During the 1300s Lithuania was the largest country in Europe and this imperial hangover can be seen today in the city’s DNA.
Vilnius has a large Polish population, with 15% of residents being of Polish descent.
In 1990, Lithuania was the first Soviet Republic to declare independence from the USSR.
Our guide Gintas says “Lithuanians are the Mediterraneans of the Baltic,” as he leads us around the grandeur of Vilnius’s UNESCO World Heritage Old Town.
Lithuania’s capital and its people have moved past the Soviet bloc legacy, blossoming into cosmopolitans in a sophisticated city. Baroque beauty and a thriving art scene make the city feel more European than its fellow Baltic capitals, Tallinn and Riga.
Vilnius has been defined for centuries by its relationships with its neighbours. But now a booming student population, an explosion of creative hubs and the creation of an affluent commercial sector mean times are changing.
Being just an hour from the Labanoras Regional Park, Vilnius is an ideal city for those wanting to combine a dreamy Baltic city break with a countryside escape.
Where to stay
If it’s good enough for Bob Dylan and Angela Merkel, then it’s good enough for us. The Radisson Collection Astorija sits at the heart of Vilnius’s Old Town in a bastion of 5-star luxury. A spa with a pool, tasteful décor and an a la carte breakfast menu that tops the lot, this is the best hotel in the city.
Vilnius’s Old Town is its crowning glory. The winding cobbled streets lined with quaint period buildings create an ethereal atmosphere, particularly in the evening glow. The best way to see the city is on foot and there’s no better place to start than on Vilnius’s oldest thoroughfare – Pilies Street. The ornate avenue is an architectural smorgasbord, with Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings housing cool cafes and charming churches.
A wander leads to Vilnius University, founded in 1579. Its beautiful courtyards and library are worth checking out as well as a climb up St John’s church tower for some Insta-worthy views. Then walk north on Universiteto Street to be met by the imposing neoclassical pillars of Vilnius’s cathedral. Refuel with some hearty and well-priced Lithuanian cuisine at Medininkai restaurant, with massive meat platters for sharing.
Spend the afternoon wandering around the MO Modern Art Museum. Its Vilnius Poker exhibition explores the freedom that exploded after the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
While Lithuania’s culinary reputation may feel unknown, foodies will love the uber-cool Dziaugsmas, where the all-black interior sets an elegant but causal vibe and the menu includes voguish dishes such as cod donuts and dill ice cream.
In the evening, head to Islandijos Street where you’ll find most of Vilnius’s bars – you can’t get a better recommendation than Alchemikas. Step into the Roaring Twenties and choose from an offbeat cocktail menu.
Cross the Vilnele River to the Republic of Uzupis, where Eastern hip meets historic Old Town. The bohemian streets are littered with murals, artists’ studios, sculptures and chic cafes. This self-proclaimed independent republic even has its own constitution on display.
The neighbourhood is a juxtaposition of brutalist buildings and artistic flair. The plinth from a statue of a former Soviet icon is now displaying a likeness of US rock star Frank Zappa, encapsulating the peculiar nature of the area. Make sure to stop at Thierry Kepykla for the perfect brunch stop – a cafe and bakery serving some of the best pastries in town.
If arts are not your thing, cross the city’s other river, the Neris, and check out the now-abandoned Palace of Sport. Its remarkable ship-like design is emblematic of Communist brutalism and a reminder of Lithuania’s complicated past. After this, jump on the funicular railway (or climb the hill) to Vilnius’s castle which protected the city for more than 800 years. Make sure to climb Gediminas Tower, an iconic symbol of the city.
While street food might be all the rage, Hales Market has a more traditional take on the culinary trend. If traditional Lithuanian fare is what you’re after, try Cepelinai – potato dumplings stuffed with meat. Who Hit John, less than a 10-minute walk from the market, is a busy rock and roll dive bar with a friendly atmosphere.
What better place to escape the city and relax than a lakeside forest? Labanoras Regional Park is 553 square kilometres of pine-forest-filled waterside bliss.
A little over an hour’s drive from Vilnius lies the perfect base to explore the countryside, Labanoras Hotel. A traditional guesthouse that feels straight out of a woodland fairytale. The timber-built hotel is all about authenticity, including its traditional Lithuanian sauna. The family run hotel offers a locally sourced menu with homely dishes, including delicious honey-glazed pork ribs.
While there are plentiful walking and kayaking options, there was one bucket list activity that I just had to try. As the car pulled up to the airfield, a three-seater propeller plane was sitting on the runway. My stomach tightened with apprehension and my heart was beating out my chest. But as the wheels of the tiny plane lifted off the grassy airfield, nervousness turned to sheer joy as we pulled up and away over the pines. Soaring over the national park with winding lakes snaking their way beyond the horizon, I felt an inner peace that perhaps sums up Vilnius.
It’s not the fastest-paced city, but its artistic nature and charming streets make it a unique and soothing city.
Fly to Vilnius with Lufthansa from Edinburgh, changing in Frankfurt, from £460 return. Or fly to Kaunas direct from Edinburgh with Ryanair from £85 return, then transfer to Vilnius by road (1 hour 15 minutes). Radisson hotel, double rooms from £101 a night, radissonhotels.com
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