Maz Marek Nusl
With a population of a little over half a million, Vilnius is not a large city; however it does have one of the largest old towns in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many visitors tour the Baltic states in a single trip but now affordable low cost airlines mean a weekend visit is well on the cards. While Prague has its castle, Paris its tower, Vilnius seems to have a more subdued appeal, perhaps even less spectacular, but the charm of the Old Town is undeniable, preserved in time and free from the touristy tat and whore houses found in many of its counterpart cities.
Duration: 2 days
Cost: Approx £300
When: All year round
Doinit Factor: A lovely city which boasts Europe’s largest old town.
Where to stay
There are plenty of choices but I think it’s really worth recommending Jimmy Jumps House. It’s one of the best run hostels I’ve stayed in. Very clean, good location, great atmosphere and the staff are very happy to arrange any trips for you. It’s through this place we organised our exhilarating shooting experience.
An ample number of budget carriers now fly to both Vilnius and to Lithuania’s second-largest city, Kaunas, where transport connections are pretty cheap and straightforward. Once you arrive it’s best to accommodate yourself in the city's Old Town, where most attractions can be reached on foot. The Old Town is centred on Rotuses Square, although in reality it’s more of a triangle surrounded by elegant, lightly shaded façades and the orange tiled rooftops synonymous with much of Eastern Europe. The square is overlooked by the city's town hall, a neoclassical building dating back to 1799 (though it’s replaced older buildings). Something that really strikes me is how authentic it all looks - no bright shiny advertising banners in your face with shop fronts flogging their latest deals. It’s refreshing to see that Vilnius seems to have preserved Old Town in a way that probably greeted visitors a hundred years ago.
From the square many narrow streets and alleyways twist, passed the old ghettos and through the city, running through buildings dating back between the 13th to 19th centuries. Lovers of architecture can have a great time in Vilnius; simply stroll through these streets and you'll discover a bizarre mish-mash of architectural styles. You’ll see the neoclassical, Renaissance and Baroque as well as some Gothic thrown in for good measure. The odd building seems to resemble Georgian style, not to mention you see a few wooden Karaim houses. The states of these buildings are almost as diverse as their styles. You’ll pass buildings which have very recently been renovated sat next to a derelict pile of rubble or buildings that have clearly not been lived in for decades. There are plenty of building sites, which did leave me with a scene of optimism that Old Town will one day be fully restored to its past glory and rival Europe’s best old towns.
From the Old Town you can cross into The Republic of Uzupis, a self-proclaimed independent state in the heart of Vilnius. Originally this was primarily a Jewish area but when the Jews were forced out during the Second World War, the abundance of vacant buildings attracted a criminal element. Nobody wanted to live here, so the cheap living costs paved the way for an influx of artists, writers and philosophers during the 90s. You’ll find a lot of street art here. Independence was declared on April Fools' Day in 1997 but the only entrance requirement is a smile. You can also have your passport stamped at the Galera (unfortunately it was closed when we visited). Of course, no government recognises Uzupis as an independent state - it's all a little tongue-in-cheek. You can walk into the area across a few bridges. No checkpoints exist, just a sign. You may notice a variety of padlocks bolted onto the bridges in the city - this is a tradition for newly-weds, symbolising their undying love.
Not far from here we walked into Kalnai Park and up about 300 steps, which led us up a forested hill. At the top is a monument of three white crosses, officially as a tribute to several missionaries who were tortured by pagans, which makes for a good viewing point of the city. The crosses are reconstructions but the originals lie close by. A neighbouring hill is home to the remains of the Gediminas Castle, though it’s really more of a tower. It dates back to the 13th century but the red-brick tower has been restored.
Vilnius is also home to some spectacular churches and, of course, the city’s cathedral. The cathedral is a grand building, with thick walls, columns and a separate bell tower located next to the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, a reconstruction of a previous building opened in 2009, but for me, perhaps the most specular building is the 500-year-old, red-bricked Gothic St. Anne’s Church.
"Independ-ence was declared on April Fools' Day in 1997 but the only entrance requirement is a smile."
Minsk, Belrus is really close, Europes last dictatorship. It's hard to resist the call - add another dimesion to your trip and visit Minsk.
Read my our story about our trip to Minsk here.
The final push to the top (DN)
The 'border' to The Republic of Uzupis. (DN)
A few highlights
St Anne's Church. (DN)
I honestly think that wandering around the city is best, sampling the local cepelinai (meat-filled dumplings) or the beetroot soup which is available in most places. If this is your first trip to the region then you can really give your taste buds a good exercise as the cuisine can be quite different from what you’re used to. Enjoyed with a local glass of Svyturys - a popular local beer - don’t be afraid to dive into this culinary world of the Baltics. After dusk you’ll see the nightlife blossom; bars, cafes and shops that were camouflaged during the day now stand proud in the illumination of lights and sound. The nightlife in Vilnius is quite fun - though not on the grand scale of some of the country’s eastern European and/or Baltic counterparts, there’s definitely enough to keep you entertained for a couple of nights. It’s not hard to imagine that sadly there’s a good chance it will develop and perhaps rival some other cities in the region as a destination for the stag and hen market in the future.
Run down neighbourhoods have a certain charm in this palce. (MN)
Chicken talons, pig's ears and cold beetroot soup. (MN)
The city also offers its own shooting range located discreetly close by. You’ll need to organise a trip beforehand by an agent - in our case our hostel, Jimmy Jumps House, organised for us to have a shooting taster experience for a couple of hours, and WOW, what an experience! After the safety brief the instructor took us through the use of 13 different guns ranging from handguns to fully automatic machine guns. Now, I’m definitely a gun nut, although normally I’d place myself in the category that would prefer weapons to be banned, but I simply cannot deny the fun and rush one gets from firing these powerful weapons at a target. Weeks after our return from the city we found ourselves talking about a return visit to the gun range.
The shooting range. We fired 13 guns, from hand guns to machine guns.
Well worth a visit and about 20 minutes from the city’s main bus terminal is Trakai Castle. Minibuses take you to the small town, then you’ll have to cross it on foot, but it’s a pleasant walk along colourful wooden buildings often associated with Scandinavia. The castle is superb, as if straight from a medieval fairy tale, it stands proudly across the shoreline as we make our way along the bridge to the island within the lake in which it’s positioned. The red-brick fortifications look incredibly preserved. In reality much of the castle has be reconstruction, but that’s easily forgotten as you walk along its court yard and towering walls. Admission is 14Lt (about £3.25) plus an additional 4Lt for a photography permit.
Trakai Castle is a lovely restoration, and well worth a visit. (MN)