Not sure where Vilnius is? Having explored various other Baltic cities recently, the capital of Lithuania was next on our list. It doesn't immediately spring to mind as a travel destination, but prepare to be surprised and delighted…
Pre-Trip – Packing and Planning
Preparing for our three night trip in mid-June I packed:
- Dress (unusual for me, I normally take extra trousers)
- Black 3/4 length trousers by Robell
- Grey top and cardigan set
- Green top
- Shoes with heels for evening
- Hat and sunglasses,
- Underwear, PJ's, toiletries
- 2 polo shirts
- Long-sleeved shirt
- Smart shoes for evening
- Underwear and toiletries
He travelled in trousers, a polo shirt, jumper and comfy shoes.
We had pre-booked short stay parking at our UK airport because to be honest, life is too short to get on a shuttle bus; especially as our flight home arrives back at 11pm. If you book ahead you can usually get a good deal with Holiday Extras.
I also used the Weather+ app as it helps me to plan which clothes I'll need whilst away; it gives a detailed 5 day forecast of day and night temperatures etc, which helps a lot with planning. The app predicted some showers on the first and last days but sunny the two days in between, with temperatures around 24c by day and 14c at night. This proved to be very accurate.
We had read that taxis from the airport to the Old Town area of Vilnius were pretty cheap – around 15 Euros – and with 4 of us travelling together this was an easy and cost-effective option.
However, there was a lot of advice on the web about taxi drivers cheating you with fast meters, taking the long way to your destination, saying you hadn't given them enough money, renegotiating the price during the ride, not having change etc. so we were understandably a bit wary.
But if you use your common sense and agree the price beforehand and it comes to approximately the sum you expect, then I'm sure you will be fine. We were, and we had a very helpful taxi driver. With hindsight though, we found that Uber works really well here so we would take an Uber taxi next time to save the worry and pay less too.
Where to Stay
We chose the Novotel primarily because of its location in the Old Town which meant we could walk everywhere, saving time and money. On a short three day stay, details like this really matter.
The location turned out to be perfect and it is a lovely modern hotel. The views from our room were of the castle and the Cathedral, equally beautiful lit up at night or in the morning sun. In June the sun rises early, around 4:30 am, so be sure to have your blackout curtains closed.
There is a 2 hour time difference to the UK, and by the time we arrived it was nearly midnight their time but just 10pm ours. We decided to join the busy crowds in the streets to explore a bar or two before bed.
Unbeknown to us before, this night was the annual cultural night when there are concerts around the city, museums stay open late, and there were a lot of people walking about. We first opted for a bar called Sarkozy, which serves only cider and apple products, very nice.
We felt very safe and secure walking the streets at night and didn't witness any drunken rowdy behaviour. We were most impressed.
Day 1 – Exploring Vilnius
On Saturday morning an excellent buffet breakfast set us up for our free Vilnius walking tour. We discovered, amongst other things, that basketball is the nation’s most popular sport.
Vilnius is a really pretty city with a river running through it. There are lots of historic sites to take in:
- Cathedral square and the Cathedral
- Vilnius University
- St Annes and St Bernardino churches
- The Jewish Quarter
- The fun Uzupis republic, which like the free state in Copenhagen is home to artists and has its own constitution
- The Uzupis Angel
- Bernardino Gardens
- The National Museum of Lithuania
- Presidential palace
- The Town Hall
- Many lovely courtyards and viewpoints
Throughout our morning tour we saw numerous brides and their wedding parties walking to church, some even queuing to follow each other in. White church summer weddings seem to be very popular here.
Top tip: You will do a great deal of walking here, so be sure to have comfortable, flat shoes.
Food and drink prices are very reasonable and it's good quality. We had lunch for 4 of us comprising duck salad, steak salad, salad nicoise, beetroot, pear and goats cheese salad, 2 glasses of Riesling, 4 beers, a coke and a coffee, all for 40 Euros and all excellent quality. In the restaurants and bars in the Old Town you will find English is widely spoken. The signs too are in English as well as Lithuanian.
After a quick shower in the evening we were out again for dinner at Kitchen, on the second floor overlooking Town Hall square. It has simple, stylish decor with friendly staff and delicious food. Excellent wine choices and again very reasonable prices. Some reviews had said the portions were small but we didn't find them so at all, in fact just like we would get at home. We all voted it a great choice and to be honest we would all have happily returned except for our penchant for trying new places.
We spotted a champagne bar on our walk back and planned to visit it the next evening. We stopped at Sarkozy again for a digestive Calvados en-route back to the hotel for a well-deserved rest after our 10 miles of walking.
Day 2 – Day Trip to Trakai
Sunday morning began, as the day was to unfold, with bright sunshine and a perfect day for our trip to Trakai, about 30 minutes away by car, bus or train. We decided to use Uber, rather than a bus and a tram or a taxi, which was inspired really and the journey took less than 30 minutes and cost just 15 Euros. We wished we had thought of it for our trip from the airport, but we noted to use it on Monday evening for our return journey.
As we left the hotel there was a street market setting up along the full length of the street outside, and a stage going up in the square opposite, which we hoped to explore on our return.
The guide books and reviews can't really prepare you for the beauty of Trakai, the lakes and the lake castle. The lake castle has been fully restored and the history is mesmerising. The castle opens at 10am and we thought we would beat the crowds by getting there for then. However it seems that all the coach parties get there for 10am too and it's a bit of a stampede!
Top tip: If you wait until around midday or the afternoon to visit the castle, you won't be surrounded by coach parties.
Entrance is a really reasonable 6 Euros per adult and 3 Euros if you're over 60. This includes both the museum and the castle, and you get a really great understanding of the wealth this country once had.
The guys tried the local drink Smetoniska, a low alcohol sweet drink made from fermented black bread and we all tried the traditional Karaim Karnave, which is very like a Cornish pasty and comes with a variety of fillings.
We then took a relaxing pedalo trip on the lake for 7 Euros for an hour (well it was relaxing for Sally and me, as we sat at the back and paddled our feet whilst the guys pedalled!). Alternatively you could take a public boat trip or a private sailing boat, paddle board or just have a swim.
There was no Uber taxi available to take us back, but we negotiated a reasonable deal with a local taxi driver and were back in Vilnius by 4pm.
This meant we had time to enjoy the street market and the music before getting ready for dinner. At the market I bought a beautiful handmade linen and silk scarf for 40 Euros from the lady who made it. Sally bought a lovely original design leather handbag in yellow. The bag was in two halves – a design we had never seen before.
On Sunday afternoon we had decided we would visit Bubbles, the champagne bar we had seen, for a glass of fizz before dinner. It's very popular according to TripAdvisor but was quiet when we went.
The bartender recommended going to Bistro 18 for dinner but unfortunately they were full so after a brief wander we ended up at Markus Ir Ko. This was also busy but we managed to get the last table outside. This was the only place we came across on our entire trip that could rival the UK in terms of prices. A main course was around 25 euros plus you had to pay extra for side dishes.
Day 3 – Ticking Off the Final Sights
The Weather+ app had forecast that Monday would be wet. The morning started out grey but dry so we decided to take the funicular up to Gediminas' Tower before the weather changed and we had some great views. I took my raincoat and scarf just in case and thought to buy an umbrella.
Afterwards we walked down to the palace museum just below which was stunning. We pretty much had this high-tech museum to ourselves for 4 Euros per couple with a free audio guide. There was so much to see, so many artefacts, so much history it all became a bit overwhelming but definitely worth a visit.
After the museum it was time for coffee and the Grill at the park fitted the bill perfectly. We were still sitting there when the heavens opened so we stayed longer than we intended. We saw a lot of people dressed up and carrying flowers which we later discovered were for the graduation taking place at the university that day.
At the university we went up the tower which is the highest point in Vilnius and where fortunately they have a lift. Whilst we sheltered again from the rain we looked through the sites we had seen and checked out if there were any we had missed. The Genocide Museum and Hales market had eluded us because they don't open on Mondays, but the Gates of Dawn we realised we hadn't seen and we set off to put that right.
We had booked Bistro 18 this time for an early dinner which was superb and a must if you are ever in Vilnius, and we were then in an Uber taxi on our way back to the airport.
This was a fabulous weekend, in a civilised, safe, beautiful city. The food was delicious and cosmopolitan, the prices very reasonable, there are plenty of sights to see and warm welcoming people. Honestly it amazes me that more people haven't discovered what a great destination Vilnius and Lithuania are.
Written by Helen