Popular visiting places
Vilnius is small enough that you could probably zip around most of the tourist sites in a weekend, if you didn’t hang around any of them for too long. If you wanted to look around al the museums and galleries instead of just looking at the buildings they’re in it would probably take you the best art of a week to see all the major tourist stuff, and even longer for a thorough exploration of the Old Town.
The focal point of the city is the Cathedral Square, and the area of parks, trees and greenery that surrounds it.
Although a Cathedral has stood on this site for since the 14th Century it has constantly been altered and modernised throughout that time; what can be seen today is mostly the result of remodelling at the end of the 18th century. The current Cathedral (dedicated to Saints Stanislaus and Ladislaus, if you’re interested) doesn’t appear especially cathedral-like; with its huge columned entrance and statue studded exterior it looks more like a Roman temple. The three giant statues on the roof (which are replacements for ones taken down by the Soviets) appear to be completely out of scale, but are a visible landmark from most parts of the city centre. In Soviet times the Cathedral was pressed into use as an art gallery and the inside of the building still feels more like this than an active church. There are still lots of paintings (albeit with religious themes) on display, and not too much religious paraphernalia. The exception to this is the ornate Chapel of St Casimir, a side-Chapel of the main Cathedral containing the silver tomb and remains of Lithuania’s patron saint. This was built in the early 17th century and the over the top baroque decoration surprisingly saw off even the Communists unscathed.
The cathedral was built on the sight of an earlier, Pagan temple (Lithuania being the last country in Europe to convert to Christianity) and it is sometimes possible to have a look round the vaults under the building where artefacts from the pagan temple and from the earlier churches on this site are on display. During Soviet times a hoard of valuable gold and silver Christian relics was found hidden in the walls of the building. Rather than surrender them to the Soviets the Cathedral authorities put them back where they found them and only brought them out again after independence, but these artefacts have not yet been put on general display.
The Cathedral is surrounded by Cathedral Square, although when I was last in Vilnius much of the paving had been ripped up and an archaeological dig was in progress. Standing in the Cathedral Square is the Belltower.
This structure’s strange appearance can be explained by its long history; it was originally a defensive tower in Vilnius’ lower castle and dates from the 14th century, but over the years several more floors and a spire were added to it (as well as a set of bells). Cathedral Square also holds a statue to Grand Duke Gediminas, who according to legend was the founder of the city (apparently he had a dream to build a city on this spot. Bit of a boring dream if you ask me, but it’s all worked out for the best in the end). The statue is modern but done in a traditional style, ie you can tell what it’s supposed to be, it doesn’t have two heads, etc. Be warned that the plinth on which the statue is placed is of Ukrainian granite and is therefore avoided by some who fear that it has been contaminated by radiation from Chernobyl (interesting fact: ALL granite is naturally radioactive. At last my A-level in Geology come in useful).
The area of parks and open spaces that makes up this part of the city centre was once the site of one of Vilnius’ castles. There had been a castle in Vilnius since at least the 11th century (although according to legend the city was only founded as recently as 1323). What was once the Lower Castle was transformed into a Royal Palace in the 16th century but was then mostly destroyed at the beginning of the 19th .A few buildings still remain. One now contains the National Museum of Lithuania (at Arsenalo 1; the building was previously, and surprisingly enough, the Palace Arsenal.). This museum contains various artefacts charting Lithuania’s history from pre-history to the present day. This museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Pretty much next door (in the Old Arsenal, whereas the National Museum is in the New Arsenal; imaginative lot these castle builders) is the Museum of Applied Arts, containing samples of Lithuanian and foreign art and design. This one’s closed on Mondays. Just behind the Cathedral (at Katedros 3, between the Cathedral and Gediminas Hill) is the Lower Castle Museum which traces the history of the Lower Castle and which displays some of the finds of the extensive archaeological digs that have been conducted on the site of the Lower Castle. This is closed at the weekends.
Seeing as though there was once a Lower Castle it seems reasonable to suppose that there was once a Higher Castle, and you’d be right. You’ ll find it, or what’s left of it, at the top of Gediminas Hill. The hill is only 50 metres or so tall, which doesn’t sound like much, and there’ s a wide, cobbled road that spirals around it, but on a hot day this can present quite a physical challenge to the rotund, unfit, or the drunk. As I fall into all 3 categories I was out of breath by the time I reached the top. Fortunately some kind soul has put a row of benches up here so you can sit down for a while and catch your breath while you admire the view. Little remains of the 14th century castle that once stood here. There are some ruined (but partially restored) buildings and parts of the defensive walls are still standing. Pretty much at the highest point on the hill is Gediminas Tower.
This octagonal building was once one of the defensive towers of the upper castle but much of what can be seen today (the top two storeys at least) is a 20th century reconstruction. The tower now contains a small museum with some swords, suits of armour and, best of all, scale models showing the two castles and the Cathedral at various points throughout their history. It’s worth paying to get into the tower though purely for the view you get from the top (there’ s an observation platform on the roof); you can see all of Vilnius from here.
From the Cathedral Square Vilnius’ Old Town stretches out to the south. It’ s the largest preserved Old Town in Eastern Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. As well it’s impressive size, the range and quality of buildings here is amazing, containing many Churches (both Catholic and domed-Orthodox), palaces as well as Vilnius University, the oldest in Eastern Europe. Happily it also contains numerous bars.
To get a good general idea of the size and layout of the Old Town first take a walk down its main artery; from the Cathedral Square this is the road that is initially called Piles gatve.Piles gatve is mostly pedestrianised and lined with numerous foreign embassies and market stalls selling anything from amber and “art” to Soviet military memorabilia.
Heading up this road from the Cathedral the first thing of note that you’ll pass is the collection of buildings that is Vilnius University. Visitors from Britain will need to allow for a few minutes of getting over the shock of realising that students here actually study, as opposed to sitting around on their arses all day, smoking roll-ups, watching Richard and Judy or the Tellytubbies, whilst moaning about how hard life is as a student. They also study real, proper academic subjects here instead of such bollocks as drama, media studies, Dr Who and whatever else you can waste your time studying in the UK (“Golf Course Management”, anybody?). If you take time to explore the University (which was founded in 1579) you’ll find a fine collection of buildings encompassing several hundred year’s worth of different architectural styles. Of particular interest is St Johns Church founded over 600 years ago but much-altered (literally! Inside you’ll find 10 altars. How’s that for “more jokes” , Em?!) and renovated during that time, and which for some reason has a bell tower that is not attached to the rest of the Church. Also worth visiting are the University Library, and the Astronomical Observatory. One thing you won’ t find in Vilnius University are shoddily-dressed, poorly-shaved dole-scroungers trying to intimidate you into buying a copy of “Socialist Worker” (which is, of course, a contradiction in terms). And as far as I know there’s no bar named after Nelson Mandela.
If you go all the way across the University complex from Piles gatve and leave through its western end you’ll come out on the road imaginatively named Universiteto on which lies the President’s Palace. The present building dates from the early 19th century and among its previous occupants was (briefly) Napoleon Boneparte (ironically, after independence the building was (again, briefly) the French embassy). Unfortunately the inside of the Palace is only very rarely open to the public.
Heading back up Piles gatve head off down the side road called Sv Mykolo upon which you’ll find the Amber Museum (number 8); as well as amber jewellery, shaped amber and chunks of natural amber the museum has numerous pieces of amber with preserved insects in them, just like in Jurassic Park.
Keep following Sv Mykolo until you come to another road, called Bernardinu. Pretty much where the two roads meet you’ ll find the Adam Mickevicius Memorial Appartment-Museum. Mickevicius, for those of you who don’t know, is probably the best known figure in Lithuanian literature (certainly in Lithuania anyway) which is kind of ironic as he was actually Polish. The museum is housed in a former house of his (he used to study at the University) and there are various exhibits charting his life and work.
If at this point you’re in an ecclesiastical bent you’re in luck as there’s a collection of rather nice Churches around this area. If you go to the end of Bernardinu you’ ll find St Michaels Church which dates from the 17th century and now holds a small architecture museum, which includes plans of the reconstruction of Trakai Castle.. Cross over Maironio for perhaps the finest church in Vilnius, that of St Anne. This 16th century building was long thought to have been the work of German craftsmen, the thinking being that this level of workmanship was beyond their Lithuanian counterparts. It is now more or less accepted that the Church was built by locals. Napoleon liked this Church so much that he apparently wanted to take it back to France “in the palm of his hand” . The thieving, French bastard. Right behind St Anne’s Church is another one, this one formerly part of a Bernardine monastery. There are no monks here now, and the Church is currently being renovated. If you’re in the mood for another Church keep going South along Maironio until you reach the Persil-white Church of the Holy Mother of God. This Orthodox Church, has had a fairly turbulent history since it was built in the 14th century, having been used as, among other things, classrooms for the University, a smithy, and barracks. It has also suffered from a few fairly major fires over the years, but looks pretty impressive today, and the small park surrounding it is the ideal spot for a few beers on a sunny day.
After this brief religious detour head back into the heart of the Old Town. Take the road called Rusu which is opposite the Church of the Holy Mother of God and then go down either Literatu or Latako. This will bring you out in Rotuses aikste, or the Old Town Square, which is actually more of a triangle and which is a continuation of Piles gatve (although it is now called Didzioj instead).
There are numerous buildings worth exploring on the Old Town Square. Starting at its bottom (Northern) end is a small museum, The Slapeliai House (Piles 40, closed Mondays and Tuesdays) which holds a small art gallery and dedicated to Lithuanian Nationalism and the revival of the Lithuanian language in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Next up is yet another Church, this one Orthodox with the rather unusual name of the Church of Paraskovila Piatnickaya, built in the 14th century and renovated (i.e. more or less rebuilt) in the 19th . Fans of the Russian poet Pushkin might find this place interesting; his great grandfather (an African slave, “owned” by Peter the Great) was baptised here. Further on up the square at Didzioj 4 is the Vilnius Picture Gallery, a collection of 16th to 19th century Lithuanian art. Next up there’s yet another Orthodox Church, the Church of St Nicholas the Wonder Worker; originally started in the 14th century (on the site of an older, wooden Church) but much rebuilt over the years after fires and to keep up with architectural fashion.
About half way up the Square is a road called Savidaus upon which you’ll find another museum, the Ciurlionis House. Mikolojus Ciurlionis, who used to live here, was a writer, painter, composer and general all-round renaissance man. Various personal artefacts of his are kept here, including his piano, and concerts are also regularly held here. Go futrher along Savidaus for another Church, that of the 18th century St Mary the Soothing.
Heading back to the Old Town Square, at its top end is stands the column-fronted Old Town Hall, which has been here since the 16th century although its current appearance owes more to 18th century rebuilding . Fans of modern art might find the Contemporary Arts Centre (on Vokieciu, just behind the Town Hall) interesting. There are often temporary exhibits in the Town Hall itself.
To the East of the Town Hall is yet another Church (get used to it, there are hundreds of the buggers still to come). This one’s the Church of St Casimir, built in the early 16th century. In the past this has been pressed into service as an Orthodox Church under the Tsars, a Protestant Temple under the Nazis, and, in a gesture of supreme piss-taking, under the Soviets, a Museum of Atheism.
From here Didzioj changes its name yet again becoming Ausros Vartu gatve, home of even more Churches, a few monasteries, Lithuania’s number one site of pilgrimage, and lots of beggars.
At the Northern end of Ausros Vartu gatve is the National Philharmonic Hall, home of the Lithuanian National Philharmonic orchestra. Next to come, on your right hand side as you walk up the road, is the Basilian Gate, an ornate 18th century gateway to the Basilian monastary complex that lies beyond. The gateway has recently been renovated whereas the 16th century Church you’ll find through the gate is still is use but very rundown. On the other side of the street, and in much better condition, is the Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit. This looks nice enough from the outside, but have a look inside too if it’s open and you can see the mummified/preserved bodies (well, not all of the bodies as they’re usually covered in a shroud, but their feet tend to stick out) of three saints (Anthony , Ivan, and Eustachius, it you’re interested), martyred in the 14th century.
The final church on Ausros Vartu gatve is the mid-17th century of church of St Theresa. The exterior and interior decoration are all very pleasant but the church also provides access to Lithuania’s number one place of Pilgrimage, the Gates of Dawn (in Lithuanian, “Ausros Vartu”). The Gates are the last remaining gates of the cities old defensive walls, in which was built a chapel at the end of the 17th century. The chapel’s current onate decoration is the result of renovation and redecoration in the 19th century and it houses an icon, the Madonna of Mercy which reputedly possesses miraculous powers.
Thousands come here annually in search of miracles, hence the large selection of votive offerings (ie, little bits of jewellery, attempts to bribe God) hung nearby, and the hordes of beggars (some of whom are disabled, so obviously the icon can’t be that bloody miraculous) who congregate under the gates. It probably isn’t worth trying to force yourself through the crowds of the faithful and the penitent to have a look at the icon (unless you’re in search of a miracle yourself) as, like the Mona Lisa, it isn’t that impressive in the flesh. And you can see it through the window from the street . The view of the Gates of Dawn that you get from the North as you approach from Ausros Vartu gatve is somewhat artificial, the gates having been tarted up in order to provide a suitably flamboyant home for the icon. If you go through the gates though the view from the other side is perhaps more interesting; from here it is possible to work out the Gate’s original function as a defensive position, and they are set in a small stretch of the original city walls which still survive.
If this little bit of the city walls catches your interest, you can have a look at another bit nearby; from the Gates of Dawn head up Sv Dvasios and then up Boksto and you’ll come to the Artillery Bastion, built in the 17th century. There are some old cannon and bits of armour on display, as well as an underground tunnel, a small tower, and the old cannon emplacements (closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Now, that is. I imagine that when it was still in use it wasn’t closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, otherwise it would have been fairly useless, especially if somebody decided to attack Vilnius on, say, a Sunday night).
And that has basically taken you on the rapid tour of the Old Town, the kind that Japanese tourists on their “see all of Europe in 10 days” tours go on, by just going up its main street and passing the main sites as you go. But Vilnius’s Old Town is pretty big, and there’s a lot of that you can’t see from Pilies/Didzioji/Ausros Vartu gatves. Very roughly, the boundaries of the Old Town are Pylimo on the West edge, Baziljonu and Dauskos in the South, Maironio in the East, and the Cathedral Square in the North. I did say that this was roughly. There’s lots within these boundaries that isn’t very old and even more outside them that is. Exploring every nook and cranny of the Old Town would take at least a week, so in no particular order, here are some of the more interesting things to see.
Starting from the Old Town Square head down Vokieciu (you can’t miss it; it’s a big dual-carriage way that basically has a park between the two stretches of road ). We’re going Church hunting again! If you’d like to see the oldest surviving church in Lithuania it’s that of St Nicholas which you’ll find on the road of the same name (well, the same name in Lithuanian, Sv Mikalojaus) which is just off Vokieciu. This was built in the early 14th century when Lithuania was almost entirely still Pagan. A bit further down Vokieciu (but hidden away off the main street) is the 16th century Evangelical Lutheran Church. If you ever feel the need to apologise to God for the abuse to your liver that all that Lithuanian beer is causing, or just for good old-fashioned self-abuse caused by ogling Lithuanian babes you can do it here; they have (protestant) services in English every couple of weeks. At the end of Vokieciu you have a choice of churches in three different directions! Left will take you to the Church of the Virgin Mary (actually on Pranciskonu) an 18th century building incorporating elements of a much older church and containing impressive, if time-worn, frescoes. Turning right down Dominikonu will take you to the Church of the Holy Spirit, which dates from the late-14th century but which has been practically rebuilt several times since and which is now more-or-less an 18th century affair. This church has the distinction of not being closed down by the Soviets and is noteable for its large collection of altars and (ahem) its impressive organ. Or you could have gone straight on down Vilniaus for the large, pink St Catherine’s, built in the 17th century and rebuilt in the 18th. This was undergoing renovation when I was last here. A statue of Stanislaw Moniuszko stands outside in its own little garden. I have no idea who Stanislaw Moniuszko is. (Actually I’ve just found out that he’s Poland’s best known opera composer).
Also along Vilniaus you’ll find the Lithuanian Theatre, Music and Cinema Museum (at number 41, closed weekends) and at number 22 is the Radvilos Palace, once home to the family of the same name and now displaying a large collection of paintings; nothing by anyone really famous, but a nice way to spend an hour or two, and the restored 17t h century palace itself is worth looking round (but is closed on Mondays).
From here you’re fairly close to Pylimo, a busy road that runs along the western perimeter of the Old Town (from Radvilos Palace it’s a short walk down Palangos). Here you’ll find a small area of parkland and, if you head down Kalinausko a statue of Frank Zappa, put here for no particular reason whatsoever. A bit further down Pylimo is yet another church (last time I’ ll mention one in the Old Town, honest!), this one the 19th century Reformed Evangelical Church at number 18. This was converted into a cinema under the Soviets but is now back in use as a church. They’ve converted the former rows of cinema seats into pews.
Now you may be asking yourself that if the Old Town has all these churches, was there ever any room for any other religion in Vilnius. The answer is yes. Vilnius was once a great centre of Jewish learning, there having been a Jewish presence in the city almost since its founding. Prior to World War 2 there were 105 synagogues in Vilnius, and over 40% of Vilnius’ population was Jewish. By 1944 there were less than 1000 Jews remaining in Vilnius. It would be wrong to blame this entirely on the Nazis, as the sad fact is that many Lithuanians participated in the murder of their Jewish neighbours with equal, if not greater enthusiasm than the German occupiers. Today Vilnius has a Jewish population of approximately 5000 and only one Synagogue remains. You’ll find it at 39 Pylimo, built in a Moorish style at the beginning of the 20th century; it only survived the war because the Nazis used it as a store-room. Nearby (at Pylimo 4) you’ll also find the Lithuanian State Jewish Museum, containing photos and pictures of many of Vilnius’ now destroyed Synagogues. There’s another section to this museum round the corner in the Green House at Pamenkalnio 12 which has exhibits relating to the holocaust.
Right then, time to move away from the Old Town (finally!). Vilnius’ main commercial street is Gediminas prospektas which runs roughly westerly from the Cathedral Square. Along here you’ll find lots of shops, bars, and plenty of Government departments.
At number 40 you’ll find the KGB Museum, also known as The Museum of the Genocide of the Lithuanian people, housed in Vilnius’ former KGB Headquarters. You can view the cells where thousands of Lithuanians were interrogated and tortured before being deported to the Siberian gulags.
Opposite the museum is a small park, Lukiskiu aikste with its 17th century Church of Saints Phillip and James. You can confess in English here!
Moving further West along Gediminas you’ll come across a couple of large but very unattractive Government buildings, prime examples of the school of Soviet architecture, the National Library and the Parliament building. The Parliament building is interesting for the preserved sections of the barricades that were put up in 1991 to protect the building in case of Soviet attack. Now covered in grafitti they resemble some kind of mini-Berlin wall, except that this was put up to keep the bad guys out rather than to keep people in. It is doubtful whether it would have stood up for long in the face of a Soviet tank or 6 though.
There’s also a memorial to the 12 civilians killed by Soviet special forces who attacked the TV Tower in January 1991, and 7 border guards killed in a one-sided shoot out with more Soviet special forces at the border point of Medininkai in July 1991.
If you’re after a bit of peaceand quiet instead of the hustle, bustle, and commercialism of Gediminas prospektas then head east from the Cathedral Square, crossing the Vilnia River. This will take you to Kalnu Parkas (Hill Park) where the population of Vilnius comes to relax and hang out. At its highest point, Three Crosses Hill, are, surprisingly, Three Crosses, a major Vilnius landmark. The original crosses were put up in the 17th century to commemorate christians martyred on this site. Thet were, of course, taken down by the Soviets but were put up again after independence.
Even further east, on Antakalnio, is the 17th century Church of Saints Peter and Paul; the domed exterior doesn’t prepare you for the amazing interior, featuring thousands of sculpted figures, with the odd frescoe here and there.