Our recent trip to the Baltic States was very eye-opening for me. Part of the reason I travel is that I love being close to history. Usually, when one thinks of history we see it as a far past event. In Lithuania, however, groundbreaking history happened less than thirty years ago. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania declared their independence from the Soviet Union. With this in mind, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I landed in Vilnius, Lithuania. From the moment I walked through Aušros vartai (Gates of Dawn) into Old Town Vilnius, I was absolutely blown away. I couldn’t even tell you how many times we said “wow” on our ten-minute walk to dinner. I am convinced Vilnius is Europe’s best-kept secret, but don’t just take my word for it – book a flight! I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Where to stay in Vilnius
Didžioji g. 7, Vilnius 01128, Lithuania
Pacai is a former Baroque palace turned five-star hotel complete with a spa, two restaurants, and a bar located in the heart of Old Town Vilnius. It also boasts one of the best balconies in town. Pacai seemed to have a constant stream of fabulous people and cars flocking to it as though it were the center of the universe. Hotel Pacai is part of the Marriott family so a stay here can earn you points!
In Vilnius, we stayed at the most Insta-worthy AirBnb located right outside Aušros varta (Gate of Dawn)i. It was exceptionally sleek and in a fantastic location for exploring the city and making an early morning flight. There is one bed and the couch also converts to a second bed. The only downside of this stunning all-white apartment was that not all of the shades are blackout so the apartment can get bright in the mornings.
Things you must see in Vilnius
Old Town is the grand attraction of Vilnius from which you can easily navigate throughout the city to all the major sites. The smartest way to get around and into attractions is with the Vilnius Pass. With the Vilnius Pass, you gain admission to the best sites, exclusive deals at local restaurants, and public transit passes.
The best view of Vilnius is from Gediminas Castle where you will have a panoramic view of the city. Be warned it is a bit of an uphill hike for which I would advise wearing comfortable shoes. For the faint of heart, a funicular railway is available to transport you roundtrip for 2 euros.
When taking in the old sites around Vilnius it is important to keep in mind the country’s history. Vilnius was previously occupied by and later part of the soviet union. While the country has regained its independence the scars of it’s past are evident in the interiors of the churches and sparsely decorated castle. Despite their hardships, I was in awe of the meticulously detailed architecture. My favorite churches include the Vilnius Cathedral and St. Anne’s Church.
Aukų g. 2A, Vilnius 01400, Lithuania
During our trip through the Baltics, we had the opportunity to see several of the region’s occupation museums, each with their own story to tell. Vilnius’s museum was unique in that it is located in an old KGB headquarters and prison. A visit to this museum will transport you to the (not so distant) where Lithuanians were deported to hard labor camps in Siberia and a local partisan resistance movement was formed in reaction to Soviet occupiers.
If you haven’t been living under a rock you’ve probably heard about the new HBO miniseries Cherynobl which examines the catastrophic nuclear incident which occurred at a nuclear power plant in Ukraine back in 1989. And if you’re like me, you probably binged all five episodes in one sitting. Rather than risking your health by visiting the actual site you can check out some of your favorite filming locations such as the courtroom from the comfort of Vilnius
Where to eat & drink in Vilnius
Didžioji g. 11, Vilnius 01128, Lithuania
Sarah and I commonly reference Kitchen as the best meal of our entire Baltic trip. The combination of amazing food, a glorious sunset, and the cloud-nine feeling that accompanies being on a balcony in Vilnius made this meal unforgettable. Kitchen’s menu varies by the season to take advantage of the freshest local products. My favorite dish at Kitchen was the duck breast with caramelized apples.
Didžioji g. 26, Vilnius 01128, Lithuania
Saula is located right next to VšĮ Vilniaus rotušė (Vilnius’s town hall) which is the perfect location for outdoor dining if the weather is kind. If a cold front or rain shower brings you indoors you’ll be able to enjoy your meal in the comfort of a modern cave-like dining space. Saula’s menu has some local favorites including the half creamy cold beetroot soup, traditionally called Saltibarsciai. The trick with this dish is to dip the potatoes that come on the side in the soup as you take a spoonful of it.
Pilies g. 42, Vilnius 01123, Lithuania
Pinavija is a charming Persian cafe filled with sweet treats and savory snacks. This is a great place to pop in for breakfast, brunch or an afternoon snack. Fairytale Coffee is known for its creative toasts including the greek avocado toast with fresh tomato.
Sodų g. 9, Vilnius 03211, Lithuania
We had the great fortune of having fantastic sunny 80-degree (F) days the entire time we were in Vilnius. Naturally, this encouraged us to seek out outdoor dining with a view which led us to none other than Cacapuri Sodu. Cacapuri Sodu serves a variety of Georgian cuisine including the dish for which it is named, Chačapuri, and is a charming spot to stop for a quick lunch.
Švitrigailos g. 11a, Vilnius 03223, Lithuania
Varenyky, appropriately named for the heavenly dumplings served here, dons a menu full of Ukranian food which can be expertly paired with their wide liquor selection. This is a great spot for lunch or a casual dinner.
Stiklių g. 16, Vilnius 01131, Lithuania
Amidst our wanderings, we stumbled upon this charming cafe in one of Vilnius’s many picturesque side streets. The pink outdoor tables were a lovely spot to catch our breath over some freshly squeezed watermelon juice and people watching.
Stiklių g. 7, Vilnius 01131, Lithuania
Meat, cheese, and beer. Or as we call it in Wisconsin, the holy trinity. Bambalyne has an eclectic selection of local craft beers served in a well-stocked cellar. This is the perfect place to enjoy a low key night with friends.
Pilies g. 25, Vilnius 01123, Lithuania
I have an uncanny talent for finding a whiskey bar or an Irish pub wherever I go, and I can happily report I’ve never found one (of either of these vices) that I didn’t like. The Whiskey Shop and Bar in Vilnius has an inspired cocktail menu which perfectly pairs with their wide selection of whiskeys. Whether you are here to shop or drink, your taste buds will thank you.
Day Trips from Vilnius
Trakai Castle is located on an island in Lake Galvė which is about a thirty-minute drive or short train ride outside of Vilnius. Trakai was built in the 14th century for one of the grand dukes of Lithuania for its strategic position. A decades-long restoration project was finished in 1961 and Trakai has since become a major tourist attraction and is known to host a variety of festivals throughout the year.
There are day tours from Vilnius that head to The Hill of Crosses in northern Lithuania, which has been an unusual pilgrimage site for almost two centuries. Some of the earliest records of the crosses are in reference to them being left by mourners of victims of revolts against the Russian regime. There were many attempts to destroy the Hill of Crosses while religion was banned in Lithuania, but each time the site was saved by devoted locals. The Hill of Crosses has since become a symbol of Lithuania’s unique “national and religious identity.”
Getting Around Vilnius
Walk everywhere! Vilnius is too beautiful to view from the backseat of a car. When traveling Sarah and I usually clock around 30,000 steps a day because our preferred mode of transit is on foot. Plus, by walking everywhere we felt fully justified over-indulging in Vilnius’s phenomenal culinary scene.
With Vilnius’s vibrant tech scene it is no surprise that Uber is a common mode of transport here. Ubers are easily available to and from the airport, and you can even schedule a ride in advance. It cost us around 6 USD to get from the Airport to our Airbnb.
Vilnius has a variety of bus lines that you can hop on throughout the city and a centrally located railway station from which you can venture out from the capital city. The transit is affordable and is easy to use to get to and from the airport.
When visiting Vilnius you will be charmed by the cobblestone streets, storybook architecture, and the telltale signs of an economy on the rise. You will also have the opportunity to see raw history. I often forget how lucky I am that I have never lived through a war fought in my own country. Even though there have been wars fought on American soil, our past is at times easy to overlook. While some countries may be inclined to hide their scars, Lithuania bares them for the world to see. I encourage you to embrace them and learn from the past. History isn’t always easy to look at, but that doesn’t mean we should close our eyes.
I’m already looking forward to my next trip to Lithuania, and I hope to see you there!
Looking for a book to read on your flight over? Check out: Cafe Europa