Vilnius, Lithuania – a place you’ve probably never heard of but where the alternatives go

Vilnius, Lithuania – a place you’ve probably never heard of but where the alternatives go

When you think of hip cultural cities in Europe, you probably think, Berlin, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. While these are good they have spiralled out of control cost wise and are flooded with tourists at all times of the year. As more airlines fly to the Baltic states, Lithuania is breaking away and competing with these cites for visitors.

Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, an EU state located in the Baltics, next to Belarus and Latvia. It’s the largest of the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) and Vilnius has a population of just over 500,000. It boasts a UNESCO listed Old Town, a cathedral that doesn’t look a cathedral and a breakaway alternative “Republic”, Užupis, filled with arty and creative types.

Getting there 

I booked a £40 return flight from Liverpool UK to Vilnius at the end of April with RyanAir. The reason the flight was so cheap was because of the time of year. In July and August it rises to £140. Unfortunately in April and May the weather is unpredictable and it was grey and wet while I was there.

Vilnius airport is only 6 km from the Old Town and is connected to the city by train, bus and taxi.

Warning – taking a taxi from the airport is risky as they are known to rip off tourists. A taxi should only cost €6 max from the airport to the Old Town. It’s safer to get your hostel/hotel to call you a taxi or use Uber.

I chose the train which is new and located a 5 minute walk from the airport. It only comes every 40 minutes so check the timetable on the website to see if it fits in with your flight. It cost €0.70 and you can buy a ticket on the train. Journey time from the airport to the main train station was 7 minutes.

Walkway to the airport train station (Oro uostas)
Walkway to the airport train station (Oro uostas)

Accommodation 

I stayed at Jimmy Jumps House and paid €25 for 3 nights for a 6 bed ensuite room. It was a good hostel, clean, sociable and cheap. In Berlin, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, you’d be looking at €25 a night for the same quality hostel.

Jimmy Jumps House
Jimmy Jumps House

What to do

Street art 

The first thing you’ll notice around the city is the street art. It’s everywhere and there are some great pieces.

Vilnius Street Art by the main train station
Vilnius Street Art by the main train station
Vilnius Street Art by Literatu street
By Literatu street
Vilnius Street Art in Užupis
In Užupis
Vilnius Street Art by Keule-Ruke cafe
Near Keule-Ruke cafe

The most famous piece is the “Make everything great again” Putin and Trump mural at Keule-Ruke cafe. The mural shows Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, with Trump blowing smoke shotgun style into Putin’s mouth.

"Make everything great again" Putin and Trump mural
“Make everything great again” Putin and Trump mural

Eat and drink 

I love Baltic food. It’s so warm and filling but some people find it too greasy. I headed to Forto Dvaras in the Old Town. It’s touristy but when you head downstairs you’ll find a great atmosphere and a large food and drinks menu. You can try all the Lithuanian dishes you want.

Forto Dvaras
Forto Dvaras

I’m a fan of their dumplings or didžkukuliai. It’s a traditional Lithuanian dish of potato dumplings stuffed with ground meat and sour cream.

Didžkukuliai
Didžkukuliai
Didžkukuliai - meat and sour cream
Didžkukuliai – meat and sour cream

The other traditional food is pig ears.

They looked different from what I was expecting. They had a rubbery texture and a very strong meaty smell. You can often find them as a beer bar snack.

Pig ears
Pig Ears

Beeeeer!

The two main beers to choose from are:

Švyturys Baltas, white wheat beer and a stout which I didn’t get the name of.

I only like wheat beer so Švyturys Baltas suited me great.

Švyturys Baltas
Švyturys Baltas

And did I mention that Vilnius is the cheapest place in Europe for beer!?

I also tried a shot of Krupnikas, a honey liqueur which is sweeter than mead. Even though mead is a traditional drink in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, I have a sweet tooth so prefer the honey liqueur.

Krupnikas - honey liqueur
Krupnikas – honey liqueur

All this cost me €21. Bargain.

Pig Ears and Švyturys Baltas beer
Pig Ears and Švyturys Baltas beer

Literatu street and old film sets

The city is like an art gallery, as well as the awesome street art is Literatu Street. A place for art lovers, book worms and writers to see the importance of Lithuanian literature. It’s a cobbled pedestrian street decorated in mixed media art – pictures, photos and prints.

Look out for items connected to the fictional cannibal: Hannibal Lecter from the novel Red Dragon. While the author isn’t connected to Lithuania, the character Hannibal Lecter is Lithuanian.

Literatu street, Vilnius
Literatu street, Vilnius
Literatu street, Vilnius
Mixed media tributes
Literatu street, Vilnius
Literatu street

My favourite piece was the teeth which represent how writers often feel about critics.

Critics teeth
Critics teeth

The photo below is of Victoria courtyard in the Old Town. This was used to film Visa teisybė apie Kolumbą, (All Truth About Columbus) in 1970, a film set in Latin America. As Lithuania was still part of the Soviet Union back then, directors weren’t able to leave the country and film overseas but instead had to transform their cites into foreign places.

Victoria courtyard
Victoria courtyard – does it look like Latin America to you?

Užupis

This self-proclaimed Republic in Vilnius is a hippy bohemian district located partly in the Old Town.

Entrance sign to Užupis
Entrance sign to Užupis

It was once a Jewish area but after the Holocaust it was taken over by prostitutes, druggies and undesirables. This meant prices in this area of the city plummeted and in the early 1990s the creatives of Vilnius took advantage of this and moved in, transforming the area into a creative space. In 1997, on the 1st April (April Fools day), they declared it a “republic” assigning a mayor, a twelve man army and a flag.

Bridge to Užupis
Bridge to Užupis
Vilnia River
Vilnia River

In Vilnius couples attach love locks to the bridge once they’re married. It’s also traditional to carry the bride across the bridge. Hence, these short bridges to Užupis are so popular.

Love locks
Love locks

There’s a 50% divorce rate in Lithuania so I wonder if anyone ever goes down there to find their key…

After crossing the bridge to Užupis you can look back and see a mermaid statue. Legend has it (or so the people here say) if you look into her eyes you’ll stay in Užupis forever.

Mermaid of the Vilnia River
Mermaid of the Vilnia River
Užupis Mermaid
Užupis Mermaid

You can visit one of the cafes in Užupis, such as Uzupio Kavine, and get your passport stamped. But please don’t as it’s an official document, and you might meet a strict border control officer who won’t see the funny side.

In Tibet Square in Užupis a large multicoloured tent caused international trouble. It symbolises Užupis stand with Tibetan nationals. Apparently the Chinese government weren’t happy about this.

Further along the river bank is the famed “Jesus was the first backpacker” statue. Including his backpack and roll mat.

Backpacker Jesus statue
Backpacker Jesus statue

There are lots of other cool statues and graffiti around the streets.

Block of flats in Užupis
Block of flats in Užupis
Feet statue
Feet statue
Walk ways of Užupis
Walk ways of Užupis
Walk ways of Užupis
Walk ways of Užupis

Stop for a beer

Those of you who have been to Christiana in Copenhagen, Denmark might see some similarities, except there’s less weed in Užupis and more beer. In the summer you can try some of Užupis own brewed beer. The bars aren’t open until 3pm so it’s best to go to Užupis in the late afternoon or evening if you want a drink.

Angel of Užupis
Angel of Užupis
Closed bar at midday in Užupis
Closed bar at midday in Užupis

Constitution Wall

This is a real highlight. Written in 23 languages and on a mirrored surface, the constitution gives the 41 rules of which Užupis live by. It’s very tongue in cheek and there’s some great ones, including:

1. Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone.

3. Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.

12. A dog has the right to be a dog.

13. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in times of need.

Constitution Wall
Constitution Wall
Constitution selfie
Constitution selfie
Užupis Constitution
Užupis Constitution

Inside a church

Walking around Vilnius you’ll notice lots of different style churches. The most eye-catching is the Roman Catholic, flamboyant gothic style Church St. Anne.

Church of St. Anne
Church of St. Anne

It’s free to enter the church which is open every day apart from Monday. Avoid Mass if you want to look around and take photos. It’s very beautiful inside with intricate wooden carvings.

Inside Church St. Anne
Inside Church St. Anne
Wooden carvings
Wooden carvings
Service in the side chapel
Service in the side chapel

Vilnius Cathedral (Arkikatedra Bazilika)

Vilnius Cathedral is a Roman Catholic cathedral which doesn’t look like one. Instead it looks more like a lighthouse next to a Greek temple.

Inside it was darker than I expected and looked more like a traditional cathedral with little side chapels. In the summer it’s extremely popular with weddings.

Vilnius Cathedral
Vilnius Cathedral

It’s located in the city centre and is worth a look around, mainly for the interesting side chapels.

Vilnius Cathedral entrance
Vilnius Cathedral entrance
Main alter
Main alter
Arkikatedra Bazilika organ
Arkikatedra Bazilika organ
Side chapel
Side chapel
Another side chapel
Another side chapel
Statues and decorations in a side chapel
Statues and decorations in a side chapel

Explore the Old Town

Vilnius’ Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as Europe’s Capital of Culture 2009. There’s a plaque by the Town Hall highlighting these achievements and celebrating George Bush. He visited in 2002 and declared “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America”. This meant a lot to Lithuania who weren’t part of Nato or the EU yet and were under threat from a Russian invasion. It was reported George Bush also said a similar thing in other Eastern European countries, however the plaque remains.

Celebration plaque
Celebrational plaque

Jewish history

The Old Town is filled with Jewish history. Before the second world war, there were over 100,000 Jewish people living in Vilnius, contributing to 45% of the city’s population. After The Holocaust and 45 years of soviet occupation the number of Jewish people living here has nearly vanished. But walking around the Old Town you can still see reminders of the Jewish history and without realising, may find yourself walking through an old Jewish ghetto.

Plaque in memory to the great Jewish religious thinker Vilniaus Gaon Elijahu
Plaque in memory to the great Jewish religious thinker Vilniaus Gaon Elijahu on the building next to the site of his house

French Square

If you’re looking to buy souvenirs then skip the tourist shops and head to the market stalls in French Square, nicknamed this as it’s surrounded by the French Embassy and several French restaurants. The stalls are filled with fridge magnets, clothes and trinkets, and it’s great to support the locals. Below is the market outside St Parasceve, a Russian Orthodox Church, and it continues down the main tourist street, Pilies Street.

Market outside St Parasceve church
Market outside St Parasceve church

Go through a doorway

Part of the magic of Vilnius’ Old Town is exploring the winding cobbled streets and narrow doorways. Such doorways lead to quiet courtyards and areas of greenery.

This doorway led me to a “Bare Lady on a Bear” statue. When you’re exploring, don’t be afraid to go through some of these small doors.

Doorways of Vilnius
Doorways of Vilnius
"Bare lady on a Bear" statue
“Bare Lady on a Bear” statue

Hill of Three Crosses and Gediminas’ Tower 

Visiting an Eastern European country would not be complete without climbing up a hill or castle to get a view of the Old Town.

I went up to the Hill of Three Crosses monument, dedicated to the Franciscan martyrs of Vilnius. I took the route through the park and up the wooden steps. It was a steep hike.

Route through the park to the Hill of Three Crosses
Route through the park to the Hill of Three Crosses
Tricky steps
Tricky steps
The original wooden Three Crosses and the new stone white crosses
The original wooden Three Crosses and the new stone white crosses

Once up there it was very windy. There are also the original wooden crosses. The white stone Three Crosses were impressive and as large as they appeared from below.

It's windy
It’s windy
Three Crosses
Three Crosses

I noticed there was also Gediminas’ Tower a short distance away so I walked down from the Three Crosses and up the cobbled path to the tower. I suggest wearing sensible shoes for this.

Walk up to Gediminas' Tower
Walk up to Gediminas’ Tower
The Three Crosses across from Gediminas' Tower
The Three Crosses across from Gediminas’ Tower

The view from Gediminas’ Tower is a lot better than from the Hill of Three Crosses, where there are too many trees in the way. If you’re only going to climb up one, I would recommend Gediminas’ Tower.

View of Vilnius
View of Vilnius

Trakai Island Castle

Trakia Island Castle is located about 20 miles outside of Vilnius. There are regular buses running from Vilnius central bus station to Trakai, which take about 40 minutes and then it’s a 25 minute walk from Trakia bus station to the castle. Visiting by public transport takes at least half a day.

I went with a friend on a rainy April day. Undeterred by the weather we went with our umbrellas. There are two different types of bus to catch, the local bus and one run by a different company. We caught the bus from Vilnius’ central bus station on platform 26 (they also leave from platform 6) and it cost €1.70 each.

In the rain, the walk from Trakia to the castle was difficult. I suggest only going on a sunny day.

Local bus timetable from Vilnius to Trakai
Local bus timetable from Vilnius to Trakai

The castle is impressive, especially from the outside. It does look like it’s floating. Walking across the bridge to reach it made the castle different from others.

Trakai Island Castle
Trakai Island Castle
Me, rain, Trakai
Me, rain, Trakai

It only cost €6 to go inside. Unfortunately not much of it is undercover and you have to cross an outdoor courtyard to enter each section.

Outside, more rain
Outside, more rain
Outside wall
Outside wall
Courtyard with rooms showing different exhibitions
Courtyard with rooms showing different exhibitions

Inside you don’t learn much history about the castle. The main reason for going is to enjoy the outside area of the castle. This is why I advise only going if the weather is good!

Wet hair solider selfie
Wet hair solider selfie
Coins
Coins
A very small part is actually inside
A very small part is actually inside

We caught the last bus back to Vilnius, it was due at 20:45 but arrived at Trakai at 21:00, so don’t panic if the bus is late.

Overall

Vilnius has a lot to see and do. It has a bohemian arty side with street art and Užupis, but also has an Old Town rich with churches, monuments and Jewish history.

Not everything I’ve mentioned in this post might interest you. But surely the fact it’s Europe’s cheapest place for beer is a good enough reason to go?

And if you do go, remember – don’t mess with the people of Vilnius.
https://youtu.be/V-fWN0FmcIU

4 Replies to “Vilnius, Lithuania – a place you’ve probably never heard of but where the alternatives go”

    1. Thank you! I’m sure you’ll find something you will enjoy there. I’m a big fan of the Baltic States (if you couldn’t tell 😉 )

  1. I can’t decide between Vilnius and Riga – I noticed your post comparing the three Baltic capitals, Vilnius got more points… so I *think* I’ll go for Lithuania!

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