Where: Vilnius (capital city), Lithuania
When: February 2013
Why? In February 2013, on a break from teaching in South Korea, Jeff and I decided to travel through the three Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
We visited Poland twice in 2011 (we went to Krakow, Zakopane and Warsaw). We loved Poland and Eastern Europe, and so we wanted to see if the neighbouring countries were just as cool, friendly and great. Also, we want to visit every country in the world and this was a great way to see three countries very quickly. And we love vodka and meat and Eastern Europe.
We started our trip in Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania. We then visited Druskininkai – a forest and spa resort close to the Belorussian border; Kaunas, the second city of Lithuania, and then Siauliai for the Hill of Crosses. After visiting Lithuania, we went to Riga and Sigulda in Latvia, then we ended our trip at Tallinn in Estonia. The whole trip took us just under two weeks. My brother did a similar, capital city only trip, over a long four-day weekend.
Vilnius is a great, little capital city: it’s elegant and pretty, it has lots of interesting things to see, great bars and restaurants; but it’s also a really accessible and unpretentious city.
Like many Eastern European cities, we found Vilnius to be really friendly, relaxed and fun.
We had two days in Vilnius, one of which we spent recovering from our night out in Vilnius, so we only really spent one day exploring the city and I don’t think that was enough time. Vilnius is full of churches, museums and galleries, and we only saw a small amount of these on our explore.
Out of the three Baltic capitals we visited, Vilnius was by far the quietest and smallest, but there was still lots to see and do. I felt like Vilnius was an artist’s city and a thinker’s city. It was quiet and elegant, ornate and pretty – and a very nice place to be.
We flew from Luton to Vilnius in Lithuania with Ryan Air. The flights cost about £36 each and flight time was about 3 hours ish.
I can’t tell you much about the airport, as all we did was leave it; but you can find out more about the airport, it’s amenities and transport information at the airport website: www.vilnius-airport.lt.
To get from the airport to our hotel was really easy. We caught bus 2 from the bus stop outside the arrivals. This dropped us off just outside our hotel. We bought our tickets on board the bus from the driver.
Buses 1 and 2 run from the airport (Oro Uostas) to the central train station (Stotis). Bus 88 weaves through the centre of the city, past the cathedral and ends up in the new town on the far side of the river.
You can view timetables and maps (in English) at /stops.lt/vilnius/#vilnius/en.
Vilnius is such a compact city that we walked everywhere, even in the ice and snow.
However, there was a good bus and trolly-bus system for outlying areas. For more information visit www.vilniustransport.lt.
Vilnius to Trakai
To get to Trakai, we caught the bus from Vilnius Bus Station (located next to the central train station). The bus to Trakai cost us 6LT each way (about £1.50), and the journey took about 40 minutes. There is a bus station with a drinks machine and a toilet in Trakai. We bought our ticket at the bus station in Vilius and then on the bus on the way back.
There was a good, cheap left-luggage office at Vilnius bus station, and we left some bags in the lockers of a supermarket in Trakai so we didn’t have to carry them around town.
To find up to date bus times and ticket prices (in English), visit www.autobusubilietai.lt.
My brother visited Trakai earlier in the year and he caught the train there. This costs 5.80TL and also takes 40 minutes. You can get train times at www.litrail.lt.
Vilnius to Druskininkai
We caught the bus from Vilnius bus station to Druskininkai bus station. It cost us 32LT each (about £7.50) and took about two hours. The journey was mostly through unrelenting snowy forests, down ruler straight roads – but we did pass through some interesting wooden villages with totem poles outside.
To find up to date bus times and ticket prices (in English), visit www.autobusubilietai.lt.
What we did on our holiday
Explored Vilnius (UNESCO)
We had two days in Vilnius, though we spent one of those days recovering from the night before. We did, however, manage to see most of the key sites on our first day – just by roaming the city.
Vilnius has an elegant centre, with some nice squares, a tiny castle, gazillions of churches and lots of cool statues and stuff.
We started our explore of Vilnius at Gedimino Prospectus – the main shopping street. We went here to find lunch and wi-fi, so that we could find more information on where to visit in Vilnius (we weren’t very organised here).
After lunch, we headed to Cathedral Square, which is at the end of Gedimino Prospectus. Cathedral Square is in the heart of the city at the base of the castle mount. The Cathedral is a beautiful building, which from outside looks like a huge, white Greek temple, with great religious statues outside. Next to the cathedral is the separate bell tower and this looks like a lighthouse, which it may well have been as apparently ships used to sail into Cathedral Square and straight up to the doors of the cathedral.
Inside, the cathedral is very dark and very plain, but there are some beautiful chapels off the main apse. In the winter darkness, the pools of light from these candle lit chapels were inviting and warm. There was a feeling of serenity in the cathedral, but in the low winter light there was also a feeling of sadness and darkness, so we only stayed for ten minutes.
Apparently, outside the cathedral in the cathedral square there is a special paving slab – which if you stand on it you will have good luck. We couldn’t find it under the snow, but we did look for this as this paving slab played a significant role in the Baltic countries fight for independence from the Soviet Union, in an event which I am sad to say I had never even heard about before this visit: the Baltic Way.
In 1989, the people of the Baltic States linked hands across the whole three countries in a peaceful protest against being subject nations of the USSR. The hand-holding chain stretched 600km from Tallinn in Estonia, right the way down to Vilnius in Lithuania – and it ended at this paving slab outside of the cathedral. Before visiting Lithuania, I had never even heard about this amazing peaceful protest, which was remarkable and world changing – and I think everyone should know about it.
You can find out more about the Baltic Way (or The Baltic Chain of Freedom) at www.balticway.net.
After visiting the cathedral, we walked around the base of the castle hill, past the National Museum of Lithuania and the statue of King Mindaugas (the only King of Lithuania), over to the Nemrus River. We then walked through the museum buildings around the base of the castle hill until we came to the funicular – which we caught up to the top of the castle hill. It cost 3LT for an up and a down (75p), and 2LT for just an up or just a down (50p). We could have walked to the top, as this is only a little hill – but it was so snowy and icy that it didn’t look safe (and we were being lazy).
You can find opening times and up to date ticket prices for the funicular on the National Museum of Lithuania website.
At the top of the hill are the remains of Gediminas Upper Castle. This consists of a series of walls at one end of the hill, which we could look at but not go near, and Gediminas Tower. You can climb Gediminas Tower (5LT/£1.20) and inside on each floor are displays about the history of the castle, the liberation of Lithuania and a cool display about the Baltic Way.
From the roof of the tower there were amazing views over Vilnius. From here we could see the river, the new town, the cathedral, the old city and the Hill of the Three Crosses – which is in a park next door.
Whilst we were at the top of the tower we also saw a really strange gathering of birds. A murder of crows flew up and landed by us, then they all zoomed away together. It was spooky cool.
You can find information about visiting the upper castle, including opening times and ticket prices, at the Vilnius Tourist website.
The Vilnius Castle Complex was built between the 10th century and the 18th century. It used to be comprised of three castles: the Upper Castle, the Lower Castle and the Crooked Castle. The Crooked castle was burnt down by the Teutonic Knights and never rebuilt.
The Lower Castle is made up of the Cathedral and the Royal Palace. The Royal Palace was demolished in 1801 but was rebuilt in 2002 and ‘officially’ reopened in 2009. When we were there the building was closed and covered in scaffolding and there was some confusion over whether the reconstruction was actually complete or not. According to the website though, it is open and you can visit for 10TL per adult. www.valdovurumai.lt.
We then wandered down Pilies Gatve (or Piles of Gravy as we called it, though it actually means Castle Street), which is a very touristy street that runs from the castle into the old town, and we wandered through the old town to the Uzupis Republic.
The Uzupis Republic is a cool, artistic, bohemian part of town which has sort of declared itself independent. They have their own constitution and on April 1st, they man the borders with border guards. I think you have to pay with a hug to go in.
In Uzupis, we went to see the statue of the Angel of Uzupis and then we went to have a look at the constitution, which is hung on a wall near to the angel. These mirrored plates proclaim the constitution in a number of languages. The constitution is wonderful. It really makes you think about what it means to be a citizen and your rights as a human.
Here are some of my favourites:
- Everyone has the right to die, but it is not a duty.
- Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
- Everyone has the right to be not loved, but not necessarily.
- Everyone has the right to be idle.
- Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat.
- Everyone has the right to look after a dog till one or the other dies.
- A dog has the right to be a dog.
- A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times.
- Everyone has the right to sometimes be unaware of his duties.
- Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not a duty.
- No one has the right to violence.
- Everyone has the right to realize his negligibility and magnificence.
- Everyone has the right to encroach upon eternity.
- Everyone has the right to understand nothing.
- Everyone has the right to celebrate or not to celebrate his birthday.
- Everyone shall remember his name.
- No-one can share what he does not possess.
- Everyone is capable of independence.
- Everyone is responsible for his freedom.
- Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.
- No-one has the right to make another person guilty.
- Everyone has the right to have no rights.
After visiting and reading the constitution it was starting to get cold and dark, so we decided to head back to the hotel to get ready for the evening. On the way, we popped into the information centre at the Town Hall.
On our final morning, we decided to pop to Trakai (see below) before moving on the Druskininkai. We had about an hour between buses and so we were able to pop to see The Gates of Dawn – which I mostly just wanted to see as they have a cool name. The Gates of Dawn are the only original old city gates left. They are very pretty and lead in to the cobbled lanes of the old town. It was so tempting to carry on exploring this area, but we had a bus to catch and so we had to move on. We’ll have to go back…
Vilnius is a great city for just walking and pottering about. There are lots of interesting buildings to see and areas to explore. There were hundreds of ornate churches we could have visited, but we mostly just wandered about and enjoyed being together in this winter city.
Trakai is a town located about 40 minutes from Vilnius. It is the location of one of the best looking castles in Europe: Trakai Castle. Trakai Castle is a bright red castle that you will see on most of the advertising material for Lithuania.
Trakai, the town, was founded in the 14th century by Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania and it was then passed on to his son.
Many foreign peoples have settled in Trakai and it is now famous for its Karaim community. The Karaims are a Jewish group, originally from the Crimea. They settled in Trakai in the 14th century. Today, there are less than 300 Karaims living in Trakai.
Because Trakai is so close to Vilnius it is a good destination for a day trip, or a morning trip as we did. We left for Trakai at 9.30 and were back in Vilnius by 14.30 and in that time we visited the castle and explored the town a little bit.
We caught the bus to Trakai. We jumped off the bus at the bus station on the edge of Trakai town and then we walked through the town, down the (one) main high street, past all the colourful, wooden houses and the ornate churches. We popped into one of the small supermarkets to use their lockers and then we made our way to Trakai Castle.
Trakai is a lake town, as it is located on a peninsula surrounded by water. But when we were there you could not tell that this was the case as this was a town surrounded by snowy ice fields. The lakes were frozen over and covered in snow so you could not even tell they were there. The town must be so different in the summer.
All around the town are walks along the lake side and pretty parks etc. Trakai Island Castle is located on the far side of town to the bus station. About half way to the island castle we passed the Peninsular Castle, a big blocky stone, ruined edifice that looks like it sits in someone’s back garden, though apparently you can go to visit it. This castle is older than the island castle, though not in as good a state as it hasn’t been rebuilt.
At the lake side by Trakai Castle there were lots of cafes and shops. These were mostly really expensive, apart from the truck selling kybylnar, the hot pasties which are a traditional food of the Karaim. We had a veg pasty for elevenses and a meat pasty for lunch and both were heart warming and steamily delicious.
Trakai Castle is located on an island, which is what made it so strategic. Although not so much in winter as you can just walk over the frozen lake, straight up to the front door. As I’d never walked on a lake before and we wanted to follow the official entrance to the castle, we made our way to the castle over the bridges, over the official path – slipping and sliding on the ice.
The actual castle has been rebuilt in the last 100 years, which is partly why the brickwork is so strikingly red. It is a good reconstruction which integrates the ruined parts of the castle with the new.
Inside the castle was an outer courtyard (full of snow when we were there). To enter the main keep we crossed a drawbridge over the moat, went under the portcullis of the main gateway, into the central courtyard. The keep is a small, square keep, based around a small, dark courtyard. There are three or four floors to the keep and you can make your way up outside stairs and catwalks to visit some of the rooms. The catwalks inside the courtyard were quite exposed and the stairs were a little icy, so it was quite exciting climbing the castle and a little bit scary. We were quite high up.
Inside the rooms of the keep were museums containing relics found at the castle and in the region, information about the history of the castle and a church. The guides in the castle were friendly and helpful and we spent about an hour exploring.
I bet a visit here in summer would be quite different as I suspect they have lots of activities and events taking place in the castle – and also, you can appreciate how secure this castle is, being on an island – in the summer.
In winter, it was still fun to visit, though we did not linger too long; hence why this trip was so quick. Some people were exploring the castle on the lake outside, by walking through the snow and over the ice. There were even people walking up and down the frozen moat.
Our ticket for Trakai Castle cost us 14LT each (about £4).
Walked across frozen lakes
We don’t have very cold winters in England – so even if the canal or a lake does freeze over it’s probably not safe to walk upon. So for me, seeing frozen lakes, with cars being driven on them, people ice skating and fishing through holes in them – this was an amazingly cool thing to see. Jeff, who is from Canada, is very used to all this – but I was super excited to go for a walk on the frozen lake.
On the day we were there, there was a lot of activity taking place on the lake. People were paragliding from a space on the lake. We’re not quite sure how it worked but they seemed to hold on to a balloon thing to get them really high, very fast – and then they paraglided back down, over the castle. It looked really cool.
Also on the ice were fishermen, fishing through holes and looking like they had cold bums; and children playing ice hockey. Poor Jeff so wanted to join in.
In summer, this must be a completely different town. From what I understand, they have pleasure boat rides on the lake and lots of water activities. You can hire a boat etc.
There were lots of cafes with smoky log fires on the lake front, but they all seemed to be rather over-priced, so we went back to the Karaim pasty truck for more snacks.
For more information on all the historical sights in Trakai, viist the Trakai Historical National Park website, which contains detailed history about the town and information and maps for visiting all the sites.
Where we ate and drank
Meat Lover’s Pub
What attracted us to Meat Lover’s Pub was the smell. On our way in to town for our explore day we passed this pub and the roast meat smell wafting from this place called to us like a siren’s song of meat. We were powerless to resist.
As it was my birthday celebration we wanted to go for a special meal, so later on we headed back here for our dinner.
The restaurant was busy, chatty, warm and cosy. There was a wonderful, relaxed, friendly atmosphere. And meat. Lots and lots of lovely meat. This is not a place for vegetarians, I’m afraid.
Jeff had the lovely pig, which consisted of roasted bits of lovely pig, plus mash and veg etc. I had a huge hunk of roast duck, my favourite – and it was juicy and delicious and just yum. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. Alongside this feast we had large glasses of fruity white wine and local brews. It cost us £30 for food and booze for two.
The wi-fi password was lovelypig.
After visiting Meat Lovers Pub we walked down to busy brewi Tercias, a micro-brewery where they brew 12 types of beer, including unpasteurised beer. Jeff had heard that unpasteurised beer doesn’t give you a hangover, so he decided to conduct an experiment by drinking lots of it. Sadly we discovered that this is not true, which is why the next day was a complete write-off. Although, it might not have been the beer that was responsible for the hangovers; they might have been caused by the shots of 99 (a local herb liquor), bought for us by the very drunk, singing Russian man. And it may have been exacerbated by the plate of fried bread covered in melted cheese that we snacked on, late in the night/in the wee hours of the morning.
Busi Tercias was really busy when we went in, so we had to sit at the bar. This was great though, as we met lots of other people this way and got to meet some lovely locals.
The beer was good and the atmosphere was fun but not too loud. This was a drinking, eating chatting pub, rather a loud-music bar (there were some of these further down the street).
Būsi Trečias means ‘you will be the third’, which is an old Soviet phrase referring to people clubbing together to buy a bottle of vodka to share. So, as their website says: ‘Būsi Trečias carries not only the meaning of drinking, but also the meanings of company, sharing, communicating, i.e. everything what you see in the pub!’ I’ll drink to that.
Maxima are a chain of supermarkets found across the Baltics. They’re like Tescos and are nice, modern supermarkets full of fresh, interesting produce and products. They have xs after their name and the number of xs indicates the size of the store. In Druskininkai it was a Maxima X, so smallish; in Vilnius we went to a Maxima XX, which was pretty big; and in Kaunas we saw a Maxima XXX, which was like a French hypermarchet.
The Maxima XX was between our hotel and the town centre ad so we headed here for drinks and picnic food to eat in our room.
Just a quick note, when we were in Lithuania you couldn’t buy alcohol after 9pm, so these areas of the supermarket closed and so too did the off-licence. Luckily for us, on our first night we were able to buy beers and a mini-bottle of wine from our hotel.
Coffee Inn is a chain of coffee shops that we visited across the Baltics. They serve cheap good coffee and have big fluffy sofas and free wifi. In Vilnius we went in to the Coffee Inn on Gedimino Prospectus to use the wifi and to try to work out where to go and what to do.
Where we stayed
The Corner Hotel was a great 2* hotel and, I think, also a university halls of residence. We had a private, twin room here which only cost us £14 per night. Our room with private bathroom was basic but warm, clean and comfy. The hotel had common rooms and shared kitchens, though we didn’t use these.
The staff were really friendly and helpful, and they had a good information and computer area. On our first night, they not only sold us a small bottle of wine they also provided us with a corkscrew, which was cool.
Location wise, the Corner Hotel was located on the edge of the city centre, about a twenty minute walk to Cathedral Square one way, and a twenty minute walk to the train station in the other. It wasn’t that central, but it was on a main bus route from the airport and not too far out.
The main tourist information office is located in the Town Hall.
We picked up a tourist pass booklet which had discount coupons in (though the only place we tried to use one was the soviet theme park in Druskinikai and they got very confused): www.vilniuscitytour.com.
wikitravel.org/en/Vilnius and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vilnius