Last updated on January 18th, 2020 at 09:00 am
As the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius is an emerging city for visitors with its historic buildings and art scenes. Emerging from Soviet Occupation like its Baltic cousins in the 90s, its compact old town is the second largest in Europe. It was also the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania meaning there’s much to learn.You can also cross the river Vilna to a brand new republic created by artists or seek out street art inspired by modern events in its streets. Not sure if you can spend a whole weekend or more in Vilnius? Here are enough things for you to do:
- 1 A short history of Vilnius and Lithuania
- 2 Currency and card in Vilnius
- 3 Getting around Vilnius
- 4 Vilnius Pass
- 5 What to do in Vilnius
- 5.1 Take a free walking tour
- 5.2 Uzupis
- 5.3 St. Anne’s Church
- 5.4 Literatų Street
- 5.5 Gediminas Castle Tower
- 5.6 Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania
- 5.7 Old Arsenal
- 5.8 New Arsenal
- 5.9 Museum of Occupation and Freedom Fights
- 5.10 Vilnius Cathedral
- 5.11 Cathedral Belfry
- 5.12 Three Cross Hill
- 5.13 Telia Nonmuseum
- 5.14 Gate of Dawn
- 5.15 Hales Turgus
- 5.16 Day trip to Trakai
- 6 Where to eat in Vilnius
- 7 Where to stay in Vilnius
A short history of Vilnius and Lithuania
Before the 13th century, Lithuania was only part of the land where the Baltic tribes lived. It was united under King Mindaugas and for the first 8 years it was the Kingdom of Lithuania. However, he wasn’t popular and was murdered and Lithuania became a Grand Duchy.
Vilnius was founded in 1323 by the Granduke, as the country was vast but not rich. So he sent letters to Germans asking them to come to build a new city with promises no taxes and free land for farmers. Hence, more Europeans came after the German thrived. But fairly little Lithuanians themselves lived here.
In the 15th century, they got closer to Poland and finally united under Lublin Union in 1569 as the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. In the 18th century, the surrounding countries decided to divide them and Vilnius fell under the Polish rule. WWI came, and in 1918 they decided to declare modern independence.
However, the onset of WWII brought the Red Army, Nazis, and Red Army again. It wasn’t until 1990 that Lithuania declared independence. Many people fled and escaped and Vilnius became an empty city and Lithuanians came.
Currency and card in Vilnius
Lithuania is a part of EU and also uses Euros, and they also accept credit card payments readily.
Getting around Vilnius
Vilnius isn’t a big city and you can easily walk from one end of old town to the train station in half an hour. While there are public transport, the buses seems quite sparse so I stuck to walking. You can end up walking way too much but other than that there’s no issue.
A city attraction pass with free and discounted activities thrown into the mix, the Vilnius Pass has 1,2, and 3 days options. Interestingly, unlike most other city pass, Vilnius Pass consist of a card and a booklet with the latter being more important. Coupons for each attraction are inside and what the ticket officers look for.
Note: I was gifted a Vilnius Pass to use but all opinions are my own
The pass is good for summer visitors and less so for winter visitors as many activities cease. For example, the free walking tour only operates between May till September, although there is still the other thematic tours. The value would be good if you are looking to do one walking tours and visit all the usual attractions.
They also have discounts or offers in restaurants and shops. I got a free drink at Restaurant Grey.
Cost: 19.99 for 1 day, 26.99 for 2 days, 34.99 for 3 days – without public transport
I’ve visited all of the museums below, which amount to 34.5 euros. Combined with a free walking tour (10 euros), and maybe a gondola ride (only in the summer – save 7 euros and only pay 1 euro for a cruise) – then you’d save 51.5-34.99 = 16.51 euros, not counting any restaurant or shopping discounts.
What to do in Vilnius
Take a free walking tour
Whether you have the free walking tour through Vilnius Pass or not, you can still take one with Vilnius with Local Tour (although you’re expected to tip, typically around 5 euros).
They run daily by the town hall at 10am and 12pm, going to both the old town, a bit of the Jewish Quarter, and Uzupis. The groups can get quite big, in my group there were almost twenty of us. But since it was All Saint’s Day, the street wasn’t busy at 10am.
Our guide Ieva was lovely and informative, giving us a full history of Lithuania. We went from town hall to the Jewish Quarter, learning about the ghettos. Vilnius didn’t have any concentration camps, instead, Jews were taken en mass to forest and lakes where they were killed and then buried in mass graves. Nowadays, a street art project has started depicting everyday scenes of the Jewish community before WWII.
Fun fact: only 30% of the buildings were lost and those empty areas are turned into public parks and squares.
We then headed to Uzupis before roaming around to various churches and ended the tour by the palace. Since I’ll be talking about them later, I won’t go into details here. But this was a great overview tour for those who like to walk and doesn’t have a lot of time.
The area Uzupis is not part of Vilinus at all but its own republic. It has been founded by art students in 1998. It was once inhabited by the Jewish community and became derelict from WWII onwards. Many young artists came for the cheaper housing or as squatters, which eventually led to the formation of it as a republic.
The area around the river is full of art with a mermaid by the river, a piano, and even a stupa with prayer flags, a gift from Dala lama.
They have their own parliament – a pub – and celebrate national day on the 1st of April. You can find their constitution written in 23 languages mounted on plaques on a wall. Another notable landmark is the statue of a Guardian Angel in the middle of the central square.
The backstory behind the angle is that it was very expensive to make, so it took a while to get it put it up on the column. They were asked a lot of questions about an empty column, so they put an egg on top which then ‘hatched’ into an angel.
St. Anne’s Church
A beautiful gothic red brick church near the Vilnia River, St. Anne’s Church is a Roman Catholic church built in the end of the 15th century. It is said that Napoleon declared it as the most beautiful church in the country, although the truth is that it is the biggest burial ground of Napoleon’s army who died here in the winter of 1812.
Otherwise known as the Literature Street, the wall is mounted with various quotes and tidbits from famous authors concerning Lithuania, whether it’s their origin, mentioned in phrases, or that they had once visited. It was fun to learn about new writers and makes for cute photos, too.
Gediminas Castle Tower
The red brick castle atop the hill with the flag of Lithuania is the oldest part of the city. It was part of the castle complex built by Grand Duke Gediminas who founded the city after hunting and spending the night atop the hill. While its previous incarnation were wooden, the brick tower was built in the 30s.
You can climb up to the hill via a steep but short path right of the castle (facing the river), or take a lift from the Old Arsenal. While the view of the city is already pretty good from the platform by the tower, the observation deck atop the tower gives an unobstructed panorama.
Inside the tower there are exhibition on the Baltic Way as well as a simulation of the attack the castle endured in medieval times.
Admission fee: 5 euros, free with Vilnius Pass
Opening times: May – September 10:00 – 21:00; October – March 10:00 – 18:00
Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania
A reconstruction of the historic castle, nowadays the palace is also the national museum. The white palace building sits at the bottom of the hill by Gediminas Castle, a vaguely rectangular compound with dark grey roofs.
The reconstruction was completed in 2009 and features a comprehensive exhibit on the history of the castle as well as the Grand Dukes and Duchess of Lithuania through history.
The entrance to the palace is through the escalator down in the center of the courtyard. We had to leave our belongs in lockers or cloakroom. There are a few different tour options, as the exhibits can be separated into four sections:
- History, archaeology, architecture
- Reconstructed historical interiors
- Weaponry, everyday life, music
- Museum exhibition center
With my Vilnius Pass, I got the full tour. If you are short on time or not a massive history buff, you can pick or choose which route you go to. Personally, I love route 1 which is in the basement that covers the beginning of Lithuania and you get to see the historical basement.
The reconstruction of the interior was less interesting since they are reconstructions.
Admission fee: full route 8 euros, more details on pricing here along with family prices. Included in Vilnius Pass
Opening times: September – May: tues-weds, fri – sat 10:00 – 18:00, thurs 10:00 – 20:00, Sun 10:00 – 16:00; June – Aug: mon – weds, fri – sun 10:00 – 18:00; Thurs – Sat 10:00 – 20:00
Last admission an hour before closing time, closed during national holidays and mondays.
The smaller of the two arsenals, it houses a very small but good two floor exhibit on the archaeology of Lithuania, specially the tribe lifestyle and burial ritual and costumes.
There are not a lot of people venture here to visit it and I had a good time admiring the costumes and learning about the customs of the Baltic tribes who lived here.
Admission fee: 3 euros, included in Vilnius Pass
Opening times: Tues – Sun 10:00 – 18:00, closed on national holidays
Behind the Palace, the New Arsenal houses paintings, artifacts, and models that together forms a picture of Lithuania history and life.
The exhibit spreads over two floors and is more comprehensive than the Old Arsenal. If you only have time or budget to visit one of the arsenals, I’d choose New Arsenal.
Admission fee: 2 euros, included in Vilnius Pass
Opening times: Tues – Sun 10:00 – 18:00, closed on national holidays
Museum of Occupation and Freedom Fights
A little way west of the old town center, the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights is housed in the former KGB building which operated for half a century before Lithuania gained independence. Since 1992, the interior and rooms of the four floor building remained the same with only the addition of information boards and plaques.
From the start to the rise of freedom fighters and finally the end of it all, it’s a comprehensive looks especially for those who don’t know much about it. It’s easy to follow the exhibit from room to room, where equipment and memorabilia from that period are displayed. But the most eerie of all is the prison. You can go into the cells and even the prison yard and execution room, where many have died or were detained.
Deportation and persecution of gypsies and religious personnel are also covered in some of the exhibits in the rooms. If you are interested in the life of people in Lithuania behind the Iron Curtain, it is a heavy topic to dive into but well worth a visit.
Admission fee: 4 euros, 1 euros for students and elderly, free with Vilnius Pass
Opening times: Auku Str. 2a, LT-0113 Vilnius
A parthenon-like building by the palace, Vilnius Cathedral was built in the 18th century in the Neoclassical style. Like many other cathedrals in Europe, the site was first a pagan temple dedicated to the Baltic god of thunder, before it was converted into a church. The current church is the 8th incarnation, with fire and war being the culprit of the destruction.
While the church might look plain at first glance, but there are numerous sculptures around the exterior, most notably Saint Casimir, Saint Helena, and Saint Stanislaus. It’s free entry to go inside, but I ended up there during mass so didn’t take any photos and quickly went out (so sorry! Mixed up the dates in my head, although there are other tourists, too).
The only remaining cathedral belfry, the white imposing tower with grey spire roof stands on its own on Cathedral Square. You can climb up to the top floor and peer out, getting a close look at the bells and the three statues atop the cathedral. However, if you are looking for a view then you might be a bit disappointed since the windows are covered with metal mesh.
Admission: 4.5 euros, free with Vilnius Pass
Opening times: May – Sept Mon – Sat 10:00 – 19:00; Oct – May Mon – Sat 10:00 – 18:00
Three Cross Hill
Across from Gediminas Castle sits another high point with three giant white cross. This is likely where the Crooked Castle and City were but it was burned down in the 14th century by the Teutonic Order.
The crosses were put here in the early 20th century with the city’s funding, but it was demolished in the 50s by the Soviet. It was rebuilt in 1988 and remains a landmark of the city. The hike up is along the river and the stairs are steep, so be sure to wear shoes with a grip.
It’s also an alternative place to watch sunset and see a panorama of the city.
Want to learn all about Vilnius’s history but not a museum kind of person? Then Telia Nonmuseum is for you. Instead of an exhibit to walk through, the museum consists of a short animated film of Lithuania and Vilnius’ history.
There’s also a room with VR goggles that can show you various top attractions across Lithuania. It might be a place to take your kids instead of the more text heavy museums.
Admission fee: 8 euros, free with Vilnius Pass
Opening times: Mon – Sun 11:00 – 20:00
Gate of Dawn
Since I always take the same route to and from Vilnius old town and my hostel, I almost missed the Gate of Dawn until I took a detour one day. It’s a 16th century gate that was built as a city fortification.
Furthermore, it houses the icon of Our Lady, which is believed to have miraculous power. Many locals would turn back to pay respect to the icon on their way in the city to pay respect.
The main market hall of Vilnius, it’s between the train station and Gate of Dawn but closer to the latter. It was once a horse market before becoming a grain market, with this building being erected in the beginning of the 20th century.
The mustard brown brick building has a classic industrial era look, and don’t miss going inside to see the vaulted ceiling as well as check out some of the food on offer. There’s bakery, a juice shop, and smoked meats!
Opening times: Tues – Sun 7:00 – 18:00
Day trip to Trakai
Trakai is only an hour away from Vilnius, famous for the red castle in the middle of the lake. It’s important part of Lithuania’s history, especially during its inception in the medieval time.
Where to eat in Vilnius
Although I’m not sure I’m a fan of Lithuania food, there are nonetheless good food to be found in Vilnius. Given that I was there during the colder months, I ended up hanging out at various restaurants and cafes a lot. Here are my top recs:
Just across from the royal palace and Gedimina Castle, Grey has good service and amazing value for money food. If you are there on a weekday, don’t miss their lunch menu. I basically inhaled their pork ribs – 10/10 for the sauce, the tender meat, and the side of coleslaw. It is also one of the only places where I found hot chocolate, and it is actually done well!
Address: Pilies g. 2, Vilnius 01124, Lithuania
Opening times: Tues – Thurs 11:00 – 23:00; Fri 11:00 – 01:00; Sat 10:00 – 01:00; Sun 10:00 – 22:00; Mon 11:00 – 22:00
Colourful decorated, Etno Dvaras is the number one recommendation I got for trying typical Lithuanian food. It oozes a cozy dungeon vibe. The service wasn’t the best, but that is apparently common in the Baltics.
I had the potato pancake with Kvas drink, the former I like but it is a bit on the oily side while the Kvas was too thick.
Address: Pilies g. 16, Vilnius 01123, Lithuania
Opening times: 11:00 – 0:00
Another traditional choice, Snekuris is a chain in Vilnius and a pub. Again, the service was subpar – I had to ask if I could wait for a table after they told me it was full. They serve a range of craft beer and typical pub food for a reasonable price.
Address: Šv. Stepono g. 8, Vilnius 01138, Lithuania
Opening times: 11:00 – 23:00
A Belgium restaurant south of old town center, it’s a nice break from Lithuanian food. The prices are a bit higher but I like the ambience. I had a pot of tea and chicken supreme, though their signature dish is mussels. Service was standard but I would recommend it as an alternative to potato and pork heavy Lithuanian food.
Address: Rūdninkų g. 15, Vilnius 01135, Lithuania
Opening times: Mon – Weds 11:30 – 22:00; Thurs – Fri 11:30 – 23:00; Sat 12:00 -23:00; Sun 12:00 – 21:00
Say Cheese Bistro
I was looking for a snack when Say Cheese Bistro popped up on my radar. At first glance, it seems to be just a cheese shop but they also serve a few dishes as well.
I had their grilled cheese for 3.90 euros, which came looking like a work of art. While it isn’t a large portion it’s surprisingly filling! They had free water for diners, too!
Address: Gedimino pr. 3A, Vilnius 01103, Lithuania
Opening times: 10:00 – 21:00
A pretty and spacious cafe south of the Town Hall, Italala Caffee serves a range of coffee and tea at around 2.50 euros. The food is on the pricier side, but the swing seats by the window and the relaxed ambience makes it a great reprieve from the cold or heat.
Address: Vokiečių g. 1, Vilnius 01130, Lithuania
Opening times: Mon – Thurs 7:00 – 21:00; Fri 7:00 – 22:00; Sat 8:00 – 22:00; Sun 8:00 – 21:00
Where to stay in Vilnius
Budget: I really enjoyed my stay at the 25 hours hostel’s 6 bed female dorm, it’s spacious, quirky, but also because there are single bed option! There’s a fully equipped kitchen, too, and while the bathrooms are dated, it’s not so bad.
It’s about 20 minutes walk from the old town center but only 5 minutes from the bus and train station, which makes dragging my suitcase over easier!
If you want to stay close to the city center, check out Pogo Hostel, which is only 200m from the Cathedral Square. However, they don’t have gender-separate hostel rooms but the twin rooms are also value for money.
Midrange: Hotel Apia is a cozy but still spacious choice near the old town. It also has great breakfast and free parking, which is a bonus. Hotel Vilnia is a fancier choice still close to old town but across the river on the other side.
Splurge: Hotel PACAI has stylish marble bathrooms, heritage suites, and a spa and wellness center. Another highly rated hotel with spa access is the Grand Hotel Kempinski Vilnius who has a ridiculously high rating. Shakespeare Boutique Hotel is located in a renovated 17th century building with a historical vibe, perfect for those who want to embrace the old town feel.