Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, offers visitors a destination full of history and art.
I am looking down at a carpet of red roofs, soaring spires, and domes juxtaposed against the new part of the city across the river, made up of glass and steel buildings. I am at the top of the red-brick Gediminas Tower, which is part of a 15th-century castle, and ancient fortifications, dating back to when the city was founded. A cobbled path leads up to this tower as well as a funicular.
I am in Vilnius, the capital of the Baltic country of Lithuania, which was founded in 1323, by Grand Duke Gediminas, and attracted tradespeople with its tax exemptions. It has had a turbulent history down the ages, being ruled by Russia, Sweden, and Napoleon conquered it in 1812. Over forty percent of the buildings of the city were destroyed during World War II. The country achieved independence in 1990. Thousands of locals formed a human shield around the Supreme Council building to defend their freedom, and sang and prayed in 1991. Today, it’s a town full of creativity and enthusiasm.
I start exploring the city at Cathedral Square, which is at the heart of Old Town, with a sprawling plaza and a giant statue of the founder of Vilnius, Grand Duke Gediminas. Look for the Stebuklas (Miracle) tile on the pavement which marks the place where miracles might happen.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vilnius is full of twisting lanes and alleys with Gothic and Baroque architecture, parks, squares, cafés, and restaurants. The Presidential Palace dating back to 1387 has ornate interiors and a garden that’s open to the public. Pilies Street was once the abode of the noblemen, leading up to the Vilnius Castle; today, it is lined with cafés, boutiques selling linen, and restaurants serving cepelinai, local potato dumplings stuffed with minced meat, and cold beet soup. One of the most attractive streets of Old Town is winding Stikliu Street, or the Glassblower’s Street, which was filled with glassblowers’ studios and shops in the Middle Ages. Today, it has stylish boutiques and small cafés selling French pastries.
The city is also famous for its amber that is nicknamed the “Baltic Gold” -it’s actually resin from fossilized pines gathered from the beaches of the Baltic coast. Old Town has many shops and stalls that sell amber jewelry. I visit the Amber Museum-Gallery on Mykolo Street, to learn about this versatile material used as jewelry, decorative objects, and even as medicine. The collection exhibits special specimens of amber, embedded with creatures like centipedes, snails, and mosquitoes formed 50 million years ago!
I walk through the Gates of Dawn, the only standing part of the city wall. It has a 17th-century painting of the Madonna covered in gold, which attracts believers. I continue strolling along Literatu Gatve which is the town’s literary street with its walls embedded with artwork that offers tribute to the country’s best and most famous writers. There is an assortment of paintings, murals, and sculpture in wood, ceramic, and glass.
Vilnius University dates back to 1579 and is one of Europe’s oldest universities. The attractive buildings in Baroque and Gothic style with courtyards and halls are a sensory feast. My favorite is the Professors’ Reading Room that has frescoes on the walls, busts of Greek philosophers, and centuries-old manuscripts. Another stunning artwork is Petras Repsys’s Seasons of the Year, a mosaic of Baltic mythology painted on the walls and ceilings of the Lithuanian Research and Studies Center.
For something bohemian and quirky, we cross Vilnia River to reach the independent and edgy enclave within the city, called Uzupis, with its own constitution and rules. This self-declared republic is lined with a lot of cafés, street art, and art galleries, and was once the Jewish quarter of the city. In time, it become disreputable until in the 1970s, artists decided to create their quarter here. In 1997, the utopian society declared itself an independent republic with its own flag, and even its own anthem. Uzupis celebrates its New Year ’s Eve on March 21, the day of the March Equinox, when many people burn their old diaries or write some of their negative thoughts on paper and burn it.
To meet the locals, we visit the hundred-year-old Hales, a glass-covered market that looks more like a train station, with stalls overflowing with local produce from giant blocks of smoked cheese to berries, doughnuts, and bagels. To know how green the city is we take a stroll alongside the Vilnia River, crossing Bernardine Cemetery where many famous people are buried, and the Kalnai Park with the hill of the three crosses. In the summer, many concerts and festivals are held in the park.
To get a glimpse into its dark history we visit the Museum of Occupation and Freedom Fights that is housed in the former KGB headquarters that was also the headquarters of the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation.
For a break from the city, we take a short 30-kilometer drive through the Lithuanian countryside, to the medieval capital of Trakai. The dramatic Trakai Castle dates back to the 14th century and was built on a peninsula formed by five interconnected lakes. This Gothic brick castle, accessed by a boat ride and a wooden walkway, has courtyards, medieval towers, weapons, and archery and shooting ranges that take you back to a time when Lithuania and Poland formed a strong alliance.
For those who like history and culture, Vilnius is a refreshing break that is still off the tourist route. For a small city, it packs in quite a variety, from stunning Baroque architecture and food to a quirky, bohemian side.