Lithuania’s tourism industry is thriving. Last year visitor figures hit a new high of 1.5 million, including in that number this writer, reporting that one of the nicest aspects of hanging out in the country’s capital, Vilnius, is its welcoming residents, who seem to enjoy their city as much as we visitors.
Invited by the Ministry of Tourism, our press group was in town for Sostines Dienos, the Vilnius City Fiesta, a time when everyone—and I mean everyone—turns out to celebrate the end of summer. In the city’s 13th century Old Town—a UNESCO World Heritage site—Gediminas Avenue converts into a vast street-market emporium of arts, crafts and food stalls, while open-air concerts (classical, jazz, folk, rock) pop up across the city. Starting at sunset, we couldn’t cross the sprawling square in front of our hotel without being hijacked by the locals for a selfie or two, or a quick round of salsa and electric slide. Clients who may be on a Baltic cruise this summer, may be be lucky to catch this festival (Sept. 1-3) during a Vilnius port call.
The City Festival’s main stage is Cathedral Square, crowned by the imposing Cathedral of St. Stanislav & St. Vladislav, whose showpiece is the frescoed Chapel of Saint Casimir. Also on the square is the fortified Palace of the Grand Dukes, originally built in the 17th century on a site occupied since the fourth century A.D., and today housing a fascinating museum.
Cathedral Square is also home to the five-star Kempinski Hotel Cathedral Square, with 96 rooms and suites, a new Thai restaurant, and a beautiful spa. The city also boasts a roster of historic, boutique hotels, such as these two high-enders: Narutis, occupying a red-brick, in a 16th century townhouse in the Old Town, and Stikliai, a Relais & Chateaux member in the old Jewish quarter.
Just outside the Old Town walls, a pedestrian bridge leads across the Vilnia River to Uzupis, an atmospheric district of cafes, pastry shops and art galleries whose buildings themselves are works of art. On April 1, 1997, residents, traditionally artists and bohemian types, celebrated their differentness by declaring themselves an Independent Republic. This quirky enclave not only has its own president, flag and national anthem, but a famous Constitution, with 38 articles and translated into 15 languages: “Everyone has the right to make mistakes,” reads Article 4; “Everyone has the right to love,” according to Article 6.
Elsewhere, a less-bucolic city attraction is the Museum of Genocide Victims, set in an imposing building that served as KGB headquarters; it delves deep into the bleak periods of German and Soviet occupations with exhibits dedicated to deportation, civil resistance and Soviet spying techniques. And on a brighter, spiritual note, among the capital’s dozens of Orthodox and Catholic churches, red-brick St. Anne’s is my 15th century Gothic favorite. Also of brick construction is Gediminas Castle and Museum, which offers a 360-degree panorama of Vilnius from its prime hilltop location.
Of course, Lithuania’s attractions are not confined to her capital. Just 18 miles from Vilnius is the must-see, fairy tale castle of Trakai, afloat in Lake Galve and connected to the mainland by a footbridge. Built in the 15th century, this red-brick, Gothic, ducal palace has been beautifully rebuilt and restored, serving as an interesting museum showcasing the times and treasures of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In Trakai town, we dined out at Restaurant Kybynlar, whose host is a Karaim, a Turkic people who came to Trakai around 1400: he taught us to make—and we deliciously ate—traditional kybyn, a pastry in the shape of a half-moon, baked with lamb or beef filling.
Back in Vilnius, these traditional pastries are called kibinai; the ones I remember best were sugar-dusted and raspberry-filled.
When I go back to see the sky-high sand dunes of UNESCO-ranked Curonian
Spit National Park, I’ll catch up with the national dish, cepelinai, a meat-filled potato dumpling, served slathered in sour cream and pork cracklings.
- The city’s well-preserved, lively and beautiful Old Town, whose architecture revels in the baroque and whose cobbled streets sport Burberry and Max Mara outposts, as well as boutiques of Lithuania’s cutting-edge designers.
- The Amber Museum Gallery, which one can tour and learn about why Lithuania is the capital of amber.
- Go ballooning as Vilnius is that rare capital you can actually balloon over.
Kempinski Hotel Cathedral Square: kempinski.com/en/vilnius/hotel-cathedral-square
Lithuanian State Department of Tourism: lithuania.travel