages along Paupio Street. It announced its independence on 1st April 1998 (of course) and it has a president and parliament which meets regularly in the Užupis café. Various official ambassadors including the USA attended the independence service by the Angel statue.
Tibet was one of the first countries to recognise Lithuania’s independence and as such, the Dalai Lama is a regular visitor to Vilnius and makes sure to visit Užupis whenever he’s in town. There is even a Tibet Square taking pride of place in the republic. As Užupis is squeezed between the Neris and Vilnia rivers there are numerous bridges to get to it, but the Užupis bridge lined with love padlocks is always a favourite.
Palace of The Grand Dukes
One of the most impressive additions to the Old Town, since I was last here, is the Palace of the Grand Dukes in Cathedral Square. It was constructed in the 15th century for the rulers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the future kings of Poland. It was, for four hundred years, the administrative and political centre for the country which at that time included Poland. It survived countless conflicts through the ages until it was demolished on orders from Moscow in the late 18th century. A huge 16-year reconstruction project began in 2002 and the museum finally opened in 2018.
There are two tours; the first reveals the intricate archaeology of the original palace ruins showing some remarkable innovative techniques of the time. The second tour is through the reconstructed palace rooms with many priceless artefacts on display. The Palace is used today for welcoming world leaders to Vilnius and for all kinds of domestic ceremonies. Happily, what started with an outcry by locals at the cost of the project has now been replaced by love and affection for a building that once reflected Lithuania’s status as a serious European power.
The Jewish Quarter and Ghettos
Before WW2, Vilnius’ Old Town was known as the ‘Jerusalem of the North’ with a sizeable number of Jewish residents amounting to 40% of the town’s population. The Great Synagogue which once dominated Jewish Street dated back to 1630, and in all, there were over 100. After the Nazi occupation all but one were destroyed (the Choral Synagogue still remains active) and most of the Jewish community was sent to camps or executed in nearby Paneriai forest.
The two ghettos and neighbourhoods were heavily bombed during the war so very little remains. A school now resides over where the Great Synagogue once stood, but there is excavation work underway as the original main prayer room was below street level. If you want to find out more about Lithuania’s Jews, the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum is well worth a visit, as is the Jewish Culture & Information Centre on Mėsinių Street in the heart of the old Jewish neighbourhood.
All around here are street murals depicting local Jewish life and some wonderful ‘talking statues’ where you can scan a code into your phone and listen to the story behind the statue. If you fancy a taste of Jewish cuisine, there are influences in restaurants all over Vilnius, but for fresh bread and a delicious lunch visit the Beigelių Krautuvėlė bakery at Pylimo g.4.
Other notable mentions
Vilnius University dates back to the 16th century and is one of the oldest universities in Europe. The courtyards and inner frescoes are quite extraordinary. The Mo Museum is a new modern art museum with a constantly changing exhibition space celebrating talented Lithuanian artists. The glorious gemlike Amber is in plentiful supply throughout the city in various jewellery and tourist shops. But to find the good stuff, there is a small museum and gallery at Mykolo g. 8, with some remarkable pieces, many containing prehistoric creatures trapped inside them. If a creepy prison is your kind of thing, take a tour of Lukiškės Prison, over a hundred years old and only closed in 2019. The night tour is especially creepy, but there is a lively bar inside to give you Dutch courage.
Vilnius is looking very good for a lady nearing her 700th birthday. Personally, I can’t wait to join the party in 2023. Despite her many scars of conflict, her future is looking exceptionally bright.
Vilnius images (c) Andy Mossack, Joana Suslaviciute and Saulius Ziura
Tell me more about discovering Vilnius
Go Vilnius has information on all the sights mentioned above and other suggested itineraries. Explore Vilnius for less with the Vilnius Pass free public transport (only 72-hour pass) and hop on hop off bus tour included plus museum entrance fees and discounts at shops and restaurants. 24-hour pass €18.99, 48-hour pass €28.99, 72- hour pass €41.99.
Where to stay
The Artagonist Hotel is an artistically themed hotel right on Pilies Street in the heart of the Old Town. Beautiful interiors combining old-world structure with contemporary fittings. Highly recommended.
Where to Eat
Mykolo 4 excellent family-owned and run restaurant celebrating 19th century Vilnius cuisine hidden away in a tiny street off Piles Street. Try the four-course tasting menu and wine pairing.
14 Horses Founded by Danish entrepreneur Niels Peter Pretzmann and sited in a mansion inside a historic courtyard, 14 Horses only uses produce from its own organic farm. It has a Scandi feel to it, and the menu changes every day depending on the supply from the farm.
Ertlio Namas This restaurant is like a time machine taking you on a culinary journey back to recipes from 16th to 19th century.
Rosehip Vegan Bistro An outstanding vegan café with a truly creative and delicious menu. Right opposite the Mo Museum.
Getting to Vilnius
There are direct flights by many carriers including RyanAir and easyJet from London Gatwick, Stansted and London Luton.
APH Airport Parking
Airport Parking and Hotels (APH.com) offers a wide range of parking and overnight hotel stays at all major UK airports. One week of off-airport airport parking at Luton Airport costs from just £42.99 in December 2021. For the latest prices and to book, call 01342 859442 or visit www.aph.com.
Eurofins Covid Testing for International travel
Eurofins offers UKAS Accredited coronavirus testing via a network of drive-throughs, sampling sites, and home testing. The fastest turnaround of a PCR test will be delivered from Eurofins’ drive-through locations in London and Livingston, sites that are close to their own testing labs. Turnaround times are within 12 – 24 hrs of the test being completed. The cost of a test is £39.90. Eurofins sampling sites offer similar services to the drive-through locations, however, the lead time is slightly extended. Eurofins aims for all samples collected on a day to be reported the next day. Eurofins runs a 24/7 operation across the lab network and customer services to ensure fast & reliable service to all its customers.