Historic streets and cool café terraces, boutique hotels and hot-air balloon rides, tasty patisseries and fairytale castles – is the Lithuanian capital the perfect city break, wonders Lyn Hughes
Where: South-east Lithuania
Why: Old Town treasures, lovely lakes, Soviet relics and balloon rides
When: Spring and autumn, for fine weather and fewer people
The burners gave a gentle roar and the hot-air balloon rose slowly from the tiny green park in central Vilnius, just a short walk from my hotel. Lithuanians, I’d discovered thus far on my visit, are proud of two things: that they’re good at basketball and that they’re good at ballooning (indeed, the country is said to have the highest balloon ownership per capita in the world). Furthermore, Vilnius is one of the few capitals on the planet that you can actually balloon over – and I was taking full advantage.
As we hovered over them at 6.30am, the streets of the medieval Old Town were quiet. The twisting alleys of Baroque and Gothic architecture, and the multitude of church spires, all hinted as to why this whole area has been granted Unesco World Heritage status. We passed silently over the Presidential Palace, no obvious sign of security below.
As we floated higher, we could see beyond the city’s compact heart. There were blocks of Soviet-built apartments, gradually being done-up – a sense of pride being restored. Behind them, well to the west, was the iconic needle-shaped Television Tower (327m), famously the location where 14 unarmed civilian protestors were killed by the Soviet Army in January 1991.
Vilnius seems so quirky, friendly and relaxed, it’s easy to forget its tumultuous history. It was attacked by the Crusaders several times in the 14th century. Then followed the golden years, when it was the capital of a mighty empire – that is, before Russia invaded and the Swedes looted the place. Napoleon captured Vilnius in 1812, before the Russians took over again. The Germans occupied the city during the Second World War, before Russia saw them off and Lithuania was incorporated into the USSR. The country finally achieved independence in August 1991.
From the balloon, the River Neris came in to view, as well as the growing business district on the other side. We soon passed over suburban houses with neat gardens, and then small farms. Dogs looked up and barked, but otherwise there was little sign of life.
Landing in a meadow, we startled a deer, sending it off into the high grass. We toasted our voyage with sparkling wine, before heading back into a city that was waking to a new day.
Today, Lithuania is proud of its position in Europe. There is a vibrant café culture here, and sitting on one of the outside terraces with a glass of wine or a cappuccino, you’d be hard pushed to say where exactly you were – Eastern Europe? Southern? Western? – if you didn’t already know. The overall atmosphere is buzzing, welcoming and safe. The biggest hazard for a woman seemed to be wearing high heels on the cobbled streets.
The cheap prices and liberal opening hours of the bars and clubs inevitably attract hen and stag parties, but not on anything like the scale of certain other cities. History, culture, arts and crafts, green spaces plus good food and drink at great prices – I was beginning to think that Vilnius was short break heaven.
Save on sightseeing and transport with a Vilnius City Card. They run from 24 to 72 hours, with prices from €13. www.vilnius-tourism.lt
See the city sights, take a boat trip and glide over it all in a hot-air balloon
Get your bearings. You’ll probably be staying in the Old Town, as that’s where most of the accommodation is.
From there, walk – or take the funicular – up to Gediminas’ Tower, also known as the Upper Castle; it will be immediately familiar as it features on the nation’s currency. From here you get panoramic views of the city; you’ll be amazed at how green it is. Nearby is the Museum of Applied Art and the National Museum.
Walk back down to the cathedral (which, incidentally, was used as a car repair workshop, and then a gallery in Soviet times). The must-see inside is the Chapel of Saint Casimir, Lithuania’s national saint. But save your camera for a visit to the beguiling St Anne’s Church; this beautiful Flamboyant Gothic gem is perhaps the most photographed building in Lithuania. In between seeing the two holy sites, pay a sobering visit to the Museum of Genocide Victims, also known as the KGB Museum. It recounts the dark happenings during the 1940-1991 Soviet occupation; in the basement are the execution room (where over 1,000 prisoners were killed), torture cells and a room with eavesdropping equipment.
After that, have a restorative beer or glass of wine in one of the city’s outside terraces or cosy bars, before heading out to dinner. Restaurants are very affordable, and just about every global cuisine can be found, as well as rustic-style restaurants, serving hearty Lithuanian fare such as rye breads, pork dishes, perch and soups.
Take a day trip out to Trakai, 28km west of the city. A former capital, the small town is set on a narrow peninsula between three lakes; its fairytale castle is built over three islands.
The unique wooden houses were lived in by the Karaites, a Turkic people brought here from the Crimea in the late 14th century to be bodyguards to Grand Duke Vytautas. The origins of the Karaites are still disputed, but today only a few thousand remain worldwide.
The medieval Island Castle and its museum is fun to explore. Afterwards, take a boat-trip on Lake Galve, looking out for birds (you’re in a Historical National Park here) or walk along the shores. This is a popular spot for parties, weddings and romantic canoodlings, so it’s great for people-watching.
The overgrown and atmospheric Karaite Cemetery is worth a visit, before heading back to the village and the Karaite Museum. Look out for the Kenessa, an 18th-century prayer house of the Karaites.
Trakai high street is flanked by lovely wooden houses, and has several eateries. Try traditional Karaite dishes such as kibinai – a Cornish-pasty style pastry, filled with meat (or spinach for vegetarians) – at Kybynlar (kybynlar.lt), a cosy family-run restaurant.
Get up pre-sunrise to go hot-air ballooning – this is one of the few capital cities in the world where you can do so. The Ballooning Centre is run by enthusiasts who all have day jobs; flights cost €119 pp.
Back in the Old Town, try cruising the streets on a Segway – an upright, two-wheeled ‘personal transporter’. You can rent one by the hour or even take a guided tour of the city’s main sights (from €20/hr).
Next, cross the Vilnia River to stroll the streets of the bohemian Uzupis District, a self-declared ‘republic’. This is not only the arty heart of Vilnius (boasting numerous galleries), but also the romantic centre: the bridges are festooned with love padlocks.
Have a coffee or glass of wine on the terrace of the Tores Restaurant, lauded for its views of the city. Or head past here to the school, to climb the grassy slope behind it for a little-known but excellent viewpoint – from here, almost every church spire in the Old Town is visible.
Drop back down to the Bernardine Cemetery, a serene and atmospheric spot. If you’ve got the energy, and fancy some religious grandeur, head to the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, another Baroque wonder.
After all that activity, indulge in a pastry – Vilnius reputedly has some of the best, and best-value, patisseries in Europe. Pilies kepyklele on Pilies Street is a popular and easy-to-find spot for cakes and crêpes.
When to go: Year-round. Spring and autumn are best, for warm weather and fewer people. The city also looks lovely in the snow.
Getting there: Wizz Air flies from Luton, Doncaster and Liverpool to Vilnius from £17.99 one way; flight time 3hrs. Ryanair flies from several UK airports to Vilnius and Kaunas (90mins by bus).
Getting around: The city centre is compact and walkable. Cycling is a good way to explore further afield. There is plenty of public transport.
Where to stay: Stikliai is a well-regarded five-star; doubles from €190. Mabre is in a former monastery; doubles from €149. Tilto is a friendly Irish-run three-star near the cathedral; doubles from €99.
Where to eat: Bistro18 is popular and affordable. La Provence is expensive by local standards, but serves lovely Mediterranean food.
More info: www.vilnius-tourism.lt – Vilnius Tourism Information Centre website;
www.inyourpocket.com/lithuania/vilnius – city guide.
Vilnius Tourism has produced a slick smartphone guide to the city, with information on sightseeing, restaurants, hotels and more. It’s free to download, and runs offline, so you won’t run up a huge data bill either. Search for ‘Vilnius Tourism’ on the App store or Android Market.