Things To See in Vilnius
Walk Under The Gate of Dawn
The Gate of Dawn is the only remaining gate from the city’s original defensive walls, and one of the most important historical, cultural and religious monuments in Vilnius. This is because the 300+ year old chapel over the gate is home to an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary which is believed to have magical and sacred powers. It has become famous worldwide due to stories of miracles being performed such as the healing of the sick, and has subsequently become a popular place of pilgrimage for both the Catholic and Orthodox faiths. To this day you can still locals and tourists alike saying a silent prayer whilst walking under the gate.
Follow the Church Trail
There are a whopping 28 Churches in Vilnius Old Town (that’s one per every 700 inhabitants) and it is joked that you can’t stand anywhere in Vilnius without being able to see part of one of the impressive facades or towering spires.
However, during the Soviet occupation, many of the city’s churches were closed down and turned into the likes of sports halls, warehouses and museums, and redecorated in a style somewhat unsuiting of their elaborate exteriors. Even after 27 years of independence, many of the interiors have not been restored to their former glory. This doesn’t mean that they’re not worth visiting, and in fact, you could easily spend an entire day wandering from church to church admiring their beauty and learning about their interesting pasts.
My personal favourites had to be the gothic facade of Saint Ann’s Church and the baroque Saint Casimir Jesuit’s Church with its golden crown perched on top (the crown can only be seen from a distance – try looking up from Town Hall Square).
Pop by the Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace is a classical building built at the end of the 18th century and is currently used as the Office of the President. There is a changing of the guards every day at 6pm, and free tours take place on Saturdays during the busier summer months. If like me, you decide to visit during the winter, you can still learn more about the Palace on a free walking tour of Old Town (see below).
The most interesting part for me had to be learning about current President Dalia Grybauskaitė. Often referred to as the ‘Iron Lady’, she is the country’s first female President and the first President of Lithuania to be reelected for a second consecutive term.
Wander Around Cathedral Square
Cathedral Square is the main square of Vilnius Old Town and is home to the large neo-classical Cathedral and its 190ft tall bell tower. Cathedral Square is also the centre of the city’s public life and hosts numerous events, concerts, markets and celebrations, including this year’s Centennial of the restored Lithuania.
Just around the corner from the square, you will also find the recently-rebuilt Palace of the Grand Dukes, the National Museum and Vilnius Castle standing on top of Gediminas Hill. The castle can usually be reached by walking or funicular railway, however, due to a recent landslide the entire hill is temporarily closed (Feb 2018).
Admire the Street Art
Vilnius is abundant with creative pieces of street art, many of which come with deep cultural or polital meanings. You can find this iconic Trump-Putin piece on Pylimo Street, next to writing which reads ‘Make Everything Great Again’, along with several other eye-catching works. For a full list of Vilniu’s most famous street art check out this map published by the tourism board.
Things To Do in Vilnius
Take A Free Walking Tour
As I frequently point out, Free Walking Tour’s are a great way to get to know a city when you first arrive, and I now make sure to do one everywhere I visit. Vilnius Free Walking Tour of Old Town is a 2.5hr tour which starts in Cathedral Square every morning at 10:30am and takes you around many of the major landmarks as well as a few hidden corners. We had a great time getting to know the city, learning about its interesting history from our lovely local tour guide Vytaute, and meeting other travellers from across the globe (some of whom quickly had us engaged in a mass snowball fight).
Challenge your Brain at The Museum of Illusions and Wrong Room Escape Room
It can be all too easy to let your brain switch off when on holiday, even when you’re walking around a museum skimming the blocks of writing and kidding yourself that you’ll remember all of this information by the time you get home. Well Vilnius’ Museum of Illusions is definitely one museum that will have your brain fully engaged… and a little confused!
A whole host of fun and interactive activities are set over 2 floors, with helpful staff who will talk you through the mind-boggling illusions. You could easily spend a couple of hours here playing around with the exhibits and posing for some great photo opportunities.
Plus, what many people don’t know is that in the same building sits Wrong Room Escape Room, a modern and challenging escape room with an elaborate setup and some cool high-tech features. If you’re a fan of escape rooms (or even if you’ve never done one before), this is one not to miss. And if you produce your ticket for the Museum of Illusions you’ll get a $10 discount!
Climb the Hill of Three Crosses
As I mentioned earlier, during our visit Vilnius Castle on Gediminas Hill was closed due to a small landslide. However, this didn’t leave us without a view across the city. Instead, we decided to climb the Hill of Three Crosses just a short distance from the castle.
The current crosses were built around the time of Lithuania’s independence from the Soviet Union and have become an integral part of the city’s skyline. With Lithuania being a rather flat country, the hill is not the tallest or steepest to climb, but it still gives you a great panoramic view over the city’s Old Town.
If you visit during the winter you can also do what we did and use your bum as a sledge (make sure you have waterproof clothes on) to descend the hill – it’s a lot of fun and surprisingly quicker and easier than walking.
Cross Over to the Republic of Užupis
Užupis (which means ‘other side of the river’ in Lithuanian) is a neighbourhood in Vilnius which almost 20 years ago declared itself as an independent republic – The Republic of Užupis.
Often compared to the likes of Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen due to it’s bohemic (the population has a large concentration of artists) and laid-back atmosphere, Užupis has its own flag, a president and a rather unusual constitution. Užupis Day falls on April 1st (April fools day) each year and one of their only rules is that visitors must smile at all times.
Whilst in Užupis make sure to check out the street art scene (most of which is located by the Vilnia river), visit Keistoteka bookshop and it’s resident fat cat, and read the constitution which is translated into 23 languages and hung on engraved plaques in Paupio gatvė.
Things To Eat & Drink in Vilnius
Visit Hales Food Market
Hales is one of the biggest and oldest markets in Vilnius and is located in Old Town close to the Gate of Dawn. The 8,400 square meter indoor marketplace sells a large variety of meats, fish, dairy, fruit, vegetables and preserves, as well as some non-edible items such as clothing and shoes. The market is a great place to sample local food, learn about the culture and mingle amongst locals getting on with their day-to-day lives.
Try ‘Traditional Lithuanian Food’
I’m going to share with you a quote from a local man we asked where we could get the best local food; “Lithuanians don’t really eat traditional Lithuanian food”. I don’t know how generalisable his comment really is, but if like me you’re a massive tourist and must try some ‘traditional Lithuanian food’ anyway, there are plenty of great restaurants to try.
Top Places to Eat in Lithuania article to come soon. Subscribe to the blog or follow on facebook to find out more.
Similar to Latvia, one popular local dish is fried bread with garlic and cheese, often ordered to accompany local beer. Cold beetroot soup is a common summer dish, however, most restaurants will still serve it in the winter to curious tourists. Many Lithuanian dishes are potato based, served fried, boiled, stuffed and turned into pancakes, with other ingredients such as bacon and sour cream added to them for flavour. Finally for dessert, the Lithuanian Tree Cake is a must try.
Drink in the Bar with a Fairytale Garden
Carré is a little gem we stumbled across completely by accident one evening when exploring the more Northern part of Old Town. Popular with locals, Carré serves food as well as a large selection of oversized cocktails and other drinks. But the best bit by far had to be the gorgeous garden filled with colourful fairy lights covering the trees and central pergola, which in the snow looked like something straight out of a fairytale!