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.
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 to do in Vilnius. Did I leave out your favorite sight or attraction? Feel free to add it in the comments.
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