Arriving at Vilnius Airport, there is a poster that says, “I didn’t know where Vilnius was…Luckily, my pilot did”. This seems to be the common thread for Vilnius. People have heard of it, people may even have looked at flights but not a lot of people know where it is and just what a gem they are missing. It is a wonderful spot for a city break or as a jumping-off point for wider Baltic explorations. However you choose to visit, if you have 3 days in Vilnius, this is your perfect Vilnius Itinerary…in fact, if you only have 2 days in Vilnius then it is pretty good too!
We were partly hosted by Go Vilnius during our stay. All opinions are entirely our own.
A Little About Vilnius
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, the southernmost of the Baltic States. The city is in the southeast of the country, around 35km from the border of Belarus. With a population of a little over half a million, it is a relaxed and welcoming city. Wandering around, you are likely to see more trees than locals as they line the streets and run through every vista.
Prepare your thighs for day one as we will be tackling a fair few steps.
Breakfast at Strange Love Coffee Roasters
Strange Love stands at the gates of the Bernadine Garden. Coffee is a passion here. They roast their beans in the back of the building so the waft of coffee is intense. Alongside one of the best coffees in the country, there is a great selection of cakes, pastries and other naughty breakfast treats. There isn’t a lot of room inside but take your coffee outside and there is a shady side patio and a lovely back garden.
Hike to the Three Crosses
After a fortifying coffee and croissant, it’s time to put your legs to work. Cross the Vilnia River that runs next to the park and tackle the steps that ascend the hill. In the morning, these are in the sun so bring some water with you if it’s warm and take advantage of the stopping platforms that are helpfully added onto the wooden stairs. After a short walk in the woods, you will emerge at the bottom of the Three Crosses. At the foot of this mound, you can see the previous incarnation of this monument, pulled down by the Soviets.
The Three Crosses stand tall above the city. You can spot them from most areas of the city and they seem to glow, standing as a symbol of the city and Lithuania’s fight for independence. Plus, the hill they stand on is a lovely viewpoint.
The history is a little more grizzly though. They were originally placed here in 1916 to commemorate the deaths of three monks who were tied to crosses and tossed down the hill by local pagans. Lithuania was one of the last European countries to convert to Christianity and obviously, it didn’t go smoothly. The current concrete structure was placed here in 1988.
Up the Hill to Gediminas Castle Tower
Depending on how sore your thighs are, there are two options for climbing the hill of Gediminas. For thighs of steel, take the steep stairs. It takes less than five minutes but you may be out of puff by the time you reach the top. Alternatively, there is a very small funicular. It takes four people at a time and costs €1 each way. It has a nice view out across the river and newer parts of the city.
At the top of the hill, you get lovely 360-degree views over the city. White stone, red tiles and green trees extend away to the horizon. You also have the chance to visit the Gediminas Castle Tower. This section of the National Museum of Lithuania tells the story of Vilnius, through military wares, local artisanal jewellery traditions and exhibitions detailing moments from the city’s history. The building is the remaining part of the Upper Castle,, Vilnius’ defence network in the 1400s. It was rebuilt in the 1930s and its bold red brick contrasts wonderfully with the green hill and blue sky.
A Spot of Lunch at Etno Dvaras
Etno Dvaras is a rare gem. It is right in the heart of Vilnius’ touristy centre but unlike some of their competitors, they serve excellent traditional Lithuanian dishes at a great price. Potato dumplings stuffed with meat or fresh cheese are a very satisfying light lunch. Other dishes are also pretty heavy on potato meat or fish, fried, grilled or cut into lovely little bites. You can sit down for a quick lunch in their traditional surroundings and walk out, stuffed to the gills, for around €12.
Oh, and you don’t have to take my word for it, they have won certification from the Lithuanian Culinary Heritage Fund.
A Wander Around Cathedral Square
Monument to Grand Duke Gediminas
Standing proud over the eastern end of the square is the monument to Grand Duke Gerdiminas. The Grand Duke was the ruler of Lithuania in the early 1300s and founded the cities of Vilnius and Trakai (more about Trakai later). He also doubled the size of Lithuania during his rule. Notably, he is not pictured astride his steed and his right hand stretches out to bless the city. It speaks of his humility and diplomacy as a ruler.
The Stebuklas Tile
To this left is the imposing white bulk of the cathedral. If you search around the front, you will find the Stebuklas tile. This special tile is laid at the point the city was founded, according to the artist Gitenis Umbrasas. It has an important place in the recent history of the city, being one end of the mighty 2,000,000-person chain that connected Vilnius and Tallinn 329 miles away. Participants held hands in solidarity against the Soviet Union.
The name, Stebuklas, means miracle tile and locals use it to make wishes or solidify affirmations. If you want to join in, think of something you want, place your feet on the tile and turn clockwise three times.
Cathedral Basilica of St Stanislaus and St Ladislaus of Vilnius
Vilnius Cathedral is a bright white building reminiscent of Roman classical architecture. It was built on a very prominent position within the city. It used to be the spot where Lithuanians worshipped the thunder god but when Catholicism finally made it to the country (it was the last pagan area in Europe) it became the centre of the religion in Lithuania. Although some of the chapels and artworks within are older, most of the building dates from the 1700s. When you enter, you will be struck by the after and its neo-classical columns. It is impressive but the real star of the show is to its right. the St Casimir’s Chapel is a stunner.
The Bell Tower
At 52 metres high, the bell tower has a lovely view over Cathedral Square, up to the Gediminas Tower and across the Old Town. It is a steep set of stairs but if you aren’t sick of viewpoints yet, it’s worth a climb.
From Cathedral Square, take a stroll west along Gedimino Pr. for about ten minutes. You will come to a large patch of green called Lukiškės Square. This is a lovely place to sit a read a book (if you speak Lithuanian). You could also walk across it to see the bright red Church of Apostles St. Philip and St. Jacob if you feel like you have a lot of time. If it is late in the afternoon, head straight into the next stop…
Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights
There is a lot of reading to be done at the former KGB prison and it is brutally honest. If you have young children or a nervous disposition, it might be worth sitting this one out. However, it is an important story and needs to be told.
Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union and went through some very tough times. Forced relocations, executions, incarcerations and torture were all inflicted upon the Lithuanian people and you can see their stories here.
The first floor you will explore focuses on the occupation. There is a history of how Lithuania was into grated into the USSR. Then you discover tales from the local resistance, The Forest Brothers. The top floor is dedicated to the forced exile of thousands of men, women and children to the wilds of Siberia.
Finally, guests descend to the lower part of the building, the former prison. This is the are that some may find most upsetting due to the cells, descriptions of mistreatment, photos of deceased captives and the execution chamber.
Take to the Skies in a Hot Air Balloon
Vilnius is one of the only places in the world where you can fly over a capital city in a hot air balloon. It is a truly unique way to see the city! Balloons generally take to the skies in the late afternoon/early evening so not only do you get great views across Vilnius but if you are lucky, a lovely sunset too. See if you can spot cathedral square, the river and the TV tower.
Now, this activity is interchangeable with any other evening but we highly recommend booking your balloon flight on the first evening of your 3 days in Vilnius. If the weather is less than favourable, you can reschedule it for the following day…or the day after that.
Alternatively, Get a Sundowner
If hot air balloons aren’t for you, it is a wonderful chance to take a sunset stroll down by the river. Grab a drink at the gloriously situated Kitas Krantas (see on the right). There is nightly dancing so you can watch the river flow by as the locals strut their salsa or lindy stuff.
For a buzzier spot, head for Vilniaus g. or Islandijos g. These roads have plenty of watering holes, some of which spill out onto the streets during the summer. Piano Man is always a good bet, packed with friendly seating inside and out, and with a wonderful selection of drinks including whiskey. RePUBlic is a kicking sports bar with lots of screens. Another good option for sports is Gringo which has a jovial atmosphere and is popular with locals and tourists alike. For something a little classier, opt for Bubbles Champagneria. No prizes for guessing the speciality here!
A Cup of Coffee at Caffeine
Another excellent place for a coffee and a croissant is Caffeine. There are plenty of these cafes around Vilnius and they all serve up an excellent brew. I was particularly impressed with their cold brew which was a refreshing treat as we sat in the sun. It packed quite the morning punch!
A Morning of Church Hopping
Vilnius has some rather lovely churches and the best part is that they are all within easy walk of one another. you can take a nice hour or two and venture into as many or as few as you like. following this path
Start your day of church hopping at St Johns. It is within the walls of the university but is open to the public. The exterior is the perfect example of the architect, Johann Christoph Glaubitz’s, favourite tricks. He played with perspective, creating shorter levels as the eye is drawn upwards. He also added just a few decorative elements on each layer. Inside is a dramatic altar, where again you can see his use of perspective, columns and carefully considered decorative elements.
Next door to the main church, is the separate bell tower. Inside is a small museum with a couple of creepy human remains and an example of the pendulums designed to prove the earth’s spin. Visitors can either take the stairs up to the viewing platform, or hop in a lift most of the way. Either way, there is a steep ladder climb to reach the top which has a wraparound terrace and wonderful views across the red rooves of Vilnius.
The orange walls of the St Parasceve Orthodox Church match its very cheerful exterior. There is beautiful striped brick feature walls and bright light picks out the red highlights interwoven with dark wood. The plain white exterior of the Church of St Nicolas belies its gloomy interior. Worshippers move around the dim church floor to the icons around the walls.
A little further up the road is the lovely apricot façade of the Church of St Casimir and its high, bright, vaulted ceiling. It has a particularly delicate organ over the entrance and some lovely marble columns around the altar.
Aušros Vartų g.
Just off the road, The Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit has a plain light peach exterior but up a few stairs from the entrance, you will find yourself a beautiful baroque church with pale blue walls and a huge iconostasis. In front is the tomb of three martyrs, St Anthony, St Ivan and St Eustachius. Their preserved bodies lie under the shroud and you can see their feet poking out.
The Cathoolic Church of St. Theresa is the most impressive interior in Vilnius. The walls and ceiling are covered in gorgeous artwork and plenty of gold gilding. It dates back to 1650 but the twiddly bits are pure Rococo from around 100 years later.
At the top of Ausros Vartu you will find the Gates of Dawn. This used to be a gate through the defensive wall to Vilnius, in fact, it is the only one left. However, it is better known for the gorgeous icon of The Virgin Mary inside.
Windows and Window Shopping in the Glass District
The streets of this district once made up the Jewish Quarter. It was full of glassblowers, goldsmiths, artisans and bankers. It was named the glass district in 2018 to commemorate the three streets of glass manbufacturers that had been here since the 1500s. As you wander past the shops, which still hold some wonderful craftspeople, you can spot some street art depicting Jewish people who used to live here before the area was emptied by the Germans. Scan the small QR codes to learn about their lives. Remember to look up as you stroll down Stiklių g. The art here is changed often and celebrates the area’s creativity.
Get Your Gram On at Augustas & Barbora Love Story Café
For lunch, take a pitstop at the prettiest cafe in Vilnius. Augustus & Barbora Love Story is pretty outside and in…but more than that, their food is actually tasty! The cafe is open from the first coffee of the 10 am late breakfast to the last cocktails at 11pm. The counter is stuffed with cakes and the menu has plenty of crown-pleasers.
Flowers cover the ceiling and walls making it not only the most instagrammable cafe in Vilnius, but the most romantic too. If you hadn’t noticed, even the name celebrates Vilnius’ most famous love story.
What’s All This About a Love Story?
Barbora Radvilaitė, the Grand Duchess of Lithuania and Žygimantas Augustas, the King of Poland fell in love in the 1500s, but the two had to keep it secret. . Augustus used to visit Barbora in Radvila Palace through a specially constructed tunnel. It was all very illicit as the King was not allowed to marry someone that wasn’t a royal. Well, it didn’t stop him for long and eventually they were joined in marriage in a secret ceremony. Despite potests from the royal court and the estrangement of his mother, Augustus stayed true to Barbora, even threatening to shut down parliament until she was accepted as Queen. Sadly, she passed away just six months after they married (was it an assassination by the court?) The bereft king had his wife buried in Vilnius Cathedral and wore mourning clothes for the rest of his life.
Now, there are those that think this was all a Romeo and Juliet style story but the body of Barbora was uncovered in Vilnius Cathedral in 1931. She was subsequently moved to the crypt at St Casimir (the large peach church you saw earlier).
After a cake, a sandwich, a creamy coffee and/or a cocktail, its a 15 minute walk to our next stop, Uzupis.
Get Lost in Uzipis
What is Uzupis?
Uzupis is a special spot. This area, which sits within a meander of the River Vilnia, declared independence on 1st April 1997, publishing its own constitution and creating its own government, navy and president. Reading the constitution (displayed in several different languages) you will discover the free-spirited nature of the republic as well as its lounge-in-cheek sense of self. I personally agree with 99% of the constitution but feel that celebrating your birthday, even just a little, should be mandatory!
Uzupis, which means “Beyond the River” in Lithuanian, was born out of the creativity of a group of artists that lived in the area after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a rather sketchy area to visit, you might lose your wallet…or your life if you came across the wrong people. It is now perfectly safe, which is a welcome change but to this day it is a haven for artists. They display their works on walls, ever changing outdoor galleries and in sculptures dotted throughout the area.
The Foreign Minister of Uzupis, Tomas Čepaitis, discussed one of the founding ideas. “We wanted to create our new little country based on the old thought that a good country can have no more than 5,000 citizens because the human mind can’t remember more faces”. “Everybody knows everybody, so it’s hard to cheat and hard to manipulate each other.” Of course, as with everywhere that gains popularity, it has become a desirable and somewhat gentrified area of Vilnius and the property price mean those 5000 faces are now a little wealthier than the ragtag bunch of founding fathers.
Things to look out for in Uzupis
- The Tibetan Garden – This small park has a mural, prayer flags and an eternal mandala that has been blessed by the Dalai Lama. (He is an official resident of Uzupis).
- The Artist Incubator – An original feature of Uzupis, this commune-eqsue was the first of its kind in the Baltics. it allowed artists to experiment, create and live freely. You can visit and explore the art surrounding the building and browse the shop. Here you can also get an Uzupis passport stamp but we would recommend getting in on something that isn’t your official passport!
- Užupio Kavine – The Uzupio cafe was the birthplace of the republic. It now plays host to the parliament. Here the president is elected and ministers are appointed. As well as having its place in history, it features a wonderful terrace.
Wander the Literatų Street Project
This art work that lines the walls of Piles Street has been created over time by the residents of Vilnius. Each part of art is a little tribute to a resident’s favourite Lithuanian writers. It began as a small selection but at the moment that are around 225 contributions and it is expanding all the time. It still celebrates writers, nolvelists and other writing genius’ but no they are from all over the world. You can spot little metal work squares, tiny paintings and all sorts of tiny sculptures.
On this road you will find a wonderful shop full of incredible local produce. Traditional Christmas tree cakes, an incredible range of fruit and fresh juices and delicious baked items. Its great for a snack but don’t fill up because….
Enjoy a Spectacular Tasting Menu at 14 Horses
14 Horses is the most exciting gastronomic experience in Vilnius. The restaurant has two sections. Outisde you will be abe to pick from the a la carte menu but for the full experience, head inside. Here you can get stuck into their tasting menu which is choc full of innovative technique and truly local flavours. Most of the produce here is from an insanely small radius. They have their own far and from here they source fruit, veg, meat and they even have their own cheese maker. The tasting menu consists of around 7 dishes and costs just €70. During our visit, we had all manner of spring delights including perfectly pink lamb with crisp asparagus, firm and creamy trout with a delightful fermented carrot puree and a crazy dish with whipped ricotta with sorrel and blackcurrent leaves that I still think about.
Sip Some Cocktails at Nomads
Just around the corner you will find the finest cocktail bar in Vilnius. Nomads changes its menu every so often to reflect the best flavours from somewhere in the world. When we stopped by it was actually all local so we had a full evening of Lithuanian libations. The bar gives worldwide speakeasy vibes with Moroccan lamps, a lovely bunkette along one wall and a vintage feel. Each cocktail is beautifully crafted with grown up ingredients This isn’t a 241, juice-laden drinks spot. Instead, you come here for a few wonderful drinks that will leave you wondering why you don’t live in Vilnius so you can come again next week! Don’t miss their Margarita Mondays if you are around!
Day three sees us exploring a little further afield. Around the edges of Vilnius are some treats not to be missed.
Travel to Trakai
Hop on a bus from the main Vilnius Bus Station and to Trakai. The journey takes around 40 minutes and the b go 2 or 3 times per hour. When you arrive you will notice the collection of gorgeous wooden buildings in the town. These traditional buildings feel like living history and make a lovely background to a stroll to the main attraction, Trakai Castle.
When you first catch a glimpse of the glittering Lake Galvė, someone is going to ask you if you want a boat ride. Well, they are cheap and fun so whyever not?! You will get a lovely view of the castle and enjoy the breeze that only boat trips give. You can join a group boat or get a private hire if there’s a few more of you. Prices are negotiable for the private hires but on average, for an hour, you are looking at around €7 for a pedalo to €70 for a yacht.
The main event here is the unusual Trakai Castle. It sits on its own island and the beautiful orange tiles and golden stone make for a striking setting. Inside there are some small exhibitions about the history of the castle but much of it is empty so it may not be worth the entrance fee unless you are super keen. For most people, just being here, having a stroll, enjoying a boat ride and taking a whoooooole lot of photos seems to suffice.
A Little Lunch at Senoji Kibininė
If, up to this point, you haven’t tried kibinai yet, and even if you have, make a pitstop at Senoji Kibininė. Kibinai is a pastry stuffed with meat, cheese, meat and cheese, spinach, tomato and cheese or….well you get the picture. Flaky pastry and yummy fillings combine to make a treat. If you are familiar with cornish pasties or Jamaican patties thaen you know what I am talking about. Senoji Kibininė is chain but this branch has a lovely lake view. Eating here is a total bargain. One kibinai could make a perfectly nice light lunch and costs less than €4.
Alternatively, make your way to the TV Tower for another lunch option.
Scale the TV Tower
Vilnius’ TV Tower is the 8th tallest in Europe and its 326.5m height makes it the tallest building in Lithuania. You are not able to go right to the top but can get to level 19 which is still pretty impressive at 165m (that’s about 30m higher than the London Eye). Up here, you will find the revolving restaurant which makes a full rotation every 55 minutes.
Outside, on the lawn to the right of the entrance is a collection of past transmitters. I know, it doesn’t sound that interesting but the strange collection of metal structures look like a blend of modern art and soviet relics.
Enjoy Local Tastes and Treats at Queensberry
Somewhere between the traditional dishes of Etno Dvaras and the modern techniques of 14 Horses sits the local cuisine at Queensberry. Queensberry specialise in traditional ingredients and recipes that have been updated for a modern audience. Tender meat dishes, wonderful fresh cheeses and classic dumplings are all celebrated here. Mind you, the highlight of our visit was the selection of drinks that were on offer. There is a huge selection of craft beer, unusual wines (rhubarb was a revelation) and mead. We tried a flight of six different meads and the difference between the sticky honey heavy one and soft fruity one was astonishing. We left thoroughly addiced to the golden nectar!
Vilnius has to be one of Europe’s most underrated capital cities. Well, all those that dismiss it are entirely missing out. There is far more to see than what you can cram into 3 days in Vilnius but this Vilnius itinerary gives you a good shot at the squeezing in the absolute highlights.