We were actually supposed to be spending a three-day weekend in Lithuania’s capital city, but as a result of Ryanair (or “Ryanunfair,” as my friend Gloria calls them) moving our outward flight forward by 11 hours, we ended up just having two full days with which to explore the city.
And I mean, literally just two full days: we arrived at midnight on the Saturday night/Sunday morning and left at 7:25am on the Tuesday.
Fortunately though, Vilnius is an incredibly compact and walkable city (which, a lot of the time, feels more like a large town), so we were able to visit the majority of the sights and attractions on our list during those two days.
Vilnius is also a city that I liked much more than I ever expected to. I think that, due to the fact that I kept seeing the same photos from the same two places (Cathedral Square and Gediminas Tower) online, I was concerned that the rest of the city wasn’t really worth photographing. How wrong I was!
Vilnius is such an attractive, green city with an abundance of history, a thriving coffee shop scene, some epic viewpoints, incredible street art, and with its very own autonomous republic whose mayor favours flamboyant court jester attire and whose ambassador is an overweight, ginger, camera-shy cat (but more on that later!).
Start the day with an amazing buffet breakfast at The Kitchen. For €9.50 you’ll be presented with a veritable feast of freshly baked breads, croissants, and quiche, mackerel and sun-dried tomato patés, salads, cheeses, cold meats, bacon, sausages, fried mushrooms, eggs done in a variety of different ways, yoghurt, home-made granola, stewed fruits, honey, nuts and seeds (and breathe. I think that’s everything!). The €9.50 also includes a hot or cold drink and you get a complimentary bottle of water on the table.
Yes, you can order from the main menu (you’ll find things like omelettes and scrambled egg with smoked salmon on there), but when you get all of the above for not much more than the cost of one standard dish and a drink, it seems like a no-brainer – especially when you have a busy day of sightseeing ahead of you.
Over breakfast we formulated our itinerary for the remainder of the day, which looked something like this:
Aside from the fact that the whole of Gediminas Hill was closed for maintenance, we managed everything on our itinerary, as follows.
Stiklių gatvė was once the heart of the city’s Jewish quarter.
Jews have played a part in the history of Lithuania since the 14th century, when 3000 of them settled in Vilnius at the invitation of Grand Duke Gediminas (1316-41). This number had risen to almost 100,000 prior to World War II, accounting for 45% of the total population. There were over 110 synagogues in Vilnius alone, and this particular street was once once lined with glassblowers’ ateliers and artisans’ studios (“Stiklas” means “glass”).
It’s pretty horrific to read about the sheer number of Jews who were murdered by the Nazis between July 1941 and July 1944 (around 95% – the highest percentage in Europe), but you can do so by studying the plaque at the southern end of the street.
Nowadays, Stikliu Street does not feel particularly Jewish, but it is one of the city’s prettiest streets, lined with boutique shops selling locally made linen products and jewellery. It’s also home to a couple of Vilnius’ best restaurants – Bistro 18 and Lokys – as well as some cute little cafes with small outdoor seating areas.
Vilnius University’s St. John’s Church Bell Tower
We’d heard that a climb up to the top of the bell tower at the Church of St. John would reward us with some of the best views of the city, so we duly paid the (very reasonable) €2.50 admission fee in order to find out.
Possibly not an experience suited to those who suffer with vertigo (poor Gloria never made it to the top), but for everyone else, this is an absolute must. There’s even an elevator that will take you most of the way up if you don’t fancy the climb.
At 68 metres tall, it’s the highest bell tower in Vilnius’ Old Town, and dominates the city’s skyline. And if you make it to the top, you will be rewarded with incredible, unobstructed 360 degree views of the city. It’s at this point that we realised just how green the city is and how many churches it has (28, to be exact!).
Pilies Street is one of the oldest, most colourful, and also busiest and most touristy, streets in Vilnius’ Old Town. This is where you’ll find the highest concentration of cafes and restaurants with seats spilling out on to Pilies’ wide streets.
Vilnius Cathedral (official name: The Cathedral of St. Stanislav and St. Vladislav) is the main Roman Catholic cathedral of Lithuania. The original structure (a wooden cathedral that occupied the same spot as was originally used for the worship of Perkunas, the Lithuanian thunder God) was constructed in 1387, but it’s been rebuilt so many times that its old form is unrecognisable today.
Nonetheless, Cathedral Square is a spacious, relaxing spot to hang out, and one that buzzes with local life.
Gediminas Hill and Tower
I’m keeping this on the itinerary because even though we couldn’t access it, hopefully the maintenance work will be finished by the time you make it to Vilnius. Vilnius was actually founded on 40-metre high Gediminas Hill, which has been topped by the red-brick tower of the same name since the 13th century.
There’s now a museum inside the tower and it can normally be accessed via some rocky stone steps that start from behind the cathedral or via funicular. I hear that sunset is a great time of day to come up here for beautiful views down on to the city below.
One of my favourite sights in Vilnius was Literatų gatvė.
This permanent outdoor art gallery is dedicated to writers past and present who’ve all left their mark on the city. It comprises of 223 small, mixed-media prints, drawings and paintings by 223 different artists.
Each piece is numbered and there is a plaque that identifies who the artist is, so if you like what you see you can look up other works they’ve done online.
It’s such an unusual idea that I’ve never seen replicated anywhere else in the world (let me know if you know of anything similar that exists!)
St. Anne’s Church
Reportedly one of the most beautiful churches in the city, St. Anne’s Church was constructed in the late 15th century and is a wonderful example of Gothic architecture.
There was even an intriguing modern art sculpture inside when I visited. It’s difficult to tell from the distance the photo below is shot at, but this huge heart has hundreds of origami angels hanging from its wire frame.
The Republic of Uzupis
Užupis was somewhere I read about only days prior to arriving in Vilnius, but it’s somewhere I’m so pleased we ended up adding to our itinerary. I’ve got a bit of a penchant for the quirky and unusual, and Užupis is pretty much an embodiment of these words.
It’s also proof that Vilnius is a city that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Užupis – meaning “the other side of the river” in Lithuanian due to its location on the opposite side of the Vilnia River – declared itself an independent republic on April Fools Day 1997. It has its own flag (or rather, four – one for each season), currency, president, cabinet of ministers, a constitution (translated into 23 different languages and engraved on to plaques), an anthem, and an 11-man-strong army.
I’ll be writing a whole post about Užupis very soon, but absolutely do not miss a visit to this wonderfully bizarre bohemian neighbourhood. You can even get a stamp in your passport if you call in at their information centre.
There’s plenty to keep you occupied in Užupis for a good couple of hours (art galleries and bookstores to browse, street art to marvel at, cafes to drink in, restaurants to dine at, and pianos to (pretend to) play), but seeing as though we were staying a good 20-minute walk away from here, we decided meander our way back across town and find somewhere closer to home for dinner.
We ended up eating at an Indian Vegetarian Restaurant called Radharane (where the dishes were a little different to those you normally see on the menus at Indian Restaurants and the prices were a lot cheaper than the decor indicated they may be), and then heading out on a mini pub crawl to the following bars:
- Bambalyné. Definitely a bit of a medieval ambience about this bar, located underground in a cellar on Stikliu Street. They only serve Lithuanian beer, but they do have over 100 different ones to choose from.
- Who Hit John and Monstro. The primary reason we visited these two bars is because they both claimed to be the smallest bar in Vilnius and we wanted to do our own research to find out which one was more deserving of the title. Spoiler alert: it’s Who Hit John.
We had less of a plan for day two, seeing as though we’d managed to tick off a large number of sights on our first day in the city. However, day two’s itinerary looked a bit like this:
We had planned to make it to the Gates of Dawn not by dawn (that would have been far too ambitious in light of the amount of beer consumed the night before) but by early-ish morning, and then to grab some breakfast at Café Montmatre afterwards.
However we got up later than we’d intended, and then got distracted by an alternative breakfast option on route. So our itinerary ended up as follows.
Breakfast at Sugamour
If you had a list of Instagrammable places in Vilnius, Sugamour would definitely be somewhere near the top of that list. This place is beautiful, both inside and out. We were a little concerned that the food would be overpriced and unimpressive as a result. However, my Rosti with salmon was delicious, and whilst it wasn’t as good value as breakfast the previous day had been, it was still very reasonable.
Gates of Dawn
Built between 1503 and 1522 as a part of defensive fortifications for the city, the Gate of Dawn is now the only remaining city gate of the 10 that were originally constructed. It marks the southern border of the Old Town and is one of the city’s instantly recognisable landmarks.
It also holds enormous religious significance owing to the fact that an icon of the Virgin Mary – said to have miraculous powers – is kept in the Chapel inside.
Street Art along Pylimo gatvė
Primarily we were looking for the famous Trump/Putin piece (which seems to have morphed from the pair sharing a kiss (as seen in this post) to Trump giving Putin a blowback, in the photo below) but there are also a few other pieces of street art scattered along Pylimo gatvė.
Coffee and books at Mint Vinetu
From Pylimo gatvė we meandered our way back towards Stikliu Street, primarily because Gloria wanted to go shopping and I wanted to grab a coffee at Mint Vinetu.
Combining Vilnius’ thriving coffee shop scene with its abundance of book shops, Mint Vinetu is a coffee shop and a bookshop rolled into one. And what a fantastic little place it is, with some really quirky and unusual books available in a variety of different languages.
They also serve coffee Lao style (with condensed milk), which I adore!
I also love that this fantastic concept allows you to try before you buy as far as books are concerned. I picked up a book from the shelf, simply because I was intrigued by the title, and enjoyed it so much I ended up handing over my €2 and taking it home with me.
Church of St. Peter and St. Paul
It was actually quite a walk to St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church (well, in comparison to the rest of Vilnius’ sights), and not one I expected the girls to make with me when beer was calling their name. So I left them putting the world to rights (read: writing limericks) over a couple of pints whilst I headed off in search of the next of Vilnius’ big attractions.
Whilst the route there from Cathedral Square is not very spectacular (it follows a long, straight main road for about two kilometres), the church itself is. Especially when you walk inside.
Its baroque interior consists of thousands of ornate white sculptures created by Italian sculptors between 1675 and 1704. I’m not normally one for lavish church interiors, but even I was standing there in awe. The detail is incredible!
As I was unable to climb Gediminas Hill the day beforehand, I was determined to make it up to the Three Crosses. I think there are a number of official routes up to this landmark, but I’m sure I ended up taking the only unofficial one. I basically ended up close to scrambling up a steep dusty hill through a forest on my hands and knees. But it was shaded and was the most direct route, so I’d probably still choose that trail again, given the option.
Crosses, in one form or another, have existed up here since the 17th century, in memory of three monks who were crucified on this spot.
But you don’t really come up here for the crosses; you come up here for the views.
When I returned from my mission, the girls were on their third pint, and the evening continued on in much the same vein.
Whilst I did want to see enough of the city to be able to write a relatively useful blog post about it, these trips that Gloria, Kath and I take together have always been about reconnecting with each other, escaping the stresses of daily life at home, and having fun.
So, with several pints drank, many limericks written, and an enormous amount of laughter shared, we finally made it to to Gyvas Baras (another vegetarian restaurant; Kath was outnumbered) for dinner.
Where we stayed
Luck wasn’t with us initially after we booked this trip. We got an email from the owners of the apartment we’d reserved, informing us that they could no longer accommodate our stay “for technical reasons.” So, after getting an amazing deal on a centrally-located apartment by booking early we were then left with the task of finding a comparable alternative just a couple of months before we were due to arrive.
Fortunately we stumbled upon a lovely, luxurious (by our standards; we even had our own bath robes!) apartment that still fell within our budget, not far from the Frank Zappa memorial in the northwestern part of the old city. It wasn’t quite as central as our first choice, but all the sights we visited (including the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, which is stuck out on a limb a little) were within a 30-minute walk from the property, and it was only a 9-minute walk (800m) to Cathedral Square.
Our hosts were very accommodating when we informed them that, due to Ryanair moving our flights forward by 11 hours, we wouldn’t be landing until midnight – three hours after check-in time officially ended. Yes they did charge us (party of 3) €10 but that included pick up at the airport. And although there was a little confusion because we didn’t receive a text that the driver sent to tell us where he was (it turned up later after we’d arrived at our apartment), everything went smoothly. We were even given complimentary champagne and chocolates when we checked in.
We paid €141 (£121) for a three-night stay at Jogailos apartmentai. Check current rates and availability here.
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