When I arrived in Vilnius by bus it looked boring; new office buildings on the north side of the Neris river and on the south a compact old town marked by pastel coloured churches.
Vilnius can be done in a day and is easy to navigate due to its small size and plentiful English signage. Unless you are a connoisseur of baroque architecture or a Frank Zappa fan on a pilgrimage to see his head on a stick, there is not much to see.
From 1945 to 1990, the only way for Lithuanian residents to travel abroad was by plane via Moscow and only privileged people. For western visitors it was off limits unless you had a good reason to be there with restrictions.
And the legacy of those communist days is still there with the city seeming to lack personality and the service is sour, except for the older women driving trolley buses in casual clothes, who decorate their buses with flowers, stuffed toys and frilly curtains.
Things to do
- Wander around the old town looking at Baroque Catholic churches following a circuit around the main roads. I did this twice in case I had missed something, which I hadn’t. The tourist office has an audio guide tour around the old town. There are plaques to read at each attraction but the tour gives more information about local legends.
- Cathedral Square centrepiece is the neo-classical Vilnius Cathedral. Sunday mass is standing room only. Massive concrete columns inside and consists of eleven chapels. The beggars queue up outside church entrances to collect as people leave. Outside the Cathedral is a Bell Tower consisting of a mix of architectural styles and a clock which is missing the minute hand. The tower is a remnant from the old city walls but has been re-constructed over the years.
- Gediminas Tower next to the Upper Castle has the most practical view over the city. The founder of Vilnius was Grand Duke Gediminas and this area is also known as Gediminas Hill or Gediminas Castle dating back to the 14th Century and was mostly destroyed in the 17th Century during a war with Moscow. Currently it is under re-construction. It can be accessed by short steep walk up the hill or via the 35 second funicular ride. In the tower is a museum of armoury and a model of medieval Vilnius.
- Museum of Genocide Victims. To understand the struggles of Lithuanians in the 20th Century, a visit to this museum chronicles their suffering and resistance. This former Gestapo, NKVD then KGB headquarters is where you will learn about the deportation and repression of the local people. Extensive information on resistance fighters can be seen along with the chilling basement cells where prisoners were kept and tortured up until 1991. Including two water torture cells used to keep prisoners awake for excessive periods. Also there is much information about the Lithuanian Jewish holocaust during the Second World War when approximately 95% of the Jews were murdered.
- Walking past the old town walls off Subaciaus, there is a park in with a fantastic view higher than the castle. If you go here don’t bother straining yourself to the more touristy Hill of Three Crosses as the view is the same.
- Frank Zappa memorial statue hidden away in a back street west of the old town called K. Kalinausko. Frank Zappa has no connection to Vilnus and never visited the city but he has fans who collected enough money to commission this bronze statue.
- Uzupio Republic was once the poorest and neglected suburb of Vilnius and home to craftsman and weavers. Now the alternative artist district, Uzupio declared its independence on 1 April 1997. The Republic has its own president, prime minister, flag, anthem, Constitution in 12 languages which is displayed on a wall in Paupio Street. Nearby is the “national symbol” of Uzupio Republic the bronze guardian angel blowing her horn overlooking a small square. Seated in a wall next to the river is the Uzupio mermaid sculpture. Bernardine Cemetery is a scenic and peaceful place to visit and free of people, except for the buried ones.
On a sunny day sit in one of the numerous parks or on the Neris riverbank planning your next move out of town.
Trakai Castle is a 30 minutes by train from Vilnius. A medieval red castle in planted on an island which has been rebuilt with a drawbridge to get to the island. Trakai was once the capital of Lithuania.
Three hours from Vilnius near the border with Latvia is the Hill of Crosses. The Soviets took the memorial crosses away but people kept adding them back and 100,000 crosses have been put there since 1800s. There is a souvenir shop there so you can buy a cross to add yourself if so inclined.
Home Made House. A new boutique hostel conveniently located between the old town and train and bus station. Owner Linja will welcome you and tell you all about growing up behind the Iron Curtain and how Vilnius is trying to move on.
Cili Pica Restaurant – An Italian chain of restaurants popular with the locals but bland food. My pasta was from a packet and not cooked properly and very small serves. Flat soft drinks and smelly toilets.