Vilnius (map) is the capital of Lithuania, one of the three Baltic breakaway former states of the Soviet Union. It is situated between Poland and Belarus. It is only 2 hours flying time from Frankfurt or London.
Arriving into Vilnius by air, one is greeted by a large tarmac apron far in excess of the air traffic now supported. It is a leftover from the Soviet era where Vilnius was a rather large Russian airbase. Nevertheless, once in the airport, the Lithuanian Immigration and Customs are a young, good looking, smooth operation, who welcome travellers who are cashed up ready to spend.
On arrival, I immediately grabbed a copy of “Vilnius In Your Pocket”, available from the information counter in the airport foyer. For the princely sum of 4 Litas (US$1 = 4 Litas) you too can have a most up to date, informative guide to this bustling city. Vilnius has a bus and trolleybus system which is fine if you can understand it, which is where VIYP comes in. The city if 5 km from the airport and will cost 10Lt by taxi and 0.75Lt by bus. Take bus No.1 which stops at the main train station or bus No.2 which passes Lukiskiu square to Gedimino Prospekt, the main street in Vilnius.
Where to Stay
I stayed at Litinterp Bed and Breakfast at Bernardinu 7-2, which was a clean modern single bed room in an apartment for 70Lt per night. This turned out to be an excellent choice, as it’s location is right in the old town, close to markets, shops, restaurants, nightclubs and transport.
Lithuanian food is predominately meat and potatoes, but they have an excellent range of recipes. If you want some traditional Lithuanian fare and beer, try restaurant ‘Zemaiciu Smukle’ on Vokieciu 24 in the middle of the old town. There is street level outdoor seating in the summer months and downstairs a maze of rooms, caverns and bars. The menu is in Lithuanian, so take VIYP to decipher it.
There are plenty of pizza, Mexican and Chinese restaurants, but try the local restaurants with local cuisine, they really are unique and choosing from the menu can be quite an adventure. If you want Lithuanian food, but an English menu, try Amatininku Uzeiga on Didzioji 19/2. They really have a great celery and radish soup and fantastic beer.
Vilnius has a myriad of clubs ranging from ex-bomb shelter heavy metal to up-market strip clubs. I tried Club Indigo which has a night club 40Lt and a strip club 60Lt. The strip club is modelled very closely on the Las Vegas clubs. A very safe place to drink and let yourself be entertained. The night life in Vilnius is very lively and you will find just about every sort of club within the old town.
I drank at lots of pubs, but one in particular stands out as the best. It is called simply The Pub, located at Dominikonu 9. They do great pizza and sub sandwiches, but they also have great beer. I particularly enjoyed Utenos beer. Order a half litre along with a bar snack called kepta duona. Kepta duona is sticks of fried black garlic bread. Order it with suris (cheese) and you can have a relaxing afternoon as a bar fly.
I visited quite a few places of historical interest, but the two places of significance for me were the KGB Museum and the Gediminas Tower/Higher Castle Museum.
The KGB museum is actually the old KGB building where the cells and rooms on the lower levels have been turned into a historical account of the victims of genocide under the Soviet rule. At least 250,000 Lithuanians were tortured by KGB and sent to Siberian work camps to build railroads.
The place really gave me a chill up the spine, especially the wall where a
collection of photos were displayed of rebel Lithuanians who were shot and placed in the middle of town squares to dissuade the local people from protecting other rebels. This place really is a must see.
The Gediminas Tower is the last remaining piece of a castle built as part of the city fortifications. It is situated right behind the cathedral. Take the long walk up the hill and go inside the tower at the top. Inside is a small, but fantastic display of armour and weaponry from centuries gone by. Once at the top you will have a breathtaking view of Vilnius and it’s surrounds. I stayed up the top for about 2 hours and just enjoyed the view.
On my last day in Vilnius, a Lithuanian pilot attempted a world record for flying under all ten bridges on the river Neris. He accomplished this feat in a Sukhoi aerobatic plane and I managed to get some great photos. About 100,000 people lined the banks of the river to see this magnificent feat.
I went to several markets in Vilnius. All have pretty much the same goods for sale at the same prices as everywhere else. The markets on Pilies are very good and you can find everything from leather belts and handbags to wooden dolls, amber jewellery, paintings and wrought iron work. They are also right in the middle of the old town close to restaurants and
The markets at Kalvariju are the biggest and they have lots of produce, bread, shoes, clothes etc. They stall holders do not speak a lot of English, so brush up on your Lithuanian or Russian if you want to haggle.
Vilnius is a strange mixture of Soviet era buildings and social structure combined with the affluence of the western world. No-where else can you see the latest Mercedes Benz overtake a Zil truck up a cobblestone street past a 40 year old trolleybus. The locals here are justifiably proud of what they have and their heritage but are also discovering their new identity as independents from the Russian Bear.
Tall, very good looking women with their own fashion styles make lunchtime in the old town a great place to check out how the locals kick back on their midday break. I found this city to be one of the most vibrant and exciting of all those I visited in Central Europe.
Vilnius is definitely one place that has been a very well kept secret.