Vilnius may be the capital of Lithuania, but with its cosy cobblestone corners and bustling cafes, it can feel more like a village. The small Baltic city has plenty of charm as well as unexpectedly modern restaurants and bars – all for a great euro value and all close enough to walk from your Vilnius hotel. From sightseeing at the famed Gothic churches to exploring the independent republic that has popped up across the river, here is how to spend 48 hours in Vilnius, Lithuania.
To orient yourself start with a short walk up to Gediminas Castle, a great way to start your holiday in Vilnius. Set atop one of the few hills in this small capital city, the first structure built here dates back to the 14th century. Legend has it that Gediminas, the Duke of Lithuania, had a dream on the hill and a magician interpreted it to mean that the duke should build a city at the base of the hill. All that remains of the castle today is a tower that was part of a large fortification built to defend Vilnius. There is a small museum inside the tower, but the hill is the ideal place to take in the view of the city below.
After the mandatory stop at Gediminas, head down hill and walk through the Bernadine Gardens and to the monastery of the same name. The botanical gardens have tree-lined pathways along the river, as well as a small rose garden. The central square features a musical fountain which plays classic tunes during park opening hours (from 7 am – 10 pm).
The Bernadine Church and monastery sit just across from St. Anne’s Church. The two buildings are some of the best examples of Gothic architecture in Vilnius. The larger Bernadine Church is filled with 16th century treasures and is rumored to be so spacious because the monks gave such interesting sermons that they attracted huge crowds.
Before lunch, stop in at the Gates of Dawn. This is the only surviving gate of the Old Town. It was once an important fortification but now functions as one of Lithuania’s main shrines and is best known for its painting of the Vilnius Madonna.
Afternoon and Evening
After a morning of history, settle in for a modern lunch at Dublis (Trakų g. 14). The airy restaurant has a contemporary menu of dishes such as mackerel with horseradish ice cream and duck leg confit with morel mushrooms.
Keep exploring contemporary Vilnius with a stroll down Literata Street, the pretty pastel lane was once home to poet Adam Mickiewicz, but it now attracts book lovers of all sorts who stop to admire the street art which all has a literary theme. For street art on a grander square, the outdoor walls at “Open Gallery” (Vytenio g. 50) are decorated with brightly colored murals about a mile outside of Old Town.
Wander down Pilies gatve to explore one of the most popular cobblestone streets in the heart of the city. Lined with bakeries and little shops, it is an ideal place to pick up a few trinkets. Those looking for local souvenirs can also find handmade items from the Old Crafts Workshop (Savičiaus str. 10). The small shop stocks Lithuanian gifts and often hosts classes in everything from bookbinding, to paper marbling, as well as spinning, weaving, and basket weaving using traditional techniques.
Once finished exploring the prettiest parts of Old Town, dig into deep fried bread and cepelinai, or didžkukuliai, oversized potato dumplings stuffed with minced meat or mushrooms at Forto Dvaras (Pilies 16). The tavern-style restaurant has waiters dressed in traditional costumes to go along with classic dishes. The hearty fare is the ideal meal before a night out enjoying a few affordable pints (which usually ring in around £2 a pop in the Lithuanian capital).
It is hard to tour Vilnius without stopping into the city’s main Catholic church: The Cathedral of St. Stanislav and St. Vladislav. The distinctive neoclassical church is built on the site of a much earlier pagan temple and now sits in a large open square, separated from its bell tower. Inside are more than 40 works of art, as well as the Sovereigns’ Mausoleum beneath the chapel of St. Casimir. The crypt contains the remains of Vytautas The Great, Grand Duke of Lithuania, among many other kings and queens.
The city is dotted with the spires of churches, but it was also once home to a large Jewish population. While Vilnius has now long been independent, it recognizes the sad events that took place within the city at the former Nazi and KGB headquarters which has now been transformed into the striking and somber Museum of Genocide Victims (Žirmūnų St. 1 F).
Afternoon and evening
Though compact, Vilnius is still Lithuania’s largest city and comes with cool hidden corners among the medieval cobblestone lanes. However, for a look at the trendiest part of town, cross the river to visit Užupis. The neighborhood has declared itself an independent republic. It has been “autonomous” since April 1, 1997 when a group of artists struck out to separate themselves from the rest of the capital. This is the best place to find independent designers, specialty coffee bars and art galleries – as well as people watch as the city’s hippest residents pass by on their way to pick up local craft beers or shop at concept stores.
Soak up the Bohemian atmosphere and find room for a few last potato pancakes at Šnekutis (7A Polocko gatvė). The cozy pub specializes in local food and beers, all served in a relaxed wood-paneled dining room that is covered in eclectic knick-knacks.
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