When I arrived in Vilnius by bus my first impression was disappointment. With new office buildings to the north side of the Neris river and on the south a compact old town spotted with pastel coloured churches.
Vilnius is easy to navigate due to its small size and plentiful English signage. Unless you’re 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 unfortunately.
From 1945 to 1990, the only way for Lithuanian residents to travel abroad was by plane via Moscow and only privileged people allowed. 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 persist with the city lacking personality, except for the middle-aged women driving the local trolley buses. They delightfully decorate the dashboard with flowers, stuffed toys and frilly curtains.
Things to do
- Wander around the main road circuit in the old town admiring the Baroque Catholic churches. I did this twice in case I had missed something, which I hadn’t. The tourist office has an audio guide tour for the old town. There are plaques to read at each attraction but the audio tour gives more information about local legends. Beggars queue up outside all Vilnuis church doors to collect as people leave.
- Cathedral Square centrepiece is the neo-classical Vilnius Cathedral. Sunday mass has standing room only. Massive concrete columns hold up the roof and inside there are eleven chapels. Outside the Cathedral is a Bell Tower consisting of a mix of architectural styles and a clock without a minute hand. The tower is a remnant from the old city walls and has been re-constructed over the years.
- Gediminas Tower next to the Upper Castle has a popular 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. It is an easy short walk up the hill or via the 35 second funicular ride to access.
- 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 and disturbing basement cells where prisoners were tortured up until 1991. Including two water torture cells used to keep prisoners awake for excessive periods. There is a lot of information about the holocaust during the Second World War when approximately 95% of the Lithuanian Jews were murdered.
- Walking past the old town walls off Subaciaus, there is a park in with a fantastic view higher than Gediminas Tower. If you go here don’t bother straining yourself to the 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 named K. Kalinausko. Frank Zappa has no connection to Vilnus and never visited the city but he has fans here who collected enough money to commission this bronze statue.
- Uzupio Republic was once the poorest and neglected suburb of Vilnius. Now the alternative artist district, Uzupio declared its independence on 1 April 1997. The Republic has its own president, prime minister, flag, anthem, a Constitution which is displayed on a wall in Paupio Street in 12 languages. Nearby is the “national symbol” of Uzupio Republic – a bronze guardian angel blowing her horn. Bernardine Cemetery is a scenic and peaceful place to visit and free of people, except for the buried ones.
- Trakai Castle is a 30 minute train trip from Vilnius. A red medieval castle has been planted on an island. It has been rebuilt with a drawbridge to get to the island. Trakai was once the capital of Lithuania.
- Three hours from Vilnius, next to the border with Latvia is the Hill of Crosses. The Soviets took the memorial crosses away but people kept adding more. 100,000 crosses have been put there since 1800s. There is a souvenir shop there where you can buy a cross to add yourself.
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 serves bland food. My pasta was from a packet, not fully cooked and very small serving. Plus flat soft drinks and smelly toilets.