True Lithuania

Weekend in Vilnius: Top 10 Sights & Experiences

The capital of Lithuania Vilnius once was the center of Europe's largest medieval state. Famous for its Baroque churches, massive Old Town and its role in destroying the Soviet Union, Vilnius is definitely worth a weekend visit. With many direct routes to Vilnius such trip is now easier than ever to arrange. Should you come to Vilnius, these ten places may serve as the hubs for further exploration.

1. Become in awe with the 2000 sculptures of "Life as a performance directed by God" inside the Saints Peter and Paul church (Antakalnis).

2. Visit the Museum of Genocide Victims located in a former KGB prison to learn about Lithuania's grim recent past that still haunts the memories of older locals (New Town).

3. Walk under the miraculous Gates of Dawn and the approaching Aušros Vartų street with large churches of 3 Christian denominations (Old Town).

4. Explore the courtyards of Vilnius University, feel the gone-by ages in its marvelous interiors and ascend the massive belfry of St. John church, tallest in Vilnius (Old Town)

5. Feel the former power of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy at the Katedros (Cathedral) square, overlooked by red hilltop castle ruins, the Cathedral and the rebuilt Grand Dukes Palace (Old Town).

6. Enjoy the elaborate flamboyant facade of St. Anne church and the larger neighboring St. Francis and St. Nicholas churches (Old Town).

7. Explore some narrow streets of the Old Town and Užupis and try to take a peek into courtyards.

8. Cross the Žaliasis or Baltasis bridge into Southern Šnipiškės, the "Wall Street of Vilnius". Visit the National Art Gallery and catch glimpse of entirely wooden off-the-beaten-track Giedraičių street where time seemingly stopped a century ago (Šnipiškės).

9. Walk the Gedimino Avenue, the traditional high street where most government institutions are located (and regular fairs take place). See the barricades at the Parliament reminding of the heroic armless struggle against Russian invasion in 1991 (New Town).

10. Splurge in Akropolis and Ozas neighboring malls, together making one of the Eastern Europe's largest shopping and entertainment zones (Soviet boroughs). If you prefer something more authentic you may spend a morning at gigantic bazaar-like Gariūnai marketplace instead where Lithuanian capitalism was reborn in the 1990s.

Extensive online guide to Vilnius is available here.

Map of the top 10 Vilnius tourist sights. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Vilnius museums

As the capital of Lithuania Vilnius has the most of its greatest museums.

Art museums excels in modern Lithuanian and Lithuanian diaspora art. Historical museums tend to focus on either the most glorious (Medieval era) or the saddest portions of city history (20th-century occupations and genocides). Technical museums are an interesting place to learn about Eastern European technology, tools, and vehicles. Off-the-beaten "memorial apartments" of local luminaries may have little in particular to offer - but a more personality-based experience of Lithuanian lifestyle and history may be interesting.

Art museums and galleries

Art in Vilnius museums is split according to its period. National Art Gallery (Šnipiškės) has a nice collection of 20th-century Lithuanian art in an appropriately 20th-century building.

Pre-20th-century art is housed in Vilnius Picture Gallery which spreads over several historic palaces in the Old Town. Many temporary exhibits are also housed there whereas the permanent exhibition is rather lackluster (various invaders have carted away many of the old paintings).

Religious art had been a target as well but more of it survived. Some of it, like the Cathedral treasure, had to be hidden from the Soviet eyes. Now this treasure is openly displayed in the new Museum of Religious Art (in St. Michael church, Old Town). However, the best religious art remains located in churches, some of which are rich enough to look like museums (e.g. Ss. Peter and Paul in Antakalnis).

Europe Park is a large permanent exhibition of modern outdoor art in Vilnius suburbs not far from the geographic center of Europe (Vilnius suburbs). Some of its most famous works are 1990s gifts by foreign modern artists to newly independent Lithuania.

Chair-pool by American modern artist Dennis Oppenheim at Europe Park. Photo ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For 21st century art, Contemporary Art Centre (Old Town) hosts temporary traveling exhibitions of modern art (mostly foreign). It also has a permanent Fluxus room exhibiting 20th-century Fluxus movement that was pioneered by Lithuanian diaspora. Additionally, there are multiple galleries that double as shops in the Old Town, mostly dedicated to paintings or amber.

Three Lithuanian-American painters forced to flee Lithuania after Soviet occupation have bequeathed their works to their homeland after its independence. All three painters now have dedicated museums in Vilnius. All three had their iconic styles: carnival-like colorful for Vytautas Kasiulis, so-called optical impressionism for Kazimieras Žoromskis and optical illusion constructivist for Kazys Varnelis. Varnelis has also been an avid collector and his museum includes minor works by major artists such as Goya. Varnelis museum is in the Old Town while Kasiulis's and Žoromskis's ones are in the New Town.

Museum of Applied Art (Old Town) houses pre-modern applied art.

Museum of film, theater, and music (Old Town) is rather massive but quite chaotic with its copies old performance adverts and pictures of obscure actors unlikely to interest a foreigner.

Museum of Verbos in Vilnius suburbs may be small but it provides good examples of this Vilnius region vernacular art (contraptions of dried flowers which replace palm leafs in local churches).

Verbos museum. Photo ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Prehistoric Baltic crafts and jewelry from archeological digs are best presented at the Kernavė museum, which may be visited in a day trip from Vilnius.

Historical and cultural museums

Various occupations and genocides have been an unfortunate part of recent Vilnius history and many of the largest historical museums are dedicated to it. Tuskulėnai Peace Park and Museum (with impressive memorial) is located at the place of where the Soviet Union secretly buried its victims (Antakalnis) whereas Paneriai memorial and museum is located at a Nazi German killing field (Vilnius suburbs). Soviet Genocide is well documented at the Museum of Genocide Victims (former KGB headquarters, New Town) while the information on the Holocaust is also kept in Jewish Museum (Old Town) among other Jewish memorabilia.

Earlier Lithuanian history and culture is presented in the smaller-than-the-name-implies National Museum (Old Town) and its even more modest section in the castle tower above.

The newly-rebuilt Grand Dukes Palace (Old Town) has rather many informational panels on the Grand Duchy's history (1200s-1700s) and plainer-than-the-real-thing reimaginations of palace rooms.

Grand Dukes palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Trakai castle Museum of Lithuanian history may be visited as a day trip from Vilnius.

Technical museums

While technics is now rather international, the technical museums of Lithuania present the Soviet and Eastern European technologies that are hard to come by in the West. Furthermore, they are likely to amuse children.

Museum of Technics (Žirmūnai) housed in Vilnius first power station (1904) is the largest, presenting the Lithuanian technical history among the old turbines. There are also run-of-the-mill do-it-yourself physical experiments.

Museum of Military Vehicles (Antakalnis) exhibits many old military vehicles in open air, much of it either Soviet or donated by the Western countries in the 1990s. Touching and entering is possible.

Museum of military vehicles allows touching. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Privately-owned Toys museum (Old Town) is, however, the one that will be loved the most by kids but adults may also be interested in learning with what toys children used to play in the Soviet Union.

There is also a Museum of Railways in the train station (New Town) and a modern Museum of Money (Old Town) in the Lithuanian Central Bank (both should interest fans of particular fields as they concentrate heavily on Lithuania).

Memorial museums in famous people's homes

While a foreigner is unlikely to know many of the people who have their "memorial apartments", one or two of these may be nice to visit as they are located in former homes that shed light on a Vilnius home of the eras these people live in (mostly 20th century, as the Soviet occupation has largely destroyed the earlier interiors and furniture). They also give an easy access to Lithuanian apartment building stairwells.

Arguably the most famous of these people was Saint Faustyna Kowalska, a Polish nun whose visions of God inspired her to create the Divine Mercy painting venerated by Catholics all over the world. Her former wooden nunnery in Antakalnis is as modest as it used to be in the 1930s and receives many pilgrims.

Also famous is poet Adomas Mickevičius (Adam Mickiewicz) who once lived in Vilnius Old Town.

The Šlapelis family are local heroes who published Lithuanian books in Vilnius under foreign (Russian, Polish) occupations (Old Town).

Writers Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas and Vincas Krėvė-Mickevičius, as well as blind opera singer Birutė Grincevičiūtė, also have their former downtown apartments turned into memorial museums. The first two are more "interwar / early Soviet" while the last one is more "late Soviet" in style. All are located in New Town.

Memorial apartment of Vincas Krėvė-Mickevičius furnished in a 1930s-1940s style. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

One person has a museum in Vilnius even though he has never visited the city - that's Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. He was venerated by the Soviet government which established his memorials all over the Union. However, the wooden manor in Southern Vilnius, once owned by Pushkin's relatives, is more interesting for presenting authentic furniture and lifestyle of 19th century Russian provincial nobility which was influential in Russian-ruled Lithuania.

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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 remodeling 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 inhabitants). 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.

Part of the Vilnius Old Town skyline with its houses of worship marked by denominations. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Katedros Square and the Castle hill area

*Vilnius Cathedral is the seat of the Vilnius archdiocese. The cathedral's 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 the Vilnius lower castle. Tiles of different color mark 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 standards 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 belfry 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 Renaissance 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 Ascension is the most important Russian Orthodox religious building in Lithuania. Originally built in 1348 under Grand Duke Algirdas, 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-Byzantine 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 emigrant 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 crumbling beauty of two Baroque churches in the former monasteries, both closed and not reopened: the Lord Ascension church (1730) as well as the Jesus Heart church (1765).

Lord Ascension (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 ascend 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 the Marshall Islands in Polynesia. Vatican dedicated the 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. The 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 transferred 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 percents of Vilnius inhabitants 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 provide a unique atmosphere for what are mostly alternative music concerts (ethnic, religious, sung poetry, a capella, and other genres).
*Gothic Church of Virgin Mary Ascension (1421) in Trakų street is slowly coming up from Soviet desecration; its massive interior still quite plain. The extensive nearby building once housed a Franciscan monastery but is now painstakingly restored as offices.

Church of Virgin Mary Ascension interior. The Soviet-looted churches such as Virgin Mary Ascension 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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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, an 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 canceled 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 Nevsky 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 the locations of the churches see the maps 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. The majority of direct flights are to Western Europe. A few routes to key ex-Soviet cities. The remaining destinations are mostly Southern European resorts (seasonal flights).

Vilnius airport is built within city limits and only 4 kilometers away from the old town. In fact, most Vilnius inhabitants 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 are 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 an 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 served. Therefore if you have no interest in checking schedules in advance choose trolleybuses.

A Lithuanian-assembled Amber Vilnis trolleybus in Vilnius. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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 the bus, trolleybus, and fast bus routes (i.e. a bus no. 1, a trolleybus no. 1 and a 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 the 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 use 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).

During the rush hours (~7:00-8:30, 17:00-18:30) avoid driving towards downtown as main thoroughfares get clogged.

Traveling 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 extensive 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.

Ozas mall (Vilnius), a new competitor to the successful Akropolis chain. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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), especially in its Gedimino 9 shopping mall. Unfortunately, parking is expensive there (by Lithuanian standards).

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 the 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 souvenirs at a supermarket - 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 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 double 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). Boutique cinemas Pasaka and Skalvija exist in the Old Town and New Town respectively.

Vingis cinema. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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 take 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 to the 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 accommodated.

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 colorful balloons in the air and you may rent one yourself (with a professional pilot and ground support team).

Hot air balloons over Old Town 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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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 the 13th century stood at the same place where the Vilnius Cathedral stands today.

Whatever its beginnings 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 center 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 survived the historical ravages almost intact. There are some very old buildings in Pilies street.

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

The prosperous centuries came to a horrible halt on 1655 when the strengthening 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 become 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 a 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 comprising 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 secular 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-byzantine ones, 1863-1864, lithographies 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 the 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 story 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 administrative 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 freely settle). But even this policy of cultural dilution 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 a 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 the case of Šnipiškės some live that way even today, lacking basic amenities). In Bernardinai and Rasos cemeteries (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 quarrel 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 recognized 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 subjected to a conflict only if it would be depopulated and turned into a museum. If people would have known that the first part of this joke will soon almost become true they probably wouldn't have laughed 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 the 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 the Soviet Union invaded Poland and this sparked 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 the truth as by the mid-1940 Russian forces deposed the Lithuanian government and completely occupied and annexed Lithuania in three months time. Vilnius felt the full swing of nationalization campaign and the genocide of Lithuanian nation. „There will be Lithuania – but without the Lithuanians“ – said Mikhail Suslov, the chairman of USSR Central Comity 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 labor 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 cemeteries, 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 beginning. When the Russian architects have 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 Vilnius Great Synagogue, multiple cemeteries, 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 the 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 buildings 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 references 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 the 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.

The 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. The 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 the cultural center to Kaunas. Russian language was the lingua franca 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 lives 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. By the 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 an unbelievable cohesion of the people of Vilnius who stood armless against the Soviet tanks all these actions failed. The 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 of 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. The left picture shows a Russian tank running over people. The subsequent funeral of the January 13 martyrs is pictured on the 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 by 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 standards 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 the 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 the 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 the 1990s were large detached home in one of the rapidly developing suburbs (Kairėnai, Pavilnis, Zujūnai). Such buildings sprung up, their owners caring primarily 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 Vilnius 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 the 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.

The medieval tolerance and social cohesion returned as well. The percentage of Lithuanians peaked at ~60% - as the city and government majority ethnicities were now the same (while the minorities were allowed full democratic participation), the communities stopped to see each other as a threat.

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 nouveau 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 squatting and fires. The picture on the right shows the same building in 2012, renovated into a four star Hotel Artis. Both pictures ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The main transformation ended in some 2001 when Vilnius was effectively a modern Western city. Its population still earned smaller wages, however, causing tens of thousands Vilnius residents emigrate westwards after Lithuania's European Union membership (2004) abolished migration controls.

Vilnius was saved from a major population slump only by Lithuanians moving in from other localities. These trends made the demographic decline in the rest of Lithuania even acuter, increasing the gap between Vilnius and other cities.

By 2011 Vilnius was already 69% more populous than the second-largest city Kaunas (the difference stood at 37% back in 1989). As the capital, it also attracted most talents and key business HQs. Such transformation of Lithuania into a "single-city nation" is popularly seen as unwelcome. To combat it the government has been transferring the majority of income tax paid by Vilnius residents to other areas.

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 the 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 come during some random weekend there is likely something to be going on.

Vilnius 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 armor.

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 uniquely marked in Vilnius by transforming its 326 m tall TV tower into the world's tallest Christmas tree. Conceived for celebrating the new millennium 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 of 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 Television 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 traditional 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 traditional 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 equinox 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 a 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.

FiDi Dinas Zauras (Dino Saur) begins its journey across the city at Faculty of Physics. ©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. [Video]
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 inhabitants 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 Renaissance-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 program 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 equinox September 20th-22nd Ceremony Marked by a pagan-inspired show of fire and water at Neris river near Cathedral square (a 2000s tradition).

Fire performance near Cathedral during the equinox. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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 understand 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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