For your interest we have kept the basic chapters of out of print Russia and the Baltics book available online. Please note that the information is from 1998 and therefore only good for general ideas on travel there. Printer-friendly version.
Sprawling and disorganized, a Catholic church on every corner, Vilnius is the homiest and coziest of the three Baltic capitals, and also the most unsophisticated and run-down. A restful, horizontal city, Vilnius's one- and two-story buildings and its arches and courtyards are more reminiscent of a friendly Polish provincial capital than of the tall German-influenced architecture in Riga or the Hanseatic frosting-cake feel of Tallinn. No wonder, considering Lithuania's centuries-long political and religious ties with Poland, and the fact that Poland occupied Vilnius from 1920 to 1939 while most of the rest of Lithuania was independent.
Vilnius' Old Town (the buildings date largely from the 17th and 18th centuries) is huge and, unlike Riga's or Tallinn's, amazingly dilapidated: burned-out windows, crumbling wooden shutters, cracked plaster, and bowed roofs cry out for millions of dollars' worth of restoration work (while certain Soviet "improvements," like the central telephone office, cry out for the wrecking ball). The fact that Vilnius is falling apart gives the visitor a heightened sense of possibility. Every paneless window and paintless shutter makes you think of what could be there: a family, a shop, candles on the table, children in the street. Riga and Tallinn, in contrast, are much more accounted for.
Vilnius's disorganization also challenges you to explore. The Old Town is full of cozy cafés and fascinating galleries and shops, but you have to duck through archways into courtyards, open gates and doors, and slowly learn your way from nook to cranny. Some streets, such as Totoriu gatve, transport you back to turn-of-the-century Eastern Europe, when Vilnius was an ethnic hodgepodge of Lithuanians, Poles, White Russians, and a booming Jewish community. These days Vilnius is half Lithuanian, half Polish and Russian, and all three languages are very much in evidence on the streets. Lithuania as a whole, however, is 80 percent Lithuanian and less than 10 percent Russian. Russian minority rights are not so big an issue here.
Paradoxically, while Lithuania is the Baltic state with the smallest Slavic population, it is the most Slavic in temperament and feel. Vilnius, as the only inland Baltic capital, was always politically and economically closer to Poland and Russia than to Scandinavia. Lithuania has a government of former Gorbachev-era reform Communists. Lithuanian politics and society have the mildly theatrical quality that you see in Russia but not in Latvia or Estonia. And Vilnius certainly feels like more of a Soviet city than Tallinn — though this is not the harsh, urban Sovietism of Riga, but rather the provincial inertia that at the same time makes Vilnius endearing.
Planning Your Time
Vilnius merits a two-day stay.
11:00 Hike up Castle Hill and climb the tower.
13:00 Walk down Gedimino prospektas and lunch at Prie Parlamento.
14:00 Visit the Jewish Museum.
15:00 Wander through the Old Town and look into its churches, shops, and university.
18:00 Take a taxi out to dinner at Ritos smukle.
10:00 Visit the KGB Museum.
12:00 Lunch at Ritos Sleptuve.
14:00 Check out the two branches of the National Museum.
18:00 End your visit with dinner at the Hotel Naujasis Vilnius.
Vilnius' Old Town sprawls from the river and the cathedral all the way up to the train station. Walking from the station downhill to the river is pleasant. To reach the Old Town from the bus and train stations, turn right out the front door of the train station and follow Gelezinkelio gatve down the hill along the train tracks, then turn left down Ausros Vartu gatve where the tracks cross on an overpass. Go straight through the Ausros Vartai (Gates of Dawn) and keep heading downhill.
Tourist Information: Vilnius has no tourist office. It does, however, have an incredibly good city guidebooklet called Vilnius In Your Pocket, written by German journalist Matthias Lüfkens, and on sale everywhere in town for 4 litas (Lt). As soon as you arrive and change money, go to the nearest kiosk and buy it for its wit, its trolleybus map, and its feature stories. This book can't possibly hope to better the comprehensive information in VIYP. I have, however, tried to save you having to mow through its masses of detail by selecting the best few restaurants, hotels, and sights. If you exhaust the restaurant or hotel choices that I've listed below, refer to Vilnius In Your Pocket.
American Embassy: Akmenu gatve 6, slightly west of the Old Town, tel. 223-031 or 222-729.
Bookstore: The Littera bookstore in the courtyard of the university (enter from Universiteto gatve) has maps, postcards, Penguins, and books about Lithuania in English (Monday-Thursday 10:00-18:00, Friday 10:00-17:00).
Booths everywhere have similar rates. Among others, the Vilniaus Bankas at Gedimino prospektas 10 will exchange American Express traveler's checks for a 2% commission (exchange window open Monday-Friday 9:00-21:00, Saturday 10:00-21:00, Sunday 10:00-18:00, lunch break 12:30-13:30). The bank in the post office also exchanges traveler's checks. $1 = about 3 litas (Lt). 1 litas = 100 centas (c).
Telephones and Mail
The main telephone office is on Vilniaus gatve 33 (enter from Islandijos gatve, open 24 hours). This is the place to buy a card (smallest denomination: 3.54 Lt) which you can use in the efficient blue Norwegian phones in this office and in phone booths around town (tear off the corner before you insert the card). Per minute, calls to Latvia or Estonia cost 1.66 Lt; to Russia, 3.54 Lt; to Europe, 5.79 Lt; and to the U.S., 10.51 Lt. There are also call-now-pay-afterwards booths in the phone office. Local calls are still free from the old-style taksofonas telephone booths around town. The main post office is at Gedimino prospektas 7 (Monday-Friday 8:00-20:00, Saturday 11:00-17:00).
Getting Around Vilnius
Vilnius has trolleybuses (with overhead wires) and regular buses (without wires). Both trolleybuses and buses use named stops, and people in Vilnius often refer to their location by the name of the nearest bus stop. The trolleybuses are more convenient, because Vilnius In Your Pocket includes a handy map listing routes and stop names. Tickets, available from kiosks, cost 40c apiece. The crowding in Vilnius' public transportation is the worst of any of the cities covered in this book. Bus travel gets very slow — at every stop, passengers one by one unstick themselves from their neighbors to let out people even deeper inside. For the most part, I recommend riding public transportation in Vilnius only if you are with someone you feel comfortable kissing.
Taxis around the center should cost about 6-10 Lt, 10-15 Lt out to the suburbs. To summon an honest cabbie, avoid the private taxi companies and call the efficient central city-run dispatcher at 228-888 (try to find someone who speaks Lithuanian or Russian to help).
*** KGB Prison — After the KGB withdrew from Vilnius, their former prisoners set up a museum in the building where they were once held and beaten, and started giving tours to anyone who would listen. Many Lithuanians were interned here briefly before being deported to Siberia during the 1940s, and the part of the building you will see — including the cells, the padded isolation/torture chamber, appalling photographs of brutally murdered people, and piles of shredded KGBdocuments — is formally known as the Museum of Genocide of the People of Lithuania. Ask them to dig up their English translation of the exhibits. The museum is free, but despite these people's years of suffering they have very little budget. Consider dropping a 5-Lt coin in the donation box (Monday-Friday 10:00-16:00 though hours may vary, Gedimino prospektas 40, entrance off Auku gatve, tel. 622-449).
** Jewish State Museum — Its two buildings are a block apart. The Holocaust Exhibition is at Pamenkalnio gatve 12, in the green house on the hill. Before World War II, 240,000 Jews lived in Lithuania; 95 percent of them perished during the war. Vilnius, which was 30 percent Jewish in 1914, was for many years the intellectual and cultural center of Eastern European Jewry. The exhibit first documents prewar Jewish life in Vilnius (including blowups of powerful documentary photographs by Roman Vishniac), then its extermination by the Nazis, including one German commandant's chilling daily execution record. Admission is free, but donations are gratefully accepted. The staff will be happy to interpret if they're not busy and can also provide guided tours to Jewish historical sites around Lithuania if you contact them in advance at tel. 620-730 (Monday-Thursday 9:00-17:00, Friday 9:00-16:00). The newly reopened Exhibition on Jewish Life is in two rooms on the second floor of Pylimo gatve 4. One room shows relics of the city's Great Synagogue, bombed toward the end of World War II and torn down shortly thereafter. The other room is reserved for changing displays. Booklets, postcards, and crafts are on sale (Monday-Friday 11:00-17:00; free, donations accepted). Ask the staff at either museum how to get to Paneriai, outside Vilnius, where the Nazis murdered 100,000 people, 70,000 of them Jews.
** Castle Hill — Hike up to the top from the square near the cathedral. If it's a nice day, bring a picnic lunch. Buy a ticket (1 Lt, free on Wednesday) and climb up to the roof of Gedimino Tower, at the top of the hill, to see Vilnius spread out before you (and in the distance, to the west, the TV tower where Soviet troops killed 14 unarmed Lithuanians in January 1991). Gedimino Tower (Wednesday-Sunday 11:00-18:00) also houses a small museum.
* Lithuanian National Museum (Lietuvos Nacionalinis Muziejus) — The second-floor exhibition on inter-war independent Lithuania is the most colorful and thus probably the most interesting to non-Lithuanian speakers (4 Lt, students 2 Lt, Wednesday-Sunday 11:00-18:00, October-April 11:00-17:00, Arsenalo gatve 1, in the long, low building at the northwest base of Castle Hill). The National Museum's exhibit on Lithuania from 1940 to 1991 is housed separately in a large, white, Soviet-modern building along the north riverbank (past the multi-story Hotel Lietuva). Though it's entirely in Lithuanian and Russian the displays on the deportations and the independence struggle are very moving. Check out the tree trunk where Lithuanians nailed their discarded Soviet medals and pins in 1991 (Tuesday-Sunday 12:00-18:00, October-April 12:00-17:00, 4 Lt, students 2 Lt, Wednesdays free).
*Churches — Consider visiting the Vilnius Cathedral (Vilniaus Katedra), whose walls and pillars are hung with dozens of religious paintings (you might see a wedding too); St. John's Church (Sv. Jono) at Pilies gatve and Sv. Jono gatve; and the Gates of Dawn (Ausros Vartai) on Ausros Vartu gatve (be sure to walk up the long hallway and the stairs to the chapel in the archway over the street).
*Trakai — This picture-perfect castle is a half-hour from Vilnius, on an island in the middle of a lake. Buses leave frequently from the Vilnius bus station.
(Telephone code from the U.S.: 011-370-2; $1 = about 3 Lt)
Prepare for a functional but dated bathroom with Soviet-era tiling and plumbing, or spend a little bit more money for complete modern Western comforts.
Hotel Naujasis Vilnius is a big hotel just across the river from the Old Town with an excellent restaurant, comfortable remodeled rooms, and quite acceptable unremodeled rooms. Unremodeled singles with private bath, TV, and telephone cost 175-200 Lt, doubles 220-240 Lt; remodeled singles are 285 Lt, doubles 330 Lt. Breakfast included. (Ukmerges gatve 14; Visa, MasterCard, and AmEx accepted; tel. 721-342, fax 726-750).
Hotel Pilaite is a very small hotel near the Naujasis Vilnius, in the building with he tower on the right just across the bridge from the Old Town. The reception is on the second floor. Central and friendly though the rooms are nothing special (singles with bath 240 Lt, doubles 280 Lt, suites 320 Lt, Kalvariju gatve 1, tel. 752-292, fax 752-269).
Hotel Victoria is an attractively priced Swedish-managed hotel with doubles with bath for only 240 Lt — too bad it's not within walking distance of the main tourist sites, but you may be able to manage if you have a car or like taking buses and taxis (Saltoniskiu gatve 56, tel. 724-013, fax 724-320).
Hotel Neringas is an acceptable, clean, fairly modern hotel with a comfortable carpeted lobby. It's central but feels a little overpriced. Singles with bath 240 Lt, doubles 300 Lt, surcharge for credit card payments, breakfast included. Reception on the second floor. Reserve ahead (Gedimino prospektas 23, tel. 610-516, fax 614-160).
Zaliasis Tiltas (Green Bridge) is an old, run-down but tolerable and very central Soviet-era hotel with a depressing lobby and a staff that is friendly but doesn't speak much English. Not a first choice, but perhaps a fallback. Singles with bath 150-250 Lt, doubles 280-320 Lt (Gedimino prospektas 12, credit cards accepted, tel. 615-450 or 221-716).
Bed and Breakfasts
Litinterp can house you with a family in the Old Town for 60 Lt single or 100 Lt double, breakfast included (Monday-Friday 9:00-18:00, Saturday 9:00-16:00, Sunday closed, Bernardinu gatve 7/2, tel. 223-291 or 223-850, fax 223-559, www.litinterp.com). Also ask them about airport pickup (50 Lt), translators (350 Lt per 10-hour day), long-term apartment rentals, and car rental (260 Lt/day with unlimited mileage for a Renault 21, credit cards accepted).
Lithuanian Youth Hostels (Lietuvos Jaunimo Nakvynes Namai) has a hostel at Filaretu gatve 17 (tel. 696-627, fax 220-149), which you can reach directly by taking bus #34 from outside the train station and to the right to the seventh ("Filaretu") stop. The hostel has 80 beds in two- to six-bed rooms and charges 28 Lt per person. During business hours you can stop by their head office within easy walking distance of the train station. Head left out of the train station and down Sopeno gatve, which turns into Kauno gatve (Monday-Friday 8:00-18:30; Kauno gatve 1a, room 407; tel. 262-660, fax 260-631).
Lithuania is large enough to have a few truly distinctive culinary concoctions. If you get the chance, try cepeliniai (literally "zeppelins" — monstrous potato dumplings filled with meat) or sakotis (a two-foot-high, spiky cylindrical cake sometimes sold by the layer at cafés).
Ritos Sleptuve (Rita's Hideout) is along the south bank of the river not far from the KGB prison museum. Chicago meets Vilnius. This dark basement hangout is run by Rita Dapkute, a Lithuanian-American who was the director of the Lithuanian Parliament's Information Bureau during the independence struggle. The menu features spaghetti for 6-8 Lt and large pizzas for 3-50 Lt. Great burgers, too, but avoid the vegetables with rice (Gostauto gatve 8, Monday-Thursday 7:30-2:00, Friday-Saturday 7:30-4:00). You can also order pizza delivery from Rita's at tel. 620-589.
At the Hotel Naujasis Vilnius, against all odds, a ground-floor dining room in a vast concrete Soviet-style hotel has been transformed into a warm and friendly place to have dinner. Those who've stayed in similar but unreformed provincial hotels in Russia may weep at the sight of this place. The menu is posted at the door, the waiters speak English and smile, there is rarely anything louder than soft piano music, candles shine on every table in the winter, and artfully prepared entrees from a wide-ranging menu average 25 Lt (daily 8:00-22:45, Ukmerges gatve 14, in the hotel; Visa and AmEx accepted).
Ritos Smukle (Rita's Tavern) is as Lithuanian as Ritos Sleptuve is American. This is the place to get all those Lithuanian specialities you've been hearing about in a dining room mocked up to look like a country kitchen. Two huge meat cepeliniai will cost you 7 Lt, and you can also get tongue, beet borscht, cabbage soup, and blyniai (pancakes). You'll have to take a cab (about 10-12 Lt from the Old Town, Zirmunu gatve 68, in the Iki supermarket complex; do your grocery shopping afterwards).
Prie Parlamento is indeed right by Parliament but not as fancy as its name suggests — it serves three meals a day at low prices from a big English-language menu. This is the place to linger over a big breakfast with friends and a newspaper (Gedimino prospektas 46, Monday-Friday 8:00-23:00, Saturday-Sunday 10:00-23:00).
Prie Universiteto, a comfy bar/restaurant in the Old Town, is a good place for late-night food (Dominikonu gatve 9, daily 8:00-2:00).
Trys Draugai at Pilies gatve 25a serves steaks and Hungarian food right near where all the amber and souvenir sellers congregate. It's a little expensive for Vilnius but very popular with tourists (daily 12:00-24:00).
Vilnius now has a fleet of Western-style supermarkets including five outlets of the home-grown Iki chain. The only Iki within any sort of walking distance of downtown is near Parliament at Jasinskio gatve 16 (Jasinskio is the continuation of Pamenkalnio and number 16 is on your left just before crossing the river, Monday-Saturday 9:00-21:00, Sunday 9:00-18:00).
All long-haul ticket sales are now in the large hall to the right as you enter the train station (Gelezinkelio stotis). Windows 5-7 sell tickets to destinations in the former Soviet Union (daily 8:00-19:30). Windows 1-4 sell international tickets (e.g. to Poland, but you don't want to go to Poland by train). The windows straight ahead as you enter the station (#s 8-14) are only for domestic tickets.
The Vilnius bus station is across the street from the train station. Look for the Autobusu stotis sign. The ticket windows are in the right half of the building. Windows #13-15, around the corner as you enter, sell tickets to all destinations outside Lithuania. There's no problem getting seats on buses although it is sensible to come a few hours in advance in case there are last-minute lines. To Tallinn, buses leave daily at 8:00 and 21:45, arriving at 18:15 and 9:40; tickets cost 61 Lt. To Riga, there are departures at 8:00, 12:40, 17:10, 19:30, 21:45, and 0:30, arriving five to six hours later for 27-30 Lt. To Warsaw, buses leave at 10:00, 19:30, 20:30, and 21:30 daily, arriving in Warsaw about ten hours later for 55-65 Lt. The 10:00 bus runs to Warszawa Zachodnia station, the 19:30 to Warszawa Wschodnia, and the 20:30 and 21:30 buses stop at both stations.
Instead of tearing down the old Stalin-era terminal at Vilnius' airport, or building a new one on a different side of the runway, they piggybacked a new terminal on top of the old one. It's a unique creation.
Getting to or from the airport: Reach the airport on bus #2 (not trolleybus #2), direction: "Aerouostas." It stops on the same side of Ukmerges gatve as the Hotel Lietuva, then several times in the Old Town. All you need is a regular 40c bus ticket. Taxis from the airport will try to rip you off.
For booking and reconfirmation: You can buy tickets at the airport; at the Lufthansa City Center on Gedimino prospektas 37 (Monday-Friday 9:00-18:00, Saturday 9:00-14:00, tel. 223-147), or at Baltic Travel Service in the Old Town (Subaciaus gatve 2, tel. 220 220).
Near Vilnius: Kaunas
Kaunas was Lithuania's capital between the wars when Vilnius was occupied by Poland. It's cozier, and especially friendlier to people on foot, than Vilnius is. Since its population is 80 percent ethnic Lithuanian as opposed to Vilnius' 50 percent, some claim that Kaunas is the "real Lithuania."
Kaunas is an easy day trip from Vilnius. Minibuses (mikroautobusai) to Kaunas leave roughly hourly from Vilnius bus station (platform 37). The trip takes an hour and a half. Regular-size buses run to Kaunas every half-hour and are cheaper, but take 2 hours. The train also takes about 2 hours. The Kaunas bus and train stations are a block away from each other but more than a mile from the Old Town.
When you arrive in Kaunas, buy a copy of Kaunas In Your Pocket if you didn't get one at the bus station in Vilnius, then get into a taxi and ask to be taken to the Rotuses aikste (Town Hall square). This should cost about 5-7 Lt and leave you at the central square of Kaunas's Old Town. From here, you can first explore the Old Town and then walk the approximately 2 kilometers back to the station along Kaunas' grand pedestrian street, called first Vilniaus gatve and then Laisves aleja. There are plenty of small cafés along these streets.
One block to the left (north) of Laisves aleja is Donelaicio gatve, where you'll find the drab Military Museum of Vytautas the Great (Vytauto Didziojo Karo Muziejus), which preserves the airplane in which two Lithuanian-American aviators crashed while trying to make a nonstop New York-Kaunas flight in 1933. Behind this is the Art Museum (Dailes Muziejus) in whose newer wing you can listen to music by the Lithuanian composer M. K. Ciurlionis (1875-1911) and then look at paintings in which he tried to present the same structures visually. (Vytautas Landsbergis, the former Lithuanian president, first made his reputation as a Ciurlionis scholar.) Across the street at Putvinskio gatve 64 the Devils' Museum (Velniu Muziejus) is a collection of hundreds of folk-art devil carvings; the well-known one of Hitler and Stalin divvying up Lithuania is on the second floor. All these museums are open Wednesday through Sunday only. If you have more time you can see the Ninth Fort (a notorious Nazi internment camp) or the beautiful Pazaislis monastery a little outside Kaunas.
Sleeping in Kaunas: The Hotel Lietuva at Daukanto gatve 21 dates from the Soviet era but it is adequately central, clean, and reasonably priced: singles with bath cost 160 Lt, doubles with bath 240 Lt to 270 Lt, breakfast included, credit cards accepted (tel. 205-992; use the prefix 8-27 from Vilnius, 8-0127 from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, 370 7 from abroad). If you're willing to pay $100 for a double room there are several nice small hotels in the Old Town now; check Kaunas In Your Pocket for more details. Lithuanian Youth Hostels puts people up at Prancuzu gatve 59, not far from the stations, in triple rooms at $10 per room (tel. 748-972, fax 202-761).