A brief history:
The war between Russia and Lithuanian began in the 16th century. By the 18th century Poland and Lithuania had become a Russian satellite. In 1773, Prussia, Austria and Russia took some Polish-Lithuanian territory, while Russia took a slice of Lithuania. Come 1795, and Lithuania was under Russian rule.
In 1830 Poland rebelled against Russian rule, and in 1832 the rebellion had spread to Lithuania. The Russians destroyed this uprising very quickly, and again in 1863 when they tried again. By late 19th century the Russians began their repressing culture over the Lithuanians, restricting their religious Catholic beliefs and only teaching in the Russian language in secondary schools. Many Lithuanians attempted, and achieved, escaping the Russians by immigrating to North America (my great grandfather was one of them).
The 20th century saw the Germans occupy Lithuania in 1915. By 1918, they declared Lithuania independent and by 1920 the Russians recognised this independence. 20 years later, in 1940 the Russian army occupied Lithuania and were once again absorbed by the Soviet Union. Thousands of Lithuanians were executed or deported. One year later, Germany invaded Russia and quickly captured Lithuania. This meant the Nazis ruled Lithuania for three years, and virtually exterminated all Lithuanian Jews during this time.
When July 1944 rolled around, the Russians recaptured Vilnius and once again imposed a Communist regime on Lithuania. Between 1945 and 1952 farms in Lithuania were collectivised, and again thousands of Lithuanians were executed or deported.
The late 1980s neared a happy ending when the Communist tyranny began to crumble in Lithuania. In 1989 Lithuania was granted some economic autonomy, and in 1990 Lithuania declared it was an independent nation once again. This independence was not recognised by Russia until 6 September 1991, after many attempted coups and blockades to take back Lithuania. The last Russian soldiers left Lithuania in 1993. Information gathered from here.
1. View from Gediminas’ Tower, 2. Gediminas’ Tower, 3. Gediminas’ Tower through Old Town
Things to do:
Gediminas’ Tower- this is the remaining part of the Upper Castle in Vilnius. The first wooden fortifications were built by Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania. There is a museum in the tower called the Vilnius Castle museum, which opened its doors in 1960. Walk up the cobbled stone path to enjoy the best panoramic view of Vilnius Old Town. Address is Arsenalo g. 5, Vilnius, or just walk to the end of the Old Town, and through a park and you will see Gediminas’ Tower poking up on a hill. This a cost free activity.
Church of St. Anne- this church is a masterpiece of the late Gothic period. No one formally knows the creator or the period in which it was built. St Anne’s Church has survived for over 500 years without changing and has become a symbol of Vilnius. If you partake in the free walking tour around Vilnius, you will be taken here. If not, just walk around the old town and you are bound to come across it. The exact location of the church is Maironio g. 8-1, Vilnius 01124. No charge.
Free walking tour- as I have said in all my previous travel blogs, I go on a free walking tour in every new city. In Vilnius, I went on this walking tour, which I found very informative and definitely recommend. While the title does boast it is free of charge, the general rule of thumb is that you give a donation for whatever you thought the tour was worth. Generally, people would give around €5 per person. This went for about 2 hours.
Cathedral of the Theotokos- has become the main orthodox church in Vilnius. You are permitted to visit everyday from 9:00am-5:00pm. The address is Maironio g. 14, Vilnius 01124. I didn’t actually go inside, as I saw the church (looking extremely dramatic due to the grey sky) on the walking tour and did not get a chance to go inside. No charge.
Cathedral Basilica- this is the important place of worship for Lithuania’s Catholics. The interior is breathtaking, so I suggest you take a look inside. It is free to enter.
Tolerance Centre of The Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum- this is one of the three main branches of the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum in Vilnius. It hosts a permanent exhibition on the heritage of art and culture of the Lithuanian Jews. There are also temporary exhibitions and small theatre productions. The centre is open Monday-Thursday, 10:00am-6:00pm, and Friday and Sunday, 10:00am-4:00pm. An adult price will cost you €3, and a concession is €1.10. Allow for 2 hours.
Užupis- this was a really interesting place to visit. You simply cross a bridge from Old Town Vilnius to enter the self-proclaimed Užupis. The Bohemian and art lovers in Lithuania created their own “Republic” of Užupis. It has its own constitution, anthem, president, bishop, two churches, a cemetery, seven bridges and its own guardian called The Bronze Angel of Užupis, who was placed in the centre of the district in 2002. Despite Užupis’ prestigious status it has now gained, it was once one of the oldest and poorest areas in Vilnius, known as a red light-district. Now the community hosts regular fashion festivals, concerts, exhibitions and poetry evenings.
Trakai Castle- this is an island castle located in Trakai, Lithuania. It is extremely popular amongst locals and tourists; famous for its beautiful landscapes and the castle museum. You have to go here to see the true beauty of Trakai. While you are here, make sure you enjoy a scenic walk around the castle grounds. If you wish to travel by public transport I recommend getting the bus from Vilnius Bus Station, located at Sodų St. 22, tel. 1661. You can get the bus from platforms No. 6, 7, 8 (these are the local buses), or 28 and 29 (intercity, via Alytus). Luckily, buses to Trakai run approximately 50 times per day, or 40 times on the weekend, at intervals of 10-20 minutes. You can check bus times here. Allow a whole day for this trip.
Kaunas- this is the second biggest city in Lithuania. Visit the Kaunas Castle and then spend hours perusing through the streets and shops. There is a whole strip dedicated to delicious restaurants, good luck picking which one to eat at! It is an hour from Vilnius via train, so allow for a whole day to explore. You can book your train ticket here.
4. Old Town, 5. Church in Old Town, 6. View around Trakai, 7. Trakai Castle
I would recommend the AirBnB I stayed in to every single person wanting to visit Vilnius. The location was absolutely perfect, right in the Old Town, surrounded by restaurants and shops. The interior decor was so homely, I felt like I lived there (making it very hard to leave) and the hosts were incredible, making us feel so welcomed the moment we arrived in Vilnius! The host, Andrius, met us right on time and helped carry our bags up the many flights of stairs (this may be a problem for you if you have any knee/back injuries, but it made for excellent exercise everyday otherwise!). The beds were very comfortable and all the utilities were really well looked after, they even provide a local beer to try! The place I stayed was this one. Let me know if you travel to Vilnius and decide to stay in this AirBnB!
8. Trakai Castle, 9. View around Trakai, 10. Information Centre, 11. Old Town
Travelling by bus: As I mentioned in my post on Latvia, I travelled from Riga to Vilnius via bus. We used Lux Express, and if you book far enough in advance your ticket should be well under €20. The trip took just over 4 hours and you receive free internet (which is always a plus). It drops you a 15 minute walk to the old town in Vilnius.
Public transport: is brilliant in Vilnius, you can get a bus or train basically anywhere you want to go.
Food: Excellent food. If you love a good hamburger or salad, I highly recommend going to Meat Lovers Pub for lunch or dinner. You will not be disappointed!
Stay: Stay a minimum of 3-4 days if you are going to museums and want a really good look around without being majorly rushed.
Shopping: Whilst in Vilnius I had one of the best shopping experiences of my life at this little boutique shop, House of Naive, situated in the Old Town. I’ll set the scene, it was my second last day in Vilnius, before I had to fly to Norway, and I saw these beautiful pink sandals. I’m talking dream shoes in my favourite colour, this is them. But of course, they didn’t fit my tiny, delicate (completely annoying) feet. I feel my heart break right there in the store, a tear about to slide down my face, until the shop attendant says she can get them made specifically to fit my feet. In one day. There were tears when I went back to pick up these handcrafted shoes, fitting my dainty feet perfectly. It was definitely a Cinderella, glass slipper moment. They set me back a measly $240AUD, but they are 100% leather AND handcrafted for my feet, and now whenever I wear them, a little piece of Lithuania is always with me!
12. Cathedral of the Theotokos, 13. The Bronze Angel of Užupis, 14. Užupis, 15. Old Town
As mentioned in my post on Estonia, the Baltic countries are excellent countries to make your euro go far. I think Lithuania was the cheapest Baltic country as far as food prices go, too! The Baltic countries are very good value for money.