Vilnius is one of the smallest, most beautiful and quirkiest capital cities of Europe.
The Lithuanian capital was one of Europe’s two cities of culture for 2009 and the first former Soviet city to have this prestigious honour.
Belltower of Vilnius Cathedral
Lithuanians, proud new members of the European Union, celebrate the many cultures that have influenced this city, which over the centuries has been fought over and occupied by Germans, Poles and Russians and, until the horrors of the Second World War, was a centre of Jewish culture.
The different nationalities have left their mark on a skyline filled with the onion domes and steeples of Russian Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches. The most important of them all, Vilnius Cathedral, is the most distinctive – a whitewashed neo-classical temple from the 18th Century with a belltower like a landlocked lighthouse.
The Gates of Dawn Catholic Shrine
It is almost as if someone had created a theme park dedicated to baroque architecture that so much is crammed into the narrow cobbled streets of the Old Town, whilst the future of Vilnius (and Lithuania) is represented by the mini-Manhattan of office skyscrapers sprouting on the other side of the River Neris.
It is best to begin the exploration of the city at the evocatively named Gates of Dawn.
The Gates of Dawn is an important Catholic shrine, much visited by Poles, a chapel above the city gate which contains a holy, ‘miracle-working’ painting of the Virgin Mary encased in gold and silver. She is placed at the window, to cast a motherly eye over Vilnius, and the faithful cross themselves as they pass through the gate, turn and bow to the Madonna.
Church of the Holy Spirit, Vilnius
Nearby the Church of the Holy Spirit is the most important church for ethnic Russians, a lofty space festooned with cherubs, painted in gaudy greens, pinks and purples, and containing the bodies of three saints, lying tucked up in robes side by side in a glass coffin. Apparently the martyrs were killed by the Lithuanians, who were a pagan people well into the Middle Ages, until Poland finally imposed Catholicism on its neighbour.
Church of St Casimir, Vilnius
The unusual red brick Gothic edifice of St Anne’s should not be missed, it is said that Napoleon wanted to take it home to. Next door the Bernardine Monastery Church remains impressive. It like several other churches suffered indignities during the Soviet Russian era, though none worse than the impressive crown-capped church of St Casimir, which the Soviets turned into a Museum of Atheism.
It could appear Vilnius has a serious bike theft problem until you discover that all the hundreds of locks on the railings of the city’s bridges have the engraved the names of married couples – a very literal interpretation of wedlock.
The Best Bars in Vilnius
The hip, artistic and cheerfully scruffy area named Uzupius has a population of painters, thinkers and drinkers (it has some of the best bars). A few years ago the residents declared a breakaway republic and demanded passports be shown when crossing the bridges into Uzupius. Their ‘bill of rights’ can be seen on a wall still, and the folk of Uzupius have their own impressive guardian angel statue plus a mermaid in a niche on the wall of the leafy riverbank.
Amber Jewellery from the Baltic
Back in the Old Town, the main street of Pilies has plenty of bars and restaurants, and dozens of shops selling the main souvenir, amber jewellery from the Baltic shores.
The new Lithuania is literally a young country, due to its university Vilnius is a particularly youthful place for an old city and has a vibrant night life.