Vilnius City Break Planning Guide
Home to Eastern Europe’s largest Medieval old town, the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius is a place where Baroque, Gothic, and Neoclassical architecture contrasts against Soviet-era relics and gleaming 21st-century skyscrapers. It's full of lovely churches, fascinating museums and galleries, restaurants serving delicacies you’ve probably never imagined eating, and trendy neighbourhoods springing up in industrial zones.
It's also compact enough to explore with ease, allowing you to take some great side trips away from the city if you have a spare afternoon or couple of days. Here are our favourite places to visit on a Vilnius short break.
Vilnius is a city of beautiful churches, including the Bernardine Church in the Old Town. During World War II, Vilnius's once-large Jewish population was decimated by the Holocaust, and this 16th-century Gothic red-brick church was used as a place to hide children from the Nazis. After the war, religion was discouraged by the Soviet authorities, although they kept the city's churches in good condition (on the outside at least) to make visiting foreign diplomats believe otherwise. Thankfully, the Bernardine Church’s once-crumbling interior has been restored.
Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights
Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union for almost half a century, and you can get a sobering insight into the struggle against the regime at this museum, which is housed within the former KGB headquarters and prison. You can learn about Lithuanian freedom fighters, and how the authorities dealt with perceived enemies of the USSR. You can get a glimpse of the grim conditions political prisoners were subjected to by touring the original cells (including padded cells), that were used for imprisonment, interrogation, and executions.
Across the Vilnia River from the Old Town, this mostly wooded 25-hectare park has many walking trails to explore. The most prominent sight is the Hill of Three Crosses, a memorial marking the place where pagans tortured seven Franciscan Monks, who were put on to crosses and thrown down the hill. Next to the monument there's a terrace offering some great city views. You can also climb Table Hill, where, according to legend, Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania, was buried. There's also an amphitheatre in the park that hosts outdoor concerts and festivals in summer.
Lithuania is famous for its amber, which formed when solidified resin from Scandinavia's ancient pine forests washed into the Baltic Sea and was buried in sediment. The amber you see on sale around Vilnius was mined on the Lithuanian coast (the area has the nickname of the Amber Coast). The Amber Museum-Gallery has some beautiful specimens, many of which contain insects that were trapped and preserved during the amber's formation, as well as displays of jewellery and ornaments. If you're thinking of taking some amber home with you, you can find out how to make sure you're buying the real thing.
The Neoclassical Cathedral Basilica of St Stanislaus and St Ladislaus was, like many churches in the city, used as a warehouse during Soviet times. Today, it's full of works of art including frescoes, and is home to many important tombs, including that of Lithuania's patron saint, St Casimir. Standing apart from the cathedral is its 52-metre bell tower, which was originally part of the city's defences. You can climb it for great views over Cathedral Square. Within the square you can see a monument to the Singing Revolution, during which a 600-kilometre human chain formed between Vilnius and the neighbouring Baltic capitals of Tallinn and Riga in 1989 to call for independence, which the country gained in 1991.
National Museum of Lithuania
This museum is not a single building, but comprises several sites around the city where you can learn more about the history of the country. The most prominent location is Gediminas Castle Tower, which is the remaining part of the city's Upper Castle and stands on a hill offering panoramic views. Other branches include the Old Arsenal, which has exhibitions on prehistoric Lithuania, the New Arsenal, devoted to cultural history, and the House of the Signatories, the building where the Act of Independence of Lithuania was signed in 1918, following German occupation in World War I.
Food and drink in Vilnius
You can't visit Vilnius without trying some Lithuanian cuisine, because you're sure to encounter some things you’ve never heard of. You can check out cepelinai (Zeppelins) — airship-shaped potato dumplings filled with meat (or mushrooms) — sorrel soup, carp, black bread, and pretty much every part of a pig you can imagine, whether it's knuckle, tongue, or ear; nothing seems to be wasted. Head to the Hall Market, housed within a spacious structure built in 1906, where you can shop for fresh local produce for a picnic, while there are takeaway options, too.
One of our favourite Vilnius restaurants is Lokys, which offers Lithuanian cuisine and a lovely courtyard area. The menu focuses on hunting, fishing, and foraging, with a great selection of game including wild boar and venison, and there's even beaver stew. If meat's not your thing, try the boletus dumplings for a taste of the forest. For something to wash it all down with, head to Pilies Street, the oldest thoroughfare in the Old Town, or Gediminas Avenue. Or for cocktails with some of the best city views, venture up to the Skybar, on the 22nd floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel Lietuva.
Vilnius has a wonderful atmosphere around Christmas, especially at its main festive market, which takes place in Cathedral Square. You can buy gifts, fried foods, roasted nuts, mulled wine, hemp tea, sweets, and more at this market, which has a different theme every year. Look out too for the festive video that's projected onto the side of the cathedral. The city's second, smaller Christmas market takes place in front of the Old Town Hall. Both markets run until 6 January, the day before Orthodox Christmas.
This neighbourhood, whose name translates as "over the river", is across the Vilnia from the Old Town. It's an area popular with artists; look out for street art, plus a number of excellent galleries. You can also explore the stunning Bernardine Cemetery, one of the oldest in the city. You’ll also find unique shops, and great independent cafés and restaurants in Užupis. In 1997, residents declared the area a republic, with its own flag, currency, president, and written constitution. Significantly, their independence day falls on 1 April.
While the process of gentrification has begun in Užupis, the area southwest of the Old Town hangs on to a young, creative pulse. Named by Time Out in 2021 as one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the world, the Station District is an area full of repurposed Neoclassical wrecks and Soviet-era factories, and is now full of workshops, cafés, cocktail bars, nightclubs, live music venues, and restaurants serving cuisine from around the world, including Georgian and Uzbek. There's some great street art, too, including a large sculpture of Tony Soprano outside the station bar.
Trakai (above and main image)
If you have some extra time in Vilnius, it's worth doing a side trip. One of our favourite destinations is the historic city of Trakai, about half an hour from the capital by bus or train. It's home to the incredibly picturesque Trakai Island Castle, on Lake Galve. The castle was completed in the 15th century by Vytautas the Great, ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and you can reach it via a wooden walkway. If you have time and the weather permits, we recommend renting a boat on the lake, or going for a lakeside walk; there are some beautiful vantage points with views across the water.
The town of Druskininkai is about two hours by bus southwest of Vilnius. The town takes its name from the mineral content in the natural spring water (druska means salt in Lithuanian), and has been a spa resort for more than two centuries. Today, you can still take the waters, which are said to have health benefits, and there are many spas offering all manner of treatments, whether you want a massage, a mud bath, a sauna, or a spell in a cryogenic chamber. You'll probably feel healthy just being in Druskininkai — the clean air really allows you to smell the thick forest that surrounds the town.
A few kilometres outside Druskininkai is Grutas Park, home to more than 80 sculptures of Lenin, Stalin, and many other Soviet-era bigwigs that were saved from destruction after Lithuania's independence (there was plenty of debate as to whether these effigies should be preserved or not, but for those not familiar with the brutality and oppresion of the USSR, it's well worth a visit to get a real idea of how all-encompasing propaganda was). If you want to step further back in time, the park's café offers Soviet-style meals. Expect things like marinated sprats, borscht, snails, cutlet, buckwheat, berry juice, vodka, and other delights, served with austere Soviet-era cutlery and metal plates. Buses from Vilnius are infrequent, so it’s best to base yourself in Druskininkai and get a taxi. And make sure you have enough cash on you; card payments arent the norm in this part of the country.
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Emily Heath, Sara Kriegel, and Nick Elvin contributed to this post.