For those of you who know me, it won’t come of any surprise that I spent my birthday weekend exploring a random city in Eastern Europe.
In the usual way, Billy and I chose our destination based on an ‘everywhere’ search on Sky Scanner and picking a cheap flight that worked for us. Within a few seconds we’d spotted return flights from Leeds Bradford to Vilnius at a great price, and a quick Google search revealed some very pretty pictures. I hadn’t heard of Vilnius before, which added to the allure and before I knew it we’d booked!
One of my favourite things about this trip was that I didn’t do much research, so had no idea what to expect. This meant discovering lots of lovely surprises as we wandered around the snowy streets, and allowed us to experience our own version of Vilnius – although I realise that in a small city you’re pretty much guaranteed to do the same things you’d have done if you’d read up on it!
Vilnius? Never Heard of It!
If, like me a couple of months ago, you haven’t heard of Vilnius, here’s the top line. Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania and the country’s biggest city, and it’s the second biggest city in the Baltic States (which includes Latvia and Estonia – definitely on the bucket list this year).
Despite this, it doesn’t feel like a large city because you’ll likely spend your time exploring the old town, with it’s charming cobbled streets, stunning architecture and cosy cafes. The old town can easily be walked around in a day, although we stretched that to several days but stopping off pretty much anywhere that served hot wine.
What To Do in Vilnius
How you spend your time in Vilnius will probably depend on when you visit. Our trip mainly consisted of playing in the snow, falling over on cute little side streets as we tried to explore, and warming up with copious amounts of dumplings. In the summer however, I’d imagine you’d stroll through the beautiful city park, spend a lot longer than we did enjoying the main attractions and sip (gulp?) crisp white wine whilst watching the world go by from cobbled corners.
Whatever the weather, you’ll definitely still want to make the most of this gorgeous city and spend time doing the following.
The Cathedral Bell Tower
I really like climbing tall buildings and admiring the views from the top – it’s my favourite thing to do in a new city (other than eating and drinking, obviously). We began our first day by wandering in the direction of the old town from our AirBnB and randomly choosing pretty streets to walk down! Pretty soon, we discovered a square featuring Vilnius Cathedral and it’s adjacent bell tower. There was a service going on in the Cathedral, so we headed straight into the bell tower and paid the 4.50EUR to climb to the top.
The climb itself was a lot of fun – there was a mixture of narrow staircases and ladders and you could clang some bells half way up! The top section of the tower was open to the elements to plenty of chances to throw snowballs from the top of ladders, and the main bells were impressive. To top it all off there’s a lovely view over the old town to finish with.
More views! Right next to the Cathedral and the Bell Tower is Gediminas’ Tower, situated on a hill and as a result making for even better views. You can walk up to the tower, or get the funicular (another favourite of mine on holiday) and then climb up a few floors, taking in some history on your way, until you reach the observation deck for some 360 degree observing.
The Hill of Three Crosses
We definitely saved the best until last on our mission to find the best viewpoint in Vilnius. The hill is next to Gediminas’ Tower, but we saved this until our last day as we weren’t flying until the evening – and three climbs in one day are a bit much.
You can reach the crosses from a couple of directions but, typically, we chose the hard route… oops. The easiest way to climb the hill would be by entering the park from the direction of Gediminas’ Tower, crossing the first bridge, turning right and walking a couple of hundred metres until you find the steps. You can then follow the steps straight up to the peak.
Instead, we walked a long way around the base of the hill, up a VERY snowy road and then scrambled up a steep snowy bank whilst trying not to slide back down and die. Regardless of this, it was completely worth the effort and my trip highlight.
Gates of Dawn
This is the only remaining gate to the city (there were originally five that were built between 1503 and 1522) and represents a religious and cultural shrine. The gate itself is fabulous and definitely worth a visit, not only to see the gate itself but also because the area around it has a great buzz to it and is full of bars, restaurants and shops. We also walked to the Bastion of the City Wall which was just around the corner, and enjoyed some great views (again, sorry) from here over the surrounding area.
Užupis is a self-proclaimed Republic, and it takes great pride in this. You can even get your passport stamped here in return for a smile! It’s a wonderful area to walk around, with plenty of cosy pubs to stop off at, but what sets it apart is the art. Užupis is known as the bohemian and artistic district and this is evident throughout – at one point we randomly turned a corner into an alleyway packed full of quirky ‘things’ (I don’t really know how else to describe it).
Another highlight from Užupis was the cemetery, which we stumbled upon by accident. I’m not usually one for cemeteries, but in the snow this place was incredibly calming to walk around.
Other must-sees were an amazing Christmas tree (Christmas was still very much on at the end of January) and the Constitution, which is literally the best Constitution ever.
Of the 41 terms, my favourites were:
“Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday” – it was my birthday weekend after all
“Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies” – the perfect excuse to get one
“A dog has the right to be a dog” – completely agree
“Everyone has the right to be happy” – positive vibes, yes please
“Everyone has the right to be unhappy” – let’s stop putting pressure on ourselves to be happy all the time
Not strictly in Vilnius, but definitely worth the trip if you have time. Trakai is a town about half an hour away from Vilnius on bus or train – we got the train which was excellent, but make sure you purchase a ticket in advance as it’s more expensive if you buy on the train.
The main pull to Trakai is the castle, which is situated on a lake and genuinely looks like something out of a fairy tale. The most popular time to visit is summer when you can have picnics by the lake or hire a rowing boat, but visiting in January was stunning – turns out it’s really fun walking across a frozen lake!
A bit of a silly one to end on, but I had to include it because I was so bloody impressed!! There was a 24 hour Maxima XXX a few minutes walk from our accommodation, and we visited the night we arrived for a few supplies for my birthday breakfast in bed.
Foreign supermarkets are always fun, but this was another level… from the fresh sushi counter, to the extensive salad bar, to the endless selection of salami, to the mind-blowing bakery selection, this supermarket had everything! Incase you’re wondering, my birthday breakfast consisted of sushi (obviously), chocolate croissants, bread, salami and goats cheese. We also got the most amazing blue cheese crisps as a late night snack one night.
The only downside was that you couldn’t buy booze after 10pm which meant no birthday breakfast champagne in bed for me, but I’ll live.
So there you have it, a whole host of fun to be had in Vilnius without even getting started on the food and drink scene. Don’t worry, there will be a post on that subject very soon!
If you’ve been to Vilnius and/or Trakai I’d love to hear what your thought and what you got up to – did I miss out on anything by not doing my research? Let me know in the comments!