True Lithuania

Old Town of Vilnius (Senamiestis)

UNESCO-inscribed old town of Vilnius is the heartland of the city. Its old palaces, narrow streets and countless churches of different faiths are what attracts tourists to Vilnius.

Katedros Square and the Castle hill area

The Gediminas Hill castle proudly standing above the Old Town (at the end of Pilies street in this picture). The red-brick tower is crowned by the most important flag in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The heart of Senamiestis is Gediminas hill which is crowned by the Upper Castle (14th-15th centuries). A single red tower is rebuilt and it provides good skyline views of the city and also hosts a small museum.

At the bottom of the hill lies Cathedral square with white Neoclassical Vilnius Cathedral. The recently rebuilt controversial Palace of the Grand Dukes is nearby, showing the original ruined basement and quite plain interiors supposed to represent various ages (with archeological finds and plaques on the Grand Duchy). It evokes mixed opinions especially due to high costs and dubious cultural value. The palace arsenal (authentic) houses the National Museum, its halls providing a brief introduction of select features of Lithuanian history and culture. Once walled and more extensive, this complex used to be the Grand Duchy's heart.

Vilnius Cathedral is the most important church in Lithuania. A church in this place was likely established in 1251. The current façade dates to 1801 (architect Laurynas Stuoka-Gucevičius), but many of the side chapels are older. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Nearby green area consists of two separate parks: Bernardine garden and Kalnų (Hill) park. In the Hill Park, one may ascend the Three Crosses hill crowned by a sculpture of three crosses by Anton Wiwulski (1916) reminding of the Christian martyrs killed here by the Pagans in the 14th century. Demolished by the Soviets in 1950 they were hastily rebuilt in 1989.

To the south of Bernardine garden is one of the most beautiful churches in Vilnius the Saint Ann church as well as Saint Francis of Assisi church and monastery. Not far away is a large white Rusian Orthodox church – this cathedral is the center of Russian Orthodoxy in Lithuania.

The Old Town itself lies to the west of these religious buildings. It includes many other elaborate churches with baroque style of 1600s-1700s being the most prevalent one. The old town is crisscrossed by narrow streets. Behind the buildings there lie courtyards, some of them may still be used to go from one street to another while others are closed off by their owners.

Rotušės Square and the Gate of Dawn area

Triangular Rotušės square with the white city hall building visible. In summer outdoor restaurants are opened here. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another main square is Rotušės square (City Hall square) where a former city hall stands (the two floored towerless white building is humble by western standards). The domed Saint Casimir church and Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church are among the buildings surrounding the square.

To the north and west from here is the former Jewish ghetto. While the name "ghetto" may imply negative connotations, for centuries it was an ethnic district that was not secluded from the rest of the city nor it was the only area where the local Jews lived (until the forced Nazi German relocation). Unfortunately, large chunks of Vilnius ghetto were demolished by the Soviets in order to make large squares and wide streets such as Vokiečių street. Vilnius Great Synagogue and most other Jewish religious buildings were demolished as well in the 1950s. The only synagogue still operating is further away in Pylimo street next to a former Jewish hospital. Pylimo street marks the border between Old Town and New Town.

To the south of Rotušės square lies Aušros Vartų street leading to the last remaining gate of the city: the Gate of Dawn, also a site for religious pilgrimage (a sacred miraculous painting of Virgin Mary adorns the gate and it is customary to make a sign of a cross when passing through). Next to the Gate there are churches of three different Christian faiths: Russian Orthodox church and monastery of Holy Spirit, Roman Catholic church of Saint Theresa and Eastern Rite Catholic Church of Saint Trinity (imposing gate leads to its monastery).

Gate of Dawn at the end of Aušros Vartų street. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Subačiaus street branches from Aušros vartų street. It passes the Artillery fortress. According to myths,a basilisk used to live in nearby cellars. In the end of Subačiaus street, there are two tall towers of Missionary church not reopened since Soviet closure and Holy Heart church that is closed as well. Beyond it, you may see great skyline views of the city.

Pilies, Šv. Jono, Dominikonų and Trakų streets

Rotušės square and Cathedral square are connected by Pilies (Castle) pedestrian street which is beautiful but full of overpriced restaurants and souvenir vendors.

In Pilies street there is the university Church of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. Behind its imposing white tower (for a long time the tallest building in Vilnius) lies the entire district occupied by Vilnius University. It claims to be the oldest continuously operating university in the Eastern Europe, teaching students in these same Renaissance courtyards since 1579 when it was established by Jesuits. Today only three of the faculties (history, philosophy, and philology) are located here with the rest mostly transferred to a suburban campus in Saulėtekis (Antakalnis borough) in 1970s. Vilnius University has ~23 000 students.

Vilnius University main campus. It has many courtyards which can be explored. Some marvelous interiors survive or have been newly crafted inside. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Šv. Jono, Dominikonų, and Trakų streets forms a former road to Trakai city which was second in importance only to Vilnius until the 18th century. Now they lead to the New Town (Naujamiestis) borough and pass by several important Roman Catholic churches: the Shrine of the Divine Mercy with its miraculous altar painting that has a worldwide cult following, the Church of the Holy Spirit with its ornate Baroque interior and the spartan gothic Church of Virgin Mary Assumption, still hurt by Soviet desecration. The latter two are surrounded by partly abandoned buildings of closed monasteries.

At the place where Dominikonų street becomes Trakų street this former thoroughfare crosses Vokiečių (see above) and Vilniaus streets. Vilniaus street leads to Gedimino Avenue high street in Naujamiestis. Its most impressive building is probably the Baroque St.Catherine Church now used as a concert hall (well visible from Trakų/Vokiečių/Dominikonų/Vilniaus intersection).

Užupis

Administratively part of the Old Town Užupis is widely regarded to be a separate neighborhood. This 19th-century district beyond the river Vilnia is alongside the former road to Polock city. Under the Soviet rule many buildings here were abandoned and after independence, the run down district became popular with artists and referred to as the "Montmartre of Vilnius". The artists declared a micronation called the "Republic of Užupis" which celebrates an "independence day" coinciding with the April Fools Day. The half-humanist half-humourous constitution of the Republic is proudly attached to a wall in Paupio street (with some 20 translations). Other publicity stunts include a Tibetan Square, occasional political posters and an alley known as "Jono Meko skersvėjis" (literally "Jonas Mekas crosswind", a pun on words "alley" and "crosswind" sounding similarly in Lithuanian). Most buildings in Užupis are now repaired, but there are exceptions. "Angel of Užupis" statue marks the central square and symbolizes the rebirth of the once-derelict district.

The main square of Užupis with the famous angel statue.

The Saint Bartholomeo Roman Catholic church of Užupis offer masses in Polish and Belarusian. Not far away lie the early 19th century Bernardine cemetery, which is among the most beautiful in Vilnius.

See also: Churches of Vilnius Old Town.

Map of Senamiestis. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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  1. I love Vilnius Old town not only because of the beauty of this part, but also because of night life, bars, pups, night clubs, there is lot of them, and all of them are so good, just look- kultura , I can’t believe that in such a small city you can find such a lot places!


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