2nd Largest City of the Baltic States | True Lithuania
True Lithuania

Vilnius Travel Guide: An Introduction

Skyline of Vilnius

A picture of Vilnius Old Town taken from the top of Gediminas Castle hill. Saint Johns' spire is the one visible the best. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Vilnius is the Lithuania's capital and its largest city (population 550 000). Officially established in the 14th century (but likely dating to an earlier era), this city is well-known for its massive UNESCO-inscribed Medieval old town. After all, Vilnius has been a capital since at least the 14th century. In that time, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania used to be the largest state in Europe.

Vilnius has been a multi-ethnic and multi-religious city for centuries, as evident in religious buildings of 9 different faiths, each of them pre-dating World War 1. Today that atmosphere still remains, with ethnic Lithuanians making less than 60% of the population (Poles – 19,4%, Russians – 14,43%, Belarussians – 4,19%).

Despite harboring many faiths and a remarkable religious tolerance, Vilnius always has been a religious city. It is said that you can see a church spire from any given site of its narrow Old Town streets. While not entirely true, the density of lavish baroque Catholic churches funded by the local wealthy families there is indeed one of the largest in Europe. Saint Peter and Paul church is famous for its 2000-statue interior while Saint Anne gothic church is known for its fine facade, supposedly loved by Napoleon Bonaparte. Four other Christian denominations, as well as Judaism and Karaism, also have their centuries-old houses of worship in Vilnius.

Alumnatas courtyard in Vilnius

Alumnatas courtyard in the Old Town. Ranging from opulent to derelict, the courtyards of downtown Vilnius are a hidden face of the city. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

With its location in the heart of Europe (according to the French geographic institute, the center of Europe is in a certain well-marked spot north of Vilnius) Vilnius has been at the crossroads of many different armies and empires, Napoleon’s being just one of them.

The scars of the more recent occupations are felt better. You may visit the Parliament and Vilnius TV Tower where Russian soldiers killed 14 unarmed pro-independence civilians in January of 1991. Museum of Genocide Victims and Tuskulėnai memorial are located where Soviets used to torture, murder and secretly bury Lithuanians in 1940s-1980s (hundreds of thousands perished during that brutal occupation). Paneriai memorial marks the place where Nazi Germany killed a large share of Vilnius Jewish community during World War 2 (in 1931 Jews made up 27,8% of Vilnius inhabitants and the city is said to have been nicknamed the Jerusalem of the North).

Being a modern capital, Vilnius also has a new skyscraper district, centered around the Europos square. Moreover, the city is the best place in Lithuania for shopping, offering diverse opportunities such as Akropolis and Ozas shopping malls and the bazaar-like Gariūnai market. Together with Kaunas, it offers the widest array of museums: multiple art museums (both old art and modern art), the National museum and more. It is in Vilnius where there are the most cultural activities. It is here where the nightlife is the best in Lithuania.

More information:
Vilnius by borough (district): An area-by-area guide to Vilnius and its sights, with maps and pictures.
Vilnius by topic: Shopping, Entertainment, Churches and other topics of Vilnius.

Map of the Vilnius boroughs. The more interesting historical boroughs are color-coded and each has a separate article dedicated to it on this website. The Soviet boroughs area all painted in green shade. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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