Things to Do in Vilnius
Vilnius’s medieval defensive walls originally had nine entry gates, all built in the early 16th century; as was custom then, each was decorated with a portrait of the Virgin Mary to ensure the protection of the city. Today only remnants of these walls still stand after the Russian attacks of 1799, and the whitewashed Gate of Dawn (Aušros Vartai), completed in 1522 with an ornate pediment, is the last remaining of the original fortified city entrances.
Around 1630, Carmelite monks from a nearby monastery replaced the original image on the Gate of Dawn with a new icon named the ‘Vilnius Madonna’, painted on oak boards and widely believed in both Catholic and Orthodox faiths to have mystical healing powers. The Renaissance-style, pastel-blue-and-white Chapel of Our Lady of the Dawn was grafted on to the southern side of Gate of Dawn around 1706 to house the painting, which became one of Lithuania’s most revered icons.
Today it is encrusted in gold and silver and its pretty little chapel is adorned with silver votives donated by pilgrims. Masses are held in both Polish and Lithuanian and on holy days the streets around the chapel are brought to a standstill as worshipers flock to pray in front of the icon.
Vilnius’ main boulevard stretches from the River Neris in the west to the sweeping expanse of Cathedral Square in the southeast, and is named after the country’s greatest hero, the legendary Grand Duke Gediminas, who is credited with founding the fledgling country of Lithuania in the 13th century. Built in 1836 as Vilnius expanded with the arrival of the railway line from St Petersburg, Gediminas Avenue (Gedimino Prospektas) was originally named Georgij Avenue and has been renamed several times according to the regime in power. The wide avenue is lined with trees and glamorous Baroque townhouses in pastel colors; these house many government ministries and courthouses as well as banks, the national library and several leading Lithuanian theaters. By day a popular shopping and meeting place, Gediminas Avenue comes into its own at night when it morphs into one of Vilnius’ most upmarket dining spots.
As the street bisects Vilnius city center, landmarks along Gediminas Avenue include Seimas Palace, built in 2007 in modernist style as befits the seat of the new, independent Lithuanian Parliament. The 17th-century Lukiškės Square borders the avenue to the north; now a tranquil green lung of the city, it was the site of public hangings in the 19th century and during World War II, dissidents were executed here by Soviet troops.
The decorative brick towers, rose windows and spires of this flamboyant late-Gothic church were finished in 1501, and today it is one of Old Town’s best-loved landmarks.
The church was constructed on the site of an earlier wooden church first mentioned in 1394. St Anne's was designed by either Polish architect Michael Enkinger, who built a church of the same name in Warsaw, or the Bohemian Benedikt Rejt, who had a hand in building Prague Castle. Its ornate multi-patterned façade bristles with arcades, arches, flying buttresses and gargoyles.
Inside, the church’s single nave is surprisingly austere, with high vaulted ceilings and plain walls with little adornment except carved wooden pews and lecterns. Much of the original stained glass was destroyed by Napoleon’s troops when they were stationed here in 1812, despite the apocryphal tale that he apparently loved the church so much he wanted to "carry it home in the palm of his hand."
The freestanding, clumsy Neo-Gothic bell tower to the right of the main entrance to St Anne’s was an afterthought added in 1873; the church close by is St Francis and St Bernadine; together the three buildings comprise the Bernadine Priory.
The largest square in Vilnius has its origins in the 17th century, when it formed part of a separate suburb of the city and surrounded by countryside, wooden houses and the occasional mosque. Lukiškės Square (Lukiškiu Aikštė) has been the focus of much conflict in its history; in the 19th century it was a place of public hangings, and during World War II many Vilnius dissidents were executed here by Soviet troops.
Long since swallowed up by the urban expansion of Vilnius, the square is now bordered by Gediminas Avenue to the south, and most of the elegant Baroque buildings of yore are long gone. A lucky few, including the Church of St James and St Phillip, escaped demolition, but the majority have been replaced by massive civic buildings constructed largely in the 1950s under Communist occupation, when the square was renamed Lenin Square. A huge statue to the Soviet leader had pride of place here, but it was toppled when Lithuania regained its independence in 1991. Today Lukiškės Square is a tranquil green lung in the heart of the modern city, although there are plans afoot to redesign it once more, while possibly renaming it Freedom Square.
A frenzied whirligig of Baroque ornamentation, the Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit was constructed at the beginning of the 15th century and is one of the most ornate of all Vilnius’s churches. Over the centuries and depending on who was ruling Lithuania at the time, it has been a Catholic church, a Dominican monastery, a parish church, a prison, and finally, today it is the Orthodox parish church of the Polish diaspora in Lithuania.
Owing its present Baroque and rococo appearance to a facelift by architect Jonas Kristupas Glaubicas after a fire in 1749, the interior is a heady clash of colors, gilt, carved wooden pews, ornate lecterns, and bright sprays of flowers. The crypt contains the skeletons of nearly 2,000 bodies, thought to be a mixture of plague victims and fallen soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. However, most people visit to gaze in awe at the over-lavish internal decoration of the church, with its swags of marble, frescoes coating the walls, coats of arms, stucco, reliquaries and precious icons, its 16 altars and the monumental Casparini organ dating from 1776.
Situated in Vilnius’s former Gestapo and KGB headquarters, a visit to the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights (Okupaciju ir Laisves Kovu Muziejus) is vital to understanding the psyche of Lithuania.
Following the demise of Germany, the Agreement of Yalta of 1945 was put in place between the triumvirate of Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt, which saw Europe carved up and half of Germany and all lands to the east, including Poland and the Baltic States, handed over to Russia. A guerrilla war ensued against Soviet occupation and in the years until the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, rebels were consistently murdered or deported to Siberia, although the shackles of Communism were not fully shaken off until Lithuanian independence in 1990.
As well as detailing the gradual suppression of the Lithuanian people under Stalin, exhibitions include KGB torture cells and execution chambers, which hold personal belongings rescued from mass graves found in countryside outside Vilnius. Considering that this building also housed the Gestapo HQ, an appropriate recent addition to the museum is the display about the Jewish ghettos and the Holocaust in Lithuania, including artifacts from the execution site at Paneriai.
Every Baltic city has an amber museum to reflect on the days when it was regarded as "Baltic gold" and served as the cornerstone of maritime trade, helping to bring wealth into Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Vilnius’s miniscule Amber Museum-Gallery (Gintaro Muziejus-Galerija) was opened in 1988 and is housed in the 15th-century basement of a Baroque house built 200 years later.
The collection showcases pieces of amber that are more than 50 million years old, as well as white, black, green and red varieties found along the Baltic shores. There are also several pieces with fossilized prehistoric insects trapped inside. The highlight of the collection is the reconstructed display of the fabled Treasure of Juodkrante, a stash of Stone Age amber jewelry discovered in the 1880s on the Curonian Spit, a peninsula shared by Lithuania and Kaliningrad in Russia. The ground-floor shop exhibits and sells contemporary amber jewelry, and there are daily displays of amber polishing.
The National Art Gallery in Vilnius is a branch of the Lithuanian Art Museum. It is home to more than 46,000 exhibits of 20th and 21st century Lithuanian art. Works of art are displayed chronologically and each of the 10 exhibition halls has a different theme, different period and different point of view, highlighting important events and facts in recent Lithuanian history. Some of the more notable collections include modern art in Lithuania and Vilnius in the first half of the 20th century; works of Lithuanian artists affected by World War II and the Soviet occupation of Lithuania; Lithuanian art and photography in the second half of the 20th century; art of Lithuanians in exile; and contemporary Lithuanian art at the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century. The lobby and the courtyard often feature new art works.
Druskininkai Aquapark, Lithuania's largest waterpark, contains water slides and swimming pools, a hotel, a spa and wellness center, and an entertainment center with a bowling alley, as well as a food court and a nightclub. It’s the ideal one-stop destination for travelers looking for great rainy-day activities.
Few institutions better capture Lithuanian history than the National Museum of Lithuania. This Vilnius institution is not just a single museum but a collection of museums offering exhibits about everything from archeology to art history. The New Arsenal houses the museum's main collection, focused on state history.
More Things to Do in Vilnius
Vilnius Cathedral - or Arkikatedra Bazilika - can trace its history back to the 13th century when the Lithuanian King Mindaugas built the original cathedral in 1251.
Having been burnt down and rebuilt several times over the years, the cathedral’s final reconstruction is in the neoclassical style (1801) according to the design of Laurynas Gucevicius.
Under Soviet occupation, the cathedral was used as a garage and several statues were destroyed. It has undergone several restorations since that time and its elegant colonnaded façade, ornate interior and 57m-(187ft) tall belfry, continue to stand proud as a symbol of the country’s Catholic faith.
As happened so often in Vilnius over the centuries, the imposing Bernardine Church (Bernardinu Parapija)—also known as the Church of St. Francis and St. Bernadine—was built on the site of an earlier wooden church and originally formed part of the city’s defensive walls. It was built in the early 16th century as the dedicated church of a Dominican monastery nearby and is a curious mix of Gothic and Baroque styling with a multi-colored brick upper façade. Completely overshadowed by the Gothic pinnacles and spires of St Anne’s Church immediately in front of it, the Bernadine Church nevertheless had one of the finest interiors in Vilnius. It survived several fires and the ravages of war with Russia relatively intact until the Soviet occupation of Lithuania began in 1944 and the ornate interior was destroyed. Now as restoration work is in progress, the church’s 14 intricate altars, the oldest crucifix in the country and the splendidly ornate carved wooden lecterns and pulpits are slowly coming back to life.
The Bernadine Church sits tucked behind the decorative Gothic St Anne’s Church, and together with the Neo-Gothic bell tower and the monastery close by–which now houses the Vilnius Art Academy – the three buildings form the Bernadine Priory.
Accessible by foot through the cobbled streets of photogenic, bohemian Užupis—which declared its independence from the rest of Vilnius in 1997 and even has its own tin-pot army—Subačius Hill provides panoramic views across to Vilnius’s Old Town and the suburban, purpose-built Soviet apartment blocks beyond.
Telescopes and brass information boards at the viewing points on this tranquil little spot help visitors to identify the Baroque churches of St Anne’s and the Holy Spirit, as well as Gediminas Tower on the horizon. After drinking in your fill of the view, take time out on the terrace bar in a couple of the nearby café or declare your feelings for a loved one by attaching a padlock to the wrought-iron railings around the view point.
Gediminas Castle Tower (Gedimino Pilies Bokštas) is practically all that remains of Upper Castle, the medieval complex that was constructed in Vilnius in the early 14th century. The tower was once the reward that followed an arduous climb up Castle Hill through Vilnius Old Town, but these days a funicular makes the journey up to the castle from the courtyard outside the Cathedral and Lower Castle much easier.
Perched at a height of 157 feet (48 m) above the rest of the city, not much of the Upper Castle has survived the civil wars and Russian sieges of Lithuania’s 15th through 17th centuries. After being damaged during the war with Moscow in 1655, the castle lost its strategic importance and was not rebuilt, gradually falling into disrepair. The remaining sturdy and hexagonal Gediminas Castle Tower has become a redbrick symbol of peace to the people of Lithuania; it now forms part of the nine-branch National Museum of Lithuania, and inside there is a small exhibition of weapons and armory. Far more popular, however, is the panoramic vista of Vilnius from the landmark’s viewing platform. On a clear day, the Television Tower and the high-rise apartment complexes
evidencing Soviet occupation can be spotted; the view is just as good at nightfall with the lights of Vilnius Old Town twinkling merrily below.
The Bastion of the Vilnius Defensive Wall (Vilniaus Gynybinės Sienos Bastėja) is one of the last surviving parts of the city’s historic wall. Built in the 17th century, it is a horseshoe shaped building with a tower and connecting tunnel. Damaged during the Russian occupation in the late part of the 17th century, the bastion gradually lost its defensive function. By the beginning of the 19th century, most of the defensive wall had been destroyed and the bastion was turned into a garbage dump for the city.
Reconstruction of the bastion began in 1966 as the tower was rebuilt and the tunnel and interior rooms were renovated. A museum opened within the bastion in 1987 and there visitors can see weapons and armor from the 15th to 19th centuries, as well as cannons and stone cannon shells. A viewing platform also offers a nice view of Vilnius’ Old Town.
Taking a peek at the history of the Lithuanian litas as well as currencies across the world, Vilnius’s Money Museum (Pinigu Muziejaus) is not some dusty old relic but a contemporary exhibition on two floors of the former Bank of Lithuania. Completely reworked and reopened in 2010, the collections feature plenty of interactive fun, hordes of precious coins, and banks of computers programmed to flash up facts and figures on any currency you care to name. The museum also has a serious side, looking at the development of money from its origins as a primitive bartering system right up to the manufacture of coins and paper money. Further displays examine the history of banking and a long-term exhibition celebrates the return of precious silverware to Lithuania after the fall of Communism in 1991. The highlights of a visit are undoubtedly the scales that reveal your weight in gold and other precious metals. There is a small offshoot of the Money Museum in Kaunas.
Soaring to a height of 1,071 feet (326.5 meters), the Vilnius TV Tower is Lithuania’s tallest building, standing watch over the city’s Vingis Park. In addition to being a functioning radio and TV tower, it’s also a popular vista point, with an observation deck and revolving restaurant.
From mind-bending 3D paintings to interactive optical illusions and distorted mirrors, the Vilnil Museum of Illusions is filled with fun exhibitions to challenge your perceptions. Entertaining for all ages, the museum offers the opportunity to take unique and Instagram-worthy photos.
Legend says that St. Peter and St. Paul's Church (Sv. Apastalu Petro ir Povilo Baznycia) was built on the site of a former pagan temple, but it is known for certain that this masterpiece of Baroque architecture was built on the remains of a wooden church destroyed in the internecine struggles of the 17th century.
This Roman Catholic Church was commissioned in 1668 by Lithuanian aristocrat Mykolas Pacas to celebrate a victory over the Russians. It was designed by Italian architect Frediani Giambattista with a relatively austere ocher-and-white Baroque façade that belies its fantastical interior – unusual for a Baroque church, the entire interior is decorated in monotones augmented with rare splashes of color.
Master Italian sculptor Pietro Perti worked for 30 years to create the 2,000 snowy-white stucco statues of saints and biblical figures that adorn the nave and aisles, and the macabre Grim Reaper statue and spectacularly ornate central dome should not be missed.
Other treasures include the vast altar painting of St. Peter and St. Paul by Panciškus Smuglevicius and the glittering Art Nouveau chandelier in the shape of a silver fishing boat suspended above the main aisle in honor of St. Peter, the “fisher of men.”
Before World War II, the working-class district of Uzupis south of the River Neris and west of the River Vilnele formed one of the main Jewish communities in Vilnius. This was abandoned during the Holocaust and during the Soviet Occupation between 1944 and 1990, it filled up again with bohemian artists, political rebels and other freewheeling thinkers, in the process garnering a reputation as the Montmartre of Lithuania.
In 1997 this little enclave declared its independence from the rest of Vilnius, in a similar manner to Christiania in Copenhagen. Ever since, the Republic of Uzupis has elected its own president and run its own constitution. The tiny state even has its own national anthem, flag and toy army.
Today Uzupis has some of the most edgy, most vibrant streets in Vilnius, with façades covered in graffiti, pavement cafés, wacky art galleries, underground bars and buzzing multi-ethnic restaurants, while Thursday’s Tymo Market sees organic producers flock into Uzupis from all over Lithuania to sell their ecologically sound goodies. Uzupis Independence Day is April 1, so if you’re planning to visit on that date, take your passport; the republic’s soldiers may ask for your ID before granting you access.
The official residence of the President of Lithuania is found in Daukanto Square and began life in the 14th century as a luxury home built for the city’s first Catholic bishop, Andrzej Jastrzebiec. The building remained the residence of Vilnius’s wealthy clergy until the Russian invasion in 1795, when it became the resplendent home of the city’s Tsarist governors.
By this time the splendid neo-classical façade had been added and the palace was extended to form one side of today’s grand piazza, surrounded by other aristocratic mansions. Although Napoleon briefly sent the Russians packing in 1812, Lithuanian independence from Russia only finally came in 1990. The palace was renovated in 1997 before becoming the official home of the Lithuanian President.
Among the notorious figures that have overnighted in the palace over the centuries are Tsar Alexander I, French King Louis XVIII, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Polish national hero Józef Pilsudski. The national flag is hoisted over the palace whenever the president is in the city, and a flag-changing ceremony takes place on Sundays at noon. The Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place daily at 6 p.m.
As one of the oldest universities in Eastern Europe, Vilnius’ seat of learning opened in 1579 and has since been extended to incorporate just about every architectural style, from Baroque to Neo-Classical.
Built around a series of arcaded courtyards, the university also holds Lithuania’s oldest public library as well many suites of ornately frescoed and vaulted apartments. Like many other public buildings in the Baltic, the university has suffered or thrived according to the regime in power at any given time. Initially run by Jesuits, it was transferred to secular power in 1773 but closed in the late 19th century on the orders of Tsar Nicholas I.
The university reopened in 1919 just before Lithuania was annexed by Poland, who ran the university until World War II, when it was administered by the Nazis and subsequently by the Soviet Union. Today it has been safely back in local hands since 1990, when Communism finally collapsed.
Famous students at Vilnius University include the Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz and Nobel prizewinner Czeslaw Milosz. Today there are 15,000 students procuring 5,000 degrees annually and contributing to the buzzing social life so evident on the city’s streets.
Built in the 15th century and taking center stage at the heart of Vilnius’ Old Town, the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania is a masterpiece of baroque architecture and one of the city’s most important monuments. Reopened in 2018 after a 15-year reconstruction, it’s now home to the National Museum of Lithuania.
A UNESCO World Heritage-listed treasure trove, Vilnius Old Town (Vilniaus Senamiestis) is cradled in the confluence of two rivers and is the best-preserved medieval town center in Europe.
It was created over the centuries in an abundance of architectural styles from Gothic to Renaissance and is centered on the Neo-Classical Cathedral and its airy surrounding piazza. From here labyrinthine cobbled streets abuzz with restaurants, stores and bars lead upward towards the Higher Castle among pastel-painted Baroque churches and centuries-old townhouses constructed of tiny red bricks.
Many of the myriad attractions of Vilnius lie within this district, from the Neo-Classical Presidential Palace to the Gothic St Anne’s Church, the Baroque chapel at the Gate of Dawn and the convoluted backstreets of one of the city’s two former Jewish quarters.
Overlooking all this stands the Higher Castle, which can also be reached by funicular from the Lower Castle next to the Cathedral. Although not much of the castle has survived the wars and revolutions that have marred Lithuania’s history, the Gediminas Tower has become a squat, hexagonal symbol of peace and there’s a panoramic vista across the city from the viewing platform atop the tower.
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