A Pocket Guide To Vilnius – Lithuania’s Bold, Defiant Capital

Proudly Lithuanian and boldly defiant, this Baltic city dances to its own – distinctive – beat, roused by an energetic, young population intent on making Vilnius a name to know

Ever asked someone to pinpoint Vilnius? Chances are they'd wager eastern Europe. They'd be wrong. Nestled in the northern reaches of the continent, beneath Latvia and above Poland, Lithuania and its capital city fly under the radar. Vilnius residents playfully jest about the geographical confusion: last year, a campaign to entice more travellers declared that the city was "Amazing, wherever it is".

The simplistic statement undersells this Baltic beauty. Vilnius, with its compact, Unesco-listed old town packed with innovative restaurants and chic cocktail bars, as well as distinctive neighbourhoods such as Užupis and the Station Quarter just a stone's throw from the centre, is a lesser-known destination that deserves more attention. The city's struggle for recognition is no accident; a tumultuous history marked by a century of Tsarist and Soviet occupation did much to suppress Lithuania's identity.

Vilnius, Lithuania
Vilnius, Lithuania

Yet, Vilnius has emerged from the shadows with a quirky, alternative character, crafted from bold defiance. Today, modern cosmopolitanism intertwines with a fierce sense of independence, and the locals don't shy away from bold expressions. Towering letters on a glass skyscraper housing the metropolitan offices bear testament: "PUTIN, THE HAGUE AWAITS YOU."

Wandering through Vilnius reveals a treasure trove of restaurants, bars and cultural sites celebrating Lithuania's rich history and diverse culture. The Stiklo Quarter, in particular, revives an almost-lost gastronomic heritage, while Užupis, a self-proclaimed "republic", joyously celebrates freedom with its whimsical local constitution granting dogs the right to be dogs and humans the right to be unique. Read on for our recommendations for exploring Vilnius, amazing exactly where it is.

A mini guide to Vilnius, Lithuania

Artagonist Hotel, Vilnius
Artagonist Hotel, Vilnius

Artagonist Hotel

Where to stay

For clean-cut minimalism, book a room at the Artagonist, an airy, art-imbued townhouse in the city's old town. Monochrome bedrooms are jazzed up by eclectic art choices - think foam bubbles exploding through a ceiling, a giant teddy bear poking out of a wall, and angular, neon-yellow pyramids adding a pop of colour to an otherwise minimalist feel.

Superlative Baltic hospitality takes precedence at Hotel Pacai, once owned by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where glimpses of the former 17th-century baroque mansion are still visible after a sensitive but directional redevelopment. A modern, but unobtrusive, extension in the cobbled courtyard hides a celestially inspired spa. The restaurant is also one of the city's best.

Looking for something a little more retro? Try Stikliai Hotel. This flag-hung grande dame in the city's Glass Quarter pairs flounces, florals and five-star formality with an unlikely back story of perseverance. Opened by three friends as a small café and restaurant during Soviet rule, the Stikliai business was one of Lithuania's first private companies.

Lokys, Vilnius
Lokys, Vilnius

Restaurant Lokys

Where to eat

For a taste of traditional Lithuanian cuisine, head to the old town. At Restaurant Lokys - a cosy spot tucked into a medieval merchant house - the menu offers an edible timeline of the country's cookbook. Cold beetroot soup, smoked catfish, venison roasts and even a beaver stew are up for grabs.

At the Stiklo Quarter's Nineteen18, the son of a former Lithuanian prime minister reimagines traditional Lithuanian ingredients in contemporary dishes. Andrius Kubilius' menu (the tasting option costs from £70) might include a healthy dollop of jerusalem artichoke crème topped with the citrine-coloured spheres of pike caviar, an open tart filled with diced venison tartare and black trumpet mushrooms, and pickled Boletus mushrooms served over rye bread (don't worry about the "squirrels" referred to on the menu - it's the Lithuanian pet name for chanterelles).

Botanist, Vilnius
Momo Grill, Vilnius

Botanist, left, and MOMO Grill

At the Stiklo Quarter's Nineteen18, the son of a former Lithuanian prime minister reimagines traditional Lithuanian ingredients in contemporary dishes. Andrius Kubilius' menu (the tasting option costs from £70) might include a healthy dollop of jerusalem artichoke crème topped with the citrine-coloured spheres of pike caviar, an open tart filled with diced venison tartare and black trumpet mushrooms, and pickled Boletus mushrooms served over rye bread (don't worry about the "squirrels" referred to on the menu - it's the Lithuanian pet name for chanterelles).

For a casual dinner, try Botanist. Located in a softly lit cellar just off Town Hall Square, the restaurant serves up colourful taco dishes and inventive cocktails such as spicy maple margaritas. MOMO Grill, meanwhile, sends out hefty cuts of beef, lamb rump and duck in a bare-brick, industrially inflected dining space - all lit by the red glow of meat-ageing cabinets.

If you're on a budget, line up a visit to Vilnius to coincide with the city's annual gastronomic week - a period when dining destinations across the city provide one-off menus at (often) cheaper prices. The next one is in November 2024.

Nick and Nora, Vilnius
Nick and Nora, Vilnius

Nick & Nora

Where to drink

Kombucha is big in Lithuania: head to any café and you'll find it on the menu, alongside traditional drinks including gira, a fermented caraway seed drink. Head to Biržų Duona, a chain of convenience bakeries in the city, to try a bottle, alongside "little scarfs" (skarelės) - pastry folds filled with jam or curd.

Nick & Nora, in the old town, is known for utilising local ingredients to reimagine classic cocktails. Try a negroni made using Lithuanian quince, or a "starka man", a smoky mezcal, sea buckthorn, honey and lemon tipple that also incorporates the old-school Lithuanian spirit Starka into the mix.

Vilnius Street is where locals head on Fridays. Join students and young professionals fighting for a place at the bar at Piano Man to order brews from all over the world (including Lithuanian ones). Technically, this is a sports bar - that's why TVs inside play the country's unexpected national sport - basketball - 24/7.

Lukiskes Prison, Vilnius
MO Museum, Vilnius, Lithuania

Lukiškės Prison, left, and MO Museum

What to do

Vilnius feels like a village stretched into a city, so it's easily walkable. Start explorations in the old town: painted pastel colours, the area's baroque townhouses, churches and cathedral are easy on the eye. Then, take a gander down to the the self-declared Republic of Užupis - a rabble of old mills and artisans' workshops beside the Vilnelė River that, during the Soviet occupation of the city, became a derelict neighbourhood of disobedience, filled with squatters and criminals. By the 1990s, an artistic population had settled in, declaring the neighbourhood an independent state. Covering less than one square kilometre, this "republic" has its own president, constitution and (unofficial) currency. You can find the constitution written in 30 languages on large, mirrored rectangles hanging along the "Avenue of Constitutions", alongside quirky bookshops, galleries and art organisations.

The city's cathedral to modern art, MO Museum, is worth a visit for its origin story alone. The privately owned collection started as a "museum without walls", with founders ​​Danguolė and Viktoras Butkus collecting nearly 6,000 modern and contemporary pieces of Lithuanian artwork. Today, the angular architecture of the museum's Daniel Libeskind-designed permanent address houses exhibitions exploring the country's artistic shifts and changes, with the entire collection open to the public - take a look in the rooms downstairs to find wire shelves hung with Lithuanian artwork dating from the 1960s to today.

Only the barbed wire and subtle security infrastructure - high walls, imposing gateways and barred windows - hint at what sits beneath the resplendent dome of Lukiškės Prison in the city centre. A working prison for 115 years under the Tsarist regime, the Soviet occupation and in independent Lithuania, the jail was only taken out of service in 2021. Now, a cultural drive to reimagine the space has created "Lukiškės Prison 2.0" - a multi-use venue that's hosted Stranger Things filming, concerts, artist studios and city cultural programmes. Take a walking tour of the prison to understand the history and horrors of life behind bars for political prisoners, then stop for a drink. An old cell wing has been transformed into a neon-lit bar space.

The Lowdown

For more information and ideas on planning a trip to Vilnius, visit govilnius.lt

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