A Quick Visit to Vilnius, Lithuania
Our visit to the Baltic States was a new adventure, as we had very little knowledge of the history and what to expect. Our last stop of our Baltic State tour was to Vilnius, which is also the capital of Lithuania. As we only had one full day to explore, we picked up a Vilnius City Card to utilize the public transport to get to each place quickly. To start off, we resorted to a good ol’ free walking tour to see as many sites as we could in a short amount of time. The city card actually includes a free tour of its own, but the day we were visiting, the tour wasn’t in English, so we unfortunately couldn’t take advantage of that feature. We picked up our Vilnius Card at the Tourist Information Center located inside the Town Hall building. This was also the location to meet up for the free walking tour.
One of the first things we learned was that George Bush was the first American president to visit Vilnius when welcoming them to NATO. We learned that this visit was shortly after 9/11 in which Bush visited a lot of the Baltic and Balkan areas, which is safe to assume, trying to gather as many allies as possible. The Lithuanians were so ecstatic that an American President would choose to visit their country that they commemorated a plaque right in front of their town hall building in the center of town that reads “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of The United States of America.”
The first stop on our tour was to the independent area of the Republic of Užupis. The residents of this area declared this area their own sovereign country. Uzupis means “behind the river” and this “country” has its own anthem, constitution, currency, and president. At one point the area was considered a very seedy and dangerous area to live but nowadays its home to a community of artists and houses many of the art galleries in Vilnius.
After ’91 when Lithuania gained independence from the Soviets, artists took advantage of the low cost of living, and spruced it up with outdoor art installations and became a place for the creative community. As has happened in practically every “cool” arts district back in the US, it’s now become a very hip area to live, where rent and cost of living is getting very expensive, and is pushing out those very artists that made it desirable to live in that area in the first place! Gentrification is a problem happening everywhere else in the world it seems.
One of the pieces displayed by the river – touted as the original nomad/backpacker – Jesus Christ. Very appropriate as one of the girls in our tour group had her backpack on and basically looked like the piece of artwork.
Old Town Vilius is known to have the most churches per resident. There are a total of 28 churches in the Old Town and it has once been counted there was one church per 700 residents. There are various styles throughout Old Town Vilnius including Gothic, Neo-Classical, Baroque, Neo-Byzantine, and probably many more. Our tour continued to one of the most famous churches in Vilnius, St. Anne’s Church. Our tour guide told us that there’s a legend about how Napoleon and his troops stopped by Vilnius on his way home from war and took refuge with his soldiers in this church. He was so in love with the church that he wanted to carry the church home to Paris “in the palm of his hand”.
Our tour ended right outside Vilnius Cathedral.
A small walk further past the Cathedral housed the Palace of the Grand Dukes with a really awesome looking statue right in front.
A major attraction that we visited after the walking tour was the Museum of Genocide Victims, where admission is included with the Vilnius card. The museum showcased many human rights abuse that occurred during the soviet occupation in Lithuania.
The museum is located in a former KGB building so it showcased the prison cells located in the cellar of the building. A quick staircase below leads to a long corridor of prison cells use to house prisoners by the KGB. The KGB would spy on potential enemies of the state and would arrest and interrogate these people deep below the building.
Vilnius city also hosts an Energy and Technology Museum. It’s an old industrial coal powered machinery plant that has been converted to a museum.
It displayed some really old steam turbines and power generators that you can actually walk inside to see all the working pieces.
The museum also had a automotive section which had some classic vehicles that drove through the streets of Vilnius during the era when the plant was operational. It really makes you appreciate how far we’ve come in both technology of power and transportation.
We finished off our tour of Vilnius right outside the Museum of Energy and Technology with an amazing view of Gediminas’ Tower. The tower is the only remaining building of Vilnius castle. It is a symbol of Lithuania and was also the first location they raised the Lithuanian flag back in 1919. We didn’t have time to visit during our trip, but even seeing it from a distance was great, as you can tell how well maintained it is.
The capital city of Lithuania, Vilnius is rich in history and culture. We had an amazing time exploring the city and taking in all the sights and sounds of Old Town Vilnius. With so many churches to visit, restaurants to eat at, and shops to browse, there is definitely something for everyone. Having the Vilnius card was really convenient as it gave us access to most of the popular attractions of the city and also made it easy to travel to each of them because of the included transportation pass. Of all the Baltic states we visited, we’d have to say Vilnius was probably our favorite.