Discover the best museums, bars and most importantly homemade cakes Lithuania's medieval capital has to offer (and how to get away from the crowds)
Stroll through the bohemian part of the city known as Uzupis, away from the Old Town; pass the popular Tores restaurant with its terrace view across the Old Town rooftops, then continue for another 200m. Venture behind the school on the left and climb the grassy slope. Welcome to Vilnius’ least-known viewpoint, beside the Hill of Grand Duke Gediminas’ Grave, where almost every church spire in the Old Town is visible.
Drop into eccentric café Viena (one ‘n’, because in Lithuanian viena means both the Austrian capital and the number one) to meet American-Indian owner Franklin. He is as obsessive about the freshness of his Julius Meinl coffee as he is encyclopedic in his knowledge about Viennese cakes. (Traku 5)
One of the most peaceful and least-visited spots near the centre of the city is the Bernadine Cemetery. Its paths rise and fall, twisting and turning between the tall trees, rusty crosses and chipped and broken tombs. Nestling on a high bank above a fast-flowing little river, it immediately propels you into quiet contemplation – and makes you long for such a place when it’s finally your turn to dearly depart...
(off Polocko St, Uzupis)
The fame of Russia’s greatest poet stretches far and wide, yet the tumbledown Pushkin Memorial Museum and its unkempt grounds are curiously unpublicised, partly because Lithuania tends to play down any past connections with Russia.
The museum is open at odd times, set inside a wooden house that once belonged to Pushkin’s son Grigorij. It’s now home to dusty old volumes of Pushkin’s works and other curios, and is furnished in the style of the late 19th century. Wander behind the house past a Pushkin statue into quiet grounds set around a lake. The paths reach out into the countryside and are a delight to explore.
The village of Trakai, with its Island Castle and unique wooden houses favoured by the Karaites – a Turkic people brought here many centuries ago to be bodyguards to Grand Duke Vytautas – makes an idyllic day trip from Vilnius. Try the traditional meat-filled Karaites pastries at Kiubete, a cosy and atmospheric family-run restaurant. Wash them down with good Lithuanian vodka or fresh homemade juice.
What’s left of a once-superb classical mansion stands on a hill just to the north of Vilnius. The land here belonged to the Lithuanian grand dukes until 1387 when Grand Duke Jogaila, on his conversion to Christianity, gave it to the bishops for a summer residence. In 1780 a huge palace was built here, but Napoleon’s soldiers ravaged it in 1812. Still, Verkiai Palace has a lovely view across the River Neris valley and its endless forests. A legend tells how a sacred fire was once tended here at the edge of the ridge by a pagan priest and beautiful virgins.
A bumpy highway named after Stepan Bathory, a Transylvanian prince who ruled Lithuania and Poland in the 16th century, leads into forests about 7km east of the city. Stop beside a makeshift hut selling refreshments and walk up to see a stunning viewpoint. Here at Puckoriai, sandy cliffs plunge 70m down to the Vilnia River. The lush, tree-filled panorama of the valley below is breathtaking. Descend to the river and follow it to the Belmontas Waterfall and nearby restaurant.
Venture into Vilnius’ leafy Zverynas suburb, a maze of unpaved streets and beautiful tumbledown wooden houses, most of which date back more than 100 years - tight building restrictions exist to protect them. One of these streets, Latviju, is the most unlikely location for an eccentrically arranged gift shop filled with quirky art that the mainstream souvenir shops in the Old Town wouldn’t dare to try to sell. Look for the courtyard at Ausˇros Vartu 13.
Light and cheerful, like the floral and fruity wine it is named after, the new Riesling Klub winebar and shop is a delightful city centre venue in unpretentious surroundings. Guests can try any wine in the house at impromptu tastings. As an indication of the club’s playful spirit, children and dogs are welcome, and artists too – the club has live entertainment which features talented young musicians and singers from the Lithuanian Music Academy.(Teatro 7)
Jonas Bugailiskis is a folk artist with an insatiable passion for creativity. In his cluttered workshop in an Old Town courtyard he tinkers away with wood, clay, iron and stone, making all manner of obscure masks, children’s toys and religio-pagan images, and there’s an awesome throne with carved falcons.