While I’ve known about Lithuania’s existence for a long time, having been seated next to a new student from there in my eighth-grade English class, I had never heard a thing about it from a tourism perspective. I knew that Riga, Latvia was a cool city based on what my friend Marie had told me about her long layover earlier this year and I knew that Tallinn, Estonia was a frequent stop on Baltic cruises. It just made sense to add Vilnius into the mix if I was already visiting the other Baltic capitals, but I had no idea what to expect. Here’s what I found fascinating during my quick two days of exploring:
The Way-Back History
The first thing I did after checking into my Airbnb and showering my flights off of me was head to dinner in a 16th-century merchant’s cellar because this is the type of thing I do when I’m in Europe. I was led a few levels down into the stone basement of Lokys before being seated. It was clear that this was a touristy spot based on the menu’s descriptions of traditional Lithuanian fare, but it wasn’t as if the employees were dressed in medieval gear or anything.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat one of the traditional meals of “rustic beaver meat stew” or “boar meat roast”, so I ordered the traditional “snack to accompany beer” (cheese doughnuts, beer sausages, pig ears, fried bread). There isn’t much to fried bread and the pig ears were seemingly uncooked and chewy, not like the (incredible) crispy pig ears I had at Husk in Charleston. Lokys was more about the experience than the food for me, but it was definitely a fun start to my trip. I (of course) ordered the recommended beer to accompany my snack, the Kurko Keptinis (a red Lithuanian ale), which I enjoyed.
Vilnius has the largest baroque Old Town in all of Europe so I spent some time wandering around the winding streets, popping into souvenir shops to see their creepy witch puppets (which maybe were for Halloween but maybe are for the whole year?) and creepy frog figurines, and chatting with an old man artist who sold me a painting for the “cityscapes” wall in my apartment.
A viewpoint that can’t be missed is from Gediminas Hill, where a red tower initially from the 13th century but rebuilt in the 1930s stands today. There’s typically a funicular that can take you up to the viewpoint but the gate was closed so I hiked up a rocky path, stopping a few times to catch my breath along the way. The city is said to have been founded because Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas had a dream about a giant wolf howling like 100+ wolves upon this hill.
The Modern History
Vilnius was occupied by Germany during WWI and WWII, and Lithuania was part of the USSR until 1990/1991. None of these times were all that long ago, which is how I normally feel about anything that has been close to or within my grandmother’s lifetime, but some of this also took place in my lifetime. My Airbnb host, two people I met on the bus, and my guidebook highly recommended the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights as an attraction. I had gone to the Museum of Terror during my time in Budapest, so I imagined it would be similar, but I’m still glad I went to learn specifically what happened in Lithuania. Both the museums in Vilnius and Budapest (and maybe elsewhere) are in former KGB headquarters. It is a very interesting and harrowing place to walk through, especially the basement, set up as the jail cells and interrogation rooms that the KGB used. More than 1,000 political prisoners were executed there from the 1940s to 1960s.
Vilnius was the least rainy city of my Baltics trip so I was able to spend a decent amount of time wandering around outside without making sure I was within reach of a coffee shop. I walked around Kalnų Park and along the Vilnia River banks, taking in the beautiful fall foliage, and hung out quite a bit in the Bernardinų Sodas, or gardens. While I imagine the gardens are more colorful in the spring and summer, I appreciated what was there in October.
The Monuments and Architecture
From what I saw in Vilnius, the Lithuanian people like to remember things, and why not? I visited several interesting monuments and memorials, from one to honor Frank Zappa (who had never been to Lithuania, but served as a symbol of newfound freedom in the early ’90s) to another that honors the Lithuanian hound, with three bronze puppers hanging out in the park by Gediminas Hill.
Always one for superstition, I made sure to find the stone tile on Cathedral Square which marks where two million Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians held hands across the Baltics to protest for freedom from the USSR in the year of Taylor Swift’s birth. If you stand on the tile and do a 360-degree turn, you get to make a wish. I can’t remember exactly what I wished for because I did it very quickly directly in front of a tour group and wanted to get out of their way, so no confirmation that it works.
Another viewpoint for those with more time in the city is Three Crosses Hill, where three crosses sat since the 17th century until the Soviets bulldozed them. The current crosses are replacements but the twisted remains of the bulldozed crosses can still be seen beneath them. I did not make it up to the hill itself, but they are visible from Gediminas Hill and if you have a decent enough zoom, you can see them pretty well.
The specific architecture that I enjoyed was mostly around the sprawling plaza of Cathedral Square, where the wish-providing tile is. There you can find the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, Vilnius Cathedral, and the Cathedral belfry.
Another interesting building is Saint Anne’s Church, from the 15th century. Rumor has it that Napoleon wanted to take this Gothic beauty with 33 different types of brick and move it to Paris.
The MO Modern Art Museum
Just as everyone I met recommended the occupation museum to me, they also were all quite excited that the MO Modern Art Museum had just opened up a few days before my arrival. The woman at the desk accepted that I was a student (score!) so I was able to explore for just €3. Since I only spent about an hour there, I didn’t feel bad about the discount and instead felt good that this woman believed I could still be in college. It’s not a huge collection, but there’s opportunity for growth. The artists are all Lithuanian and the artwork is all from the 1960s to today and like any modern art museum, some pieces are more interesting than others. There is also an open-air performance space so if you’re heading that way, check to see if there are any special events.
I went to popular cocktail bar Alchemikas on my second (and final) night in Vilnius right when it opened, planning on having two and heading home because I was pretty exhausted. But then some Swedes sat next to me and got even more interesting drinks than I’d ordered (above is the spicy melon martini which was tasty but not super adventurous like their Sushi Martinis which came with wasabi, cucumber, and ginger on the side) and we started chatting.
My new friends kindly invited me to dinner (see below) and then we got more cocktails at Nomads Cocktail Bar, another popular spot. I started off with a Bouquet cocktail with Lavender-infused gin, St. Germain, creme de violette, and homemade rose syrup, because ever since Bratislava, I’ve been really into lavender and ever since Bangalore, I’ve been really into rose. I don’t remember the next drink I got because at this point I was a few deep. I *do* remember learning all about Malma, which I may visit when I (hopefully) do a long weekend in Copenhagen in 2019 and the brilliant Swedish phrase, “sliding through life on a shrimp sandwich”, the equivalent of “born with a silver spoon in their mouth”.
The next time I’m in Vilnius, I’m going to eat more like I ate in Riga. Yes, traditional food like at Lokys is fun and you should definitely try some wherever you are, but sometimes it’s heavy and rich and doesn’t make one feel her best. The truth is, any city-dweller anywhere eats a variety of cuisines, just like New Yorkers don’t eat pizza every single day (every week, yes, duh, but not every day). But even though I didn’t plan all that well, there were three stand-out meals for me.
One was from an adorable bakery, Gruziniška Duona, that I walked by and immediately had a feeling my foodie friend Caitlin would love. I learned just now while writing this that the name translates into Georgian Bakery which makes sense now. If you read my post about food in Riga, you already know I’m obsessed with a specific cheesebread from Georgia called khachipuri, and I ordered it here without realizing what it was until I tasted it and recognized it from Vienna. I made the pizza-sized bread last the next few days as I ate the rest of it like a snack whenever I had a hankering.
The next meal I loved was the only fancy meal I had in Lithuania, which my new Swedish friends invited me to, at Gaspars, an Indian-inspired White Guide pick. The staff was wonderful, because even though the place was swamped, they didn’t mind so much that the reservation for two turned into a reservation for three. We all ordered Gaspar’s mom’s curry because why wouldn’t you order something that was the chef’s mom’s recipe? My chicken curry and the naan served with it were so comforting, just like all Indian food I’ve had since returning from the subcontinent two falls ago. Though we were tempted by the “extra” desserts we saw the table next to us get, complete with fire, smoke, and gold flakes, we decided to skip it in favor of more cocktails elsewhere (see above).
So yes, I explored a bit of the international food scene in Vilnius as well, but on the way out of the bus station on my way to Riga with Eurolines (I love taking buses throughout Europe!), I went traditional again. I bought a traditional pastry labeled as “kibina su kalakutiena” which I now know had turkey in it (thanks, Google Translate) though it tasted like pork when I ate it on the bus after it had been sitting in my coat pocket for an hour. It was delish and at just one euro, the perfect “see you later” from Lithuania.