Let me say it loud and clear: Vilnius is awesome and the Lithuanian capital surprised me in the best ways. Vilnius is a city that isn’t on the radar for lots of people traveling to Europe. But that means that it’s not inundated with tourists, and will give you more breathing room to explore. The city has a long history, simply stunning Baroque architecture in the Old Town, and so many beautiful churches you’ll have trouble visiting them all.
Here are the main sights and attractions you can’t miss on a visit to Vilnius!
Cathedral Square is the center of action in the Old Town. Vilnius Cathedral is one church you should visit (although there are so many good ones in the city!), and you can’t miss the stunning St. Casmir’s Chapel inside. The belfry is meant to give nice views of the Old Town, but at 4€ I didn’t think it was totally worth it. There is a huge statue of Gediminas, the famous medieval Grand Duke of Lithuania. Make sure you don’t miss the “stebuklas” tile between the cathedral and the belfry. The tile marks the ending point of the 1989 human chain (which included 2 million people and stretched for 675 kilometers or about 419 miles through the 3 Baltic countries) from Tallin in Estonia to Vilnius, which was a protest against the Soviet Union.
Gates of Dawn
This magnificent gate, marking the southern edge of the Old Town, is the only remaining gate of the original ten 16th-century city gates. The gate is impressive, but inside the gate’s arch is the Chapel of the Blessed Mary, which houses a miracle-working icon of the Virgin Mary. Look for the entrance on the Old Town side of the gate. There is no admission fee.
The Town Hall is located in one of Vilnius’s main squares. Today, the late 18th-century Town Hall houses the Tourist Information office.
The main drag in the Old Town, Pilies gatve (Castle Street) is charmingly cobbled, full of souvenir stalls, and with plenty of beautiful old buildings.
Located along one of the Old Town’s many quaint and wandering side streets, this is essentially an art gallery. These works of art commemorate Lithuanian literature, writers, translators, and more—anyone who has a connection with literature. They’re all quite small and there are plenty to see in the installation. It is well worth a wander—there’s also an impressive mural between Literatu gatve and Pilies gatve!
Unfortunately, Gediminas Castle was closed for renovation when I visited. But located on top of Gediminas Hill, the castle houses a few interesting exhibits (including one on the “stebuklas” Tallin to Vilnius human chain). You can take a funicular up if you don’t feel like a steep climb.
Three Crosses Hill
Giving an amazing view of Vilnius and especially the Old Town, you can’t miss a hike up to the Three Crosses Hill. Three crosses have stood on this hill for several centuries, supposedly after seven Franciscan friars were executed here. The crosses were bulldozed by the Soviets in 1950, but rebuilt in 1989. You can follow the road up to the main path to the monument, or you can walk up the steep hill through the woods. Either way, it’s one place you must visit in Vilnius.
Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania
Located next to Vilnius Cathedral, the royal palace isn’t all that impressive of a building—it’s a reconstruction. But it’s well worth a visit for the exhibits it has on Lithuania’s history (something that I knew next to nothing about prior to visiting). The route starts on the ground floor, where you can see the remaining foundations of the former palace. If you’re looking to learn more about Lithuanian history, this is a great starting point! The exhibits all have translations into English. A student ticket is 1.50€.
National Museum of Lithuania
Also a great place for anyone interested in Lithuanian history is the National Museum of Lithuania. The building is tucked behind Vilnius Cathedral and the Royal Palace, with a huge statue of Mindaugas (the first and only king of Lithuania) out front. While there isn’t a ton of information in the museum in English, my favorite exhibits were those on the people of Lithuania and folk art—the section on cross-crafting was particularly interesting. Prices for students are 1€.
This is Eastern Europe’s oldest university, founded in 1579. Located in the heart of the Old Town, the university has 13 hidden, interconnected courtyards that are well worth a wander. The university is also home to Vilnius’s oldest library, and to St. John’s Church, which has a bell tower open in the summer months you can climb to see the view. It costs 1.50€ to see the courtyards.
Another building you shouldn’t miss in the Old Town is the Presidential Palace. The palace was used by Napolean during his attack on Moscow! If you want to see the inside on a tour, you need to book in advance and bring your passport.
Vilnius had one of the largest populations of Jews prior to World War II, and saw the community completed wiped out by the Nazis. It’s well worth a stroll around the former Jewish quarter in the Old Town, especially around Stikliu gatve, Zydu gatve (Jews Street), and Gaono gatve. If you want to learn more, check out the Tolerance Center (a restored Jewish theater with displays on Jewish history and culture in Lithuania), the Holocaust Museum (detailing the destruction of Vilnius’s Jewish population during the Holocaust), and the Choral Synagogue (which survived WWII because it was used as a medical store). Unfortunately, I ran out of time in Vilnius and didn’t get to visit these buildings, but it’s first on my list for next time!
Wander the streets of the Old Town
By far my favorite thing in Vilnius was just wandering the streets of the Old Town. I loved the architecture, having beautiful churches appear as if from no where, and just getting lost and enjoying it. Definitely make time for this on your trip!
The main drag in the New Town, this street is one you can’t miss for the beautiful Baroque architecture that lines the road. Some of my favorite buildings in the whole city are located on this street! One end is at Cathedral Square, the other connecting with the Zverynas neighborhood. Don’t miss the Three Muses Sculpture, outside the Lithuanian National Drama Theater! Across the river is the Romanovs’ Church, a beautiful Russian Orthodox church with a stunning interior, and a traditional Karaite prayer church, a kenessa.
Parliament (Seimas) of Lithuania
While the Parliament building is rather basic in its design and structure, you should visit it for one important reason: it still has the barbed wire and barricades left in place to protect it from Soviet troops, from when they stormed the city on 13 January, 1991. In an effort to halt the Lithuanian independence movement, the Soviets killed 14 civilians in their attempt to take over the Vilnius TV Tower. There is a small museum inside the glass structure surrounding the barricade, but it was closed when I visited.
Museum of Genocide Victims
Also known as the KGB Museum, this is one museum you can’t miss on a visit to Vilnius. Housed in the headquarters of the KGB (and prior to that, the Gestapo during Nazi occupation), exhibits tell the story of real life under Soviet rule, as well as giving interesting information on Lithuanian deportees. The collection of KGB surveillance equipment was one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in any former Soviet state! The basement of the museum is the former KGB prison—you can see the cells, bathrooms, and even the torture room of past prisoners. You can also visit the (very grim) execution room. On the outside of the museum on Gedimino prospektas, there are plaques commemorating those who died in 1945-6. This is one must-see museum in the Baltics.
St. Peter and Paul Church
Located outside of the Old Town past the Three Crosses, this magnificent church is my top pick out of all of the churches in Vilnius (see below…). There are thousands of ornate, Baroque white sculptures carved by Italian artists covering the church interior. Your jaw will drop—it’s one of the most spectacular Baroque churches I’ve ever been to!
This artist’s neighborhood is a self-declared independent republic, with its own flag, currency, president, and constitution. It’s mainly located in the Old Town, and there is an official sign at the “border” crossing into the Republic. You can see the constitution yourself, and stroll through this artist quarter (which has some very charming streets) before visiting a gallery or two.
There are so many beautiful churches in Vilnius, it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few. I even considered doing a blog post just on Vilnius’s best churches! Besides Vilnius Cathedral and St. Peter and Paul Church, there are a few other churches you can’t miss on a visit to Vilnius: St. Casmir’s (Vilnius’s largest Baroque church), St. Anne’s Church (dwarfed by the larger St. Bernadine’s Church and with rather restricted opening times, Napolean supposedly said he wanted to take it back to Paris in the palm of his hand), the Church of the Holy Spirit (on Dominikonu gatve, Vilnius’s main Polish church), and St. Catherine’s Church (which often holds classical music concerts). Vilnius is a prime location for church-hopping—but opening hours vary, so patience is key!
I took two daytrips from Vilnius, to the Hill of Crosses and to Grutas Park. I would highly recommend doing either one or both on a visit to Vilnius! Other popular daytrips are Panerai, Trakai, and Kaunas (although Kaunas perhaps merits more than a one-day visit). You can read about the top 7 places to visit in Lithuania here!
The Basics: Lithuania is a member of the European Union and the official currency is the Euro. Lithuanian is the official language, although you may find some signs in Polish or Russian. Lithuania has a population of 2.85 million people. The capital, Vilnius, has a population of about 543,000. While the other two countries in the Baltics, Estonia and Latvia, have significant populations of ethnic Russians, Lithuania is more homogenous. It is more commonly connected with Poland, as for centuries the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (and later, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) ruled the area.
Getting Around: Everything in the Old Town is walkable. Vilnius has a public transportation system with buses, minibuses, and trams. You can buy your ticket from the driver and need to validate it once on board. Vilnius Airport is really close to the city center, but bus, minibus, and train times to the main train/bus station are few and far between—generally all of the transport will go within 15 minutes, and won’t run again until the next hour. So make sure to plan in advance how you’ll get into town.
Where I Stayed: I stayed at Jimmy Jump’s Hostel for my four nights in Vilnius. The location is superb, in the heart of the Old Town but only a 15-minute walk to the main train and bus station (which was very convenient since I had two daytrips!). The staff was nice and helped me plan out my daytrips, and made the breakfast waffles Jimmy Jump’s is famous for! I stayed in a 6-bed dorm in the other building, which was a nice room (with lockers), but the door to my room didn’t shut, and there was no separate lock, so anyone staying in the other building could get into my room. The bathroom was also under construction with a makeshift shower—it worked fine, but it wasn’t great (it also meant there was only one shower for the entire other building). Overall, I’d recommend this hostel and I’d stay here again, but I’d try to stay in the main building!
Vilnius has so many of the things I look for in capital cities: history, architecture, cheap prices, and good beer (to name a few). The church game is strong, there’s loads to see and do, it’s well-connected for traveling further afield, and it’s a great value destination for those on a budget. Vilnius is such a great city, and just cool. I already can’t wait to go back.
Have you ever been to Vilnius, or another underrated destination?! Share your thoughts in the comments!