In mid August I wrapped up my time in Lithuania by spending a few days in its captial, Vilnius. This small town (half a million people) is the largest in Lithuania and was first mentioned in written documents in 1323 (rather late for European cities) when the capital was moved here from Trakai Island Castle (which I wrote about yesterday). Like many in Europe, the Old Town is a walking city and that is a great way to explore the World Heritage Site. I could write for days about this wonderful old town, but I am going to give you a quick travel guide instead. I am going to try and write this in order of location, but you should also take the time to simply walk around and absorb the atmosphere and architecture because these are only the highlights. There are treasures everywhere in old cities like this.
1) Vilnius Cathedral is a great starting point since it is in the center and easy to find the large square. The current building was build in 1783 in the neoclassical style after various parts of older churches were damaged or destroyed. Besides the artwork (some date to 16th century) the highlights are:
Chapel of St. Casimir – this baroque chapel was began in 1623 and is the most beautiful in the whole church.
The Crypt – Tours under the cathedral are offered every Tuesday, Thursday, & Saturday where you can see many tombs and a cross section of Vilnius through the ages.
The Belfry – A beautiful, 187 foot high, free standing tower that cost 4.5 euro to climb up (closed Sundays)
Stebuklas Tile – In the square between the cathedral and belfry you will find a one foot square tile that says stebuklas (Lithuanian for miracle). Tradition say that if you stand on it, make a wish, and turn around three times your wish comes true.
2) The National Museum of Lithuania is in the Old and New Arsenal buildings around the left side of the cathedral. Inside you will find the biggest and oldest source of national cultural heritage in the country.
3) Gediminas Castle is atop the obvious hill behid the cathedral. You can walk up, but riding the funicular behind the museum is more fun. The 13th–14th century castle is being restored and outside of the great view the only part you can go in is the one remaining tower where you will also find a small museum.
4) Three Crosses Hill is a monument across the way on another hill that is dedicated to seven Franciscan friars that were tortured by pagans. Easily seen from the castle, but have to climb another hill to visit.
5) Grand Dukes’ Palace is to the right of the cathedral and is a newly rebuilt building. Inside there are two tours. The first shows the ancient ruins still existing and excavated artifacts while the second tour is of the reconstructed ceremonial halls that show the evolution of architectural styles.
6) Vilnius University was founded in 1579 and is one of the oldest universities in Eastern Europe. It is a few blocks south of the cathedral and is contained in a two block area that can be gated off. Inside you can visit the Church of St John, the church bell tower (open construction inside that is cool to see), and several courtyards. In order to see the library, observatory, and other courtyards you have to join a 1 ½ hour tour.
7) Literature Street (Literatu Gatve) is a street where small artworks and dedications to writers who have a link to Lithuania are mounted on the walls. It is a few blocks east of the university.
8) St. Ann’s Church (cover photo) is a few blocks further east and is a small, but beautiful example of Gothic architecture. There is a legend that when Napoleon saw this church he said he would like to take it in his palm and bring it to France.
9) Užupis District is just across the small creek to the east and is a neighborhood of artists, dreamers, squatters, and drunks that has a funky, rebellious feel to it. In 1998, the residents unofficially declared the area to be an independent republic, with its own president, anthem, flag, and constitution. On April 1st they set up mock border guards and throw a party. In the first square you come to you will find a the Angel of Uzupis Statue, which is a statue of an angel blowing a trumpet.
10) St. Peter’s and Paul’s Church is an amazing church that has the entire interior carved in white baroque works. It is located a ways to the east and is a bit far to go on foot, so I recommend taking a bus out to it.
11) Gate of Dawn is the southern extent of the Old Town. It was finished in1522 and is the only remaining gate of the walled city. Over the large large archway is a chapel containing an icon of The Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy and said to have miraculous powers. In order to get up to the chapel enter the church to the right once inside the gate, turn right, and go up the stairs.