The 8 Best things to do in Vilnius, the Underdog of the Baltics
After Tallinn and Riga, the next and final destination of our rapid tour of the Baltic States had us heading to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. We weren’t quite sure what to expect of Vilnius, neither had we done much research about it.
Out of the three Baltic capitals, it seemed like Vilnius was the least well-known. Given that, we were looking forward to checking out the “underdog” of the Baltics. It turns out that we aren’t quite sure why more people don’t make it to Vilnius. It’s the perfect place for a weekend away or a mini break within Europe.
Vilnius is quite different from Tallinn, with its beautiful looking old town, and Riga, with its Art Nouveau architecture and student-city vibe. Vilnius feels edgier but never fear, it is actually a very safe city to visit. Its edginess makes Vilnius a city worth exploring, as does its fascinating history.
The city is lively, it’s hip, it’s arty, and it’s a little bit random! Vilnius is not only about looking pretty. It’s about having fun, being a bit different, appreciating art and creating great vibes. Vilnius’ street art scene is booming and it has an awesome nightlife, with plenty of trendy bars and lots of good local beers to taste.
So, if you’re looking for a place to go for your next European getaway, give Vilnius a try. Here are 8 of the best things to do in Lithuania’s capital:
1 – Marvel at Vilnius’ Old Town
Like Tallinn and Riga, Vilnius has an Old Town and one of the best things to do in Vilnius is to slowly explore it. Wander around the cobblestone streets, check out its architecture and admire its pastel-shaded buildings. Don’t miss the Town Hall Square, Cathedral Square, the buzzing Pilies Street and the Gate of Dawn.
Unfortunately, Vilnius’ Old Town has had a rough time over the years. Quite a fair bit of it was destroyed during WWII. Afterwards, a lot of old buildings were replaced by some pretty horrid Soviet-style architecture during the Soviet occupation. It’s a real shame but it’s nice that some original buildings remain. As Vilnius is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, hopefully, it will stay like this for a long time.
Tip: Every day at 10 am you can take a free walking tour around the Old Town with Vilnius With Locals. We found the tour very interesting. It gave us a good insight into the city, its history and what we should be doing during our visit. The tour lasts two and a half hours and afterwards, you can pick and choose which part of town you want to spend more time in. Don’t forget to tip your guide at the end!
2 – Visit the Republic of Užupis
Did you know that within Vilnius you will find another self-proclaimed independent republic? It’s called the Republic of Užupis. Užupis used to be the dodgiest part of town, so much so that travellers were told to avoid it.
But that all changed in 1997 when a group of artists and bohemians moved in and proclaimed it their own Republic. The Republic of Užupis is now the hippest (and priciest) part of town. Most people in Vilnius dream of living there.
The Republic of Užupis is one of a kind. It has its own weird and funny constitution which you can read on plaques along its main street. The constitution has been translated into many languages. The republic also has its very own president and a parliament, the local pub! They even celebrate their own independence day, every year, on the first of April! 🙂
Užupis is indeed a very nice place to hang out, so DO NOT miss it! Check out the art galleries, wander its old streets, sit at a coffee shop or a bar and enjoy a little people watching.
If you bring your passport with you, you can even get it stamped with the Užupis stamp at the Užupis Information Centre and Post Office.
3 – Check out Vilnius’ street art scene
The street art scene is growing all over the world and Vilnius is no exception. There are pieces of street art dotted all over the city, but if you’d like the best of the best, head to Pylimo Street, Olimpieciu street, Užupis and the industrial district of Naujamiestis.
The famous mural of Trump and Putin kissing (revamped with them smoking a joint together after being vandalised) is found on Pylimo Street. This one is Instagram famous and is Vilnius’ best place for a selfie!
If you want to see some of Vilnius’ hidden street art pieces, take the free “alternative” walking tour which will take you to parts of Vilnius that you might not have otherwise found. One of these areas, Naujamiestis, is an industrial complex which has become the venue for an annual street art festival.
4 – Enjoy nature
Vilnius is surrounded by wide open spaces. That makes it feel much more like a small town than a capital city. Head to the massive Vingis Park or the closer Kalny Park to unwind and relax after a long morning spent exploring the town. In summer, these parks are packed with locals sunbathing, picnicking or walking their dogs.
The Vilnia River divides the Old Town from Užupis and is another nice, quiet part of town. If you are up for it, you can even hire kayaks and slowly make your way down the river.
5 – Check out the viewpoints
There are a few places in town where you can check out Vilnius from above. We recommend a short hike to the Hill of Three Crosses. The view of the city with its red roofs and green foliage is stunning from up there. It’s apparently especially nice around dusk but we didn’t make it at that time, preferring to enjoy our sundowners by the river!
You can also get great views from the Cathedral Bell Tower, the Campanille of St John’s Church or the Gediminas Tower. However, the latter is currently (as of 2019) undergoing renovations and one side of it is a construction zone. Not ideal!
If you have a few Euros to spare and aren’t scared of heights, Vilnius offers incredible Hot Air Balloon rides over the city. You are guaranteed the best photos, as well as a great story to tell back home.
6- Take a day trip from Vilnius
The Trakai castle is only thirty minutes out of Vilnius and easily reachable by bus or train. It’s easy enough to spend half a day there, exploring its medieval castle complex, located right in the middle of Lake Galvė on one of its many islands. If you visit on a nice day, you can hire pedal boats and head out on the lake.
The Hill of Crosses
The Hill of Crosses is one of the weirdest places we’ve visited. Visiting on a rather gloomy and overcast day, it was particularly creepy as well. This hill has so many crosses on it that it is impossible to know just how many there are. It’s estimated that there are between 100,000 to 300,000 of them! It’s especially difficult to count them because people keep adding more and more.
Why are there so many crosses? Well, no-one is really sure. There is a legend that a man saw the Virgin Mary appear there, who told him that planting a cross on the hill would give Lithuania its freedom. During the Soviet occupation, the crosses were removed and destroyed by the Soviets five times, only to be replaced each time in the middle of the night by the Lithuanians. In the end, the Soviets gave up and allowed them to remain.
You can get to the Hill of Crosses by taking a train to Šiauliai and then a bus from the Šiauliai station. You can also book a day trip that will take you there. Alternatively, if you are coming from Riga, hop on a Traveller Tours and Day Trips sightseeing bus and they’ll stop there on the way. You’ll kill two birds with one stone! Hopefully, you’ll get Beatrice as your tour guide, she is awesome!
7- Drink Lithuanian beer!
Lithuanians are very proud of their local beers and there is certainly no shortage of beers in Vilnius. Although not as cheap as it used to be before the Euro, beers are still relatively cheap compared to the rest of Europe. There are many cool bars and pubs around town where you can try out different types of beer. Be sure to try the Varniukų beer and of course, try the traditional local mead.
8- Taste traditional Lithuanian food
Make sure to taste some traditional Lithuanian cuisine while in Vilnius. It mostly consists of potatoes, meat, dairy, and dill. All of them are combined to create some really hearty meals. Cepelinai, Kepta Duona (fried bread), potato pancakes and fried Curd Cakes are some of their favourites. In summer, try the bright pink cold beetroot soup.
Where should you stay in Vilnius?
We stayed in an Airbnb right at the entrance of the Republic of Užupis. However, there are many hotels and hostels around town to choose from.
Here are some of the best hotels on booking.com:
Highly rated: The Secret Garden Boutique B&B
Best location: Very Vilnius Pilies street
Great value: Vintage Vilnius B&B
If none of these take you fancy, try using hotelscombined.com to search across all of the top hotel sites using the search box below. We use it all the time.
Where to eat in Vilnius?
The Open Kitchen
Every Friday and Saturday in the summer months (from April to September), you will find the Open Kitchen by the side of the river. This is actually a bunch of stalls and food trucks selling food from all over the world. It’s not just traditional food and it is a little pricier than other places but it has a nice atmosphere. Of course, they also have beer stalls to accompany your food.
Cozy has an unpretentious and relaxed atmosphere, great food and friendly staff; everything we like! There is also some good people watching to be had if you sit outside on the small terrace at the front. You may see some pretty interesting people passing by!
Sweet Root is one of the most highly rated restaurants in the city. The interior is minimalist but the food is outstanding. You can choose between a la carte or a seven-course tasting menu that includes a welcome drink and coffee. It’s only open for dinner.
These bars/pubs (there are three in town) serve traditional Lithuanian food and tasty beers from small local breweries. Prices are very cheap and the food portions are huge.
This is a popular place in Užupis, packed with locals who come to discuss the Užupis constitution, a short walk away. The pizzas are good and it has a nice outdoor area to watch the world go by in the summer.
How to get to Vilnius?
It is now even easier to get to Vilnius by plane. A few European cities now fly direct to Vilnius international airport.
If like us, you’re embarking on a tour of the three Baltic States, you can easily reach Vilnius by bus. Vilnius is only 4 hours from Riga by bus. LuxExpress is a good company to use. They have toilets on board, free coffee and comfortable seats. They also offer in-seat entertainment, just like on an aeroplane!
By sightseeing bus
If you want to sightsee at the same time as transferring to Vilnius, we recommend using Traveller Tours and Day Trips sightseeing tours. They run tours between Tallinn and Riga or Riga and Vilnius, in both directions. The transfer takes a whole day but you stop often to do sightseeing along the way. We used them between Riga and Vilnius and it was great to be able to explore more places in Lithuania along the way, such as the Hill of Crosses and Kaunas.