I spent three days in Vilnius at the start of my ‘Bussing the Baltic’s’ trip. Whilst planning, it seemed like the best and most practical place to start my trip, but other than that it hadn’t really been up there on my ‘top places I want to see’ list. This was a mistake. It really should be! I will admit that I wasn’t very knowledgable on the history of Lithuania, or the Baltic states prior to my trip, but boy, have they been through the wars – literally. Most of the 1900’s were spent being occupied by either the Soviet Union or Nazi’s, with Lithuania only gaining complete freedom and independence in 1990. The Soviets were the last to leave, and because of this many locals speak both Russian and Lithuanian (particularly the older generation, with the younger generation favouring English and Lithuanian).
Vilnius is a beautiful city, filled with kind, friendly people. You can walk everywhere making it super easy to get around exploring, and the transport links from the bus and train station are brilliant (and cheap). The city has a real historic feel to it, with churches dotted everywhere (many derelict or unused), and the streets are colourful and pretty, with some interesting street art in places! On my first evening I got quite excited at seeing a couple of hot air balloons floating overhead. A couple turned into a few, and before I knew it I was counting over twenty balloons! Apparently Lithuania is one of the few European countries that allows hot air ballooning over its capital city and I am so sad that I didn’t book a trip! From the ground though they looked just beautiful!
I spent two and a half days in Vilnius and felt that this was enough time to fully explore, which makes it perfect for a long weekend break. Of course, if you plan to stay longer you will find more things to do, and there are plenty more day trips that can be done outside the city. After a day and half in Vilnius I took a day trip to Trakai, which was stunning! But more on that below!
Sights to See
Free Walking Tour
Tours are a great place to start when arriving in a new city. You get your bearings, meet a local (which is great for getting insider tips and suggestions) and learn a little about the history, culture etc. Free Walking Tours work on a tip / pay what you think it’s worth basis, so is also a very good option for travellers on a budget. I generally allow a €10 contribution as standard, obviously paying more if the guide was jaw droppingly brilliant, and less if they were rubbish!
Our guide in Vilnius was awesome! Having met outside the Town Hall she gave us a general overview of the history of Lithuania and Vilnius before setting off. As previously mentioned, I was slightly embarrassed at my lack of historic knowledge, however I feel this was definitely rectified by the end of the tour! All in all, the tour lasted around 2.5 hours, finishing at the Cathedral. At the end, our guide waited to answer all of our questions and then invited the whole group to join her for lunch! Sites covered in the tour were:
- Vilnius Cathedral – A beautiful building designed by the same architect as the Town Hall. The Cathedral Square is also a central meeting point for people located in between the Old Town and more modern area.
- Stebuklas Tile – Meaning ‘miracle’, this tile represents one end of the largest human chain that stretched 390 miles from Vilnius, through Riga (Latvia), finishing in Tallinn (Estonia). In 1989 over 2 million people joined hands to peacefully protest their unhappiness at the Soviet Occupation. The emotional display led to each countries freedom in the early ’90s. There is a superstition that as a miracle happened for the people of Lithuania, a miracle may be possible for you if you spin three times on the tile, jump up and clap as you make your wish – it’s worth a try right?
- Presidential Palace
- Jewish Quarter – This area was heavily bombed during WW2 so there is not much left to see, however it is still worth a wander, if for nothing other than to remember all of the Jews that lost their lives, or were uprooted from Vilnius during this time.
- Town Hall Square – Located in the centre of Old Town, you will notice the similarities between the Town Hall and Vilnius Cathedral. The Town Hall is also the location of Tourist Information.
- Literatu Street – A small pedestrianised street decorated with various literature and art forms. If anyone of slight fame has referred to Vilnius in a good or bad way they will most likely be featured here!
- Republic of Uzupis
Tours run every day at 10:00 and 12:00 during Summer months.
Hill of Three Crosses
Does what it says on the tin! Three cross statues located on the top of a hill in Kalnu Parkas. I don’t know the exact story, but I know the statues were removed during the Soviet / Nazi occupation because of the religious association, so I suppose they are also a symbol of freedom. From the top, you will also be treated to great views over the city! I would recommend hiking to the top at sunset (as I did) as you will get the added bonus of views of the hot air balloons too! The park where they set off is opposite the crosses so you can see them prepare and then set off, drifting over your head!
The only remains of the Upper Castle. The surrounding area also offers great views of the city, or you can pay €5 to go to the top of the tower.
Open 10:00 – 21:00 during Summer months, and 10:00 – 18:00 during Winter months.
Republic of Uzupis
Uzupis is a small neighbourhood in Vilnius, that as of 1st April 1997 declared themselves as an independent republic – they even have their own president, army, parliament, and money. Consisting of a mainly artistic community, the constitution of Uzupis features lines such as “A dog has the right to be a dog”, and “People have the right to have no rights”. On the day of independence (April Fools Day) mock check points are set up at the river entrance, Uzupis notes will only be accepted, and the water fountain will spurt free beer for an hour of the day. Happy hour indeed!
Museum of Genocide Victims
I was on the fence as to whether I wanted to go to this museum, as it was not going to be a pleasant experience, however if I was going to educate myself on the history of Lithuania, I decided I needed to go. It lived up to expectations and was absolutely harrowing, however it was also very thoughtfully and respectfully put together. The museum is housed in the former KGB headquarters, so once you have walked around the exhibition on the ground floor you can go down into the prison cells and execution room. This was the most spine chilling part, particularly when you remember that the building only stopped being used as a prison and interrogation centre just over 25 years ago. I walked out of the museum slightly shocked and speechless, so I would recommend having a plan for something to do after that will cheer you up slightly, even if it is just going for a drink.
Opening hours: 10:00 – 16:00 | Entry cost: €4 for adults
Hales Turgus Market
A large local market, Hales Turgus has an indoor and outdoor area, and the stalls sell everything from fruit and veg to knock off perfume. You will most likely walk past the market at some point as it is in between the bus & train stations and Old Town, near the Gates of Dawn. Definitely worth a little meander through.
Church of St Johns
Situated in the grounds of Vilnius University, Church of St Johns is open to the public, and for a small cost of €2.50 you can get the elevator to the top for more views over the city! The main viewing platform is another floor up from where the elevator takes you, but I warn you, the stairs are really really steep! The view is particularly good here as you are right in the centre of Old Town.
Open 11:00 – 20:00 during Summer months, and 10:00 – 19:00 during Winter months.
Located about 30 minutes outside of Vilnius, Trakai is a beautiful island castle surrounded by Lake Galve. The castle is now a museum, so you have to pay €7, but if you have made the effort to go Trakai, you may as well spend the money and look around it too! I didn’t find the museum side of it overly interesting – I’m sure you would if you are Lithuanian, however the masses of coins that have been found there, and the history of the dukes that were entertained at the castle didn’t really mean anything to me. Even so, it was a pleasant hour spent walking around the castle!
On the surrounding lake there are many boats and pedalo’s available to hire, which you can either go out on your own or have a tour. Along the coast there are also many restaurants and cafes that offer stunning views of the castle. Trakai is more like a half day trip as there isn’t really enough to do for a whole day. One thing to note though is how different the architecture is in the town of Trakai. All houses are made of wood, so have a really cute, country feel. You can imagine the area looking amazing in the Winter covered in snow!
To get to Trakai I took the bus from Vilnius bus station. If you ask at the information desk they will tell you which platform the next bus will leave from, and they are either direct or have one stop. Make sure you have some change to pay the driver – my tickets cost €1.80 each way, he will then shout ‘TRAKAI’ when you arrive! Coming back, there are two bus spaces with a sign above saying ‘Vilnius’ – they tend to go every half hour, but if you are unsure, just ask the driver.
Eating & Drinking
The lady on reception in my hostel recommended this place and my, it was a good tip! Being an American BBQ smokehouse I was unsure… It’s not exactly ‘local food’ after all, however, if this cuisine isn’t up your street you still need to go for the street art! The original, and infamous image of Trump kissing Putin has sadly come down… to be replaced by an image of Trump and Putin sharing a joint! Oh yes! The image covers the whole front of the restaurant, so you’ll definitely know you’re in the right place!
Stepping in, you soon realise that the restaurant is an old double decker bus, outside in the courtyard all seats are made from old baths, cut to make seats and benches. The tables are made of plastic crates. Adorning the walls is more amazing artwork featuring President Trump. Literally an Instagrammers dream!
If this doesn’t impress you, the food definitely will! Pulled pork sandwiches, ribs and beer. What’s not to love! The food is also cheap (a pulled pork sandwich cost €5) and fast! I went during the day when it was quieter, however I can imagine Keule Ruke getting quite busy in the evenings / weekends (Friday and Saturday they are open until 4am)! Keule Ruke is very close to the bus/train stations, Gates of Dawn and Hales Turgus Market, so it would be rude not to swing by!
Address: Pylimo g. 66, Vilnius 01136, Lithuania
This cafe was to die for! They had amazing homemade lemonade of all different flavours – passion fruit was my favourite – and the most INCREDIBLE pistachio donut that has ever passed my lips! So good was this place, that I went there three times! Yes – that is every day I was in Vilnius!
Address: Pilies g. 4, Vilnius 01124, Lithuania
Leiciai Aline is a pub located close to the town hall square. A pub with a difference I should say! Traditional Lithuanian food, drink, and sport! On the tv’s in the bar they were showing a jousting competition. Jousting! It was like stepping back in time, particularly with the ‘olde’ look and feel of the place.
For dinner I had the traditional dish of ‘Cepelinai’ – potato dumplings stuffed with minced meat. To wash it down I had a glass of local raspberry wine.
Address: Stiklių g. 4, Vilnius 01131, Lithuania
This was the first place I ate in Vilnius and was drawn in by the “authentic Lithuanian cuisine” sign. It was also the busiest restaurant on the main street in Old Town so I though it was a good place to start! Here I learnt that the staple food in Lithuania is potatoes. Potato dumplings, potato pancakes, stuffed potatoes, potatoes, potatoes, potatoes! I went for potato pancakes with bacon and sour cream for the bargain price of €4.95! You definitely won’t find this kind of food on a Michelin star menu, however it was tasty, wholesome and filling! Even the tour guide recommended going to Forto Dvaras, so I obviously made a good choice!
Address: Pilies g. 16, Vilnius 01123, Lithuania
Annoyingly during the time I chose to visit Vilnius they were doing upgrades to the runway and closed the airport. I say annoying, but I suppose you really want a run way to be tip top don’t you! Any how, this meant that I flew into Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania. I don’t think the airport was quite ready for the increased number of flights they were going to receive due to Vilnius being closed, as the airport was literally a marquee! There were however many information guides on hand to help directing people where they needed to go, and advising on the best mode of transport from the airport.
I pre booked a coach ticket from Kaunas airport to Vilnius with Ollex. It cost €10, and took about an hour and a half. I had been over cautious with the amount of time it would take me to get through the marquee, but the driver kindly let me board the earlier coach, meaning arrived an hour earlier than expected – bonus! I heard rumours that Vilnius airport closing had put a lot of tourists off, and there had been a 50% cancellation rate with hostels and hotels. This is quite sad, as it was so easy and cheap to get from Kaunas it really didn’t seem like an interference in my journey at all. My only regret is that I didn’t have enough time to have a mooch about Kaunas, as this is also meant to be a very pretty city!
Within Vilnius you can get everywhere on foot. There are public busses, however they do not run through the Old Town. Uber can also be used within Vilnius – this is recommended if you are getting a taxi as prices cannot be adjusted.
I stayed at Pogo Hostel during my stay in Vilnius, in a 6 bed mixed dorm which cost around €15 per night. The hostel is in such a brilliant location, at the end of the main street in Old Town, across the road from Vilnius Cathedral, and about 3 minutes walk to Gediminas’ Castle. The reception team were really helpful with recommending places to see and eat, and the hostel was clean and comfortable with numerous shower rooms and a locker for each guest.
I loved Vilnius! I think partly because I went there with no expectations, but I was just so blown away by the friendliness and helpfulness of the locals, the history of the country of Lithuania, and the beauty of the area. Everyone was so proud of their city, and genuinely wanted you to have the best time. Going out of their way to make it happen. The size of the city means it is an ideal location for a weekend get away, but also, the amazing transport links makes Vilnius a great stop off point, or base to start a big trip from. You can literally get busses anywhere in Eastern Europe and Russia!
Even though I feel like I saw much that there is to see in Vilnius, if any of my friends suggest going in the future I will book my ticket then and there. Of all the places I went on my ‘Bussing the Baltics’ trip, this was definitely my favourite. As I said before, my biggest regret is not doing a hot air balloon ride, but I will definitely be putting this back on my list for the future!