From traditional cuisine to an artsy republic independent from the city, here are seven things to do when visiting Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city.
With a first-generation Lithuanian mother, I grew up knowing just about everything about this Baltic country without visiting firsthand. But in 2018, we knew this had to change. My family and I took a “roots” trip to Lithuania, stopping in Kaunas (my grandmother’s hometown) and Vilnius, where my grandpa spent his young-adult, pre-war years.
Walking through the streets of Old Town Vilnius was absolutely surreal; it’s like my grandparents’ stories turned from black-and-white to color. We saw the cathedral where my grandpa served as an organist and “my grandma’s” pastries that served as the sugary sustenance of my childhood. I just felt so at home.
That said, you don’t have to be Lithuanian to enjoy time in Vilnius. Here are seven of my favorite things anyone can do in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city.
1. Visit the Republic of Užupis
Užupis is an independent, free-spirited republic within the city of Vilnius. In 1997, residents of the area broke off from Vilnius with their own flag, currency, government, and constitution. This small segment within Lithuania’s capital is highly artistic, with peculiar sculptures (like an old piano) and galleries along the Vilnele River, which separates Užupis from the rest of town. If you’re so inclined, you can actually get your passport stamped at this independent republic!
2. Eat authentic pastries at Biržų duona
While in Užupis, make sure to stop by Biržų duona, a cute little bakery with authentic Lithuanian pastries. We stumbled in here to dodge the rain and warmed up with tasty cappuccinos and home-baked goods. My favorite—the skareles—are oh-so-reminiscent of my Lithuanian childhood. You must give them a try!
3. See the Gates of Dawn
This 15th century brick tower is one of the most historical landmarks in Lithuania. It’s the only remaining city gate, and home to a priceless icon, The Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy shrine in the chapel. Pope John Paul II actually prayed here in 1993!
4. Visit the Vilnius Cathedral
Located right off Cathedral Square, the Vilnius Cathedral is a beautifully ornate and historic church with frescoes and paintings dating back to the 16th centuries. We weren’t in time to attend service, but we did get to scope out the interior which is well worth the trip!
5. Drink beer at Bambalyne
Lithuanians take their booze seriously—I know, I grew up with beer-loving Lithuanian uncles. That’s why Bambalyne, a hole-in-the-wall beer pub in Vilnius, felt like a little slice of home. Just like my homebrewing uncle and brother, Bambalyne’s bartenders brought out a variety of rare bottles based on our beer preferences, then shared the story behind each brew. This basement bar is an absolute must for beer lovers visiting Vilnius; we actually visited twice!
6. Eat cold beet soup
I grew up on cold beet soup, a lightly creamy concoction with eggs, dill, sour cream, and, of course, beets. And when I say grew up on, I mean I actually grew up on it—I ate it constantly—so when we visited Lithuania I knew I’d have to find it at a restaurant (although no recipe beats my mom’s!).
Unfortunately, it was still too chilly for most restaurants to serve it, but we did find it on the menu in the more touristy area near the cathedral square.
7. Visit Trakai Castle
One of Lithuania’s most picturesque highlights is Trakai Castle, a stone island castle on Lake Galvė. Trakai, just 25 minutes driving from Vilnius, is a peaceful yet historic getaway from Lithuania’s capital city. It’s a former military center and headquarter to the country’s dukes. Today, visitors can stroll along the lake or visit the Trakai Castle museum, which houses art and artifacts from Lithuania’s past.
Vilnius is just one of the many cities to visit in the Baltics. For more Baltics fun, take a quick drive up to Latvia’s capital city, Riga, which was one of my favorite spots on our trip.