True Lithuania

Old Town of Vilnius (Senamiestis)

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

Katedros Square and the Castle hill area

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rotušės Square and the Gate of Dawn area

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pilies, Šv. Jono, Dominikonų and Trakų streets

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

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

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

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

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

Užupis

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

The main square of Užupis with the famous angel statue.

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

See also: Churches of Vilnius Old Town.

Map of Senamiestis. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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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 center of what was then the capital of its Vilnius Governorate and the main city in the Northwestern Krai (an administrative 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. Lithuanian bank also has a modern Money museum with Guinness-inscribed coin pyramid. Numerous restaurants and shops are primarily 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 Stalinist apartment buiding (1950s), whereas the southern flank of the square has interwar buildings (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. One of the church towers hosts a carillon that offers free plays every day ~13:00 as well as before mass. 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 Lithuanian parliament building on the western end of the Gedimino Avenue is modern (built in 1982, expanded in the 2000s). However, its historical importance far outweighs its size or beauty as it is the spot where the 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" - emigrant Lithuanians who chosen to return to Soviet Lithuania after Stalin's invitation the 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, industrial 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 intersection. Railways HQ building is in the center. When built this 8 story building was the highest secular structure in the city. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Kalinausko street offers an alternative ascension 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 the 1990s when seemingly anything was possible with no bureaucracy to preclude it.

On the top of Tauras hill in place of Lutheran cemetery 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 cemetery and the central lawn where the pro-independence demonstrations of the 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 the 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. Unfortunately, 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 a 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 sewerage (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 inhabitants.

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 the 1980s it saw its old homes replaced by 22 story Hotel Lietuva, planetarium and the largest department store in Soviet Vilnius. In the 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.

The 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 skyscrapers 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 skyscraper 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 thoroughfare of Šnipiškės is the north-south Kalvarijų street. You see all the faces of Šnipiškės by traveling 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 multistory 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), 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) and a towerless Roman Catholic church (1925). Its interior has been decorated clandestinely while under the Soviet occupation by self-taught artists in both religious symbols and images of Vilnius. 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 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 the 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 story buildings in its extensive park (now reduced in size) have been reused 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 preferred 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 the 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 Divine 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 the 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 cemeteries crown the forested hills east of Antakalnis. Antakalnis cemetery 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) cemetery is much older (19th century), providing a 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 cemetery (established in 1796). In this cemetery 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 cemetery in summer. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another cemetery 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 cemetery with its peculiar 8-branched crosses.

A Russian Orthodox church dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevsky 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 nationalized 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 houses park offices and temporary exhibitions while a small but modern museum is located at the southern end of the complex. The underground memorial and columbarium (2006) look 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 cemetery 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.

Formerly the complex also included Žalgiris stadium, built by the German POWs in 1948 and the largest stadium in Lithuania, a red-brick ice rink, and a Stalinist Žalgiris swimming pool. However, all these buildings have since been demolished to vacate the expensive land. 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 spent the 19th century as an Imperial Russian military base, which housed a Soviet garrison after World War 2. Around the 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 remain 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 the 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 a 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 inhabitants 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 the 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 early 1990s „church building boom“ 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 the 1970s.
• Baltupiai was built in the 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 pilgrimage site with its long Via Dolorosa path in surrounding park recreating the final path taken by Jesus Christ (the 7 km length 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. This district houses Museum of Customs.
• 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 a water theme park and an 11000-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 the 1980s.
• Fabijoniškės was built in the 1980s.
• Pašilaičiai was built in the late 1980s.
• Pilaitė is the last micro-district (the 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 following 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 micro districts are sometimes incorrectly referred as suburbs, but on 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 obelisk some 10 km outside the park limits).

Nearby Žalieji ("Green") lakes (Balsys and Gulbinas) help the inhabitants 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 a 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 inhabitants is ethnically Polish.

Naujoji Vilnia is the largest of the Vilnius 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 the 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 in 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 the 1930s that failed to defend that country in World War 2. Larger military warehouses exist at Šilo street to the north, now inhabited by bats.

Southern suburbs

When arriving at Vilnius by air, Kirtimai industrial district is 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 Nazi Germany murdered Jews, Poles, and some Lithuanians. A museum and an unofficial memorial now stand there (the number of victims listed on it is disputed by historians as too large, however).

Keturiasdešimt Totorių (southwest) and Nemėžis (south) suburbs are known for their small wooden mosques and Muslim cemeteries 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 of Lithuanians tried out their entrepreneurship. The place used to attract both merchants and buyers from many foreign lands as it was the prime trading spot in the 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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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 preferable 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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