It may come as a surprise to many but Vilnius was once at the centre of one of Europe's largest empires! The Lithuanian (later Lithuanian-Polish) Empire stretched all the way down to the Black Sea allowing a few Lithuanian cities to benefit financially. Vilnius is one of those cities. Centred around a large square flanked by the main cathedral and the Palace of the Grand Dukes, it is a city that oozes old-world charm.
What to do
Gate of Dawn
Once one of the most spectacular walled cities in northern Europe, over the centuries the fortress walls were destroyed and reused to build many of the buildings in town. With the exception of the Gate of Dawn, all other gates and the majority of the walls have been re-purposed. The Gate of Dawn stands at the intersection between old and new town along one of the original thoroughfares of the city. The Gate of Dawn is still used as an entrance into the city, however, its main use has now been transformed into a chapel. During the 16th-century many city gates held religious items to bless the city and its travellers. The Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy, has sat in the Gate of Dawn for centuries and is known to have caused a number of miracles. It is likely for this reason, that the Gate of Dawn is the last remaining city gate.
Vilnius has a number of major squares throughout its old town however none are as large or historically important as the Cathedral Square. Flanking the square, are the Palace of the Grand Dukes, the Three Crosses, Vilnius Cathedral and Bell Tower, and the famous Kempinski Hotel. In addition, running west from the square is Gediminas Avenue, home to the majority of Lithuanian government buildings and one of the best shopping streets in the city. It was also the starting
point to the Baltic Chain- one of the most spectacular moments of peaceful protest where several million people held hands forming a human chain from Vilnius all the way to Tallinn. This was of course done before cellphones or the internet showing the will that the people had to be free from Soviet Occupation. There is a stone marking the starting point of the chain which has become a spot of miracles. Stop here to spin in place once, then jump three times, before making a wish!
Did you know :
The city puts on a beautiful 360° fireworks show in the square for New Years Eve
Palace of Grand Dukes of Lithuania
In the 15th century at the base of the Lower Castle of Vilnius, the Palace of Grand Dukes of Lithuania was built. Built on top of older palaces, this was the home of the Dukes of Lithuania during the end of their powerful empire. For about 200 years this royal residence was the heart of the empire until it was taken over by Poland and then Russia. During these sieges and subsequent fires, the building was in ruins and mostly torn down to use as building materials. It wasn’t until the Soviets left in the late 20th century that the grounds were excavated. When this excavation happened opening up spectacular finds, the question was posed what to do with the space and where to exhibit the artifacts found. The answer was to rebuild the palace with as many details as possible. Walking through the magnificent palace today represents the former palace over many centuries of use with many of the floors taking on different ages and design styles.
The Hills of Vilnius
The former citadel of Vilnius was well located with a river bend and a large hill on one side and another large hill on the other. One hill is home to Gediminas Tower and the other the Three Crosses. Completed on the site of a previous wooden tower, the brick Gediminas Tower was completed in 1409 by the Grand Duke of Lithuania as part of the upper castle protecting the city. While the tower was changed quite a bit in the 1930s, it is the last remaining section of this castle and offers excellent views over the city and the Palace of the Grand Dukes. On the opposing hill sits 3 massive white crosses. If the local legend is to be believed, this was the site of the beheading of 7 friars. In the 17th century, large wooden crosses were erected to honour them only to rot and be replaced a number of times. In the early 1900s cement crosses were installed but were torn down by the Soviets in the '50s. Upon independence in 1989, they were re-erected as a symbol for the freedoms that Lithuanians had always fought for. The viewing platform also allows for a perfect eagle-eye view of the city.
Most cities don’t include their library as a main attraction to visit, but most cities don’t have one like Vilnius. Started by the Jesuits in the 16th century, it is the oldest library in Lithuania and one of its largest. While the country is quite small now, you have to remember that for centuries Lithuania was unified with Poland and had one of Europe's largest empires stretching all the way down to the Black Sea. With such an empire, it brought with it power and knowledge. Today the library holds about 5.4 million documents including the oldest book to be printed in Lithuanian language dating to 1547. In order to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the book, memorial doors were created depicting the past half-millennium of Lithuanian literary culture. Make sure you check out these doors as there is truly nothing like them anywhere else in the world!
Vilnius University Library
One of the newest attractions, Literatu Gatve-or "Literary Street" - is dedicated to the many people who have had an impact on Lithuanian literature. The street is quite intriguing as the symbols they have used to illustrate famous authors, poets, and musicians can be quite strange such as a set of dentures.
Even if you are not religious, in Vilnius its almost guaranteed that you stumble into a church. While it may not hold the record (that goes to Nessebar in Bulgaria), it's hard to walk for more than 5 minutes without passing a new church. There are about 28 churches in the old town meaning there is one for about every 700 people! It is even said that from any square in town, you are able to see at least 3 church towers. It is impossible to list the best, but some of the most historic are: St Anne's, Church of St Francis, St Bernard, and of course Vilnius Cathedral.
The artworks were added in 2009 when the city was named Europe's Capital of Culture with the location being chosen due to its history of being home to numerous printing houses. It's a quick visit but make sure you do not miss it!
Covid Conscious Activities
With Covid-19 being such a huge factor in daily life, it is important to take steps towards a safer holiday like trying to limit your daily contact with others. Keep up to date with the latest local advisories and information.
Vilnius is a great city to spend time outside. It is said that from any square in Vilnius, you can see at least 3 church towers. Walking through the city is like walking through a timeline of the evolution of religion in the city. Each church has a fantastic façade representing the leading ideologies and styles of the era. If you keep your eyes peeled, you will also likely find some pretty unique crosses sitting on their peaks. After that, try getting an overhead view of the city by heading up to the top of Gediminas Tower or the Hill of Three Crosses. Try taking a self-guided walking tour or audio tour to learn more about the city while staying socially distant from others.
Where to Stay
Vilnius is one of the most affordable capital cities in Europe. While it is easy to find a nice Airbnb for about $50/night, it is the perfect city to bump up your budget a bit and relax in luxury. 4* hotels start at about $100 with some 5* being able to be snagged for less than $200. As our trip through the Baltics was provided in partnership between Great Canadian Travel Group and Via Hansa, our accommodations were a bit nicer than they usually are but with the low cost of the city, even these suggestions are not out of many peoples budgets! We stayed or toured a total of 4 hotels during our time and found our favourite was an independent hotel in a great location in Old Town. The Shakespeare Hotel provides rooms that are modeled after characters or plays written by the famous author. Each one is unique, but all are full of charm. Our Romeo and Juliette suite had 18-foot ceilings and a corner Jacuzzi suite even the bath adverse would drool over. To cap it all off, an a la carte breakfast is included in a stunning dining hall. Alternative hotels are PACAI and Stikliai or why not stay at one of the lowest costing Kempinski hotel's in the world!
How to get there and around
Getting around Vilnius is easily done on foot. The core of the city is walkable with many walking streets and a relatively compact city core. Getting to or from the airport can either be done using the public bus or by taxi, though the bus is probably the best option. Taking only 20 minutes, and only costing 1 Euro, it is hard to beat! Full information on the bus can be found on the Vilnius Airport website.
Lithuania has a pretty good train and bus system that can move you around the country or into the neighbouring ones. We would suggest that if you are wanting to go to Riga or Tallinn, your best option is a bus from which many different styles can be found. Some are quite luxurious with tea or coffee and toilets while others can be standard motor coaches. The nice thing is with low tourism numbers, they are mostly used by locals which helps to keep costs down.
Even if you have just a short time in Vilnius, it is absolutely worth taking a day to visit the town of Trakai with its aptly named castle. At only 30 minutes by car and 45 by bus (costing about 2 Euro/direction), the town is perfect for a day trip. Trakai is one of the most unique towns in Europe as it is an enclave for the Karaim and Tartar peoples who originally settled in the area in the 14th and 15th centuries. After a successful military campaign in Crimeria, the Grand Duke resettled a group of Karaim people to Trakai and offered them self governance. Deeply independent the group's numbers have risen and fallen over the years but the impact on the town remains noticeable. Make sure to spend a little bit of time exploring the colourful houses of the Karaim people, noting the 3 windows facing the street- one for God, one for family, and one for the Grand Duke. Finally, poke your head into Kiubete restaurant to try a Kibinai, a traditional Karaim meat pastry.
Once you have your fill of pastry, make your way to the Trakai Island Castle, the only island castle in Eastern Europe. This stunning castle was first built in the 14th century and added to several times. It was a major stronghold for the Grand Duke, before being transformed into a royal residence in the 15th century. During wars with Russia in the 17th century, much of the castle was damaged and never repaired. By the late 19th century and early 20th century, efforts were underway to repair the ruined castle. It now stands in an impeccable condition allowing for a spectacular view into one of the most important castles of Lithuanian history.
Hill of Crosses
While it may be a bit far for a day trip, the Hill of Crosses is a perfect spot to stop on your way to Latvia. What started as a memorial to the lost bodies of soldiers from failed uprisings against Russia in 1831, has become a pilgrimage spot for hundreds of thousands. Post-1918 Independence the hill became an important spot to worship and pray for the longevity of the new country. After the Soviets took over Lithuania in WWII, religious freedom was squashed and the hill was bulldozed and set on fire. This did not deter the people who risked life and limb to continue to build crosses on the site under the cover of darkness. In 1993 Pope John Paul II visited the site and declared it a site for Peace, Love, and Sacrifice. As it is a spot for all Lithuanians and others, the space is open for anyone who would like to worship or lay a cross. To add to the importance of the site, cross-crafting is an important aspect of Lithuanian culture even leading it to be declared part of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of People by UNESCO.