This summer, I’ve been to 11 countries and countless cities across Europe. I toured with a group for around a month, and now I’m traveling solo based in Cambridge. Of all the places I’ve been, Vilnius was the most surprising. Honestly, I had low expectations for Vilnius (and Lithuania). I expected soviet block architecture, freezing temperatures, and unfriendly people. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
Vilnius is the capital city of Lithuania, and it has a population of around 500,000 people. The native language is Lithuanian, but many people speak English. Many also speak Russian grudgingly. As a part of the EU (that uses the Euro), Vilnius makes a perfect affordable city break destination. It’s one of the cheapest countries in Europe. Expect to spend under $10 for a hostel bunk and around $15 a day for food (if you eat fairly cheaply). So let’s see why I think Vilnius is the best place for a summer city break!
Churches and Cathedrals
Vilnius has incredibly interesting Cathedrals! From brick and gothic, to greek-inspired, to baroque, there’s no shortage of gorgeous churches to photograph. As a former Soviet state, Lithuania has had a complicated past with religion and experienced a large revival in the 1990s. I spoke to a local pastor of a protestant church while in Lithuania who talked about the ongoing tension between protestants and the Catholic majority. If you’re looking for an protestant church service in Vilnius, I’d recommend either the Reformed Evangelical Church (the Greek looking building in the picture) if you’re feeling up to using a translating app, or the International Church of Vilnius.
Užupis is a hipster neighborhood in Vilnius that declared its independence in 1997. The mirrored “constitution” of Užupis lines its streets, and is worth a read. The area is dotted with coffeeshops, art galleries, tattoo places, and other stores that are almost too hipster to be believed. You can also grab a drink at “parliament” (AKA: the bar next to the constitutions).
The Old City
As a self-proclaimed history geek, my favorite part of European cities is always the old towns. Vilnius does not disappoint! Its old city is one of the largest surviving in Europe, and the cobblestoned streets are perfect for wandering without a plan. There are many colorful buildings to brighten up even the dreariest weather (though it was sunny and beautiful for the majority of my trip). The city is fairly compact and very walkable, so there’s no need to spend on buses or taxis to get around.
Castles and the KGB
Lithuania’s history and culture is fascinating. In the 14th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest country in Europe (more about that in a later post!). Today, most people can’t find it on a map. If you’re a fan of views, I recommend taking a short hike up to Geldaminas Tower.
Unfortunately, there is a darker, more tragic side to Lithuanian history. The country was under involuntary soviet rule from the 1940s until the 1990s. While you’re in Vilnius, I highly suggest that you visit the Museum of Genocide Victims (also known as the KGB prison museum). The guides are excellent, and the museum is both well kept and haunting. Vilnius still holds many scars from its time under Soviet control, and the marks of the USSR are evident in the construction of many more modern buildings outside the city center. The centrally-planned concrete apartments on the fringes of the city form a striking contrast with the exuberant, baroque center. I wish I had a picture of it!
Culture and Food
Do you love potatoes? Then you’ll love traditional Lithuanian food, which involves a lot of spuds and sour cream! Pork filled dumplings (Cepelinai) and fried bread (basically cheesy garlic bread) were two of my favorite dishes. Shockingly pink chilled borsch is also popular during the summer, though it tasted a bit too much like liquid salad for me. Obviously, Vilnius has many non-Lithuanian restaurants and you should be able to suit any tastes here.
Music (and festivals) are a central part of Lithuania’s cultural identity. While I was there, there was a festival with traditional dancers, food vendors, and raucous music. According to locals, these festivals are almost impossible to miss during the summer as they spring up nearly every weekend. I have no idea what the one I went to was called, but I recommend looking at the Vilnius Events calendar to see what’s going on during your trip.
So what do you think? Are you going to add Vilnius to your next vacation plans?