It’s one of our favorite days of the week and it’s time to let Thursday throw us back to… Vilnius! The Lithuanian capital is an eclectic mix of old and new, ancient and modern. Its Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and history is ever present even though new glassy skyscrapers are making way into the city’s skyline. When I think of Vilnius, I mostly think of culture. I remember the cozy small cafés, the leafy streets and the elegant women like yesterday. I say elegant women, but there is really only one specific moment on my mind. We were walking down one of the main streets of Vilnius, Gedimino prospektas, the one with a lot of theaters. A woman walked passed us; she wore a long floaty skirt, gloves, a hat, a cape and bright red lipstick. It felt like Paris in the 1950s and that’s what Vilnius is – a step back into the past.
Vilnius: A Short History
Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania, was first mentioned in 1323 and it was granted city rights in 1387. At the time the country now known as Lithuania was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (c. 1236 to 1795). The city is located on one of those many crossroads in Europe, which is reflected in the variety of names. In its heyday the Grand Duchy covered an area that included parts of today’s Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Transnitria, Poland and Russia. The city expanded rapidly and inhabitants from all over the country came to Vilnius. Many languages were spoken there at that time and for a long time it was known as the “Jerusalem of the North” due to its Jewish influence. A university was established here in 1579. Overall the 16th century was a time of growth, it was during this time that the city walls were built and the Polish king moved his court to Vilnius. The Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth would last from 1569 to 1795 and at that time it was one of the largest and most populous countries in Europe.
The 17th century saw many wars and the city suffered from the plague as well as several fires. At the end of the 18th century it became part of the Russian Empire and as was the case with many European cities, the 19th century was a time of uprisings. In the 20th century the city (as well as the rest of the country) suffered from the world wars and foreign occupation. Lithuania declared its independence in 1990. It was not until September 1991 that the Soviet Union acknowledged Lithuanian independence.
One of the most prominent figures in Lithuanian history and one that is omnipresent in Vilnius is Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania from c. 1315 to his death. He was the creator of Vilnius and also the one who established the whole dynasty.
A Weekend in Vilnius: Things to Do
Vilnius is a city that is one of the hidden gems of Europe. It is fairly small, so all you really need is a pair of comfy shoes and the will to start walking. You will come across the main sights: the castle, the churches, the streets. Should you have spare time, you can always wander across the rivers (there are two!). Here’s a list of our six favorite places in Vilnius.
The tower is the remaining part of the Upper Castle and a place with excellent views. Be prepared for climbing (unless you feel like taking the funicular). There is a museum as well where one can learn about the history of the city. Originally a wooden fortification, the first brick castle was completed in 1409. The tower was re-built in 1930 by Polish architect Jan Borowski.
This avenue – named after Gediminas – is the main street in Vilnius and it is here that you will find most governmental and cultural institutions in the capital. This is also the place to do your shopping and dining! It runs from the Old Town to the old neighborhood of Žvėrynas. The street has been named after many a dubious figure – from Hitler to Stalin and Lenin. It was constructed in 1836, in the evenings it’s partially pedestrian.
The Pilies Street, or Castle Street in English, is one the main streets in the old town, connecting the Cathedral Square and the Town Hall Square. This is where you find crafts and souvenirs (often amber).
Welcome to the bohemian quarters of Vilnius! The Republic of Užupis is well described by its three mottos: “Don’t Fight”, “Don’t Win”, “Don’t Surrender” and it is the home to many an artist. Most of the Jewish population in the district were killed in the Holocaust and the houses were left abandoned, later becoming occupied by marginal elements of society. Until Lithuania’s independence it was one of the most neglected parts of Vilnius and parts of it are still very worn down.
The Tree Crosses
The Three Crosses, in Lithuanian Trys kryžiai, stand on the Bleak Hill in the Kalnai Park. According to the legend, seven Franciscan friars were beheaded on the hill by angry townspeople. In fact there have been several monuments on the hill; the current version of the three crosses was unveiled in 1989.
Kalnai Park is located between the left bank of the Neris River and right bank of the Vilnia River. It’s a nice place for a walk and it is within easy reach from all the major attractions, including the Gediminas’ Tower and the Old Town. It also seems to be a very popular place for wedding photos. We lost count of all the happy couples celebrating in the park during our visit!