Make your Euros go even further as Lithuania becomes the latest country to adopt the common currency.
Ever heard of the Litas? Well, now you don’t need to as Lithuania’s former currency was officially withdrawn at the end of 2014, to be replaced with the Euro as from the 1st of January, 2015. Lithuania now becomes the 19th country out of 28 EU members to officially utilise the Euro, thus making Vilnius and other Lithuanian destinations ever more appealing, especially as part of a multi-centre break across the Baltics and Poland. And with this in mind, here’s a look at some of the Lithuanian capital’s most popular attractions…
A natural starting point on any Vilnius itinerary centres around the city’s Old Town, boasting, as a result of extensive fire and bomb damage, an attractive and eclectic mix of Renaissance, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical architectural styles dating back as far as the Middle Ages. Today a recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pilies Street operates as the hub of Old Town’s market and café life, whilst other sights include the Cathedral with its 57-metre-tall belfry, Town Hall, Vilnius University and the newly-renovated Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. If you visit before January 15th, you’ll get to see an exhibition devoted to Medieval and Renaissance Tapestry in Europe.
Other must-sees whist in the Old Town are the Presidential Palace, official residence to the President of Lithuania since the country’s independence in 1991 yet once the Bishops’ Palace. Having seen the likes of Tsar Alexander I, King Louis VIII and Napoleon Bonaparte, on his way to Moscow, pass through its doors, today the palace is famous for its daily early-evening changing of the guard ceremony, although it’s the Sunday ceremonial display at noon which is definitely worth catching.
Speaking of Napoleon, when he arrived in Vilnius in 1812 and spotted the St Anne’s Church for the first time, he declared it so stunning that he would like to carry it back to France in the palm of his hand. Indeed, St Anne’s is one of the capital’s most beautiful ecclesiastical buildings to have escaped the ravages of occupation, fire and war.
Another good photo opportunity are the 16th-century Gates of Dawn, the only remaining gates (of nine) from the city’s defensive walls left intact by the Russians. Revered by both Catholic and Orthodox faiths alike, the Gates of Dawn have taken on a religious significance beyond their original defensive purpose, for they play host to the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
No visit to Vilnius would be complete without an ascent to the top of Gediminas Hill, some 48 metres high, from which the views over the city and Old Town are particularly worth the climb. Once at the summit, you’ll find Gediminas Tower, the only remaining tower left of Gediminas Castle, once part of the city fortifications dating back to the 13th century though rebuilt in 1419 by the Grand Duke following the great fire of Vilnius. Today it plays host to the Castle Museum, part of the Lithuanian National Museum, the oldest in Lithuania.
To the east of Gediminas Hill stands the Hill of Three Crosses where three distinctive white crosses were erected in memory of the Franciscan monks who were crucified here in the 17th century. Destroyed by Stalin after World War II, remnants of the original crosses remain strewn in the shadows of their replicas. Not only a poignant visit, but an excellent vantage point over Old Town, too.
Yet another fabulous vantage point for far-reaching views is Lithuania’s tallest building, the TV Tower, soaring 326 metres into the Vilnius skyline. This towering monument has also come to represent a symbol of national unity, for it was here that in 1991, whilst trying to take control of the Lithuanian media, that Soviet armed forces assassinated 13 unarmed civilians. There’s a photographic exhibition devoted to the tragic events at ground level.
And whilst on the cheery subject of oppression, housed in the city’s former KGB headquarters (which also served as the Gestapo HQ during the Nazi occupation), the Museum of Genocide Victims tells the chilling and haunting story of life under Soviet occupation, when, from the end of Wold War II right up until the 1960s, thousands of Lithuanian nationals were executed, imprisoned or deported to Siberia. By no means an easy visit, but a touching and utterly memorable experience nonetheless.
Last but by no means least, once you’ve explored Vilnius’ sightseeing essentials, take time to discover the bohemian and free-spirited district of Užupis, buzzing with artists, cafes, galleries and workshops situated just across the Neris River from Old Town. Calling itself the Republic of Angels, Užupis unofficially declared independence from the rest of Vilnius in 1997, with a bronze trumpet-toting angel the symbolic representation of its artistic freedom.