But hang on, I hear the chorus of complaints ring out: you left Vilnius on Friday last week, and you’re only telling us about it now?! Yes, that’s right, I’m only telling you about it now, a whole 3 days later. Why? Well, I didn’t want to publish what I’d written about Vilnius until I’d spent some time in my second destination, Riga. Otherwise, how could I be sure my critique was fair and accurate? Alas, I have now got sufficient hindsight from my time in Lithuania to be sure that what I have to say about it is true.
…And, indeed, I am now firm in my belief that Vilnius is, indeed, Vunderful. You could quite happily stop there for a week, especially if you spend a day visiting Trakai, and waste an agreeable afternoon in Uzupis. The central tourist district is the Old Town, where you’ll find cafe lined boulevards, cobbled alleyways, and a maze of winding streets. Getting lost in them for a few hours is a thoroughly agreeable experience.
You might not have thought of Lithuania for a weekend break away. In fact I’d happily bet that you probably haven’t. Well take my word for it: you really should give it some thought.
Its not a quick place, Vilnius. It doesn’t throb with pounding bars, the pubs are traditional as opposed to tacky, and it isn’t teeming with gangs of tourists following tour guides with funny little flags. Its got more class than that, and if you walk anywhere in much of a hurry you’ll quickly exhaust both yourself, especially in the searing heat that I endured, and you’ll exhaust Vilnius, which is not big.
So, the simplest solution is: slow down. Walk at an amble. Stop to browse book shops. Take regular coffee breaks. Find times when you’re content to sit and do nothing. Spend an extended amount of time poring over art galleries. Do this, and you’ll get the most out of this beautiful city.
That’s not to say there aren’t things to do in VIlnius, because there clearly are. Go to the University and head to the top of the bell tower for an unrivalled birds eye panorama of both old and new parts of the city (and if you want reminding that you’re not as fit as you once were you can even take the stairs to the top. You’ll get the lift back down again, I bet…)
There’s also the KGB Museum, as its known, is housed in the building used by the KGB during the communist occupation of Lithuania. I challenge you to walk around the prison cells and read the stories of the people who suffered and died there, and not feel utterly horrified. No wonder they wear their new found cultural liberalism with such pride.
And indeed, its getting under the skin of the city’s rebelliousness, its sense of radicalism and the way they play with their culture as a child might play with a new toy, throwing it around and breaking it to bits and seeing all the different things it can do, that I found most appealing. I’ve already told you about Uzupis, the city’s bohemian heart. But in the dead centre of how many other capital cities would you be able to find little second hand book shops that double as coffee houses? Where else would you find street after street of tiny independent galleries?
The way to get the best out of Vilnius is to stuff your map back in your pocket, stow your guidebook at the bottom of your bag, and just go for a wander. See what you find. Explore and be inquisitive, for this is a city that rewards curiosity. Bring some good books, turn down random alleyways, and watch time itself take on a shade of insignificance.
Do this, and you might just be surprised at what Vilnius and Lithuania have to offer.
Adam’s Top Tips: Vilnius
Blimey, you seem pretty taken with this place! How does one get there?
Well you can fly, I suppose. But remember I’m not flying anywhere. Instead get the bus. I’d recommend LuxExpress, for very comfortable, high quality and yet still affordable busses. The bus station is right next to the Old Town, 10 minutes walk away. Its also worth noting that backpackers I’ve met travelling Europe tell me that InterRail passes aren’t valid in the Baltics. Thus most people here get the bus between Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Ok. Bus it is then. Where did you stay?
I stayed at a place called Home Made House. Its only a small place, 12 beds in two dorms, but run by the tremendously knowledgable Lina. Within minutes of arriving (at 10pm) she’d pushed a glass of wine into my hand and was introducing me to the other guests. It lends itself naturally to meeting people, and once Lina has given you her low down on what to do and where to go you won’t go near your guide book again!
How quaint. So go on – top three things to do while I’m there?
Well, as above, the best thing to do is just wander around the old town! But if you want specifics:
1. Go to Trakai, and have a look around the castle that Lonely Planet put on the front cover of their guide for the whole region.
2. Go to the KGB Museum, and learn about the brutal suppression of Lithuanian freedom fighters in the 1940s and 1950s. I did this in a morning. Lina asked ‘How was it?’. ‘Chilling’, I said. ‘Utterly chilling.’ She replied, ‘Oh good, its very hot today, you must have enjoyed that a little.’ Clearly something was lost in translation.
3. Read the Uzupis Constitution.
Thanks for that. Is it expensive, Vilnius?
Nope, not in the slightest. A pint will set you back £1.50. Meals are typically less than a fiver. Three nights in Home Made House cost me £20. Coffees go for less than a quid.
Blimey, who’d have thought it! Jeeves, pack my bags – we’re going to Lithuania!
Glad to hear it. I promise you, you won’t regret it…