Weekend in . . . Vilnius
The Lithuanian capital’s sinuous lanes offer treats contemporary and historic
The winding lanes of Vilnius’s Old Town. Photograph: Chris Carmichael/ New York Times
Sapokliak Salonas, on Stikliu Street, which was once lined with glassblowers, ateliers and artisan studios. Photograph: Chris Carmichael/ The New York Times
Fine dining: Prawns drenched in a heady ginger-chile-butter-coriander sauce. Photograph: Chris Carmichael/ The New York Times
Soviet and Nazi occupations in the 20th century were brutal to the citizens of Lithuania. Photograph: Chris Carmichael/ The New York Times
Unlike the historic districts of its Baltic siblings Tallinn and Riga, which often seem solely the dominion of tourists and kitschy souvenir stands, the baroque Old Town of Lithuania’s capital seems to attract as many, if not more, locals as visitors to its sinuous lanes.
With the streets lined by Burberry and Max Mara outlets as well as the boutiques of Lithuanian designers, the charming 13th-century central labyrinth flows seamlessly into the newer boulevards and remains a deeply integrated part of the local fabric.
Much of Vilnius retains its bleak Soviet-era sprawl, which you’ll pass on the 10-minute drive from the airport, but it’s a city in transition, and with Lithuania’s adoption of the euro this year, expect a city that’s often heralded as one Europe’s cheapest to become even more accessible to travellers.
If you’re in town from September 4th to 6th, join the locals in celebrating the end of summer at Sostines Dienos, the Vilnius city fiesta, when open-air concerts pop up across the city and the Gedimino Prospektas boulevard transforms into a street market.
A leisurely meander through the winding lanes of Vilnius’s Old Town is a must for getting acclimatised to the mishmash of architectural influences, ranging from the majestic to the Mad Hatterish.
Start at the 16th-century Gates of Dawn, the only surviving remnant of the city’s original defensive wall. (You’ll see a steady flow of religious pilgrims heading toward the chapel erected within.) Continue north along Ausros Vartu Gatve towards the main town plaza, flanked by the neoclassical town hall and the imposing baroque St Casimir’s Church, topped by an enormous black crown. Originally built as a Catholic church in the 17th century, it became a Russian Orthodox church soon after, and was a museum of atheism under Soviet occupation. Next, pass Vilnius University, established in 1579 (guided tours cost €1.50), and take a detour towards the Vilnia river to gaze upon the brick-clad gothic spires of St Anne’s Church, constructed for the wife of Vytautas the Great, one of Lithuania’s most powerful rulers.
End your walk in Cathedral Square, home to the country’s main Catholic cathedral. The sprawling plaza is a popular spot for concerts, street fairs and skateboarders.
“Stiklas” is Lithuanian for glass, and winding Stikliu Street was once lined with glassblowers’ ateliers and artisans’ studios.
These days, it’s full of elegant boutiques. Browse locally made aprons, sheets and napkins at Linen Tales, then look in at Decolte, which carries clothes by cutting-edge Lithuanian designers, such as Robert Kalinkin and Kristina Malisauskiene.
Sapokliak Salonas is a trove of vintage tea sets, flapper dresses, art and fascinators, while the Julia Janus label is known for minimalist sleek lines and V Desire has women’s wear with avant-garde cuts and embellishments.
When you’re done, pop into Mamma Mia for coffee and cherry mascarpone cake, which will come to about €3.50 in total.
Lithuania was the last country in Europe to embrace Christianity, but when it did it went all in, and unlike their Baltic neighbours, Lithuanians largely managed to cling to their Catholic identity under Soviet rule.
Stroll through the lovely Bernardine Park and cross the river to ascend the steps to the Hill of Three Crosses, where you’ll find just what that name suggests. Originally erected in the 17th century to honour some Franciscan monks who were killed nearby, the massive crosses were removed by the Russians before eventually being rebuilt in 1989. It’s a serene spot to watch the sun set over the red roofs of the Old Town. 8pm 4 Worldly meal A stylish spot owned by an Irish-Lithuanian couple, the cosy Bistro 18 is a local favourite. There are extensive wine options, and highlights of the globally inspired menu include the rich French onion soup (€3.48) and prawns drenched in a heady ginger, chilli, butter and coriander sauce (€5.50).
Pick a Pastry
Traditional kibinai pastries are Lithuania’s answer to the Argentinian empanada or the Indian samosa: half-moon turnovers stuffed with meat, potatoes or jam. The lovely Pinavija, a tea room and bakery awash in floral wallpapers and pastel tones that match the confections on display, serves the best in Vilnius. For breakfast, pair a sugar-dusted raspberry kibinai (€1.98) with a cappuccino (€1.74) and take a seat beneath the striped awning on the patio along Vilniaus Street.
The Soviet and Nazi occupations of the 20th century were brutal for Lithuanians. More than 90 per cent of the country’s Jewish population was decimated by the Gestapo from 1941 to 1944, and more than 250,000 Lithuanians, mostly academics and intellectuals, were subsequently sent to Siberian gulags or faced forced deportations by the communists. The painstakingly informative Museum of Genocide Victims (admission, €2), set in an imposing building that served as a KGB headquarters for nearly half a century, delves deep into this bleak history.
Head to the gloomy cellar to see erstwhile prison cells, some now filled with piles of documents shredded by the Russians in the runup to independence in 1991.
A stroll across a short bridge laden with locks deposits you in Uzupis, a self-styled “republic” of artists who declared themselves independent in 1997 – on April 1st, at that. These days, the quirky enclave claims its own prime minister, president, guardian angel, and a constitution translated into 15 languages in plaques along a wall. “Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation,” reads one commandment.
It’s worth popping in and out of the conceptual shoe store Vejas Gluosniuose, some of the galleries and the Thierry Kepykla patisserie, and having a drink at the republic’s “parliament”, the riverside Uzupio Kavine bar.
Walk up the hill on Uzupio Gatve to Uzupio Klasika, an eccentric spot with dark wood accents, a feather motif on the walls and bulbous light fixtures. Choose from classics, such as beef tenderloin or tagliatelle with mushrooms, or opt for tiger shrimp encrusted in coconut. Save room for the molten chocolate pie. Expect to pay about €30 for lunch for two.
Take a stroll along Literatu Gatve, or Literary Street. The open-air gallery was conceived in 2008 as a tribute to the country’s finest writers, celebrating the likes of Romain Gary, Rimas Burokas and Arvydas Ambrasas through paintings, sculptures and mixed-media installations. Peruse more than 100 works of art and take notes on the authors you might want to read.
When you’re ready to sample rustic Lithuanian fare, head to the Pilies Gatve outpost of the Forto Dvaras chain, where a cavernous subterranean diningroom frescoed with pagan-inspired imagery sets the scene for local dishes, such as grated potato pudding with boiled pig ears (€4.95), wild mushroom soup in a bread bowl (€2.95) and deep-fried cod (€5.25). A hearty dinner costs about €10.
You can’t leave Vilnius without trying a zeppelin – a stuffed potato dumpling – and the options abound at Forto Dvaras. Choose from curd, meat, mushroom and more (€3.95 for two).
Vilnius’s night life is mostly centred on Vokieciu, Vilniaus and Islandijos streets, but for a quiet postprandial drink, stop by the intimate Sweet and Sour Bar on Ausros Vartu Gatve. The dimly lit space is an ode to the Prohibition-era speakeasy, with waistcoated waiters serving old-fashioned cocktails – whiskey julep, morning-glory fizz and Mississippi punch, mostly between €7 and €9 – amid leather armchairs and marble-topped tables.
Cosy Mint Vinetu is a charming little bricklined cave teeming with vinyl and books in various languages, which can be browsed while sipping a superlative coffee (a cinnamon-laced cappuccino will set you back €1.80). The piano and guitar are free to use and have been known to inspire impromptu jam sessions. Check the Facebook page (facebook.com/MintVinetu) to see if you can join the friendly staff on one of their free guided walking tours.
Aukso Avis is laid out like a museum of up-and-coming Lithuanian designers, with cutting-edge accessories sorted by colour and artfully displayed in stark white cases. The Baltic states are famed for their amber, and you can pick up a stylish take on the stone in the form of a necklace for €54.
Where to stay
It took two years to restore a crumbling old building into the two-year-old Moon Garden Art Hotel (Bazilijonu Gatve 10; moongardenhotel.com ), and the result is a stylish contemporary bolthole with old-world touches, just outside the Gates of Dawn. Many of the 18 rooms, which start at €90, still have sections of their ancient brick walls intact, but the interiors are playful and contemporary: bold colours, bean-bag chairs and huge canvases of birds.
The Narutis Hotel (Pilies Gatve 24; narutis.com; from €110 ) is in the middle of all the action on Pilies Gatve. The 16th-century building has 52 rooms and suites, mostly done up with old-fashioned chintz fabrics and light fixtures, but the highlight is the view over the Old Town and the Vilnius University bell tower from the street-facing rooms.
© 2015 The New York Times Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate