Lithuania's capital is Europe's cultural hub in 2009, and marks its millennium. Alessia Horwich prescribes a perfect weekend in this city of surprises
Saturday 27 December 2008
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WHY GO NOW?
The capital of Lithuania is about to celebrate its 1,000-year Jubilee. Vilnius takes over (with Linz) from Liverpool and Stavanger as the European Capital of Culture in 2009, with more than 900 cultural events on offer. To check out the planned celebrations, see culturelive.lt/en.
You can fly from Gatwick to Vilnius on Lithuanian Airlines (01293 579 900; flylal.com) and Air Baltic (0871 288 7416; airbaltic.com). A taxi into town from the city's airport will cost around 40 litas (40L/£10); bus 1 and 2 leave from the arrivals terminal to the railway station (1) on Gelezinkelio Street or Lukiskiu Square (2) for a fare of just 1.40L (35p). You can also fly to nearby Kaunas with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Luton, Stansted, Birmingham and Liverpool, and travel on by bus or train from there.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
The heart of Vilnius is the Old Town, filled to bursting with baroque and gothic architecture, ornate churches, boutiques, cafés and the occasional communist concrete monstrosity. It was named a Unesco world heritage site in 1994 for its fascinating diversity. One of the main thoroughfares, carving through the centre of the Old Town, is Vilniaus Street. You'll find the Tourist Office (3) (00 370 52 62 96 60; vilnius-tourism.lt) at number 22. It is presently closed; when it re-opens in February the hours will be 9am-6pm from Monday to Friday. At weekends, smaller offices in the Town Hall (4) and the railway station (1) are open from 10am-4pm.
Vilnius' business district is just across the river Neris. You can't miss the neon signs and the Europa Tower (5) – the highest skyscraper in the Baltic states. To the east of the Old Town is the self-styled "Republic of Uzupis", the bohemian quarter officially twinned with Montmartre in Paris. Uzupis means "beyond the river". It declared independence from Lithuania in 1998 and now has its own constitution and president. The Uzupis Angel (6), the symbol of their pacifist constitution, stands on a column in the centre of the district. Originally there was an egg on the top of this column, but after many years of waiting, the Angel was "born" in 2001 and has stood there ever since.
The Viesbutis Narutis Hotel (7) at 24 Pilies Street (00 370 52 12 28 94; narutis.com) is a restored 16th-century hotel with views over the Old Town; the oldest in Vilnius. It has 50 plush rooms, each with its own unique frescoes, plus a Turkish spa and Jacuzzi. Breakfast, which is included in the room rates, is served in the gothic cellars. Doubles start at €105 (£96).
The family-run Grybas House (8) at 3 Ausros Vartu Street (00 370 52 61 96 95; grybashouse.com) is tucked away in a courtyard close to the Gates of Dawn, the only remaining city gate. The hotel offers comfortable accommodation from €86 (£78) per double, including breakfast.
The Old Town Hostel is just along the street at 15-20 Ausros Vartu Street (00 370 52 62 53 57; lithuanianhostels.org). It is a cheap and homely location with free tea, coffee and internet. Private single rooms start at 110L (£28), room only.
TAKE A VIEW
The defensive walls of the city's 13th-century Gedimino Castle were almost completely destroyed under the Soviets, but one watchtower survives – and is home to the Higher Castle Museum (9). The views are more interesting than the exhibits; there are big panoramas over Vilnius from the observation deck. To get to the museum you can either walk, or ride on the new funicular railway from the courtyard of the Old Arsenal (10) at 5 Arsenal Street. The museum opens 10am-7pm daily; 4L (£1).
The winding Stikliu Street (11) is where many of Vilnius' artisans have installed their boutiques and workshops. There are several ateliers selling jewellery, stained glass, hand-made clothing, restored antiques and art galleries. Pop into the funky fashion boutique of designer Julija Zileniene (00 370 52 31 06 09; jzileniene.lt). The President's wife is a big fan of her original Lithuanian chic. Opening hours are 11am-7pm on weekdays.
Zoraza (00 370 52 12 00 84; zoraza.lt) at number six has chaotic fashion creations and is open 11am-7pm on weekdays and 11am-3pm on Saturdays.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Keisti Zenklai (12) at 13 Traku Street (00 370 52 61 07 79) is an inexpensive, restaurant with hot dishes from 10L (£2.70). Get your teeth into a hearty beef stew with vegetables for a bargain 10.90L (£3); 11am-midnight daily.
The KGB Museum (13) at 2a Auku Street (00 370 52 49 62 64; genocid.lt/muziejus) is in the former Vilnius courthouse that was adopted as the KGB prison between 1944-1990. Downstairs the prison is still intact and portrays the grim reality of the claustrophobic holding and torture cells, the exercise yard and execution room. You can also visit the "Eavesdropping Room", where an officer was stationed to listen to the conversation of passers-by to try to uncover insurgents. Upstairs exhibitions take you through Soviet occupations, deportations and the Lithuanian resistance. It opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday (to 3pm on Sundays); 4L (£1.10).
Pick from an extensive wine list at In Vino (8) at 7 Ausros Vartu (00 370 52 12 12 10; invino.lt), a cosy wine bar close to the Filharmonia (14). It opens at 4pm daily, until at least 2am.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Delve into the network of medieval-looking cellars underneath Vokiecu street that house Zemaiciai (15), at number 24 (00 370 52 61 65 73; zemaiciai.lt); a traditional Lithuanian restaurant. Specialities include zeppelins (boiled potato dumplings with fillings) for 18L (£4.50), and wild boar goulash for 30L (£7.50). For something more modern, Zoe's Bar and Grill (16) at 3 Odminiu Street (00 370 52 12 33 31; zoesbargrill.com) has local specialities with a Thai twist, starting at 18L (£4.50).
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
The Cathedral (17) and its Bell Tower are unmissable. The place of worship was built in 1251 for new Christian convert King Mindaugas whose statue now glares over its eastern wing. Under the Soviets it was used as a car workshop, then later as an art gallery. Today it houses rich religious artwork, as well as a crypt with graves from paganism to the present. Masses are held between 8am and 7pm every day.
TAKE A HIKE
Take the spiritual scenic route through the Old Town starting from the Gates of Dawn (18). In 1671 a chapel was built into this 16th-century gate, to house an image of the Virgin Mary; the staircase to access the chapel is just on the left and is open between 6am and 7pm every day. Continue down Ausros Vartu Street for a look at its many churches; St Teresa (19) and the baroque Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit (20) which houses the only functioning Russian Orthodox convent and monastery in Lithuania.
Further down on the left is the Church of the Holy Trinity and its Basilian monastery (21), whose gatehouse is particularly beautiful. A few steps away on the left is the Vilnius Filharmonia (14), and on the right, the Church of St Casimir (22). Continue into Didzioji Street into Town Hall Square (4). Time for a cup of tea.
OUT TO BRUNCH
One of the speciality brews of Vilnius is acorn tea. You can get it, along with many other varieties at Skonis ir Kvapas (23), a traditional tea room hidden away on a courtyard off Traku Street (00 370 52 64 04 30; skonis-kvapas.lt). Dishes such as pancakes with salmon, prawns and mushroom cream sauce are served from 10L (£2.70), along with delectable pastries.
A WALK IN THE PARK
Sereikiskiu Park is the oldest park in Vilnius. It dates back to the 15th century when it belonged to Benedictine monks. Today it's a prime spot for a stroll along the banks of the River Vilnia.
Two minutes' walk from the park entrance is the red-brick gothic Church of St Anne (24). During his visit to Vilnius, legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte liked the church so much he declared he wanted to take it back to Paris.
ICING ON THE CAKE
Vilnius may have the best-value patisseries in Europe. A good place to indulge a sweet tooth is Poniu Laime (00 370 52 64 95 81), a doily-clad tea-room at 14 Stikliu Street (12). It boasts the best cakes in the Old Town, at prices around 5L (£1.35). It opens 10am-8pm Saturdays, 11am-6pm Sundays and 9am-8pm during the week.
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