The main street of Vilnius, lined by government buildings, cultural institutions and shopping centres, is currently called Gediminas Avenue.
I say ‘currently’ because it has changed names several times over the course of modern history since it was built in 1836. Originally called St George Avenue, it was renamed Mickiewicz Street (in honour of the Polish poet) in 1922 when the city fell under Polish rule.
During the occupation by Nazi Germany, it was renamed again to Adolf Hitler Street. Later, under the Soviet Union, it was called Stalin Avenue and then Lenin Avenue. The current name has been in placed since 1989.
I mention all of this because it’s an easy way to understand that Lithuania’s capital is a city that has seen a lot of political change over its existence. It has been occupied by foreign powers, burned to the ground, welcomed foreign immigrants en masse, been allied with neighbours, and fought for independence.
There has rarely been stability in Vilnius, probably partly because it’s in the direct path between two major capitals – Berlin and Moscow.
But now the city finds itself at peace and the influence of its past has become one of its greatest cultural assets.
If you’re keen to discover the best of Vilnius while you’re here, I recommend this excellent private walking tour.
It’s sometimes easy to group the three Baltic countries together and assume their capitals would be similar. But what you find in Vilnius is very different.
It also doesn’t have quite as many tourists, which I enjoy. Although there are plenty of things to do in Vilnius, it has never had any particularly famous sights or created an allure in the way the other Baltic capitals have.
Instead, you’ll find a city that feels more authentic in the historical centre and more residential outside of it.
You’ll feel like you are genuinely walking the streets of history, not just from landmark to landmark because a guidebook suggested where to go in Vilnius.
On my first day in town, I set off exploring by foot and soon reach the end of Gediminas Avenue (as its now called).
Down the main street I walk, past chain stores and cafes, where any one of the buildings could potentially have an interesting heritage.
But it’s not until I reach the end of the street that I enter the Old Town, with the remains of the city’s main castle surveying the scene from atop a peak. (It’s not to be called ‘a fort on a hill’, as I’m repeatedly told by the locals, even though that’s more what it looks like.)
This is where the World Heritage Site known as the ‘Vilnius Historic Centre’ begins, and where you’ll find some of the most important buildings.
However, the longer I spend in Vilnius (and I’ve visited a couple of times now), the more I realise that the layers of history here are, themselves, just one layer of the city.
Of course there is a thriving modern culture – in neighbourhoods like Užupis, but even beyond there.
I discover the joys of Lithuanian food, with the cold beet soup known as ‘Šaltibarščiai’ becoming my favourite.
And I realise that, although Lithuania is not a country people tend to know well, there are some great day trips from Vilnius that justify using the city as a base for a while.
After centuries of different occupations, of wars, of shifting borders, Vilnius – and Lithuania – are again in a prosperous period of peace. The city wants to celebrate its history but it wants to celebrate the periods it is proud of and that capture the heart of the country.
To help you do the same, these are my tips for the best things to do in Vilnius.
Vilnius Castle Complex
I would recommend starting your visit to Vilnius at the Vilnius Castle Complex, a series of landmarks that, at first, you might not realise were all once just one site.
The Vilnius Castle Complex was the political and military centre of the city for centuries and is divided roughly into two sections – the Upper Castle and the Lower Castle.
One of the first things I recommend doing in Vilnius is walking up the path to the top of Gediminas Hill. It’s here that you’ll find what remains of the Upper Castle, which was first built on the site in the 1300s.
This first version of the castle was constructed in wood by the founder of Vilnius, Gediminas the Grand Duke of Lithuania, after legend says he had a dream of an iron wolf howling from the location.
There’s nothing left here now of the wooden castle. In fact, there’s not even that much left of a brick castle that was built on top of it later.
The main thing you’ll find on top of the hill is a three-storey structure known as Gediminas’ Tower that was actually rebuilt in 1933 and is considered an important symbol of Vilnius.
There are also some remnants of the Castle Keep, which was a large hall designed in a Gothic style. But, really, it’s the views from here across the orange-tiled roof of the Old Town that are the highlight.
Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania
At the bottom of the hill. the Lower Castle has a lot more to see, with the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania dominating the area. Don’t be fooled by how it looks, though. It was only officially opened in 2013!
The palace you see here today is a complete reconstruction of the old palace when it was at its zenith. First built in the 15th century, it was once an important and powerful building that eventually fell into disrepair and was completely torn down in 1801.
The decision to rebuild it was controversial at the time with a range of complaints by locals – including that the money should be spent on restoring buildings that still existed and that it would ruin the views and landscape of the area.
While I can’t really comment on those specific concerns, as a tourist, I think it’s a marvellous addition to the historic centre of the city and the museum inside has a great collection telling the story.
Next to the palace is Vilnius Cathedral, the main Catholic church in the city and the spiritual heart of the castle complex.
The Neoclassical facade makes it look more like a Roman temple but inside I find a more traditional Catholic design, filled with artworks.
In the forecourt, the bell tower is a striking structure. 52 metres high, it was originally built in the 13th century but the current design is from the 19th century. (You can go up for great views from the top.)
Vilnius Cathedral is where the Grand Dukes of Lithuania were coronated, where some of the leading figures of Lithuania’s history have been buried, and where a congregation still gathers regularly to worship.
It is not just the historical centre of the city, but also the cultural centre for much of the population.
The Old Town of Vilnius spreads out from the Castle Complex for more than a kilometre, forming one of the largest surviving medieval old towns in northern Europe.
Vilnius Old Town was named a World Heritage Site in 1994 and it’s easy to see why. The mix of buildings creates an intricate maze of intrigue with styles ranging from Gothic to Renaissance and Baroque.
Strolling around the cobblestone streets transports you into a different world, where there are plenty of important historical buildings, but also interesting shops and great places to grab lunch or a barista-quality coffee.
Just wandering the Old Town and getting lost is one of the best things to do in Vilnius, but make sure to look out for some of these highlights.
Church of St Anne
There are a lot of church spires rising up from the Old Town – so much so that I start to use them as a kind of map to navigate through the streets.
But the most beautiful of all the churches in Vilnius is the Church of St Anne, a monumental red-brick building constructed in 1500 that’s one of the most impressive Gothic buildings in Lithuania.
The facade is original and flamboyantly Gothic, with a large vertical window and shapes made from brick representing the country’s original coat of arms.
Step inside, and you may notice its dramatic archways contrasting with rectangular shapes that create a sense of dynamism.
The Church of St Anne is part of a complex with the neighbouring Church of St Francis and St Bernard which is definitely worth a look. It’s a bigger church and has a different feel because more Renaissance and Baroque features were added to it in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Gate of Dawn
Known locally as Aušros Vartai, the Gate of Dawn was built between 1503 and 1522 when Vilnius was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The gate is historically significant because it was part of the defensive fortifications that surrounded the old town of Vilnius.
But it also has religious importance. Inside the chapel is a painting of the Virgin Mary that has brought pilgrims from all over Lithuania to the Gate of Dawn for generations for its supposed healing powers.
Hales Turgus is one of the city’s oldest and largest food markets. Located in the southern corner of Vilnius Old Town, Hales has been in operation since 1906.
Make a detour here around lunchtime to sample delicious local fruit and vegetables, fresh meat, Lithuanian cheeses, and traditional jams and honey.
At night, Hales is even busier as it fills up with locals hanging out at late-night bars. Join in for some Lithuanian food and drink – a more authentic experience than some of the tourist restaurants.
One of the best ways to learn about the history of Vilnius is to go on a guided walking tour with a local guide.
At first, you might think you’ll be able to find all the green spaces and Baroque architecture, but I found that although Vilnius is an easy city to walk around, it’s also very easy to miss things. After all, there’s over 10,000 years of history to uncover from Lithuania’s rise from the swamps to its fall during Soviet occupation.
I think the best option to explore Vilnius is this affordable private tour that will show you the main landmarks as well as the hidden gems.
Or there are some other good options here:
It’s worth mentioning that something I’ve noticed here is that the local guides are really passionate about their city, which I think is lovely.
Vilnius also has a whole host of museums covering the history of the city’s past, as well as the beautiful culture and art of Lithuania.
From the dark terror of the KGB to the Lithuanian folk art that lights up the halls of the Lithuanian Art Museum, visiting one of the museums in Vilnius is a must.
National Museum of Lithuania
You will find the National Museum of Lithuania spread out across several locations, including inside the New Arsenal in front of the Gediminas Tower in the Old Town.
The National Museum of Lithuania is the oldest museum in the country and a treasure trove of Lithuanian cultural heritage. The exhibits cover a vast time period from the Neolithic times right up to the present day, explaining where traditional Lithuanian culture and customs came from.
You might spot anything from arrowheads and grave remains to treasured antiquities and numismatics. At the entrance, you will see a statue of Mindaugas, Lithuania’s sole king.
Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights
The Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, also known as the KGB Museum, is the only one of its kind in the Balkans.
Vilnius has faced many hardships over the last 100 years and this museum serves as an important reminder of the atrocities and the battles that have been overcome.
Learn about the underground resistance movement during WW2, and the building’s time as the former headquarters of the KGB (as well as the Gestapo, Polish occupiers and Tsarist judiciary).
The basement of the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights was once the KGB prison, and today you can still see the chamber that was used to execute prisoners.
The MO Museum is the country’s first private museum and opened in 2018. The sleek design is probably the most eye-catching of all Vilnius’s museums.
Designed by visionary architect Daniel Libeskind, the modern gallery houses over 5000 artworks. It’s a kind of cultural hub of the city with lectures, film screenings and concerts taking place regularly.
The MO Museum focuses on the 20th century, and is an interesting insight into Lithuanian culture in general. As well as hosting cultural events and live performances, it’s a fantastic place to spend a few hours on a rainy day in the city.
Lithuanian National Museum of Art
The Lithuanian National Museum of Art is a huge institution that is actually spread across nine different venues, four of which are in Vilnius.
In total, the museum has about 230,000 items that range from classical art to contemporary art, with a focus on applied and folk art, as well as things like jewellery.
In Vilnius, the four museum venues are:
- National Gallery of Art: Focusing on Lithuanian art in the 20th and 21st centuries, with an interesting contrast between the works made during the Soviet period and after the country’s independence.
- Vilnius Picture Gallery: The main collection is of Lithuanian art from the 16th to the second half of the 19th century, with an emphasis on portraits.
- Radvila Palace Museum of Art: Often used for temporary exhibitions, the main collection here has large works from Western European painters of the 16th to 19th centuries.
- Museum of Applied Arts and Design: As the name suggests, the works on display here are applied arts like fashion and jewellery.
While the art galleries here may not have the blockbuster works that you’ll find in some of Europe’s most famous museums, they do offer an excellent look at the cultural history of Lithuania.
A must-visit in Vilnius is the independent Republic of Užupis. The self-governing “free town” (similar to Christiania in Copenhagen) has complete freedom from the rest of the city.
With its own president, currency, and constitution, the small neighbourhood has a unique vibe making it a fantastic place for travellers to explore.
The name Užupis literally means “over the river”, and sits on the other side of the Vilnelé River to the Old Town. Crossing the bridge you will see an unofficial border control where passports can be stamped as a fun souvenir.
There are lots of things to do in Užupis, including street art and historic buildings, but it’s also just a fun place to hang out for a drink or a meal.
The self-proclaimed “country” even has its own constitution, which you can find on plaques running along Paupio Gatve. The 41 rules are engraved in English, Lithuanian, French, Chinese, Norwegian, Georgian, Japanese, Hebrew and several other languages.
Some highlights include: “A dog has the right to be a dog” and “Everyone has the right to understand nothing”.
The district dates back to the 16th century when it had a bad reputation amongst locals. It remains one of the poorest areas in the city and is still home to the red light district, but it now welcomes all with a sense of equality and beautiful street art around every corner.
Užupis Art Incubator
At the Užupis Art Incubator you will find many sculptures and paintings that express the freedom of this area. Several open-air galleries have been created by talent from Užupis as well as further afield.
There’s a grand piano that you are welcome to play, stone cairns to hop along the river, and even an enormous rocking horse. There are also lots of Užupis souvenirs on offer, from local artwork to postcards and clothing.
Other popular sights to look out for include The Mermaid, Backpacking Jesus, and the bronze statue of Archangel Gabriel.
It’s not just the museums that provide a great insight into the culture of Vilnius and Lithuania. There are some other easy ways to learn more about the city in a fun and less formal setting.
Vilnius is well-known for its vibrant street art, important works of literature, and fun-filled theme tours.
As I’ve mentioned, there’s great street art in Užupis, but you’ll find plenty in other places of Vilnius too – in fact, the whole city is well-known for its impressive artworks.
A great place to start is Draught Alley, which connects the Vilnius Academy of Arts with Užupis Street, a narrow alley decorated by painters from all over the world.
Another spot not to miss is the Open Gallery, a free-of-charge attraction that welcomes everyone. The project combines talented Lithuanian and foreign artists to create an open-air gallery of street art, sculptures and installations in the courtyard of the former Elfa factory.
Literature Street is one of the must-visit places in Vilnius Old Town. It was named after the printing houses and bookshops that once operated in the area and is now decorated with works of art related to authors of various time periods.
Plaques, as well as metal, wood, and glass effigies, have been placed here since its inception in 2008 to commemorate famous authors or inspirational literature. There are about 200 artworks now!
The famous poet Adomas Mickevičius also rented an apartment in the attic of a four-story house on this street. Here you can also find the Modern Art Centre, worth a look if you’re in the area.
As I mentioned earlier, a general city tour is one of the best things to do in Vilnius if you want to see the main sights. But there are also some excellent tours in Vilnius that will focus on particular aspects of the city’s story.
From the dark times to the local produce, you’ll be able to delve a little deeper and learn even more about Vilnius with one of these.
- Soviet era tour: Take in brutalist architecture, hear about the dark past at Lukiskiu Square, and take solace in Lithuania’s liberation.
- Jewish heritage tour: Including synagogues, cemeteries, and ancient ghettoes, your guide will drive you to some of the most important sights from when the city was the Jewish spiritual centre in Eastern Europe.
- Beer tasting tour: Beer has an important position in Lithuanian culture and this tour will take you to a local brewery as well as to several pubs to try different styles.
These themed tours are a great way to do something a little different than the standard sights (especially if you’re seeing quite a few big cities on your trip).
Although Vilnius is well known for its heritage, it’s also a very green city. In fact, the whole suburb of Žvėrynas is known as the ‘Green District’, with old wooden houses set amongst lush green trees.
It’s an interesting spot to visit for something different – or, if you’re looking for even more nature, there are some wonderful areas within easy reach of the city centre.
Vingis Park is a large forested area covered with a network of walking and bike trails that sits on the bend of the Neris River. From Vilnius Old Town, you can reach it along a three-kilometre riverside walking path.
In some ways, it’s nice just to come for a bit of fresh air, but you’ll also find the Vilnius University Botanical Garden, the Fight for Freedom Museum, and lots of lovely cafes.
Perhaps the main attraction at Vingis Park is Vilnius TV Tower – at 326 metres tall, it’s the highest structure in Lithuania and has a 360-degree rotating restaurant with fantastic views over the city.
Hill of Three Crosses
For one of the best views of Vilnius, venture to the top of the Hill of Three Crosses that overlooks the city from behind Gediminas Hill.
Wooden crucifixes were first placed here in the early 1600s to commemorate seven Franciscan monks who were executed on this hill in the 14th century. The monks were martyrs for the people and have become an important symbol of Vilnius.
Over the years they have been replaced by concrete crosses (which were torn down under Soviet rule in 1950), then the 12 metre high white crosses that you can still see today.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
One of the most exciting things to do in Vilnius is to take a hot air balloon ride right over the city. Did you know it’s actually the only capital in Europe that operates hot air balloon rides every day?
To get a very special perspective of the city, I suggest this hot air balloon ride in Vilnius, which is operated by a family-run business that is one of the oldest balloon companies in Lithuania.
All van transfers are included and you’ll see not just the city but also the surrounding nature. There’ll even be a glass of champagne waiting for you at the end of your flight!
Outside the city, there are some top sights in Lithuania within easy driving distance (or accessible by public transport or guided tours).
Although there are plenty of things to do in Vilnius, the city makes a good base to see a bit more of Lithuania – something I don’t think travellers often consider when they’re staying here.
A half-day trip to Trakai Castle is an absolute must if you are staying in Vilnius. The 14th century castle is picture perfect, perched on an island surrounded by Lake Galve.
Accessible via a wooden footbridge, inside you will find turrets, historical artefacts, and stories of generations past. The Trakai History Museum is also onsite and can be visited with a combined ticket.
It’s also home to a Turkish-speaking ethnic group named Karaim that descended from Crimea. The main street of the town named Karaimu Gatve is full of colourful wooden houses, and restaurants and cafes that offer delicious Karaim cuisine.
Buses from Vilnius to Trakai are regular, taking around 30 minutes and costing just a couple of euros each way. Or there’s this good guided tour that will show you the highlights in half a day.
Hill of Crosses
One of the more unusual sights in Lithuania is the Hill of Crosses, with more than 100,000 crucifixes. (Don’t confuse it with the Hill of Three Crosses in the city.)
It’s located outside the city of Šiauliai in northern Lithuania, around a two and a half hour drive from Vilnius. It’s worth combining a day trip with Kaunas to split up the journey as there’s not much else there.
It’s really interesting to see, and the number of crosses that have been placed here defies belief (despite many attempts by the authorities to remove them).
From Vilnius, there are a few good tours that will take care of the logistics if you don’t have a car:
How or why Kryžių Kalnas (the Hill of Crosses) came into existence remains a mystery.
Kernavė is another important piece of Lithuania’s historical jigsaw puzzle as it was the medieval capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Visit the World Heritage Site of the Hillforts of Kernave to understand more about the significance of the area.
These days, much of the site just looks like enormous grassy mounds – but there’s a beauty to them. Amongst these hills are forts, settlements and burial sites that tell a fascinating story.
Make sure to stop at the archaeological open-air museum that shows reconstructed homesteads from the 14th century.
It’s located an hour’s drive north of Vilnius, in the Širvintos district municipality of southeast Lithuania.
Buses run regularly, or I would recommend this private guided tour that includes Trakai and some sights in Vilnius.
Kaunas, just 100 kilometres west of Vilnius, is the second largest city in Lithuania but I don’t think it’s particularly well known.
Its position at the confluence of the Neris and Nemunas rivers means it’s had an important role throughout history, and was am influential cultural and economic centre in the Middle Ages.
Between the two World Wars, Kaunas was the temporary capital of Lithuania and its evolution into a modern city during this period is why it was recently named a World Heritage Site.
I’ve got a few good tour suggestions here, including options that include transport from Vilnius or just the guide when you arrive:
Doing a day trip to Kaunas to see landmarks like the medieval Kaunas Castle, the Kaunas Cathedral Basilica, and the Hanseatic House of Perkūnas is a great thing to do from Vilnius – but keep in mind it’s also a destination in itself.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN VILNIUS
The nicest accommodation is in the historic centre but you’ll get better value if you go into the surrounding suburbs.
There are quite a few backpacker places in town but a nice and relaxed option is Fabrika Hostel.
Although it’s not right in the centre, you’ll get a great price at the Vilnius City Hotel, and it’s not too far away.
With really cool designs in each room, if you’re looking for boutique, you’ll love Artagonist Art Hotel.
And I think the nicest luxury hotel in the whole city is the five-star Grand Hotel Kempinski.