Exploring Vilnius, Lithuania

July 19, 2013 by

Europe, Places to Go, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

While some people may have trouble locating Vilnius on a map, and others may not have even considered ever visiting this city, Vilnius offers a unique experience that will spice up your European vacation.

Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, one of the three Baltic States, and is settled just north-east of Poland. It’s is also the second largest city within the Baltic States, and is extremely diverse in population, as it draws permanent residents from Russia, Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and many other countries around the world. Not only is Vilnius diverse in the people that live there and the cultures it represents, but the history and architecture of Old Town combines Jewish, Western European, and Russian influences.

See how street artists use the city as their canvas

Vilnius is famous for its street art. Photo by Ville Hyvönen via Flickr.

Vilnius is famous for its street art. Photo by Ville Hyvönen via Flickr.

If you are interested in any type of street art, visiting Vilnius is an absolute must. The city is old and classy, but there is also a great deal of irreverent graffiti displayed on side streets, fences, and even church buildings. The city displays all varieties of graffiti, but Banksy-like stencil graffiti is the most popular type of outside art. In fact, some of the graffiti is trademarked as Banksy, but debate exists as to whether or not Banksy is the true artist.

Vilnius Cathedral Photo by Frank Mago via Flickr.

Vilnius Cathedral. Photo by Frank Mago via Flickr.

As you wander the Old Town, it becomes almost a type of game to find new stencils that are often coupled with rowdy political statements. Piecing together these various pictures and statements will give insight into the social and political issues that Lithuanian street artists reference to create their rebellious depictions. Visiting Vilnius to check out the street art alone is well worth the train ride. To see the best decorated streets, start your unguided tour at the Cathedral of Vilnius and work your way out, in any direction. The closer you stay to the Cathedral, the more graffiti you will discover.

Visit the home and museum of Lithuanian painter Kazys Varnelis

Not only does Vilnius present a wide range of outsider art, but Vilnius is home to many important modern artists, including minimalist painter, Kazyz Varnelis. When I was in Lithuania the first time, I stumbled upon this home and museum accidentally, and it was one of my favorite places in the whole city. Upon entering the museum, I learned the museum was not only a museum, but the home and studio of Kazyz Varnelis.

Varnelis passed away in 2010, but his home remains a museum displaying rooms and rooms of his three-dimensional minimalist illusions. In addition to displaying his own brilliant work, the rooms also contain work of some of his favorite artists, volumes of books, and gorgeous antiques.

Try local cuisine for reasonable prices

Potato Meat Dumplings in Lithuania. Photo by Tobin via Flickr.

Potato Meat Dumplings. Photo by Tobin via Flickr.

If you’ve been to Europe before, you know the food is delicious, but also expensive. The great news about Vilnius is the food is still wonderful, but highly affordable. Restaurant owners also take great pride in offering the best-of-the-best when it comes to ambiance. It’s hard to recommend one place you must visit, because there are so many great local restaurants, but consider taking time to eat a traditional Lithuanian hunter’s meal at Lokys.

Everything on the menu is tasty, but you may especially enjoy the venison, dumplings, crepes, or the potato pudding. If you feel like being adventurous, order the beaver stew, and whatever you do, don’t leave without tasting the Napoleon cake for dessert. Napoleon cake, a cream-filled pastry cake, originates in France, but is widely popular in all of Eastern Europe.

Gain an understanding of WWII from the Lithuanian perspective

KGB Museum. Photo by Bonnie Ann Cain-Wood via Flickr.

KGB Museum. Photo by Bonnie Ann Cain-Wood via Flickr.

Before visiting Eastern Europe, I had only learned about WWII from either an American or Western European perspective, and had little understanding of happenings in the Soviet Union during this time period. During my visit to Vilnius, however, I visited the KGB Museum (Museum of Genocide Victims) and was presented with a humbling Lithuanian perspective on WWII and the 50-year occupation of the Soviet Union.

While the contents of the KGB museum—including torture chambers, execution rooms, and various memorials– are sobering and nearly impossible to digest, the KGB museum presents an uncensored piece of world history that is vital to remember. As I walked from room to room, it was a personal reminder to take personal action to honor differences in people and culture, and to fight against any form of despotism and racism. Experiencing this museum firsthand breeds understanding on why Lithuanians proudly display their heritage, fight for the use of their language, and monumentally honor those that were affected by the Soviet occupation. Take time for this museum when in Lithuania, and bring a box of tissues.

See how a multi-cultural history shapes life today

St Anne's Church

St Anne’s Church

Vilnius has a rich cultural tradition that is heavily influenced by both Eastern Europe and Western Europe. This cultural division is reflected in the churches, the languages, and the people that live there. Walking across the city, you will come across synagogues, Orthodox churches and Catholic churches, often right next to each other. Most of these churches are open to the public, and they allow you to participate in services. If you plan on entering an Orthodox church, women should wear a shawl over their heads out of respect for the religion.

As you walk down the streets of Vilnius, you will also easily notice tonal differences in the way people talk, as there are nearly equal parts native Russian-speaking residents, and native Lithuanian -speaking residents. If you are studying Russian, keep in mind Lithuanians are extremely proud of their own language.  While nearly all Lithuanians speak Russian, Lithuania is not the best country to test out your Russian skills. In fact, most native Lithuanians prefer you speak to them in English before even trying in Russian.

The reason for this extends back to the Soviet occupation in Lithuania. When the Russian military invaded, Lithuanians were forced to speak Russian, and Lithuanians developed a strong resentment to Russian. Now that Lithuania is independent again, people go to great lengths to use, honor, preserve and protect their own language. If you want to make friends, learn a couple fun phrases in Lithuanian and test them out while exploring Vilnius. They’ll love you for it.

Book the Vilnius Sightseeing Tour

-Ashley Cummings

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One Response to “Exploring Vilnius, Lithuania”

  1. Kevin | Visa to UK Says:

    The street art of Vilnius is really cool. I think it’s a great place to spend vacation. Great architecture, looks peaceful and most important is the food is affordable.