Few cities have played as prominent a role in European history as Vilnius. Although today it is unmistakably Lithuanian, over the centuries it has been subject to changing rule. The city’s strategic location and cultural importance placed it in the line of fire during times of war. Today, however, Vilnius is peaceful, picturesque, and welcomes the world with a smile. After paying the city a visit to discover for ourselves, we’ve compiled these ideas for things to do in Vilnius, Lithuania.
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.
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 must smile to enter. On 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 wonderfully peaceful to stroll along as you please, perhaps with the occasional break on a park bench with a book.
We were blessed with some snowfall on our visit, which gave the riverside scenery an added layer of beauty. If you do visit in the winter, though, you’ll need to wrap up warm if you plan to spend any time outside.
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.
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. 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.
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.
9. 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. There are strict rules, such as 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.
10. 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.
11. 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. We found it to be cheaper than we expected, too. For two indulgent chocolate cakes and chocolate cocktails, we paid a total of €12.28.
12. 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.
13. 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.
14. Sample a ‘merry rolling pin’ of liqueurs
On top of the wonderful 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.
15. 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.
To find your way around the best murals, Vilnius Tourism has an incredibly useful map of street art and downloadable guide.
16. Take a day 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 can be reached by bus or train in about half an hour from Vilnius. 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.
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.
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.
Where to stay in Vilnius
We spent our four nights in Vilnius at Litinterp Guest House. This is a very reasonably priced accommodation with a convenient location close to Pilies Street in the Old Town.
The guest house staff were very welcoming and helpful, offering excellent advice on how to get the most out of our stay in the city. It was also very useful that out-of-hours check-in was available, as we arrived on a late flight (many hostels in Vilnius do not offer this service).
We were very pleased with our room and the facilities. While we spent most of our time exploring the local restaurants, the kitchen gave us the option to prepare our own food. Breakfast is also available for a small additional fee. Overall, it was just right for what we needed from our stay.
Things to do in Vilnius: further reading
If you’re keen to explore eating and drinking traditions in Lithuania during your time in Vilnius, try reading our other articles:
- 7 Vilnius restaurants to try authentic Lithuanian food
- 13 awesome Vilnius pubs for Lithuanian craft beer
Are you travelling through Europe via Interrail? Check out these great Interrailing tips by Got My Backpack.
Have you visited Vilnius before? Let us know about your experiences in the comments below.
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