A Visit to Eastern Europe's Hidden Gem: Ultimate Vilnius, Lithuania Travel Guide
A Lithuanian tourism poster was recently released online which stated, “VILNIUS, THE G-SPOT OF EUROPE: Nobody knows where it is, but when you find it it’s amazing”. Now, I’m not going to discuss the advert in itself, but rather use it as a segue to why I am writing this blog post.
About 2 years ago, I was accepted to a Masters’ program based in Europe. It was a consortium; a partnership between 4 universities, of which you were to study at 2 of the 4. One of the universities I chose to study at was based in Vilnius, Lithuania. I thought, Lithuania? Why not. I knew absolutely nothing about Lithuania, outside of the fact that;
A. A close friend of mine/roommate in university had family from Lithuania, and
B. The Toronto Raptor’s Center, Jonas Valančiūnas, was Lithuanian.
That was literally it. I loved the idea of throwing myself into a semester, studying in a region of the world I had never been to and knew next to nothing about. But, the more I talked about the adventure with friends and family from back home, the more I realized just how little people actually knew about Lithuania.
Where is it? What language is spoken there? Is it part of Russia? How big is it? Is there anything famous located there? What is Lithuanian food like? What’s there to see and do? The questions were endless. Now, a little over a year later, having lived in Vilnius for approximately 6 months of my graduate studies, I can confirm that it is definitely a hidden gemstone in Europe! And yeah, it’s also pretty amazing.
So, without blabbering on much more, I’d like to talk to you guys about the hidden gem in Europe that is, Vilnius, Lithuania (and hopefully clear up a few misconceptions along the way 😉 ).
First things first, Lithuania is a Baltic State located in Northeastern Europe, and Vilnius is its capital city. And yes, they speak Lithuanian, although if you happen to know some Russian, you’ll get by more than just fine. Some of the population speaks English, but it will be helpful for you to know some useful Lithuanian phrases (I’ll try my best to explain how to pronounce them too!):
Hi – Labas (la-bas)
Excuse me – Atsiprašau (at-see-prra-show)
Please – Prašom (prra-show-m)
Thank you – Ačiū (ahhh-chew)
I do not understand Lithuanian — Aš nesuprantu lietuviškai (ash, nay-su-prran-tu, lee-aye-too-vish-kai)
Do you speak English? — Tu kalbi angliškai (too, kal-bi, ang-leesh-kai)
Now that some of the very basics are out of the way, you should know a little bit about Lithuanian history, to better understand the current state of the country. I’m not going to give a history lesson, you can wiki that yourself, but you should know that Lithuanians have struggled long and hard to get to where they are today. Historically ruled under the Russian Empire, and previously occupied by the Soviet Union, after a brief occupation by Nazi Germany, Lithuania gained its most recent independence in 1991. Since then, it has remained an independent state, part of the NATO alliance and the European Union (2004).
Lithuanians are a proud group, and rightfully so. But they are also, generally, not the warm fuzzy type. This being said, I never once felt threatened or unsafe in Vilnius, and found it to be an enjoyable and unique place to explore.
Heads up: I’m not going to touch on accommodation because, since I was living in Vilnius, I don’t feel knowledgeable enough to comment on hostels or hotels.)
Things to See and Do
In 2009, Vilnius was the European Capital of Culture, and once you’ve visited, you will understand why. In addition to its quaint cobblestone streets, charming architecture, and breath-taking views, as a traveller, it’s also incredibly affordable. Vilnius’ Old Town was one of my favourite areas to walk through. Filled with artisan crafts, restaurants, and local cafes and bakeries, it’s a wonderful place to get lost in for an afternoon. OH YEAH, and it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While you’re gallivanting through this gorgeous Old Town, make sure to stop in and pay a visit to Vilnius University’s Old Town campus. The oldest university in the Baltic States, and one of the oldest in Northern Europe, it is the largest university in Lithuania and is exemplary of some pretty unbelievable architecture. Trust me when I say, if I couldn’t attend Hogwarts, this had to be close to the next best thing.
While you’re wandering through the city, also be sure to keep an eye out for the diverse works of street art that paint the walls in nearly every corner of the city. In fact, street art is such a big deal here, they have a whole Walking Tour devoted to it. Check it out here.
Speaking of walking tours, you can also take a general Free Walking Tour, like in most big European cities, which will show you city highlights and provide some historical background. If history is more your thing, I would also recommend the Jewish Vilnius Tour, which takes you through the history of Vilnius’ Jewish Quarter, historically referred to as the “Jerusalem of the North”.
If you’re looking for some fantastic views of the city, hike up to Gediminas’ Tower, just past Vilnius’ beautiful Cathedral Square, and take in the 360 views from all areas of the wall. Another excellent view, a bit higher up, can be found at the Hill of Three Crosses. Both areas are excellent spots for a picnic if you’re visiting during a time of year with nicer weather.
Vilnius is also filled with plenty of beautiful churches, of which my personal favourite is the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Others include St. Anne’s Church, Vilniaus Sv. Mikalojaus parapija, the Church of St. Francis and St. Bernard, the Church of St. Casimir, and the Church of St. Johns, to name a few…
Oh, and did I forget to mention? Vilnius also has its own independent state within the city. You heard me right. A neighbourhood in the city of Vilnius, Užupis is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The district is popular for both local and foreign artists and is celebrated for its quirkiness and individuality. Check out some artwork, step in for a pint, and enjoy the reading of their unique constitution, which can be enjoyed in 23 different languages. Trust me when I say, it’s worth the read!
Food & Drink
Need a break from all the walking around? Head into one of the many establishments offering food and beverages. Head to Jurgis ir Drakonas Pylimo for some yummy pizza (certified by my Italian friends I studied with 😉 ) or Boom! Burgers for a tasty burg. Keulė Rūkė is also an interesting little spot where you can get pulled pork, fries, and a beer for cheapy-cheapy. It’s also home to the famous Putin/Trump street art that went viral a few years back.
If you’re looking to try some more typical Lithuanian food and drink, for a cheap visit, head to Snekutis (there are several locations in Vilnius). It’s got a great atmosphere and even better selection. Just be aware, Lithuanian food is incredibly potato heavy! Have a few extra dollars to spend on a more upscale (still affordable) Lithuanian restaurant? Head to Forto Dvaras just off of Cathedral Square.
If you’re looking for an excellent place to grab a pint, where the atmosphere is chill and the staff is incredibly knowledgeable, head to Alaus Biblioteka (AKA The Beer Library). One of my favourite spots in the city, they have a beer for every taste and person.
If you’re looking for a night out on the town, there is plenty to do too. Head to Mojo Lounge (heads up, this one can be pricey) or Salento disco pub for dancing and a club-like feel. If a classic pub night is more up your alley, check out Gringo Pub, The Portobello, or La Birra Pub. Either way, the options are endless, these are simply a few suggestions!
Day Trip to Trakai
If you’ve got a few days, and time for a little day trip out of the city, be sure to head to Trakai. Equally gorgeous in both the summer and wintertime, Trakai is a historic city located just 28km outside of Vilnius (an easy and affordable train trip away from the city centre). Home to the Trakai Island Castle, a 14th-century fortress in the middle of Lake Galvė, it was once home to Lithuania’s grand dukes. It is now a history museum and is surrounded by plenty of artisan craft stalls, restaurants, and residential homes. A fun fact about Trakai is that it was built and preserved by people of different nationalities, including Karaims, Tatars, Lithuanians, Russians, Jews, and Poles. Should you visit during the summer months, rent a canoe and head out on the lake to get a more private view of the fairytale-like castle.
Pro tip: Make sure to head into one of the little restaurants along the water to try some Kibinai – a traditional Lithuanian (more specifically, traditional to Trakai) pastry filled with sweet or savoury yumminess!
There you have it. In all honesty, I could keep going, but this blog post is already quite long (sorry, not sorry?). Hopefully, it provided you with some insight into this incredible hidden European gem. Whether you’re looking for an affordable European weekend getaway or heading to travel Eastern Europe, Vilnius is a spot that should not be missed! Absolutely filled to the brim with history, rich culture, and diverse experiences, who knows, maybe it is worth calling “The G Spot of Europe” …
Have you ever been to Vilnius? What was your experience?
Either way, I would love to chat more with anyone who has further comments or questions about Vilnius, so please don’t hesitate to comment below or reach out to me on Instagram @lilyslensonlife.