The pretty capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, rests in the Baltic nation’s southeastern corridor. This historic city, the second largest in the Baltic region after Riga, has plenty to offer visitors to the area. From artsy enclaves to historic sites, gorgeous churches to moving museums, Vilnius truly has it all. Read on for some of my tips on how to make the most of a day in Vilnius, Lithuania.
View The Gate Of Dawn
This lovely attraction was originally built into the city’s defensive walls in the 1500s and is the only remaining original gate from that time period. It is home to a cherished, gilded painting of the Virgin Mary, known as Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn or the Vilnius Madonna. She is said to have miraculous powers and is a symbol of Lithuania’s continued adherence to Catholicism. According to the Vilnius tourism board, The Gate of Dawn is one of the most visited shrines in the whole country of Lithuania. It is located in the historic Old Town area of Vilnius and sees over half a million visitors each year.
Check Out The KGB Museum
Formerly called the Museum of Genocide Victims, this spot is now known as the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights. Its nickname, the KGB Museum, stems from the fact that the museum is housed in the spooky former KGB (Soviet Security Service) headquarters building. It is a chilling experience, as the cells where prisoners were interrogated, tortured, and executed remain just as they were when the Soviets left in 1991. There are even rooms filled with shredded documents from that era. The museum is very affordable; admission costs just a couple of euros.
See The Prettiest View Of Old Town
Unlike many of the other Soviet puppet states, Lithuania clung to its Catholic identity throughout its occupation. To see a Catholic symbol with gorgeous views of the historic city center, check out the Three Crosses Monument. It was initially built centuries ago to honor Franciscan monks who were beheaded on the site. The Soviets dismantled it, but it was rebuilt after the fall of the Soviet Union. Nowadays, this spot provides pretty views of Old Town from the base of the statue. According to the Vilnius tourism board, the Hill of Three Crosses is also known as the Crooked Hill, Taro Hill, and the Bare Hill.
Get Artsy In Uzupis
The bohemian neighborhood of Uzupis is a self-proclaimed republic with its own symbolic Prime Minister, Parliament (in a bar), and more. Visitors to the area, one of the city’s oldest, can expect to see tons of cool art galleries and public art installations. Be sure to visit the guardian of the district, the Bronze Angel statue. There’s even a bewitching mermaid in the area, a sculpture that occupies a special roost above the river (which makes sense, after all, since the name Uzupis means “place beyond the river”).
Local lore states that anyone who falls under the mermaid’s spell will remain in this artsy enclave forever. Travelers should allow for extra time to wander this colorful and enchanting area; it was one of my favorite things I did on my recent trip.
Enjoy Exercise With Water Views
The beautiful Neris River flows from Belarus to Kaunas, Lithuania, and winds through Vilnius. There is a pretty walking path that goes along this river in the capital city and provides a nice natural attraction within the urban landscape. Visitors can expect to notice scenic bridges, sculptures, and street art around the walking path as they stroll. The path is paved, so it is both stroller and wheelchair accessible. This mostly flat route may be easier than the winding cobblestone paths of the Old Town and other areas of Vilnius.
See Gorgeous Churches
There are a number of well-known churches sprinkled throughout Lithuania’s largest city and capital. Tourists in Vilnius should consider visits to at least one of the following spots. The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul is widely considered an ideal example of Lithuanian Baroque architecture. It even boasts more than 2,000 stucco figures inside and can be found in Vilnius’s Antakalnis neighborhood.
The beautiful white Gothic church of St. Johns is located on the Vilnius University campus, which is the oldest university in the Baltics and used to be the easternmost university in the world. St. Johns is now a Roman Catholic parish and its bell tower is one of the highest buildings in Old Town. The Vilnius Cathedral, an important place of worship for Lithuanian Catholics, can also be accessed in the Old Town area of the city. Another Gothic masterpiece, unique as it was unchanged for over 500 years, is St. Anne’s Church. Legend says that Napoleon himself fell in love with its beautiful facade. St. Anne’s is also ensconced within the parameters of Old Town Vilnius.
Eating In Vilnius, Lithuania
On any trip to the Lithuanian capital, there are a number of dishes and sips visitors should try. Read on for some of my favorites from my recent jaunt.
Baltic cuisine tends to be hearty and heavy, in part due to a short growing season and sometimes harsh winters. So it’s only natural that the national dish of Lithuania is a meat-stuffed potato dumpling known as cepelinai. They can be enjoyed in their original state or pan-fried for extra crispiness. I tried them at Aline "Leiciai," which is also a great spot to sample kepta duona, or fried rye bread, another signature dish of the region. At this eatery, the crunchy bread is served with a garlicky cheese sauce for maximum decadence. Aline also has a ton of local craft brews on tap for those interested in exploring Lithuania’s beer culture. Additionally, this spot has a mead sampler with mead made using local botanicals and honey. It doesn’t get much more authentic than that!
Depending on how much time you have, there are a number of other dishes that are of note. They include kibinai, which are hand pies traditionally filled with lamb and onions; there are sweet versions around as well that are stuffed with things like plums. Pinavija offers a lovely raspberry kibinai that would make a solid (and cheap) breakfast choice when paired with a caffeinated beverage.
Travelers could also try Lithuanian potato pancakes, which may be listed as bulviniai blynai on local menus. Other noteworthy food items that can be found all over the city are beetroot soup (burokeliu sriuba on some menus), mushroom cookies (grybukai), and my personal favorite: varskes apkepas or fried cheese curd cakes. For those seeking a modern interpretation of classic Lithuanian cuisine, consider a trip to the upscale Amandus in Old Town. Their tasting menu is said to be the best in the city.
Shopping In Vilnius
For those seeking an authentic souvenir, consider checking out Aukso Avis in Old Town. It serves as a gallery for rising designers and artists in the area. Grab a cool piece of jewelry or graphic tee there, and don’t forget to check out the famed Baltic amber. Continue to wander the winding streets of the historic center to discover dreamy secondhand book shops, fashionable boutiques, and designer outposts.
To get a sense of the real Vilnius, tourists should also visit the oldest market in town, Hales Market. It’s built on the site of a 15th-century market, so it has even older roots than its 1906 current iteration. Inside are stalls selling traditional foods, a trendy juice bar, a great bagel spot, and more. Cheese lovers should be sure to check out Roots, which is said to carry the largest selection of handcrafted Lithuanian cheeses in the country.
If you have extra time in the area, consider some of the great day trip opportunities from Vilnius. They include the Catholic pilgrimage site known as the Hill of Crosses, the picturesque city of Kaunas, the stunning Trakai National Park, and the Soviet sculpture cemetery of Grutas Park. Another cool day trip option could be to the geographical center of Europe, less than 20 miles from Vilnius in the village of Purnuskes.
Overall, it’s easy to see that the Baltic region’s second-largest city has a lot to offer. From historic and religious sites to interesting museums, filling Lithuanian fare to artist’s havens, Vilnius should be on any travelers’ Baltic bucket list.