November 5-7, 2021
One of my travel-related goals while living in the UK is to try to visit smaller cities and other places that would be challenging and/or less of a priority to get to from the United States. This well-intentioned mindset is how we ended up spending a weekend in Vilnius, a place I had barely even heard of, last November.
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania and the second-largest city in the Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). Despite being a former Soviet republic, Lithuania is considerably more modern and open-minded than other Eastern European countries. The combination of Lithuania’s (relative) openness to foreign visitors and Vilnius containing one of the largest and best-preserved medieval old towns in Northern Europe has helped boost the city’s popularity with tourists, and I had come across several articles and travel series that recommended Vilnius as an up-and-coming tourism hot spot. It’s also an extremely inexpensive city in the eurozone (for example: our 4-star hotel was just €66 per night), which was probably the ultimate deciding factor for me when I somewhat randomly booked this trip.
We arrived in Vilnius late on a Friday night and didn’t do much of anything after checking in at Hotel Vilnia, which was surprisingly nice and located in a great area in the city center. After breakfast and a nice walk through Cathedral Square on Saturday morning, we made our way to one of the top attractions in the city: the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights. The museum was…interesting, to say the least.
It’s located in a building that housed the Gestapo headquarters during the German occupation of Lithuania from 1941 to 1944 and then served as the KGB’s headquarters, prison, and interrogation center until Lithuanian independence was re-established in 1991. The collections are primarily focused on the 50-year occupation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union and Lithuanian victims of the Soviet regime, as well as the Nazi occupation during World War II. However, the museum is extremely controversial because it was originally called the “Museum of Genocide Victims”, despite the fact that hardly any foreign historians or institutions consider the crimes of the Soviet regime against Lithuanians to fall within the universally accepted definition of “genocide”.
Perhaps the most questionable aspect is that the museum barely touches on the indisputable genocide associated with the building’s history, the Holocaust in Lithuania, and the Nazis’ reliance on Lithuanian collaborators and police to kill an estimated 90% of the country’s Jewish population. In all, more than 190,000 Jewish Lithuanians were murdered before the end of the war, decimating a community that had been part of Lithuanian life for five centuries and representing a more complete annihilation than in any other country affected by the Holocaust…yet the “genocide” museum focuses on the Soviet occupation, in which ~20,000 Lithuanians were killed in Stalinist purges and Siberian camps. There’s now a small exhibition on the Holocaust (added in 2011 and mainly highlighting the very small minority of Lithuanians who came to the assistance of the Jewish community) and the museum was renamed in 2018 (immediately following an NYT article that called it “a 21st-century version of Holocaust denial”), but the national attitude toward the Holocaust is still more than a little unsettling.
Despite the controversy and the extremely unsettling feeling of walking through a former prison and execution/torture chambers, I do have to admit that it was a worthwhile experience and that Andy and I walked away with a much better understanding of Lithuanian history and culture. We were definitely in need of a pick-me-up after such a sobering start to the day, so we headed straight to a traditional tavern and spent the rest of the day acquainting ourselves with Lithuanian food (not too exciting) and alcohol (delicious).
The rest of the weekend was really quite enjoyable, despite the bitter cold and persistent rain, and I can certainly understand why Vilnius is becoming a popular “off-the-radar” destination for travel publications and blogs. It’s a small and very walkable city with beautiful architecture, an up-and-coming and inexpensive food scene, lots of charm and unique history, and an easy-to-access airport with key connections to most major European cities. I wouldn’t recommend going out of the way to visit Vilnius on its own or over other mid-sized cities in Europe, but I’m happy that we got out of our comfort zone for this quick weekend getaway that introduced us to a completely different part of the continent.
If you’re planning a trip to Vilnius, click here to access and download my Google Maps list of saved locations.
Food & Drink
- Ertlio Namas: One of the most upscale restaurants in Vilnius, specializing in contemporary versions of classic Lithuanian dishes. The restaurant is in a beautiful 17th-century house and the overall dining experience was just wonderful. Our servers were passionate about the menu and Lithuanian history, and each dish was presented with a story about its origin and modern adaptation. The best part? The six-course set menu with wine pairings was only €80 per person.
- Špunka Pub: Tiny, no-frills pub in Užupis with an impressive selection of local and international beers on tap.
- Pinavija Café & Bakery: Excellent coffee shop and bakery in the city center. We went here for breakfast one morning, but I wish we would have also tried some of the delicious-looking cakes they had available.
- Girta Bitė: The “Drunk Bee” pub specializes in mead and other local, honey-flavored liqueurs. It’s right on the main drag downtown, and perfect for grabbing a drink before or after dinner.
- Amatininkų Užeiga (Craftsman’s Pub): One of the oldest restaurants in Vilnius, this cozy, wood-timbered pub serving traditional Lithuanian food and drinks is located at the heart of Old Town.
- Šeimos Kepyklėlė: Bakery and coffee shop in Užupis with excellent pastries.
- Būsi Trečias: Lively downtown bar that was the first microbrewery pub in Vilnius. In addition to their brewery offerings, there’s a solid food menu offering typical pub fare.
Activities & Attractions
- Okupaciju ir Laisves Kovu Muziejus (Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights): Museum located in the building that housed the Gestapo headquarters during the German occupation of Lithuania (1941-1944) and then served as the KGB headquarters, prison, and interrogation center until Lithuanian independence was re-established in 1991. It is primarily focused on the 50-year occupation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union and Lithuanian resistance, but also includes (much smaller) exhibits related to the Nazi occupation during World War II and the Holocaust. It’s one of the top attractions in Vilnius despite the dark subject matter, and even The New York Times (my go-to resource for travel guides) said that this museum was a “must-see”. Although the museum is controversial and the subject matter is creepy/depressing (to put it lightly), I have to admit that it was extremely interesting and I still found it to be a powerful and worthwhile experience.
- Katedros Aikštė (Cathedral Square): The main square of the Old Town and situated around the Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus of Vilnius (better known as the Vilnius Cathedral), which is the main Roman Catholic Cathedral of Lithuania. The cathedral itself is beautiful and was the site for the coronations of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, but even more impressive is its standalone bell tower.
- Vilniaus Pilių Kompleksas (Vilnius Castle Complex): The Vilnius Cathedral is located within a larger complex that originally contained three castles (the Upper, the Lower, and the Crooked). The remaining Gediminas Tower (originally part of the Upper Castle) is one of the best-known symbols of Vilnius and Lithuania. The beautiful and ornate Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania is actually a modern reconstruction of the original, which was part of the Lower Castle.
- Šv. Onos Bažnyčia (Church of St. Anne): A beautiful, 15th-century Roman Catholic church built in the Gothic style and on the bank of the Vilnia River in the Old Town.
- Užupis: Just across the Vilnia River from the Old Town is the micro-nation of Užupis, one of the smallest “republics” in the world at less than 1 square kilometer. There are some cool pubs and restaurants in the area, but it’s worth the visit alone to stroll down the Avenue of Constitutions, which contains the republic’s charter printed on large metal rectangles in 30 languages. The 41 clauses capture the unique spirit of the micro-nation and include important provisions like ‘a dog has the right to be a dog’ and ‘everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat’.
- Trys Kryžiai (Three Crosses): A beloved monument overlooking the city on the Hill of Three Crosses, which has been home to three crosses since at least the 17th century and is one of the most popular symbols of Lithuania. We could see the monument from our hotel but the rainy and cloudy weather prevented us from walking up the hill to check out its views of the city, which are supposed to be beautiful.
- Vilnius Ghetto Memorial: A (very) small memorial plaque in the Old Town commemorating the location of the Vilna Ghetto during World War II.
- Literatų Gatvė (Literature Street): A street in the Old Town containing a wall covered with more than 200 decorative plaques dedicated to individual writers with various connections to Vilnius.
- Linen Tales: There are two storefronts in Vilnius for this local brand of high-quality (and inexpensive) linens made by local artisans. I bought some wonderful gifts here, as well as some well-made tea towels for our flat.
- Mint Vinetu: A very cozy coffee shop and bookstore in the Old Town selling new and used books in a variety of languages.