This past summer we decided to take a road trip to explore Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—countries we had not had a chance to spend significant time in before. On our journey we stopped in region’s three capital cities, and used Vilnius as the start and end point of our trip. Each of the capital cities was quite distinctive, with Vilnius perhaps flying under the radar a bit as compared to Riga and Tallinn. Despite not having the notoriety of the other capitals, we were pleasantly surprised by what we found.
Vilnius has the largest baroque Old Town in Europe, and the city is punctuated with ornate churches, many of which were built or embellished in the baroque style during the 17th century when Vilnius was part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Old Town is also one of the largest surviving medieval old towns in Northern Europe and was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique blend of not only baroque architecture, but gothic, renaissance, and classical buildings as well.
What to See
Vilnius’s Old Town is compact and we set off on foot to visit as many historic churches, buildings, squares, and sights as we could during our time in the city.
We started by visiting one of the city’s most well known buildings—the gothic Saint Anne’s Church, a 15th century brick church on the banks of the Vilnia River that runs through the city. Immediately adjacent to Saint Anne’s is the imposing Church of Saint Francis and Saint Bernard, which has more renaissance and baroque touches. The duo of churches makes for an interesting and iconic site, and they are part of a larger complex which also includes a monastery and gardens, the latter of which have been renovated and opened to the public as the Bernardine Gardens.
The historically important Vilnius Cathedral (officially the Cathedral of Saint Stanislav and Saint Vladislav), is a short walk from Saint Anne’s Church. Also constructed in the 15th century, the neoclassical building has a much more austere appearance (inside and out) compared to the ornate Saint Anne’s. The coronations of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania happened on this site, and many prominent historic figures are buried in the crypt and catacombs. For an small fee, you can climb the freestanding 57m high cathedral bell tower. Originally part of the city’s defensive walls, we thought it was well worth a visit for the panoramic views of the city and an up-close look at the massive bells in action (we happened to visit right at noon).
On the hill above Vilnius Cathedral is the easily recognizable Gediminas Tower, reachable by a footpath or funicular (which was closed at the time of our visit). Although the full castle that was once on this hill is no longer standing, the tower has been renovated and houses a small museum which talks about the history of the site and offers views over the city and surrounding hills (including the Hill of Three Crosses, which we did not have time to visit during our stay in Vilnius).
For even better panoramic views of the city, head to the baroque Church of Saint Johns (official name is the Church of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist). On the grounds of Vilnius University, the church has a freestanding 68m high bell tower which you can climb (or take a lift) for 360 views of the Old Town. The church itself is worth a visit for its stunning baroque main altar.
Vilnius was once a walled city, and the Gate of Dawn is the only remaining gate from the original defensive walls. Built in 1522, the gate has a small chapel above with a famous image of the Virgin Mary which many believe has miraculous powers. The chapel is reached by a door and staircase on the left before reaching the gate itself—the space is tiny and when we visited it was full of people worshiping the icon.
After leaving the Gate of Dawn we weren’t sure we had the energy to visit any other churches, but decided to make a quick stop at the Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit nearby. The exterior is fairly plain, but we had one of the best surprises of the trip when we stepped inside. There is a stunning green iconostasis, and the church houses relics of the Orthodox saints Anthony, John and Eustatius. There are male and female monasteries adjacent to the church—the only working monasteries in Lithuania today. We happened to stumble upon this church without knowing about it and it was one of the best discoveries of the trip.
After visiting so many sites from centuries past, we wanted to have a better understanding of more modern Lithuanian history. The Soviet Union occupied the country from 1944-1991, and during that time the KGB operated out of a grand 19th century building across from Lukiškės Square. Today that building houses the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights (formerly known as the Museum of Genocide Victims). Each capital city we visited on our Baltic road trip has taken a different tact with their former KGB buildings—Tallinn had a small museum in the (now sanitized) old prison cells, whereas Riga had a guided tour through very raw, untouched spaces in the former KGB headquarters. Vilnius offered the most comprehensive museum in their former KGB space. Two floors have exhibits covering the partisan movement, deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia, KGB activities, and more. The basement contains the prison cells and a courtyard in back contains the prisoner exercise spaces that were used by the KGB, still in a fairly untouched state—very much the way they were left when the KGB deserted the space in 1991. The museum covers a large swath of Lithuanian history from the last century, and really helped us have a better understanding of the country’s complex and painful past.
Where to Eat
Lithuanian cuisine has many similarities to other regional cuisines of Eastern Europe. Food is hearty, and meat, mushrooms, and potatoes make frequent appearances on menus. A delicious cold beetroot soup (called saltibarsciai in Lithuanian) is common in summer months. Despite culinary similarities to the rest of the region, there are a few dishes that are distinctive to Lithuania itself. One of the best known dishes is cepelinai, large potato dumplings stuffed with either meat, cheese, or mushrooms and topped with a sour cream/butter sauce (they’re also affectionately known as zeppelins). You’ll also find koldūnai on Lithuanian menus—smaller pierogi-like dumplings filled with meat, mushrooms, or vegetables. One of our favorite finds in the region was kepta duona, fried rye bread sticks topped with garlic and served with a cheese dipping sauce (we also found great kepta duona in Latvia).
We found several great restaurants in Vilnius serving these traditional dishes. Alinė Leičiai is a cozy brewpub with indoor seating as well as an outdoor courtyard. They offer a number of local Lithuanian beers (some made by the restaurant itself) and all of the local dishes we wanted to try (including vegetarian cepelinai which were harder to find). It was so good we went twice!
Just down the street from Alinė Leičiai is a restaurant called Lokys, housed in a 15th century building complete with gothic stone cellars. The cuisine is more of a “hunter’s menu,” focusing on game like venison, boar, quail, and beaver, but there are a small sampling of vegetarian options too.
We enjoyed a light lunch at a cafe near Vilnius Cathedral called Pilies Kepyklėlė. We were drawn in by the koldūnai dumplings on their menu (both meat and vegetarian), but they also had a number of soups, crepes, salads, and baked goods. We also tried sea buckthorn tea for the first time—an warm, swirling mix of the orange pulpy berries that are grown in Lithuania.
Where to Stay
For our time in Vilnius we stayed at the Mabre Residence, a historic property in the Old Town. Similar in many ways to our accommodation in Minsk, the hotel was a monastery from the 16th century that in later years served as a veterinary center and a residence for soldiers. After World War II much of the complex was abandoned, and it wasn’t until 1995 that the buildings were restored (or in some cases completely rebuilt). Given that a lot of the complex was newer construction it didn’t have the historic feel of a monastery that we were hoping for, but we had a very spacious and comfortable room and the location was within easy walking distance to everything we wanted to see.
Getting There and Away
Vilnius lies in the southeastern part of Lithuania, close to Belarus. We were traveling to Vilnius from Minsk, but as we were in Belarus under the visa-free program we had to depart by air—direct trains between the two cities are also available. We took a thirty-five minute Belavia flight from Minsk to Vilnius International Airport. There are direct flights to Vilnius from other parts of Europe, including options on low-cost carriers like Ryanair and Wizz Air. Vilnius International Airport is only 5km from the heart of the Old Town, and we took a ten minute taxi ride to get to and from the airport.
We had hoped to travel throughout the Baltic states by train, but discovered that there are no direct train connections between Vilnius and Riga or Tallinn. Daily buses are available between the capital cities, but we opted to rent a car and travel throughout the region on our own schedule.
Vilnius was a pleasant surprise on our Baltic road trip. Knowing very little about the city before our arrival, we were impressed by the ornate churches, delicious Lithuanian cuisine, friendly people, and easy to navigate city center. The city had a very relaxed feel with many people dining al fresco in the beautiful summer weather and strolling through the city’s squares in the evening. We found it to be very affordable and there was an authenticity to the place that some other cities in the region don’t seem to have—many buildings have clearly been renovated and are in great shape but ultimately the city wasn’t overly polished and still had a little grittiness (which we like). We left Vilnius with more to explore, and hope to return in the future!