Lithuania Travel Guide: Vilnius: the gateway of the Baltics
Updated: May 7
I have always called Vilnius the gateway of the Baltics. The reason being its geographical location. Only a couple of hours drive southwest is Poland, to the southeast is Belarus, to the north is Latvia and a bit further on is Estonia and last of all, to the east is Russia (and a little part of Russia - Kaliningrad region to the west on the Baltic Sea coast). For me, it’s the gateway not only to the Baltics but between Russia and the rest of Europe. It’s stuck in the middle. However in Vilnius unlike its neighbour capital to the north, Riga (in Latvia), most of the population is Lithuanian whilst the population in Riga it’s 60% Latvian and 40% Russian. For me personally, Vilnius is one of very few capital cities in Europe which is not over influenced by other cultures and has somehow managed to maintain this over the centuries. Even most of the Soviet Union influence has kinda gone (apart from those horrible grey looking concrete blocks dotted all over the place which are called apartments). Anyway, what I am saying is, that there is a lot of ‘home’ culture in this city whilst most capital cities in Europe, visitors would have to go to other towns or villages or deep into the countryside to experience the culture, for example, Morris Dancing in my home country of the United Kingdom is found in small villages where no sod lives or the Sami culture of Lapland is definitely not found in Helsinki.
Vilnius is one of those cities which involves a lot of walking (the best way to explore the city) and doesn’t need any public transport. Passing every building, turning every corner there is always something to do and see. The landmarks of the city are pretty spread out but in between there is always something else to see, a restaurant to eat in or to check out a bar. In this post are the sights of Vilnius which I found really interesting and I have given out a few first time tips for first time visitors.
The sights of Vilnius
St John’s Church and Belfry - Located on the southern end of the university campus on Šv. Jono, is the marvelous St John’s Church and its beautiful facade but for me it was the belfry next to it. This is where to get a good view overlooking the old town from the heart of it. The tower being 68 meters tall (223ft), has two tiers at the top and is the tallest structure in the area.
The church itself was built around the same time when Lithuania converted to Chrisitanity in the late 1300s but has had a lot of changes to it over the centuries. Now the facade has a Baroque style to the place and is dedicated to the two Johns, where were the Apostle and the Baptist. In the 1700s the church was handed over to the university which is located next door before the church had a lot of Gothic features added inside. One thing for sure I recommend to visitors is to check out the organ, it’s the largest in Lithuania and a lot of parts for it came from Polotsk in the 1830s. The organ is still used to this day in concerts inside the church. This church will always provide good memories for me as one of my best friends was married here in 2018 and the service was beautiful.
Nearby is the Presidential Palace where many of the country’s presidents have lived and worked since 1997, why do I say many? Because like Estonia and Latvia, there are always elections and the locals keep changing leaders and parties hoping for better times but somehow always vote in similar parties. Anyway, I don’t do politics. Let’s talk about the building. The palace has stood here since the 14th century but was much smaller but since has grown and gained a Classical appearance. Life was a bit quiet here over the centuries, apart from Napoleon spending some nights here. These days the only things worth pointing out (as visitors can’t go inside the palace) is that from May to October it is possible to enter the rear courtyard without being part of a tour guide to have a look in and also if the presidential flag is raised over the building, then the president is either at home or elsewhere in the city.
Vilnius Cathedral - Visitors to the city will probably see that the main sights are probably all churches. That’s how I feel everytime I come to this amazing city. However another place of worship to check out is the main cathedral, also known as the Basilica of Saint Stanislaus and Saint Ladislaus. One of the most beautiful cathedrals I have come across on my travels in Europe, the most important Catholic building in the country dates back to the 13th century where it was first built as an Christian church. It was only recently it was closed down by the Soviets in the 1950s and was turned into a garage for truck repairs. It then turned into an art gallery before returning to a Catholic Church in the late 1980s. Inside the highlight has to be the chapel where the remains of Saint Casimir is kept and the decor inside is stunning. However on the outside of the building there are statues on the roof. There are statues of Saint Stanislaus, Helena and Casimir, however all three of them were added to the cathedral in 1997 as the originals were destroyed by the Soviets.
Outside is another belfry which is part of the original fortifications which stood here and is fifty-seven meters tall. However, a fun thing to do is located next to the tower. There is a tile on the floor marked stebuklas (which means ‘miracle’) which is the point where a human chain (known as the Baltic Way) started from which linked the city to Riga and Tallinn. Locals believe that turning around on it three times makes a wish come true.
To the side of the cathedral is the statue of Gediminas which has stood here since 1996. Gediminas was the guy who founded Vilnius in 1323 and was also the Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1316 until he died. Legend has it Gediminas whilst dreaming away, heard a howling wolf from this spot and then decided to move the country’s capital from nearby Trakai to Vilnius. The statue itself is made from metal however (and I never noticed this on my previous visits until my last visit), that there is a wolf on the statue which is standing underneath Gediminas and it's the only part of the monument to be made of stone.
Gediminas Castle - short in distance from the cathedral but a sturdy hike up a hill, is the remains of the castle which once stood here overlooking the capital. The tower is all that remains and houses a museum. First built in the 13th century, the castle had to be rebuilt in the 14th century due to fire. Then over the years it has been used as a prison for naughty members of the ruling classes before the Russian occupation in the 17th century where things got a bit crazy (not sure if it was a war or if the Russians were partying), but the towers and defensive walls were destroyed and never really did get rebuilt until the 1930s. I think the locals didn’t bother and just left the site with the one remaining good tower. Also to throw it out there, the castle is also the symbol of the city (visitors will notice this on artwork in the souvenir shops) and the viewing platform at the top is worth a visit. The view is amazing and you can see for miles around.
On another hill overlooking the city is the site known as the Hill of Three Crosses (if looking for it on a map, it’s on Kosciuškos). Another legend (these Baltic countries love their legends, I think I found more in this part of the world than in Ireland who also love their legends), that seven Franciscan monks were crucified at this spot. The crosses were first erected in the seventeenth century, however when Stalin and the Soviets came to town, Stalin had the crosses removed and buried. Before independance from the Soviet Union, the crosses were rebuilt. They are now symbols of mourning and hope to the locals. It is also worth coming here for the views especially in the summer months.
Now I am not going to write about all the churches in the city but one to mention is the beautiful Church of St Anne on Maironio Street. Originally there was a wooden house of worship located here in the 14th century in honour of Ona, the wife of Vytautas the Great. Since then the current church was built before 1500 and it’s facade is Gothic. The good thing about this church is that it hasn’t been destroyed or changed much over time. Even when Napoleon came through the city (on his way to sort out the Russians), he wanted to take the church back to Paris as he saw it as a beautiful masterpiece.
Town Hall Square - All Old Town’s in Europe have the main square but this one is very beautiful with most of the surrounding buildings having a very distinctive Baroque architecture. There are a few places worth checking out (as well as the bars and restaurants) like the Town Hall, the Basilian Monastery and a few other churches.
Nearby on Aušros Vartų is the Gates of Dawn which has stood here since 1522 and is the only remaining gate from the original defensive walls. An image of the Virgin Mary is placed here above the gate as a way that she would protect the city. The image here was produced in the 1600s, painted on eight pieces of oak (however the artist is unknown) and later on had some gold and silver put on it. The room where the painting is located above the gate was turned into a chapel in 1706 and legend has it that people entering the room would be magically healed. Another interesting fact is that the chapel is important not only in the Catholic faith but also the Orthodox faith and because of this, stayed open when the Soviets were in town. The chapel is open to the public and to enter the room, visitors will need to go up a small door on the left hand side of the gate (from the direction of the town hall square, walking up a slight hill).
KGB Museum, I do like my Second World War and Cold War history and was glad to visit the KGB museum (also known as the Museum of Genocide Victims) which opened as soon as Lithuania gained independence from the Soviet Union and is located in the former KGB building. As well as its displays, I got to go inside cells which former prisoners well held in, to see the torture methods and the old administrative rooms where there are the remains of shredded paperwork to which the KGB tried to destroy before the Soviet Union collapsed.
Outside the Old Town
To the west of the centre on Sausio 13-osios 10, is the television tower (standing at 326 meters - 1070ft) which is a very historical place to visit as back in 1991 local people tried to defend the tower from Soviet authorities. Fourteen people died (thirteen men and one woman) who were either shot or crushed by the tanks. There are Granite markers to show where the people died. Also there is a statue of an angel with her hands up in the air. Get the right view and it will look like she is holding up the top part of the tower (where visitors can also visit the top as there is a restaurant and some amazing views overlooking the city and well into neighbouring Belarus).
The Antakalnis Cemetery (to the north-east of the old town on Karių Kapų) is the largest in the city but also is the place to see the graves of the civilians killed at the television tower. The black crosses are the men, the one white cross is the woman.
Did you know that there is a breakaway republic in Vilnius. There is and it’s called the Republic of Užupis. It has its own constitution, anthem, president, bishop with two churches, one of the oldest cemeteries in the city, the Bernardine Cemetery whilst a statue called the Bronze Angel of Užupis has stood here in the centre of the district in 2002. However before the breakaway, Užupis has dated back to the sixteenth century and is one of Vilnius oldest districts. Despite this, it was also the poorest area of the city, hosted the red-light district and a lot of manual, hard working labourers lived here. When the Soviets were in town, they let Užupis go to ruin which then became the nasty area of Vilnius, all the thugs were here, drugs, shootings, murders….well, that’s a bit far fetched but it was known as the roughest district in Vilnius. Since Lithuanian gained independence in 1991, a lot of artists came here to live because of the cheap accommodation. These days the creative community hosts concerts, exhibitions, poetry events and fashion festivals.
Užupis in Lithuanian means ‘behind the river’. Talking about the river which flows through the district, check out Lithuania's only mermaid! She lives on the embankment.
Drinks and views!
Just north of the Neris River on Konstitucijos Av. is one of my favourite bars in the city. Right at the top of the Radisson Blu Lietuva is the Sky Bar, a bar which offers the finest cocktails, beers, wines, snacks with fantastic service as well as amazing views overlooking the Old Town.
Day trips from Vilnius
The small town of Trakai, located south-west of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius and is a short coach/train journey away, holds a hidden gem in this part of the world. The huge Lake Galve in this area has twenty one small islands but one island stands out more than the others and it's the island which lies Trakai Castle. With its surrounding scenery, beautiful architecture and enchanting history, this place is a great day trip whilst on a visit to Vilnius.
The walk from the train/bus station to the castle is over ten minutes long but a simple walk and is signposted. Once the road runs alongside the lake shores then the entrance for the island with the castle can be spotted. The island is connected by a wooden footbridge and is the ideal place to get a photo in front of the main gates.
Trakai Castle started to be built in the fourteenth century on the demands of the ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Kęstutis, but unfortunately he didn’t get to see the completed work, however his successor did, his son Vytautas the Great. However when it was completed, the castle wasn’t needed for military or to defend so eventually was turned into a residential palace. Many foreign important people came to stay here due to the beautiful location, however after this golden period, the demise came even quicker during the battles with the Muscovy in the 1650s. The castle was destroyed and left abandoned. It took a long time to get the castle rebuilt and this was done during the Soviet Union occupation (this seems strange as it was Muscovy from present day Russia who destroyed it and it was the Soviet Union which is now the Russian Federation who rebuilt it...the irony!).
Inside the main gates (and after paying the entrance fee) I saw the impressive courtyard to which many rooms can be accessed and contain historical objects from bygone years such as weaponry, tankards, tiles and coins, mainly dating back from the 16th century. There is actually quite a lot to view and despite the fact I usually get bored with museums, I found this one quite interesting. There are displays in English if you can’t understand Lithuanian.
The most impressive part of the castle is the walk up the staircase to the Ducal Palace’s keep (30 meters high or 100 feet) which served as the residence of the Grand Duke when Trakai held the seat of power in this region before Vilnius came along and gave Trakai a good kick up the ass to take the power. Here good views from the other side of the lake are to be had.
After touring the castle I took a walk around the island (known as the Lakeside Walk) and got to see the castle’s outer walls. The circular defense towers are impressive, not too big but I found out that the walls are four meters thick (13ft!). Not likely to be blown down by the big bad wolf then. Whilst walking I truly appreciate the idyllic lake-filled landscape and the rest of the castle’s construction.
The small town of Trakai itself doesn’t have much to offer however in the height of the ‘warm’ season, there are plenty of outdoor street stalls which have a fantastic range of meats, vegetables and drinks (mainly beer), for visitors to fill up before walking. However, another thing I did whilst here was to hire a pedal boat and go out onto the lake and see the Trakai Castle from all sides. The best decision I have made on my two trips to this beautiful area. If visitors have time, there is the Peninsula Castle just a few kilometers south of Trakai Castle which is a little bit older and is also located by the lakeside.
Pilgrimage to the Hill of Crosses: after checking out a lot of churches, cathedrals and other religious sites in the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, we also managed to do the pilgrimage to the Hill of Crosses in the north of the country. We are not religious people but we can be curious on some occasions and this was one of them that we were. We saw this site on a television programme back in 2007 and have always wanted to visit it. We drove past the area or passed it on coaches when traveling from Riga to Vilnius on numerous occasions but never stopped here. It took us thirteen years to visit the site and we were pretty glad we did.
Located 12km (seven miles) north of the small city of Šiauliai, the site is pretty easy to get to if arriving by car as its signposted off the A12 (the road between Šiauliai and Joniškis (which lies near the Latvian-Lithuanian border). Remember to look out for the brown tourist sign. It won’t have Hill of Crosses written on it but Kryžių Kalnas.
Parking up on a grass verge near the site, we could already see in the short distance the small mounds which were covered with crosses. Up close it wasn’t just crosses but crucifixes and statues of the Virgin Mary dotted about. Walking around the site was truly amazing and a humbling experience. There were thousands, if not, hundreds of thousands crosses everywhere. we turn our heads to the left, crosses! We turn our heads to the right, crosses!
The origins of the site is not quite clear according to locals but they reckon the first crosses were placed around 1831 after an uprising. The crosses we saw are placed on the former hill fort of one of the armies. Since then people have just kept coming here to place crosses. The exact number of crosses is unknown but on the last count around 2006, the number was around 100,000.
Some of the historical events which took place here are amazing as well, like Pope John Paul II who visited the site in 1993. However, for us (well Danik mainly) with a personal interest in World War history and the Cold War, the Soviets were pretty pissed off with the locals who kept coming here to lay down a cross. The Soviet Union occupied Lithuania between 1944 and 1990 and wanted to turn the locals into the Soviet way of thinking. But the locals didn’t want to know and continued to travel to the hill and leave tributes. This was also a sign that Lithuanians pledged their allegiance to their culture, heritage, and religion. The Soviets didn’t kill anyone who came to the site but they did their best to remove the new crosses which were laid during this period. They also tried to bulldoze the site at least three times but were not successful. There was one plan to build a dam on the nearby river so that the hill would be submerged under water but that didn’t happen.
The most recent crazy event which took place here was in December 2019 (and we remember reading this on the news somewhere on the internet). A lady tourist from China picked up a cross at the site and threw it away as she thought the cross was set up by a Hong Kong pro-democracy camp. People online protested. The lady then pissed off the protesters even more on twitter and instagram claiming ‘We have done a good thing today. Our motherland is great’. The Lithuanian government got involved, condemned her action and even said on twitter it was a shameful, disgraceful act of vandalism’ and such behavior ‘can’t and won’t be tolerated’. We wonder if that lady is now barred from coming back to Lithuania and if any further action took place. Probably not. It’s China. But for us personally, it is shameful and this woman needs good talking too over a cup of tea.
Overall, the site for us was well worth the wait and we were glad to stop off here. It is in the middle of nowhere, far away from the touristy places like Vilnius, Kaunas and the beach resorts, it is a small hill in the middle of flat fields but the site is a unique place. It is a beautiful place. It is a peaceful place. If anyone can make the time to get here, then do. It’s also free and it’s open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. No excuses.
It is also possible to do a very long day trip to Riga in Latvia (about three and a half hour coach journey each way) and with all the sites, food, bars to check out, a day trip around the Old Town is possible.
Getting to Vilnius
Tallinn is very well connected and easy to get to. With flights to the airport (which is located not too far away from the city centre), airlines such as Ryanair, WizzAir and Air Baltic all fly here from various parts of Europe. The international coach services are excellent and comfortable in the Baltic’s and there are services to Riga, Tallinn, Warsaw and Minsk. Most popular coach companies are Lux Express and EcoLines.
Our top accommodation recommendation
We managed to stay in another Radisson Blu Hotel in the Baltics, this time by the River Neris in the heart of Vilnius. Our first stay in a Radisson Blu hotel was in Tallinn, Estonia, so we were kinda expecting the same service and attention to detail & that is what we got. Why did we choose the Radisson? It was a last minute decision as we were driving from Riga (Latvia) to Stevenage (UK) and needed somewhere to stay (whilst seeing a friend en route). It was a no brainer. we wanted some more luxury and after our Tallinn experience, we kinda wanted the same thing again. We also knew where the hotel was, what was in the area and to be honest, we have been here before checking out the bar on the top floor to get those amazing views of Vilnius. When we found a price which was fine with our budget it was time to book a stay.
The hotel itself was pretty easy to find, located on the northern banks of the Neris. It's about a ten-fifteen minute walk from the heart of the Old Town. As we had a car, we had to park up outside the main entrance first and check in before driving the car into the secure car park underneath the building. Check in was very swift and quick, the gentlemen working behind the desk were very informative and got us all sorted within two or three minutes.
Our room was quite high up and we got a suite for a stay as there were four of us and we needed the extra bed plus a cot to put in the room. The extra space is very handy to let our four year old child run around like crazy, wasting energy before the lights go out. Our double bed was huge, comfortable, soft and had a fantastic night sleep here whilst Amelie had the sofa-bed which was the size of a double bed and she says there were no complaints. She really enjoyed her sleep that night, we had trouble waking her up in the morning.
The room also consisted of a flat screen television, desk, air conditioning, a fridge (there was no mini-bar available as we were staying at the time when Covid-19 said hello to the world) and plenty of storage space for clothes. One of the highlights for our room is that we had an amazing view of the river down below looking south-westerly towards the television tower which was lit up all blue. It was a beautiful sight. The bathroom was split into two rooms. One small room for the toilet and a sink and the larger room had a bathtub, separate shower area and two sinks. The sink area is huge so there is loads of space to put toiletries everywhere.
Eating and drinking is great here. We start off with breakfast in the Riverside Restaurant on the ground floor next to the main lobby. Plenty of tables and chairs for this buffet style breakfast. There was quite a lot of food to choose from the usual continental breakfast with pastries, to cereals to cooked on the spot hot food (not quite sure if this is done because of the recent Covid situation but it was a great touch). Service from the staff was fantastic and everything was clean.
Across the lobby there is the Lounge Bar which we did use. Plenty of seats and tables to relax in whilst having a beer or wine. I just love the decor here and it reminds me that we were chilling out somewhere in the wild and not in the heart of a capital city. The prices for the drinks here are very reasonable as well.
On this visit we didn’t get to check out the Skybar but we have been here on quite a few occasions as we are regular visitors to Vilnius but was reassured by staff at the front desk that nothing has changed over the last year or two. Located on floor 22, this is one of the best spots to get a view of the city whilst listening to lounge music and sipping a glass of wine whilst talking to friends. It is waiter service up here and we never had a problem with service, drinks, prices here. Always such a great time here and one of my favourite drinking places in the city. The hotel also does have a fitness room, luggage storage room and meeting rooms for business personnel wanting to hold conferences here.
Overall we had an excellent stay here and we were so glad to choose the Radisson Blu Hotel Lietuva. Everything was done swiftly but with great service, we got the views and a great night sleep and didn’t have any complaints with the food. We totally recommend a stay here when in Vilnius and our top tip, always try and get the highest floor possible for your room (especially the riverside or a view of the Old Town, you won’t be disappointed).
Readers can book the hotel directly through their website here.
There you have it guys, these are my recommendations of places to hit up. I have been here for quite a few times and I can’t wait to visit the city again very shortly. There is always something new to see and do every time I come here and I can tell my readers now, you will get a warm reception from the locals. They are amazing, nice and helpful. Also one last thing, Lithuania only ever had a single king: Mindaugas, who united the tribes and established a monarchy, but was assassinated a few decades later. Though I chuck that in there.
Please note that while we were not working with any of the companies mentioned on this page and that our trips to Vilnius were all paid for by ourselves. We love Vilnius so much and want to show you the city through our eyes and give you the best advice possible. Our reviews and experiences written about in this post are 100% genuine. We value our readers too much to lie to you. Our blog would be nothing without you and your continued support!
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