Vilnius Historic Center

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Overview

From the Vilnius Historic Centre World Heritage inscription:

The Vilnius Historic Centre began its history on the glacial hills that had been intermittently occupied from the Neolithic period; a wooden castle was built around 1000 AD to fortify Gedimino Hill, at the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia rivers. The settlement did not develop as a town until the 13th century, during the struggles of the Baltic peoples against their German invaders. By 1323, when the first written reference to Vilnia occurred, it was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. At this time, some brick structures had apparently been erected on a small island formed when the Vilnia changed its course. By the 15th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with its capital Vilnius, had become the largest country in Europe, stretching from the Baltic Sea in the North to the Black Sea in the South. The historic center comprises the areas of the three castles (Upper, Lower and Curved) and the area that was encircled by a wall in the Middle Ages. The plan is basically circular, radiating out from the original castle site. The street pattern is typically medieval, with small streets dividing it into irregular blocks, but with large squares inserted in later periods.

I visited the Vilnius on a G Adventures tour of the Baltic States.


History

Streets of Old Vilnius
Streets of Old Vilnius

According to folklore, the city of Vilnius was founded by a man named Gediminas who dreamt of an iron wolf howling atop a hill. When he asked a priest to explain his dream, he was told that the wolf represented a fortified castle which he was to build, that he was destined to be its ruler, and that the city would be the capital of Lithuania.

The site on which Gediminas eventually began construction was geographically well-suited. It lay at the confluence of two rivers, both of which were navigable. On two sides the castle was flanked by dense forest and nearly impassable swamps, which, in addition to its thick, stone walls and turrets, made it a formidable and easily defensible structure.

The priest’s dream interpretation skills were spot-on, because Vilnius did become the capital of Lithuania, and still is today. With nearly 600,000 residents, it’s also the country’s most populous city.

Located in the southeast portion of the country, it is particularly well-known for traditional architecture and historic buildings, most of which date back many hundreds of years.

In the mid-‘90s, the Old Town portion of the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which went a long way toward increasing its popularity as an international tourist destination.

Vilnius was mentioned by name in historical texts as early as the 13th century. During the reign of Grand Duke Vytenis, a Catholic church was built and staffed by Franciscan clergy; the town began to experience slow but steady growth as its importance as an economic center increased.

Letters exist from the 14th century when then Grand Duke Gediminas wrote to the Germanic states inviting their residents to move to and settle in Vilnius. Ironically, the letters even extended the invitation to Jews too, which was a controversial gesture at the time.

Ironically, the letters had the desired effect; over the centuries, many European Jews flocked to Lithuania. By the dawn of World War II, it was one of the largest Jewish centers on the continent, often referred to as Lithuania’s Jerusalem.

For much of its history, Vilnius was the home of the Grand Duke and the country’s center of power; its land and status grew steadily through wars, alliances and strategic marriages.

During its most influential era, the Grand Duchy included large expanses of land that are now part of Russia, Poland, and Ukraine.

In the early 20th century, however, the small country’s power and status waned and Lithuania was occupied by German forces for much of World War I. Even after the German forces withdrew in 1918, Lithuania was still at the mercy of other European powers like Poland and Russia, both of whose armies occupied the country at various times in the post-war years. In July of 1920, Lithuania and Soviet Russia signed a formal peace treaty officially ceding Vilnius to Lithuania.

Fast forward a few years, and the city and surrounding lands were seized and annexed by Poland; the title of capital of Lithuania was temporarily transferred to the City of Kaunas. It was argued by Poland that since most of the city’s residents were of Polish descent, their annexation was just, though the Lithuanian government vehemently disagreed and severed all political ties with Poland. The international community recognized Poland as the city’s legitimate government.

What to see / Sights

Gediminas Castle Tower
Gediminas Castle Tower

Hill of Crosses One of Lithuania’s most iconic landmarks is the Hill of Crosses. The dramatic site consists of more than 100,000 crosses of varying, shapes, sizes and designs. The crosses pay homage to the strength and perseverance of the Lithuanian people, and to the martyrs and victims killed throughout the country’s turbulent ancient and contemporary historical eras. Book a tour of the Hill of Crosses.

Guided tours of the site are available and there’s also a nearby park dedicated to the brave partisans who died while fighting the Imperial Russian soldiers during World War II. The site is free to visit, but you’ll need to pay a few Euros to park if you’ve driven. Weekday and weekend hours vary, so check online before you go.

Gediminas Castle Tower The last remaining part of the upper castle of Vilnius, it has a commanding view of the entire city. There is an entrance fee, but it is reasonable. You will have to walk up a sizable hill to reach the tower. Buy a Gediminas Castle Tower Entrance Ticket.

Republic of Užupis The Užupis area of Vilnius is a bohemian neighborhood which “declared” itself an independent republic on April 1, 1997. They have a president, an unofficial currency, and their own constitution. The constitution has 32 articles and is published and displayed on metal plates in 23 languages. Many of the articles are tongue in cheek or are tautologies. For example, Articles 16 is “People have the right to be happy” and Article 17 is “People have the right to be unhappy”.

Book a tour of Uzupis.

Trakai Castle Built on an island set amidst a scenic lake, Trakai Island Castle was built in the 14th century and is noted for its earthen-brick construction and narrow towered turrets that reflect clearly off the lake’s calm waters.

The castle is only a few miles from Vilnius in a region consisting of hundreds of lakes; it was the political and military heart of the Grand Duchy and the country’s capital for much of the middle-ages.

The fee to enter the castle and museum is 8 Euros for adults, and 4 Euros for students and children. It’s free to visit the museum’s permanent exhibits on the last Sunday of each month. The castle and museum’s hours are seasonal, so check online before you go.

Book a tour of Trakai Castle.

What to do / Activities

Vilnius Cathedral
Vilnius Cathedral

Museum of Genocide Victims Located in the former headquarters of the city’s KGB detachment, The Museum of Genocide Victims is dedicated to the thousands of Lithuanians who were tortured, killed and deported by their Soviet rulers from the World War II era to the ‘60s. The museum includes commemorative plaques containing the victim’s names, and the exhibits contain many first-hand accounts of those who suffered there. The museum is closed on Monday and Tuesday and the admission fee is less than 10 Euros. Inexpensive guided tours are available, but photographs are prohibited.

Vilnius Cathedral Another must-see site for those visiting Vilnius is the Vilnius Cathedral, locally known as St. Stanlislav Cathedral. Built in the classical Greek style, it was originally constructed to pay homage to a pagan god. Over its tumultuous life of nearly 900 years, the cathedral has been destroyed and restored many times. It’s the burial site for many of the country’s most important historical figures, and as such, is revered by patriotic Lithuanians. It’s free to visit every day but is off-limits to tours and visitors during Sunday mass.

Photography Tips

With its amazing historical buildings and quaint charm, Vilnius is a great place for photographers to capture some remarkable once-in-a-lifetime photographs of some of the continent’s most historic attractions. A leisurely stroll through the city’s old streets will reveal plenty of photo opportunities, but be advised that photography is prohibited inside some of the city’s attractions.

Climbing the hill to reach the Gediminas Castle Tower will give you the best view of the city.

Where to Eat

Lokys is located inside a historic building from the 1600s and is locally owned and operated. The restaurant is known for both its contemporary and traditional cuisine, which is prepared with locally sourced, in-season ingredients. It’s spread over a couple of floors and includes a large selection of wines which your server will help you pair with your entre. If you go during the warmer months, you’ll enjoy the open-air courtyard, which is a great place to relax in the afternoon with a cold drink or an espresso.

Another favorite with locals and tourists alike, Bistro 18 is contemporary and elegant but inviting and comfortable. For years, it has earned acclaim from travel sites and it offers a large selection of local, international and fusion dishes. A few noted favorites are the mushroom and goat cheese salad, and meatless red curry served with vegetables and rice.

Where to stay

Literat? gatv? (aka Literature Street)
Literat? gatv? (aka Literature Street)

Hotels

Book Hotels in Vilnius

Not surprisingly, as capital and metropolitan city, Vilnius offers plenty of lodging options no matter your budget. The Artagonist Art Hotel located on Pilies Street in the city center is reasonably priced and unique for its art-adorned walls, timber beam lined hallways and clean and contemporary rooms. The hotel consists of 34 rooms, each of which is decorated with one-of-a-kind paintings, murals or sculptures; many of the rooms have panoramic views of the city too. Lots of amenities like room service, transportation and laundry are available, and breakfast is served daily too, so make sure it’s included before you book your room.

Novotel Vilnius Centre is another of Vilnius’ hotels that’s popular with travelers. Located in the city’s beautiful commercial district, this 4-star hotel is a great choice for those who don’t want to skimp on the swank during their trip. The hotel includes a restaurant, bar, exercise room and sauna. The concierge staff will gladly assist you with booking tours, dining recommendations and scheduling transportation to and from the airport.
Please note that due to market conditions and the seasonal nature of tourism, hotel prices can vary greatly and change frequently throughout the year, so check online carefully before booking.

Camping

Located in the city’s southwest, Vilnius Camping is open in the late spring, summer and fall and has all the amenities you’ll need to make your stay a comfortable one. Electricity, water, bathrooms, and showers are available; there’s even a communal kitchen if you’d like to buy and prepare your own food. Staff are on-site 24 hours a day, and there’s a forest nearby which is a popular spot for quiet walks in the morning or afternoon.

How to get there

Entrance to the Republic of Uzupio
Entrance to the Republic of Uzupio

Airports

Since Vilnius is Lithuania’s capital and most populous city, getting there couldn’t be easier. Vilnius International Airport is just a few kilometers south of the city and handles nearly four million visitors annually. It’s a hub for airBaltic and discount airline Ryanair and offers direct flights to many of Europe’s largest cities.

By Car

Due to the proximity of much of the city’s tourist sites to the city center, renting a car isn’t something that most visitors do. Plenty of tours are available that include door-to-door transportation; many of them include trips into the surrounding country as well. If you’d like to rent a car and see things at your own pace, your best bet is to rent one in advance from one of the rental car businesses at or near the airport.

Remember, if you’re from another country you’ll need an internationally recognized driver’s license and a passport for insurance purposes, so check out the requirements carefully before booking.

Rent cars at the Vilnius Airport

Public Transportation

The city of Vilnius has a wonderful public transportation system that begins at 5:00 AM and doesn’t stop until midnight.

It’s possible to buy prepaid e-tickets, which allow you to use the buses until your balance is gone. If you’ll only be in the city for a few days, one, three and ten-day tickets are available too; and they’ll allow you to ride the buses as often as you’d like within those days.

Visit the Vilnius-Tourism site and click on the Public Transport icon to see a complete schedule of options and prices.

The buses run near most of the sites you’ll likely visit. Most hotels will assist you with transportation as well, so between the two options, you shouldn’t have any trouble getting where you want to go quickly and cheaply.

Cost

Lithuania uses the Euro (€) as their currency.

Vilnius is a moderately priced city. It is ranked 254th out of 432 cities in the world in terms of cost of living.

A beer in Vilnius can run about €3.00 and a meal at McDonald’s can run about €5.00.

Weather

Vilnius’ climate is similar to that of much of Europe and is considered humid continental. The city can be hot and humid in the summer, with temperatures regularly reaching into the 90s, though most summer days are pleasant. The winter weather can also be extreme, with temperatures often dipping below zero for extended periods in which many of the country’s rivers freeze; not surprisingly, ice fishing is a popular winter pastime. Annual rainfall is approximately 27 inches.

Get current conditions and forecasts for Vilnius.

Shopping

Editos Suchockytes Galerija is an art gallery owned and operated by a local artist that’s located downtown close to other popular attractions. The gallery is free to visit and the owner speaks English and Russian. Furniture, carvings, antique musical instruments, paintings, and drawings are all on display and for sale.

Also conveniently located downtown near many other attractions, Sarka Daiktu Keliones is a specialty shop that sells upmarket clothing and jewelry, much of which is made locally and with local materials. Vintage items are also available.

If you’re in the mood for a mall that’ll remind you of home, the Akropolis is probably Vilnius’ most popular shopping destination for locals and tourists. It’s got everything from a pharmacy to a movie theater. There is a big grocery store and lots of different food vendors in the food court, which is an easy way to sample a few local favorites.