Which are the best places to see in Vilnius? Where are the best cepelinai (the most famous Lithuanian local potato and meat dish – dumplings)? Places to shop? I have been to Vilnius in Lithuania over 20 times for business trips, and recently I had a chance to return for a weekend getaway as a tourist, on a trip organized by SIXT, to try out the new Nissan Juke car.
Hotel: As usually, I stayed in Radisson Blu Hotel Lietuva, a hotel I have been to dozens of times during my business trips. Now they have a new building, so that has changed since I last visited! Because I am a Silver member at their Radisson Rewards, we also get a chance to stay at a better corner room in the new building! Breakfast was included in our rate, and there was a wide selection of sweet and sour dishes at the buffet, including freshly squeezed juice, cold cuts, pancakes, eggs and many more!
Parking at the hotel: We left the car at night at the hotel (15 eur surcharge, some rooms have the parking included). There also is a paid parking on the street next to the shopping center.
Parking during day in the city: for us it turned out to be a bit of hassle, as the local mobile app did not accept registration from foreign phone numbers, so we ended up using coins, all day paying everywhere in cash to get the coins and having to run back to the meter a few times, when we stayed in one place longer than we expected. When I reached out to the local tourism promotion agency, I was told that foreigners can pay using their phone service – send an sms to number 1332, writing START X AAA000, where X is the name of the zone (Meylina, Geitona etc) and AAA000 is the license plate. When you are ready to leave, send STOP to the same number. For us most of the parking was in the blue zone that cost 2.50 eur per hour. Pay attention to the information on the meters, as in many places you also might need to pay on Sundays.
Eating: twice during our trip we ate at the shopping center near our hotel (CUP), when we wanted something fast. Charlie’s pizza is open late, when the hotel restaurant was already closed, and Subway, as usually is quick (but not 24/7 as it said on the door). We also ate at Sugamour (not just desserts but also main course, they have several locations, we visited the one on Vokiečių street), Queensberry (Lithuanian food, the place to eat cepelinai!). We also wanted to visit Augustas and Barbora Love Story Cafe, but were simply too full after the hotel breakfast to eat, but it looked lovely. The same with Poniu Laime nearby. If you are in Uzupis, also don’t miss the new Paupio Turgus, it has lovely cafes inside as well! A few of the places asked us to show the QR codes for the vaccination, but not all.
Shopping: CUP near the hotel has main shows you might need – a small supermarket, pharmacy, several clothing stores. Akropolis is a much, much bigger one and isn’t too far either (within easy driving distance).
Entrance fees: Ģediminas tower cable car cost 1 eur one way per person (but you can use the stairs to get there for free), the main tower on the hill cost 5 eur per person. St.John’s church tower was 5 eur per person. Lukiskes prison tour is 20 eur per person, private tour will set you back 150 eur. Other places we visited were free of charge.
Current restrictions: Before entering Lithuania, we viewed the information on the Reopen EU website and filled in passenger locator form. The website was extremely slow to open, never opened on my phone, but after a few attempts on the laptop I finally got it, I heard many people had similar experience, so maybe don’t leave this to the last moment. One of the locator forms I filled even opened in some weird way without pictures or formatting, but I managed to get my info in and a QR code arrived in email shortly. Noone asked to show it to me anywhere though.
Our first stop was the Glass Quarter, the former Jewish part of Vilnius, where goldsmiths, glass blowers and artists lived and worked. It also used to have the Vilnius Synagogue. The streets of Stiklių, M. Antokolskio, Gaono and Žydų are supposedly the most instagrammable in the whole city of Vilnius! Every few meters there is a yard with sculptures hiding, the streets are decorated with live and plastic flowers, and cafes really make sure to have their windows decorated like noone else!
As for the impressive facades, two cafes stand out one is Augustas and Barbora love story cafe, dedicated to the king Sigismund II Augustus and his wife, Polish queen Barbora Radvilaitė. Poniu Laime, the famous macaroon place is also picture perfect and both of these change the displays according to the season. I must say, there are many really elaborately decorated cafes and shops in Vilnius, and not surprisingly, when showing these on my Instagram, I got many messages from people asking if the flowers were real (no, they are not), and “how come I never knew Vilnius is this colorful!”.
After seeing the cafes we head further out to observe the murals on the wall, dedicated to the former Jewish Quarter.
2.St John’s Church Tower and University of Vilnius
Our next stop is the tallest building in the old town, standing at 69 m, it is the St.John’s church tower (entrance fee 5 eur). The viewing deck is at 45 m, but still offers beautiful views of the city – the Hill of Three Crosses, Gediminas Tower and the entire old town at your feet! And the best part is that you don’t need to climb all that on your own, just a few steps to get to the elevator and then it takes you almost the entire way up! However, there are a few steps at the start and at the very top, so it will not be wheelchair accessible.
Once you are done with the view, don’t leave right away, but wander in the yard of the University of Vilnius (the oldest in the Baltic states!). We see quite a few guided groups as well as there are well maintained public toilets at the left side of the church. Unfortunately, we couldn’t visit the church inside, as there was a wedding.
Before heading outside of the old town, we stop at Literatu street, another famous Instagram place in Vilnius, dedicated to all the writers who have lived in Vilnius or written about it. What I loved most was that next to the plaques you also see an impressive tattoo parlor with quite interesting pictures in their windows. Just as we were approaching the street, I thought – how lovely, not another person there! And 10 seconds later three guided groups appeared and then it started pouring, so we ended up leaving quickly.
4.Lukiškių kalėjimas 2.0 or Lukiskes Prison 2.0
If I had to single out just one place you absolutely cannot miss, when in Vilnius, it is Lukiskes prison (the tickets must be purchased online in advance). I was skeptical of the tour at first, as I have visited Alcatraz and East Penitentiary in Philadelphia and thought – what else could be here that I haven’t yet seen? Oh boy was I wrong! There was so much and a bunch more, and I would probably come back here again.
First of all, it is not just about visiting the prison as such. You can also visit to have a drink at the bar that now is in the prison territory, or attend a show (during the warm season there are various performances in the main yard). Concerts was how the places was supposed to be revitalized and the first ones were scheduled for spring of 2020. We all know how nothing took place then… But the agency that got the rights to rent this place, has made something even better – tours, that have been completely sold out! There is a shortage of guides for the tours, so all available resources are for Lithuanian tours, and at the moment of writing only single English tour a day, only during workdays, is available and it costs 20 euros. Alternative is booking a private tour that will set you back 150 eur. Lithuanian tours are also available during the night, and writing well in advance you might be able to secure a Russian speaking night tour.
One way to look at this prison is as an architectural monument, built in a similar fashion as East Penitentiary and Кресты prison in St.Petersbourg. Another, is to wonder about the fact that when it was build, it was thought that the only way to reform criminals is through religion, and so there is a Orthodox church, a Catholic capel and a synagogue in the prison. Some might be excited to hear that the new season of Stranger Things was filmed, and previously, some scenes of Young Wallander TV show. But all of this describes nothing about why this is the most impressive place I have visited this year.
There are several reasons for that, and I won’t disclose them all, as not without a reason in some places one is not allowed to take pictures, not to spoil the experience for future visitors. But storytelling is definitely one of the main reasons. Our guide Martyna (who answered all our questions during the 3h long tour, which was only supposed to take 2h), is a true enthusiast of her work, and she shared so many stories, facts and also some legends. For example, about a glass fragment in a door where no former guard would disclose what happened there to leave such marks. About former inhabitants of this prison, where some come to visit the place with their families! The prison was only closed in 2019, so it is all very recent. Finally, such small details as all flowers in an outdoor mural made in 2017 by an artist, being poisonous.
The prison tour is an adventure for all senses. Starting with the barking “”where do you think you are going” by the guards, when you enter. The processing cells where prisoners were held before being stripped of personal belongings. Signs saying “no smoking”, but the stench of stale smoke so strong you still feel it now. And even to mention some of the cells holding 8, with a sign in Russian:
Тебе светит солнце
А мне лампочка
Но когда выйду
Тебе будет светить свечка
(The sun is shining for you
But a lamp for me
But when I get free
A candle will shine for you).
When I ask the guide if the cells looked like this before, when inhabited, I stop at my own question. Of course they did. The place just got closed down. The paint peeling down was here before. And the toilet “thrones”, where you don’t feel like breathing in even now, must have been simply horrendous back then. No wonder prisoners complained about human rights violations.
Martyna shows us a lot, and tells us even more. She uses slang, which then she explains. Shows us objects from the contraband, and some are so strange than pictures are not allowed. “Presents” the former prisoners have brought with them when attending the tour – rosaries made of bread that look like glass. A tattoo machine made from beard trimmer. And the stories she shares about people fainting during night tours, but the most scary experience being locking up the prison after the last tour.
It is a strange feeling there, in prison, a glimpse to something very much outside of our daily lives. And it feel strange to say that the tour is enjoyable, just because of that glimpse. I start to understand why people watch bad news, horror movies and read about tragedies. Sure, parts of what we are told are legends and some are exaggerated truths. But the true story of this place is still being shaped, as information gets uncovered – just a day before our tour it turns out the guards had lied about how long had one prisoner escaped for. A year, not a day! And then, the memories of guards talking about horrendous shifts that made them say – they did their sentences here along with the prisoners.
5.A Memorable Dinner at Sugamour
After visiting the prison, we need something light. Easy. So it is a happy moment to head to Sugamour on Vokiečių street. A truly outstanding façade and not less exciting menu.
Seeing the enormous window with cakes, we wonder – is there anything for dinner too! Yes, plenty! Cold soup, salmon with asparagus and other dishes. The place is famous for brunch menu and eggs benedict. Only when I have ordered my meal and am sipping tea, I notice that the enormous clock on the wall is actually a window, and there is a table behind it! No wonder that on this day it was the only reserved table, as surely it is the best one!
After a tasty dinner, I have dessert, based on the recommendation from the waited and macaroon on top, but just because my eyes are hungry for one, as I am so full!
6.The Republic Uzupis
On the next day, after breakfast we are not in a hurry – it is pouring outside and we are hoping for some better weather. Finally, when we reach the famed artists quarter, Uzupis, the weather gets better indeed!
We visit the usual sights – the mermaid, the sculpture of the angel, the constitution and the Tibet square and then wander off to the furthest side, to the new Paupio turgus, a modern adventure for foodies with some shops too.
Then we cross the river back into Uzupis, and find ourselves in the Bernardine cemetery. Our “guide” here is a lovely cat that gets way too excited when I am looking for something in my purse (no cat treats there unfortunately!). The cemetery was established at the start of the 19th century, and most writings are in Polish. There is a certain element of the Georgia, Savannah cemeteries here, angels covered in moss, and while most burials are unkept, only a few have been vandalized, and the place is very, very quiet.
7.Lunch at Queensberry
Where can one find the best cepelinai in Vilnius? Queensberry! At least so I am told by the representatives of GoVilnius! These turn out to be really tasty indeed, and you can get not only the usual ones with meat filling, but also some with cottage cheese and mushrooms.
The serving is enormous and could have easily fed two. Jekabs orders some cold beet soup and some ribs. After the very filling meal we go for a walk around the restaurant, as the City Hall is right next to it!
8.Church tour and Bernardine Garden
We also stop at the St Casimir church, and then also St.Anne and St.Bernardine ones, each of them completely not like the others – the two last ones are gothic, the first is the oldest baroque church in Vilnius! All three are free of charge to enter and almost completely empty.
As soon as we reach the Bernardine garden, it starts pouring again. Despite that, there are many families in the garden, couples and young people. The park is wonderful even in this weather, and I imagine how lovely it is when the leaves turn yellow! I really get the Parisian park vibe here, the merry-go-round, the roads and even another Sugamour here!
It is late afternoon when we still manage to reach the Gediminas Tower, before heading home. We park the car near the Neris river, at a private parking lot, and head up in the cable car (1 eur per person each way). The view really is spectacular here, even in a gloomy day like the one we visited at! We opt not to go up to the main tower, as there is a queue (and the entrance is 5 eur per person). Here you can again see the whole city and appreciate how truly green it is (and soon will be yellow and red!).
A Few More Ideas for Places to See
As our trip is over, there are a few places we didn’t visit due to the lack of time, but these might be useful for a visitor staying longer than just one weekend:
- TV tower and the cafe in it
- Trakia Castle
- Cathedral Square
- The Museum of Illusions
- Palace of the Grand Dukes
- Green lakes
- Pavilnys regional park with the 65 m tall Pūčkoriai exposure