‘Vilnius was declared the capital city of Lithuania back in 1991 after the nation separated from the Soviet Union. It has a resident population of around 554,000 people and is known for, amongst other things, being one of the oldest surviving medieval towns in Europe…‘
The Old Town itself is a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site. Vilnius is an easy stop to get to, whether flying directly to the airport (6km from the city centre), hopping a train from a neighbouring city or rolling in on the bus from across the border in Riga, like we did. If you have a day to or more to spend in the city, these are the must-see sights:
Dating back to 1251, the cathedral that sits in the Old Town is Lithuania’s most important place of Catholic worship. Officially known as the Cathedral of St Stanislaus and St Ladislaus, this wonderful neoclassical structure has been destroyed and rebuilt on many occasions and now stands proudly, with its gleaming white façade and massive Greek style pillars, in the spacious Cathedral Square. The front exterior of the cathedral shows a sculpture of the Four Evangelists and, on the roof, stand three more sculptures, representing St Helena, St Stanilas and St Casimir. There is no charge to enter the cathedral and, although it is a bit plain inside (in comparison to other major cathedrals) it is a lovely space. The internal chapel of St Casimir is one of the highlights of the building and is the final resting place of the Saint, who resides along with the statue of the Sapiega Madonna, which is said to have performed many miracles throughout its life and, as such, is one of the city’s most important religious symbols.
Vilnius Cathedral’s bell tower is located next to the church, but is a separate building and has a small entrance charge. It’s an unadorned conical structure and has a series of steep staircases leading to the bell on the top floor and offering a panoramic view of the Old Town. The tower stands at 52 metres high and, including the cross on top, stands at a total height of around 57 metres. The bell tower clock was installed in 1672 and is the oldest in the city. The belfry itself is one of the oldest structures in Vilnius, with the entire ground floor dating back to the 13th century when it was built as part of the city’s defensive walls. The upper floors have been reconstructed since then, with the latest work completed in the 19th century. If you don’t have a fear of tight spaces of heights, the view from the top is well worth the climb.
Lithuania National Drama Theatre:
Aside from the building itself. Above the main archway sit sculptures of The Three Muses, which have become a symbol of the city. Personally, I thought they were midly terrifying but apparently this isn’t the message they’re supposed to convey.
‘The muses sit above the entrance to the Theatre and represent Comedy, Drama and Tragedy, as opposed to my initial guesses, which were Fear, Danger and OMGWTFISTHAT??…’
Joking aside; they are wonderful pieces, but I’m so glad I never have to walk past them alone at night. I’m even more glad I don’t live in the apartments directly across the road from them. The theatre and its muses are located on Gediminas Street, just a short walk from the Cathedral.
KGB Building/Genocide Museum:
Without sounding odd (more so, I mean…) everything about this government building absolutely *looks* like it was used by the KGB. It’s nondescript, is creepy AF, and just looks… Soviet. I have no idea what I mean by that, but let’s just say that when I saw it, I was all like ‘Yep. This place has mental Russian government spies written aaaaall over it’
There’s not much to alert you to the fact that it used to house all manner of prisoners and was the heart of the KGB during their extended presence in Vilnius, so it easy to miss if you’re wandering by. The ground floor of the building is now used as museum and sets the sombre tone that you would expect from exhibitions that inform you of the loss of life and use of torture that used to go on within the stone walls. The lower portions of exterior stones surrounding the building are inscribed with the names of the freedom fighters that perished within. There are several tours that are conducted in the basement, which will take you around the prisoner cells, if you’re that way inclined, and these are conducted in a range of languages. A short walk around the side of the building leads you to an official memorial and, just beyond this is the Genocide Museum, which is every bit as awful as it sounds. I mean that in terms of the theme of the museum, as opposed to the quality.
This tower stands on a hill overlooking the city and is the last remaining part of the Upper Castle of Vilnius. There’s a museum on site, which shows archaeological finds from the hill and surrounding grounds, but the main draw here is undoubtedly the view that the elevated position of the tower affords across the city. It’s a steep climb up the mound and it’s well worth it for the views from the top.
St Anne’s & St Francis’ Church Complex
Located in the Old Town, on the banks of the River Vilnia, sits the Church of St Ann’es, the Church of St. Francis and Bernadine, and a large monastery. St Anne’s has a fabulous red-brick facade, which towers above the street, and was originally built for Anna, the Grand Duchess of Lithuania.
‘Anna was clearly quite a special lady as it’s an amazing structure. I don’t have anything named after me, so I’ve clearly gone awry at some stage in life. I’m not bitter, though…’
Next door sits the Church of St Bernard and St Francis, which is a far more squat affair, but equally beautiful and enhanced with beautiful terracotta roof tiles that glint in the sun and – I thought – had a very Italian feel. This is no mistake, however, as the building was constructed in honour of St Francis of Assisi and Bernandino of Siena. The Churches with the complex are some of the best and most important examples of gothic architecture in the city and these, along with the centre, are recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The Church of St. Anne’s is an example of late, flamboyant gothic style, while St Bernard and St. Francis’ was built in the Belarusian Gothic style.
What are your favourite sights in Vilnius?