Top Vilnius tourist attractions
To be honest I didn’t know what to expect when Mister Lavin told me that for Christmas he had booked us a trip to Vilnius. As soon as we arrived we were blown away by just how cool and hip Lithuania’s capital city actually is, surrounded by the breathtaking architecture of Medieval Old Town. In fact, the old town of Vilnius is the largest in central and eastern Europe. With it’s bustling cafe scene, hip pub culture, beautiful architecture, but, most noticeably it’s warming sense of history, it is not hard to completely fall in love with Vilnius. There are so many must-see tourist attractions in Vilnius to enjoy and many many reasons to visit this beautiful Baltic city.
Is Vilnius worth visiting?
Is Vilnius worth visiting? This one is easy! The answer is a resounding yes! Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, often gets overlooked when it comes to Baltic tourism but we are here to show you that Vilnius really is worth a visit. It tends to get overshadowed by the medieval charms of Tallinn and the incredible art nouveau architecture of Riga, but Vilnius has a charm all of its own. There are a whole range of tourist attractions in Vilnius, not all of them obvious, to make your time in Vilnius an incredible one.
Top reasons to visit and the best tourist attractions in Vilnius
Is Vilnius cheap?
Vilnius is one of the cheapest city break European destinations. In fact, Vilnius has been named as the cheapest city to visit in Europe and has even replaced Krakow as the best value destination for a European city break. It is the perfect destination to consider if you are planning a budget-friendly getaway.
In fact, the first thing that stood out to us in Vilnius, is that, your Euro stretches a long way! Flights to Vilnius are super cheap and Ryanair flies directly into Vilnius airport so no annoying extra bus journeys needed. The airport is also only 10 minutes outside the city so win all round! You will get really nice accommodation for around €50 a night. We had the most magical apartment on the edge of the old town complete with a wood burning stove and supply of logs for €55 a night for 2 of us. We stayed at Milo Apartment. I can’t recommend it enough and Milad our host was kind enough to get up at 4am to drive us to the airport.
Vilnius is cheap and fried bread is a thing
The first day we arrived in Vilnius was the opening game for Ireland in the Six Nations Rugby and we could not miss it! After almost a full day in the pub drinking pints and stuffing our faces our bill came to €38. You would have to take out a second mortgage if you did that in Ireland.
A pint of beer is €2 so you can imagine it was a fun day. We also looked at each other in shock (Did she just say €6.66?) when we booked 2 return tickets to Trakai on the train for a grand total of €3.33 return each. You can see you get a lot of bang for your buck in Vilnius.
Also fried bread with a cheesy dip is a thing here and is quite possibly one of the best things we’ve ever tasted. Known locally as Kepta Duona (fried bread with garlic) it is the most addictively crunchy bar snack. We could eat this forever! It is the perfect beer accompaniment.
Take a walking tour of Vilnius and explore the street art of the city
We used to think that graffiti makes a city look messy but we’ve completely changed our minds since visiting Vilnius. They take street art to a whole new level. Think Putin and Trump sharing a joint cool!
Vilnius is full of incredible street art, in fact the only other place that we have seen it so abundantly was during a walking tour of Praga in Warsaw, Poland. You simply have to let your eyes wander and colourful images will pop up from the buildings. Street art is a way for artists to react to the modern world, transmit their ideas through public spaces, experiment, provoke thoughts and manifestos, which can often change the face of a city.
It is wonderful to have an open-air art museum like this in the city of Vilnius. Exploring all of the street art by incredible artists is a fun and free thing to do in the city and why it belongs in our top tourist attractions in Vilnius.
Visit the church of St. Catherine
We are not very religious but we do love a pretty church. We also have the tradition of visiting a church in every new city we visit to light a candle for loved ones gone before us. There were so many beautiful churches in Vilnius but the church of St. Catherine was our favourite and is a must-see tourist attraction in Vilnius.
The beautiful pink Baroque Church of St. Catherine is the first church in Vilnius to be fully renovated during the independence period and has become one of the city’s great symbols. The church was heavily damaged during World War II and many pieces of art were stolen from it. During the Soviet era, the church was owned by the Vilnius Museum of Fine Arts and was used primarily as a warehouse. Restoration of the church began in 1994 and it finally opened its doors to the public again on 27 May 2006.
This stunning twin-towered church with its beautiful pink and white facade now hosts concerts throughout the year and tickets can be purchased at the main tourist office. The church is famous for its great acoustics. Originally built in the 17th century in Baroque style, the Church features several embellishments including two Rococo towers. For us the exterior of the church has the atmosphere of a Spanish colonial church and almost looks misplaced in the city of Vilnius.
In fact, Vilnius is a city of churches as there appears to be one on every corner. Another beautiful church worth noting is the Orthodox Cathedral of the Theotokos (Vilniaus Dievo Motinos Ėmimo į Dangų katedra).
An Orthodox church has stood here since Lithuania’s late pagan days of the 14th century. Over the years it was burned, abandoned, rebuilt, transferred to Catholicism and even used by Vilnius University as a lecture theatre. During the Russification campaign of the 19th century it was reverted to an Orthodox church and is now Lithuania’s main place of Orthodox worship.
The Gates of Dawn
The Gates of Dawn is one of the top tourist attractions in Vilnius. Most people think of The Gates of Dawn as a place of prayer in Vilnius but centuries ago they were actually a part of the city’s defensive wall. At that time, the city’s defensive wall had ten gates, though the Gates of Dawn are the only ones to have survived until today. The structure’s defensive function can be seen by the firing openings that are still visible on the outside of the gate.
The gates were originally called the Medininkai Gates because they led the way to Medininkai (a village in Lithuania). The current name may have been inspired by the fact that the gates are on the eastern side of the city where you can first see dawn, or that the Virgin Mary was called The Star of Dawn.
The miraculous painting of the Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy in the Gates of Dawn is one of the most renowned Renaissance paintings in Lithuania. It’s also called the Madonna of the Gates of Dawn or the Madonna of Vilnius. It was painted specifically for the little wooden chapel that stood here in the 17th century. To show the gratitude and devotion to the painting, people bring tiny gifts known as votive offerings to the painting of Blessed Virgin Mary to give thanks and to perhaps ask for their own miracles.
Vilnius Town Hall and Cathedral Square
Vilnius Cathedral Square is the very heart of Vilnius and one of the top tourist attractions in Vilnius. Not only is it extremely beautiful, it is a meeting point for locals, major city events and it is where the Christmas Markets are held every year.
Christmas in Europe is a magical experience so be sure to check out our guides on the Christmas markets in Hamburg, the magic of the Colmar Christmas Markets, Warsaw at Christmas and a Cotswolds Christmas.
The Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus is built in the very centre of the city on the site of a former pagan temple and next to the city’s defensive castle. Lithuania’s patron saint St. Casimir rests in the Cathedral Basilica which makes it one of the best tourist attractions in Vilnius.
A 57-metre tall bell tower stands right by the cathedral and is one of the most iconic symbols of Vilnius. The history of the bell tower dates back to the middle of the 13th century. The defensive tower that stood here in the 16th century became a bell tower and this beautiful tower got its current appearance at the beginning of the 19th century.
The city’s oldest clock at the top of the tower chimes its bells daily to invite people to mass. An exhibition inside the tower recounts its history and offers visitors a spectacular view of the Old Town and you should definitely visit this during your time in Vilnius. The breath-taking panoramic view from the top of the tower includes three sculptures decorating the roof of the Cathedral, one of which depicts Saint Casimir.
Enjoy the rooftop views of Vilnius
If, like us, you like a good rooftop view then Vilnius is for you. Many of the churches have bell towers that can be climbed to give you the most striking rooftop views of the city. Gorgeous church spires, red tiled roofs all surrounded by the rolling hills of the countryside. There are two natural panoramic viewing points within the old town centre but they require a bit of a climb.
Best tourist attractions in Vilnius – Gediminas Castle Tower
The first is Gediminas Tower which is an old defense tower that is the last remaining piece of the castle of Vilnius. It is located just off the old town square. Legend has it that the city of Vilnius first began with a castle on the hill. A castle was built on the hill in late 13th century – early 14th century with the main purpose to defend the city from enemies after Grand Duke Gediminas dreamt of a howling iron wolf which he interpreted as an unconquerable capital city.
A tall defensive brick wall with three towers and a Gothic palace was rebuilt on the top of the hill after the original wooden structure was burnt down. It offers a magnificent view to the city, the surrounding parks and the beautiful wooded hills surrounding the city.
The Hill of Three Crosses
The second is the hill of three crosses monument which is spectacular looking over the entire city. The trio of monuments there today were erected in 1989, replacing the three destroyed by the Soviets in 1950, the concrete remains of which can be seen, torn and twisted, beside the path up. Crosses of some design are believed to have occupied the crest of the hill since the early 17th century, marking the spot, according to legend, where seven Franciscan friars were beheaded. Unfortunately because of my Lyme disease I didn’t have the strength to make the climb so I can only image that the views over the old town would be breathtaking.
Enjoy the pub scene in Vilnius
The pub scene in Vilnius is vibrant and, whatever your vibe, there is plenty to choose from. Whether it’s a cosy pub with home brewed beer that you can stay in all day and drink pints like Busi Trečias , a champagne only bar or a hip cocktail bar like Alchemikas or Distilerija.
There are also a few hidden speakeasies around Vilnius and if you ask some of the more serious bar tenders they will point you in their direction. Without a doubt our favourite was Lokstauk. The minute you enter it all your senses will be heightened. Think industrial vibes, urban leather bar stools, mood-setting musty incense burning and the most unusual cocktail menu you will ever see. Prices here are a good bit more than your €2 pint but it is so worth it for the experience. Our cocktails came on a tray of grass with it’s own incense burning buddha! They were nearly too pretty to drink. Nearly!
Užupis – a country within a city
Užupis is its own self declared Republic within the city of Vilnius often compared to the Montmarte region of Paris. In 1997, the residents of the area declared the Republic of Užupis, along with its own flag, currency, president, cabinet of ministers, a constitution written by Romas Lileikis and Thomas Chepaitis, an anthem and an army (numbering 11 men!).
The locals celebrate this independence annually on Užupis Day, which falls on April 1st. We even got our passports stamped here, albeit in a pub! It was the most surreal experience but the best thing about it is the constitution they follow, which can be seen below in the mirrored panels on the wall in every language you can fathom. Some of my favourites include:
- Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat.
- A dog has the right to be a dog
- Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance
- Everyone has the right to be idle
- Everyone has the right to have no rights
- Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies
- A cat is not obliged to love its owner but must help in time of need
This area is awash with trendy shops, bars and restaurants. We had the best pizza here but if you are looking for something a little fancier be sure to check out Sweet Root which focuses on home grown (many of their ingredients are grown in their own garden) locally sourced products. Also in the summer sitting outdoors at the riverside bar Užupio Kavinė (which incidently is the local barliment …not a typo…and where we got our passport stamped!). Sitting there and just people watching is a must.
Get lost and wander the streets of Vilnius
One of our favourite things to do in a city is throw away the map and just wander. The streets in Vilnius old town, which are Unesco-protected, are a cobbled labyrinth of parks, squares, bars, cafes and restaurants. You can’t really get lost lost in Vilnius as everything interconnects and you somehow always end up where you wanted to go.
We walked everywhere in Vilnius. The only time we needed a taxi was to go to the Alt J gig that we had tickets for. Travellers tip: on the way out we asked a local restaurant to call a taxi for us and it cost us €3.50, on the way back we hailed a cab and the same journey cost us €28! Ok we may have asked him to stop at a McDonald’s on the way home to feed our drunken hunger but still! The trick is to call a taxi and not hail one from the street.
Act like a kid for the day at the Illusion Museum
We were in Vilnius for a week and our favourite day in the city was the day before we left. We had done all of our sight seeing and shopping and were at a bit of a loss how to spend our day. We wanted something fun to do, so we visited the Illusion Museum. They say laughter is the best medicine and this was so much fun. Sometimes it is enjoyable to just act like a kid for the day.
Vilnius still bears its scars – visit the Museum of Genocide Victims
The Museum of Genocide Victims is a grim but important visit. As well as dealing with the systematic murder of Jews by the Nazis, it studies the brutal treatment of the nation by the Soviets during both the war and subsequent occupation.
Housed in the former KGB building, the museum retains in its basement the prison used by the Russian secret service, as well as the original execution chamber, where bullet holes still scar the walls.
It was a truly sobering experience and myself and Mister Lavin could barely speak to each other after it.
Despite this, the Lithuanians are a proud culture and do not harbour a victim mentality. It’s pride is warming and despite its turbulent history Lithuanians are proud of the independence they achieved in 1990, being the first Soviet republic to do so. It was so heart warming to see the flags hung so proudly and at night see the buildings light up in red, yellow and green.
Best day trips from Vilnius
Trakai Island Castle
No trip to Vilnius is complete without visiting the castle in Trakai. As mentioned earlier train tickets are extremely cheap and the journey takes about 45 minutes. We visited in the winter and the lakes had completely frozen over so I would love to go back and visit in the summer time when I imagine that it would look completely different.
You will get some gorgeous photos here. Vibrant colourful cabins line the streets and the castle itself, situated on its own island, is simply breathtaking. We stopped for a bite to eat in a fabulous Georgian restaurant called Argo which overlooks the lake. It was my first time eating Georgian food and it was yum! They even barbecued our meat out in the snow.
Trakai is well known for its unique lakes and the medieval castle complex that was revived from its ruins in the last century. During the years of formation of the Lithuanian state, Trakai was one of the most important political and military cities.
The Castle was built during the 14th and 15th centuries on one of many islands of Lake Galvė with an excellent strategic location as it is surrounded by water on all sides. The Castle was initially constructed by Grand Duke Kęstutis of Lithuania and finished by his son Vytautas.
In 1409, Vytautas the Great made Trakai the capital of Lithuania and moved the state treasury and the Metrics of Lithuania there. For a long time, the majestic stone castle decorated with red bricks served as a royal residence for the Grand Dukes of Lithuania as well as being a cultural centre of attraction. Vytautas the Great died there on 27 October 1430. It was considered a masterpiece of medieval defensive architecture, and it was the only castle built on water in Eastern Europe.
How to get to Trakai Island Castle from Vilnius
Plenty of buses and trains run between and Trakai every day, both of them taking about 40 minutes to make the journey. To get there by bus find your way to Vilnius Bus Station (Sodų St. 22 ). The best place to buy the ticket is in the ticket office, not the driver. It usually costs around €2. To get to Trakai Island Castle find platforms No. 6, 7, 8 (local), 28 and 29 (intercity, via Alytus).
As mentioned previously we took the train and found this a really convenient way to get to Trakai Island Castle. You can find the train station at Geležinkelio St. 16. Once you get to Trakai it is about a 4km walk out to the castle but it is signposted and you will see some really picturesque sights along the way.
Hill of Crosses Lithuania
The Hill of Crosses, or Kryziu Kalnas in Lithuanian, is a collection of over 200,000 wooden crosses erected on a small hill in Šiauliai in Northern Lithuania. It is one of the most spectacular sights in the Lithuania and is one of the main tourist attractions and day trips from Vilnius.
The crosses are thought to have first started appearing after the 1831 uprising against Russian ruling. Relatives, with no bodies to bury, erected crosses and crucifixes on the hill. It is bizarely beautiful. The hill was knocked down twice during the most recent Russian occupation as religion was forbidden but Lithuanians continued to sneak to the hill and plant the crosses despite KGB agents continuously patrolling the area.
The religious importance of the site was made clear when Pope John Paul II visited in 1993 and declared it a place for hope, peace, love and sacrifice. He served mass on the hill and declared Lithuania the country of crosses.
How to get to the Hill of Crosses from Vilnius
The Hill of Crosses is located 12 km outside of the city of Siaulia. Siaulia is easily accessible by train and bus from Vilnius and makes the perfect day trip from the city. From Siaulia, it is a short taxi or bus ride to the Hill of Crosses or the journey can be made by bike or walking when the weather permits.
There are so many more reasons to love Vilnius and each one probably deserves its own blog post. If you have been or are planning to go let me know in the comments what you loved the most. And as always please share this post.
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Until next time you crazy kids!