Whenever anyone asks me my favourite city break destination, I always have the same answer; Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. I had a brilliant time in this gorgeous Baltic capital; it’s walkable, quirky, historic and beautiful. There are so many brilliant things to do in Vilnius that you’ll want to stay for longer than a weekend break – and now CNN Travel agrees with me too – Vilnius is one of their top destinations for 2023.
We’d been to the other Baltic capital cities, Tallinn and Riga, on previous #EUtour trips. Tallinn in October had been a little nippy, but Riga in late November was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life. So for Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, I wanted to go at a sunnier time of year. Our weekend break in mid-May was one of the most enjoyable, most chilled-out city breaks we’ve had.
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On our first day, we took a walking tour of the city with Vilnius With Locals. We started at the town hall square where George W Bush delivered a moving speech welcoming Lithuania to Nato – then delivered exactly the same speech in other newly-liberated former Soviet states.
We carried on through the Jewish quarter past where the city’s synagogue once stood, through the winding streets of the old town and across the Vilnia river to the independent Republic of Užupis. This quirky area has its own constitution, which gives everyone the right to be happy, to be unhappy, to make mistakes, to love, and to take care of the cat. (For its part, the cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need.)
The tour took in Literatų gatvė, a small street where Lithuanian writers are honoured with tiny artworks embedded into the walls. Some artworks honour writers from overseas with connections to Lithuania. Some of them are a little tenuous – Silence of the Lambs author Thomas Harris has a piece because Hannibal Lecter was described as being born in Lithuania.
Nearby are Vilnius’s gorgeous twin brick churches, with their shared bell tower.
We walked past the courtyards of Vilnius University and the Presidential Palace, then on to the enormous Cathedral Square. Vilnius Cathedral looks nothing like any other cathedral I’ve seen, with a design which looks more like a Greek temple and a separate bell tower which used to be part of the town’s fortifications.
Between the Cathedral and the bell tower, there’s a paving slab which is different to all the others and is known as a miracle stone. According to local legend, if you stand on the stone, close your eyes and turn around three times while making a wish, your wish will come true.
Also in the Cathedral Square, you can see a statue of one of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and one of the most significant figures in Lithuanian history, Gediminas. He’s credited with building Vilnius and expanding Lithuania’s borders. I was surprised to discover that, in the 1400s, this tiny country was one of the great powers of Europe, with territories extending all the way to the Black Sea in modern-day Ukraine.
Day 2 – Street Music Day
Each year, on a Saturday in the middle of May, Lithuania celebrates Street Music Day (Gatvės muzikos diena), an event which started in Vilnius but spread across the country and is now in multiple countries. In 2023, Street Music Day will be held on 21 May with the theme Start Music, End War.
From about midday until late in the evening, the streets of the old town, Cathedral Square and the shopping district were full of music from rock bands, youth orchestras, people playing traditional instruments and all sorts of other styles. Seeing performances on Street Music Day was one of our favourite things to do in Vilnius.
Later that evening we looked up and saw the sky above the town hall full of hot air balloons. Vilnius is one of Europe’s hot air balloon capitals and the views from above must be stunning.
After we’d eaten we went through the Gates of Dawn to the edge of the city centre to find one of Europe’s most famous street art pieces. It used to show Trump and Putin kissing but after being vandalised multiple times it was changed for a slightly different version. The mural has been painted over now but this part of Vilnius is still well worth visiting for the street art.
On our last day, we just enjoyed walking through the city. The sun had brought Lithuanians out into the streets and parks and the city centre had a holiday atmosphere with families enjoying picnics and ice cream in lovely Bernardine Park. Vilnius is a very green city and there is no shortage of parks and woods to enjoy the outdoors on a warm sunny day.
Gediminas Hill, with its red brick tower and the remains of Vilnius’s upper castle, is one of the best things to do in Vilnius. There used to be a funicular railway up to the top but after some landslips which threatened the castle, these days the only way up is on foot.
It was a relatively easy climb even in the hot sun and the views from the top are lovely, across the city from Three Crosses Hill to the Soviet-era TV tower.
Another Soviet relic, the huge Brutalist Palace of Concerts and Sports, is easy to spot on the other side of the river. Gediminas Hill was also the starting point in Vilnius for the Baltic Chain – a peaceful protest on 23 August 1989 where two million people formed a human chain linking Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn to show that the three Baltic states wanted independence from the USSR.
That evening we returned to Cathedral Square for the last time. At 7.18pm (19:18 in the 24 hour clock), a lone trumpet player opens a window of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and plays a mournful, patriotic tune. The act commemorates Lithuania’s declaration of independence from Germany in February 1918, the first of their two independence days (the second was from the USSR in March 1990).
Our flight left really early the following morning but our 4am wake-up call was rewarded with the most beautiful pink and red sunrise over the city.
We stayed at: the gorgeous Artagonist Hotel
We saw: castles; medieval streets; an independent artists’ republic; hot air balloons
We ate: garlicky fried bread with cheese sauce
We drank: delicious unfiltered local beer