Just before Christmas I was invited on a trip to visit Vilnius, Lithuania. As a country I’ve long wanted to visit, and with the added allure of December Christmas markets, I didn’t hesitate to accept. I spent a wonderful few days exploring the city (and nearby Trakai) with incredibly knowledgeable, not to mention helpful, patient and enthusiastic, guide Edvinas Pundys.
Would that I could give you even a tenth of the rich insight into Lithuanian culture, history and modern-day life that Edvinas packed into our time together. Instead I shall share some images and impressions, and encourage you to visit for yourself.
My favourite place, which we crossed several times during our walks around the city, and which I also visited on my own for a little gift shopping, was Cathedral Square and the small but charming Christmas Market. The cathedral and bell tower are both impressive, the bell tower a standalone structure that was likely once part of the mediaeval city walls; the lower part of it being from that era, the upper part and neo-classical finish added in the late 19th century, during reconstruction work on the cathedral itself. Next door to the cathedral is the newly constructed National Museum, built on the site of the Palace of the Grand Dukes; in the basement you’ll find archaeological ruins from many centuries past.
Although lots of the food treats looked tempting, I focused on things I could bring home – some amber jewellery (for which Lithuania is well known) and a couple of jars of local honey.
I also stopped in a local supermarket for local cheeses, cured meats and chocolates.
Of course, there was plenty more to see around Vilnius, much of it rich in history and architecturally beautiful to boot. We also popped into the Money Museum, which I had expected to be a little dull but actually really liked, not least because of the clever technology used to provide the display; coins in columns that could be moved up and down by the touch of a button, as could the associated magnifying lens in front and drawers full of international currencies with a wall display about each one that could be called up from a central console.
The local tourist booklet, Vilnius in your pocket, has not only a full list of all the attractions, it also provides a detailed restaurant listing and a surprisingly comprehensive condensed history of Lithuania. Definitely pick this up on arrival, so you can refer to it during your visit. Better still, a Pocket Edvinas is strongly recommended!
Many of the buildings in the Old Town are worth a visit. We explored just a small part of Vilnius University’s Old Campus (there are other locations around the city too). The campus is formed of many buildings of different styles and ages, arranged around 13 courtyards. To enter the campus as a visitor, you’ll need to buy a ticket, it’s not expensive. I was particularly taken with the mural-painted arched ceilings of Littera, the university bookshop. There’s also a first floor hall featuring murals in red, blue and gold that is quite impressive. This is a modern artwork showing the seasons of the year, as they were once experienced by rural Lithuanians. Via the Grand Courtyard, we also visited St John’s Church. Such visits were made so much richer by Edvinas’ running commentary about the origins of the church, about how it survived the nazi occupation and the long period during which Lithuania was part of the USSR; religious activity being anathema to soviet secularity.
A short drive out of Vilnius is Trakai, a very popular local holiday destination. Unspoiled, with many attractive lakes, it’s also the home of Trakai Castle, a 14th century castle that was heavily restored in the late 20th century. Trakai was one of the main centres of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and as such, the castle held significant strategic importance.
Without fail during my visit, we ate well and prices seemed very reasonable. My main regret is that most of the meals organised for us didn’t showcase traditional Lithuanian cuisine as much as I’d hoped; rather the restaurants were selected on providing a tasty meal; the kind of places locals enjoy and recommend. But I did try a few local dishes that have whetted my appetite for a return trip, so that I can experience more traditional fare.
Dinner on the first night wasn’t included, so two of us took a walk to The Old Green House, a cosy restaurant a few minutes walk from our hotel. A bar snack starter of baked bread with smoked pigs ears and cheese was far bigger than I expected (for just 3.19 Euros) and one of my favourite dishes of the trip; smokey pork, gooey cheese and crunchy dark rye bread. I also had a main of pork ribs, and the stroganoff my friend chose looked very good too.
The underground setting of La Boheme was very attractive. My favourite of the dishes we had there was a cheese soup with shrimp; rich and simple. My pork main was a little dry, and not very interesting.
At Leiciai restaurant, a salad featuring local fresh cheese, apples and walnuts was delicious but I particularly enjoyed the duck served with a baked bacon-wrapped pear stuffed with cheese. The others enjoyed beers brewed by the restaurant’s own microbrewery. As a non-beer-drinker I paused on the way home to buy a selection of beers from local and regional breweries, at the excellent beer shop also owned by the same business; hopefully Pete will review some of these soon. Dessert, a huge banana on a puddle of sour (unsweetened) kiwi puree was a disappointment.
My favourite meal, and one which definitely gave us an insight into one of the local cuisines, was at Kybynlar restaurant in Trakai, a popular holiday destination about 30 km from Vilnius. We visited Trakai not only to see the impressive castle and lakes but to try Karaite cooking; Trakai is the home of the Lithuanian Karaite community, an ethnic and religious group derived from Turkic-speaking adherents of Karaism. The religion has much in common with aspects of Judaism, from which historians believe Karaism originated. Certainly one of the most interesting aspects of the Lithuanian history that Edvinas related to us was the tolerance Lithuania afforded to immigrants and their different religions, during times when this was certainly not universal.
A salad plate included a very Turkish imam bayaldi, packed with flavour. Then a traditional beef kybyn, served with a clear chicken broth, reminded me of a Cornish pasty. The main dish was chicken čanach – chicken and vegetables in cooked and served in a pastry-covered pot, with sour cream. Both of these dishes were very plain – no herbs or spices – but tasty. A simple apple pastry finished the meal. We were also given a shot of a liqueur made of herbs, rhizomes and spices to a traditional recipe – too bitter for me, though!
Throughout our time in Lithuania, I noticed the warmth and friendliness of Lithuanians; indeed on one afternoon when two of us got lost on the way home from a visit to the Christmas market, a kind stranger, unable to give us instructions in a language we understood, walked twenty minutes out of his way to lead us back to our hotel, before continuing his journey home. So kind!
In terms of arranging a visit, Vilnius is a perfect destination for a long weekend, or even a week if you like. There’s plenty more to see than the highlights we took in, and eating out is affordable and tasty.
For British travellers, there are low cost flights from the UK via multiple budget airlines; I flew on Wizz Air; the usual no frills service – fine for a short flight.
We were hosted by the Artis Centrum Hotel; it boasts a very handy location in the Old Town and attractive, large and comfortable rooms, but I did experience a few problems: a bedroom door that didn’t shut properly, such that I returned to my room one afternoon to find it wide open and was told “the doors do that sometimes”, leading me to feel somewhat insecure thereafter; plus some minor issues related to in-room safes, higher-than-acceptable charges for bottled water and some confusion over charges for coffee at breakfast. A decent hotel but with some niggles to be addressed.
On January 1 2015, just 12 days after I returned home, Lithuania gave up their national currency, the Lita, and joined the Euro. Sad for those of us who have a soft spot for using unfamiliar currencies, but hopefully it will be a positive move for the country, from an economic perspective. Perhaps it will also result in an increase in tourism; certainly this gorgeous capital is deserving of more visitors.
Kavey Eats travelled to Vilnius as a guest of the Lithuanian State Department of Tourism.