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Why Vilnius is the best city in Eastern Europe
We got to Vilnius in the late afternoon and the sun was still lovely and warm. The city, on first impressions, looked beautiful and the taxi ride to the hotel offered glimpses of little pretty side streets, huge cathedrals and leafy squares bordered by restaurant and cafe terraces. We found our hotel, the fantastic Artagonist Art Hotel, in the heart of the old town on the popular Pilies Street. At reception we were greeted with a warm smile and given plenty of helpful information about the city and how to get around, before taking the glass lift up to the rooms. This eccentric Art Hotel, where old meets new, is cleverly designed to blend its reconstructed 16th Century features, with the latest in modern decor and technology. Murals and sculptures by local Lithuanian artists adorn the spacious, white-walled rooms throughout the building, creating a truly unique space and no two bedrooms are the same. Breakfast is served in a bright and airy, cavern-like basement, where super friendly staff can provide you with a cooked breakfast or help yourself to the vast array of fresh produce from the buffet. We were delighted that this would be our home for the next three days, knowing we’ll be well rested and very well looked after by the staff.
Vilnius can be explored easily on foot and there are plenty of city bikes to rent. We opted for the Vilnius City Card which gives you 24 or 72 hours free on all public transport and free or discounted entries into museums and Vilnius City Tours. This is a great option if you want to see absolutely everything Vilnius has to offer, from the old town to the modern skyscrapers in the central business district.
Our first item on our list was to head to the White Bridge on the Neris River as we had heard on the grapevine that a brand new boat trip had started to operate in recent days which involved a real Viking ship. That was enough to intrigue us and we were delighted to find how authentic the ship and the Viking crew were. This is a must-do in Vilnius and an experience you’ll never forget. Not only is it a lovely journey down the river itself but you’ll also be entertained and enlightened by the Vikings on board who treat you to a drink of traditional ‘Gira’ (tasty, filling and non-alcoholic) and they will have you shouting and singing as if you’re channeling Odin himself! You may be asked to row for your life when the raiders attack (unsuspecting passersby on the banks of the river!) but you will be rewarded with an extra large tankard of Gira and a blessing. It’s great fun for all the family and don’t worry there are life jackets on board for Vikings, big and small.
The Republic of Užupis
After the boat trip we strolled through the old town and soaked in the stunning architecture, before heading to the independent Republic of Užupis. This quirky, bohemian neighbourhood was borne out of the long awaited independence of Lithuania from the Soviet Union. At one time, a neglected, run-down part of the city, it became home to intellectuals and artists who wanted to create a representation of democratic and cultural freedom. It now has its own constitution, a national flag and a 12-man army! The constitution, found on the wall near the entrance just over the river Vilnia, declares citizens’ rights from the tongue-in-cheek “Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday” to the more serious “Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof”. Everywhere you look there is street art and you will find artisans who are happy to demonstrate their craft and teach you their skills. We just had to try out blacksmithing and it was well worth it – Neil might even consider it as a career move!
Best pizza in town
Near the constitution in a lively square you will find Užupio Picerija. This place is perfect for lunch or dinner, sitting outside with a cold beer or a glass of wine while you wait for your delicious and fresh stone-baked pizza – bellissimo! You can also sit inside and watch pizza making at its finest beside the traditional wood-fired oven – either way you’re in for a treat.
If you’re after something really unusual for dinner instead then head to Ertlio Namas, only a ten-minute walk away. Here you will take a culinary journey back in time and try staples from the 15th to the 18th Century. Nouveau style is applied to historic, ethnic dishes like snail caviar in hemp oil with black bread crumble made to a medieval recipe that you will be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world! Each dish is accompanied by a fascinating food history lesson from your server and their knowledge of culinary history is second to none. Their expertise doesn’t stop there, you can fully rely on them to pair your dishes with a range of fine wines. We were really pleasantly surprised by the whole experience here and got to try unique and tasty dishes we never thought we’d eat.
Seeing the sites
The next day we took advantage of our Vilnius City Card and found the Vilnius City Tour bus. We spent the best part of the day hopping on and off discovering museums and the many beautiful classical and Gothic cathedrals dotted around the city. The jaw-dropping sight of the biggest attraction in Vilnius by far is Vilnius Cathedral and it’s bell tower located in Cathedral Square, which you won’t miss as it is the heart of the old town. The climb to the top of the Belfry is a little daunting but worth it because the views are stunning. We jumped out of our skins when the bells rang beside us at the top – just be prepared for that and hold onto something! Right beside the Belfry we joined a guided walking tour (free with the City Card) which starts from there at 11a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. The guides, who are locals, are entertaining and extremely knowledgeable about Vilnius’ sights and will take you to a few hidden gems – a couple of hours well spent.
After taking in all that culture and history we went looking for something different. We couldn’t resist the Museum of Illusions. This exciting, interactive museum is fun for all ages and it was easy to spend over an hour in here getting our minds boggled! It’s located near the Town Hall Square and is only €10 per person with free entry for kids under seven – great value for money.
For our last evening in Vilnius we headed for Gediminas' Tower to watch the sun set. The Tower itself has a museum inside worth exploring filled with medieval artefacts and scenes from daily castle life and the view from the ramparts is stunning, particularly at sunset. Bring your camera and your selfie-stick for some truly memorable shots! You’ll be able to see every part of the city with its classic red-tiled roofs and floating above them, way up in the sky, the sight-seeing hot air balloons – we’ll definitely be coming back to do that!
Lithuania certainly wasn’t on our radar as a holiday destination before but having spent a couple of days in Vilnius we will definitely be back to enjoy the city again and perhaps explore a little of the countryside. The people are so welcoming and the relaxed, chilled-out vibe makes for a great city break with plenty to see and do and eat and drink.