Despite its eventful history, picturesque old town and laid-back energy, Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, remains a hidden gem in Europe—but this may change very soon.
When travellers plan to explore the cities of Europe, only few will give Vilnius a second thought. But the capital of Lithuania, a country situated in the Baltic region of Europe, has recently garnered more interest among tourists—especially after Lonely Planet listed the city among their must-visit places in 2018 and an attention-grabbing ad campaign that referred to Vilnius as “the G-Spot of Europe: nobody knows where it is but when you find it, it’s amazing.”
Those who eventually visit Vilnius quickly find themselves enchanted: the Old Town in particular, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, can cast a spell on anyone strolling through its narrow, cobblestoned streets, lined with old buildings in Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance and Classicism style and numerous churches and cathedrals with splendid, ornate towers—it’s almost like taking a walk through European architectural history.
In total, 28 churches adorn the skyline of Vilnius, most of them Roman Catholic. Arguably the most famous and earliest established one is Vilnius Cathedral, which is also the seat of the Vilnius archdiocese, while perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing is Saint Ann Church with its highly elaborate and flamboyant façade.
The Gate of Dawn became a personal favourite: not only is it the sole remaining historical gate to Vilnius city, but also a chapel that features a painting of Virgin Mary, visible to everyone who passes the gate. Before the Soviet occupation, it was not unusual for the people of Vilnius to kneel down in the streets and say a prayer here. Until today, local residents and tourists walking by the Gate of Dawn can be seen making the sign of the cross.
Throughout the centuries, Vilnius has always been a vibrant city and home to people of different nationalities, cultures and religions, making up a colourful kaleidoscope that is still visible to this day, despite having to go through quite a few challenging events in history—from Russian and Polish to German and Soviet rule, finally gaining independence in 1991.
Vilnius’ Old Town was once the home of a thriving Jewish community, and before World War II, it was referred to as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. During the Nazi occupation, however, most of the Jews living in the city were deported or murdered. Walking through the former Jewish ghetto and quarter today, it becomes clear that the city is determined not to forget its past and honour the victims by commemorative plaques and murals that depict everyday scenes of former Jewish life.
Another area of Old Town not to be missed is Literatu street—a haven for all things literature. The walls of the buildings along this road are plastered with more than 100 artworks dedicated to poets, writers and translators who were and are connected with Lithuanian literature.
The majestic Presidential Palace with its splendid architecture is the official residence of the country’s President. At certain times, it is even possible for visitors to access the courtyard in the back and take a stroll, while guided free-of-charge tours also take place regularly. The neoclassical manor, located at Simonas Daukantas Square, has played host to many famous figures and politicians over time, including Russian Tsar Alexander I and French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
For a great view of the city, travellers should head to Gediminas’ Tower, which is the only remaining part of Vilnius’ Upper Castle, which was erected in the early 15th century. Named after its builder, Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, the tower was rebuilt in 1933 and offers a panoramic view of Vilnius—the quaint Old Town on one side, and the new business centre featuring modern architecture on the other, perfectly combining past and present.
While one can spend a couple of days in Vilnius to take in all the sights, ranging from museums and art centres to churches and architectural jewels, going beyond the city walls is also worthwhile. Vilnius makes a good starting point to explore the rest of the country as well as the other Baltic states, Estonia and Latvia. But it is also worth a trip of its own and be enthralled by the city’s spirited culture, the friendliness of its people and the Lithuanian cuisine, which is a unique mixture of different culinary influences, thanks to the country’s difficult and rich history. Lithuania is home to the happiest bees in the world, and therefore the locally produced honey tastes the best, as one local resident said.
This statement can also be transported for a wider picture: a trip to Vilnius is like discovering something new, something unknown. Everyone keen on travelling and with only the slightest sense of adventure greatly appreciates the feeling of happiness such an endeavour entails: it truly is the best.