Day two in Vilnius. Our first chance to really see the city with clear heads, and thankfully, clear skies! The forecast is predicting a lot of rain during our trip, so we were thrilled to wake up to a bright, sunny day. We got some nice pastries and coffee down the street from our apartment, and then set out for Užupis. Užupis is sometimes described as being like Christiania, just without all the drugs and communists. It’s still apparently full of artists though, which meant when we rolled in at 10am, it was mostly closed. Poor planning on our part! We settled for another coffee and a donut. The donut was, predictably, white bread with frosting, as donuts in Europe always are. I still try them, just to check.
We crossed the river from Užupis to hit a farmers market, and loaded up on picnic supplies (bread, cheese, more strawberries). The traditional bread here is a black rye bread – very dense, slightly sweet, with a very thick crust. We strolled back to the apartment to drop it off and have a snack.
In the afternoon, our first stop was the Holocaust museum. Lithuania had a thriving Jewish community dating back centuries. The holocaust claimed the lives of 200,000, leaving only a few thousand Jews in the whole country. The museum focuses on the creation of ghettos in Vilnius, the waves of mass executions, deportations to concentration camps, and forced labor. The museum is packed with letters, documents, and photographs providing an intimate perspective on the horrors of those years.
Still feeling a little too cheery, our next stop was the Museum of Oppression and Freedom Fights, housed in the old KGB headquarters. The museum primarily focuses on the Soviet period, especially the first ten years after the war when the Lithuanian resistance kept up the fight for independence. The museum carefully touches on the complex history, wherein pro-Nazi Lithuanians joined the resistance to fight the Soviets, with aid from the Germans (the Soviets captured Lithuania in mid-1944), and anti-Nazi resistance fighters started fighting the resistance on the side of the Soviets. The museum also gets into some of the KGB history in Lithuania – the basement of the building was a KGB prison, and you can tour the cells and learn about the prison life. Although I’m sure it was horrible, we both left thinking “a 1960s Lithuanian KGB prison seems a lot more humane than a federal penitentiary in most of America in 2022”. Also, having been in similar Stasi sites in East Berlin, the KGB doesn’t seem so scary.
As we left the museum, the rain moved in, so we ducked into the Joy Cafe for a delightful snack. Then we followed the river to the Museum of Applied Art and Design. The museum doesn’t have a permanent collection (as far as we know) but had a special exhibit on furniture. It juxtaposed historic pieces with modern creations, with lots of whimsy thrown in. The didactics were very well written, with bolded “asides,” sometimes adding a bit of snark or an ironic comment.
On our walk to the Museum of Applied Art and Design, we’d spotted an interesting building across the river, which turned out to be a museum housed in the first power plant in Vilnius. We decided to pop in on a whim, and it turned out to be quite a treat! Part history museum, part science museum, part children’s museum, and part modern art museum, it’s got something for everyone. The excellent (smartphone based) audio guide explains how the plant worked – burning gas or oil to produce steam for power and later heating. It also covers the history of power generation and industrialization in Vilnius. Throughout the museum, interactive exhibits let kids (and kid-like adults) get hands on with the science of power generation and basic physics. And, bits of modern art are tucked in as well, including through some interactive pieces.
We stayed in the museum right up through closing time – there’s plenty more to do. One sign even indicated that it has an escape room, though perhaps the first puzzle is finding it.
To close out our day, we had an excellent meal at a restaurant recommended by our Airbnb host. Traditional Lithuanian ingredients with modern interpretation – wild mushroom dumplings, beautiful fish and beans, honey cake, and so on.
At this point, we’ve done basically all of the things you’ll find on any “top 20 things to do in Vilnius” list. It’s not a city with a ton of “must-do” sights, or skyline-dominating architecture. It’s a very cozy, quiet city. We’re happy to wander the tiny alleys and back lanes. You quickly get a sense of the secret inner life of the city – behind every building is a courtyard, some basic, some grand. Occasionally, a tiny alley opens into a huge open area housing a church or monastery. Oh, and the churches – they’re everywhere. More than 60 churches in the city itself. It’s fun to be here before it is ruined by people like us.