I’ll be honest: visiting Vilnius was never particularly high up on my bucket list. Growing up it was instilled in me that a holiday meant sandcastles and sun in the Spanish Costas, and this innate desire for warm weather destinations meant that I had turned into a traveller with a strong inclination for the balmy jungles and paradise beaches of south east Asia.
However, this time last year it was my best friend Craig’s birthday and he booked us some flights to Lithuania, driven more by the cheapness of the tickets than for any real desire to explore its capital. Before I knew it we were touching down in what initially seemed to be a bleak, chilly city.
The airport is located in a desolate part of the Lithuanian capital, surrounded by industrial estates and large shopping outlets. “We have the only Ikea in the Baltic states”, our taxi driver proudly announced. Outside the chain link fences of the metal buildings were rows of rickety wooden houses that looked poorly insulated and damp in the melting snow.
As we struggled to extract our apartment key from a safety box that was frozen solid, I was concerned that this would be a trip to remember for all the wrong reasons. Yet a quick exploration indicated that underneath the knee-deep carpet of snow, there was a lot to love about Vilnius, and my initial hostility towards the city quickly thawed.
So, when considering a Christmas break, why should you bypass the obvious destinations of Prague and Vienna, and head east to lesser-explored Vilnius?
The Christmas market will inspire even the most jaded festive tourist
Like many people over the age of 12, I’m slightly jaded when it comes to the commercialism and expense of Christmas and I find it somewhat challenging to appreciate the ‘magic’ when the festive season rolls around each year. John Lewis adverts leave me cold. But a trip to Vilnius’ incredible Christmas market had me feeling as excited about the impending arrival of Old Saint Nick as a five-year-old.
So, if you want a injection of Christmas joy straight to the heart, Vilnius is definitely not a bad shout. But what makes Vilnius’ market better than the ones at home, where you can shop for vastly overpriced wooden trinkets, or get battered by sharp elbows as you attempt to push your way to the bar one of the ‘authentic German beer halls’?
Firstly, the layout is enchanting. The identical wooden stalls sit in a circle around a giant Christmas tree, and fairy lights run straight from the top of the tree to the roofs of the stalls, leaving visitors wandering under a twinkling canopy, through which the odd snowflake still falls.
The stalls sell Christmas ornaments, jewellery, scarves, bags, artisanal chocolate and sweets – everything you would expect from a festive market. However, it’s just not that busy, meaning that if you time your visit right, you won’t have to wait long to grab a mug of mulled wine and a mince pie to enjoy at a nearby table WHERE YOU CAN GET A SEAT.
The pubs are incredible
The bars and pubs of Vilnius are well-suited to fostering that festive feeling. These cosy watering holes, complete with roaring fires and comfy arm chairs, are extremely hip – with most selling an astounding number of craft ales – and gorgeous, well-heated outdoor areas are the norm.
The above qualities would likely make a bar in one of the UK’s major cities full to the point where an enjoyable visit is simply untenable, but in Vilnius, while there is a pleasant atmosphere, it’s never a struggle to get to the bar or find a seat.
This is likely due to the sheer number of excellent bars and pubs in Vilnius. Meandering the idyllic, snow-frosted streets, it’s impossible to walk for two minutes without encountering a Lithuanian restaurant promising hearty fare, a homely pub with a welcoming fire or a wine bar that takes it cheeses very seriously. The freezing weather that accompanies a trip to the Lithuanian capital only makes visits to these delightful establishments all the more enticing.
When on a pub crawl, you can also take note of the brilliant street art dotted around the city, including a piece on the side of a (really good) bar that made international headlines for its controversial depiction of Trump and Putin.
You can feast on deeply unhealthy ‘snacks to beer’ in the name of ‘culture’
Lithuania has a category of food called ‘užkandžiai prie alas’, which literally translates as ‘snacks to beer’. What a wonderful place.
This means that when you sit down for a warming pint, you can also indulge in kepta duona, a greasy yet compelling treat comprising of fried bread with garlic dip, or blyani: potato pancakes served with a dollop of sour cream.
These snacks are chosen because they taste incredible with beer, and trust me: they taste INCREDIBLE with beer. Healthy, they are not, so make sure you are prepared to cheat on any or all of your diet plans before you visit Vilnius.
Vilnius’ fascinating history: From the deeply sad to the bizarre
Lithuanian history is definitely not well-known in the UK, so discovering the intriguing – and at times quirky – history of the country is one of the joys of a visit.
A free walking tour is the perfect way to learn more about your host destination. These tours meet at the town hall a couple of times a day and last around two hours – which is more than enough in the freezing conditions.
Follow an enthusiastic guide around the city to learn about everything from the Nazis’ tragic impact on Lithuania and how one of Europe’s last pagan countries converted to Christianity, to why Lithuanians have a love-hate relationship with George W Bush and why they describe ‘basketball’ as their second religion after Christianity. Beer takes the third spot in their list of religions. You also get to see tourist attractions such as Literature’s Street and the striking Church of St Anne, which it is said Napoleon was so taken with that he expressed a wish to carry it back to Paris in the palm of his hand.
One of my favourite stories – told when we were gathered around a pagan statue in someone’s garden – was how the church went about converting the country’s pagans in the 14th and 15th centuries. Citizens were offered thick woollen shirts in exchange for agreeing to be baptised. These shirts were extremely valuable at the time, so some individuals decided to get baptised numerous times, in various villages, to acquire more clothing. These baptisms en masse also led to entire villages of people being given the same Christian name, regardless of gender, which no doubt led to huge confusion.
In the quirky Republic of Uzupis you have the right to be loved, but not necessarily
If – like me – you’re a bit obsessed with unlikely history, the Republic of Uzupis is a true delight to explore.
Uzupis is a neighbourhood within Vilnius traditionally known as an enclave of artists and bohemians. On April 1st 1997 its inhabitants took this status to the next level, declaring the neighbourhood a republic, creating their own flag and bizarre yet awesome constitution, and installing a president, cabinet of ministers, and an army of around 11 men. However, Uzupis doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should you.
Crossing the bridge from Vilnius, as long as you flash a smile you can get your passport stamped with the symbol of this unique ‘country’. Along the riverbank sit several artistic installations, including the irreverent ‘backpacking Jesus’.
Around the corner there are a handful of restaurants and bistros, and the Uzupis constitution is displayed on the wall in a very wide variety of languages. While Uzupis is not recognised as a country on the world stage, it does have a close relationship with Georgia, which displays the constitution in Vilnius Square in the capital of Tbilisi.
The constitution includes such rules as:
- Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
- Everyone has the right to have no rights.
- Everyone has the right to be loved, but not necessarily.
While there’s not a huge amount to do in the Republic – particularly come nightfall – it’s definitely worth a wander round during the day.
In a way, the atmosphere of Uzupis sums up a trip to Vilnius. A relaxed winter wonderland with plenty of cosy nooks in which to warm up with a beer, a fascinating and sometimes quirky history, and friendly locals who don’t take themselves too seriously. It was the perfect place to celebrate (or not celebrate) Craig’s birthday and to get us ready for the magic of Christmas. And if that’s not enough for you, the fact that it’s still rather off-the-beaten-path will win you ‘travel points’ among your friends who care about that sort of thing.