With attention currently centred on its Baltic neighbour, Riga, the newly-inaugurated 2014 European Capital of Culture, you could forgive Vilnius for being somewhat overlooked in this year’s list of top city break destinations. And yet, having already held this illustrious title (2009 was its year in the spotlight) Vilnius thoroughly deserves a nod as a candidate for those seeking somewhere a little different from the classic short break stalwarts.
Situated on the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia rivers and dwarfed by the 48-metre-high Gediminas Hill, Vilnius’ essential sightseeing centres around the city’s Old Town, an attractive and eclectic mix of Renaissance, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical architectural styles dating back to the Middle Ages. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old Town’s architectural diversity results from raging fires in the 16th to 18th centuries, in addition to significant bomb damage during World War II. Here you’ll encounter St Anne’s Church, one of Vilnius’ most striking Gothic landmarks to have escaped the ravages of occupation, fire and war. Legend has it that when Napoleon arrived in Vilnius and set eyes on this church, he declared that he would like to take it in his palm back to France.
At the base of Gediminas Hill you’ll find Cathedral Square where, unsurprisingly, Vilnius Cathedral, complete with its 57-metre-tall belfry, dominates its surroundings. A veritable city landmark, the cathedral represents the most important Catholic building in Lithuania, although reputedly it was built in the 13th century on the site of a pagan temple. The belfry meanwhile originally formed part of a city gate in the defensive walls, though the only surviving structure of this type are the 16th-century Gates of Dawn, home to the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary and revered by both Catholic and Orthodox faiths alike. Indeed, it was the only site left intact by the Russians when the city walls were destroyed during the 18th century.
From Cathedral Square, climb the hill to the Gediminas Castle and Museum, dating originally from the 13th century though rebuilt in 1419 by the Grand Duke following the great fire of Vilnius. The views over the city from the summit are worth the climb alone, although if you’re feeling a little weary, you’ll find a funicular ascending and descending the hill on the northern side (facing the river), close to the Applied Art Museum, currently hosting an exhibition devoted to fashion of the 1940s and 50s (runs until 11th May 2014).
Other city essentials include the Uzupis District, a rather bohemian and free-spirited quarter replete with artists, cafes, galleries and workshops situated just across the Neris River from Old Town. Having unofficially declared independence from the rest of Vilnius in 1997, Uzupis also calls itself the Republic of Angels and set amidst its main square, symbolising the artistic freedom of the district, is a bronze trumpet-toting angel.
Further must-sees are the Genocide Victims Museum, housed in the city’s former KGB headquarters, whilst for fans of opera, over at the Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema, you’ll find an exhibition devoted to the history of Verdi, paying homage to all of his most famous operas including La Traviata, Rigoletto and Aida.
And whilst we’re on the subject of music and serving as a quirky finale to this whistle-stop tour of Vilnius, the city plays host to the world’s first statue devoted to Frank Zappa, erected in 1995 by the musician’s devoted local fan base. You’ll find it just to the west of Old Town on Kalinausko Street.