I love to explore new places. After visiting a few different continents, I realized how much of my own home continent, Europe, I was unfamiliar with. So instantly a few places rose to the top of my travel bucket list.
One of them was the Baltic States. This region in the north-east of Europe is made up of three former Soviet countries: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. All three of them gained their independence in 1991, the year I was born. So you could say we are the same age 😉
My first stop in the Baltic States was the capital of Lithuania: Vilnius. Vilnius has recently become a more popular destination in Europe, but is still pleasantly quiet in the low season. Vilnius is a beautiful city with lots of interesting buildings in different architectural styles. It’s not a big city, but there is certainly enough there to occupy yourself with for a long weekend. These are the best things to do in Vilnius:
Stroll through Old Town and the Jewish Quarter
Vilnius has a beautifully preserved historic city center. Although damaged during the Second World War and the Soviet occupation, most of the Old Town has stood the test of time. It’s not a very big are but there are plenty of little streets to get lost in. I recommend just wandering around to discover all the hidden gems. There are lots of hidden courtyards, pretty churches and surprising elements all around the Old Town. One of the coolest places is Literatu Street. This street has been decorated with small art pieces dedicated to famous Lithuanian (and a few international) writers.
The former Jewish Quarter lies right next to the Old Town, but unfortunately wasn’t preserved quite as well. Of the many synagogues in the city, only one remains. However, the Jewish Quarter is still a very cute are with lots of little shops, bars and restaurants. Keep an eye out for the street art as well, under the name #wallsthatremember, murals have been placed around the Jewish Quarter. Each mural has a QR code that you can scan to learn more about the history of the Jewish community in Vilnius.
I would say that the best way to explore the Old Town of Vilnius is by joining the excellent Free Walking Tour by Vilnius with Locals. The guides are really knowledgeable and will show you all the best spots in the city.
Cross into the Independent Republic of Uzupis
Did you know that there is a whole other country within the city of Vilnius? Chances are you have never heard of the Independent Republic of Uzupis, but you should definitely visit it. Originally Uzupis was a poor part of the city with a bad reputation, but this changed when art students started to move into the district. They turned Uzupis into a thriving bohemian art community and even jokingly declared their independence from the rest of Lithuania on April 1, 1998. You could compare it to Montmartre in Paris or Freetown Christiana in Copenhagen (without all the drug dealers). Uzupis is now one of the most popular areas of Vilnius and as such, rapidly gentrifying and becoming more and more expensive.
The citizens of Uzepis themselves open their borders to anyone who wants to visit this Republic. It definitely still has some of that artist commune vibe, with art everywhere. I recommend checking out the constitution of Uzepis as well, which you can read on a plaque and has been translated into lots of different languages. The best time to visit Uzepis is on the 1st of April when they celebrate their Independence Day with passport stamps at the “border”, their own currency and lots of music, drinks and merriment.
Did you know that there is a similar free state in Copenhagen?
Go to the KGB Museum
The history of Lithuania certainly has its dark pages. Like the other Baltic States, Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939, consequently invaded by the Nazi’s and incorporated into the Third Reich in 1941, before once again being occupied by the Soviet Union in 1944. They remained part of the Soviet Union until 1991. Under Soviet rule, Lithuanian culture and language were suppressed in favor of Russian. There were mass deportations, widespread hunger and poverty and people lived in constant fear of imprisonment. The KGB watched everyone and arrested anyone suspected of treason to the Soviet State.
In the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, formerly the Museum of Genocide Victims and also known as the KGB Museum, you can learn all about the brutal Soviet Regime in Lithuania. The museum is located in the old KGB headquarters in Vilnius and you can see the old prison cells and surveillance rooms. It’s a very informative and impressive museum that really invokes the brutality and terror of this time.
Climb up to Gediminas’ Tower
If you want to get a view of Vilnius from above, and I highly suggest you do, you can climb up to the Gediminas’ Tower. It is the last remaining part of the castle that once stood here, overlooking the city. The tower itself is not the most impressive building I’ve ever seen and I did not feel like paying to go in, but the view from the hill itself is great. It’s a bit of a climb, but worth it for the great vantage point. You can see the Old Town, Cathedral and Palace spread out before you.
Eat a zepellin
Well, not an actual zeppelin of course! The national dish of Lithuania is only called Cepelinai (meaning zeppelin) because they resemble the shape of the aircraft. I mean, sort of. Whatever the name, Cepelinai are absolutely delicious! They are big potato dumplings filled with either meat or cheese and topped with a bacon sauce, sour cream and dill.
The most famous place to eat them in Vilnius is Etno Dvaras, which serves a lot of different types of Cepelinai, but is also very touristic.
If you want a more authentic meal, I recommend Aline Leiciai. The interior in this gastro pub is cozy and Medieval inspired, the servers are cool and friendly and the food is great. They also have their own brewery and make a delicious mead (honey beer)! For vegetarians like me, be sure to ask for the cepelinai with curd filling and no bacon on top. Lithuanians don’t really consider bacon to be meat, so they’ll even put it in otherwise vegetarian dishes.
So, as you see, there is plenty of fun things to do in Vilnius. You can easily spend a couple of days here while traveling through the Baltics to learn about the history of Lithuania, try Lithuanian food, and meet some of the lovely locals. Vilnius is an underrated destination in Europe, and they deserve to be visited and appreciated by more tourist.
Did I leave out your favorite sight or attraction? Feel free to add it in the comments.
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19 thoughts on “The Best Things to Do in Vilnius”
I have never been to this part of Europe either. It sounds interesting, thanks for writing about it.
I highly recommend visiting here!
Thanks for exploring a more obscure part of Europe, and for giving thorough history of the locations. Even though I don’t know much about Europe, I do know some WWII history, and am glad to hear you covered it. I’m a hard sell when it comes to cities; I prefer natural attractions, but the city architecture and history you described is quite appealing – the tower looked most interesting.
Then you would really like Lithuania as the country is 75% forest! For a capital, Vilnius is quite a small city
Of the three former Soviet countries I have only been to Latvia (Riga) and Estonia (Tallinn). It’s a pity I never had the chance to visit Vilnius when I was living in Europe, but your blog post reminds me that I should come back and explore this lovely city. Plus I’m also a true food lover so I’m glad you’ve introduced the Cepelinai. I’ll surely try it when I visit this city some time in the future 🙂
I highly recommend going to Vilnius as well, it’s a very different city from Riga and Tallinn
I want to visit the Baltics but haven’t managed so far. The museum looks amazing and so does the city’s architecture. I didn’t know about Uzupis. It’s good to learn something new every day. Nice pics by the way.
Thank you! The Baltics are a really cool part of Europe
First time hearing about this Europen city- Vilnius. Old Town and the Jewish Quarter seem to have unique architecture. I would love to climb to the Gediminas Tower and have a bird view of the city. This sounds surprising about Lithuanians putting bacon in vegetarian dishes. Being vegetarian myself I make sure to give clear instructions on what to add and what not. Thanks for sharing
Haha, yes I was really surprised as well. I’m glad my guide mentioned it to me before I went for lunch
I love how the murals have integrated a history lesson for Vilnius. Unbelievably clever and I wish more towns would do this as I love learning about all the history/culture for every place we visit. Plus a free walking tour is a huge bonus! You certainly can’t find that everywhere. It seems like the town and locals really want to spread their love for their town and knowledge about their history.
Definitely! I thought the murals were a clever idea as well
Sounds like Vilnius is a really interesting place to explore. I had no idea there was a whole other country within the city, what an interesting little fact. I think the KGB museum would be very fascinating to see.
Well, Uzupis is not officially another country, it’s more symbolical but still really fun.
Isn’t it funny and ironic how we always tend to adventure out of our own home country/continent? Good on ya for deciding to explore more of Europe though and thanks for adding Vilnius to my radar. I definitely wouldn’t mind getting lost in the Old Town streets although I can’t begin to imagine what a surreal visit it must’ve been to the KGB Museum. Cepelinai looks delish too. I’m totally drooling in front of my laptop right now!
Definitely! Europe has so much to offer in terms of different countries and cultures. I love museums like the KGB one where you can see what things were really like before, like a little time machine