What is cool about Eastern Europe is that you get local recommendations to places not much discussed in the west. In Soviet times, it was a lot easier to visit other communist countries and these days it’s affordable for locals in a way the west is not. During my conversation with a young Pole in an empty club because in Eastern Europe voting is exciting (there was a televised debate that night), I enthused about how much I loved Krakow and he told me that I should go to Vilnius.
If Riga and Latvia are off most people’s radar, Vilnius and Lithuania don’t even register…
So far, every local recommendation has been golden so the original plan was a few nights in expensive London with a side trip to affordable Vilnius… but then I discovered you had to go through Riga to get to Vilnius… and I had read about Riga and wanted to go – so why not do both? Who needs to sleep??? 😉
You can follow my craziness and do it all in five days or you can spend more time in both. Both countries are gorgeous. If you are coming from London (or most of Western Europe), the forests and fresh air will be a welcome tonic for your lungs. I just did the capitals because I live in Canada where forests and fresh air are abundant but for those from other locales, the countryside is definitely worth a visit.
I could have flown to Vilnius but it isn’t that far from Riga so I decided to gamble on Lux Express, a bus service that covers most of the region. How often do you get to hang out at a bus station where Minsk is an option? 🙂
Something went wrong so I didn’t get the upgraded bus but the regular Lux Express is luxe enough. There is also a non-luxe option if you are on a tight budget. Given my insane schedule, I slept pretty much the entire four hours each way so I can’t tell you much about the countryside but it looked like forests and fresh air on my small glimpses 🙂
I stayed at the Comfort Hotel LT Rock n’ Roll. It was close enough to the bus station I could walk. It’s a quirky modern hotel at an amazing price. You can stay closer to the Old Town but it’s an easy walk if you want to save a few bucks and like quirky accommodation.
Since I was rested and had only a small amount of time in Vilnius, I dropped my bags and headed for the Old Town and ambitiously climbed to the top of the hill for a fantastic view over the city on a blue sky day. I never had time to check out the newer parts of the city but I did see them from a distance and I am sure it would be worthwhile if you spend more time in the city.
What is essential though is a trip to the baroque splendor of the Old Town cobblestones. If you have the time, it’s good to explore all three Baltic cities as each has a different history. Riga spans a huge swath of history, Vilnius celebrates the Baroque and Tallinn (Estonia) is a medieval gem. Once you’re in Tallinn, Helsinki is a ferry ride away and St Petersburg is not far (a future trip!)
You could go blitzkrieg and see it all in a single day but I had two and that set a nice pace. I could hit a few highlights the first day and then come back on the second and revisit and explore some side streets.
There is lots of noteworthy architecture but there are a few highlights that definitely shouldn’t be missed. The first is Gediminas Hill. It is in a prime location above the junction of the Neris and Vilnia Rivers, which is why it was where Vilnius was founded in the days before satellites and airplanes. These days you don’t need those locations for the military advantage but they are pretty places for tourists to hang out and enjoy the view.
Once you climb down from the hill, there are some buildings to check out. The first is the Gates of Dawn and the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy, the only surviving gateway of the city’s ancient defence. If you get lucky, you will see mass in progress. There are several other noteworthy
houses of worship. The Church of St Casimir is the city’s oldest Baroque church built by the Jesuits between 1604 and 1615.
Vilnius Cathedral is officially known as the Cathedral of St Stanislav and St Vladislav on a spot originally used for the worship of Perkunas, the Lithuanian thunder god. St Anne’s Church history begins in 1394 when a wooden house of worship was erected in honour of Ona, wife of Vytautas the Great. It was later turned into a Gothic masterpiece. Peter and Paul’s Church is believed to be built on a site of worship to Milda, the pagan goddess of love. The Baroque masterpiece you will see today was commissioned to celebrate victory over the Russians in 1668.
There are even more places to explore covering several centuries of history. The area is quite compact and there are lots of
options to relax and take a break. You can also go shopping for amber, one of the area’s main tourist souvenirs. I checked out the Amber Gallery, which has a small museum to fill you in on the production process and showcase some stunning pieces. There are both stunning (and expensive) pieces and more ordinary options for purchase.
In the evening, look out for hot air balloons rising above the Baroque splendour. I don’t know if it’s normal but I was treated to three.
My Polish friend was not wrong. I DID enjoy Vilnius.