Looking for the best things to do in Vilnius, Lithuania? Not sure what activities in Vilnius are worth your while? Or maybe you are trying to see as many Vilnius attractions as possible in a short trip. Well I’m here to help! Read on for the top 10 Vilnius attractions to see in 2020.
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Lithuania is one of the most interesting destinations in the world. Quaint and charming; old and new; lively and exciting – Lithuania has it all. Before I go on – YES. I am 100% biased. I was born in the USA but my DNA (and heart) is Lithuanian. But, I go back to visit every several years so I know this country very well.
There is no shortage of interesting places to visit all around Lithuania, but you are likely to start your trip in Vilnius, the capital. While I do think that no trip to Lithuania is complete without exploring the farther corners, I have collected here a great overview of Vilnius attractions to suit any first-time visitor. Read on for my top ten activities and the best things to do in Vilnius, Lithuania!
First, The Basics.
so Where is Vilnius?
Many of you might be wondering, where the heck is Vilnius? And where is Lithuania, for that matter? It’s true, my homeland might not be among the most widely known countries in Eastern Europe – but I can guarantee, it’s the best-kept secret! Let me show you.
Lithuania is the southernmost country in the Baltic chain, and shares a border with Poland. The red icon shows where the modern-day capital Vilnius sits, in the southeastern corner of the country.
Vilnius offers an unexpected blend of old and new architecture, tradition, and style. The medieval Old Town architecture is stunning – blending Gothic and Baroque and Neo-classical styles atop cobblestone streets. Everything is walk-able if you are up for it, and walking is the best way to find hidden alleyways and sights that aren’t noted as typical attractions in Vilnius.
When is the best time to go to vilnius?
I’ve been there during all seasons and there is definitely a certain charm all year round. However, as a country situated fairly far north, the winters can get cold. In general, most people would prefer to visit between May and September, for the warmest and sunniest weather. However, the fall months are stunning, with the colorful changing leaves and winter is lovely, decorated with all of the Christmas trimmings (Lithuania is a Catholic country).
How long should i spend in vilnius?
At a bare minimum, you should really spend three nights in the city. And honestly, you could spend a week and still not discover all there is to see. But I would suggest to spend around 3 nights in Vilnius before (hopefully) venturing to other areas of Lithuania.
How much should i budget for vilnius?
Guess what. Vilnius is cheap. When I first started visiting, Lithuania still used the Lithuanian Lita as a currency. Nowadays they use the Euro, which has admittedly raised prices a bit, but it’s still a very cheap destination as far as Europe goes. You can eat for under 10$USD per meal and get a dorm bed for around 10$USD, too. Last time I visited, I booked only Airbnb’s, and the most I spent for stylish and well-located room was $40USD. (If you’ve not tried Airbnb before, click here for a discount on your first booking!)
Getting around vilnius
Vilnius has an extensive bus network that extends from the airport to all over the city. It’s not necessary to splurge on a taxi, unless you want to; the bus can carry you from the airport into Vilnius in under 10 minutes for between $1-$2USD (depending on the current exchange rate).
If you don’t have the patience to figure out the logistics and bus table, Uber is an easy and cheap option. Most of the city is walkable, so I recommend renting a car only if you plan to head outside of the capital city (which you absolutely should!). When I’m in Vilnius I typically explore by foot, Uber and bus and then rent my car on the very day that I am heading to farther corners.
The city offers a Vilnius Pass that covers not only the bus route fares, but also many of the city’s museums for free. These cards are available in 24hr, 48hr and 72hr increments (at €18.99, €28.99 and €34.99 respectively).
Now, onto the good stuff! Keep going for some of the best activities and things to do in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Vilnius Attractions – Top 10 Things To Do in Vilnius, Lithuania
I said earlier that Lithuania is the best-kept secret in Eastern Europe. Let me explain further what makes Vilnius, specifically, so charming.
It’s all in the details. The contrast between the centuries-old churches vs. the modern, hip cafes; the traditional artistic jewelry made of Amber (a Lithuanian specialty) vs. the quirky galleries in the arts district. There truly is something for everyone here, whether you are fascinated by the history, or love to explore ancient castles, or you prefer more artsy and unique vibes, Vilnius has it.
It’s no secret that I am a nature-lover. But even I quickly fell in love with Vilnius’s charms and now each and every time I go back to Lithuania, I spend a few days finding new things to do in Vilnius. Read on for my top 10 must-see Vilnius attractions, as recommended by a long-time visitor and a blogger of Lithuanian heritage.
1. St. Anne and St. Bernardine’s Church Complex
Each and every time I step foot in Lithuania, I can honestly say I visit these churches. St. Anne’s and St. Bernardine’s both showcase amazing and differing examples of architecture in Vilnius, blending stunning Gothic-style and Baroque elements together.
St. Anne’s is the Gothic church showcasing the tall spires, It is believed to have been built at the end of the 15th century by architect Benedikt Rejt, from Prague. From the time it was built, the exterior of the church has remained unchanged, though the interior has had some upkeep and more modern elements from the 20th century.
Not to be overshadowed, the impressive St. Bernardine offers a massive and unusual backdrop for St. Anne’s, in a more bright and whimsical style. Seeing the two very-different churches side by side truly highlights the beautifully contrasting styles. Both are free to enter, and the interiors are equally stunning.
2. The Historical Gates of Dawn
As the last remaining “gate” of the original nine, this arch is part of a historical wall that once surrounded Vilnius. The walls were built over 600 years ago, so it is easy to see why the Gates of Dawn holds huge historical significance. However, in this Catholic nation, this attraction also has a major religious significance, too.
People often stop and make the sign of the cross with lowered heads or even say a quick prayer before passing through. This is due to the small, hidden chapel inside the Gate which holds a religious icon of Mary that can be seen from the street below.
This Madonna of Mercy icon was painted in the 1700’s. Much like St. Anne’s and St. Bernardine mentioned above, whether you are religious or not, this is a worthwhile stop to see a bit of Vilnius’s architectural and religious history. The Gates of Dawn is located on a small and unassuming street filled with amber shops and other stores.
3. Cathedral Square (& Famous Bell Tower!)
Cathedral Square is one of the most well-known meeting points in all of Vilnius. The wide open space is often used for festivals throughout the year, and one can’t help but notice the clean neoclassical architecture nearby.
The Cathedral of St Stanislav and St Vladislav is the official name of this iconic building – anyone from Vilnius is quite familiar. Step inside for a visual treat. One cannot help but to notice the tall and breathtaking bell tower, set slightly off to the side in the square. Many visitors are not aware – you can actually climb this bell tower, and I highly recommend doing so! It’s a lot like climbing up a lighthouse, and the panoramic views of Vilnius are spectacular.
4. Museum of Genocide Victims
This museum is likely THE MOST important stop that you will make in Vilnius. Words cannot express how important the teachings of this museum are for Lithuanians.
First thing to note, The Museum of Genocide Victims has gone by a number of different names over the years. You will often hear it referred to as the KGB Museum and/or The Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights. Know that these are all referring to the same place.
This museum shows a sobering history of all-too-recent terrors that occurred in Lithuania over the years, from both Soviet and German occupations. I can tell you that even with family tales and extensive personal research, this museum taught me things I would never have otherwise known about Lithuanian history (and resiliency).
Each floor features photographs and names of people in history, whether known to history books or not. The museum shows not only unspeakable atrocities but also amazing resilience and resistance. The basement holds a still-intact KGB prison and a bone-shilling execution room.
I can tell you with full honesty that I visit this museum every time I go to Lithuania, and I have not once left the building without shedding a tear. Even as I write this, I feel my eyes welling up as I think of the atrocities against my people. It is incredibly haunting but so, so important.
5. Gediminas Castle Tower
On a lighter note (and you will definitely want a lighter experience after exiting the Museum), Gediminas’ Tower is what remains of the Upper Castle. One of the many historical Vilnius attractions, this tower is well worth a visit.
This tower was originally built in the 1400’s by Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania. The tower you see perched on a hilltop is all that remains, and it is visible throughout much of Vilnius. This castle tower offers a stunning 360-degree view of the city and also contains a museum. If you are not museumed-out, there is interesting history about the castle found inside. Gediminas Castle Tower is free, but the museum charges a nominal entrance fee.
6. The Republic of Užupis
At the end of the Soviet era, Užupis was considered a very rough area in Vilnius. In fact, it was one of the last areas Lithuanians would want to be caught in, with crumbling buildings and high crime rates. The neighborhood’s Jewish population had an extremely rough go of it due to Nazi occupation and was dwindling after the Holucaust.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania finally became FREE! as recently as 1993. Shockingly recent.
As it happens all around the world, artists came in and took advantage of cheap rents and large buildings to eventually create a progressive community and an artists’ Utopia; a collection of quirky and free-thinking people gathered in one spot.
In 1997, after all those years of Soviet oppression, the residents of Užupis declared their independence on April 1st – or, April Fools Day. This was not an accident. Though they have their own president, army, and flag, Užupis is a tongue-in-cheek kind of republic. The constitution, containing 41 lines, reads somewhat like a joke (though residents will tell you it’s anything but)! The streets are lined with colorful and quirky shops, artist studios, and wall murals that are simply fun. It’s a must-see. *More about Uzupis coming soon*
7. The Hill of Three Crosses
Not to be confused with the gargantuan Hill of Crosses in Šiauliai, these modest three crosses sit atop a hill in Vilnius as one of the more obscure attractions.
Originally, a trio of wooden crosses stood on the hill in Kalnai Park. There is ancient lore that tells a story of Franciscan monks who were slain here – which honestly may or may not be true. Nobody knows for sure, but the story touched Lithuanians enough that they build this wooden monument to honor “Bleak Hill”.
Much like the famous Hill of Crosses in Šiauliai, this trio was torn down by the Soviet’s in an attempt to force the Russian Orthodox religion on a country that was deeply Catholic. The monument was rebuilt in 1989 as it stands now.
Climb this sandy, pine-covered hill for amazing views of Vilnius below. Bring some snacks and stay here for sunset below this symbol and enjoy a peaceful evening above Vilnius.
8. The Church of St. Theresa
Next up is another impressive Baroque church called St. Theresa’s, which is hard to miss with it’s cotton candy pink facade.
The facade is elegant, but the inside is even more interesting, showing frescoes that depict the life of St. Theresa. The high altar is gorgeous, and the whole interior is lavishly decorated. It is free to enter the church so you absolutely should plan to stop by.
9. Visit Trakai Castle
Okay, full disclosure – this one is a roughly 25 minute drive outside the city, but it is so close (and so stunning) that I had to include it. Trakai Castle’s original contrsuction dates all the way back to the 14th century. It sits atop a small island on Lake Galvė which essentially gives the castle a built-in-mote.
Trakai Castle suffered major devastation over the years of war in Lithuania, as so many places of importance did. Can I mention, I’m so proud of the resiliency of my people?!? The castle was restored over the years and the original frescoes were preserved and copied. The most recent restoration ended in 1961.
Inside, you will find exhibits showcasing traditional and historical artifacts – everything from local dress to weaponry. Other artifacts found in excavation are also on display, such as old coins. Trakai Castle’s museum costs roughly $10USD, depending on exchange rates, and is more than worth it.
10. Etno Dvaras Restaurant for Traditional Lithuanian Cuisine
The last of my top 10 Vilnius attractions centers around food of course, because one of the best (and extremely unknown!) highlights of Lithuania is the traditional cuisine. Etno Dvaras is a MUST. They are the first restaurant in all of Lithuania to have had their dishes certified by the Lithuanian Culinary Heritage Fund. You KNOW you will be eating authentic Lithuanian food here!
One of the most popular meals is cepelinai, which are huge dumplings made of potato flour, filled with meats or cheeses. Yes, the cheese version is vegetarian, and it’s delicious. These are like no dumplings you’ve ever eaten though – the “walls” are extremely thick and they are absolutely filling! Beet Root soup and potatoes with dill are common staples as well.
To read more on Lithuanian traditional foods, click here.
Etno Dvaras is located right in Old Town and the prices are reasonable and ambiance incredible.
I hope that this list of the best things to do in Vilnius, Lithuania helps you make the most of your time, guiding which activities in Vilnius that are worth your while! Of course there is plenty more to see than these Vilnius attractions but this is certainly the best start. If you walk from site to site on this list, you will pass many more interesting gems that you can stop and explore.
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Did this list help you? Have you been to these Vilnius attractions? Let me know in the comments below!
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