Vilnius is a veritable metropolis by Baltic standards, yet it has managed to retain the charm of a fairytale hamlet. The central districts of the Lithuanian capital are a maze of cozy cobbled lanes and enticing alleys lined with cafes, restaurants and boutiques, lending the city an air of intimacy quite at odds with its reputation as the economic engine of the entire region. Behind this quaint exterior is a far more streetwise Vilnius that is both growing in size and getting younger by the year as twenty-something Lithuanians (and many others) are drawn in by one of the most dynamic innovation economies in Europe and a social scene awash with painfully hip Nordic minimalism. This curious combination of gentrified past and dazzling future makes Vilnius a fascinating city break destination.
Vilnius is certainly conveniently located for Kyiv travelers. Unlike fellow Baltic capitals Riga and Tallinn, Lithuania’s largest city stands hundreds of kilometers away from the Baltic Sea coastline and within a relative stone’s throw of the border with Belarus. Although there is no shared border connecting Ukraine and Lithuania, Vilnius is actually the closest EU capital to Kyiv, lying just 590km to the northwest. Flights to Vilnius from Kyiv take around one hour, or less time than some residents of the Ukrainian capital spend commuting each day.
There are plenty of places to stay in the Lithuanian capital, with a host of international brands including the five-star Kempinski Grand Hotel on offer. The most original accommodation is surely the aristocratic Hotel PACAI in the heart of the old town. This former mansion was once the most magnificent in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and underwent five years of painstaking renovations prior to opening its doors to the discerning public in May 2018. It offers uniquely decorated rooms, many of which feature original frescoes and other reminders of its stately past. Previous guests include a certain Napoleon Bonaparte, who addressed the citizens of early nineteenth century Vilnius from the balcony of what is today the hotel’s presidential suite.
The historic center of Vilnius is easy to explore on foot. It is relatively compact without any inconvenient inclines, making it an ideal strolling city. A small number of broad boulevards stand as testament to the ultimately futile efforts of Soviet town planners to remodel the city, but the overriding impression is of a mazy layout that evolved organically over many centuries. Small archways lead into secluded courtyards and some streets are so narrow that they struggle to cope with even mild pedestrian congestion. The overall architectural vibe is eclectic with a strong baroque flavor, and visitors from Ukraine will likely find it reminiscent of Lviv. Much like the pearl of western Ukraine, the streets of Vilnius are dotted with engaging little flourishes ranging from funky street art to ornate balconies and ancient figurines.
A wealth of churches adorn the city, reflecting the relatively vibrant religious life of what remains a staunchly Catholic nation. Lithuania was famously one of the last places in Europe to abandon paganism and convert to Christianity. Driven by dynastic interests, the country’s rulers subsequently adopted the Catholic faith of neighboring Poland. Religion continues to play a far more prominent role in everyday Lithuanian life than elsewhere in the Baltic region, and tourists should take note that many of the churches they wish to explore are also active houses of worship.
Must-see Vilnius landmarks include the iconic Three Crosses Monument, which dates back to 1989. Erected on a hill offering stunning views of the old town, this monument replaced earlier crosses removed by the Soviet authorities in the 1950s that dated back to the seventeenth century. Vilnius Cathedral is easily the most commanding landmark in the city, dominating Cathedral Square and flanked by the 52-meter high Catherine Bell Tower. The red brick Gediminas Castle Tower looms up behind the square and often serves as a symbol of the city. This physically unassuming tower has a big history. It plays a central role in the foundation myth of Vilnius, featured on the Lithuanian currency before the country made the switch to the euro, and appears in numerous patriotic poems and folk songs. It was here that the Lithuanian flag was first hoisted back in 1988 as the country’s independence struggle against the Soviet Union began to gain ground during the Perestroika years.
Foodies should head to the elegant and glass-roofed Hales Market, which is well worth a visit if you would like to pick up some local delicacies and get a flavor of everyday Vilnius life. Half Soviet-style bazaar and half hipster street food hangout, this open plan market dates back to the early twentieth century and offers an interesting window on the modern transformation of the city as Lithuania has gained in swagger since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the advent of EU integration. Meanwhile, Vilnius’s modern art focus is undoubtedly the architecturally striking MO Museum, a private initiative that houses over 5000 mostly Lithuanian artworks from the twentieth century and features an engaging design by the people behind the acclaimed Berlin Jewish Museum.
In common with Ukraine and the rest of Central Europe’s bloodlands, today’s Vilnius is haunted by the ghosts of the totalitarian epoch. The city suffered occupation by both Nazis and Soviets before playing a pioneering role in the wave of independence movements that ultimately brought the USSR crashing down, and the scars from this traumatic period are often lurking just below the surface. Known for centuries as the Jerusalem of the North, Vilnius is still struggling to come to terms with the destruction of its Jewish heritage during WWII. Some street names in the former Jewish districts of Vilnius old town bear the Star of David, while a handful of monuments recall prominent members of the once thriving Jewish community, but the calamity continues to weigh heavily on the city.
Nevertheless, the politics of memory plays a significantly less prominent role in Vilnius daily life than it does in Ukraine. While there is little sense of nostalgia for the Soviet past and considerable hostility towards the Kremlin’s current imperial ambitions, Russian is a common and politically inoffensive feature of street-level interaction in the city. Indeed, most Lithuanians appear far more concerned about pressing present-day issues such as the waves of migration to the EU that have seen the country’s population decline alarmingly since joining the European Union in 2004.
According to the Vilnius authorities, just over 50,000 Ukrainian tourists visited the city in 2018, representing around 5% of all foreign visitors. This figure is likely to rise during 2019 as more and more Ukrainians get into the habit of visa-free weekend city breaks to EU destinations. There is certainly much to recommend the Lithuanian capital, whether you are looking for a stylish bar scene or want to lose yourself in the laidback allure of its winding Mitteleuropa streets.
Vilnius is in many ways an inspirational place for visitors from Ukraine. A former Soviet city that has embraced its European identity in a manner many Ukrainians would love to see emulated at home, the Lithuanian capital offers a sense of the possible. Although just one hour away, it represents a leap of the imagination for Ukrainians contemplating the future direction of their own country.
EATING OUT IN VILNIUS
Bistro 18 Restaurant (18 Stikliu Street)
Understated wine cellar-style eatery with hearty fare and scrumptious desserts that attracts a lively international crowd.
Grey Restaurant (1 Pilies Street)
Conveniently located close to the iconic Gediminas Castle Tower. Make sure you try the mango-passion fruit cream dessert, which comes in a miniature plant pot.
Leiciai Tavern (4 Stikliu Street)
If you are looking for pub grub and a cozy atmosphere this is the place to be. As well as a wide range of traditional Lithuanian dishes, this old-school venue also has a selection of in-house beer brews to sample.
Ertlio Namas Restaurant (7 Sv. Jono Street)
Take a voyage back in time and experience aristocratic Lithuanian cuisine through the ages at this hybrid joint offering traditional dishes with a modern twist. Service staff present each course with a detailed and entertaining backstory.
Vilnius Snapshots: Post-Soviet Suburban Separatism with a Smile
In today’s Ukraine, talk of separatism inevitably conjures up images of Kremlin-sponsored carnage and “little green men” from Russia taking entire regions hostage. Thankfully, the Vilnius brand of separatism has absolutely nothing in common with these nightmare visions. Indeed, the Lithuanian capital is home to what is surely one of the most tongue-in-cheek independence movements in the world. The distinctly bohemian Vilnius district of Uzupis first declared independence in the late 1990s and continues to maintain the charade of statehood, but it takes its inspiration from Montmartre rather than Moscow.
The story of Uzupis’s road to ironic independence begins in the Soviet era, when it first gained notoriety as the roughest and most rundown neighborhood in Vilnius. Cut off from the city’s old town by the Vilnia River and hemmed in by steep hills and a sprawling Soviet industrial zone, Uzupis was an isolated place of derelict buildings and abandoned apartments that served as a magnet for criminal elements, young artists and social dropouts. This unsavory reputation led to the further decline of the area, with more and more properties falling into a state of disrepair and basic utilities largely absent.
The arrival of Lithuanian independence initially did little to improve the fortunes of the neighborhood, but as the 1990s progressed, the presence of a trendy artist community and the availability of cheap housing in close proximity to the city center combined to spark renewed interest in Uzupis. The gradual gentrification of the area did much to soften its harder edges while allowing Uzupis to retain the renegade air of an artistic haven. This paved the way for a somewhat theatrical declaration of independence in 1997 masterminded by Lithuanian poet, musician and film director Romas Lileikis, who modestly took on the mantle of self-styled president of the fledgling state.
Today, the Republic of Uzupis has an estimated population of around 7,000, of whom 1,000 are artists. It continues to lay claim to its own flag, currency, government and anthem, but the focus of the enclave remains chaotic creativity. It is home to dozens of galleries and boasts a rich array of street art ranging from murals to installations. Notable landmarks include a series of mounted metal plates displaying the Uzupis Constitution in more than twenty languages (the Constitution’s 38 articles include “Everyone has the right to make mistakes”, “Everyone has the right to be misunderstood”, and “Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation”). Perhaps the neighborhood’s most striking landmark is the Uzupis Mermaid, which nestles provocatively in the embankment on the opposite side of the Vilnia River. Created by Lithuanian sculptor Romas Vilciauskas, this enchanting mermaid serves as an iconic emblem for Uzupis. According to local lore, anyone who falls prey to the statue’s alluring charms is destined to remain forever in the neighborhood.
Vilnius Snapshots: Grand Dukes and Games of Thrones at Trakai Island Castle
Located just under 20km outside Vilnius, Trakai Island Castle offers an atmospheric window into an epoch when the Grand Dukes of Lithuania held sway over vast tracts of land stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. The only island castle in all of Eastern Europe, today’s Trakai Castle is an impressive reconstruction of the mighty fortress first completed by Lithuanian national hero Vytautas the Great in the early fifteen century as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania reached the zenith of its power.
At its height, the Grand Duchy encompassed much of present-day Lithuania and Ukraine as well as Belarus and parts of both Poland and Russia, making it one of Europe’s largest and most powerful nations. The splendor of this era is tangible at Trakai Island Castle, which now serves as an engaging history museum and one of Lithuania’s most popular tourist attractions. Small boats dot the shores of the lake touting for business, with brief pleasure cruises around the castle and on into neighboring waterways costing just EUR 5 per person. The castle is easily reachable by a footbridge across the lake. Once inside, you will find rooms of exhibits spread out across multiple floors recounting the fortress’s heyday and chronicling twentieth century reconstruction efforts.
During the peak years of the Grand Duchy’s power in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, Trakai Island Castle was often at the very center of Eastern European history. It was the scene of dramatic dynastic infighting and found itself at the heart of numerous struggles against the Teutonic Knights, with an exotic cast of supporting characters and rival rulers fit for an episode of TV’s Game of Thrones. Vytautas the Great used the castle as a base for his many campaigns against the mighty Golden Horde, and would eventually die within its walls in 1430 as he awaited the arrival of a new crown along with the title King of Lithuania. Before his demise, Vytautas managed to change the demographic makeup of the area around Trakai. While campaigning in Crimea, he took large numbers of Crimean Tatars and Crimean Karaites hostage, bringing them back to Trakai to populate the surrounding town and serve as an elite personal security force. The descendants of this Karaite community are still a visible presence in modern-day Trakai, where their unique culture and hearty cuisine add considerably to the small town’s touristic charm.
The castle’s location in the middle of Lake Galve made it virtually impregnable to attack, but it would eventually fall victim to the changing tides of history, losing its importance as the threat of the Teutonic Order receded and power shifted towards Poland. The rise of Muscovy to the east eventually sealed the fate of Trakai Island Castle. It suffered damage during a series of seventeenth century conflicts with the expanding Moscow state and eventually fell into disrepair, never to return to its former glory.
The many legends connected to the fortress and the beauty of the surrounding area led to numerous reconstruction initiatives dating back to the nineteenth century. The Russian imperial authorities were the first to embark on a serious rebuilding effort in 1905, but progress on the project fell victim to the outbreak of WWI. Large-scale renovation work did not begin until after WWII. Perhaps understandably given the circumstances, the Soviet authorities were initially reluctant to sanction the reconstruction of something that could serve as a source of Lithuanian national pride. However, according to local lore, the Soviets were eventually convinced that the resurrected fortress would stand as a monument to the fight against Teutonic encroachment from the west. With memories of WWII and the Nazi invasion still fresh in the mind, this line of argument proved particularly persuasive.
Reconstruction efforts continued following the Soviet collapse and the arrival of Lithuanian independence. The castle’s current appearance does not necessarily tally exactly with the fifteenth century original. In the absence of architectural blueprints or photographic evidence, the designs for different elements of the rebuild castle complex relied on a combination of the available archeological evidence and educated guesswork drawing from similar fortifications dating from the same era. The castle may not be 100% authentic, but it remains a fascinating and highly photogenic destination.