Must-Visit Attractions in Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius Cathedral | © Marina Barinova / Pixabay
Vilnius Cathedral | © Marina Barinova / Pixabay
Photo of Mark Nayler
20 July 2021

Lithuania’s capital city Vilnius is so much more than its pretty, Unesco-protected Old Town – although as one of Europe’s oldest surviving medieval centres, its cobblestone streets, ancient churches and well-preserved architecture make it a captivating city break. Vilnius isn’t just beautiful to behold – it’s also an economic powerhouse in the Baltics. And Vilnius’s must-visit attractions, from chilling former KGB cells to the bustling Hales food market, reflect how the city’s turbulent history collides with a creative contemporary culture.

Visit the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights

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Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights
© Luca Rei / Alamy Stock Photo
The Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights occupies the former headquarters of the Soviet secret police, or KGB. The ground and first floors document the city’s occupation by Soviet forces from the end of World War II to the early 1990s, and the activities of the clandestine resistance movement during the same period. Not for the faint of heart is the grisly basement, where you can see the padded cells in which the KGB kept doomed prisoners, and the execution room where they were dispatched with gun or axe.

Explore the Lithuanian Diaspora Art Museum

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The Lithuanian Diaspora Art Museum, formerly the Vytautas Kasiulis Art Museum, focuses on the works of Lithuanian artist Vytautas Kasiulis (1918-1995), who fled to Paris after the Soviet occupation. Spread throughout a neoclassical palace dating from the early 20th century, the permanent collection comprises 950 pieces donated to Lithuania in 2010 by Kasiulis’s widow and their son, as well as works by other Lithuanian artists who worked from exile during the Soviet era.

Marvel at the Three Crosses Monument

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The Three Crosses monument overlooking Vilnius Old Town on sunset
© MNStudio / Alamy Stock Photo
These 12-metre-high crosses were erected in 1989 on a hallowed site high above Vilnius. They replaced concrete crosses torn down by the Soviet authorities in 1950, which themselves were intended to be more durable versions of wooden crucifixes dating from the early 1600s. All these incarnations commemorate the seven Franciscan monks executed on this hill in the 14th century, who thereafter became martyrs and symbols of their city – or so legend has it.

Go to the St. Anne’s and Bernardine Church Complex

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Aerial view of St. Anne's Church and neighbouring Bernardine Church
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St Anne’s Church was built in the Flamboyant Gothic and Brick Gothic styles that were prevalent in the Baltics around the time of its construction, between 1495 and 1500. Rumour has it that the church’s soaring, three-spired facade made such an impression on Napoleon that he wanted to deconstruct it and transport it back to Paris with him, following his invasion of Imperial Russia – which included modern-day Lithuania – in 1812. Next to St. Anne’s stands a neo-Gothic bell tower constructed in the 1870s and the much larger Bernardine church, a Gothic structure also dating from the late 1400s and substantially rebuilt during the early-16th and mid-17th centuries.

Pop into Uzupis, one of the smallest republics in the world

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Uzupio street in the Uzupis district in Vilnius
© Eric Nathan / Alamy Stock Photo
On 1 April 1998, Uzupis – an artistic, rebellious neighbourhood in the centre of Vilnius – declared itself an independent republic with its own flag, currency, president and anthem. The territory’s 41-article Constitution is displayed in several languages along Paupio Street, enumerating its citizens’ many liberties, such as ‘the right to have no rights’ and the ‘right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday’. Uzupis holds its Independence Day celebrations every 1 April, which also happens to be the only day that you can get your passport stamped as you enter the republic.

Take in the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum

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Named after the Vilnius-born Talmudic scholar Vilna Gaon, this museum charts the history of Lithuania’s Jewish population up to and including World War II. It operates several separate exhibitions, but the building at Pamenkalnio Street – also referred to as the Green House – is dedicated to commemorating the devastating effects of the Holocaust on Jewish people in Lithuania. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, the population was around 240,000 – which was reduced to around 10,000 by the end of the war.

Stroll along the Neris River

Architectural Landmark
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View of city and Neris River
© Michele Ursi / Alamy Stock Photo

The best way to see Vilnius on foot is by following the Neris riverbank as it weaves its way through the city centre. Start in the neighborhood of Zverynas and wander through the Old Town, ending up in the northern district of Zirmunai and covering a distance of about 7km (4.3 mi) in total. Key sights along the way include waterfront bars and cafes, street art, randomly dotted sculptures and one of the city’s largest green spaces.

Browse the produce at Hales Market

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In Vilnius Old Town, Hales Turgaviete has been a site for buying and selling local produce since 1906, making it one of the city’s oldest and largest food markets. By day, it’s a noisy, aromatic collection of stalls selling fruit and vegetables, meat, cheese, jams and honey. But after dark it takes on a new identity, morphing into one of the hippest night spots in Vilnius with a crop of late-night bars to drink, eat and dance the night away. Some stall owners speak English, but it’s best to brush up on some food-related Lithuanian words before visiting.

Stand on Stebuklas miracle tile

Historical Landmark
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The Stebuklas tile in Katedros Aikste where the human chain joined in 1989 in Vilnius Lithuania
© Martin Norris Travel Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Smack bang in the middle of Vilnius’s Cathedral Square, this maroon floor tile marked the end of the longest human chain in history in August 1989 – when two million people joined hands across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to protest Soviet rule. Standing out from the paler tiles surrounding it and bearing the Lithuanian word for miracle, the tile is said to possess magical powers. Find out what they are by stepping, jumping or spinning clockwise on it as you make a wish – locals say it’ll come true.

Eat real Lithuanian food at Snekutis

Bar, Pub, Restaurant, Lithuanian
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Snekutis started out as an experimental home-brewing venture in Pasvalys in the mid-1990s. It’s now grown to encompass three beery establishments in Vilnius. Head there for big, frothy mugs of homemade ale and classic Lithuanian dishes such as cepelinai (zeppelin-shaped dumplings of raw and cooked potato in a creamy bacon sauce) and kepta duona (fried garlic rye bread served with cheese sauce). Prices are notably lower than those of nearby bars and restaurants – just another reason to eat authentic grub.

These recommendations were updated on July 20, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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