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Vilnius Travel Guide: An Introduction

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 Lithuanian capital and the 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 UNESCO-inscribed medieval old town, the largest in the Eastern Europe. After all, Vilnius has been a capital since at least 14th century and Grand Duchy of Lithuania used to be the largest state in Europe back then.

Vilnius was always a multi-ethnic and multi-religious city as evident from religious buildings of 9 different faiths, all pre-dating World War 1. Today that atmosphere still remains, with ethnic Lithuanians making less than 60% of population (Poles – 19,4%, Russians – 14,43%, Belarussians – 4,19%).

Despite harboring many faiths and remarkable religious tolerance Vilnius always has been a religious city. It is said that in the narrow streets of its old town you can always see a church spire. While not entirely true, the density of lavish baroque Catholic churches funded by wealthy families there is indeed one of the largest in Europe. Saint Peter and Paul church is famous for its interior with over 2000 statues while Saint Anne gothic church is known for its fine exterior, 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 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 was at the crossroads of many different armies and empires, Napoleon’s being just one of them.

The scars of more recent occupations are felt better. You can visit Parliament and Vilnius TV Tower where Russian soldiers killed 14 armless 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 inhabittants and the city was nicknamed Jerusalem of the North).

Being a modern capital Vilnius also has a new skyscreaper district, centered around Europos square. The city is also the best place 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: mutiple art museums (both old art and modern art), the National museum. 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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Old Town of Vilnius (Senamiestis)

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 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 the Gediminas hill that 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 the 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 to select features of Lithuanian history and culture. Once walled and more extensive this complex was 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 the Kalnų (Hill) park. In the Hill Park one may accend 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 criss-crossed 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 standarts). 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 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 piligrimage (a sacred miraculous painting of Virgin Mary adorns the gate and it is customary to make a sign of 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 the Missionary church not reopened since Soviet closure and a 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 univesity 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 phillology) 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, Domininkonų and Trakų streets forms a former road to Trakai city which was second in importantce 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, 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 as 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 reffered to as the "Montmartre of Vilnius". The artists declared a micronation called "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" (litterally "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 symbolises the rebirth of once derelict district.

Main square of Užupis with the famous angel statue.

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

See also: Churches of Vilnius Old Town.

Map of Senamiestis. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Churches of the Vilnius Old Town

Some of the more impressive or important churches of Vilnius Old Town are described here. Unfortunately only several among them survived the Soviet occupation without getting closed (Saint Nicholas, Saint Theresa, Holy Spirit and Saint Ann Roman Catholic churches and all the Russian Orthodox churches except for Paraskeviya). The closures meant not only a cease on celebrating the Holy Mass, but also massive desecrations, ransackings and remodelling as the buildings were put to other uses (sports halls, warehouses, museums). As such the interiors of these once closed churches were heavily hit and many are not yet completely restored. That said, the exteriors are now largely restored.

In total, there are 28 churches in Vilnius Old Town elderate (one church per every 700 inhabittants). Of them 21 are Roman Catholic and 4 are Russian Orthodox. Lutheran, Reformed and Eastern Rite Catholic communities have one church each. All non-catholic churches are working, but 6 of the Catholic churches have not yet reopened after the Soviet occupation.

Katedros Square and the Castle hill area

*Vilnius Cathedral is the seat of the Vilnius archdiocese. Its orderly white Neo-Classical interior dating to 1801 makes it hard to believe that this is the earliest established church in Vilnius. The earlier centuries are visible in side chapels that come in every architectural style that was once popular in Lithuania. The bottom half of Cathedral belfry is in fact a former defensive tower of Vilnius lower castle. Tiles of different colour marks the places in the square where the defensive wall used to stand. Additionally you may visit the Cathedral cellar with its crypts of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania luminaries.
*Saint Ann church (1500) is a gothic masterpiece. Its extremely elaborate facade is small by medieval church standarts and is out-flanked by nearby gothic Saint Francis Church (1516) that is larger but lacking interesting facade and with its interior damaged by the Soviet desecration. Saint Francis church includes a monastery notable for owning an internet news website. It also celebrates Roman Catholic mass in English every Sunday.

Flamboyant facade of the Saint Ann church. The bellfry on the right was constructed later (1802). The Saint Francis of Assisi church is in the background. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*Saint Michael church (1594) is a late Rennaisance church that once served the local nunnery. Soviets turned the church into a museum of architecture. While not reopened the church now houses a more appropriate museum of religious art.
*Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Accension is the most important Russian Orthodox religious building in Lithuania. Originally built in 1348 under Grand Duke Agirdas it saw mixed fortunes, including abandonment and non-religious usage after the 1748 fire of Vilnius. It was returned to the Church by Russian Imperial government in 1868 (which also commissioned a major reconstruction work).

Rotušės Square and the Gate of Dawn area

*Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox church once looked much more western until Russian Empire rebuilt it in its showcase neo-Byzantic style (mid-19th century). Today it is probably the most beautiful among Russian Orthodox churches of Vilnius.
*Saint Casimir Jesuit church completed in 1616 is early baroque. Its large dome is well visible from the City Hall (Rotušės) square.

Baroque Saint Casimir church (1616) in the Rotušės square.

*Graceful Virgin Mary church is the only single-towered Baroque church in Lithuania. Constructed in 1768 it is now abandoned as the Soviets completely destroyed the interior which makes any possible renovation extremely costly.
*Following Rūdninkų street south from Rotušės square will lead you to the Church of All Saints and a former carmelite monastery (1630, early baroque).
*The Gate of Dawn is the only remaining historical gate to Vilnius city. It is also a chapel notable for its miraculous painting of Virgin Mary that is visible to everybody passing the gate. Some people makes the sign of the cross when passing the gate. Back to the years before the Soviet occupation it was common to kneel a pray here right in the street. Religious goods are still sold in the surrounding areas. Many Lithuanian emmigrant churches have been dedicated to Our Lady of Vilnius (Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn) as this is one of Lithuania's most important religious places.
*A monumental gate to the right when you come towards the Gate of Dawn from the Old Town side leads to the Eastern Rite Catholic church of Holy Trinity (1516, Baroque). The gate is perhaps the most impressive part of its edifices that once housed a large monastery. The church itself is still used but quite derelict.
*A small gate to the left when you come the Gate of Dawn from the Old Town side leads to the Russian Orthodox church of Holy Spirit. Here is the only Russian Orthodox monastery in Lithuania. Three saints are interred in front of the iconostasis.
*In the Aušros vartų (Gate of Dawn) street itself a Baroque (1650) Roman Catholic Saint Theresa church proudly stands.
*Following the Subačiaus street that branches east from the Aušros Vartų street you will reach the crubling beauty of two Baroque churches in the former monasteries, both closed and not reopened: the Lord Accesion church (1730) as well as the Jesus Heart church (1765).

Lord Accension (towered) and Jesus Heart (domed) churches as they are visible from Saint John church tower.

Pilies, Šv. Jono, Dominikonų and Trakų streets

*Church of Saints Johns (1426 - 1610, Pilies Street) belongs to Vilnius University rather than the Roman Catholic archdiocese. Mass is celebrated here but it is also the place where students eventually receive their diplomas. The front rows are reserved to the academia. The tower of the Church of Saints Johns is the tallest spire in Vilnius at 68 meters. You can accend in a newly installed elevator and see the best views of Vilnius Old Town.
*Shrine of the Divine Mercy (Dominikonų street) is dedicated to a single miraculous painting that adorns its altar. This work of art represents Divine Mercy and it was inspired by visions received by nun Faustina Kowalska in 1931. This is a bit of Vilnius history that has spread to all Catholic nations of the world and beyond as copies of the Divine Mercy painting be found in churches as far as Marshall Islands in Polynesia. Vatican dedicated year 2011 to Divine Mercy (the veneration of which started in Vilnius).
*Holy Spirit church is the home of the Polish community. While Polish mass is celebrated in many churches of Vilnius only in this church there is no mass celebrated in any other language than Polish. Its interior is very elaborate Baroque one and dates to 1776. The church survived without major closures or desecrations. Nearby monastery is unfortunately derelict and closed. In the crypts bellow the church mummified bodies lay buried giving rise to many legends (closed to visiting).

Interior of the Holy Spirit church. A copy of the Divine Mercy painting in the center. The original used to hang here before it was transfered to a devoted shrine nearby. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*Lutheran church is hidden in a courtyard of Vokiečių (German) street. Originally serving German traders it took centuries to establish a Lithuanian congregation. Today the church also serve tourist and expatriate protestants with English mass.
*Standing in a narrow Mikalojaus street Saint Nicholas Roman Catholic church is the oldest church in Vilnius. Built for a community of German Hanseatic merchants in 1320 this Gothic church is so small because Lithuanians were still Pagan at the time. The interior vault decor showing human-faced Sun and Moon reminds that the artists who painted it were most likely Pagan. This church always had Lithuanian language mass celebrated even under the Polish rule (1922 - 1939) when only several percent of Vilnius inhabittants spoke Lithuanian as their native language. It was among the few churches not closed down by the Soviets. Hence its interior includes patriotic motives such as a statue of Grand Duke Vytautas the Great.
*Saint Catherine church (1743) is a Baroque pearl in Vilniaus street. Closed and desecrated by the Soviets it was never reopened and currently serves as a concert hall. Damaged sculptures of the saints provides a unique atmosphere for what are mostly alternative music concerts (ethnic, religious, sung poetry, a capella and other genres).
*Gothic Church of Virgin Mary Accension (1421) in Trakų street is slowly coming up from Soviet desecration; its massive interior still quite plain. Extensive nearby building once housed a Franciscan monastery but is now painstakingly restored as offices.

Church of Virgin Mary Accension interior. The Soviet-looted churches such as Virgin Mary Accension still have a lot of scars in their interiors as massive costs slow down their rejuvenation. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*In Pylimo street beyond the former (demolished) city gate at Trakų street stands the neoclassical Reformed Christian church of Vilnius (1835). Having lost its roof statues to Soviet atheist fervor the church still boasts a grand ceiling.

See article on the Old Town for a map of all the church locations.

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Naujamiestis (New Town) Borough in Vilnius

New Town is a product of 19th century expansion which was minor in Vilnius comparing it to major metropolises of the Western Europe but nevertheless increased the Vilnius population fourfold (from 50 000 in 1800 to over 210 000 in 1914).

Naujamiestis was conceived by the Russian Empire to be the grand centre of what was then the capital of its Vilnius Governorate and the main city in the Northwestern Krai (an administrational unit roughly comprising of modern-day Lithuania and Belarus). Naujamiestis lies entirely to the west of the Old Town.

Gedimino Avenue

2 kilometers long Gedimino Avenue (laid in the 19th century) is still widely regarded to be the main street of Vilnius. It leads from the Cathedral square to Žvėrynas borough passing by many stately buildings. Most of Lithuania's ministries, its government and parliament as well as its National Theatre, central post office and three major courts of law are located along this thoroughfare. Unfortunately, Gedimino Avenue is relatively narrow for its importance. Therefore some architectural details might be hard to notice without looking upwards. Interesting buildings include (from east to west) the Science Academy building, Saint George Hotel (currently restored as an apartment building), Statistics department building, Court of Appeals building, Trader‘s Club building. The numerous restaurants and shops are primarilly concentrated at the Cathedral side of the Avenue.

Gedimino Avenue near V. Kudirkos square during the Day of Street Music. Many events are organized in the Avenue and at these times it is pedestrianized. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

To the east of the Saint George Hotel there is Vinco Kudirkos square (one third way from the Cathedral to Žvėrynas) that boasts a statue to V. Kudirka (the author of Lithuanian anthem). It is surrounded by monumental buildings of every post-1880s style that was popular in Lithuania. To the north stands the Soviet functionalist Government of Lithuania (1982), east is dominated by the imposing historicist Gedimino 9 shopping mall (former municipality palace, 1893), west is covered by a Stainist apartment buiding (1950s) whereas the southern flank of the square has interwar buidings (1930s) and a recently built Novotel hotel (2000s).

The Courts building (1890) at large Lukiškių square (about two thirds of the way from Cathedral square to Žvėrynas) used to serve as HQ for both Gestapo and KGB. Many people were tortured and murdered here, some of their names now inscribed on the 19th century building which now also houses an interesting Museum of Genocide Victims (where you can visit authentic KGB cells). Once a Lenin statue stood in the center of Lukiškių square and now this place is empty, but on the flanks of the square there are memorials for Lithuanian partisans and those exiled to Siberia by the Soviet regime. The particular monument was planned to be erected in Yakutsk, Russia, but this was banned by the Russian government even though accepted by city authorities.

The courts building in Gedimino Avenue and Lukiškų Square. Part of the building is dedicated to the Museum of Genocide Victims. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lukiškių square is surrounded by other interesting buildings such as the Church of Saints Phillip and Jacob (predating Naujamiestis, 1727) and a complex of terrace homes developed by banker Juozapas Montvila in 1911-1913; every part of the building is of different architectural style. Not far away is the 19th century Lukiškės prison, still the nation‘s main male penitentiary despite many calls to move it out of the city.

The Lituanian parliament building on the western end of the Gedimino Avenue is modern (built in 1982, expanded in 2000s). However its historical importance far outweights its size or beauty as it is the spot where Soviet Union started to collapse when Lithuania became the first country to declare independence on March 11th, 1990. On January 1991 Soviet forces attacked Vilnius, but a great mass of people surrounded parliament and built concrete barricades (a couple of them remains as a monument on the Neris side of parliament still boasting the original graffiti). The Soviets did not capture the square, now named after independence (Nepriklausomybės). Laid over a major automobile tunnel, this square also houses the National Library and is overlooked by somewhat vacant office towers.

An example of the concrete barricades used during the siege of Vilnius in 1991 January. Graffiti tells a story of Lithuania's political climate of the time. Much of it is in English as the Lithuanians hoped to receive help from the West in their plight. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Bank of Neris

The southern bank of Neris at Žygimantų street (just to the west of the Cathedral Square) looks gracefully from the other side of the river. Buildings here are mostly early 20th century apartment blocks and during this era the street was a popular boulevard for leisure walks.

Naujamiestis remained the most important city borough up to 1990s. Therefore it has a fair share of interwar and Soviet monumental buildings. The best place to watch for Stalinist architecture is the banks of Neris river further downstream (Goštauto Street) where the House of Scientists stands crowned by a tower (1951). Here scientists used to live under the Soviet rule (some of them still do). Not far away to the east is the building dedicated for "returnees" - emmigrant Lithuanians who chosen to return to Soviet Lithuania after Stalin's invitation late 1940s. These returnees were important for propaganda but with the exception of apartments in this building Stalin gave them little else, breaking the promises.

House of the Scientists by architect Giovanni Rippa from Leningrad in Goštauto Street is one of the best examples of the monumental Stalinist architecture in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Between the Stalinist and the pre-War Neris banks stands a late-Soviet National Opera and Ballet theater (1974) with its kitsch interior decor. Whatever the building it is a good opportunity to see world class opera and ballet performances at low prices (compared to such performances in the West).

In front of the National Opera theater you will see Žaliasis (Green) Bridge that leads to Šnipiškės borough. While a bridge over Neris river stood at this place for centuries, the current one dates to the Stalinist era (1952). Another remnant of Soviet historicism it has four statues depicting Soviet soldiers, students, industral workers and peasants. On top of one of them you may see the last remaining hammer and sickle in downtown Vilnius. Unlike many other propaganda statues the Žaliasis Bridge ones are safeguarded by city planners as an example of their era.

Tauras Hill area

Another nice 19th century street is the uphill Basanavičiaus Street where the palatial HQ of Lithuanian railways (constructed in 1903 as HQ for railways of western Russian Empire) proudly stands. On the other side of the street is the Russian theater. This building used to be Polish theater before the Soviet occupation. It was built in 1913 following an architectural style reminiscent of southern Poland (Zakopane style).

Basanavičiaus-Mindaugo interesection. Railways HQ building is in the center. When built this 8 storey building was the highest seccular structure in the city. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Kalinausko street offers an alternative accension route from the Old Town. It passes Frank Zappa statue unveiled by local fans amidst US media attention in 1995 (since 2010 its copy stands in Baltimore). It is not only a monument to the singer but also to the libertarian Lithuania of 1990s when seemingly anything was possible with no bureucracy to preclude it.

On the top of Tauras hill in place of Lutheran cemetary Soviets built the Palace of the Labour Unions (1956). The buildings architectural design was heavily simplified after the Stalin's death and it marks the transition from the monumental Stalinist architecture to the late Soviet functionalism. A century old idea to build so-called Home of the Nation here resurfaces from time to time.

The northern slope of Tauras hill is an open area. This allows great views towards Gedimino Avenue, Neris river and New City Center. If you go downhill by stairs from here you will reach Pamėnkalnio street. Running parallel to the Gedimino Avenue Pamėnakalnio street also has some nice buildings from the 19th century and the Stalinist era Pergalė cinema (now a major casino). Pamėnkalnis by the way is the historical name for Tauras hill, possibly relating to ghosts.

On top of the Tauras hill a calm M. K. Čiurlionio street passes by turn-of-the-century urban villas, Vilnius university faculties and new expensive developments. It leads to Vingis (Bend of Neris) park, a popular place for summer strolls and an unlikely location of the Lithuania's main rugby stadium in addition to the German soldier cemetary and the central lawn where the pro-independence demonstrations of late 1980s have now been replaced by the gigs of foreign divas.

Station district

Both railroad station and bus station of Vilnius are located in southernmost end of Naujamiestis. Together with the surrounding plaza they were built under Soviet occupation (after destroying many older buildings). But the adjoining streets like Šopeno are still full of stately buildings dating to the dawn of the 20th century and are worth exploring. Additionally many cheap hostels and various restaurants are located within easy reach from the stations. Unfortuantely this particular area known as „Stoties rajonas“ („Station district“) has a bad reputation for prostitution and criminal activity.

Map of Naujamiestis. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Šnipiškės Borough in Vilnius

Sometimes Šnipiškės is regarded as a "Village inside city" and its central districts still live up to this title. They are almost entirely dominated by wooden private homes. Most of them are heated by burning wood in stoves and many even lack tap water and sewarage (public water outlets are used). Some of the streets are not yet paved. This central Šnipiškės is an indirect heritage of Soviet urban planning when new districts would be built in some places while some others would be left completely untouched. Šnipiškės was among the later and so you can still witness how a 19th century wooden suburb of Vilnius looked like. Streets like Giedraičių or unpaved Šilutės are the best to see this.

Central Šnipiškės is no Žvėrynas. Despite being in a walking distance to the city center this district somehow fails to attract the rich and remains dominated by its old inhabittants.

19th and early 20th century wooden houses in Giedraičių street, Šnipiškės. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The southern Šnipiškės is a different story however. Designated to be the new city center in 1980s it saw its old homes replaced by 22 storey Hotel Lietuva, planetarium and the largest department store in Soviet Vilnius. In 2000s this trend continued with the first skyscraper district in Lithuania hugging the modern Konstitucijos (Constitution) Avenue and the new Europos (Europe) Square. Several mid-sized shopping malls and many offices are here next to Neris river as is the National Gallery of (20th Century) Art. On the area's western edge the Baltic Way memorial commemorates the world's original (and largest) human chain (2 million people, 650 km for the Baltic States independence in 1989). The tricolor wall itself is unique for being crowd-funded, every brick bearing a name of a benefactor.

Pro-development stance that regards the wooden Šnipiškės as a total anachronism frequently clashed with a stance that sees it as an important heritage that must be saved. There was a time when owners of some old wooden houses would burn them down in order to get a construction permit for a modern building. However as of now it is still possible to see a remarkable contrast between a 19th century suburb and 21st century city center within meters from each other in Šnipiškės. They are nearby but not intermingled as there is a very fine invisible line that divides glass-and-concrete skyscreapers on the one side, and the World War 1 era buildings on the other.

A view south from Central Šnipiškės (Giedraičių Street) with the new city center visible. The circular skyscreaper to the right is the 33 floor Europa Tower. With 148 meters height it is the tallest building in the Baltic States. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The main throughfare of Šnipiškės is the north-south Kalvarijų street. You see all the faces of Šnipiškės by travelling it and you may always turn westwards into the side-streets. Kalvarijų Street begins in the south with graceful Saint Raphael church and monastery (1709) on one side and a nice Gothic revival palace on the other, sadly half-destroyed by the Soviets. These elaborate buildings could as well be in the New Town which is just beyond the Žaliasis bridge.

Going the Kalvarijų street northwards you pass the recent developments and then wooden buildings start appearing. One of the largest marketplaces in Vilnius (Kalvarijų turgus) and a Russian Orthodox church of Archangel Michael are located alongside.

Kalvarijų street serves as a trunk road linking city center to its northern boroughs. Therefore many buildings here have been converted to commercial use. If you want a more authentic experience, you may choose to stroll in some of the parallel streets such as Giedraičių and Šilutės.

There is a third and the least interesting face of Šnipiškės: the north of the district (to the north of Žalgirio street). It is dominated by Soviet functionalist apartment blocks that are not different from similar buildings elsewhere in Vilnius. Except that there is an occasional wooden house left between them.

Map of central and southern Šnipiškės. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Žvėrynas Borough in Vilnius

Žvėrynas name means "Land of the Beasts" and reminds of a time when this forest inside the bend of Neris river was the hunting ground of the nobility. By the early 20th century however it was built up as a wooden suburb. Many of its wooden houses have elaborate architectural details that made this district famous. Most of the homes here are still detached private houses owned by a single or several families.

An interesection of Kęstučio and Moniuškos streets. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In 1990s Žvėrynas became a prestigious neighborhood. It is within a very easy reach from all main districts of Vilnius and yet next to the greenery of Vingis park and its tree-lined streets are never overcrowded. Therefore, many new multistorey apartment buildings were built while numerous old houses were repaired. This is in stark contrast to Šnipiškės where wooden homes still stand in a sorry state.

Žvėrynas still has its old charm however and a stroll around its parallel streets is definitely rewarding. Here you can see the only Karaite Kenessa of Vilnius (and one of two in Lithuania; 1923), a towerless Roman Catholic church (unfortunately there was no money to build the towers; 1925) and two Russian Orthodox churches (the larger one, known as Znamenskaya, was built by the Russians in 1903 to counterweight urbanistic importance of the Catholic Cathedral at the opposite end of Gedimino Avenue). The iron arch Žvėrynas bridge which joined then-suburb to the city in 1906 is also still standing.

Karaite kenessa in Liubarto street is one of only two remaining Karaite religious buildings in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

But these buildings may only serve as a pretext for your explorations as it is likely be so that you will find some of the ordinary houses that line the side-streets to be even more compelling.

Several embassies are located in the calmness of Žvėrynas.

Map of Žvėrynas with places of interest marked. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Antakalnis Borough in Vilnius

A former Antakalnis suburb is lined along a single street that starts near Cathedral Square and goes northwards parallel to river Neris. Its most interesting sight is definitely the Baroque interior of the Saints Peter and Paul church (construction began in 1668).

A detail of Saint Peter and Paul church interior with only a small fraction of its 2000 meticulously shaped white figures and reliefs. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Not far away from this church there are several palaces built by nobility of years gone by. Some of them well visible from the main street (like that of Vileišiai), others, like that of Sluškos (now Academy of Theater and Music), are hidden behind other buildings.

The architecture of southern Antakalnis is very eclectic with buildings from very different eras standing side-by-side. Saints Peter and Paul church as well as the Sapiega manor are a heritage of the 17th century. Sapiega palace is now abandoned, but the single storey buildings in its extensive park (now reduced in size) are used by a hospital. You may walk around freely in its area.

Many detached private homes of Antakalnis dates to the 19th century or the early 20th century. This includes the elaborate yet compact Vileišiai palace of 1906 (an era when businessmen rather than nobility were building the most impressive residences). Vileišiai family were industrialists notable for promoting Lithuanian language at the time when most of the city‘s elite prefered Polish.

Vileišiai Palace is small in size but not in elaborate details on its facade. The palace is surrounded by larger buildings that were also owned by the Vileišiai businessmen family. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The development of Antakalnis continued in the interwar period when a district of modern white terrace homes was added in front of the Saints Peter and Paul church. The borough was further extended by the Soviets who built many blank apartment blocks amidst Antakalnis‘s older manors and wooden homes. The expansion continues as some new buildings have been constructed in southern Antakalnis since 1990s while a former military base is now a Museum of Military Technics full of rusting Eastern European war vehicles.

Surrounded by Soviet buildings is St. Faustina home, a former nunnery where sister Faustina received the visions that served as a basis for the world-famous ivine Mercy painting. Now it is a minimalist museum of relics, 1930s Vilnius images and a religious shop.

The northern part of Antakalnio street (north of the Sapiega palace) is mostly built up by Soviet buildings. At the northernmost end there is the Saulėtekis district that serves as a pan-university campus. Main campuses of Vilnius University, Vilnius Gediminas Technical University are located here and Mykolas Romeris University also owns a single building partly leased to the Russian language European Humanitarian University owned by the Belarusian opposition. 16 stories tall student dormitories, nicknamed "New York" by those who live there, dominates the scene. Unless you study here there is little to see as the campus is built in 1960s or later. Modern University library is however a pleasant exception: free-to-use and open 24/7 its 4 story reading rooms houses thousands of English books including some travel literature (night-time entry restricted to members).

Vilnius University library, completed in 2013. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Two cemetaries crown the forested hills east of Antakalnis. Antakalnis cemetary serves as the national pantheon for Lithuania's artists, politicians as well as multi-national soldiers and victims of war: the members of ill-fated Napoleon‘s Grande-Armee, the Polish troops of 1919-1920 and those killed by the Soviet invaders in 1991. Nearby picturesque Saulės (St. Peter and Paul) cemetary is much older (19th century), providing final resting place for the pre-war nobility and ordinary citizens alike.

Map of the southern Antakalnis. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Southern Vilnius: Naujininkai and Rasos Boroughs

The area to the south of the railroad and east of the Old Town is a 19th century district of Vilnius that was heavily rebuilt in the Soviet era. Only a minority of buildings are dating to pre-1940 here today. Furthermore, the district has a bad reputation for crime. Still however in Vilnius there are no districts like US ghettos and the differences in crime levels are relatively minor.

The most visited site in this area is the Rasos cemetary (established in 1796). In this cemetary on a hill many 19th and early 20th century famous people are interred. The inscriptions are mostly Polish although some native speakers of Lithuanian are buried here as well, such as the Vileišiai businessman family, doctor Jonas Basanavičius and painter Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis. The heart of the first president of Poland Jozef Pilsudski also found its peace here (Pilsudski was born in what is now Lithuania).

Gravestones and crypts of Rasos cemetary in summer. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another cemetary belongs to the Old Believers as Naujininkai is a center of this Russian religious community since the 19th century. Their church with a „golden“ dome (actually covered by titanium nitride) built in 1905 still stands next to the cemetary with its peculiar 8-branched crosses.

A Russian Orthodox church dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevskiy is beautiful but small and surrounded by blank Soviet walls.

Markučiai wooden manor, once owned by the family of famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, is also in Rasos. A Pushkin museum is now opened inside (as Lithuanian philosopher A. Juozaitis states in his book, a memorial to Pushkin has been created in every Soviet city). If it is worth a visit it is not because of the poet himself (who never visited Vilnius), but because of the old furniture and layout giving a vivid image on how the upper middle class of the Russian Empire lived.

Markučiai manor stands on a hill, surrounded by a nice park. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

mapof Rasos borough

Map of Rasos borough. ©Augustinas Žemaitis, Open Street Map.

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Žirmūnai borough

Žirmūnai is a largely rebuilt borough that has some hidden gems.

Foremost among them is the Tuskulėnai Peace Park. Once a manor owned by Tiškevičiai and Valavičiai families (built in 1825) it was natioanlized by the Soviets and used to dispose of the political prisoner bodies. At least 724 were buried here, including Lithuanian freedom fighters, priests and Polish Armija Krajowa fighters. Some criminals (10%) were also buried but as Soviets purposefully damaged all the bodies with acid the bones were impossible to distinguish after exhumation in 1996.

Neoclassical Tuskulėnai manor now house park offices and temporary exhibitions while a small but modern museum is located at the southern end of the complex. The underground memorial and collumbarium (2006) looks like a crowned burial mound in the center. Its massive brutalist entrance hides an impressive post-modern interior, incorporating Egyptian and vernacular Lithuanian details. Visiting could be arranged at the park offices or museum.

Interior of Tuskulėnai Memorial. The symbolic round central room (right) is surrounded by a corridor full of numbered urns with the remains of Tuskulėnai victims. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Soviet brutalist Palace of Concerts and Sports (1971) on the northern bank of Neris river is built on a place where Vilnius largest Jewish cemetary once stood (until it was destroyed by the Soviets in the 1950s). With the completion of new arenas this one is no longer used. Car park in front of it was turned into a grassland for memorial purposes in the 2000s.

Palace of Concerts and Sports in Vilnius (Olimpiečių Street) is an example of what the key public buildings of the late Soviet era looked like. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

North of the Palace of Concerts and sports stands a little used stalinist Žalgiris stadium, built by the German POWs in 1948 and still the largest stadium in Lithuania. To the east is an red ice hockey rink now repurposed as a multi-troupe theater. Stalinist Žalgiris swimming pool used to complete this 1950s-1970s complex but it has been since replaced by modern apartments. Nearby street names like Olimpiečių and Sporto still reminds of the past when southern Žirmūnai was the heart of Lithuanian sport.

On the opposite side of Rinktinės street a Museum of Technology operates in what was Vilnius's first power plant (1904), still crowned by a statue of personified Energy. The showcases range from old turbines, cars and Lithuanian industrial history to generic optical illusions.

The North Town (Šiaurės Miestelis) area was in the 19th century a Imperial Russian military base, which housed a Soviet garrison after World War 2. Around year 2000 it was heavily redeveloped and now there is a modern district of new apartments, offices and retail. A quarter of it forms the Ogmios Retail City which is a good place for shopping.

A few Russian imperial barracks remains in the North Town, purposefully restored instead of facing destruction. They add some atmosphere to the district but are not a reason enough to visit on their own.

The rest of Žirmūnai is effectively a Soviet apartment borough built around 1960s when it became the first functionalist district of Vilnius.

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Soviet Micro-Districts in Vilnius

By the 1960s Soviet urban philosophy moved from the expansion of natural city centers to the construction of new "micro-districts". Each micro-district would have a shop, a kindergarten and many apartment blocks. Each apartment block would be built according to similar design as the rest of them. Every micro-district would be separated from most other micro-districts by grasslands or small forests. The areas between apartment blocks would also be open spaces that are now filled by cars.

There is little to see in most micro-districts but strolling around one of them might be interesting to fully understand where the majority (some 55%) of Vilnius inhabittants live. All the Soviet micro-districts are concentrated west of Vilnius 19th century districts. Four to eight lane trunk streets such as Laisvės Avenue, T. Narbuto street, Ozo street or Ukmergės street connect micro-districts to each other and to the city center. These thoroughfares are now commercial hubs.

*The first new Soviet borough in Vilnius is Lazdynai, constructed in 1967 – 1973.
*Karoliniškės is the second one, built in 1970s. It was the site of the January 13th 1991 attacks by the Soviet troops against armless people defending the Vilnius TV Tower. This tower, still the tallest structure in Lithuania and once among the 10 tallest in the world, has a public observatory. Paukščių Takas expensive restaurant that is open there rotates around in 24 hours. Streets in Karoliniškės are named after people killed in that bloody night of 1991. While Soviet troops managed to capture the TV tower their advances were halted elsewhere and after several months of propaganda broadcastings the Soviets abandoned the tower after trashing transmission systems.
Karoliniškės also is the home for the Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis church. The construction started in 1991 but was never finished and while the building is consecrated it looks incomplete without the tower. It is a good example of the „church building boom“ of early 1990s when religious freedom finally came to Lithuania.

Laisvės (Independence) Avenue with TV Tower annually converted into the 'World's largest Christmas tree'. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*Viršuliškės was built in 1970s.
*Baltupiai was built in 1970s. Unlike the rest of micro-districts it has several old buildings. The Calvary church (1700), once proudly standing in the countryside, is a popular religious piligrimage site with its long via dolorosa path in surrounding park recreating the final path taken by Jesus Christ (the 7 km lenght and relative directions are authentic). Destroyed by the Soviets in 1962 these 35 chapels are now rebuilt. This church is so important that the local village has been renamed Jeruzalė (Jerusalem) in the 18th century; the name is still used for the modern district.
*Santariškės is the location of main hospitals and clinics of Lithuania.
*Šeškinė was built approximately on 1980. It is now famous for Akropolis shopping mall, largest in the Baltic States (over 100 000 sq. m). Vilnius's 2nd largest shopping mall Ozas is also in the same Ozo street, forming the center of a wide-scale modern development which also includes water theme park and 11 000-seat arena. As the heart of sports (and music) in Vilnius the area has a basketball monument and an alley where every lamppost bears an image of Lithuania's major sportsperson.

Basketball monument in front of Siemens arena in Šeškinė. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*Justiniškės was built in 1980s.
*Fabijoniškės was built in 1980s.
*Pašilaičiai was built in late 1980s.
*Pilaitė is the last micro-district (late 1980s – early 1990s) that was never completed (due to the collapse of the Soviet Union). It was envisioned to be so large that one fourth of Vilnius population would have lived there, commuting to the city center by light rail. The wide central zone between traffic lanes of Pilaitės Avenue was meant for the rail line. Together with on-ramps descending nowhere it reminds of the aborted massive visions. Nevertheless Pilaitė is still continuously expanded, albeit on a more compact design and slower pace.

Some of the older neighborhoods such as Žirmūnai, Antakalnis or Naujininkai were also partly supplanted or expanded by Soviet micro-districts.

After Lithuania regained independence in 1990 Vilnius population ceased to expand. However, a few new districts were developed as people were eager to buy their own modern homes (the square meters of living space per one person in Vilnius used to be much lower than that in Western Europe). These new districts of high rise apartment blocks were largely laid beyond the furthest Soviet boroughs: Fabijoniškės, Pašilaičiai, Pilaitė, Lazdynai. One exception is Šiaurės miestelis, a residential and commercial zone in Žirmūnai that supplanted a former Russian military base.

Map for Soviet micro-districts of Vilnius is joined to the Vilnius suburbs map

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Suburbs of Vilnus

The environs of Vilnius are as diverse as is the city itself. Depending on which side you will leave Vilnius you may encounter luxurious manors built by once-powerful families, muslim and Polish villages, unique art projects, dull Soviet "proletarian" homes and factories, "private castles" of the 1990s nouveau-riche, modern credit-funded suburbia, genocide memorials, protected nature and wooden huts where the time (seemingly) stands still.

Take note that in Lithuania (unlike many other countries) it is a common practice to expand the city limits once new suburbs are established or historical towns effectively become suburbs. Therefore most of the suburbs are legally part of the Vilnius city. Also, note that the 1960s-1980s Soviet microdistricts are sometimes incorrecty reffered as suburbs, but in this website they are described separately.

Northern suburbs (west of Neris river)

At the transition of Santariškės borough and forest stands the Neoclassical 18th century Verkiai manor, the most beautiful suburban manor of Vilnius. It includes 15 buildings and 36 ha park with viewpoints to the Neris valley and Valakupiai. The main palace was demolished in 1842 but two palatial servant residences remain and are popular for weddings. The Neris valley road that connects Verkiai to Žirmūnai passes the Trinapolis monastery.

Further north the dull suburbs of Balsiai are notable for Europos parkas, a 55 ha open-air museum of local and international modern art (mainly sculptures). Most major works are at the paved path or central lawn.

Chair/Pool by Dennis Oppenheim at Europos parkas. Image ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The museum is named after Europe because the geographic center of the continent (according to one of several calculation methods) is not far away (marked by obelysk some 10 km outside the park limits).

Nearby Žalieji ("Green") lakes (Balsys and Gulbinas) help the inhabittants of Vilnius to survive the summer heat.

Northeastern suburbs (east of Neris river)

Among the more interesting suburbs of Vilnius is the forest clad Valakupiai north of Antakalnis. Here you can see both old wooden villas and new private homes of the rich. There are two beaches where you can swim in Neris river in Valakupiai. Turniškės gated community where the leaders of Lithuania live (president, prime minister and others) is also located in Valakupiai woods. Turniškės was built in 1939 for the construction of hydroelectric dam that was never completed due to World War 2.

Going eastwards from northern Antkalnis by Plytinės street you will encounter Kairėnai manor where the botanic park of Vilnius University is now established.

A view towards the Neris valley from Verkiai Manor viewpoint. Trinapolis monastery is visible to the right, Valakupiai beach is at the bottom. This area forms the Verkiai Regional Park, one of two protected natural zones within Vilnius city limits. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Like some other suburbs Kairėnai is stuffed with large private homes of the 1990s dawn of the capitalism era. Many of them are built without competent architects and were planned to house entire generations of families.

Eastern suburbs

Pavilnis and Naujoji Vilnia to the east of city center have been separate towns included into Vilnius city limits after World War 2. The total population of these suburbs is 33 000, the plurality of inhabittants is ethnically Polish.

Naujoji Vilnia is the largest of the Vinius suburbs and having been a pre-war town (population of some 8 000 in 1939) it has some historical homes, including two Roman Catholic churches, among which historicist Saint Casimir (1911) is the more impressive. A wooden Russian Orthodox church (1908) also exists. The railroad station at the borough center is holding dark memories as the Soviet regime deported some 300 000 Lithuanian people (more than 10% of total population) to Siberia through here, including small children. Many died en-route or after reaching their cold destinations. A collapsed cross, a steam engine and two cattle cars (similar to those used for deportations) remind of the events.

An old train perpetually bound eastwards serves as a reminder of the Soviet genocide. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Aukštasis Pavilnis was built in 1930s for railroad workers, connected to a railroad station in Žemasis Pavilnis by a winding road still having its original cobbled surface.

Pavilnis and Naujoji Vilnia are separated from Vilnius-proper by pristine Pavilniai Regional Park. Protected nature here includes the 65 m height Pūčkoriai rock exposure at the Vilnia river valley. 20 thousand years old formations are visible from the lower side after 1 km easy hike from a restaurant located at a former mill.

Pūčkoriai rock exposure (left) and the renovated Belmontas mill (right). The dam that used to power the mill is still available forming so-called Belmontas falls. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

On the upper terrace of the exposure you may find some abandoned Polish military installations of 1930s that failed to defend that country in World War 2. Larger military warehouses exist at Šilo street to the north, now inhabitted by bats.

Southern suburbs

When arriving to Vilnius by air Kirtimai industrial district are the first sights on the ground. Airport itself is the most shining building among countless factories. The district also has a dubious fame of housing the Baltic States's largest Gypsy community (up to 500 individuals) in illegal huts some 1 km south of the airport entrance (the Taboras). This is the main sale point of illegal drugs in Lithuania.

Westwards of Kirtimai stands another industrial district of Paneriai. Cut in half by the railroad this district has a grim past as in a certain place beside the railroad a large part of Vilnius Jews were murdered by the Nazi Germany. A memorial now stands there.

Keturiasdešimt Totorių (southwest) and Nemėžis (south) suburbs are known for their small wooden mosques and muslim cemetaries that belong to the local Tatar community.

Nemėžis mosque (1909). Open in some Fridays; rooftop minaret not used for prayer calls. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Bleak Salininkai (south of Kirtimai) is a good example of a Soviet suburb with little of interest except for an atmosphere of 1980s Lithuania.

Western suburbs

Two large suburbs in the west are Lentvaris and Grigiškės. Grigiškės (on Vilnius-Kaunas highway) is a 20th century town built for workers of a nearby paper factory, while Lentvaris is an older locality known for its Tudor style Tiškevičius family manor. Its palace has an imposing tower but is sadly partly abandoned and overgrown. Acquired by a real estate businessman Laimutis Pinkevičius in 2008 who hoped to restore the complex it shared the fate of Pinkevičius's business empire that went bust with the global economic downturn.

Trakų Vokė has another manor with a nice historicist palace although its massive garden has been partly built-up under the Soviet occupation.

Between Vilnius and Grigiškės there is Gariūnai marketplace. In the early 1990s this outdoor frontier-like bazaar was where tens of thousands Lithuanians tried out their enterpreneurship. The place used to attract both merchants and buyers from many foreign lands as it was the prime trading spot in entire region. With some 10 000 traders offering their goods every morning the marketplace never lost popularity but now tries to reinvent itself as a tamed "business park". Trade area is 122 000 m2 (ranging from the original marketplace to a modern small-business mall) and 210 000 m2 used car market.

Map of Vilnius suburbs and Soviet districts. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Vilnius Churches Outside Old Town

The following are several of the most iconic Christian churches outside the Vilnius Old Town.

*Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul (Antakalnis borough, 1675) has the prettiest interior in Vilnius. It includes over 2000 white statues and bas-reliefs made to reflect the idea that life is a theater. Many Biblical scenes are depicted here in this uniform way.
*Church of the Finding of the Holy Cross(Verkiai borough, 1772, Baroque) was once built outside the city limits. It is famous for its Via Dolorosa, a 18th century system of forest paths with chapels reminding of various events during the passion of the Christ. Unfortunately, Soviets destroyed 31 out of 35 stations in 1962. However, now the chapels are rebuilt and the several kilometers long route through local woods makes a good hike.
*Church of Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis (Karoliniškės borough, see “Soviet districts“) was started in 1991 and frankly never completed. It is consecrated now and the Holy Mass is celebrated, but without the envisioned tower this brutalist building looks blunt. It is a good reminder of the early independence era when the Roman Catholic church used the newly gained religious freedom to build new churches in formerly „atheist“ Soviet boroughs and towns. Construction and real estate was unbelievably cheap at the time, but not for long. Therefore many early 1990s church designs had to be simplified or cancelled altogether. Other 1990s Catholic churches in Vilnius (St. John Bosco in Lazdynai and St. Joseph in Pilaitė) are smaller. Contemporary LDS (Mormon) ward in Baltupiai, New Apostle Church in Rasos and Tikėjimo žodis in Pilaitė signifies that 1990s religious freedom also brought in new denominations.

Church of Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis in Karoliniškės. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*The Russian Orthodox churches were built in every new borough of Vilnius in the 19th century under the rule of the Russian Empire. The Constantine and Michael Church (commonly known as Romanov church as it was constructed for the 300 years jubilee of the Romanov dynasty in 1909) is in Naujamiestis, the Znamenskaya Church (1903) in Žvėrynas and the beautiful Saint Alexander Nevskiy church (1865) in Naujininkai . Šnipiškės has the Saint Michael Russian Orthodox church (1895) at the main Kalvarijų street, surrounded by single floored buildings once meant for teaching purposes. All these are built on Neobyzanthic style. There are more Orthodox churches and chapels dating to this era but the aforementioned four are the largest.

Znamenskaya Russian Orthodox church in Žvėrynas on the other side of the contemporary Žvėrynas bridge (1906). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For maps of the churches see the articles of particular districts.

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Going to and from Vilnius

Vilnius airport is the largest airport in Lithuania, offering both low-cost and ordinary airlines. It is built within city limits and only 4 kilometers away from the old town. In fact, most Vilnius inhabittants live further from the city center than the Vilnius International Airport is located. As such, the airport is easily reachable by public buses and microbuses as well as a train. Unless there is traffic jams or you need to transfer at the train station it is better and cheaper to use buses.

Arrivals building at Vilnius airport

Vilnius train station and bus station are located next to each other in Naujamiestis borough. Buses travel from Vilnius to most of the cities and towns of Lithuania at least a couple times a day, with buses to main cities leaving over 10 times a day and every 15 minutes to Kaunas.

Trains are a quicker option on a route to Kaunas. On most other routes however they lag behind buses and are cheaper.

Many public bus routes of Vilnius start and/or end at the station square therefore it is easy to reach any district from this place.

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Getting around Vilnius

There is no subway or light rail in Vilnius (although there are talks on the construction of rapid transit).

Vilnius has extensive network of public buses. They reach even the most remote areas of the city as well as low rise suburbs. The timetables to some areas may be scarce, but they are never rarer than once in two hours and usually at least one bus an hour. On the most popular routes there is one bus every 10 or 15 minutes.

Trolleybuses generally travel on most busy routes and their timetables are more frequent. During the morning and evening rush hours there may be a trolleybus every couple minutes on certain routes.

Even if you don‘t know schedules it is fair to expect a trolleybus to come to a stop in next 10 minutes at the latest. This is not so with buses as many bus routes are thinly serve. Therefore if you have no interest in checking schedules in advance choose trolleybuses.

In 2013 fast buses were introduced, their routes marked with letter "G". They are as frequent as trolleybuses and somewhat faster than regular public transport as they stop only at some half of all stops en-route. Note that the same numbers are reused for bus, trolleybus and fast bus routes (i.e. bus no. 1, trolleybus no. 1 and fast bus no. 1G are not related at all).

Same one-time ticket (30 min or 1 hour with transfers possible) applies for all public transport. You can buy them at kiosks or from the driver. If you buy it from the driver it costs approximately 25% more (this money goes to the driver as a compensation for additional job).

As for monthly tickets there are both ones that apply to both types of transportation and ones that apply either to buses or trolleybuses alone. There are tickets valid for several days useful if you will us public transport extensively.

The final public buses and trolleybuses leave at around 23:00 and in some stops it can be as late as 23:40. There are no night buses but the downtown-airport bus operates between some 5:30AM and 2AM.

The timetables of Vilnius public buses, trolleybuses and some private buses are available here. A powerful journey planning tool is also included in this multilingual website.

Car parking is free in most of the city but has to be paid for in the Old Town, New Town and southern Šnipiškės (except for residential yards).

Travelling by taxi is not recommended as taxi drivers are known to cheat people, especially (but not only) foreigners. They inflate prices as much as 10 times.

Vilnius downtown has an automated bicycle rent system where a short rent is free. Look for orange bicycle racks.

The orange rental bicycles in Vilnius Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Shopping in Vilnius

The oldest and largest shopping mall is Akropolis (Šeškinė borough), well known not only to people all over Lithuania, but also in Belarus. In weekends it might get heavily overcrowded which leads to lack of parking.

Other large shopping malls are not far away. Ozas, with its etensive food court, suffers from having opened during the financial crisis of 2009, but is more spacious and convenient. Panorama near Žvėrynas is lagging behind Akropolis and Ozas, while mid-sized Europa in Šnipiškės caters to the upscale market.

High streets of Vilnius emptied out to some extent with the advent of the supermarkets but there are still many upmarket shops in Gedimino Avenue (New Town), espcially in its Gedimino 9 shopping mall. Unfortunately parking is expensive there (by Lithuanian standarts).

If you want to shop the "old style" there are several bazaar-like open markets. In the suburban Gariūnai next to Vilnius many of today's businessmen started their business in early 1990s. Just don't forget to negotiate. Smaller market closer to the city center is the very old Kalvarijų market in Šnipiškės. Today there are also a few modern markets mostly aimed at ecological food.

Main supermarkets have working hours until 22:00 or 23:00 and are open 7 days a week. Other shops may close down earlier. Marketplaces are only open in the first half of the day.

For souvenir shopping there is the ordinary selection of t-shirts, cups and magnets at the places most popular among tourists: Pilies street and Aušros Vartų street in the Old Town. A viable alternative is to buy your souvernirs at a supermaket - the larger among them have a dedicated shelf.

If you prefer regional souvenirs there is amber (likely to be imported from Kaliningrad but turned into jewelry by local artisans). In Pilies street you can also buy paintings by local artists. Don't expect Michelangelo there, but the prices will be much lower than in the West (if you negotiate well enough).

Arts and crafts are also available there but if you want some real shopping for them come during one of the fairs (St. Casimir, St. Baltrameaus). Many Old Town streets become large outdoor craft markets at these days.

Paintings for sale in Pilies street. Some of them depict the medieval streets of Vilnius but other topics are popular as well. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Given the stories of miracles in Vilnius you may want to buy yourself religious goods. Christian religious paintings, including replicas of the famous Divine Mercy painting are sold on the southern side of the Gate of Dawn.

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Entertainment in Vilnius

As the capital of Lithuania Vilnius is also its entertainment center.

Nightlife, theaters and classical music

Most of bars and nightclubs are located in the Old Town and several streets of the New Town (Gedimino Avenue and environs).

Most theaters are located in the New Town (Gedimino Avenue, Basanavičiaus Street and environs). The plays are in Lithuanian save for operas (presented in the original language) and the Russian drama theater production (Russian). Note that operettas, unlike operas, are presented in Lithuanian.

Operas are performed in the Opera and Ballet Theater. Nearby Congress Palace is now the home of the National Symphony Orchestra. Other classical music opportunities exist in the Old Town Filharmonija. Classical music is both cheaper and less exclusive than in the West.

There are some 7 permanent drama theaters in Vilnius in addition to the troupes that lack their own buildings. Most are state-funded, but the Domino theater (Savanorių Avenue) concentrates on light-hearted comedies. Old Town doll theater performs for kids.

Cinemas, bowling, ice skating, theme parks

Main shopping malls doubles as entertainment hubs. Akropolis includes the iconic ice skating rink at its center. Both Akropolis and Ozas house multiplex cinemas. Bowling alleys, pool tables, children zones are also present there. Both Akropolis and Ozas are located between Šeškinė and Žirmūnai.

Vilnius largest cinema is a non-mall Vingis with some 11 halls (New Town). Botique cinemas Pasaka and Skalvija exist in the Old Town and New Town respectively.

Vilnius lacks theme parks but indoor water park is available near the Ozas mall.

Sports (basketball, football) and popular music

Siemens arena (12 000 seats) near Ozas shopping mall is where the main indoor sport and musical events takes place. "Lietuvos rytas" basketball team (the top sports franchise in Vilnius) plays its major home games here. Games against weaker Lithuanian teams are played in the small arena nearby. Euroleague games and the matches against arch-rivals Žalgiris from Kaunas are the most popular. Basketball season is autumn to spring.

Interestingly Žalgiris is also the name of Vilnius own football team. Famous in the 1980s it failed to qualify into main tournaments in the recent decades. The home stadium is located in Southern Vilnius. Football season is spring to autumn.

In summer the main musical events relocate to the open air Vingis Park area where some 40 000 may be accomodated.

Active entertainment

There are some unique entertainment opportunities in Vilnius.

In Labas adventure park there is a possibility to zipline over Neris river from Antakalnis to Žirmūnai.

Unlike many capitals Vilnius does not restrict the hot air balloon flights. Every summer evening you may see many of the colourful balloons in the air and you may rent one yourself (with a proffessional pilot and ground support team).

Hot air balloons over Žvėrynas in a typical summer afternoon. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In summer Vilnius downtown may also be enjoyed from a hired ship. The hire spot is near National museum.

For more natural forms of entertainment in Vilnius see the article Green Vilnius.

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Green Vilnius (Parks, Cemetaries, Beaches)

A 2009 survey recognized Vilnius as the greenest capital in Eastern Europe. Furthermore Vilnius air is the cleanest among all European capital cities.

To achieve this Vilnius urban planners intentionally skipped many areas during the city expansion. These are named "parks" but with limited landscapping some of them are in fact urban forests. They are now popular for strolling, dogwalking or enjoying a picnic.

The oldest of these pristine zones of Vilnius is right next to Cathedral and the Castle. Known as Sereikiškių Park and the Hill Park (Kalnų parkas) it includes multiple hills with good city views, among them the Pilies (Castle) Hill, the Hill of Three Crosses (Trijų kryžių) and the Gedimino kapo (Gediminas Grave) Hill.

Larger and equally popular is the 162 ha Vingis (Bend) park to the west of New Town, hugged from 3 sides by Neris river. A former nobility hunting ground it is now a major location for summer song festivals and also hosts a rugby stadium and a WW1 German cemetary amidst its greenery. Today Vingis park forms a part of north-to-south chain of green zones which separates pre-1940 Vilnius boroughs to the east from Soviet boroughs to the west. While Vingis park is developed, much of this "Green belt" is not and there are places where one may feel to be teleported to a countryside forest after walking merely several hundred meters from high-rise residentials.

A bit further from downtown the two regional parks within Vilnius city limits (Pavilnis and Verkiai) are much better for recreation as they host some impressive scenery (Pūčkoriai rock exposure), interwar military installations and 17th-19th century manors (see Suburbs of Vilnius).

People enjoying the views from the top of Pūčkoriai rock exposure at Pavilnis regional park. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The old cemetaries of Vilnius may compete with parks in their greenness but have a different aura. To contemplate you may visit the early 19th century hilly Rasos cemetary (Southern Vilnius) or the smaller Bernardinai cemetary in Užupis (Old Town). Both include elaborate tombstones and famous burials. Antakalnis cemetary (Antakalnis borough) is the burial place for 20th century celebrities, heroes and villains. If you prefer religious minorities there is an Old Believer cemetary in Southern Vilnius, Muslim cemetaries near mosques in southern Suburbs and a Jewish zone in Sudervė cemetary (Viršuliškės borough). Sadly many famous minority graveyards were razed by the Soviets, among them two Protestant and the main Jewish one. Under the Soviet rule the tradition to bury the dead along religious lines also faded and the modern graveyards accomodate people of all communities.

Following the trend set by Paris Vilnius establishes a "beach" yearly on the bank of Neris in the New City Center where various public sport activities take place. Swimming is however not allowed in the river there. But you may swim in Neris within city limits at the beaches of Valakupiai suburb north of Antakalnis. Other beaches are available at Balsiai suburb lakes. All of these are possible to access by Vinius public buses.

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Day Trips from Vilnius

As the major transport hub of Lithuania Vilnius offers multiple day trip possibilities using public transport or car. The most interesting ones are:

1.The historical Trakai town with its medieval island castle, many lakes and ethnic Karaim minority. It is the most popular day trip from Vilnius. It is easy to reach by bus and by train (28 km to the west).

2.Rumšiškės open-air ethnographic museum is a collection of 19th century buildings relocated from all over Lithuanian countryside. 78 km westwards it is well connected by a four-lane Vilnius-Kaunas highway that is traversed by frequent buses.

3.The Polish-speaking Medininkai borderland area is famous for a Romanesque 14th century castle with a small-but-modern tower museum, the Soviet-led Medininkai massacre of 1991 and Aukštojas hill, its 293,84 m making it the highest location in otherwise flat Lithuania. 30 km east of Vilnius. A far call from Trakai island setting the out-of-the-beaten-path Medininkai castle is preferrable for those who hate flocks of tourists.

4.Kernavė Castle Hills are the location of Lithuania's 14th century capital but its multiple wooden castles and town have since turned to dust, making the location more interesting for nature lovers than cultural buffs. A local museum has a nice archeological collection however.

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History of Vilnius

The tolerant capital of the largest medieval state (Until 1655)

According to a legend Vilnius was established by duke Gediminas in early 14th century after his dream of an iron wolf was so interpreted by a pagan oracle Lizdeika. Modern historians however usually claim that the city is at least as old as the Lithuanian state itself and that the country‘s first Christian church built by King Mindaugas in 13th century stood at the same place where the Vilnius Cathedral stands today.

Whatever its beggings were Vilnius became an important city by the 14th century (it received Magdeburg law in 1387). With the conquests of Grand Duke Vytautas Vilnius became the capital of what was at the time the Europe‘s largest country, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. It was a very tolerant city where Muslim Tatars from Crimea, Lutheran German merchants, Jewish craftsmen, the Catholic Lithuanian and Polish elite, pagan-leaning Lithuanian commoners and Orthodox Ruthenians lived side-by-side peacefully, each group building their own temples in their own streets and districts.

In this era the irregular Old Town layout developed, walled in 1503. As the richness of the city grew more and more palaces, churches and monasteries adorned its narrow streets. Not even the 1569 Union of Lublin which created a Polish-Lithuanian confederacy with capital in Cracow rather than Vilnius was able to defuse the importance of Vilnius as the Kings still used their palace here. Vilnius University established in 1579 by the Jesuits became a primary centre of science and education in the Eastern Europe.

Subačiaus gate of the Vilnius city wall (painted by P. Smuglevičius in 1785). This gate together with the wall was demolished by the Russians in early 19th century. Only some fragments and the Gate of Dawn remain today.

Where to see the era today? The Gothic churches of Saint Anne, Saint Francis, Saint Nicholas and some others in Maironio, Šv. Mikalojaus, Trakų streets (all in the Old Town) date to this era (even if their interiors have been modified). The old campus of Vilnius University also surivived the historical ravages almost intact. There are some very old buildings in Pilies street.

The era of lavish churches and impeding doom (1655-1795)

The prosperous centuries came to a horrible halt on 1655 when the strenghtening Russia (Muscovy) invaded and sacked the city in a long campaign of looting, mass-murdering and raping. The days of Poland-Lithuania as a great power ended, and so were the days Vilnius as a seat of power. Vilnius palace became neglected and the Kings ceased visiting it. Furthermore, the Russian (Orthodox) and Swedish (Lutheran) invasions eroded the remarkable religious tolerance.

Although no longer one of the Europe‘s main cities Vilnius continued to exist. The uncertain future at mercy of surrounding great powers encouraged the local noble families to secure their afterlife by building lavish Baroque churches that still crown the city skyline. By that time Polish-speaking Catholic culture had became the elite one as many local Lithuanians abandoned their language in favor of the more prestigious Polish.

The knot around Poland-Lithuania was tightening and the country started to lose lands rapidly in the late 18th century. In 1795 Vilnius was captured by the Russians who were to stay for 120 years.

This painting by J. Peška immortalizes the heart of Vilnius in 1808 when it still looked much as it did in late Poland-Lithuania era. The remains of the castle were still quite extensive, while large churches, such as the Cathedral (pictured), dominated over small residential buildings even more than they do today. In the foreground you can see the place where Gedimino Avenue is today. In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth era this was a poor neighborhood of tanners.

Where to see the era today? The Baroque churches in Vilnius Old Town and former suburbs (Antakalnis, Verkiai) are your best option, as well as many manors and other stately buildings in the Old Town.

The industrial era under Imperial Russian rule (1795-1918)

After Vilnius was annexed to Russia in 1795 it continued to be a backwater with population of 50 000. However Vilnius University remained a major intellectual center with various secret societies swiftly established, such as filaretai or filomatai, each of them aimed at critically studying history and potentially restoring the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.

Knowing this the Russians closed the Vilnius Univesity in 1832 (after a failed revolt) forcing the Lithuanian elite to seek education in Saint Petersburg. Vilnius remained an administrative seat (the capital of Northwestern Krai, roughly cromprising of today‘s Lithuania and Belarus). As such, the government wanted to make the city look more Russian. Some of the Catholic church buildings were converted to Russian Orthodox or seccular use, some others demolished, monuments for czars and governors were constructed.

The reconstruction of Saint Nicholas Orthodox church changed western-style architectural details into eastern style Neo-byzanthic ones, 1863-1864, litographies by I. Trutnev.

A true possibility to change the face of the city came in 1860 when the industrial revolution finally reached Lithuania. That year the first train on the new Saint Petersburg-Warsaw railroad arrived at Vilnius. Other amenities of the era came to the city as well, even if lagging several decades behind the West: gas lighting in 1864, horse-drawn tram in 1893, electricity in 1903 and public buses in 1905.

Technological changes implicated social changes and a process of rapid urbanization started. A grand new civic center was constructed to the west of the Old Town (known as New Town), to be joined by largely wooden suburbs of Žvėrynas, Šnipiškės, Naujininkai, Rasos, Žvejai and Naujieji Pastatai in 1890s and 1900s. The main additions were planned to follow grid layout that was anchored on large new Russian Orthodox churches. Their wide streets were named after locations and heroes of the large Russian Empire. With Lithuanian language banned in 1863 the official public inscriptions were also in Russian.

The final decades before the World War 1 witnessed the most massive construction. Businessmen conceived 4 to 6 storey buildings in the New Town, full of rental apartments, hotels, trade rooms for their businesses and smaller yet elaborate so-called urban villas for their own residences. Many stately administrational buildings were erected, such as the enormous Railways HQ. On the eve of the War Vilnius had a population of over 210 000.

No ethnic, religious or linguistic majority existed in Vilnius after tens of thousands Russians and Jews moved in (Vilnius had been among the few cities where Czar would permit Jews to settle). But even this policy of cultural dillution failed to promote assimilation.

Two of the many faces of pre-war Vilnius. A street in the Jewish district, Old Town (left, 1898, S. Fleuri) and the new Saint George hotel with horse-drawn tram in front of it in the New Town (right, 1910, A. Fialko). The pictured area of Jewish district was demolished by the Soviets in mid-20th century while the Saint Geoge hotel still exists in Gedimino Avenue, now refurbished into prestigious apartments.

The Lithuanian National Revival turned Vilnius into a capital once again, even if a shadow one. With the scrapping of some anti-Lithuanian policies in 1904 „Vilniaus žinios“ newspaper was published here by the Vileišis family. In 1905 the Great Seimas of Vilnius convened in the city, declaring an aim for an autonomous Lithuanian country that soon turned into a drive for independence.

Where to see the era today? New Town (Naujamiestis) borough still boasts pre-war stately buildings and Orthodox churches, once visited by the career government workers from Saint Petersburg. In Žvėrynas and Šnipiškės you may catch a glimpse of how poorer suburban people lived at the time (in case of Šnipiškės some live that way even today, lacking basic ammenities). In Bernardinai and Rasos cemetaries (Old Town and Southern Vilnius boroughs respectively) the elite and the commoners of the era are interred, while Markučiai manor (Southern Vilnius) is now a museum partly dedicated to the Russian nobility of the era.

The era of Polish rule and conflict over Vilnius (1918-1939)

With the revolution of Russia and German surrender in World War 1 the rulers of Vilnius changed some 10 times in years 1918-1922. The city was culturally important to four different ethnicities: Lithuanians, Poles, Jews and Belarusians. Furthermore, both Russian monarchists and communists wanted to restore the former boundaries of Russia, with Vilnius inside them. Of these six entities only the Jews lacked a military force.

Having beaten back the Russians who in turn subdued Belarusians, Poles and Lithuanians were the last two left to quarell over Vilnius. In 1920 Polish irregular forces captured the city in breach of the previous treaty of Suwalki. This was the start of a painful final divorce of Lithuanian and Polish nations.

Lithuania never recognised the loss of Vilnius and remained at a state of war with Poland. International mediation failed. The plight for Vilnius was a major topic at any interwar celebration in Lithuania where the choirs would sing „Mes be Vilniaus nenurimsim“ („We won‘t calm down without Vilnius“) hymn. Many streets and squares in Lithuanian towns were renamed after the city, „Vilnius oaks“ were planted, „Union for the Liberation of Vilnius“ established.

Funeral ceremony of the heart of Polish president J. Pilsudski passes the Rotušės square in Wilno in 1935. Like many Polish-speaking people of Lithuanian descent of the era J. Pilsudski called himself a Lithuanian but did not believe in independent Lithuania. He sought to establish a large country that would encompass Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus, and would use Polish as lingua franca. His dreams were behind the annexation of Vilnius region to Poland in 1922.

It is unclear how many people in Vilnius itself identified themselves as Lithuanians as the 1931 census asked only for a single mother tongue (Polish-speakers reclaimed majority and less than 1% were said to reply "Lithuanian"). Ethnic minorities faced restrictions, e.g. having their students in Vilnius (Polish name: Wilno) university limited by law. Most of them decreased in numbers after WW1: most Russians (Imperial officers and officials) left for Russia, many Jews departed to Palestine and some Lithuanians also migrated away. However, the minorities still cherished their cultural institutions, such as YIVO (an international institute of Yiddish that has since relocated to New York).

A joke of the era was that Vilnius would not be subject of a conflict only if it would be depopulated and turned into a museum. If people would have knew that the first part of this joke will soon almost become true they probably wouldn't have laughted at it.

The city was an economic outback of Poland and only a limited construction took place, in contrast to Kaunas or Warsaw of the era. The total population of the city was 195 071 during the 1931 census, the declining communities replaced by new Polish migrants.

Where to see the interwar era today? Limited large-scale construction leaves limited opportunities. The best visible building of the era is the hilltop Three Crosses monument even if it was demolished by the Soviets and then rebuilt. There are 1930s buildings in the Gedimino Avenue (New Town). Typically a flat roof coupled with old school architectural details indicate that a building was built in this era. A district of terrace homes in Antakalnis borough ant the opposing side of the roundabout from the Saint Peter and Paul church is another remnant of the era. There are many interwar homes in Žvėrynas and Šnipiškės (including the Žvėrynas Catholic church). In case of wooden residentials it might be hard to differentiate between pre-1918 and post-1918 ones unless a date is inscribed somewhere on the facade.

The 20 years that changed Vilnius forever (1939 – 1959)

In 1939 Nazi Germany and Soviet Union invaded Poland and this sparkled the World War 2. Vilnius was captured by the Soviets on September 1939. They sacked the city and then presented an ultimatum to Lithuania. Under this ultimatum Lithuania would be given 1/5th of the Vilnius region (including the city) but would have to accept Soviet military bases in its territory. Refusal would have meant imminent Soviet invasion therefore Lithuania accepted.

„Vilnius belongs to us and we belong to the Russians“ was a popular irony at the time. It wasn‘t far from truth as in mid-1940 Russian forces deposed the Lithuanian government and completely occupied and annexed Lithuania in three months time. Vilnius felt the full swing of nationalisation campaign and the genocide of Lithuanian nation. „There will be Lithuania – but without the Lithuanians“ – said Mikhail Suslov, the chairman of USSR Central Commity Bureau for Lithuanian Affairs. In June 1941 alone some 2% of the entire Lithuania's population (50 000) were forced into railroad cattle carriages and deported to Siberia where most died. Campaigns like this became even larger under the Second Soviet Occupation. Vilnius's eastern location and railway hub status meant that most deportees were moved through the city.

Nazi German invasion (1941) relieved the pressure on some ethnicities (among them Lithuanians) but increased it on some others. The entire Jewish population of Vilnius, never before segregated from the others in what for centuries had been a tolerant multicultural city, was suddenly locked in a ghetto. A large share of them (up to 30 000) eventually were killed at Paneriai suburb in 1941-1943, many others were sent to labour camps or fled; Jewish population declined from 54 600 in 1931 to 16 400 in 1959.

With the help of other allies in the west Soviets beaten back the Germans in the east in 1944. Vilnius was in turmoil as here not two, but at least four different factions fought for dominance, every single of them hostile to every other one. In addition to the Germans and Russians there was Lithuanian resistance that sought to re-establish independent Lithuania and also Armia Krajowa – a Polish force that fought for Wilno as a part of Poland. The later two were poorly armed and never played a significant role. They were eventually crushed by the Soviets, although their ability to sometimes hoist their own flags on the Gediminas Hill Castle Tower and inflict damages on the enemies boosted their morale.

Basanavičiaus-Pylimo street corner after the Soviet occupation of Vilnius in 1944. All public signs, such as these directions to Grodno and Kaunas, were swiftly translated into Russian by the Soviets.

After the 1944 occupation of Lithuania Vilnius saw one of the biggest campaigns of destruction it witnessed in its history. Soviets closed and desecrated churches, destroyed chapels, upturned cemetaries, burned non-communist books, removed archives, stole sacred paintings and sold them on the black market, arrested, deported and murdered people. Everything that reminded of either Germany, Lithuania, Poland or non-Orthodox faith was attacked and destroyed. But this was only the beggining. When the Russian architects drawn their plans of Vilnius of the future it became clear that the Soviets want to completely obliterate entire boroughs of the old city and rebuild it on the Soviet model.

The project was started but never completed. Buildings that you may now only see in old pictures include large chunks of Jewish district and the Vinius Great Synagogue, multiple cemetaries, residential districts in Vokiečių, Rūdninikų, Vilniaus and other streets, the municipal building, „Europa“ hotel (the largest in Vilnius), the Piarists college, the Kardinalija palace. Luckily a change of policies saved Saint Catherine church, the Gate of Dawn and many other famous centuries-old structures that were also initially condemned to destruction by Anikin, the architect from Leningrad behind the plans of Vilnius „redevelopment“.

Eastern side of Vokiečių street and parts of Jewish district after demolition in 1949. Many centuries-old stately buildings used to stand here.

The districts destroyed by the Soviets were replaced by large Stalinist buildings or transformed into squares and wide avenues. Old statues were replaced by new ones, dedicated to various communists and Russian soldiers. Road maps had to be redrawn with the majority of centuries-old street names changed to ones such as „Lenin Avenue“, „Red Army Avenue“ or „Gorkiy Street“. Citizens themselves were replaced: Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians were being relocated to the Vilnius homes of Poles, Jews and Lithuanians who were recently murdered or expelled.

In this time most of the Catholic churches were closed and turned into sports halls, warehouses and factories, their cultural wonders stolen and lost. Lutherans, Reformed Christians, Muslims and Jews shared a similar uprooting of their religious culture. The only mosque of Vilnius was destroyed, while the majority of Vilnius Jews switched from Yiddish to Russian language, and only 25% of them did not abandon their religion.

The only religious community that was persecuted less was the Russian Orthodox one. Not only their churches were not attacked but even their Holy Spirit monastery was allowed to operate at a time when monastic life was banned in Soviet Lithuania and every Catholic monastery had been disbanded.

In 1944-1990 the people of Vilnius had to march in Soviet celebrations. Here a 1950 children parade carries mandatory slogans such as 'We thank comrade Stalin for our happy childhood' in Gedimino Avenue (left image). Buildings are covered in communist portraits and slogans (example in right image).

Where to see the era today? The Soviet demolition campaign may be best seen in the Old Town Vokiečių street, Geto Aukų square and parts of Vilniaus street, where dense medieval neighborhoods had been replaced by squares and 1950s-1980s buildings. Massive Stalinist buidings are best visible in Goštauto street and nearby Žaliasis bridge, additionally there is Pergalė cinema in Pamėnkalnio street (all in Naujamiestis). To learn about the genocides you may visit the Genocide museum in former HQ of both KGB and Gestapo (New Town), Tuskulėnai memorial (Žirmūnai borough) as well as the Paneriai memorial (southwestern suburbs).

The era of concrete slab boroughs followed by fifteen minutes of worldwide fame (1959 – 1991)

With the death of Joseph Stalin the Soviet persecutions were gradually weakened although the policy remained totalitarian. What was already changed remained changed (including the closed churches and street names), save for an occasional removal of refferences to Stalin whose personality cult was uprooted by the new leader Nikita Khrushchev. However, the tide that threatened to destroy the Lithuanian culture altogether ceased to rise. For instance, the settling of the country slowed down: while the number of Russians and Russophones in Vilnius increased from 10 000 (~5% of total) in 1939 to 100 000 (~40%) in 1959, it only further increased to 170 000 by 1989 (~30%).

The monumental style of Stalinist buildings was changed to a functionalist one devoid of any architectural details. It was these mass-produced apartment blocks that were to become the new face of Vilnius. Instead of replacing Old Town they were largely built in place of former wooden suburbs throughout the 1960s. In 1970s and 1980s completely new boroughs were constructed to the north and west, connected to the center and to each other by wide avenues, traversed by unbelievably crammed public buses and trolleybuses (private cars were always a kind of luxury in the USSR).

Lazdynai Soviet borough in 1970 when it was still several years old. The planners of the borough were awarded Lenin prize. The main street visible at the bottom of the picture is Cosmonaut Avenue (now Independence Avenue), its four lanes almost empty.

New construction in downtown was now limited to flagship buildings, such as the apartments of Communist Party officials, meeting hall of the Supreme Soviet of Lithuania (currently the parliament) or the Opera and Ballet theater.

Population of Vilnius increased from 236 000 in 1959 to 576 000 in 1989 in what was effectively the prime era of urbanization in Lithuania‘s history. Some of this increase was due to immigration from the rest of USSR, but more and more rural Lithuanians found their home in Vilnius as well. Relocation was no easy deal, as the population was tightly controlled by the government and many of those who wanted to settle in Vilnius were refused permits and forced to live in the countryside instead.

Vilnius became the intellectual center of Lithuania. However with only 50% of its population ethnically Lithuanian it left the title of cultural center to Kaunas. Russian language was the lingua fanca in the Soviet Union, thus it was also much-used in the interethnic Vilnius (something heavily promoted by the Soviets). Nevertheless, an underground opposition always existed, its secret networks uniting street musicians of Gedimino Avenue to the Roman Catholic Church, to the banned and persecuted Freedom League of Lithuania, to the hiking clubs that were always treated with suspicion due to their habit to choose historically important places as the goal of their weekend expeditions.

With the rise of Gorbachev and his perestroika campaign the Sąjūdis movement was born in 1988 out of this underground opposition. It was also joined by freedom-sympathisers who previously would not have risked their lifes to openly endorse Lithuanian independence. In mere months what the Soviets once considered to be just another of their provincial capitals was catapulted to worldwide news networks such as CNN and BBC as the global population impatiently waited how would the Lithuanian aspirations unfold. In March 11th of 1990 in the same old hall of the Supreme Soviet the first democratically-elected parliament to convene in Vilnius declared independence. The Russian blockade followed, leaving Vilnius without fuel for heating or cars, and eventually a military aggression on January 11th-13th of 1991 that killed 14 people and injured 700. Due to unbelievable cohesion of the people of Vilnius who stood armless against the Soviet tanks all these actions failed. Soviet Union collapsed. This collapse (and the end of Cold War) started here – in Vilnius.

January 13, 1991 events, also known as Vilnius massacre. Countless thousands armless civilians gathered to protect key places of Vilnius with their own bodies (in the picture top right a mass of people safeguard the parliament). 14 were killed, 702 injured. Left picture shows a Russian tank running over people. The subsequent funeral of the January 13 martyrs is pictured on lower right. The events were well covered by worldwide media.

Where to see the era today? Entire Soviet districts survive almost intact with only a few modern shops and apartment buildings here and there. You may easily pick up one of them and stroll, be it Fabijoniškės, Pašilaičiai, Pilaitė or Lazdynai. There are some functionalist buildings of the era in the city center as well. The focal points of defense on January 1991 were the TV Tower (Karoliniškės) and the Parliament (New Town) - memorials exist at both.

Capital of a modern European state (1991 and beyond)

The restoration of independence (marked in Vilnius by removal of Soviet statues, restoration of the old street names and vacation of Soviet military bases) flattered Lithuanians‘ hearts, but the 50 years of exploitation took their toll. The city was lagging far behind the Western standarts in almost every statistic. Its factories were uncompetitive, its people crammed into little yet uneconomic flats, real estate prices ridiculously small but nevertheless out of reach for many locals. Many reforms were to be done, and in the following decade Vilnius led these reforms in Lithuania, always followed by Klaipėda and Kaunas, in that order.

The free market killed some of the old factories yet new businesses started to thrive in places such as Gariūnai marketplace in western Vilnius. Private shops sprung up and the lack of goods that plagued Soviet era was a thing of the past, all western trademarks becoming readily available. By some 1995s the shopkeepers even started to smile (something unheard of in the Soviet Union where the client was always wrong and frequently yelled at).

Most of the churches were reopened and new ones were conceived in the churchless Soviet boroughs. Used car import business was among the most lucrative, the number of private cars quadrupled in 1990-2010 and traffic jams formed for the first time in late 1990s. McDonald‘s opened 4 outlets.

In 1997 the first office high-rise was built (Hanner building). By 2003 there was entire skyscraper district in southern Šnipiškės. Modern style with glass facades prevailed. Among those was the new Vilnius municipality building, the first example of public-private partnership in Lithuania.

In 2000 Akropolis, the first hypermarket in Vilnius and Lithuania, opened, to be followed by many more. This changed the Lithuanian shopping habits, luring them from bazaar-like markets.

2000s developments changed the face of the right bank of Neris (background), especially the skyscraper district in Southern Šnipiškės with Europa Tower, still the tallest in the Baltics. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After 2000 the residential construction boomed with bank credits supplanting the cash payments (in US dollars or German marks) that were common in the quite lawless era of early 1990s. North Town Soviet military base in Žirmūnai was the first area to be redeveloped, to be followed by many modern apartment blocks elsewhere.

Most of the new rich did not wait for the construction boom. Prestigious residences in 1990s were large detached home in one of the rapidly developing suburbs (Kairėnai, Pavilnis, Zujūnai). Such buildings sprung up, their owners caring primarilly about size rather than architectural appeal. By 2000s the Western ideas reached suburbia and new uniformly-developed gated communities outcompeted the „private castles“ of 1990s.

Being the capital Vinius received a fair share of new public buildings. Among those are the Sodra palace, two extensions of Vilnius airport (1993 and 2007), a minimalist General prosecutors office (a black cube with windows that glow blue at night) and the extension of parliament building. The most controversial addition was undoubtedly the Palace of Grand Dukes, a hundreds of millions worth reconstruction of a long-lost palace right next to the Vilnius Cathedral. Despite the complaints on wasted money and doubtful authenticity many needed the Palace to signify that Vilnius is once again the Lithuanian capital - just as in the medieval era.

In 1997 a campaign to repair the crumbling Old Town of Vilnius was launched. The main squares and streets became picture-perfect. Abandoned buildings were bought up by residential and hotel developers. Hotels received more and more guests from the West, discovering this once hidden gem.

This art nuoveau building in Totorių street used to be derelict in 1996 (left picture). Just like dozens of Old Town buildings under the Soviet rule it was left to crumble suffering squating and fires. Picture on the right shows the same building in 2012, renovated into a four star Hotel Artis. Both pictures ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The transformation ended in some 2001, when Vilnius was effectively a modern Western city even if its population still earned smaller wages.

Where to see the era today? If you want to see 1990s suburbs like Kairėnai are your best bet as well as the church boom religious buildings like the Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis church in Karoliniškės. If you prefer 2000s you have inherently more options: the main shopping malls (Akropolis, Ozas, Panorama), the extensive new residential districts (North Town in Žirmūnai, Perkūnkiemis beyond Pašilaičiai) and of course the New City Center high-rises in southern Šnipiškės. Grand Dukes Palace is near the Cathedral.

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Holidays and Celebrations in Vilnius

As Lithuania's capital Vilnius is the heart of most national celebrations (at least their official events). It also hosts so many local events that even if you are at some random weekend there is likely something to be going on.

Vilnus Cathedral is the heart of many Christian celebrations while secular ones take place in the Old Town and New Town (especially the Gedimino Avenue, Rotušės Square, Katedros Square and Pilies Street).

Here are described the celebrations and events which are unique to Vilnius and may interest foreigners:

Flag raising is a daily event at Daukanto square in front of President's office. Three flags are lowered and raised by a group of soldiers dressed in medieval armour.

A band of soldiers with medieval Columns of Gediminas symbols ready for a flag change. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Winter celebrations and events

Name Date Type Event
Christmas period December 25th to January 6th Religious mass holiday Period between Christmas and the Epiphany is uniquelly marked in Vilnius by transforming its 326 m tall TV tower into the world's tallest Christmas tree. Conceived for celebrating the new millenium in 2000 this became a yearly event.
January 13th January 12th-13th Commemorative ceremony Commemoration of the sad events of January 1991 (Vilnius massacre) when Russian troops invaded the city leading to the deaths of 14 civilians (hundreds were injured). Prior to this hundreds of thousands armless people had guarded key locations in a non-violent struggle for freedom. Some spent months away from home and passed days at bonfires. Hence bonfires are now lit yearly at the locations guarded so eagerly in those days (Vilnius TV Tower, Radio and Teleivision headquarters, Parliament).

Spring celebrations and events

Name Date Type Event
Kaziuko mugė (St. Casimir Fair) Weekend before March 4th Fair The traditional local holiday of Vilnius. A major fair takes place the weekend before in multiple central streets, selling tradiditional candies, artwork and crafts (among other things). Its beginnings likely lie in 1636 when the remains of Lithuania's patron saint Casimir were brought to be interred in Vilnius Cathedral. Like most traditional Lithuanian celebrations the fair was banned by the Soviets but nevertheless used to take place in marketplaces.

Verbos (bouquets of dried flowers and leafs) are among the taditional items sold in the Kaziukas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Name Date Type Event
Independence day parade March 11th Parade A patriotic parade in downtown Vilnius with flags and chants to commemorate the most recent rebirth of Lithuania (which triggered the final phase of the Soviet collapse)
Kino pavasaris (Cinema Spring) 2 weeks in March Film festival The largest cinema festival in Lithuania. Aimed at non-Hollywood movies it has its movies presented in original language with Lithuanian subtitles (some non-English films also have English subtitles). The prize is awarded for the best new Eastern European movie and this region is best represented.
Spring solstice March 20th Ceremony Pagan-inspired show of fire near the Cathedral square (a 2000s tradition).
Užupis Republic Independence day April 1st Ceremony Commemoration of the 1998 April fools day when Užupis neighborhood (part of Old Town) "declared" its independence to effectively become a micronation. This district of artists with its own constitution and president celebrates its freedom with parades, flag raising ceremony and temporary customs control at the "frontiers".
FiDi 1st Saturday of April Ceremony The most famous traditional student ceremony in Lithuania. Celebrated by Vilnius university physics students since 1969 the day starts at their faculty in Saulėtekis with demonstration of inventions. The pinnacle of FiDi is its parade when dinosaur-on-wheels (basilisk-inspired symbol of FiDi) leads the predominantly male future scientists to a largely female Faculty of Linguistics in Old Town.

A philology student poses for a picture near the FiDi Dinas Zauras (Dino Saur) after its journey through the city. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Name Date Type Event
Lithuanian Basketball League final series Around April Proffesional sports Since 1998 the right to contest the champion rings of Lithuania's major league is always won by "Lietuvos Rytas" of Vilnius and "Žalgiris" of Kaunas teams (pouring fuel into the eternal Vilnius vs. Kaunas rivalry). "Lietuvos rytas" home games are held in Siemens arena and it takes 4 victories to triumph.
Sakura blossom Late April to Mid-May Natural event A sakura (Japanese cherry) garden planted near Vilnius municipality proved to be popular with many people enjoying picnics there when they blossom.
Pentecost at the Vilnius Calvary 7th week after Easter Christian festival A major Christian procession which follows the recreated Christ's final passage in a 7 km long pristine route.
Europe Day 1st or 2nd weekend of May European cuisines fair Gedimino Avenue is turned into a giant open air restaurant where stalls offer to taste cuisines of various European countries.
Day of Street Music Some saturday in late May Amateur and professional music A mass event where all professional and amateur musicians are encouraged to perform publically. Entire Old Town and parts of New Town becomes a big festival zone that day. Day of Street Music was conceived in Vilnius in 2007 by popular singer Andrius Mamontovas but has since reached other cities and countries.

A punk band performs at Vokiečių street pedestrian area during the Day of Street Music. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Skamba skamba kankliai Final week of May Folk music A week-long festival of folk music. Its concerts are held in public places of the Old Town

Summer celebrations and events

Name Date Type Event
Market of plants End of June Folk medicine fair A folk medicine fair also known as the "Market of witches". The recently reinitiated tradition dates to the 19th century.
Tebūnie naktis (Let the night prevail) June or July Art festival A single evening so crammed with cultural, art and other events (largely free of charge) that great numbers of Vilnius inhabittants and guests sacrifice their precious sleep and make the Old Town look as some crowded Asian metropolis. Everything takes place between dusk and some 2AM.
Cristopher festival July-August Musical festival A two-month long slow-paced collection of classical music concerts in Vilnius downtown.
St. Baltrameaus fair Final weekend of August Arts and crafts demonstration A reconstruction of Rennaisance-period arts and crafts. Various craftsmen establish their stalls in Vilnius Old Town where their work may be freely watched (and bought).
Velomarathon Final weekend of August Amateur sports Attracts some 10 thousand cyclists who ride on a pre-defined track across the streets of Vilnius.

Autumn celebrations and events

Name Date Type Event
Sostinės dienos (Capital days) First weekend of September Culture The largest cultural event in Lithuania. Its programme annually includes some 1000 local and foreign performers of various arts. The events are free of charge.
Vilnius marathon A sunday in September Amateur sports Lithuania's largest 42 km massive street run joined by young and old alike. There are shorter distances for those who prefer it.
Autumn solstice September 20th-22nd Ceremony Marked by a pagan-inspired show of fire and water at Neris river near Cathedral square (a 2000s tradition).
Sirenos theater festival Late September - early October Theater Offers the best Lithuanian plays of that year coupled with visiting foreign theaters.
Vilnius Jazz A weekend in October Music festival One of the most important jazz festivals in the Eastern Europe.
Tai - aš Third week of October Music festival A sung poetry musical festival (a genre somewhat peculiar to Lithuania). It has no counterparts in Eastern Europe but with the importance of lyrics over music in the genre the mostly Lithuanian songs may be hard to undestand for foreigners.
Festival of Our Lady of Mercy of the Gates of Dawn November 11th-20th Christian festival Celebrates the Virgin Mary and the miraculous painting visible for all who pass the historic Gates of Dawn. Many Lithuanian diaspora churches have been dedicated to Our Lady of Gate of Dawn as this is a potent symbol of both Vilnius and Lithuania.
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