Vilnius, Exploring Lithuania

Vilnius – Exploring Lithuania

Vilnius, or Vilna as previously known, is the capital of Lithuania and the country’s largest city. With a population of around 600.000 inhabitants, this is the second largest city in the Baltic States after the Latvian capital Riga. The Lithuanian capital has developed into a financial and commercial center after the fall of the Soviet Union and Lithuania joining the European Union. Both domestic and other Nordic banks have established themself in the city. These include the Swedish banks Swedbank and SEB, which are two of the largest banks in Lithuania. The banks and other international cooperations have added to the many skyscrapers that today are a part of the city’s skyline.

Our Visit to Vilnius

We visited Vilnius on a weekend trip from Stockholm in 2014. This was one of the first trips abroad that we made after moving back to Sweden after our time in Bratislava. It would turn out to be an autumn visit with sunshine, long walks, and some interesting sights for us.

A Short History

The first known written mention of Vilna dates back to 1323, then mentioned as the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It took, however, until 1387 before Vilnius received its city rights. The duchy saw several attacks from foreign armies during the Middle Ages and Vilnius was sieged a few times. The invaders were usually from the Teutonic Order, but also the Henry IV of England made a few attempts. Vilnius was soon the capital of an empire covering parts of what is today Belarus, Moldova, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was formed in 1569 with the Union of Lublin.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

The first university of Lithuania dates back to 1579 when Alma Academia et Universitas Vilnensis Societatis Iesu was established in Vilnius. Development and prosperity were also followed by wars and conflicts. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was involved in many wars. During the Thirteen Years’ War, Vilnius was occupied by Muscovite forces, and then during the Great Northern War, the city was attacked by the Swedish Army. The many wars and attacks on the city were followed by many devastating fires and even an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1710.

The Russian Empire

Vilnius was eventually annexed by the Russian Empire in 1795. It was first the seat of the Lithuania Governorate before the Vilna Governorate was established in 1801. One action taken by the Russians was to demolish the city walls. Only a few years later in 1812, the city saw two visits by Napoleon, first on his march towards Moscow and then on his retreat. The inhabitants in Vilnius were hoping for the grand duchy to be re-established. The 19th century included many more uprisings in the city. All uprisings were suppressed by the Russian army. The uprising in 1863 not only resulted in the execution of many locals but also the ban on the use of Lithuanian and Polish languages in the city.

The 19th Century

Vilnius was occupied during the First World War in 1915 by Germany. The Germans stayed until 1918 when Lithuania declared itself independent and Vilnius once more became the capital of an independent country. The independence only lasted a few months before the newly established Soviet Union invaded the country and the many conflicts that followed ended in 1922 with Vilnius becoming a part of Poland.

The Second World War saw a new Soviet occupation in 1939 and Vilnius was for a short period given back to Lithuania. That lasted less than a year before the whole of Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940. The city traded hands once more in 1941 when Nazi Germany occupied the city. The Germans brought with them severe hardships for the large Jewish population and it is estimated that the Holocaust took the life of 95% of Lithuania’s Jews. The Soviets retook Vilnius in 1944 and became the capital of the Lithuanian SSR. It is estimated that around 90% of Vilnius’ pre-war population had been either lost in the war or deported at the end of the war. The city was after the war re-populated by Lithuanians, Belarusians, and Poles from the surrounding regions. Others came from further away in Russia and the Ukraine.

Lithuania proclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, but it took more than a year of unrest before the Soviet Union recognized Lithuanian independence in 1991. Vilnius was once more a capital city and began its development into a modern European city.

Things to Do and See

Vilnius is a historical city with an impressive Old Town and many sights to explore. It is a large city, with many neighborhoods to explore, with skyscrapers in one area and narrow historical streets in another.

Vilnius Castle

This is where you will find some of the most prominent and historical buildings in the city. Vilnius Castle is a large complex of buildings dating back from the 10th to 18th century. It is located on a hill on the southern bank of the Neris River. The most prominent structure is the remaining tower of the Upper Castle. Also known as Gediminas Tower, this is a tower that is visible from afar and has the Lithuanian flag raised on its roof.

On the foot of the hill, you will find the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and other prominent more modern buildings. The two arsenals of the castle have also survived. The older of these dates back to the 15th century while the new one was built in the 18th century. The two arsenals are now housing the Lithuanian National Museum of Art. Right next door you will also find the impressive Vilnius Cathedral from 1783. In front of the cathedral is the Cathedral Square with the standalone white bell tower. It is believed that the bell tower was once a part of the Lower Castle from the Middle Ages.

Vilnius Town Hall

Vilnius Town Hall dates back to 1785. It stands in front of the Town Hall Square in the Old Town of Vilnius. This is a large neoclassical building with large pillars at its main entrance. The square is home to annual fairs and markets and is where you will find the city’s main Christmas Tree when the time of the year is appropriate. Other prominent buildings around the square include the Chapel of Saint Casimir and the Contemporary Art Centre.

Vilnius Old Town

The former Jewish quarter in the Old Town might have been one of the two Ghettos in Vilnius during the occupation by Nazi Germany. Few signs are left, but there are a few memorials to be found. In addition to the castle and the town hall, there are several more important buildings to discover in the Old Town. This is where you will find the Presidential Palace as well as the historically important Vilnius University. One of the main streets in the old town is Pilies Street, which runs from Cathedral Square to Town Hall Square.

Bernardine Garden

Bernardine Garden, or Sereikiškės Park as it was known previously, is a large public park in the city. It is a popular location for wedding photos. The park is on the left bank of the Vilna River and the river bends around the park. On the other side of the river is the much larger Kalnai Park, another large recreational area in the city.


Užupis is a district in Vilnius with its own interesting story. It is most famous for The Republic of Užupis, a self-proclaimed republic from 1997 with its own flag, currency, president, ministers, anthem, and constitution. For a short period of time, it even had its own 11-man-strong army. The republic has stayed unrecognized, but the district is known for its more bohemian atmosphere. Needless to say, the district has been compared to the Christiania in Copenhagen and Montmartre in Paris. This is a district where many of the residents are artists.

How to Get to Vilnius

  • Flights: Vilnius Airport (VNO) is just to the south of the city. The airport is the main airport of Lithuania and has several regular international flights.
  • Car: Vilnius lies at the intersection of most major roads within Lithuania. Roads like the E28, E85, E272, A1, A2, and A14 all intersect in the city.
  • Train: The Lithuanian rail network connects Vilnius with a large part of the country. There are trains to towns such as Klaipeda, Kaunas, and Trakai to mention a few. There are also international routes to Riga in Latvia as well as to Krakow and Warsaw in Poland.

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