What to do on a short break to Vilnius, Lithuania
After Riga in Latvia, Vilnius was the city we enjoyed the most in the Baltic States. With the largest baroque Old Town in Europe and some interesting excursions within easy reach of the city, there was more than enough to keep us occupied and we packed in a lot whilst we were there. We could possibly argue that in fact we packed in too much as we left very little time to enjoy the city’s cafe-culture and happening bar scene. At least we factored in time to sample some of the excellent nationally brewed beers, a good habit we retained for the remainder of our time in the Baltic States! We visited in mid-May; the weather was perfect and the city not too busy with tourists. Here’s a review on some of the things we saw and did during our stay in the city.
Walking tour of Vilnius
The centre of Vilnius is nice and compact and perfect for walking. The Town Hall is a great place to start a self-guided walking tour.
Map of Vilnius city centre – click to enter Google maps
Vilnius Town Hall
The Tourist Board is located here and you can pick up a free map which will help get you orientated. We did exactly that and then ambled down Pilies Street to Cathedral Square which is dominated by the huge Vilnius Cathedral.
It’s worth taking a look inside the cathedral before hiking up Gediminas Hill for a bird’s-eye view of the Old Town of Vilnius.
View over Vilnius Old Town from Gediminas Hill
From here, we walked back down the hill and used the backstreets of the Old Town to snake our way to St Anne’s Church, an impressive red Gothic building that sits next to the equally impressive baroque-period Bernardine Church.
St.Anne and Bernardine Church Ensemble
Both churches are located just outside the Old Town so after our visit we headed back into its winding streets and slowly made our way to the Church of St Teresa (to see its stunning interior) and the nearby Gate of Dawn where we ended our walking tour of central Vilnius.
Church of St Theresa in the Old Town
We spent about 5 hours on our walking tour but it would be easy to spend all day, especially if you wanted to include a visit to Gediminas Palace (which is next to Vilnius Cathedral) and the National Museum of Lithuania (which is located behind Gediminas Hill).
Museum of Genocide Victims
Known locally as the ‘KGB Museum’, the Museum of Genocide Victims offers a fascinating insight into the lives of Lithuanians under Soviet oppression. There are lots of exhibits (all with explanations in English) and we ended up spending about 3 hours in the museum. It’s one of the best museums we have been to in ages and is easy walking distance from the Old Town.
Museum of Genocide Victims, Vilnius
East of the Old Town, Užupis (which means ‘on the other side of the river’ in Lithuanian) is the bohemian and artistic neighbourhood of Vilnius and is certainly worth visiting for an hour or two. One way to get there is via a small bridge covered in love locks. In fact the bridge is fairly close to St Anne’s Church/Bernardine Church so it would be easy to detour off into Užupis from the churches and then come back and continue with the above mentioned walking tour. Definitely visit Užupis if you like your street art and quaint boutique shops.
The Uzupis District of Vilnius
Love locks on a bridge in the Uzupis District of Vilnius
If you only see one castle in the Baltic States, make it the island castle at Trakai. This distinctive red-brick Gothic castle dates back to the 14th century and although it is worth paying the entrance fee and exploring its interior, it’s the castle’s fairytale setting in the middle of Lake Galvė that makes it such a special attraction. Visiting the castle as a half day trip from Vilnius is easy. Twice hourly (small) buses (heading for Alytus) leave from the bus station in Vilnius and take 45 minutes to reach Trakai. The bus station in Trakai is about a 30 minute walk from the actual castle so remember to factor this in, especially on the return journey. The bus is still a better option than the train however as the train station in Trakai is even further away from the castle. Note the colourful wooden houses that line the lake and the main street on the walk to/from the castle.
Trakai Castle and Lake Galvė
Inside Trakai Castle
Paneriai is 10km southwest of Vilnius and the site of the Ponary massacre. During a 3 year period (July 1941 until August 1944) the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators murdered more than 100,000 people of which the majority were Jewish. I (Mark) have an interest in WWII history and so we visited the memorial. There is a small museum on site but it was closed during our visit, as we believe it is most of the time. The site is situated in a wooded area which is pleasant for walking, and although the monuments are simple, they help put the history of the country into perspective. The best way to reach Paneriai is via the hourly train that leaves from Vilnius railway station. The train only takes 10 minutes but the memorial itself is located in the forest, a 1km walk from the station.
Paneriai Memorial Museum near Vilnius
Vilnius surrounding area – click to enter Google maps
Where to stay in Vilnius
We knew we would be doing some day trips out of the city so we chose a location half way between the railway station/bus station (they are opposite each other) and the Old Town which gave us the option to walk to both. There were other benefits of choosing this location as well. It was quieter than being in the heart of the Old Town and both the hotel itself and eating and drinking in local restaurants was less expensive. As a result, we booked the Stay Express Hotel. On their own website, the hotel says it is located 300 metres from the Old Town and 500 metres from the railway station but reckon on a 20 minute walk to the Old Town, especially if you want to get to the heart of it and not just the outskirts.
Our compact room at the Stay Express Hotel in Vilnius
The room was extremely small but had everything we needed including a private bathroom (which we didn’t always get in the Baltic States) and by Vilnius’s standards, it was pretty inexpensive at €30 per night (room only).
St. Paraskeva Church in Old Town Vilnius