Our flight landed in Lithuania just after 11am so we were able to get a lot out of our first day there. We got a bus from the airport, which was easily signposted and dropped us practically outside our AirBnB. As soon as we could we ventured from our apartment, walking down alongside the old defensive wall and into the old town. We instantly noted the beautiful architecture of its various buildings. Vilnius has developed over many centuries and has seen a lot of different influences in this time, with many architectual styles standing alongide one another.
We visited the Illusion Museum, the kind of thing I’ve never really gone for before, but it was a lot of fun and the staff were really good at explaining where we needed to be to make the most of our pictures. We basically had the place to ourselves as well, which added to the experience.
We explored the Jewish Area of the town. Historically there was a large Jewish community in Vilnius, about 45% of the cities population and as a result there were over 110 synagogues in the city. Unfortunately WWII meant many jews were forced to leave Lithuania and those who remained were mostly murdered. Today there are approximately 2000 jews remaining and only one synagogue. Inside the area stands a monument to Zemach Shabad, a Jewish doctor and political activist, who was known for his big heart.
We then spent the afternoon at a glass workshop, Vitrazo Manufaktura, which I loved. My Mums birthday was the previous month and it was part of my gift to her. The lady was great, she gave us lots of advice and help on how to put things together. It’s my tradition to get a Christmas decoration from every holiday so I decided to design myself one instead.
One thing Vilnius has a lot of is incredible churches but my favourite of all must have been the Church of St Casimir. It is the first and therefore oldest baroque church built in Vilnius and its pastel pink facade was so beautiful. Its detailing reminded me of a cameo ring, it was so striking.
Our AirBnB sat right by The Gates of Dawn, the city gates that made up past of the old defensive fort. Although there would have been a number of gates in the past now only one remains. The gates would often contain religious artefacts, intended to guard the gate from attack and this particular gate holds an icon of the Virgin Mary. Legend has that in 1702 she caused the gate to crumble, which saved Lithuania from a Swedish attack and therefore the gate is a point of pilgrimage. Religious or not there is no denying how striking the gold details sit on the gate and so worth the visit regardless.
We walked some of Vilnius’s more popular (and oldest) streets, such as Pilies Street which links the Cathedral and the Town Hall. Here you’ll find most of the souvenir shops, especially ones selling amber and linen.
The cathedral square is quite magnificent, it’s a very open area so your eyes are instantly drawn to the grand Cathedral and imposing bell tower, something rarely seen outside Italy. As you can imagine the square plays a big role in the city, somewhere that has been involved in events from concerts to military parades.
We did venture inside the cathedral as well and it was just as beautifully ornate inside as out. There was lots of rich looking marble, gold detailing and elaborate paintings so I’d certainly recommend the time to go inside as well.
Inside Cathedral square, at a spot almost between the cathedral and the belltower, you will find the ‘Miracle tile’, locally known as Stebuklas. Apparently if you spin on the tile 3 times clockwise, jump up and clap once your wish should be granted. If you believe in it or not at least try and hunt it down!
Next door to the cathedral sits the Palace of the Grand Dukes, originally constructed in the 1400’s for the rulers of Lithuania but demolished in 1801 after the fall of the commonwealth. However they decided to rebuild it in the original style and the new building was opened in 2018. They’ve really done a beautiful job with the reconstruction and is worthy of a visit.
We then entered the National museum, for a 3 euro entry fee. It was a good museum, although if you wish to learn a lot about Lithuanian history it didn’t have a lot of written information, more artefacts to look at.
Gediminas tower sits behind the cathedral and is a remaining part of the upper castle. The surroundings were beautiful but unfortunately the funicular was broken on the day and my Mum was unable to make the walk so we only saw it from below.
We met our guide from Vilnius with Locals to take part in a free tour, exploring the old town. The 2.5 hour tour was really comprehensive, our guide was so friendly and we learnt so much about Lithuanian culture.
One of the most interesting things for me on the tour was the trip to Uzupis, a district declared as an independent republic. When we visited Christiania in Copenhagen I found it quite hostile but in contrast Uzupis was charming and bohemian.
There was a lot of street art to marvel at, lots of interesting statues and monuments and one of my favourite things was the constitution, which dictates that in Uzupis a dog has the right to be a dog and everyone has the right to love. I couldn’t agree more!
Upon leaving Uzupis we came out by the Church of St Anne, an incredibly ornate church which we learnt Napoleon had fallen in love with the church and his soldiers had taken resident in the church, ultimately destroying the interior with their horses.
We also visited Literatai street, where a wall of artworks are dedicated to local writers and various other people who have contributed to the history of Lithuanian literature. I liked the kooky nature of some of the contributions and although I didn’t know many of the contributors that didn’t take away from the effect.
Atop a hill that overlooks Vilnius you will find three crosses. These stone crosses were erected in 1989, replacing previous crosses that have stood on the hill since the early 17th century. Legend has it that the crosses were built to commemorate 7 friars that were beheaded on the hill. There is an observation deck that sits at the base of the crosses that offers a view of Vilnius Old town, unfortunately my Mums fitness levels weren’t up for the climb.
After the tour we ended our day with a walk along the Neris River, there is a lovely pathway that sits right next to it and its a really open space so it was a nice walk for a mild winters day.
Our early morning stroll took us past some great street art, most notably the ‘Make Everything great again’ mural, which gained notoriety after originally showing Putin and Trump kissing. After the painting was destroyed by vandals it has been repainted, showing them exchanging cigarette blowback instead.
Our next stop was the Holocaust Museum where we learnt further about the effect of the holocaust on the local population of Jews. As you can expect the stories were striking, thought provoking and harrowing. It was a rich exhibition, with images, artefacts and video excerpts. I’ve been to a number of holocaust museums over the year but this one was a worthwhile visit, sitting in a city where the Jewish population had been nearly obliterated.
It was then time for us to go along for another ‘Vilnius with Locals’ free tour, this time the Alternative Tour. Our guide, Samas, was actually an English guy and made the tour very fun with little competitions, stories and jokes.
I felt like this tour was really good at finding all those interesting little nooks and crannies that a city hides and that we would have never been able to find by ourselves. We saw some of the oddities of Vilnius such as the huge Tony Soprano statue at the train station and the giant cat statue. If street art is your thing then this tour is the one for you, we saw such a great selection especially at the Open Gallery, a project by the Art Factory LOFTAS. I’ll end this guide with some pictures of some amazing street art…