Before I start, let me say that it’s not that I didn’t like my first visit to Lithuania’s capital. It’s very much an interesting city, with plenty of historical attractions and quite a youthful atmosphere. With that said, I struggled to get my head around it. As a European city, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Perhaps I just didn’t get it. The old “it’s not you, it’s me” shtick.
At this point, I’ve travelled to my fair share of European cities. I don’t say this to be boastful. I say it because many European cities have a convention to them, a lay out and atmosphere that you can easily identify. I think I’m pretty familiar with the convention by now. Vilnius however doesn’t feel like it follows any of the normal rules. Words like unconventional and unorthodox spring to mind. Maybe that in itself is a good reason to visit.
So, what kind of things didn’t make sense to me?
Where is the Old Town exactly?
I may as well start with the city’s Old Town. A good majority of European cities have a historical centre that the city has grown about as time has passed. It’s usually pretty easy to tell if you’re in the old town or not. And yet, in Vilnius I often couldn’t tell. I don’t mean just by the architecture and whether things looked “old”. It was as if the areas of the old town would just bleed into what felt like other districts. This was probably clearest to me when I suddenly found myself outside the old town walls, as if they had sprung up out of the ground behind me.
Likely a big part of my confusion was that I didn’t realise just how large the area of the Old Town was. As it turns out, the Old Town covers a vast portion of the centre of Vilnius and is actually one of the largest surviving in Europe from the medieval period. With such a large footprint, the addition of new buildings over the years has created pockets that still feel old, but they’re scattered across the Old Town. This makes it hard to tell whether you truly are still in the old town or not.
Another aspect of the city that perplexed me a little was the neighbourhood of Užupis. This neighbourhood across the Vilnia River is known as the city’s bohemian heart, even going so far as to declare itself an independent republic. I’d read of Užupis a couple of times before, with people saying it was definitely worth visiting for its quirky, alternative vibe.
Perhaps I built it up in my head, but I found it far more normal and residential than I was expecting. Sure there were parts that lived up to the artistic, bohemian nature of the place and the Constitution translated across multiple plaques is a fun, but thought-provoking read. The Constitution, by the way, includes such rights as “A dog has the right to be a dog”, “Everyone has the right to be unique” and “Everyone has the right to understand nothing”.
And yet for the most part, like walking through the streets, even grabbing a coffee, I wouldn’t have known the neighbourhood’s reputation from looking. Again, maybe I just didn’t “get it”. But what’s more, walking around across the river in the part of the Senamiestis (Old Town) area closer to the train station, I found backstreets that had far more of the alternative atmosphere I had been expecting to find in Užupis.
The city also feels like it is full of unsung spots; places that deserve far more attention than they get. For starters there’s the banks of the Neris River that flows on the north border of the Old Town area. As I was staying on the far side of the river, I crossed it multiple times a day and thought it was actually quite a beautiful spot.
I can’t think of many spots that I came across in Vilnius that were better to watch the sunset from. But somehow, aside from the semi-frequent joggers and cyclists, and a single small cafe/bar, it felt neglected. While the parks inside the Old Town were lively with people, this large outdoor space a stone’s throw away was quiet.
The same goes for the lookout point by the Three Crosses monument in Kalnai Park. Across the river from Old Town, a fantastic green space surrounds this hilltop, which happens to have fantastic views out over the city. Sure it’s a climb, but the views are worth it. And again, it’s basically empty. While throngs of people make their way up the hill to Gediminas Tower, I think the view pales in comparison. Plus from the Three Crosses, you get to see the tower itself amongst the city skyline.
Landmarks and Churches
Still, the city does have your expected tourist landmarks to see, from the above mentioned Gediminas Tower, to Vilnius Cathedral, the striking St Anne’s Church and the attractive Gate of Dawn. In fact many of the major landmarks of the city are churches, as Lithuania is quite a religious country, predominantly Roman Catholic. But speaking of the churches does raise another curiosity I came across.
Except for the churches listed above, most of the churches I saw in Vilnius were vastly different in design to any others I had seen in that half of Europe. Honestly, their appearance actually reminded me more of the colonial churches found in Central/South America than anything else. Probably it’s because many of the churches were built in the same Neoclassical style as the ones in the Americas, but still, it does make for another disorienting aspect.
I imagine, some or maybe a lot of the above stems from the city’s history as a part of the USSR and prior conflicts. Lithuania has only had independence since 1990 and has been making big strides the last 10 or so years to capture tourists’ attention. While it’s unconventional ways could be a deterrent, the fact that it offer something different is a pretty compelling hook too.
Again, just because I maybe didn’t “get it”, doesn’t mean I didn’t like Vilnius. It’s just it remains an enigma to me, and likely one to which I’ll have to go back in order to solve. I know this wasn’t much of a guide to the city, but hopefully it gives you some insight into what Vilnius is like and inspires you to visit and make up your own mind.
Have you visited Vilnius before? What were your thoughts on the city? Please share in the comments below.
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