Want to know what to see and things to do in Vilnius? On my recent trip to Lithuania, I got to explore the best this city has to offer and want to share it with you.
Lithuania is a country with a long history. The first Baltic tribes settled here in the 7th-2nd centuries BC. The country is one of the three Baltic States – Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – and is located just north-east of Poland.
Vilnius is the capital and largest city of Lithuania with a population of only half a million people. The city has a unique Old Town which considered as one of the largest remaining and best-preserved medieval towns in Northern Europe.
Vilnius’ Old Town was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list as one of the most beautiful and having the biggest Baroque style buildings in East and Middle Europe. No wonder it has been called a masterpiece of Baroque style.
When you plan a trip to Vilnius it’s best to stay in the Old Town, so you will be in the heart of everything and within a walking distance to all attractions.
Wander around Old Town
I feel that the Old Town has a perfect size to explore on foot. It’s a center of the tourist hub and there is no need for a touristy hop-on, hop-off bus. The Old Town is a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets, parks, squares and beautiful pastel tone houses, some of them in a process of renovation.
This part of a city is a mixture of different architectural styles – Baroque, Gothic, Neo-Classical and Renaissance. Some buildings are dated back to the 13th century. It’s so easy to walk around, admire the architecture and pop in and out of trendy boutiques, cafes and restaurants.
Places to see in Old Town
Cathedral Square is Vilnius’ most important gathering place. The Square witnessed mass anti-Soviet Union demonstration in the fight for independence in 1991.
This grand place is home to the country’s main Roman Catholic Cathedral (Sts Stanislav and Vladislav Cathedral). The Cathedral is connected to the Palace of Grand Dukes of Lithuania which was originally built in the 15th century for the rules of Lithuania and future kings of Poland.
Sts Stanislav and Vladislav Cathedral (mostly called as Vilnius Cathedral) was built in 1251 by Grand Duke on an ancient site of a pagan temple. Rebuilt eleven times, it received its neo-classical facade in late 18th century. If you want to explore inside the cathedral you would find the impressive tombs of the members of Polish-Lithuanian royal dynasty.
Bell Tower of Vilnius Cathedral is one of the oldest and highest towers in Old Town. It was built as a defensive tower in the 13th century. Later in the 16th century, it was converted into the Cathedral bell tower. You can climb the narrow and steep stairs inside the tower and enjoy the panoramic view of the city from the top. Also, you can join the crowds at 5 p.m. and listen to the sound of big bells.
There are plenty of city walking tours offered at Cathedral Square in front of the Bell Tower.
Town Hall Square (Ratusha Square)
The Town Hall Square is a traditional center of big events and fairs in Vilnius. The history of this square dates to the 14th century when in 1387 Lithuania became a Christian State.
The neo-classical building of Vilnius’ Old Town Hall is in the center of this square. Walk around to see a mix of old and new buildings surrounded the square, get a taste of local beer or just enjoy the relaxing afternoon at the outdoor cafe.
Pilis Street is one of the oldest streets in Vilnius’ Old Town. Since ancient times, Pilis Street has been the link between the Town Hall Square and Cathedral Square.
Walking along the street you can see the great examples of authentic architecture, and enjoy a great variety of cafes, restaurants, and coffee houses. At the end of the street, it’s easy to see the red brick walls of Gediminas Tower mounted on the top of the hill. It’s the only remaining part of Vilnius Upper castle.
As the legend goes, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Gediminas, first built the wooden castle after he had a dream about an iron wolf howling on the top of the hill.
The Gediminas Tower is all that remains of the royal castle, named after Grand Duke of Lithuania, and it’s located on the top of a hill behind the Cathedral.
The castle dates back to around 13th century and houses a small museum. The best way to get to the castle is by foot or you can take a funicular. This place is very popular with locals and tourists.
It offers the best panoramic view of the city. You can see the Old Town with its orange rooftops on one side and modern part of the city across Neris River on another side. Don’t miss it. It looks spectacular in any kind of weather.
Vilnius is often called “the city of 100 churches”
Lithuania was the last country in Europe to convert to Christianity around the 14th century. It managed to stick to their Catholic traditions and beliefs for a long time even though the harsh rules of Soviet Union times.
Most of Vilnius’ churches are a great example of the Baroque style: domes, rich interiors, and richness of decorative details. I always feel overwhelmed by the beauty of them and craftsmanship of people who build these great monuments.
St. Peter and Paul’ Church
St. Peter and Paul’ Church is considered the finest Baroque church interior in Vilnius with more than 2,000 stucco figures and it’s worth visiting.
St. Anne’ Church
St. Anne’ Church is my favorite and deserves its own point. The first church at this site was built out of wood and was destroyed by fire in 1419. Then the church was re-built out of brick. The main facade designed in the Flamboyant Gothic style remains its most striking feature.
According to a well-known legend, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte fell in love with the church. He was so much under the charm of the building that he wanted to take it home to Paris “on the palm of his hand” There is a special atmosphere when you walk inside this little church and spend some time breathing the air of the old history and legend.
Gates of Dawn
Gates of Dawn is the only surviving relic of the city’s original defensive wall, dated to 16th century. At that ancient time, the city was surrounded by a tall defensive wall and the only access to the city was through nine guarded gates. Today only one of the entrances remains – Gates of Dawn.
It attracts pilgrims from all over the worlds who come to visit and seek miracles from an icon of Virgin Mary which lives inside the Gate’s chapel.
The chapel with a sacred Virgin Mary icon once guarded an entrance to the original city. Even you’re not a religious person the Gates of Dawn will impress you. It’s much easier to come closer to the holy icon If you are there in the evening when all the tourist groups are gone.
St. Casimir’ Church
St. Casimir’ Church is one of the finest Baroque churches in Vilnius. It’s located just a few steps from the Town Hall Square.
The construction of this monumental building started in 1604 and was completed in 1635. Then it was burnt to the ground 20 years later and then restored several times. The latest renovation project shows the beauty of the oldest Baroque-style church in Vilnius.
No trip to Vilnius would be complete without spending a few hours wandering the streets of its most unusual neighborhood – Uzupis and it translates “Beyond the River”.
You can get there by taking a short stroll across a bridge. It will bring to you to the self-declared republic of artists who declared themselves independent on April 1, 1997. Uzupis has its own president, prime minister, ambassadors, flag.
The biggest attraction is the constitution of Uzupis. You can find the whole text, translated into 15 languages, on the wall along Paupio street. One of my favorites: “everyone has the right to be happy and a dog has the right to be a dog”
If you want to explore the area properly, check all the quirky pubs and tiny art galleries, step into courtyards and spot some original street art. I always enjoy the bohemian feel and slow pace of life in this neighborhood.
Trakai is the old medieval town located just a half an hour from Vilnius. The main attraction is an impressive red-brick Gothic castle on a picturesque lake Galve. The construction of the castle started in the 14th century by the Grand Duke of Lithuania and completed by his son Vytautas the Great at the beginning of the 15th century.
The trip to Trakai and old castle could be a perfect day trip. You can get there by train, bus or a car.
Traditional Lithuanian food is heavy and hearty, and it’s all about potato dishes. The most popular one is cepelinai (“Zeppelins”) – large boiled potato dumplings filled with minced meat or cottage cheese.
The most exotic Lithuanian dish is vedarai (potato sausage) – pork intestines stuffed with grated raw potatoes and baked in an oven or better in a wood stove.
Kibinais are traditional Lithuanian pastries filled with minced meat and onion. They are mostly associated with the city of Trakai.
On a hot summer day, locals love to eat saltibarsciai (cold beetroot soup) served with warm boiled potatoes.
There are so many great restaurants in Vilnius, but if you want to try traditional Lithuanian cuisine, I would recommend a few of my favorite choices: Lokys, Mykolo 4, Senoji Trobele or Etno Dvaras.
Lithuania is known as a beer-loving country. There are more than 80 breweries, large and small, producing all kind of beer, light or dark, weak or strong. There are plenty of pubs or bars off Ausros Vartu or Pillis Streets. I am not big on beer, but my husband does. He loves locally brewed dark ale with the bittersweet taste of it. Try any of these pubs: “Leiciai” or “Beer House & Craft Kitchen”.
The Baltic countries are famous for their amber and Lithuania is very often called “The Land of Amber”. Lithuania’s seashore is full of pieces of amber. Many amber artifacts dating to the 5th-6th century had been found during the excavation in many parts of the country.
In ancient times amber necklaces were used not only as a decoration but also as a currency. You can pick up a stylish take on the stone in the form of a necklace in many shops on Ausros Vartu or Pilis Street.
Places to stay
There is no shortage of all kind of accommodations in Vilnius.
We stayed at Radisson Blu Royal Astorija hotel next to the Town Hall Square. The location was perfect for walking around the Old Town. The hotel stands out with its Baroque-style facade. The beautiful architecture blends well with modern amenities. It has been recently renovated and accommodates guests in 119 comfortable rooms many of them facing the Town Hall Square.
George W. Bush was one of the hotel’s distinguished guest together with the long list of other dignitaries, royal families, and celebrities.
Getting to and around Vilnius
Getting to Vilnius should be relatively easy with the city’ recently modernized airport receiving flights from all over Europe. For this trip, we flew to Vilnius from Boston airport with one connecting stop in Frankfurt, Germany.
A taxi ride from the airport to the city center is short and relatively cheap between 10 to 20 euro. Getting around the city is simple and you can do most of it on foot.
But if you want to explore the city outside of the Old Town you can use an excellent city bus system starting at 5 a.m. and finishes at midnight. The city card like everything else in Vilnius is very affordable and you can buy one, three or ten passes.
Have fun visiting Vilnius!
Have you been to Vilnius or any places in Lithuania?