Why Should I Visit Vilnius?

By Colin McFadden

You should visit Vilnius because it’s a charming, quaint, and very European city without all of the slick, over-touristed Disneyfication that comes with many European destinations. Vilnius is the heart of small and dynamic Lithuania, a country that’s still working to figure out its identity after a tumultuous 20th century. A visit to Vilnius lets you dip a toe in eastern Europe, and to have a taste of a post-Soviet society, while remaining safely ensconced in the European Union and NATO. Whether you come to Vilnius as a destination unto itself, or as part of a grand Baltic tour, you’ll feel like a local from day one and leave with a new perspective on Europe.

Over the course of the 20th century, Lithuania went from being split between Poland and Russia to being seized by Germany, then winning its independence, then being part of Germany again, then the Soviet Union, then back to Germany, then back to the Soviet Union, before finally winning its independence again in 1990. A complex history yields complex questions, and the Lithuania you visit today is working through them. From being the “Jerusalem of the north,” a tolerant and progressive society (for the 18th century) which welcomed Jews, Lithuania saw a nearly complete annihilation of its Jewish population during World War II. During the Soviet era, resistance fighters spent more than a decade refusing to accept Soviet rule, while other Lithuanian civilians acted as informants for the local branch of the KGB. Complicated.

Turning the clock back further, Lithuania once controlled much of Eastern Europe, stretching to the Black Sea. The Romans knew it as a source of amber, which they traded throughout the empire. Today, it might look like a small (about the size of West Virginia) country tucked away in the corner of the map, but it has deep roots.

As you explore Vilnius, you’ll see elements of this history firsthand. Soviet apartment blocks dot the landscape. A reconstructed palace at the heart of the town showcases the importance the town held in the 16th and 17th centuries. And if you stray beyond the old town, you’ll find a thriving modern city bustling with European Union resources and a youthful, extremely tech-savvy population.

ESCAPING THE BUBBLE

If you’re worried about running into tour busses disgorging high school groups from Topeka, you need not be concerned. Tourists are more likely to be Germans or Poles, or perhaps visitors from other parts of the Baltics. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Russians made up a good chunk of the tourist population, but they’re extremely unwelcome at this point. The most important thing to keep in mind is that Vilnius isn’t a city fueled by tourism – tourism is less than 2% of GDP, versus upwards of 15% in places like Italy or Spain. Vilnius has a booming IT sector, with many startups and established firms.

All of that said, if you’re looking for tourists, you’re likely to find them in the old town. This small area at the center of the city is the historic heart of Vilnius. Once bounded by the city walls, it’s stereotypically European, with small winding alleys and impossibly tight roads. Cafes dot every street, sometimes blocking streets entirely with outdoor seating. The few blocks from the town hall to the cathedral and palace will take you past high end shops, restaurants, museums and boutique hotels.

Rest assured though, this isn’t Florence, where the only locals in sight are there to support the tourists. Vilnius residents live and play in the old town as well. Venture a few blocks beyond the old town, or cross the river, and you’ll be firmly beyond the reaches of the tourism board. Stop into a cafe and you’ll be a curiosity – get ready for some incredulous looks and questions of “wait, I don’t understand – why did you come to Vilnius?”.

GETTING AROUND

You’ve got feet right? You’re going to use them when you explore Vilnius. If you’re a brave soul, you could take advantage of the rapidly expanding networks of e-scooters and bikes. Lithuania certainly has first class hospitals, so you’ll be in good hands when an 800 year old cobbled street sends you tumbling.

Transport in Vilnius also benefits from the booming tech scene in the Baltics. There are numerous startups to help you get around. Bolt is a Europe-focused Uber competitor, offering low prices and a reliable service. CityBee and Spark provide short term car rentals, charged by the kilometer or minute (Spark being EV-only).

Vilnius also has an extensive (if not especially modern) bus network, and the train station is an easy walk with connections to the rest of the country and Europe. The airport is also only a few minutes out of the old town – local airlines like Air Baltic provide cheap flights to jump between the regional cities, without needing to connect through a hub. Unless the romance of long distance train calls to you, flights will be your best bet for moving between the Baltics, as there’s not meaningful high speed rail (yet).

SIGHTS

You like churches, right? Vilnius is a city of churches, and they make up much of the primary sight-seeing opportunities in the city itself. The spiritual (literally and figuratively) heart of the city is the cathedral. During the Soviet era, it was turned into an art gallery, which spared it from a more ignominious fate. Today, the more adventurous tourist can take an “extreme” tour, crawling through the crypts and passageways under the cathedral. For those who are a bit more claustrophobic, you can climb up the adjacent bell tower for a nice view of the old town.

The cathedral shares its central plaza with the palace. The palace is a reconstruction, built in the 21st century, which tells the story of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Exhibits also allow you to explore the archaeology of the actual buildings that once occupied the plaza. Continuing on past the plaza, you come to a tall hill topped by Gediminas Castle, a reconstruction of a 15th century structure.

Beyond the cathedral, you’ll find more than 60 churches nestled around Vilnius, primarily in the old town. Each of them is unique, representing a branch of Christianity or a different religious order. They’re almost always open for visitors, and some offer informal or formal tours.

The Jewish history of the city was mostly wiped out by the Nazis and the Soviets. Today, there are some plaques to remind you of the locations of the Vilnius ghettos, but to learn about the Jewish history you’ll want to visit the Holocaust Museum and the Tolerance Center (a discounted ticket covers both). Those wishing to further their understanding can take a 30 minute train ride to Ponary, where more than 70,000 Jews were executed and buried.

To learn more about the Soviets era, you can visit the Museum of Occupation and Freedom, which tells the story of the Lithuanian resistance. Housed in the former KGB headquarters, you can also get a sense of KGB surveillance and detention facilities.

A common day trip from Vilnius is to visit Trakai, a historic city with a picturesque castle on a lake. While the castle itself doesn’t house any amazing treasures, it’s a chance to have a nice day out on a lake with relaxing Lithuanians.

EATING

Potatoes and borscht. If your goal is to eat traditional Lithuanian cuisine, you’ll probably be craving a salad before too long. In fact, calling it traditional Lithuanian cuisine is a bit of a misnomer – it might more aptly be called “Soviet-Lithuanian Cuisine”. The Soviet economic system decreed what types of agriculture Lithuania would produce, which drove a diet heavy in pork and potatoes. The rediscovery of the pre-Soviet cuisine is an ongoing task.

And, let’s not dismiss the potatoes entirely. One of the star food items is a zeppelin, a potato dumpling filled with meat or cheese. It’s not a health food, but it’s pretty delicious. Lithuanian cuisines makes great use of mushrooms, especially wild foraged mushrooms. And proximity to the Baltic Sea means there’s some quality fish on offer.

All of that said, the best food in Vilnius reflects its status as the capital of a European nation. Folks from all across Europe (and the world) have ended up in Vilnius for a multitude of reasons – love, politics, school. Some of them opened restaurants, cooking the food of their homeland. And, because their homeland is often just a train ride away, they can bring in their extended families to help out. Tourists often feel like it’s important to eat only the local cuisine when traveling – after all, we can get Italian or Spanish or (perhaps) Cypriot food back home. Maybe that’s true in Italy – Italians after all tend to stick to their own cuisines, and who can blame them? But Vilnius residents are eating globally, and you should too – there are some world class meals on offer.

GET YOURSELF TO VILNIUS

Should Vilnius be the first destination for someone new to European travel? Perhaps not. There’s a reason that Florence and Paris and Amsterdam are overrun with tourists – they’re wonderful! But, if you’re looking to spend some time in Europe, enjoying a different pace of life in a beautiful, quaint surround, Vilnius might be the place for you.

  • Food
  • Getting Around
  • Escaping the Bubble
  • Sights
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Summary

Should Vilnius be the first destination for someone new to European travel? Perhaps not. There’s a reason that Florence and Paris and Amsterdam are overrun with tourists – they’re wonderful! But, if you’re looking to spend some time in Europe, enjoying a different pace of life in a beautiful, quaint surround, Vilnius might be the place for you.

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