Often overlooked against your typical European travel destinations, the Baltic states are hidden gems; full of great culture, architecture, food and feeling- all at a more affordable price! This September I headed off to two of the three baltic states, visiting Riga in Latvia and Vilnius in Lithuania, plus branching out into surrounding areas with a couple of day trips. Both destinations just completely blew away all of our expectations. It’s difficult to put it into the highlights, but here’s the key reasons why you must visit the Capital City of Vilnius, Lithuania…
1. Clean, Friendly and Welcoming- What More Could You Want?!
Vilnius city is really very beautiful. Similar to Riga, it has stunning architecture and iconic buildings. There’s a huge range of designs and styles, but the colours on a lot of the city centre buildings are amazing -daisy yellow, pale pink, bright white, sky blue- it’s so pretty, even when just walking down the street for a spot of shopping (which by the way you should definitely do- Kat and I bought some great things back home from the Baltics!) One of the other things we noticed about Vilnius is that it’s completely and utterly SPOTLESS! No rubbish in sight. It’s refreshing to be around!
Graffiti? A little on the outskirts of the city centre (as you’d expect!) but even a lot of that is instead turned into beautiful street art. Here, this maps out some of the greatest pieces and where to find them, including the most talked-about ‘MINDAUGAS BONANU, DOMINYKAS ČEČKAUSKAS’, which is the controversial art of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin (it even made it’s way into the New York Times!)
Walking around, you’ll also feel very safe. Definitely a destination I’d recommend for solo-travellers. There’s just a really nice atmosphere about the place that puts you at ease. For example, regular events are held over in the square, and when there’s nothing booked in, you’ll get street acts/ entertainment. One afternoon we even stumbled into a bubble blower- created basically by fairy liquid and what looked like a giant fairy catcher! (You may have seen this at other places before?) But the kids were all running around popping them, the adults were doing the same too, and it just adds to that welcoming sort of community-feel you get over there. Clean, friendly and very cool vibes! It makes you feel right at home!
2. An Old Town With Heritage
Like I mentioned- beautiful architecture in Vilnius, but some of the best can actually be found in their Old Town, which is actually included on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is one of the largest surviving medieval old towns in Northern Europe. Impressive huh? In comparison to Riga, their Old Town is less obvious; all of the buildings throughout the city just kind of merge together, whereas in Riga you see a dramatic change and really recognise it. But this is one of the things that makes the city so beautiful as a whole! It’s a real wander to walk within.
Made up of 74 quarters, with 70 streets and lanes numbering 1487 buildings- there’s certainly a lot to see! I highly recommend jumping on a quick walking tour to make your way around and ensure nothing is missed! This one for example is done with a local and even includes a couple of tasting experiences. By going on a tour, you’ll also learn a few insider tricks- like always look down alleyways! – not the usual advice right? But these lead to authentic, interesting squares where locals live. Many have sculptures, gardens or you might even like to just have a little nose at their style of homes!
Whilst wandering around, make sure you stop off at the Jewish Quarter. Vilnius’ Old Town was once home to a sizable Jewish community that was known around the world for its piety and strength of faith. Today street names like Žydų (Jews) and Gaono (Gaon) are among the few reminders of those days.
3. The Perfect Place to Explore
Vilnius is a great spot for venturing out further afield. Agricultural land covers more than 50% of Lithuania, with 33% made up of forests. This makes it an incredibly scenic destination, perfect for nature lovers! When comes to day trips from Vilnius, you’re looking at places like Rumsiskes, Kernave Archaeological Site, Ninth Fort, Panamune, Hill of Crosses and the list could just go on and on. There’s plenty of choice that’s for sure- whether you want to explore another town/ city, or get out within the wilderness. After some thorough research, we decided on Trakai Historical National Park, with its islands, lakes and castle (which was once home to Lithuania’s grand dukes!)
To get here you can take a tour- my first recommendation would be this one getting you straight to the door and also including an audioguide; or this one with hotel pick-up and a personal guide to give you more of a backstory. Your third option is to head over there yourself with a simple bus/ train journey that drops you near the lakes so that you can walk it around from there. We went for the latter option, vouching for the bus as we found it was slightly cheaper and dropped us just a touch closer (€3.50 round trip!)
Walking around the lakes in itself was just as beautiful as the castle we found. (Although when you get up close to the castle, the sun beaming down- there’s no denying, it’s pretty spectacular!) The walk also took us through old towns, seeing these beautiful traditional wooden buildings- such a stark contrast to Vilnius and another aspect to experience. After an exciting day exploring we finished off with nice meal and glass of wine overlooking the castle and lake. Perfecto!
4. Views to Last You Days!
Back in the city, there are a number of ways to see Vilnius from above. In my opinion, they’re not quite like Riga– that viewpoint from the top of the cathedral has got to be my absolute favourite, but they’re different and special in their own way, making them some pretty good contenders! We went to two viewpoints in Vilnius, the first being the Bell Tower of St. John’s Church, over by the university. Stunning building in itself, but for me- I definitely preferred to have my feet firmly on the ground, safely looking up at this, because wait until you get inside!
An ancient wooden staircase! Okay, there’s also a lift you can take so you don’t have to climb right the way to the top yourself, but for someone who is very much scared of heights (or I guess more accurately, scared of dropping to my death when I’m high up and don’t feel safe!), this made my legs so so shaky…
I’m also going to admit now- Kat and I did not make it to the very top level (which would have meant walking up a couple of flights of steps up into the open; wind blowing in our hair at the peak!) Nope, instead, we just about managed the lift to this viewing point, spent a few minutes up there, a couple of quick snaps before escaping back down with a HUGE amount of relief! Yes, I know, total wimps! But, we tried it! And if you’re not scared of heights, I would 1000% recommend this tower as the views really are incredible. Our view was just tainted a little by fear!
NOTE: there are bars over the windows now; probably for safety (although if I was them, I’d be taking a look at those stairs above anything else!)– this means it’s slightly harder to take photos from the inside, although I think they’re gone at the very top if you’re brave enough to venture up! However, just being up there and seeing it with your own eyes is well worth it. After all, it’s more for the experience than the shot right?!
The second viewpoint -and far less scary!- is a short walk out of the city centre over to Subačiaus Street. As I’m sure you can agree, it is simply beautiful. This is the view at the top and a little further across there’s an open cafe with chairs all dotted around the top of the hill, meaning you can grab a nice refreshing drink, whilst taking all of this in. We were really lucky with the weather over there- despite 60% of days in Lithuania being cloudy- we actually got a lot of sun and as the leaves were starting to turn for Autumn, the colourful backdrop was made all the more beautiful!
But it’s not over yet! From here you can also take a little footpath down towards that lake at the bottom. It’s quiet, peaceful and there’s even little apple trees and ducks. Very picturesque! It made the perfect chill-out spot, away from any hustle and bustle, yet right on your doorstep. Insider tip: take a picnic there! You’ll thank me later!
5. You Become Part of the Community
Now Vilnius also has a culture of it’s own, but the part we got to experience (by luck/ chance!) was it’s more military aspect. One minute we was wandering around the square, the next we heard these drums and hundreds of police walking out in sync. It was kind of like London’s changing of the guards experience at Buckingham Palace, but it was absolutely amazing and so spontaneous! Honestly- words can’t describe it! Hundreds of police marching out and round, totally in sync. They reminded me of the ants from Bugs Life (yep, Disney never does quite leave you!) With the drums beating, it got us stomping out feet in time; big grins on our faces! When the police all turned around to face us, swords in hands, we had a bit of a shock(!), but it was such an incredible experience to be part of.
A couple of days later we also stumbled across a big police event in the same place. They had cars, stalls and literally thousands of people attending, but the best part for me was the band… they turned this navy music into catchy songs, dancing around with it- like a proper performance! Incredible atmosphere and again, a great thing to be part of (even if we found it by chance!) The police in Lithuania -perhaps due to their history- really become part of the community. It’s inspiring to be around and is something that I think is perhaps lacking at home in the UK!
6. You Learn About The History
Lithuania has a dark and deeply saddening past; a section of history (not all that long ago) which has shaped the country that they have become today. To learn about this, we took a morning out to visit the Museum of Genocide.
It was heartbreaking, honestly it was. But it’s important to remember, to acknowledge and to pay tribute to all those people who lost their lives. Through the Soviet Union occupation and Nazi Germany take-over, hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned, deported and murdered, in Lithuania alone. They had it coming from both sides, it was absolutely horrific. That’s also not to mention all those brave men and women who lost their lives fighting, trying to protect their country. Visiting the museum brought everything to life through videos, accounts, real-life objects from back then, old photographs (kept in pristine condition might I add)- it taught us so so much.
We then went down to the dungeons, seeing the cells and chambers that people were kept in. I’m not going to lie, it was difficult to see. But prior to visiting, this was actually a part of history I had not learnt at school and knew very little about. It is upsetting, but it was real. It happened. They say history has a habit of repeating itself and I really believe it’s something that shouldn’t be brushed over. Traveling to me, is about immersing yourself in that country- their culture, their food, their experiences and that also includes learning about their history; as hard as that may be.
I honestly cannot even begin to comprehend what these people went through and what it must have been like to live here in such a time. It shows some of the darkest pages in history, with things you quite simply can’t gloss over. However, it also shows you how these people got through it. The survivors. Their strength. The hope that always remained. It’s inspiring in so many ways. Yet it also opens your eyes. It gives you such an appreciation for the freedom you have now, that you take for granted on a daily basis. And that’s something that I think we all need reminding of from time to time.
‘Lithuania is working for its future, remembering the price of freedom and independence…’
7. Something Different on Every Corner
Onwards and upwards now! Aside from all the architecture, sightseeing, tours and activities, you’ll also find hidden gems in Vilnius like The Museum of Illusions. GUARANTEED to bring a smile to your face, there are rooms packed with challenges, illusions, puzzles and -quite simply- things that will blow your mind! Here’s a little snippet into some of their attractions-
It’s honestly just somewhere you need to experience for your staff. NOTE: there’s no affiliate on this, I honestly just thought the place was brilliant! What made it even better was the staff- so incredibly friendly and helpful, making the experience even better by giving you insights and explanations to some of the most baffling illusions! After going to a similar museum in Vienna, which was so so busy we couldn’t fully make the most of it- we arrived at Vilnius Museum of Illusions just after opening time and to begin with- had the place totally to ourselves! It was heaps of fun, totally different and a must-do local attraction that will give you so many photos to look back on and smile!
8. Who Says You Need a Beach?
I mentioned how much nature was around Vilnius right? Well in Lithuania as a whole… Yet you don’t even have to venture that far out of the city to experience it! In fact, right here on our doorstep we have one of the greenest capital cities in the world. With beautiful parks, squares, gardens, and lawns, yet that lack of crowds: it’s the perfect place to relax! Take a picnic, grab an ice-cream (yep, we did! even in Autumn!), take a book out and have a good read. It doesn’t matter what time of the year you’re visiting, the gardens look beautiful and there are plenty of cosy coffee shops, pubs or bars surrounding them- which means you can make your Baltic City Break as chilled or manic as you like!
Vilnius -in my opinion- really does have everything you need and more. It ticks all the boxes for me and I highly recommend visiting: even if it’s not your typical holiday destination! On our flight back home, we were sat by a Lithuanian guy. He was learning English as he’d not long moved to the UK. He asked us,
You visit Vilnius?
We said yes. We did. We had a brilliant time! He said,
What a question! Well, as a holiday I guess…
You have friends here?
Nope! We just wanted to visit somewhere different and had read great things about the place. He just laughed! Like Latvia, Lithuania is not a massive tourist destination; particularly it seems, from people in the UK. But I think this is one of the things that makes the Baltic states so special… You get a real cultural experience; not a built-up tourist trap, which makes it all the more fun to explore, but also incredibly budget friendly. Flights are cheap, accommodation is super affordable and there are so many free/ low-cost attractions to keep you busy. In fact, to put things into perspective for you: total cost of this trip, including flights (to Latvia & back from Lithuania- as we did this as a multi-country Baltic ‘homemade’ tour), transportation (into a whole other country!), 5 nights accommodation in hotels (private rooms), breakfast at both hotels (we got some nice deals there!), additional transportation, entrance fees to sights & attractions, food, drinks and EVERYTHING else(!) = £342.00 Not bad hey? Over six days that averages £57 a day, and trust me, we didn’t do this trip by halves!
Going out of season at the end of September/ start of October also helped with costs and crowds, but as there were hardly any tourists around- we could get a proper feel for the place and a small snippet into life there for the locals. Lithuania has become country number 4 on my ‘12 Months 12 Countries Travel Challenge‘ and it was an absolute joy to explore. Such an insightful, cultural experience, so if you’re looking for a change from your usual holiday destinations- this is definitely one of the places to go! So what are you waiting for?! Who’s ready to head out and explore!?
Once a year, go some place you’ve never been before…
– Dalai Lama