During our last 24 hours in Vilnius, we got to know the modern side of the city. We saw all the Soviet architecture, and in the evening we indulged in molecular gastronomy and liquid nitrogen. Some of you might have been wondering where the quaint, historic side of Vilnius could be hiding. Ask and you shall receive, Internet Stranger! Today we are getting our quaint on in Vilnius Old Town.
But if you have a slight allergy to quaint Eastern European cities, never fear! Vilnius Old Town is quirky and strange enough to please you even if you are allergic to cuteness. There are bizarre statues, excellent museums, and delicious meats and potatoes of every stripe. I will show you just where to find them all!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Vilnius.
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24 Hours in Vilnius
Where to Stay?
There’s three things I look for when choosing a hotel, especially when traveling alone: location, location, location. I want to be in a safe neighborhood, and I want to be near the main attractions so I don’t waste time traveling to and fro each day. This is especially true if you only have 24 hours in Vilnius. So I recommend staying at the Comfort Hotel LT-Rock ‘n Roll.
Don’t let the odd name fool you. This hotel has everything I’m looking for: location, clean and comfortable rooms, an affordable price, and a tasty breakfast included. (That is the exact order of my priorities.) It also has a fun rock and roll themed decor, as you can see from the picture of Mr. John above. But decor is kind of low-down on my list of priorities. I’m not on my honeymoon, so I’m not going to be spending that much time in my hotel anyway.
24 Hours in Vilnius
Morning: Vilnius Old Town
Of course there is nothing stopping you from exploring Vilnius Old Town on your own! I’m sitting behind my computer screen, so I can’t really stop you from doing anything. But I do suggest taking a walking tour of Vilnius Old Town with a local guide. I always try to take a walking tour as soon as I arrive in a new city. It’s the best way to learn funny stories and odd facts about a place.
Plus if you are a solo traveler, it’s a good way to make some friends. For example, while touring Vilnius Old Town, I met a fellow solo traveler from Graz, Austria who wanted to know how Americans felt about Arnold Schwarzenegger. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d refused to take a tour!
24 hour tip: free walking tours
I recommend the “free” walking tour through Vilnius with Locals. Our guide was a friendly Lithuanian university student who was full of adorable tales about Lithuania’s capital. Just keep in mind that “free” walking tours aren’t really free. The guides often have to pay a small fee to the company that runs the tours for each person who takes the tour. So if you don’t pay anything to your guide, your guide can lose money! Be an ethical tourist and leave a good tip.
Some of you might be asking why I recommend “free” tours if they aren’t really free. Good question! I don’t really like to recommend “free” tours, but there were no group walking tours available when I was in Vilnius Old Town, and private walking tours are usually out of my price range. In some smaller tourist markets like Vilnius, “free” walking tours or crazy expensive private tours can be the only game in town. So those are the only times I recommend “free” tours.
And now that the disclaimers are out of the way, I’m happy to show you…
approximately top 5 vilnius old town
1) town hall square
Our tour starts in one of the landmarks of Vilnius Old Town, Town Hall Square. I bet you don’t need me to tell you how it got the name Town Hall Square! But the Town Hall in Vilnius has been rebuilt many times. Like many older European cities, the buildings of Vilnius have been subject to a variety of natural disasters, like fire and the Red Army. But the current Town Hall was built in the late 18th century, which explains all the Greek-style columns on the outside. The 18th century was a very good time for columns.
Nowadays the Town Hall isn’t used as an ordinary government building. Instead, it is used for special events and guests. One of those guests was President George W. Bush, who visited Lithuania after the country was admitted to NATO. When he visited, President Bush said, “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America.”
Those words are now on a plaque outside the Town Hall, I suppose to discourage Russia from Getting Any Ideas. Because of this speech, President Bush is extremely popular in Lithuania. He was even officially made an honorary citizen of Vilnius.
2) german street
No, I’m not lost! I know Vilnius is in Lithuania, but that doesn’t mean only Lithuanians live here. As we will learn later today, Lithuania has belonged to many different countries during its history, and it hasn’t been a unified nation for very long. In fact, Lithuania just celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2018. (And it was under Soviet occupation for many of those 100 years.)
Part of Lithuania used to belong to Germany, and so Germans lived in Lithuania. Many of those Germans were merchants, and during Medieval Times, they set up shop on German Street. In the 19th century, German Street was home to much of Vilnius’s thriving Jewish population. (There’s a little bit of irony there.) But German Street is just one of many examples of Vilnius’s multicultural heritage.
3) naked lady on a bear statue
One reason to take a walking tour is to find hidden treasures like this statue of a naked lady on a bear. (You could call it the Bare Bear statue.) It’s hard to find because it’s in a small courtyard in Vilnius Old Town. This lady represents a Lithuanian pagan goddess named Medeina. Sometimes Medeina is compared to the goddess Diana/Artemis because she is also unmarried and a hunter. But I have never seen Diana riding a freaking bear! That is badass. I think Medeina should be the honorary goddess of solo female travelers.
Lithuania is sometimes called the last pagan country in Europe. It didn’t officially become a Christian country until the 14th century, which was quite late for Europe. Unlike its two Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania is more of a Catholic country than a Protestant or Orthodox country. I guess Lithuania made up for its late start in Christianity with its enthusiasm because there are approximately one billion churches in Vilnius. We can’t see all of them today, so I’ll just focus on the prettiest.
We’re going to step a little outside Vilnius Old Town and visit the strangest part of Vilnius: the Republic of Uzupis. Uzupis is a little bit like Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark. Uzupisians (not a real word) claim to operate an independent republic within Vilnius. They have their own Independence Day, which is of course April Fool’s Day. They have a flag, which is basically a drawing of a hand.
It also has a monument, the Angel of Uzupis. She was once temporarily replaced with a giant statue of an egg, but now she’s back. I don’t know, I kind of think the egg was more appropriate for a wacky place like this. Embrace your weird, Uzupis!
If you’re a fan of bizarre conceptual art, Uzupis is the place for you. There are random acts of creativity all over the Republic. Take this swing/chair hanging over the river. I say it represents man’s inhumanity to man. What do you think?
5) st anne’s and st francis and bernard churches
See! Lithuanians love churches so much they even built two right next to each other. You might get some time on the free tour to go inside these beauties, but if you don’t come back a little later. The interiors are just as pretty as the exteriors. Here’s my proof:
During the Soviet period, the buildings were used for other purposes like art museums because religion wasn’t permitted. But now they are back to being churches.
Of the two churches, St. Anne’s is the more interesting, architecturally speaking. It looks like it’s made out of braided brick rope! How did they do it? Apparently St. Anne’s is an example of something called Flamboyant Gothic architecture! I can certainly see why! You could easily mistake this for a hat for the world’s most fashion-forward pope.
6) literature street
Our final stop in Vilnius Old Town is Literature Street. A better name for it might be Literature Wall because it is basically a wall covered with symbols, each representing a different Lithuanian writer.
Or perhaps I should say “Lithuanian” writer because not all the writers on this wall are Lithuanian. They just have to be associated with Lithuania. For example, here we have a plaque in honor of Thomas Harris, the author of Silence of the Lambs. You can probably tell from his name that Harris is not Lithuanian. But his most famous character, Hannibal Lecter, is Lithuanian-American. So that’s enough to get him on the wall.
PS. Lithuania, I do not recommend telling people that Hannibal Lecter is Lithuanian in an effort to get them to visit your country. Hannibal Lecter is a cannibal. No one wants to go through all the trouble of going through airport security and flying on an airplane just to get eaten.
24 Hours in Vilnius
Afternoon: Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania
We’re staying in Vilnius Old Town for the afternoon. But instead of wandering, we’re going to get up close and personal with one of the grandest buildings in Vilnius, the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. Here we’ll learn all about why is Lithuania and where it comes from. There will be lots of ruins and portraits of dead people. Some of those dead people might even be murderers! Maybe we will solve a crime. But first, lunch!
24 hour treat: boom! burgers
The adorably named Boom! Burgers is conveniently located near both the ending point of the Vilnius Old Town tour and the entrance to the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. So if we eat here, we won’t waste any of our precious 24 hours in Vilnius. Boom! Burgers is one of those gourmet burger places that any university town needs.
I always order the specialty of the house when I try a restaurant for the first time. Here that means getting the Boom! Burger, which has Irish beef, English cheddar, bacon, and something called Boom! sauce. This burger proves that NATO is very popular in Lithuania because making delicious bacon cheeseburgers is the number one way to ensure that the United States will be your ally through thick and thin.
And now that we’re fed, we’re ready to take on some Lithuanian nobility! Let’s head over to the Grand Palace for…
3 fun facts: palace of the grand dukes of lithuania
1) how old is this palace?
Great question! And a complicated question. There has been a settlement in this area since the 4th century. But back then they didn’t know about the Bauhaus or Prairie School movements, so the buildings were all made of wood. The palace has been built and rebuilt several times since then, in every style from Medieval to Baroque. But eventually the majority of the palace was demolished by the Russians. (Grrr! Russians!! is kind of a recurring theme in Lithuanian history.) The palace was only reconstructed in the last couple of decades as a Lithuanian nationalist project.
To get in touch with the history of the palace, I recommend starting your tour in the basement. Here you’ll be able to see the archaeological finds from the ruins of the previous versions of the palace. Some of them date all the way back to the 16th century. For a New Yorker like me, that’s crazy old. If you’re from Rome, you’re probably thinking, “Eh. It’s a baby ruin.”
I didn’t really understand what this skeleton of a dinosaur bird was doing here though. The Palace isn’t that old, Lithuania! But maybe someone from Uzupis sneaked this skeleton here as a prank.
2) so who were these grand dukes?
A great question! The first Grand Duke of Lithuania was a fellow named Mindaugas, back in the 13th century. We don’t know that much about him, except that he was probably good at basketball. Maybe he was Christian and maybe he wasn’t. He claimed to be Christian, but that might have been only so the Pope would acknowledge him as King of Lithuania. “Vilnius is well worth a mass,” he might have said.
But Mindaugas wasn’t that successful at convincing other people he was a king, and he was assassinated. After that, Lithuania was ruled by dukes and not kings. I guess the dukes thought if they didn’t call themselves kings, they’d be less likely to be assassinated. SMORT!
Eventually the Grand Dukes decided they needed the backing of another, bigger country to protect them from greedy neighboring countries like Russia. (GRR! Russia!!!) So they formed a union with the Kingdom of Poland. This long-term union with Poland is one thing that makes Lithuania different from the other two Baltic countries, Estonia and Latvia.
The alliance with Poland also made Lithuania temporarily rich. My favorite thing about visiting the Palace of the Grand Dukes is that you get to see rooms that have been restored to the style of every period of history, from the Medieval to the present. It’s like time travel, only cheap and actually possible.
3) what was that about a murder?
One of the most famous Lithuanian nobles was an Italian woman named Bona Sforza. She married the Polish king/Lithuanian Grand Duke Sigismund the Old. With a name like that, I’m going to assume she married him for his money. Well, if you’re going to marry for money, marry for a lot of money, as my grandmother always used to say.
Bona Sforza was a strong lady and she wasn’t about to be some Do-Nothing Lithuanian Grand Duchess. After all, the symbol of her house is a snake eating a baby. That’s even more hard-core than a naked lady riding a bear! Unfortunately not everyone appreciated Bona Sforza’s input, and she ended up being murdered under orders from the King of Spain because he owed her money. So the moral of this story is, never lend money to the King of Spain or he will poison you.
24 Hours in Vilnius
Late Afternoon: Three Crosses
We’ve got a big evening of eating ahead of us, so let’s work up an appetite by walking up a hill! The Three Crosses on top of the hill is one of the major symbols of Vilnius, so you really can’t skip it. It’s a bit of a walk outside Vilnius Old Town, but don’t worry! We’ll be returning to Vilnius Old Town for dinner.
The legend is that seven Franciscan friars were beheaded on top of this hill, so crosses were placed in their honor. Who would behead seven friars? That’s so mean. I guess it was either the King of Spain or it was Russians. (GRRR! Russians!) In 1916, the Lithuanians erected three concrete crosses as a permanent monument. But naturally the Soviets knocked down the monument.
The version you see today was rebuilt in the 1980s as part of the Lithuanian independence movement. So the Three Crosses are both of a symbol of Christianity in Lithuania and a symbol of Lithuanian national identity.
Once you make it to the top of the hill, you’ll be rewarded with lovely views of Vilnius Old Town! But don’t rest too long! We don’t have time to watch the sunset. A food tour awaits!
24 Hours in Vilnius
Evening: Flavors of Vilnius
Walking tours are my second favorite way to see a city. But food tours are the first best way! They’re walking tours that feed your mind with knowledge and your belly with delicious food. And lucky for me, my favorite tour company, Urban Adventures, has an evening food tour called Flavors of Vilnius. I was joined by a very friendly Lithuanian guide and a pretty cranky German tourist. But I never mind meeting rude people when I travel because I get to turn them into funny stories for my blog. And I get to share with you…
approximately top 5: lithuanian food
1) ice cream
It was an unseasonably warm evening in Vilnius, so our guide took us to her favorite ice cream shop in Vilnius Old Town, Dione. Dione is a local company that has been around since the 1950s. They have both classic and unusual flavors. I always get the weirdest flavor on the menu, and here that was their “hard cheese and cranberry” flavor. It’s made with Dziugas cheese, which is the pride of Lithuania. We will learn all about that later. I actually loved the taste, which was sweet, tart, salty, and umami all at the same time. Almost all my tastebuds were activated!
Also, it was at this point that the other tourist on the tour earned my eternal ire. (I will call her Anna, so I don’t have to stick to calling her The German because that is maybe offensive.) When I said I was an English teacher, she told me that I don’t have any right to teach English because I don’t speak “proper English” since I am an American. This is definitely the most offensive thing a stranger has said to me during the course of a conversation. So I spent the rest of the tour enjoying my food and wishing a piano would fall on Anna’s head.
But don’t less this stop you from taking the food tour because I can almost guarantee Anna will not be there when you do. If she is, please drop a piano on her head.
2) cucumber snacks!
We then stopped in an adorable food shop in Vilnius Old Town that serves traditional Lithuanian ingredients. Like the other Baltic countries, Lithuanians love them some dark bread. They also love honey. But they have one unique snack habit: putting honey on cucumber. Our guide said that part of the reason for this is that Lithuania has gone through some hard times, and honey on cucumber is an affordable treat.
I found this to be an absolutely delicious and refreshing combination. Also, everyone knows that eating cucumber burns more calories than you gain by eating them. So cucumbers and honey are probably the only dessert that will help you lose weight. Thanks, Lithuania!
I was tempted to put some honey on a cucumber and stick it up Anna’s nose, but I didn’t.
3) dziugas Time!
At last we have arrived! It’s Dziugas time! Dzuigas is probably Lithuania’s most famous food product. Sometimes it is called the Lithuanian Parmesan, but in Vilnius they are proud to say that it has beaten Parmesan in various cheese blind tastings. I would LOVE to participate in a cheese blind tasting, but no one ever asks me.
Dziugas is supposed to be aged for at least a year, but you can age it for up to four years. We got to snack on different Dziugas samples aged for different periods of time. As you can imagine, the longer the cheese is aged, the stronger the flavor.
I suppose I should thank Anna because she announced that she didn’t like cheese and spent the entire time at the cheese shop staring at her cellphone. So I got to eat all of her cheese. But I didn’t thank Anna. Instead I prayed for the piano to fall from the sky, but it never came.
4) a lithuanian three course meal!
We went to a local pub to feast on some Lithuanian classics. The first item we tried was local beer on tap. This is Europe, so the beer was served at room temperature. Anna was German, so I thought she’d be understanding, but she wasn’t. Instead she spent the entire meal whining about the warm beer. I actually don’t know what temperature Germans prefer their beer. I just assume that all chilled beverages are illegal in Europe.
The appetizer was special Lithuanian beet soup. Now, obviously Lithuanians do not own beet soup. You can find borscht or a borscht-type concoction all over Eastern Europe. But Lithuanians add their own twist and “make it pink”. Lithuanian beet soup is served cold and with a lot of kefir, which is kind of like liquid yogurt. The kefir turns the beets that gorgeous pink color. After all the heavy eating I’d been doing in Eastern Europe, I welcomed this light and healthy dish.
24 hour treat: cepelinai
Yes, it’s time for the National Dish of Lithuania: cepelinai. They are also sometimes called zeppelin because they are shaped like majestic airships made from potatoes and stuffed with meat and/or cheese. On top is a tangy and artery-stopping sour cream sauce. This is peasant food at its finest! I guarantee that you will not be able to finish your cepelinai nor will you be able to eat anything else until the morning.
Anna didn’t eat this dish because Anna doesn’t like potatoes. Who doesn’t like cheese and potatoes? Why go on a food tour if there’s so many foods you don’t like? You know what I bet Anna would like? A piano on her head.
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours with Vilnius Old Town!
What would you do with 24 hours in Vilnius? Would you change your religion just to be King of Lithuania? And do you think the citizens of Uzupis would help me drop a piano on Anna’s head? Please leave your thoughts below!