Out of the three Baltic countries, Lithuania probably gets the least amount of hype in the travel community, but often when you expect the least you’ll be rewarded the most. I spent a total of 72 hours in the city, and these are the things I recommend if you find yourself in this beautiful Baltic city.
1. Discover the Old Town
What I really liked was that it was rather quiet (at least compared to Athens!), and the overall feeling was more like that of a village than a major European city. As Vilnius gets so few tourists it’s fairly easy to take pictures without tons of people ruining your shots.
2. Visit Some of the Churches
- Lithuania was the last European country to be converted to Christianity.
- For much of history, Vilnius has been a largely Jewish city.
- Under Soviet rule, religion was not tolerated.
Still, the Old Town of Vilnius has about one church per 700 people which is quite surprising.
According to many locals and tourists, the most beautiful church of Vilnius is St. Anne’s Church, but you should also make time for the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Aside from the many Catholic churches, you will also see several Orthodox ones.
3. Cross the Border into “Independent” Užupis
4. Join a Free Tour
Both tours were really well done and presented some historical facts about Vilnius and Lithuania that were very useful when I continued to explore the city on my own. I highly recommend joining both of these tours if you want to learn about the main sights in the city as well as areas that most tourists don’t get to see.
5. Learn about the History of Lithuania
The Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights is also known as the KGB Museum as it’s located in the former KGB headquarters. For your 3€ entry ticket, you get to see an exhibition about life under Soviet rule, including actual KGB prison cells. This is unquestionably a significant aspect of Lithuania’s recent history, but up until April 2018 the museum was called the Museum of Genocide Victims, and deliberately choosing that name and not dedicating the museum to the 200 000 Lithuanian Jews that were murdered is quite problematic. In fact, after doing some research on the museum, I found out that one of the people revered here as a national hero has himself murdered many Jews.
The word “collaboration” is not mentioned, and you really have to read between the lines and do your own research to understand that things are not as simple as depicted here. Nonetheless, the prison cells, in particular, are quite haunting and well worth a visit if you want to learn more about the oppressive regime of the USSR. Do however read this excellent article on Slate for more information on the questionable aspects of this museum.
The Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania explores Lithuania’s much more distant history and is housed in the palace of Lithuanian dukes and Polish kings. Lithuania was never covered at my high school so I had no idea that for a long time Poland and Lithuania formed a commonwealth that covered a territory from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. In the Palace of the Grand Dukes, you will find out all about the different rulers the country had and see the ceremonial halls.
Have you ever visited any of the Baltic countries? How did you like your time there?