Sorry Vilnius, But I Didn’t Get You

Vilnius River View

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?

Streets of Old Town, Vilnius

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.

Vilnius Old Town

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.

 

Bohemian Vibes

Uzupis, Vilnius

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”.

Uzupis Constitution

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.

 

Unsung Spots

Nera River, Vilnius

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.

View from the Three Crosses, Vilnius

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

Church of St Anne Vilnius

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.

Vilnius Cathedral

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.

Neoclassical Church Vilnius

 

Final Thoughts

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.

Why Not Pin It for Later

Sorry Vilnius, But I Didn't Get You - My account of visiting the Lithuanian capital, via @travelsewhere

 


This post is part of Wanderful Wednesday at SnowinTromso and The Weekly Postcard over at Two Traveling Texans. Please head on over for more great posts.

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19 Comment

  1. I suppose there is something to be said for integrating new and old, but a city’s old town is generally one of my favorite areas to explore. Vilnius does look like quite a pretty city, even if it’s not your typical European city. And those churches are beautiful!

  2. I love those bohemian vibes, that’s something I always seem to love in a city 🙂

  3. Thanks for your honest thoughts on Vilnius. The Constitution you found in Užupis is an interesting read indeed!

  4. Even for a confusing city, it’s still beautiful 🙂 Uzupis looks like a fun place just to wonder around and take pictures. #wanderfulwednesday

  5. vanbrune says:

    I appreciate your honest thoughts on the city! I’ve already been to Riga myself and have seen lots of Tallin posts (which to be honest, usually don’t cover much more than the old town anyway) but Vilnius always seemed very intriguing and different to me. Seems I was right! I’d love to visit the city cause unconventional is totally right up my alley 🙂

  6. seniorswithlatitude says:

    I haven’t been to Vilnius, but I loved your honest assessment of it. Refreshing and intriguing at the same time.

  7. How interesting to read! I havent been there yet but would like to go, so it’s nice to know what to expect. I giggled at the constitution, especially about the dog and cat. That’s hilarious!

  8. Tomas says:

    I would like to visit Vilnius and its good to know a bit different opinion. Thank for it 🙂 #TheWeeklyPostcard

  9. Upeksha says:

    From the pictures it looks very beautiful. Following my visit to Estonia, I have been thinking about Latvia, Lithuania next, so this is a very interesting perspective on Vilnius. Thank you for sharing. #theweeklypostcard

    1. David says:

      I think visiting all three Baltic countries helps you appreciate how different they each other and what makes each special.

  10. I feel bad I have not even heard of Vinius! It looks like a really pretty city with an interesting city. I also wonder what the city was like when it was part of the USSR. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

  11. galanda23 says:

    Looks good enough for me, but I haven’t been there yet. I almost did go last summer, but changed my mind and went to Riga instead. So, do you think it’s worth a trip after all?

    1. David says:

      Honestly, I do think Vilnius is worth visiting. It has some interesting and beautiful spots and you can see how different it is to Riga.

  12. Wherejogoes says:

    Sometimes no matter how much there is to see in a city, it just doesn’t resonate. I think we all have been places where that happens. Vilnius looks like there is a lot to do and worth combining with a trip elsewhere in the region but if it doesn’t float your boat, it just doesn’t! #TheWeeklyPostcard

  13. Thank you for your honest review. I have pinned this so if I get a chance to visit this “unconventional” town I will not forget to visit the unsung spots you discovered! Cheers

  14. Esther says:

    Ah, basically I think that Vilnius is a Baltic city (which we Europeans don’t really see as European) and because of the constant power struggles throughout history (and still today) there was always a pull to the north, east and west. So maybe the expectation of seeing a European city wasn’t exaclty the right one. Having said that, I never got Barcelona (and I’ve visited 4 times now), some cities you just don’t click with!

  15. Kotryna says:

    Your insights on Užupis are actually quite true; I’d say the neighbourhood was gentrified way too early – it’s now one of the more expensive places to live and, speaking of culture/bohemia there are just a couple of galleries by the river and the constitution.
    I presume you didn’t have time to explore Naujamiestis/Newtown which is from my point of view the most bohemian spot atm. Maybe you have?
    Anyhow, looking forward to a blog post about Kaunas!

  16. Huh, definitely an interesting perspective! I like how the city surprised you, but it seems like you definitely enjoyed it in the end 🙂

  17. VICTORIA says:

    I have been to Estonia and Latvia but not to Lithuania. Having grown up in the USSR I would love to visit. We always thought of the Baltic republics as “western” and different. Looks beautiful in the pictures.

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