Posted May 22, 2017
In March, Albert and I took our first trip of the year. Piggybacking off of my work trip to Oslo we traveled the three Baltic States and Helsinki, Finland.
The idea for the trip came about when I looked into travel options from Oslo to places I hadn’t been but Albert had. I thought it was a great idea-I could visit Finland and Estonia for $60 round-trip from Oslo and Albert wouldn’t have to backtrack. I should have known better-there was no way Albert would stay at home while I was off traveling. So, we did what any travel loving couple would do, and added Lithuania and Latvia to the itinerary and hunted for affordable ways to get there (shameless plug-if you didn’t see our blog post, “Wait….” You can check it out here and learn how much Albert spent to get to Finland and back).
This was, without a doubt, the right decision. Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania and the first stop on our trip is one of the most intriguing cities I’ve ever been to. The medieval Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site but without the crowds of tourists, you find in other European cities. And the city seems to burst with creativity, from the street art to the breakaway republic of artists, to the delightful selection of craft beers. Vilnius is a city I could go back to again and again.
Tourism and Lithuania
Tourism plays a rather minor role in the domestic economy of Lithuania but is flourishing. Its total contribution to the domestic GDP was 5.3% in 2016 but is forecasted to rise by 7.3% in 2017. The total contribution to employment was 5.1% in 2016 and is expected to grow by 4.8% in 2017. Although the overall impact of tourism is relatively minor you as one of the few tourists that visit Lithuania can make a considerable impact by spending your money at locally owned businesses operating in the small sector. I don’t know about you but for us, fewer tourists make a destination much more enjoyable. So visit Lithuania now before everyone else does.
What to See and Do in Vilnius
Perched atop a hill overlooking the Old Town is one of Vilnius’ most prominent monuments, the Three Crosses. According to legend, three wooden crosses were erected on the hill in the early 17th Century to mark the place where a group of monks was killed centuries before. The wooden crosses were replaced in the early 1900s with a concrete monument which was subsequently removed by the Soviets and eventually rebuilt in 1989 as a symbol of Lithuania’s resistance to the Soviet occupation.
The monument stands on one of several hills in Kalnu Park in the city center. It’s a nice walk to the top, it requires a little exertion, but the view of the city is well worth it. At one entrance to the park is a cute little cafe called Strange Love. If you’re looking to grab a coffee and a pastry, this is a great option.
Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fighters (KGB Museum)
When researching things to do in Vilnius, the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fighters stood out. Admittedly, I knew little about Lithuania before planning the trip and even less about life under Soviet rule. As the title implies, the Museum has two parts. First, the documentation of life in Lithuania as a Soviet Republic (1940-1990 ), including the people’s persistent fight for independence and the mass deportations to Siberia. The second part is the former KGB prison that makes up the basement of the building.
The first part was both inspiring and crushing as with most resistance movements. But the Lithuanian experience was interesting, in my eyes, because of including women in the movement. The second part, the KGB prison, was sobering. Here, in the basement, you see where prisoners were held, tortured, and even executed by the KGB.
Gate of Dawn
Located on the Southern edge of the Old Town, the Gate of Dawn is the only remaining entrance into the old city from the defensive wall built in the 16th Century. It is also the site of the chapel of the Gate of Dawn where a painting of the Virgin Mary is famed for working miracles. At the time of our visit, Albert and I weren’t aware of the miraculous powers of the icon and therefore did not make any requests.
Right around the corner from our hotel was one of the most well-known streets in Vilnius, Literatų Street. Once home to numerous bookstores, this street now features a wall dedicated to Lithuanian writers and poets. Introduced in 2009, the wall displays over 100 different artworks that pay tribute to those who are considered to have influenced Lithuanian culture.
Markets like Hales Market, which offer a range of fresh food are typically our number one go-to spot in any city. Unfortunately, the market is closed on Mondays so Albert and I didn’t have the opportunity to visit. Definitely one of many reasons to go back. If you’re in Vilnius be sure to check it out and let us know what you think.
The city is teeming with beautiful old churches that are just as enjoyable to look at from the outside as the inside. One of the first things we did when we got to Vilnius was to go to Cathedral Square where the Cathedral of Vilnius, the main Roman Catholic cathedral in Lithuania, is located.
Just around the corner from our hotel was St. Nicholas Church, one of the oldest Eastern Orthodox churches in the city and the Church of St. Paraskeva, another Eastern Orthodox church.
On our way to the Three Crosses we stopped in to St. Anne’s Church, which is known for its unique Gothic architecture and stands in front of the Church of St. Francis and St. Bernard.
There is also the Chapel of the Gate of Dawn, just outside the Gate, which as mentioned above is home to the famed painting of miracles, Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn and the Holy Trinity Church and Basilian Gate just beyond.
What struck me most about Vilnius was the prominent role that art seems to play in Lithuanian culture. From Literatų Street to our art focused hotel (see below) to the creative displays on the streets of the city.
Since we were in Vilnius for four days three nights we had time for a day trip. We took the train a little over an hour west of Vilnius to Lithuania’s second city, Kaunas. Read how to spend the perfect day in Kaunas.
Looking for another day trip or perhaps another destination that can be reached from Vilnius. Then consider Minsk, Belarus. What to see in Belarus.
Where to Stay in Vilnius
Artagonist Art Hotel
Albert and I struggled with our hotel selection in Vilnius, but immediately upon walking into the Artagonist Art Hotel, I regretted almost missing out on such a unique and fabulous hotel. Everything about this hotel was great. From the incredibly friendly and helpful staff to the sparkling wine breakfast buffet, to the very clean, modern and soundproofed rooms with candied almonds on our pillows and local coffee with pour-over set up, to the art that was featured throughout. And, the location was perfect, right off of a main cobblestoned street in the Old Town. Another plus, the hotel is owned by a Lithuanian company. If you’re ever in Vilnius don’t consider staying anywhere but the Artagonist.
Where to Eat and Drink in Vilnius
This popular spot in the center of the Old City features modern European cuisine. We’re suckers for restaurants using local fresh ingredients and minimalist décor and the Kitchen fits perfectly. We walked in without reservations around 7:15 pm on a Saturday and were able to get a table. The place quickly filled up so had we shown up 30 minutes later we might not have been so lucky.
We started with a plate of goat cheese and smoked mackerel pate to share followed by grilled fish, fennel and tomato salad for me and sausages and mashed potatoes for Albert. Everything was perfect, even the smoked mackerel pate, which I’m not typically a fan of.
It’s here we first discovered Raudonų Plytų, a delicious Lithuanian craft beer. Still clinging to my “no beer” mantra, I deprived myself the opportunity to have one of my own. Albert, the smart guy that he is, did not deprive himself and ordered, the Bėganti Kopa Witbier and Nežinomas Krantas (a dark beer).
Located on Stiklių Street, a scenic lane peppered with shops, restaurants, and bars, Bistro 18 is a perfect place to enjoy fresh seasonal European cuisine with a good selection of wine. Being into all things raw these days, we started with a plate of beef carpaccio.
Not very hungry that night, Albert and I then split the risotto with duck and red cabbage. The risotto was perfect even if the duck was a little chewy. We opted for the house white (both breaking from beer that night), which accompanied both the carpaccio and risotto well.
Albert and I stumbled upon this cozy little place while looking to escape the pouring rain. It has a rustic yet modern feel and a fantastic selection of wines from around the world, including Lithuania. It was a little too early in the day for wine so we each opted for the only beer they had on tap, Vilkmerges. I know who goes to a wine bar/shop, especially a fantastic one like this and orders beer? At least it was a Lithuanian beer. Had we had more time I definitely would have gone back for a glass of wine and enjoy more of the ambiance of the place.
Tucked away in a little alley off Stiklių Street is every beer lover’s dream, a cozy beer cellar with an amazing selection of Lithuanian beer. The selection is so big and varied we had a difficult time deciding. Lucky for us the staff know their stuff and first recommended Sakiškių’s Sour Pale Ale and Dundulis Simkala by Širvėnos Bravoras based on our tastes. The Sakiškių was the perfect balance between hoppy and sour with hints of fruit but the Dundulis Simkala was a little too bitter for me. I guess I don’t like bitter as much as I thought I did. We rounded off the visit with a bottle each of Žaliakalnio unpasteurized beer. They were cloudy but otherwise, the taste was fairly indistinct.
In addition to the beer, Bambalyne offers a small selection of cold and hot foods. We had one each of their chicken, pork, and lamb pies. The perfect pairings for the beer.
Meat Lovers Pub
As the name suggests, this place is a haven for meat lovers. We had filled up on pies and beer at Bambalyne so we tried the fried cheese, which was ok. Lucky for us the only Lithuanian beer they had on tap was Raudonų Plytų’s Ungurio Kojos, a delicious unfiltered lager from our favorite Lithuanian craft brewer. If not for the beer, I’m not sure we would go back. While I enjoy the occasional taste of meat, especially grass-fed, the menu wasn’t that appealing. The meat itself was the main draw and not necessarily the preparation of the meat. Not to mention the majority of the patrons were expats-not our typical go-to spot while traveling.
Albert and I focus on food and drink when we travel if you haven’t noticed, and sometimes we lose sight of all the other fabulous local products we can buy and take home with us. Not this time. I was determined to take home some famed Lithuanian linen. Lucky for me, I found some nice place mats and napkins at Linen Tales on none other than Stiklių street. Albert even got some cool handkerchiefs. If we weren’t traveling to three more countries on this trip, I might have gotten more-it’s a good thing they ship to the U.S. Definitely worth checking out if you’re in Vilnius or online.
We had such a great time in Vilnius we could easily see ourselves returning to explore more of the country, especially the beaches in the summer. From Vilnius, we headed north by bus (4 hours) to Riga, Latvia. Read about the best of what Riga, Latvia has to offer.
All Photography by Carrie and Albert Bond
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