Exploring Vilnius, Lithuania: Five Things to Do

This post was last updated on January 28th, 2019

A few days ago, I got back from my trip to Vilnius, Lithuania. To be quite honest, I was never particularly interested in the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia), but as I travel on a budget and still want to do as much traveling as possible I have to pick cheap destinations over the ones that seem most exciting. (To find cheap flights, consider checking https://www.skyscanner.com/ – You can also get the app at https://skyscanner.app.link/ I earn points if you use my links, but there’s no catch for you if you click on them.)

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

The one thing you definitely must do is wander through the city’s old town. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the largest old towns in Europe. I was really surprised at how clean and in what good condition it is. The pastel colored buildings on the quaint little streets are absolutely pleasing to the eye. I have rarely seen such a well-preserved old town with so many Baroque buildings.

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

The Cathedral is the main church of Lithuania. Unlike most Catholic churches, it has a bell tower that is free-standing. However, there are many more churches in Vilnius which is unexpected for three reasons:

  1. Lithuania was the last European country to be converted to Christianity.
  2. For much of history, Vilnius has been a largely Jewish city.
  3. 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

Churches are not the only thing to see in Vilnius. Go and see the neighborhood of Užupis which declared itself independent (on April 1st, 1997, so don’t take this too seriously). Užupis is popular with artists and rich people alike, and you will see some impressive street art here as well as lovely residential buildings. Of course, Užupis is not remotely comparable to Christiania in Copenhagen, but it’s still a pleasant neighborhood for a walk where you can admire some of the public art.
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You will see public art all over Užupis.

4. Join a Free Tour

I went on two free tours in Vilnius: the Free Walking Tour with guide Elże, and the Free Alternative Tour with Marge, both showing two completely different sides of Lithuania’s capital.

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.
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Os Gemeos (“the twins”) from Brazil created this in 2015 for the Vilnius Street Art Festival.

5. Learn about the History of Lithuania

On my last full day in Vilnius, it was raining, but this gave me the opportunity to see two museums: the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights and the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. The two could not be more different.
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.

I can highly recommend Vilnius as an inexpensive city break, especially if you need some time away from the hustle and bustle of a big city but are not quite ready for nature travel either.

Have you ever visited any of the Baltic countries? How did you like your time there?

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