True Lithuania

Vilnius Travel Guide: An Introduction

Skyline of Vilnius

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

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

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

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

Alumnatas courtyard in Vilnius

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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