Vilnius has one of Europe’s largest old towns, Vilniaus Senamiestis. Throbbing with historical significance, the old town of Vilnius features old yet wonderful buildings with a characteristic flavor of their own. Its meandering cobblestone streets are appealing and irresistible with their twists and turns behind ancient facades that date back several centuries.
The Arkikatedra Bazilika is an ornate neo-Classical cathedral built in 1251. Situated in Cathedral Square in the old town of Vilnius, the church interior has some impressive artworks that are worth a peek. Here you will find more than forty frescoes and paintings that date from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
Another church worth visiting is the magnificent Sv. Apastalu Petro ir Povilo Baznycia or St. Peter and Paul’s Church. It was built to mark the celebration of the city’s liberation from Russia during the late 17th century, and is ornately decorated in the Baroque architectural style both inside and out.
From prehistoric times, amber has been sourced from the Baltic Sea coast. At the Gintaro Muziejus-Galerija, Vilnius’ Amber Museum, visitors can learn more about the amber’s formation and its cultural uses for jewelry and art. The museum has approximately 4,500 pieces of amber exhibited inside fifteen rooms; although this is a mere fraction of the incredible 28,000 pieces it has in its entire collection.
The fascinating Sv. Onos Baznycia or St. Anne’s Church is a great example of Gothic Brick architecture. The church has a dramatic history and well-designed architectural style. Its interiors are breathtaking while the entire structure has an imposing tone as is common among the churches of the Baltic States. You will not be able to resist taking some amazing photos of the marvelous structure.
The magnificent Trakai Castle makes for one of the popular scenic day trips from Vilnius. The Castle is situated in an historic area boasting more than 200 lakes, with the castle complex located on an island that is connected to the town via a narrow causeway. The town itself dates from the 13th century and has an interesting history stemming from the various nationalities that have inhabited it previously.
Vilnius, the quaint, old fashioned, yet appealing capital city of Lithuania is situated in the south eastern corner of the attractive European nation that was once part of the Russian block. Home to a multitude of attractions, monuments, landmarks, historic buildings and points of interest, Vilnius is a breath of fresh air with its vibrant scenes and rich culture.
1. Vilniaus Universitetas
In order to get a sense of the importance of education to Vilnius and its history, you must make a tour of the Vilniaus Universitetas part of your city exploration.
Founded in 1579, Vilniaus Universitetas or Vilnius University is a very old institution of higher learning, in fact one of the oldest in Eastern Europe. Its maze of Renaissance courtyards, Baroque church and structures influenced by other architectural styles are filled with secrets. Visit this university to learn some of its secrets and see what it has to be proud of.
The central campus of the Vilniaus Universitetas is situated on Universiteto gatve, the street opposite the presidential palace within a short distance of Cathedral Square in old town Vilnius. There are thirteen courtyards that have been named after important historical figures, as well as professors from the university.
Visitors can enter the Square’s archway into the first courtyard. The first courtyard you come by after entering through the arch is devoted to poets. A birch tree and fountain make for a pleasant setting for the regular poetry festival. This is also where the bookstore of the Vilniaus Universitetas is situated, which sells academic books in addition to books on Lithuania and Vilnius, as well as souvenirs.
Pass through the arch with the bell, ascending the stairs until you arrive at the courtyard of the Vilnius University Church, the Church of St. John. The courtyard is bordered by Renaissance arcades, as well as frescoes of individuals important to the University. Rich in Baroque details, the Church belongs to the University but is today a museum and place of academic ceremony.
Multiple altars create a layered effect from marble and other stones that seem as light as clouds, never mind the solid materials used in the construction. Although some of the decorative elements of the church were damaged, covered or stripped during the Soviet era, its rosy marble columns and ornate organ nevertheless make St. John’s worth a visit.
The opposite building is a café that serves warm beverages and snacks. Follow the signs in the courtyard to a little shop that sells Vilnius University gear including hats, clothing and other accessories.
The 20th century frescoes you see on the university ceiling were done by contemporary artists and represent its intellectual legacy. The frescoes in buildings that belong to the Philology and Lithuanian studies are works paying homage to the history and culture of Lithuania, and which create an inspiring and stimulating environment for the students that pass through its thoughtfully ornamented halls.
With its creaky floors, nooks and crannies and the constant buzz of activity, the university library is truly a living monument to learning in Vilnius. The library of Vilniaus Universitetas deserves its own tours. Story upon story of hallowed reading rooms reverberating with the wisdom of the centuries.
For instance, the White Hall houses 17th century globes and telescopes that belonged to the observatory which enhanced the University’s reputation during the Renaissance period. Also check out the exterior of the 18th century observatory with its signs of the Zodiac and Latin inscription. The Oriental Reading Room is also beautiful and silent. The library’s upper sections offer panoramic views of old town Vilnius.
It’s so easy to get lost in Vilniaus Universitetas, although it’s labyrinthine quality makes it all the more exciting to explore.
2. Sv. Apastalu Petro ir Povilo Baznycia
Built during the latter half of the 17th century, the Sv. Apastalu Petro ir Povilo Baznycia is a church that features thousands of stucco figures and a beautiful interior. One of the fine examples of Baroque architecture in Vilnius, the church is situated in the Antakalnis neighborhood.
Unique all around Europe, the Sv. Apastalu Petro ir Povilo Baznycia church traces its origins to the year 1431, although legend has it that a temple of the pagan goddess Milda previously stood on this site. Milda was the goddess of love and matchmaking.
Vilnius’ most famous Baroque monument, the Sv. Apastalu Petro ir Povilo Baznycia is famous for its exceptional interior that features about 2,000 stucco figures. The 2,000 stucco statues were carved by Italian masters during the 17th century.
The Baroque masterpiece church is built on a Latin Cross plan and features a dome, 2 towers and a semi-circular apsis. The church has 3 naves, as well as a 2-storey façade with a balcony and columns. The church’s present appearance dates from 1676, while its Rococo pulpit is from the 19th century.
The Sv. Apastalu Petro ir Povilo Baznycia interiors are much more embellished. They are decorated in historical, mythical, allegorical and biblical figures, people from different nationalities, occupations and classes, fabulous creatures, heavenly bodies, plants, animals, war symbols, liturgical and everyday items.
3. Gedimino Prospektas
Gedimino Prospektas is Vilnius’ main boulevard that stretches from the River Neris to the west through the sweeping expanse of Cathedral Square in the southeast. The avenue connects Vilnius’ historical city center, Cathedral Square, with the Seimas Palace.
This wide avenue is lined with trees and glamorous pastel-colored Baroque townhouses. The buildings house numerous government ministries and courthouses, the national library and a number of top Lithuanian theaters. By day, the avenue makes for a popular meeting and shopping place, and then comes into its own at night when it transforms into one of the upscale dining spots in Vilnius.
The Gedimino Prospektas bisects the city center of Vilnius, with landmarks along it including the Modernist-style Seimas Palace that was built in 2007 as the seat of the Lithuanian parliament. Bordering the avenue to the north is the 17th century Lukiskes Square, which is today the city’s tranquil green lung. Here you will also find the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre, as well as the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre.
Gedimino Prospektas originated in the middle of the 19th century when the St. Petersburg rail line was built in Vilnius. As new trading, industrial and residential developments were established close to the old town, a new central street or avenue was built for the city. The avenue’s names changed with changes in regime until 1989 when it took on the name “Gedimino Prospektas”.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, buildings were constructed next to the Gedimino Prospektas, which today house central government authorities and public institutions, as well as other businesses. This is where most Lithuanian governmental institutions are concentrated today.
4. Bernardine Church
Officially known as the Church of St. Francis and St. Bernard, the Bernardine Church is the largest Gothic building in Lithuania. Along with the adjacent St. Anne’s Church, Bernadine church forms a unique architectural ensemble, although it is much higher and older than the former.
In 1469, Bernardine monks built a wooden church in Vilnius that was originally a part of the defensive walls of the city. Following many renovations during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Bernardine Church acquired Baroque and Renaissance style elements. The Baroque elements in the pulpit, altars, tombstones and organ choir soften the strictness in the Gothic lines.
The building is monumental because it was designed to be used not only for prayer but also for defense, should need have arisen. Gothic pointed-arch windows and buttresses stand out from the façade. The 17th century Renaissance pediment has been adjusted to the Gothic section with a 19th century fresco. During the Soviet occupation, the church was closed down and converted into a warehouse.
Situated on the bank of the Vilnele River in old town Vilnius, the Bernadine Church’s splendid interiors and modest décor continue to enchant visitors to this day. Dominating the interiors are 14 Rococo-style altars decorated with beautiful wooden sculptures.
One of the church’s most famous objects is the Altar of Saint Cross which contains an image of the Crucifix. This is Lithuania’s oldest known crucifix that dates from the 15th century. The altar became famous because some “miracles” were said to have happened here during the war with Moscow.
The walls of the naves display unique mural paintings from the 16th century, combining Gothic and Renaissance elements. Scenes on biblical themes have decorations of inscriptions in the Gothic character, as well as floral ornaments.
The Bernardine Church is also famous for its many ornate tombstones. Some of the notable tombstones are those of Stanislaus Radziwill at the north nave (1618-1623) and Piotr Wiesiolowski at the south nave (1634).
Situated close to the church is the Bernadine monastery, which is the oldest brick building in the entire complex. Built at the end of the 15th century, the monastery soon became one of medieval Lithuania’s cultural centers, and was famous for having a rich library that contained unique books and manuscripts. The monastery was closed in 1864 and its building re-equipped as a soldiers’ barracks. Today, the cloister houses the Vilnius Academy of Art.
Visitors touring the Bernadine Church can take the short route which begins in the church, leading to the Chapel of St. Florian (The Three Kings), along the cloister corridor that’s decorated in newly uncovered frescoes. Go into the Gothic courtyard and onto the presbytery, with the monk’s choir, underground crypt and Gothic bell tower.
Alternatively, you can take the long route from the Gothic bell tower, along the spiral staircase that you climb up to the loft from where you can enjoy spectacular panoramic views of Vilnius. The route then passes the church balcony.
A distinct neighborhood in Vilnius old town, Uzupis has attained near legendary status in the Lithuanian capital. Popular with artists and other individuals who desire to challenge the establishment, Uzupis has maintained its Bohemian atmosphere of beautiful decay even amid high-end real estate. The mayor of Vilnius owns a home here that has splendid views of the historic center.
Uzupis derives its name from its location in the city, which means “beyond the river”. Situated on the old town’s eastern side, the neighborhood occupies a bend in the Vilnia River, the river that gives Vilnius its name. Once you cross the bridges over the Vilnia River from the old town, you will have entered Uzupis.
Despite the mostly 19th century look of Uzupis, this district dates at least as far back as the 16th century. Historically inhabited by craftspeople, Uzupis still continues with its tradition of artisanry today. During the Soviet era, Uzupis was left to fall into disrepair, the resultant low priced accommodation attracting tourists who gave Uzupis its Bohemian feel and sense of whimsy.
One of Uzupis most intriguing aspects is its 1988 declaration of independence. Its famous 41-article constitution outlines the rights of its citizens, including the right to understand, to be unique and to be happy. The shiny plaques are written in fifteen languages and situated on Paupio Street to ensure that visitors from anywhere in the world can read the constitution and understand what Uzupis is about.
The Uzupis coat of arms, an open palm with a circle inside, is also displayed beside the plaques on the wall. The citizens of Uzupis, with their determined sense of the ironic, declared April 1st to be Uzupis Day. On this day, the quarter celebrates its uniqueness. Uzupis has its own president, 12-person military and a list of honorary citizens.
In addition to its famous constitution, Uzupis has several attractions. Its main square’s most striking feature is the sculpture of a bronze angel blowing a trumpet on a column. The sculpture replaced a large stone egg which previously stood as the symbol of Uzupis.
One of Vilnius’ oldest cemeteries, the Bernadine Cemetery is located in Uzupis and dates from the start of the 19th century. A number of notable figures from the history of Lithuania are buried here, including writers, painters and historians.
Situated just off the main drag of Uzupis through an archway is St. Bartholomew Church. This small white church takes up one corner of a courtyard, replacing an earlier church.
Take an enjoyable stroll around Uzupis. Make sure you venture off the main road where you will find curious nooks and crannies that hide unexpected gardens or artwork. Go into the shops that sell artistic goods or the 100-year old pharmacy that continues to supply patrons with bandages and cough medicine.
Sit at the café near the river; sip some tea or coffee as you listen to the sound of running water. Or grab a bite to eat at the restaurant with a view of old town Vilnius and the Gediminas Castle.
Cross one of the bridges that lead to or from Uzupis which has love locks clustered on the railings. If the weather is good, you may also catch a new bride and groom having their photos taken among the colorful graffiti and crumbling bricks that are characteristic of the famous district.
6. Gintaro Muziejus-Galerija
Amber is a semi-precious stone found in the Baltic sea region, mostly in the sea sides of Lithuania, Russia and Latvia. From its earliest history, amber has featured in the jewelry of the ancients on every continent. Dubbed “captured sunshine”, amber intrigues with its liquid gold appearance that is forever frozen in time.
Situated in the Vilnius old town, Gintaro Muziejus-Galerija is Vilnius’ amber gallery. The 2-storey building is an ode to amber, which teaches visitors about the color, formation, harvesting and processing of Baltic gold. Here you can trace the history of amber through a series of ancient rooms inside the cellar. Amber polishing demonstrations are also available upon request.
Founded in 1988, the Gintaro Muziejus-Galerija has exhibits of different colors, sizes and forms on display that outline the morphology of amber. Many of the pieces here contain plants, spiders and other insects. The largest is the Sun Stone which weighs more than 3.5kg.
Of particular interest in the Gintaro Muziejus-Galerija is the collection of amber with the inclusions. The most common inclusions in amber are small insects that were trapped in the pine resin and were unable to escape. These have been so perfectly preserved over millennia that you can still easily see their scales and tiniest hairs. The pride of this collection is the unique inclusion of the shell of a snail.
Since 1995, the amber museum has been located inside an interesting Baroque building on St. Mykolo Square in Vilnius Old town. The building dates back to the early 15th century. Its ground floor is 70cm lower than the current street level and is believed to be at the street level of 17th century Vilnius. On the other hand, the museum basement is at the street level of 14th to 15th century Vilnius.
You can visit a small exhibition of the archeological finds that were made in the cellars. In the museum basement is a ceramic baking shop dating from the end of the 15th century with exhibits of authentic earthenware. Visitors can also purchase amber jewelry in both classical and modern designs from the Gintaro Muziejus-Galerija.
Amber is a fossil resin that is produced by pine trees that grew in Northern Europe about 50 million years ago. The resin reacted with water in various chemical processes and was transformed into amber. But that’s just the scientific explanation on the origins of amber, which is nowhere near as fascinating as the mythical.
Ancient Lithuanian legend tells of the love between Jurate, a goddess who lived in a beautiful amber palace at the bottom of the Baltic sea, and a fisherman named Kastysis. When the god Perkunas found out that a mortal man had dared to love the goddess, he became enraged and threw a bolt of lightning that shattered the amber palace and capsized Kastysis boat, drowning him.
Ever since, Baltic sea waves are said to wash fragments of the palace ashore in the form of pieces of amber. The small pieces found after a storm are said to be tears of the goddess Jurate who cannot forget her beloved.
People began using amber as a form of adornment thousands of years ago. Archaeologists have found beads and amulets made out of raw amber in burials dating back to the Paleolithic era.
During antiquity, amber was used widely as an amulet. A “sun stone” was believed to possess curative and magic powers. In different cultures, amber has been used as a panacea for all sorts of diseases including stomach disorders and insanity. Even today in many cultures, women who suffer from diseases relating to the thyroid wear necklaces made out of unpolished amber.
Scientists are investigating the bio-stimulating characteristics of the stone which are supposed to have a positive effect on the nervous system, kidneys and heart, as well as stimulate recovery processes in the human body.
7. Arkikatedra Bazilika
Once a part of the Gediminas Castle, Arkikatedra Bazilika is Vilnius’ cathedral. The Arkikatedra Bazilika continues to serve as a reminder of how this historic complex looked during the times of the Lithuanian dukes, and where its defensive structures were situated in the old town.
The Arkikatedra Bazilika’s neo-Classical façade has large columns and sculptures of the 4 Evangelists. On its roof are 3 more sculptures of Saints Stanislas, Casimir and Helena holding a golden cross. This elegant symbol of Vilnius is accompanied by a free-standing bell tower that once formed part of the fortifications of the castle and marks where the Vilnia River originally flowed.
The Arkikatedra Bazilika’s interior continues to bear the scars of Soviet rule and remains largely unadorned. During the Soviet era, the cathedral was used as a picture gallery while the chapels were closed for storage. Many of the interior’s decorations were destroyed and have not yet been restored. Nonetheless, visitors can enjoy the cathedral’s spacious, austere quality by drawing their attention to a couple of important points of interest.
The cathedral’s most beautiful chapel is the one dedicated to Saint Casimir, Lithuania’s patron saint. The Baroque chapel has frescoes that depict the life of the saint, along with other decorations that relate to the princely saint.
The Sapiega Madonna glows against a backdrop of gold, portraying a gentle-faced Holy Mary holding the Christ under a celebration of angels. This is an important religious image in Lithuania that has been credited with many “miracles”. The image once hung inside St. Michael’s Church which today houses the Church Heritage Museum. The Sapiega Madonna avoided destruction during the Soviet occupation and is today on display inside its own chapel at the Vilnius cathedral.
The Arkikatedra Bazilika is built on the former site of a pagan temple. Although the first Christian house of worship appeared during the 13th century, this site may have not been continuously dedicated to the Christian faith due to the strong pagan heritage of Lithuania.
The Arkikatedra Bazilika looks quite different from earlier iterations, although its Gothic core and successive additions and renovations are easily identified. Throughout its centuries-long history, the cathedral has suffered fires, floods and damage by invaders.
Be sure to visit the catacombs which reveal structural secrets about the Arkikatedra Bazilika. The cathedral stands on a built-in graveyard and was the burial place of important people in Lithuania. Inside the catacombs you can admire an ancient well-preserved fresco in the darkened room that is only visible through reflection. Other highlights are the royal tomb and cultural layers of the cathedral. Concerts are occasionally held at the cathedral.
8. Vilniaus Senamiestis
The old town of the Lithuanian capital, Vilniaus Senamiestis is one of Europe’s largest old towns.
Cathedral Square, just south of the Neris River, is the heart of this historic district of Vilniaus Senamiestis. Here you will find Gediminas Castle and the Arkikatedra Bazilika, with its bell tower standing watch over time. Just opposite is the Gedimino Prospektas which serves as the main thoroughfare and prime location for cafés, restaurants and shops.
Farther on, the ancient Vilnius University complex stands next to the presidential palace, while a walk down Pilies Street will take you to the Town Hall and a cluster of important churches. Also in the vicinity is the Gate of Dawn which recalls the time when the border between the secure town and its outside territory were demarcated more clearly.
Despite its size, Vilniaus Senamiestis is not easy to get lost in. The best way to get to know the area is by spending a few days walking its winding, medieval streets and taking in the details. Restaurants are tucked into cozy corners and during the warm weather, their doors are left open to welcome visitors. Wander inside for a snack or coffee or to browse the souvenirs on offer that range from amber and linen to ceramic ware.
During the night, Vilniaus Senamiestis is active and well-lit, with pubs, bars and clubs that offer entertainment well into the morning hours. After dark, karaoke, concerts, live music and other events provide entertainment.
Cathedral Square is dominated by the Classical-style Arkikatedra Bazilika with its freestanding bell tower. The square serves as the central meeting point for locals and tourists, an informal skate park and historical landmark. Note the different colored tiles in the pavement that mark the outlines of the former Lower Castle. The royal palace sits behind the cathedral, and on the hill above the remains of the Upper Castle from old Vilnius can be seen. Also found within this square is the monument to Gediminas.
Gedimino Prospektas is the main thoroughfare that’s home to restaurants, shops and other businesses, as well as a major venue for events in Vilnius. This street is closed to fairs and parades, folk performances, entertainment, good food and plenty of beer.
Pilies Street appeals to tourists with its souvenir shops and stalls, cafés and restaurants that offer traditional Lithuanian foods. Take a stroll down this street for glimpses of amber glowing in the sun. You can also browse linen and wool clothing accessories, and admire hand-carved wooden sculptures.
Vilnius University was established during the 16th century and is today one of Vilnius’ old and proud institutions. Its maze of courtyards and wealth of art and architecture make it and its library major tourist attractions. Baroque, Classical and Renaissance are the dominant styles on the central campus. Its cupolas, frescoes, archways, relief work and decorative scrolls make this place of learning a place of beauty.
The only surviving city gate in Vilniaus Senamiestis is the Gate of Dawn. Today, those who pray for healing and other miracles visit its holy icon. Go through this gate to view the city’s historic border or ascend to its upper story to view the icon and votives left by those who seek to have their prayers heard.
A couple of days in Vilniaus Senamiestis will reveal many streets, sights and surprises. While you may be tempted to go on the old familiar routes, taking an unexpected turn or wandering off the planned path can lead to special discoveries.
9. Sv. Onos Baznycia
Sv. Onos Baznycia is a strikingly beautiful Gothic church that’s situated in the old town of Vilnius. Built on the site of an early 15th century wooden church, it took many years to construct Sv. Onos Baznycia. Completed at the start of the 16th century, the church has retained most of its original architecture, with some changes and renovations being carried out over the centuries.
Situated on the right bank of the Vilnia River in old town Vilnius, the Sv. Onos Baznycia origins can be traced back to 1394 and its construction lasted almost a century and was finished in 1581.
An important symbol of Vilnius, the Sv. Onos Baznycia church is a prime example of Brick Gothic and Flamboyant Gothic, a Late Gothic style whose origins lie in the Mediterranean countries. These are the dominant architectural styles in this unique church.
The beauty of this Sv. Onos Baznycia church has for centuries fascinated many, leaving an impression on all who lay eyes on it. One of the most beautiful and famous buildings of Vilnius, the church is outstanding in appearance.
A new approach to bricks as a construction material was used in the construction of the Sv. Onos Baznycia. The church’s distinctive red hue is attributed to the 33 different types of clay bricks painted red that were used in its construction.
Its main façade is designed Flamboyant Gothic style and is the building’s most striking feature. The main façade is distinct for its rhythmic composition of curved and vertical lines. Traditional Gothic shapes and elements were utilized in unique ways. For instance, Gothic arches framed by rectangular elements dominate a proportionate and symmetrical façade to create an impression of dynamism.
Its presbytery and side facades are also exceptionally complex with eminently graceful sharp-arched windows, buttresses and openwork turrets. The church comprises of one nave and 2 towers. The shape of its nave creates a very light and graceful impression. Its interior is decorated in the Baroque style, as is the altar. Standing close by is an imitative neo-Gothic bell tower that dates from the 1870s.
The ensemble of Sv. Onos Baznycia and the adjacent Bernadine Church makes for a real Late Gothic island in Lithuania’s Baroque capital. By color alone this architectural grouping is easily distinguished from the rest of the city, as its deep, red colored bricks offer a striking contrast to the white, blue and rose of the neighboring buildings.
Situated about 20km from Vilnius, Trakai and its castle are both very important to the history of Lithuania. The name “Trakai” refers to the “glade” in which the area appears. The area began to develop during the 1400s with its castle being the center of action.
Popular not just for its castle, Trakai also boasts a beautiful natural landscape area where lakes meet. A favorite among both Lithuanians and travelers, Trakai is typically visited during the summer. Although many recommend that you visit during the deepest winter when its lakes freeze and the snow envelopes nature and the castle in pristine whiteness.
Trakai Castle makes for a great day trip from Vilnius. The Castle Museum is situated inside 2 castles: one on an island in the middle of a lake, and one on the lakeshore. There is in fact a third castle that’s associated with Trakai, although the structure lies in disrepair and does not form part of the museum complex. You can nonetheless view its ruins as you explore this lake area.
Trakai Castle has undergone some renovations designed to provide a good home to some of the most interesting of Lithuania’s archeological artifacts, coins, religious objects and other finds preserved from the excavation of the castle’s grounds.
The Karaims or Karaites of Trakai are famous for preserving aspects of the way of life of their ancestors. One of these to be enjoyed by visitors is the kibinai, which are dumplings stuffed with meat, cheese or vegetables that you can sample at select restaurants in Trakai. While at the Castle Museum, don’t forget to check out the small exhibit dedicated to the Karaites.
The former medieval capital of Lithuania, Trakai has still managed to retain its historic charm to this day. Visitors can enjoy some of the town’s festivals, which include recognition of its history. Because Trakai was built in the middle of 3 lakes, you can enjoy waterside walks and picnics, along with recreational water activities.