During one of my regular searches for new interesting destinations that could fit well into a weekend getaway out of London, I was happy to find out that there were a few very reasonable flights operated by low cost carriers between London and Vilnius. As Lithuania was one of the few remaining countries in Europe that I had not yet had the opportunity to visit, it had climbed rather high on my list of up and coming places to visit.
The more I read about it, the more it grew on me, and although I understood that the beautiful sand dunes of the Coronian Spit would have to wait until another visit (Sand dunes! In Europe!!), as a stretched 4-day weekend can only go so far, I couldn't wait to visit a land so full of greenery, old medieval cities and castles. I had the chance of visiting both neighbouring Latvia and Estonia back in 2012, and absolutely loved it. I had figured I'd leave Lithuania for another opportunity; maybe in conjunction with nearby Belarus if I happened to "be in the area", but as soon as an opportunity arose, I was keen to seize it, and absolutely thrilled about it.
Friendly locals, not one exception!
From the moment I started interacting with Lithuanians at Luton's airport, I was surprised to notice just how warm and helpful they were, as it wasn't exactly the behaviour I would automatically have associated with people in Northern European, Baltic countries. I couldn't be more pleased. From the very get-go upon my arrival, courteous acts by locals were highly appreciated, such as an offer to have a taxi called up on my behalf, so that I could pay the equivalent of 3 Euros, instead of 30. Brilliant! Not a bad start for a 2AM arrival. And such courteous acts just continued on, in virtually every interaction I had with people in Vilnius. From workers at the little hotel I stayed at, to restaurant waiters and passers-by, everyone went above and beyond to be informative and courteous. I was also surprised by just how many people spoke fluent English.
That initial feeling about locals plays such an important role on a traveller's perspective of a foreign culture, and it set me up for a great start of my journey!
Vilnius – A UNESCO World Heritage Site, a "Republic within a country" and much more
In order to get a good orientation of the city and how to better organise my time there, the first thing I did upon waking up in Vilnius, was to join one of the ever-so-popular free walking tours, guided by locals, based on tips, now common in many world capitals. But from the moment I started walking towards the Old Town, I was mesmerised by Vilnius' beauty – a lot nicer than I had expected. All the narrow streets, full of old, but well preserved buildings led to the centre of the Old Town, marked by the impressive Town Hall square. The number of cafes and restaurants on the way impressed me right away, and they were all filled by a rather lively looking group of people. A very distinct cafe culture indeed.
Once at the Town Hall, our tour started, going all around the little streets of Old Town, while learning about the history of the country, the city's World Wars involvement, Jewish Heritage and much more.
While visiting the old Jewish ghettoes, we learned that Lithuania was one of the European countries that hosted the largest number of Jewish people, as they found a safe shelter here, running away from Nazi persecution. Many of the numerous museums found in the city are related to that, such as the Tolerance Centre and the Genocide Museum. Speaking of museums, Vilnius has so many great ones!
From an old KGB headquarter to the "Smuggling and customs" museum, as well as amazing art collections; the city could easily keep a traveller busy for weeks. Monuments honouring literature icons such the ones found along "Literature Street" clearly show just how connected to culture residents of Vilnius are.
But my favourite sight in the city by far was the Uzupius neighbourhood – the Bohemian quarter across the river that in 1997 was officially declared the Independent Republic of Uzupius. A city within the city, and mostly inhabited by artists; it even has its own constitution, laws and army!
In order to get to Uzupius, all one needs to do is cross the river, and although not much seems to have changed, a traveller better abide by Uzupius rules and be aware of interesting local characters said to be constantly walking around, ensuring the constitution is being followed and engaging in conversation with visitors, such as the Mayor of Uzupius!
The constitution is proudly displayed very near the main square, in over 8 different languages. Here are some of my favourite rules, amongst many other hilarious ones: "Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation", "Everyone has the right to be idle" and "Everyone has the right to understand nothing". The constitution was drawing broad smiles in most people reading it – truly unique.
Trakai Historical National Park – a relaxing local retreat
The Trakai Island Castle is one of Lithuania's most well known images: a beautiful medium sized castle in the middle of an island in a lake, dating back to the 14th century and to the glorious days of the Grand Dutchery of Lithuania.
Easily accessible by either train or bus, less than an hour away from the centre of Vilnius, lies quaint little Trakai, a small village in the middle of the National Park. Offering a wide range of summer activities for its visitors (such as sailing, hot air ballooning, hiking, and of course, visiting the castle), the national park is a great destination for a summer day.
With so many options of places to lounge and simply watch the day go by, I took my time seating at a bean bag sort of chair at a cafe, right in front of the lake, across from the castle, sipping delicious coffee while feeling the warmth of the summer sun on my face.
Although Trakai is one of the most visited sights in the country, it was mostly filled by local families looking to enjoy their weekend in nature, before the upcoming colder months arrived. The castle itself was rather pretty from the outside, and well preserved, but its location on a small island by the lake is its true highlight, differentiating it and making it stand out amongst other enchanting European castles.
A perfect destination to relax and wander around
Although two of my favourite things to do when visiting a new city (getting lost in local markets and checking out the local music scene) were not at all strong in Lithuania, the country's cafe culture and relaxing atmosphere blew me away.
Considering just how much there is to see worldwide, it is not common for me to devote more time to a region than I believe is needed, unless the actual experience to be taken from the place being visited is in fact, relaxing and not doing much. I ended up having 4 full days in a region that could have easily been well visited in 3 days, and that was quite a nice, new experience for me. I even treated myself to a spa treatment at Vilnius' top 5 star hotel!
Doing things like taking an afternoon nap or just seating and writing at a cafe are possibly a part o most people's "holidays", but not things I tend to allow myself to do often. And Vilnius was perfect for that. With its beautiful establishments and really affordable restaurants located all around the historical centre, I would highly recommend it as a top notch spot for a long weekend getaway.
The cuisine wasn't the most vegetarian friendly, I must say, with some of its local delicacies ranging from "pig feet" to yet more unusual dishes. The potato pancakes and soups were amazing though, especially the ones served cold, such as their traditional beetroot soup. The nightlife scene is there as well, for those looking for that sort of experience, and with really affordable prices. For families, couples or simply solo travellers needing a break from the go-go-go London life (such as yours truly), I highly recommend Lithuania - an enjoyable country not yet overran by tourism.