Have you ever wondered what to do if you find yourself in Lithuania’s capital city, described by Rough Guides as the most beautiful city in the Baltics? Of course you have. Read on to find the answer to that age old question…
1 Old Town
Imagine the best Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture you’ve seen anywhere in Southern Europe and plonk it all in a few streets within half a square mile of each other. That is Vilnius’ Old Town, and that is why it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The highlight is Cathedral Square, with its distinctive freestanding belltower and huge white cathedral which wouldn’t look out of place in Venice. Walking south of the square all the way to the Dawn Gate – the original entrance to the city – you will see numerous grand buildings and enough churches to turn an atheist.
2 Higher Castle
Not much of a castle, more a turret, a visit to the remains of this 13th Century castle is a must for the view from the top. You can either walk up a steep, winding hill to get here or take a funicular train for 3 Lt (£1.20). Once here, it’s 5 Lt (£2) to get in. A museum on the second and third floors showcases the history of the castle and of Vilnius itself – the highlight is a wooden model of how the castle complex once looked. A further flight of stairs will take you to the castle’s rooftop, from where Lithuania’s flag flutters and you can look down at the old town.
3 AJ Sokoladas
Lithuanian cafes make ours look rubbish. AJ Sokoladas is a national chain based in nearby Trakai but with shops throughout the country – the flagship Vilnius branch is just down the road from Cathedral Square (Pilies 8; www.ajsokoladas.lt). It specialises in handmade chocolates available to eat in or take out by the gram, and is licensed too. We celebrated Mrs Culture’s birthday with a glass of cava each and a 200 gram selection of delicious choccies for just 20 Lt (£5).
Crossing the River Vilnia, which is really more of a stream, you will reach Uzupis, the area of town which mockingly declared its independence from the rest of Vilnius. The Uzupis Republic has its own constitution written on a plaque and celebrates its independence day on April Fools Day – if you’re here then, you can get your passport stamped.
Who would have thought Lithuanian beer would be so nice? The market leader seems to be Svyturys Ekstra, from the country’s third largest city, Klaipeda. It’s a 5.2% light lager which the wife said was the nicest beer she’d tried on her travels.
6 Vilnius TV Tower
The tallest building in Lithuania at 326m, it’s well worth the effort to get here from central Vilnius. Guidebooks say a taxi here should cost in the region of 20 Lt (£5) from the old town – the driver we approached wanted 40 Lt but I managed to knock him down to 30 Lt. It costs 21 Lt to get in, and you’ll be chaperoned by an old lady first to the cloakroom where you will be ordered to leave your coat, and then to the elevator – it takes 40 seconds to get to the bar at the 165m mark. The window-side seats and tables are on a revolving platform that takes around an hour to rotate 360º giving you time to enjoy a couple of Svyturys while you look down on the housing estates, power stations, rivers and forests of greater Vilnius.
The TV Tower hit headlines in 1991 when Soviet tanks approached it and in an attempt to take-over the local media, thirteen unarmed Lithuanians were shot down. There is a memorial to the victims inside and outside the entrance, and the tower is now a symbol of national pride.
If you don’t fancy forking out for a taxi back, get a trolleybus (numbers 1 or 3) from the main road – you can pay the driver the 2.50 Lt fee.
7 Frank Zappa statue
For absolutely no logical reason, there is a sculpture of the American musician Frank Zappa’s head on a pole in a car park a ten minute walk to the west of the old town on Kalinausko. Apparently it was commissioned by the city’s students and has the honour of being the only statue of Frank Zappa in the world!
Drinking wine can be an expensive business in much of Eastern Europe, but fear not. In Vivo (Ausros Vartu 7; www.invivo.lt) has a great selection of wines by the glass at 9.90 Lt (just under £4), a choice of hot and cold tapas dishes and it seemed pretty busy, even on a cold Tuesday in March. Vilnius has a big university in the heart of the old town, so the students keep the bars and restaurants busy.
9 Holy Miko’s
This little restaurant on a side street in the old town is worth hunting down for its friendly staff and good value, well presented meat dishes. (Sv Mykolo 4; www.holymikos.lt)
10 Hotel Atrium
In fitting with the rest of Vilnius, the four star Hotel Atrium is a quirky one. You can imagine it being one of the best hotels around in the 80s, but I doubt if much has changed since – it has no elevators and the leather furniture in the rooms comes straight out of Wall Street. Considering it only has 28 rooms, there’s a hell of a lot of space. Our double suite (only £65 with breakfast, booked through www.trivago.co.uk) had two levels and was bigger than my house, and the reception area was as big as Cathedral Square. The location is perfect too, just steps from Cathedral Square, while the free wifi comes in handy. (Pilies 10; www.atrium.lt)