With its charming Old Town, bohemian vibe and laid-back nature, Vilnius is one of our all-time favorite destinations. Jacky and I visited Vilnius for a second time recently and had a grand time again in part due to the absolutely gorgeous autumn weather. We are offering our recommendations for the best things to do in Vilnius. Whether you have one day in Vilnius or are on a weekend break in Vilnius, let us help you make the most of it!
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Why You Should Visit Vilnius
Vilnius is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets, renowned for its elegant Old Town with its picturesque churches, historic sights, friendly locals and burgeoning craft beer scene. It often surprises me that Vilnius gets overlooked in comparison to its Baltic cousins, Riga and Tallinn, two great cities in their own right.
Located in the eastern pocket of Lithuania close to the Belarusian border, Vilnius is Lithuania’s undisputed economic and cultural hub with a population of almost 600,000. Throughout its history, Vilnius has been influenced not only by Lithuanians but also by Germans, Slavs, Jews, and the Soviets. It still keeps most of its desolate Soviet-era sprawl. Today, however, Vilnius is a city in transition where ancient meets the modern.
Best Things to Do in Vilnius
Vilnius is best explored on foot as most of the attractions lie in the Old Town and are within close proximity of one another. You can check public transport connections here. Tickets for public transport cost no more than 1€ per ride. Alternatively, you could also get the Vilnius City Card which includes public transport and admission to most of the city’s attractions.
Explore the Old Town
Vilnius’ Old Town is Europe’s largest Baroque Old Town. Its cobblestone streets can be easily explored on foot. You can easily cover the Old Town in a few hours while stumbling upon architectural wonders and sights. Unlike Riga and Tallinn, whose Old Towns seem exclusively filled with tourists and garish souvenir stalls, the beautiful Old Town of Vilnius seems to lure more locals than tourists adding to its authenticity.
The Old Town covers an area of 3.5 km² and contains 70 streets and nearly 1500 buildings. It was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1994. The Old Town seems a bit shabby around the fringes but meander a little further and see it bask in its Baroque glory. The Old Town offers a glimpse of architectural history from the 13th to the 18th century. This has resulted in a wide gamut of architectural styles such as Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque.
Cathedral Square is the sprawling main square in Vilnius and is the historical center of the city. This is where Vilnius first began to emerge as a town in the Late Middle Ages. It is situated at the crossroads of Vilnius’ main streets and is a popular venue for fairs, parades, events, and exhibitions. Many of the city’s key landmarks are situated here or in the vicinity including the Vilnius Cathedral and its imposing Bell Tower, Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and Gediminas’ Tower.
Pilies Street (Pilies gatvė) is one of the main streets in the Old Town. This lovely cobblestone street is a popular place for festivals and pop-up markets due to the street’s heritage as the pathway to Gediminas’ Tower. I really enjoyed the lively atmosphere and in particular the divine architecture on Pilies street. Here, you can also buy local crafts, works of art and souvenirs or just chill in one of the many bars and cafes.
When exploring the Old Town don’t forget to miss Literatai Street (Literatų gatvė). This open-air gallery was designed in 2008 and pays homage to local and foreign poets and writers with connections to Lithuania through funky paintings, sculptures, and mixed media art.
Street Art in Vilnius
The Old Town is also great for exploring some great street art. You can find interesting street art along Pylimo street (Pylimo gatvė) and Odminiu street (Odminių gatvė). Our favorite was the one with Trump and Putin locking lips by Lithuanian artist Mindaugas Bonanu.
Foodies should head to the covered Hales Market that has been operating since 1906. It is housed in a historic building and has stalls selling everything from fresh fish, vegetables, meat products to flowers and clothes.
Uncover some of Vilnius’ churches
Lithuania was the final nation in Europe to convert from paganism to Christianity, but it went all in when it did. In Vilnius, it seems there’s a church just around every corner. There are 28 churches in the Old Town alone! Of them, 21 are Roman Catholic and 4 are Russian Orthodox while the Lutheran, Reformed and Eastern Rite Catholic communities have one church each. These are four of the best:
St. Peter and Paul’s Church
St. Peter and Paul’s Church (Šv Petro ir Povilo) looks pretty austere from outside but redeems itself with its exquisite interior with about 2000 ornate, white-stucco statues and an exceptional boat-shape chandelier. It is one of the most beautiful churches that I’ve ever seen. The statues are biblical, historical, mythical, and allegorical figures, demonic creatures, heavenly bodies, animals, plants, war signs, liturgical and everyday items. It is an absolute must see! The church is open daily from 6:00-18:30. Free entrance.
Vilnius Cathedral (Arkikatedra Bazilika) is the city’s chief Roman Catholic cathedral and has been a national symbol for ages. Oddly enough, it doesn’t look much like a cathedral from the outside, more like a library or museum in fact. It was originally a temple dedicated to the Lithuanian pagan god Perkūnas before transforming into a cathedral in the 13th century. The cathedral contains many notable works of art from the 14th through the 19th centuries, including frescoes in the underground chapel and the famous Sapiega Madonna. The cathedral is open daily from 7:00-19:00. Free entrance.
St. Anne’s Church
St. Anne’s Church (Šv Onos Bažnyčia) is a stunning 16th-century Gothic masterpiece that has survived over 500 years without any changes. I love Gothic architecture and this one didn’t disappoint. Some sources claim it was made from 33 various kinds of clay bricks. The interior and exterior of the church are dominated by the Gothic style, with some elements of Baroque. According to popular Lithuanian legend, Napoleon Bonaparte was so beguiled by the beauty of the church, that he wanted to take it back to Paris in the palm of his hand. You can check the opening hours here. Free entrance.
St. Casimir’s Church
St. Casimir’s Church (Šv Kazimiero bažnyčia) is a beautiful 17th-century Roman Catholic church that is named for the city’s patron saint, Prince Casimir Jagiellon. This distinct church is the city’s oldest Baroque place of worship. It has always played an intriguing part in the turbulent life of Vilnius. 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. You can check the opening hours here. Free entrance.
Visit the Republic of Uzupis
Just another district in Vilnius? Think again. The district of Uzupis declared itself an independent republic of the 1st of April 1997. The utopia that is Uzupis is a haven for artist, musicians, creative types and like-minded people. Ostensibly, the Republic of Uzupis also has an army of 11 but they are yet to be spotted. Uzupis also has its own president, flag, postage stamps, and currency. The biggest idiosyncrasy, however, has got to be the constitution of Uzupis which consists of 39 articles in 23 languages! We really enjoyed Uzupis for its ambiance, art galleries, little craft workshops, and multi-colored houses.
PS: You can get your passport stamped with an ‘official’ Uzupis stamp at the information center!
Gate of Dawn (Aušros Vartai)
The Gate of Dawn lies at the periphery of the Old Town and is the last surviving one of Vilnius’ nine 16th-century city gates. Beyond the gate to the right, a door leads to the Chapel of Our Lady of Vilnius, a room whose walls are adorned with metal and silver hearts and that contains an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated for its healing powers. It is one of the very few icons to depict the Virgin Mary without baby Jesus. Many of the fiercely pious climb on their knees up the steps to this sacred place that is said to bring luck to visitors and help people in their times of need.
As it is frequently visited by devout Christians, we ask that you be respectful when you enter. It is free to visit the chapel and it is open daily from 6:00-19:00.
Visit Some of the Great Museums in Vilnius
Because Lithuania lies a bit off the beaten track, you may not know much of its history or culture. Seeing as it was once the largest empire in Europe (the more you know!), there is plenty to discover. Make sure to swing by some of the best museums in Vilnius.
Museum of Occupation and Freedom Fights
The Museum of Occupation and Freedom Fights (previously known as Museum of Genocide Victims) chronicles a grim part of Lithuania’s recent history: the Nazi and Soviet occupation from 1940 to 1991. It is housed in the erstwhile KGB headquarters and delves into this somber period with exhibits dedicated to deportation, civil resistance, and Soviet spying techniques. Head to the dismal cellar to see the former prison cells and execution room that display objects recovered from the mass graves and documents torn by the Soviets. In 2011 a section dedicated to the Holocaust in Lithuania was also added.
The museum is open from Wednesday-Sunday and the price of admission is 4 EUR. Check the website for opening hours.
National Museum of Lithuania
The National Museum of Lithuania is dedicated to Lithuanian culture through the ages, from prehistory to today. It holds an extensive collection of Lithuanian cultural heritage items, displayed within numerous historically significant sites across Vilnius. Get acquainted with the nation’s formation and customs, including folk art, peasant lifestyle and heritage handicrafts, such as the forging of crosses. You can acquire a fascinating insight into Lithuania’s history from the 13th to the 20th century. As far as national museums go, this one is well worth the price of admission.
The museum is closed on Mondays public holidays and is open from 10:00-18:00. Cost of admission is 3 EUR.
Situated on a site that has been used as a residence for emperors, noblemen, and presidents since the 14th century, Vilnius’ Presidential Palace is an opulent Neoclassical manor. This vast cream-colored manse was rebuilt in 1834 and features grand colonnades and symmetrical pediments. Witness the changing of the guard ritual that takes place in the evening at 18, or visit at midday on Sunday to see the fascinating flag-hoisting ceremony which we were lucky enough to stumble across.
Free tours of the palace take place on Saturdays and last for about 45 minutes. Book in advance to secure your place.
Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania
The Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania is a grand 17th-century Baroque style palace that was constructed for the Grand Dukes. It now houses a historic residence museum to showcase parts of the original castle and palace ruins and some of the most significant archeological finds. There are four exhibition tour routes you can embark on that are related to the historical functions of this residence. You will be guided through ancient ruins, grand ceremonial halls and Lithuania’s colorful history with their wars, allies, and religions along the way. Even if you don’t want to go into the museum, the palace is still splendid to look at from the outside.
Check the palace website before you plan your visit. Price of admission for the full tour is 7 EUR.
Relax at Bernardine Garden
If you want to unwind and take a breather from all the sightseeing head to the marvelous Bernardine Garden in the Old Town. This park dates back to the 15th century when the friars first built their monastery and gardens in this part of the Vilnius. You can stroll in the gardens and along the banks of the Vilnia River or play chess at the park’s giant chessboard. During summer evenings you can also enjoy the musical fountain and light show. We were fortunate enough to see some alluring autumn colors here.
The gardens are free to enter and its opening hours are 7:00-22:00.
Get a Great Panorama of Vilnius
Vilnius looks very picturesque from high up. The Old Town is awash with a sea of red tiled roofs and a series of church spires. There are a couple of places from where you can treat yourself to a spectacular view. Among these are the Gediminas’ Tower and Castle Hill and the Hill of Three Crosses.
Gediminas’ Tower was once part of the ancient fortifications of Vilnius’ Upper Castle. Today, the tower houses a branch of the National Museum of Lithuania. You can either take a 10-minute hike to the top or use the funicular (1.50 EUR for a return ticket). Once you reach the top you will be rewarded with striking and far-reaching views of Vilnius. Going up in the tower costs an additional 5 EUR which isn’t really worth it.
Hill of Three Crosses
The Hill of Three Crosses offers equally impressive views and is a great spot for gazing the sunset. The eponymous monument was originally built in the 17th century in honor of a bunch of Franciscan monks who were slain on the hill. Having been razed during the Soviet era, the monument was rebuilt in 1989. It is easily recognizable from afar due to its striking all-white color.
Alternatively, you can also get a good vista of Vilnius from your hotel if it is tall enough. We were lucky in that regard as out hotel provided us such an opportunity. (Make sure to scroll down for hotel recommendations for all budgets!).
Gediminas Avenue is the main boulevard of Vilnius. It is home to many government institutions such as the parliament building. Shopping options are aplenty here with a lot of boutique stores. Being an architecture buff, I really enjoyed some of the fascinating architecture on display here. There’s also a good selection of cafes and restaurants on Gediminas Avenue.
Sample some Lithuanian Cuisine
Being a certified glutton one of the things I love about Vilnius is the local Lithuanian fare. Some of the gourmet delights are –
Fried bread (Kepta duona) which is deep-fried Lithuanian rye bread garnished with garlic and salt and served with cheese. It makes for a great beer snack. This is one of mine and Jacky’s absolute favorite dishes!
Zeppelins (Cepelinai) are large football-shaped dumplings made with grated raw potatoes or rice boiled potatoes that are usually stuffed with meat and doused in rich bacon gravy. Zeppelins are the national dish of Lithuania. We had some excellent zeppelins at the restaurant Zemaiciu Asotis.
Cold Beet Soup (Saltibarsciai) is a traditional summer favorite that is usually served with hard-boiled eggs and potatoes.
Kibinai is a delectable half-moon pastry of leavened dough with a stuffing of chopped meat, potatoes or jam. These are similar to Cornish pasties or the Argentine empanadas. It was introduced to Lithuania by the Crimean Karaites. You can get these in any local bakery for around 2 EUR.
Embark on a Beer Trail in Vilnius’ Pubs
If you love beer as much as me you won’t be disappointed in Vilnius. I reckon Lithuania is one of the cheapest places to get beer in Europe. The price of a beer in Vilnius may be as low as 2 EUR per 0.5 L. Lithuania has a centuries-old beer tradition and has now also gotten on board with the recent craft beer revolution. Some popular brewpubs in Vilnius are Bambalyne, Prohibicija and Aline Leiciai. I nearly got blotto by the copious amount of great beer that I drank. Make sure to try the Lithuanian beer Švyturys at least once!
Take a Day trip to Trakai from Vilnius
The picturesque town of Trakai lies a mere 30 km away from Vilnius makes for a perfect short trip. Trakai is noted for being the home of the Crimean Karaite community, a Turkic speaking ethnic group that has been in Lithuania since the 14th century. The Karaites have managed to preserve their culture, traditions, and language so far. I really loved some of those quaint old wooden houses that we saw along the way to the Trakai Castle.
The town is also home to the popular Trakai Island Castle, which stands on Lake Galvė. It is apparently the sole island castle in Eastern Europe and dates back to the 14th century when Trakai was the Lithuanian capital. The castle is open to tourists and houses a museum which displays cultural artifacts.
The entrance to the castle and museum costs 8 EUR. You can check the opening hours here. If you’re up for it, you can also go on a boat ride around the lake. The ride costs about 15 EUR per person, but we personally decided to enjoy the lake from the shore instead.
Getting to Trakai is possible with both bus and train, although I would recommend taking a bus because it runs more often. A one-way ticket costs about 2 EUR. You can buy the ticket directly from the driver.
Where to Stay in Vilnius
The Old Town is the best place to stay in Vilnius as it is a good base to see all the major sights. There are plenty of good options in or in the vicinity of the Old Town for all budgets.
- Hostel: Jimmy Jumps House, in the heart of the Old Town.
- Budget: Hotel Panorama, within 2 minutes of the main train and bus stations.
- Mid-range: Art Hotel Moon Garden, great choice in the Old Town.
- Splurge: Grand Hotel Kempinski Vilnius, excellent top-choice pick in the Old Town overlooking the Cathedral Square.
Now, what do you think? What are some of the best things to do in Vilnius? And is Vilnius on your bucket list? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!