As I was on my journey through the Baltic capitals, Vilnius seemed to be most underestimated of the three capital cities. Many people hit the Baltic capitals of Riga and Tallinn, but they either skipped over Vilnius or only spent a day there. However, I found Vilnius to be charming and have plenty to do – certainly not worth skipping over. So how should you spend a weekend in Vilnius? Here’s what Mark and I got into during our time there.
One of the most popular sites in Vilnius is the Gate of Dawn, which is the city gate and entrance into Old Town Vilnius, originally built as a defensive fortification. Through the glass windows of the Gate of Dawn is the Chapel of the Gate of Dawn, intended originally to guard the city from attacks and to bless travelers. As Lithuania has remained a religious country even through Nazi and Soviet rule, I saw people kneeling down in prayer and making the sign of the cross several times when we through the gate.
As we continued along Aušros Vartų Street in which the Gate of Dawn provides entry to, we came to Vilnius Town Hall Square. Town Hall Square is dotted with pastel buildings that provided color on our otherwise cloudy first day in the city. In front of Vilnius Town Hall is where the Vilnius Free Tour, a walking tour of the city, leaves from daily at noon.
We then continued along Pilies Street, which is a street full of market stalls and restaurants – make sure to head here for at least one meal during your stay. We particularly enjoyed Forto Dvaras which offers traditional Lithuanian cuisine.
One of the ‘attractions’ I most liked in Vilnius was the teapot wall. The teapot wall, on the corner of Pilies and Bernardinu Streets, was originally thought up as an advertising method for a tea shop that used to be on the corner. The shop has since been replaced by the Decantus Wine Bar, but the teapots are still there to be admired.
Having passed by the Decantus Wine Bar several times as we walked around the Old Town, we popped in twice to enjoy a glass of wine. The wine bar is cozy place with several wines and cheese plates on order, including Lithuanian wine, which is made from berries and not grapes. Lithuanian wine was surprisingly good although there were only a few selections of it on the menu.
We also wandered over to the Vilnius Cathedral Belfry. The Cathedral Belfry used to be part of the city’s 13th century defensive wall, but became a belfry in the 16th century. We paid to climb up the belfry to see views of the city and along the way there were landings with historical titbits about the belfry – one of which was that it used to take twelve men climbing up the belfry to ring the bell!
Just a warning though, the belfry climb starts off with stone stairs, but later switches into wooden stairs that personally got a bit nerve wracking to climb as they had large gaps in between them.
One of the most eye opening and sobering places we visited in Vilnius was the KGB Museum and Prison. The KGB Museum outlines the genocide that Lithuanians have experienced under the former rule of the Soviet Union and Nazis. What I learned in the museum set a lot of the tone for my understanding of the Baltics and made me feel proud when I joined in to celebrate Estonia’s Independence Day later in the week.
In the basement of the KGB Museum is the former KBG prison, which as you can imagine, is unsettling to think of how prisoners were treated. The initial holding cells were claustrophobic, with only enough room for the prisoner to stand for their first few hours until they were booked in. Showers were allowed monthly, with the prison guards often setting the water as very cold or very hot to mess with the prisoners.
Neither the museum or prison were easy places to visit; if you’ve ever been to a Holocaust museum you’ll have the same uneasiness but gratitude once leaving. It is a really moving place though so I recommend a visit.
Crossing over the Neris River and out of the Old Town, we gazed out over the city from the Skybar at the Radisson Blu hotel. The bar opens at 5PM so make sure to get there as soon as it opens in winter months so that you can catch the sunset. Unfortunately for us, it had started snowing as we were walking there so visibility was limited at best. We still enjoyed relaxing with a cocktail before it was time for dinner.
Where We Stayed
While in Vilnius, we based our stay at the Moon Garden Art Hotel which is a stone’s throw away from the Gate of Dawn. I would highly recommend the hotel as it is modern and clean, and offers an expansive breakfast spread. The location right on the edge of Old Town is ideal, and at the €68/night we paid, it didn’t break the bank either.
Have you been to Vilnius? What would you like to see if you go?