Vilnius, Lithuania is on my Runaway Europe plan. Ele who is from Vilnius, offered me to show me around the town when I’m there. Moreover, she offered her inside tips for those of us who are traveling to Vilnius. Have you been there, or are you planning to visit? Then, this post is for you. Here are Ele’s inside tips about Vilnius, Lithuania! Now she got me all excited.
Diverse. The city has history as long as Athens or Rome do and everything that was best came to Vilnius for dukes and kings splashed out for it. Lithuania, as the Great Duchy of Lithuania, was the largest country in Europe. It was influenced by many cultures and traditions, so one can see rich architectural and artistic heritage in Vilnius, the capital city.
Architecture is one. Lithuania was nominated Europe’s best hidden pearl, so part of this glory goes to its capital. The Old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is known as the Baroque city. Czesław Miłosz said that even the clouds in Vilnius are Baroque.
Nature is two. We have many green spaces in the city, indeed. The botanical garden offers a perfect day out for a nature lover, especially if the right plants are in blossom.
Atmosphere is three. Vilnius is a small city compared to, for example, Berlin, Paris or London, so walking it makes it cozy and almost every time you will be rubbing shoulders with locals. You will hear a number of languages spoken; you will see many different faces in its touristy locations.
I was born here, so I am a true-born Vilniusite. Every time I come back from abroad, I have to say that Vilnius is unbeatable in its charm. Every city has things to show and is beautiful in its own sense but none can rival Vilnius for me.
I am a great fan of the ill-fated Queen Marie-Antoinette, but considering the fact that as Queen of France she never saw the sea when France was a maritime country, she would be not a kind of person to walk the cobbled streets of Vilnius. I suppose I would like to show the Vilnius of today to those who had to leave it for different reasons: Jascha Heifetz (a violinist, born in Vilnius, one of the most influential violinists of the twentieth century), Chaim Soutine (a French painter of Russian Jewish origin, he studied in Vilnius), or Romain Gary (a French diplomat, novelist, film director and World War II aviator of Litvak origin. He is the only author to have won the Prix Goncourt twice (under his own name and under a pseudonym)).
We have 4 seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter. Foreigners say: in Lithuania, winter is 6 months long and the other 6 months they wait for spring. We have seasonal natural disasters like floods or strong winds. Our summers can be scorching hot or depressingly rainy. And boy does it rain in Lithuania, the country’s name is sometimes decoded like Lietuva– the land of rain, lietus. Winters can go to 25’C below zero. Now you probably want to stop reading here and book a flight to Turkey or Egypt, right? However, when the weather is beautiful, it’s an amazing experience. I recommend late spring/early summer (no more snow, grass starts getting greener, days get brighter) or mid-autumn (colourful falling tree laves make it golden autumn).
Lithuanian traditional food can be divided into two categories: the nobility ate food that was eaten all over Europe and the peasantry ate simple staple meals. Our cuisine has been influenced by other cuisines but these are our national dishes you should try: potato dumplings cepelinai, cold beetroot soup saltibarsciai, potato pie kugelis. Yes, we are a potato eating nation. In addition to that, we have good black bread, good cheese, good hams, and good honey. We have many dairy products that they don’t have abroad, so I’m afraid I wouldn’t know how to translate their names.
My least favourite thing about Vilnius is transport. Public transport is slow, expensive, most schedules are interpreted by drivers as they wish, ticket inspectors aren’t always polite, some people manage to skip validating their tickets. Cars clog the streets during morning and evening rush hours. But the worst thing is that they allow cars in the Old Town and pedestrians must be very careful because there’s a car coming every two seconds. My most favourite thing is that being the capital city it offers rail, air and land connections to Europe and beyond, it’s a busy city with many opportunities for relaxation, shopping, food and business.
Get a map. Honest to God, I have lived in Vilnius all my life but just take the wrong turn and bingo, you are lost. No problem, sooner or later the street will lead you somewhere but you might be terribly late to your appointment.
The most famous landmark for locals is the Gediminas Tower. It offers great panoramic views of the city. Our national flag is changed there in a little ceremony on January 1 every year. The most famous landmark for tourists is, surprisingly, the KGB Museum of Genocide Victims. The name speaks for itself. My most favourite landmark is Church of St. Catherine,-recently restored façade is very, very beautiful but the church is turned to a concert venue and is not open to visitors.
There are quite a few: a certain café in the Old Town (Stikliai street), Japanese sakura garden by the Neris river in hanami period, Sky Bar for a cocktail to chill out.
Sereikiškės park (now under construction until end of spring 2013) to sit down for a picnic by the Vilnelė river, feed the ducks, listen to the water singing at my feet and trees whisper above my head- this, and not ignorance, is bliss.
Oh, depends where you drink it, depends on coffee, too- regular, white, espresso, cappuccino, frappe, with a shot of brandy, small, medium or large…you name it, a barista makes it. Somewhere in the range of 10 LT will certainly be more than enough.
The Užupis republic (yes, we have a republic within a republic) is in all tourist guides as the Montmartre of Vilnius but it doesn’t get as many tourists as the main streets of the Old Town. This is a bohemic place that has got historic buildings, cozy places to eat, artistic galleries to shop and an old cemetery to visit.
Not quirky but important- begging (except by churches) is illegal and so is giving alms. First time-a warning, second time- a hefty fine. That leads to another piece of advice-if you sit in an outside café, you might be approached by a beggar on a regular basis, the reason why I always sit inside- just in case.
Now you got me talking. I have written a special blog post for this question: http://kootvela.blogspot.com/2012/05/traditional-lithuanian-souvenirs.html To give you a summary of it: pottery that comes in many shapes and sizes, wicker handicrafts like baskets, wooden carvings, clay handicrafts, paper clippings, linen, woven and knitted clothes and accessories, embroidery, amber jewellery. Now, considering it’s not that easy to backpack a clay jug or a wooden carved Jesus, I’d stick with an amber necklace or an embroidered linen tablecloth if I were you.
Vilnius historical centre is walkable, so chances you will need to take public transport are slim. You might consider buying Vilnius Card but it will not pay off (trust me, I’ve counted) unless your dream holiday is doing 4 museums for 3 days every day and also take public transport. Besides, while some touristy places might (I say might, not will) take the Euro, change will be given in local currency. English is quite well spoken by young people only, keep in mind if you need to stop and ask for directions.
Ele Pranaityte is a teacher of English, traveler, travel blogger, tourist guide from Vilnius, Lithuania. She started blogging almost a year ago at www.kootvela.blogspot.com and she is working hard to promote my country to the world. You can also follow her on Twitter @Kootvela