Welcome to Lithuania: a guide to Vilnius

Vilnius Castle CC Mantas Volungevicius

Welcome to Vilnius

Welcome to Vilnius, the capital and largest city of Lithuania with a population of 540,000. Its name originates from the Vilnia river and its Jewish influence until the 20th century resulted in the city being known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” - Napoleon even described it as the “Jerusalem of the North” when he passed through it in 1812.

The city’s old town is noted for its beautiful architecture and was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1994. In 2009 it was the European Capital of Culture with the Austrian city of Linz. It is primarily known for its Baroque buildings but there are also examples of Renaissance and Gothic influences.

Lithuania was recognised as an independent country by the Soviet Union in 1991 and on January 1 2015 it joined the Eurozone – adopting the Euro as its currency, replacing the Lita.

The Stadium

The LFF stadium is the home of FC Zalgiris, the current holders of Lithuania’s ‘A Lyga’. It has a seated capacity of 5,067 and is comprised of three stands – the East, South and West with a vacant North side.

When the stadium opened in 2004, it was the first private football-focused stadium rebuilt after the Soviet era. The stadium was originally known as the Vetra Stadium, after the FC Vetra team. When Vetra went bankrupt in 2010, the stadium was taken over by the Lithuanian Football Federation (LFF) and renamed. Another big change as a result of the takeover was the grass pitch being replaced by artificial turf in 2011.

Getting to the ground

The stadium is around 2.5km from Vilnius city centre, so you can walk there in around 45 minutes. If you are coming into the city by train, the walk is as little as 12 minutes because the station is only 900 metres away.

Things to see and do

If you have time for one sightseeing visit you may as well make it Gediminas Tower (Arsenalo Str 5, Tel: +370 5 261 7453; +370 5 262 9426, €2 for adults), which is perched on the hill and visible from the old town. You can walk up but if a steep, winding path doesn’t suit there is a funicular ride up for €1.50 return. The tower now stands alone but was once part of the Upper Castle, part of Vilnius’s defences. The views from the top of the tower are probably the best in the city.

Should you wish to see more cultural sights, Vilnius hosts a wide range of museums, including the National Museum of Lithuania (Arsenalo Str. 1, Tel. +370 (5) 262 77 74, +370 (5) 262 94 26); the House of Signatories (Pilies 26, Tel. +370 5 231 44 37), from where the act of independence was signed; the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania (tel. +370 5 262 0007, Katedros 4); Vilnius Cathedral (Šventaragio , entry is free); and The Museum of Genocide Victims (Aukų str. 2A, €4 for an adult ticket, closed Monday and Tuesday) among many others.

For the adventurous, you can see the city and the magnificent surrounding landscape from a different perspective by taking a hot air balloon ride for €99 per person. Trips depart from the banks of the Neris in time for sunset over the red-roofed city.

Should you wish to venture out of Vilnius, Trakai Island Castle is about a 30-minute drive away. The 200 surrounding lakes and 21 islands has made Trakai a popular retreat for Vilnian locals. Another option is the Curonian Spit, which is Lithuania’s most popular tourist spot but at least a four-hour drive away. It boasts a 98km stretch of beach and sand-dunes, going as far as Russia’s Kalingrad in the south.

One of Lithuania’s quirkier sights is the Museum of Ethno-Cosmology in the village of Kulionys, which is about an hour’s drive from Vilnius. We’re told the museum is all about understanding humankind’s place in the universe. You may not be surprised to learn that it’s the first museum of its kind. Some view it as a holistic approach to stargazing, but don’t let that put you off if you’re not that way inclined – the magical observatory alone is worth a visit.

Eating and drinking

Vilnius has a range of restaurants, many of which have outdoor seating areas. There isn’t much of a Lithuanian food scene in general, but the cold beetroot soup (šaltibarščiai) is as local a cuisine as you will find.

Highlights include 7 Elephants (Konstitucijos 12), which is located in the Radisson hotel and exclusively serves Bison meat; the Belgian and French influenced Rene (Antokolskio 13, Tel.  8 5 2126858); Blusyne (Savičiaus 5, +370 5 212 2012) for international cuisine; Gyvas Baras for vegans (Odminių  15, +370 656 92939) and, at the other end of the scale, the suitably-named Meat Lovers Pub (Šv. Ignoto 14, +370 652 51233).

We suspect one of the more popular places for fans will Bambalyne (Stiklių 7, Tel: +370 676 00075), which boasts a large range of beers and wines including 60 local beers, most of which aren’t available in shops. The establishment also has a restaurant across the road called Leičiai (Stiklių 4, +370 5 260 9087).

Speaking of beer, you shouldn’t find much of problem locating a bar; the city has more of a pub culture than a nightclub one. The Gringo pub (Vilniaus 31, +370 654 90541) has an extensive beer menu, free wifi, table football and live sport on the big screen. If you want a smaller venue, Spunka (Kęstučio 55, +370 686 72343) is located in a more bohemian area and has a selection of very local beers, while Snekutis (Šv Stepono 8, +370 650 47058) is the eccentric local option with Lithuanian food and beer from small breweries.

Cider drinkers won’t be disappointed in Vilnius either – Sarkozy (Vilniaus 22, +370 693 31826) serves apple-flavoured snacks and drinks including apple cocktails. There is also a beer selection for those who’d prefer it.

 Thanks to Mantas Volungevicius for the image used in this blog. Reproduced here under CC licence.