Vilnius is a compelling European city that has both an intriguing history and a modern, ahead-of-the-times vibe. Lithuania’s capital has often been in the line of fire during time of war thanks to its strategic location, and it has changed ruling hands many times over the centuries. Today, however, Vilnius is peaceful, picturesque, and welcomes the world with a smile. After paying a visit to discover the city for ourselves, we’ve compiled these ideas for things to do in Vilnius, Lithuania, from the top sightseeing activities to the best local food and drink.
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Visiting Vilnius in the context of Covid-19: an update
Vilnius has been one of the most forward-thinking and adaptable cities in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, acting quickly to adjust to the times, the city transformed itself into an open-air café to create outdoor spaces for its bars and restaurants to begin operating again.
Nevertheless, visiting the city is a different experience than it was before. We have been in close contact with tour operators, bars, restaurants, and other tourism businesses in the city to find out about the changes they have made. Wherever relevant, we have updated this article accordingly and incorporated the latest information.
Across the board, it is impressive how this city has responded to the situation. Not a single business we’ve spoken to has closed its doors, and all have shown determination and creativity in getting things moving again in a way that will make a safe environment for visitors.
Things to do in Vilnius: sightseeing
1. Take a free city walking tour
Free walking tours are a brilliant way to find your feet in a new city at the beginning of a trip. Having been on many of these around the world, I do not exaggerate when I say that our tour with Vilnius With Locals was one of the best we’ve ever taken.
Our guide, Jurate – born and raised in Vilnius – gave insights into the city’s history, told entertaining stories and answered all the group’s questions. She guided us through the popular landmarks of the Old Town and the Republic of Užupis (more on that below).
Vilnius With Locals also offers a free alternative walking tour to some of the less trodden areas of the city, as well as paid tours (10 euros) exploring the city’s Soviet and Jewish histories.
If you prefer to try a self-guided tour, check out this cool Vilnius sightseeing map to visualise the city’s top locations and landmarks.
2. Walk up Castle Hill to Gediminas’ Tower
The lonely structure of Gediminas’ Tower, standing atop Castle Hill, is one of the most recognisable features of the Vilnius skyline. It’s also one of the oldest relics of the city’s history.
Gediminas, a Grand Duke of Lithuania, built the first wooden structures on this site in the 14th Century. Around the same time, he made the first recorded mention of Vilnius in a parchment, a copy of which is displayed in the tower today.
The museum inside the tower exhibits archaeological artefacts and stories of Lithuanian history. Each floor has a different theme and display style. On the top level, you can go outside for a great panoramic view of the city.
If you don’t fancy heading up to the tower on foot, don’t worry – you can take the funicular instead. The museum entry fee is €5 (or €2.50 for concessions).
3. See the city from Three Crosses Hill
The Three Crosses Monument provides an alternative point of elevation for a city view, this time with no entry fee required.
The white concrete structure peers over Vilnius from the highest point in Kalnai Park, just across the River Vilnia on the east side of the Old Town. It’s a short but fairly steep walk up to the monument and viewpoint.
Wooden crosses have stood on the hill for three centuries, replaced by a more permanent concrete structure in 1916. The precise symbolic origin of the crosses is not clear, but one legend dictates that it commemorated three Franciscan monks who were crucified when visiting the city on a mission.
4. Visit the self-declared Republic of Užupis
The small bohemian neighbourhood of Užupis on the east side of Vilnius Old Town garnered international attention on 1 April 1997 when it announced itself as an independent republic.
Today, the legend of the self-declared Republic of Užupis lives on, complete with a constitution, president, ambassadors and a 12-person army. Supposedly, you can apply to be an ambassador by contacting the president on Facebook and taking him for a beer. (You have to buy the drinks, of course.)
On 1 April, Užupis’ independence day, the bridge separating it from Vilnius Old Town is guarded, and you can only enter if you smile. Inside the streets of Užupis you will find its constitution displayed on plaques in many different languages, featuring principles such as ‘everyone has the right to be unique’ and ‘everyone has the right to make mistakes’.
Užupis is reflective of the artistic edge that exists in Vilnius. Its streets are filled with artwork, outdoor pianos and restoration projects, making it one of the most Instagrammable spots in the Baltics, and oozing the kind of vibrant energy that makes this city such a welcoming place to visit.
5. Take a stroll along Vilnia River
Something we really loved about Vilnius is the tranquil atmosphere the city has. This is particular true of its green areas, such as the parks and river banks.
The River Vilnia loops around the Republic of Užupis and then traces along the edge of Kalnai Park, at the foot of the hill of the Three Crosses Monument. This stretch of river is nice for a peaceful stroll, perhaps with the occasional break on a park bench with a good book.
We were blessed with some snowfall on our visit, which gave the riverside scenery an added layer of beauty. Vilnius is a great European winter destination, but be ready to wrap up warm!
6. Walk around the Old Town at night
Vilnius’ maze of beautiful buildings old and new is a delight to explore in daylight, but takes on a special kind of magic at night. Grand buildings like Vilnius cathedral and the many colourful churches spread throughout the city look magnificent in lighting.
Often in the streets of the Old Town you will find street musicians performing, especially at weekends. It’s a very calming atmosphere to simply meander on foot at your own pace.
7. Learn history at the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights
Lithuania has endured a history of oppressive occupations over many centuries, but no times were as brutal as the middle years of the 20th century. One of the unfortunate nations trapped geographically between the Nazi and Soviet regimes, Lithuania became a pawn of war, and its people suffered greatly as a consequence.
The Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights in Vilnius focuses on this period, in particular the Soviet post-war occupation of Lithuania. It tells the story of the people who rallied for Lithuanian independence, a goal which was once again achieved in 1991.
In the basement of the museum are Soviet prison and torture cells, maintained in the same condition they were left in by KGB officers. There is also a room dedicated to Jewish persecution in Vilnius, in particular the Paneriai massacre, which was perpetrated during the Nazi occupation of the city.
8. Discover the city’s street art
While the most conspicuous attractiveness of Vilnius is its historic architecture, underneath the surface the city has a thriving artistic soul. In the cobbled back streets of the Old Town and beyond, you can find stunning murals by street artists from all over Europe.
The Užupis neighbourhood is perhaps the pinnacle of Vilnius’ street art scene, with many bright and colourful works adorning its walls. But there are other great examples all over the city.
For example, walking from the bus terminal towards the Old Town, we spotted a giant wall mural on the corner of V. Šopeno and Šv. Stepono. We later discovered this was by the Polish duo Sepe Wręga and Chazme Kalinowski.
9. Shop for old gadgets in 6blusos
Don’t be mistaken; while this place has ‘flea market’ written in big letters on a wooden sign outside, it isn’t a market in the way you might expect. 6blusos in Vilnius is a curious little antique shop located on the north end of Pilies Street in Old Town. if you have any trouble finding it, look up ‘Flea Market’ on Pilies Street in Google Maps.
Outside you will see an arrangement of bizarre odds and ends, a taster for what you will find down the steps that lead inside. Antique camera equipment, old timepieces, games, jewellery, signs, gas masks – it’s all there.
As several signs inside will make you aware, the shop has a strict look-don’t-touch policy. It’s a fun place just to peruse even if you don’t buy anything.
10. Take an alternative guided tour
As an alternative to a free walking tour in Vilnius, if there is a particular aspect of the city you’re interested to explore, there are various themed guided walking tours you can take. These are some of the most popular, all of which have reduced group sizes and social distancing measures in place to protect against Covid-19:
- Undiscovered Vilnius with a local: exploring the hidden stories and diverse influences of Vilnius, plus a taste of Lithuanian fish delicacies and a beer at a local bar.
- Soviet Vilnius small group tour: focusing on the impact of the Soviet occupation on Vilnius and life behind the Iron Curtain, including food tasting and a beer.
- ‘Then and now’ Old Town tour: for private groups of one or two, digging deep into the blend of history and modernity in the Old Town, with flexible meeting points.
Things to do in Vilnius: food and drink
11. Try the delicious cuisine of Lithuania
Lithuanian food is grounded on culinary traditions that have lasted centuries, blended with influences that have crept from European neighbours. Vilnius is at the forefront of the country’s food scene, with dozens of restaurants serving authentic Lithuanian dishes.
In the cold Baltic climate, soups, stews and potato dumplings are central to the national cuisine. Pork is the meat of choice, and root veg such as beetroot is a common ingredient or accompaniment.
We spent four days seeking out the best Vilnius restaurants for eating authentic Lithuanian food on a low-to-medium budget. You can read about our experiences and recommendations here. This will give you a good insight to explore the local cuisine self-guided, but alternatively you can book onto a ‘Flavours of Vilnius’ tasting tour for a guided journey through the city’s architectural and culinary highlights.
12. De-stress at Cat Café
In the last ten years, the cat café phenomenon has swept across Europe. Having originated in Taiwan in 1998 and blossomed in Japan in the early 2000s, the concept is essentially exactly what it says. A café, serving cakes, snacks and various beverages, with a host of feline residents for your visual and cuddling pleasure.
After the first European cat cafés popped up in England, France and Austria, a whole spate opened across the continent in 2014. Lithuania rode on the crest of this wave, with Cat Café opening in Vilnius in October of that year.
Being cat-lovers ourselves, this wasn’t something we were going to miss. If you want visit too, be aware that it’s popular and you need to make a reservation online in advance, which is especially advisable with table numbers now limited to enable social distancing. Hygiene rules include compulsory face masks (bring your own), hand sanitisation, and washing your hands before and after any cat contact. If you want to feed the cats, you can by some treats inside.
There is no entrance fee, but you do need to spend a minimum of €5 per head. There’s plenty of tastiness on the menu to help you do that. We indulged in a cheesecake and chocolate orange cake, together with a hot wine and a coffee with amaretto. All this came to €14.
13. Eat in a chocolate restaurant
If you still have an appetite after your fill of hearty Lithuanian food, you can treat yourself to a dessert at Vilnius’ very own chocolate restaurant (yes, you read correctly), Pilies Sokoladine.
Pretty much everything on the menu is made of chocolate. There are even chairs and table sculptures on display made of chocolate. It’s quite literally a chocoholic’s paradise.
The highlight of the menu is the selection of sumptuous chocolate cakes; you can also choose from a selection of handmade chocolates that are available in the restaurant’s shop at the front.
14. Drink Lithuanian craft beer
Lithuania’s craft beer scene is equal to its food scene in terms of cultural heritage. Beer has been integral part of celebrations and festivities in Lithuania for centuries. Many of the age-old farmhouse brewing techniques remain in practice today, and with breweries committed to using local ingredients, Lithuanian beer is truly unique.
While the beer scene is focused in the north, there are independent breweries all over the country. In Vilnius you can sample the very best of their output.
To find out more about the best places to drink in the city, check out our article on Vilnius pubs for Lithuanian craft beer.
15. Try the world’s oldest alcoholic drink
The only drink with a longer history in Lithuania than beer is mead. It is believed to be the oldest alcoholic drink in the world, with the earliest records of production dating back over 6,000 years. Mead has a golden colour and is made by fermenting honey with water and spices.
Today, Lithuanian mead is designated as a national heritage product. The company Lietuviškas Midus is its foremost producer, and you can buy it in bars all over Vilnius.
16. Sample a ‘merry rolling pin’ of liqueurs
On top of the excellent beer and mead, Lithuania also has a range of alcoholic spirits to sample. In many restaurants around the city you can order a taster board, which typically includes five spirits. It’s otherwise known as a ‘merry rolling pin’. We tried one in Etno Dvaras on Pilies Street for just €5.
Our spirit taster board included some bitter liqueurs, like Trejos Devynerios (herbal) and Dainava (fruit-based). Our favourite, however, was Starka, a spirit made with fermented rye mash using similar techniques to whisky.
17. Snack on a delicious kibinai
We’ve already mentioned Lithuanian cuisine, but this pastry snack is worth a separate mention. It actually derives from Turkish origin, and Trakai is best place to try it.
The kibinai was brought to Lithuania by the Karaites people of Turkey, who settled in Trakai during the 14th century. The lakeside town now has plenty of places where you can try the snack, which consists of pastry filled with meat, cheese or vegetables.
You can also find kibinai around Vilnius. On Gedimino Prospektas, the long, main road that stretches from Vilnius Cathedral to Neris River, there is a small café by Vincas Kudirka Square that serves a tantalising selection.
Things to do in Vilnius: day trips
18. Take a trip to Trakai Island Castle
Lithuania has many beautiful castles, and one of the most picturesque is within close reach of Vilnius. The 15th-century Trakai Island Castle has a scenic lakeside setting, and houses a museum inside that tells its history.
Trakai is around half an hour from Vilnius by bus or train. From the bus terminal at Trakai, it’s about another half hour of walking to reach the castle. This is a pleasant walk along the main road of Trakai, past colourful houses and churches. Alternatively you can take an organised tour from Vilnius – these are some of the most popular options:
- Classic four-hour tour with audio guide, a great budget option with reduced group sizes and distancing measures in place, including on vehicles during transfers.
- Combined Trakai Castle and Paneriai Memorial tour, an added value option incorporating a visit to the site of the Ponary massacre midway between the city and Trakai.
- Snowshoe hike in Trakai, an alternative way to reach the castle during winter months via a snowy wood walk, with a hot tea and traditional pie served when you arrive.
The castle and its museum are open to visitors except on Mondays. Even if you find the castle itself closed, there’s a picture-perfect view of it from the lake’s edge near the visitor centre, and you can walk around outside its grounds.
19. See the Hill of Crosses
Cross-crafting is an important tradition in Lithuania. Its greatest embodiment is at the Hill of Crosses in the city of Šiauliai in northern Lithuania, one of the country’s most celebrated and poignant landmarks.
Crosses constructed of oak and iron have been left on the hill since the early 19th Century, and it has become an international symbol of peace. During the years of Soviet occupation during the second half of the 20th Century the site also gained significance as a marker of national identity and heritage.
The hill is located around 12 kilometres outside Šiauliai, and reaching it from Vilnius can be tricky. The train journey between the two cities takes about 2–2.5 hours, with services running sparsely through the day (but with morning and evening trains available a day trip is possible). You can take a taxi for about 25 euros to the site from the train station in Šiauliai, or take the infrequent number 12 bus and get off at Domantai. A much easier option is to take a full-day tour from Vilnius, which can even work out cheaper than making your own way there.
20. Visit one of Lithuania’s beautiful national parks
Beyond the reaches of Vilnius, Lithuania is drenched with stunning rural lowlands, with the country’s highest point above sea level less than 300 metres. The country’s relatively young national parks provide a window into its precious nature and wildlife.
Aukstaitija National Park is the oldest in the country, established in 1974, located to the north-east of Vilnius. You can see its natural highlights as well as the Museum of Ancient Beekeeping and the Museum of Ethnocosmology by taking a full-day tour to the park from Vilnius.
In the opposite direction, Dzukija National Park occupies the south-west corner of the country close to the borders with Belarus and Poland. A day tour to the park from Vilnius pivots from the historic hilltop town of Merkine.
Where to stay in Vilnius
Vilnius has a great range of places to stay for any budget and style, with hundreds of accommodation options available on booking.com. These are our picks of the best options for each budget level:
- Budget: Jimmy Jumps House, Mikalo House, Downtown Forest Hostel
- Mid-range: Litinterp Guest House, Loop Hotel, Comfort Hotel LT Rock ‘n’ Roll Vilnius
- Luxury: Artagonist Art Hotel, Ratonda Centrum Hotel
Beyond Vilnius: further reading
Are you travelling through Europe via Interrail? Check out these great Interrailing tips by Got My Backpack.
If you love to explore historic cities, then also check out this article on the oldest cities in the world to find more ideas for your next trip. Heading across the border into Latvia, too? Check out this guide to what to do in Riga’s old town.
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