How to Experience the City of Vilnius
In collaboration with our friends at Jetset Times who carry our line of bags and offer it to their globetrotting jet-setting wander-lusting community, we promised to write an article about our beloved city of Vilnius and the places we love to visit there. And though I fully intended to do the usual list of “five places to visit”, it sort of took the life of its own and transformed into a guided tour, laying the yellow brick path for you to enter and experience the city. So there goes:
Arrive by train. The train station is all modernized, and yet there is an undeniable residual soviet vibe, just in the way that the announcer lady gives you her update with slightly too much diction. And then, for contrast, there’s Tony Soprano greeting you at the entrance to a trendy pub which you can enter straight from the rails. If you find this juxtaposition interesting, you should definitely take a tour of the surrounding area: there is a surrealistic mix of utter shabbiness, 100 year old wooden houses and modern hipster artefacts. And you will find a new fashionable bar each time you go there. Often around the most unexpected corners.
Continuing your explorations forget the taxi and jump into a trolleybus. And not the modern air conditioned red one, let that one go by and wait for an old green one. Don’t worry, it will soon come. There you can enjoy the cacophony of sounds (dub step might have been invented here), a nice breeze that seems to come from out of nowhere and, most importantly, get to practice your balance. If you can ride the trolleybus without holding on to a railing, you are ready for the next challenge –
The stand-up paddle board. Rent them and take the river tour. Neris is the second longest river in Lithuania and is just so happens to stretch across the middle of Vilnius. You can get a full overview of the city with glass skyscrapers on one side and the old town and a medieval castle on the other. It’s a workout as well as meditation, but most importantly it is a completely different way to see the city – you are in a busy city center, but you feel a little wild, standing there paddling in the water like a lost Viking.
Upon reaching the white bridge, the quay (and your Viking adventure) ends, and your walking tour to the old town starts. First, take a dash to the right and feast your eyes on the 100 year old prison. Yes, you heard that right, there is an impressive, historic, yet fully working prison in the middle of the city. With an even more impressive private church behind its walls (and you thought your country takes corrections seriously).
Keeping up the somber mood visit the KGB museum just across the park. The Museum is set up in the former KGB headquarters where soviet crimes were planned and committed over the course of fifty years. It has been preserved in the way the soviet security men left it when they moved out of it in 1991 and you can walk the basement, the cells and even the execution chamber. Yes, it’s gloomy, but that’s history, people.
To shake it off, walk the length of the Gediminas street. It will take you out of the soviet times and back to modern Europe. It is the main street and the liveliest one, there you will get the vibe of the city and feel the pace of life.
When you reach the Cathedral, behold the castle atop of the hill. Read about it in the tourist manual and, most likely, decide you are not up for the climb at the moment. Keep calm and carry on into the garden. The Bernardinai garden, like most of secret gardens, is not to be described, but to be felt. Preferably by having a picnic lunch on the grass.
And then – into the old town! Now tuck the map away and allow yourself to get lost in the labyrinth of romantic little streets. Things to keep an eye out for: stop at “Mint Vinetu” for some old books, vinyl records and mint tea; take a moment to inspect the wall decorated with literature (you’ll know it when you see it); and play a game of checkers while looking over the presidents backyard (this you will not stumble upon as it is hard to find it even when you do look for it, so ask the locals for directions).
At one point or another you will certainly find yourself at a bridge into the Republic of Užupis. Have a seat at the café that hangs above the river, get yourself a beer and get acquainted with the local constitution.
To end the day – opt for cinema. If you are lucky enough to visit in the summer, go for cinema under the stars. If not, visit the retro cinema “Pasaka”.
Since you obviously planned to have your day end at 4 in the morning, searching for your ho(s)tel through the mist of a beer buzz, close the full circle and go back to the white bridge, where the house of beer (the actual name) lives and prospers. Try the Lithuanian beers from small local breweries. You will never want a Heineken again.
Other things to consider –
An air balloon ride (flight?) over the city. Highly depends on the weather;
Going up the TV tower for some overpriced wine with a (spinning) 360 degree view;
A visit to Trakai to see a very proper medieval castle and try the local food that they still don’t have a proper English name for.