After a 4 hour coach ride from Riga we ended up in Vilnius the capital city of Lithuania and the 4th country on our Baltic Trip. Like Riga, Vilnius has also been voted as a European City of Culture, and it’s Old Town is also a World Heritage Site. So yes we were excited to explore Riga, stretch our legs and find things to see and do.
It’s another beautiful city that is modern yet full of history where baroque architecture is prevalent. Given it’s diverse history you’ll also find neo-classical and historicism architecture next to Soviet functional buildings on the same street, and sometimes that street will have various names due to the country’s history with Poland and Russia.
We were only in Vilnius for two days and we slowed the pace down a bit after our adventures and activities in Estonia and Latvia. It’s a great place to chill and wonder around, one minute you can be on a bustling street, another you’ll be surrounded by history and architecture spanning different centuries, and the next you can be strolling down a quiet cobbled street ending up in a bar serving craft beers.
We even had our first go on a Segway in Vilnius, but after about 30 seconds the novelty wore off and we got ourselves on a free walking tour to discover the city’s history. Vilnius with Locals provided us with a fun and educational 3 hour city guide which gave us a great introduction into the diversity of Vilnius and a good orientation of the city that allowed us to wonder freely afterwards and find things to do.
City of Churches
One of the most obvious things you’ll notice when walking around Vilnius is the number of churches, there are over 20 in the Old Town alone, many of them Roman Catholic, some Russian Orthodox with their customary onion domes, and other Christian sects such as Lutherans are represented as well.
Two lovely churches with interesting tales include the gothic St. Anne’s Church which was originally a wood construction but later rebuilt using over 30 different types of brick. Such was it’s beauty Napoleon apparently wanted to take St Anne’s back to Paris in the palm of his hand.
The pink baroque All Saints Church on the edge of a Jewish ghetto in World War II had a secret tunnel into the ghetto providing bread and supplies to the Jewish community and was even used to smuggle some people out.
We walked through the largest of Vilnius’ old Jewish ghettos which is now a residential area and learnt that in pre-World War II the Jewish community made up almost 50% of the Vilnius population and there were over 100 synagogues. There are now around 5,000 Jews and 1 synagogue is left in Vilnius.
We did come across some more uplifting Jewish history though as we passed a statue of Zemach Shabad. He was a kind doctor and political activist who offered his services to sick children without asking for payment.
Republic of Uzupis / Uzupio
I’m not sure if we can count this as another country but from Vilnius Old Town we crossed a bridge and entered the Republic of Uzupis (you can get your passport stamped by the way). The Repulic of Uzupis was born in 1997 and has it’s own flag, anthem, constitution, ministers, and an army! It was previously a run down area but now is inhabited by many artists and features some quirky buildings, street art, boutiques, and cafes.
If you are lucky enough to visit Uzupis on the day of Independence (1st April), you could enjoy celebrations and some free beer from their water fountains. It’s always lovely to walk around a district that has the freedom to express itself on the left of mainstream.
Just before we left Vilnius Sacha needed to get her fix of animal contact so we visited the Cat Cafe near the main street of Gediminas Avenue for a morning coffee with some furry friends. I’m not the biggest animal fan but even I have to admit that it’s quite fun and relaxing hanging out with the cats. As well as being able to stroke them, the Cat Cafe provides toys for you and the cats to play with.
If you’re after something a bit stronger we can recommend the characterful Snekutis pubs dotted around the city which offer lots of different beers from 2€ a litre and filling grub like potato dumplings.
After our nice little city break in Vilnius we got the clean and speedy train to the airport which took 10 minutes (cost 1€ approx.) and caught the first flight of our Baltic trip to our final destination: Poland.