Although the Lithuanian capital gets habitually clumped together with its Baltic counterparts of Riga and Tallinn, Vilnius stands firmly on its own as the one that has best preserved its authenticity. Unlike the first cities of nearby Latvia and Estonia, Vilnius is a landlocked capital with no port of its own, which means a lot fewer city breakers coming in with cruise ships and an uncharted quality to its streets – for now.
With Vilnius continuously ranking at the top of “Europe’s cheapest” and “best value” lists and budget airlines establishing a growing number of direct routes connecting it to other European cities, the floodgates are about to open as increasing numbers of tourists make their way to the city. Here’s why it’s worth beating them to it.
1. Soar aboard a hot air balloon
The tranquil Lithuanian capital has something for thrill-seekers – hot air balloon rides enjoy a somewhat startling popularity, and dot the evening skies on most clear days. Expect to pay as little as €70 per person (it doesn’t really get cheaper than this) and see the entire city and the vast natural expanses beyond. Contrary to what some alarmists may believe, hot air ballooning is the safest way to fly, and accidents are marginally rare.
2. Eat cheap, hearty Lithuanian food
Meat and potatoes constitute the bulk of Lithuanian cooking. Some of their guises include the classic cepelinai (humongous potato dumpling stuffed with ground pork and drenched in sour cream sauce, pictured below), fried potato pancakes and kugelis (a manner of oven-baked potato cake with bacon).
Precede these with a wondrously tinted beetroot soup (hot burokėlių sriuba or cold saltibarsciai) and follow up with delectable fried curd cakes smothered in cream and berry jam.
For all of these and more try Šnekutis (Šv. Mikalojaus 15 & Polocko 7A), a wildly popular, quirky eatery serving dirt-cheap local food and brews (expect to pay under €5 for a full meal and drink).
3. Visit Užupis, the independent republic across the river
The Republic of Užupis is all but officially recognised – it has a president and bishop of its own, four national flags (one for each season), an anthem, and a fabled constitution translated into multiple languages, containing articles guaranteeing everyone’s right to be happy, unhappy, understand nothing, make mistakes and not to be loved (but not necessarily). It also secures a dog the right be a dog and states that cats are not obligated to love their owners, but must help in times of need.
Užupis owes its existence to a group of artists and enthusiasts who, in an effort to test the limits of the country’s new-found democracy, declared independence from not just the Soviet Union, but the city of Vilnius itself.
Today, Užupis is a pleasant neighbourhood and a home base for the local bohème, with a few galleries and artisan boutiques to show for its fame.
4. Hike up to the Hill of Three Crosses
Three white crosses (rebuilt after being bulldozed by the Soviets in the mid-20th century) overlook the city from a green hilltop just across the river Vilnia, behind Bernardine Park. The platform in front of them is the city’s best (free) panoramic observation point, providing views of the church-dotted, UNESCO-listed Baroque old town and the remains of Gediminas Castle (pictured below), another notable local attraction dating back to the 13th century.
5. Mine Baltic Gold
Amber is mined extensively in the Baltics, and most jewellery stores and gift shops in Vilnius will sell amber trinkets and souvenirs. If you’re looking to buy, do it here in Vilnius, or stop by the Amber Museum-Gallery to learn more about “Baltic Gold” and marvel at the amber figurines and exclusive designs on display.
6. Pay homage to a dreadful past at the Museum of Genocide Victims
A gymnasium turned KGB headquarters during the period of Soviet rule, the now-museum traces the stories of those who suffered from and fought against the regime – with documents and artefacts showcased on the second floor, and chilling prison cells and torture and execution chambers below ground level.
7. Walk through the Gates of Dawn
The only one surviving of the city’s original five gates, the southern Gates of Dawn are the city’s most prominent religious landmark thanks to the 17th century painting of Virgin Mary inside the chapel. The Renaissance “Vilnius Madonna” is believed to have miraculous healing powers and is a major pilgrimage site for Catholics.
8. Check your erudition at Literary Street
Avid readers will find familiar names in Vilnius’ “Literary Street” (Literatų g.), another open-air art project carried out by local creatives. The idea behind its numbered pieces of artwork was to distinguish and commemorate writers and poets who, at some point in time, were in one way or another connected to the Lithuanian literary tradition.
9. Get a phone call from Frank Zappa
Although the eccentric American musician had never been nor had any ties to the Lithuanian capital, a monument commemorating the man and his work stands in a parking lot next to K. Kalinausko Street. The monument is a symbol of freedom more than a dedicated following of his work among locals (although one has emerged in the years following its inauguration), and was meant to challenge the superimposed idols of the country’s Soviet past by the local artistic community and photographer Saulius Paukstys in particular. Expect an incoming call from Zappa upon scanning the monument’s QR code.
10. Pamper yourself at a local spa
Both of Lithuania’s famous resort towns – Druskininkai and Birštonas – are a ways away from Vilnius, but there is an impressive number of spa centers in the city itself. A 60-minute long full-body massage performed by a professional massage therapist can cost as little as €35, at least three times less than a similar procedure would cost in the UK, for example.
There is no shortage of visitor accommodation in Vilnius, and with the savings you’ll surely be making on meals, transportation and entertainment, splurging a bit on accommodation is justifiable. Our highest recommendation goes to the Kempinski Hotel Cathedral Square located in the very heart of Vilnius.
Ideally situated in Vilnius Old Town, right on Cathedral Square, and with all the major sights and attractions within walking distance – the main thoroughfare, Gediminas Prospectus, is just steps away, as is Gediminas Castle and countless options for dining and nightlife – there simply is no better location in the city. Pro tip: be sure to book a room with a view overlooking the square and admire the hot air balloons as they gently float by just before sunset.
The hotel also boasts first-rate facilities and services, including world-class dining, an elegant lounge-bar, and a breakfast buffet that will make your jaw drop. The fully equipped gym, spa (get the Vilnius spa experience without ever having to leave the hotel!) and wellness centre offers a wide range of beauty and massage treatments, as well as a pool, Jacuzzi and sauna.
Kempinski Hotel Cathedral Square offers guests the chance to enjoy 5-star luxury and service at affordable prices in what is already one of Europe’s best value destinations.