The 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 heart of Senamiestis is Gediminas hill which is crowned by the Upper Castle (14th-15th centuries). A single red tower has been rebuilt. It provides good skyline views of the city and also hosts a small museum.
At the bottom of the hill lies the Cathedral square with a 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 (supplemented by the archeological finds and plaques on the Grand Duchy). The buildings evokes mixed opinions mainly due to its high costs and dubious cultural value. The Palace Arsenal (authentic) houses the National Museum, its halls providing a brief introduction to select features of Lithuanian history and culture. Once walled and more extensive, this complex used to be the Grand Duchy's heart.
The nearby green area consists of two separate parks: the Bernardine Farden 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 1950s, they crosses were hastily rebuilt in 1989.
To the south of Bernardine garden stands the Saint Ann church, one of the most beautiful churches in Vilnius, as well as Saint Francis of Assisi church and monastery. Not far away is a large white Rusian Orthodox cathedral – 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 still used to go from one street to another, while others are closed off by their owners.
Rotušės Square and the Gate of Dawn area
Another main square is the 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 had not been 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 the 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 under). 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 (an imposing gate leads to its monastery).
Subačiaus street branches from Aušros vartų street. It passes the Artillery fortress. According to myths,a basilisk used to live in nearby cellars. At the end of the Subačiaus street, there are two tall towers of the Missionary church not reopened since Soviet closure and the Holy Heart church that is closed as well. Beyond it, you may enjoy 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 stands 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.
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).
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 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.