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I’m Emily. I’m a writer living an unexpected expat life fueled by coffee and adventure. Home is where my art is.

(Currently: Brussels)

City Break: Celebrating in Vilnius

City Break: Celebrating in Vilnius

If our trip to Lisbon in November was a comedy of not-so-funny errors, our recent trip to Vilnius might have been the karmic requital the travel gods seemed to owe us.

The Baltic capital hadn’t exactly been on my radar when we were searching for somewhere to spend our three-day weekend courtesy of George Washington’s birthday, but Google Flights did its thing and we were willing to go where the cheap tickets would take us. (Don’t feel bad if you had to look at a map to figure out where Vilnius is. I did too.)

It wasn’t until I started doing a bit of pre-trip planning that I discovered that our Presidents’ Day weekend lined up with The Day of Restoration of the State of Lithuania. It took me a bit more research but I finally figured out how all the pieces came together so that Lithuania celebrates two independence days. It seemed like a happy coincidence that we’d be in Vilnius for the February holiday and we certainly weren’t going to complain that there would be bonus activities to fill our time.

The coincidences continued as we boarded our flight — one of Joe’s Lithuanian counterparts was seated in the row behind us on his way home for the weekend! I, of course, took this to be a sign that the trip was getting itself off to a very good start. It turns out I was right.

Vilnius and its people stole our hearts. The city is small enough to explore in a weekend and big enough to be interesting. And, even in February’s chill, we found it warm and welcoming.

15 Feb - 18 Feb, 2019

Travel to Vilnius
We booked cheap (€66/each) Brussels Airlines return trip tickets. Once we landed, we followed Joe’s counterpart to catch the 88 bus into the city and then walked a couple blocks to our hotel.

What we saw, what we did, and what we ate
The city was prepping for celebrations as we arrived. Statues were dressed up with scarves or ribbons, lights illuminated buildings in the yellow-green-red scheme and even the shops were decked out in the colors of the Lithuanian flag. After some walking and exploring the old city, we were a bit cold and super hungry — Būsi Trečias didn’t disappoint with great eats and even better prices. We tried the “Village Pan,” a potato-based dish with bacon, mushrooms and pickles, along with “Witch’s Tears” which I can only describe as some sort of magical Lithuanian chili.

Early risers beware — Vilnius is not a city that gets rolling super early. Then again, Joe’s not exactly a morning person either… I was DYING for my morning fix by the time we grabbed a latte on our very short walk to the Halės turgavietė (Hales Market) where we were headed to forage for breakfast. Luckily for me, you can’t walk more than 3m without stumbling onto a coffee shop in the city. Fully caffeinated by Caif Cafe, we wandered about the market before picking up a delicious pastries sold by the kilo. (I wish I could say the pastries were gluten free — I’ve been finding that it’s sometimes easier to risk a rash than to try to stick to a GF diet while traveling. Sigh.)

We spent the morning’s second half following a free tour that was part of the city’s celebrations but split off after we realized we weren’t really learning anything we hadn’t already read about. So we grabbed some lunch and made our way to the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights (the KGB museum) — after our trip to Berlin last month, I was already steeling myself for the heebie jeebies I’d inevitably get in the basement prison/execution area. The museum and especially the basement were really grim, but there was also plenty of focus on the Lithuanian resistance and I got a much better appreciation for how hard the people had worked to hold onto their identity during the Soviet occupation. It also helped to walk out of the bleak building and back into the sunshine and throngs of celebrating Vilnians.

After an afternoon caffeine fix (this time at Huracan, another local coffeeshop chain), we climbed way too many stairs up the Hill of Three Crosses to get a spectacular view of the city. Protip: the hike up this hill is free and supposedly as good as the Gediminas Tower which was way more mobbed from what we could tell.

But Saturday’s real fun was joining the masses for the string of 70 bonfires lit along Gedimino Avenue. We missed the ceremonial lighting of the fires by about 15 minutes but still enjoyed the blazes and celebratory singing of what sounded like Lithuanian folk songs.

We decided to cut off from the crowded main drag for dinner and headed over to Drama Burger. Still in a celebratory mood, I ordered the burger of the month and tried not to gloat when it was obvious that I did better choosing than Joe. He assured me that his burger was fine but mine was clearly the real winner. The “National” was a crazy tasty blend of sunflower sprouts, some sort of weird-to-me cheese, and horseradish mayo on top of an honest-to-goodness burger. Just the way to refuel after a 31,000 step day. (I told you Vilnius was walkable!)

Party like you’re a Lithuanian? Even the army fire minders (2 at each bonfire) seemed to be having a good time.

Party like you’re a Lithuanian? Even the army fire minders (2 at each bonfire) seemed to be having a good time.

Both of us were pretty excited for our Vilnius With Locals Jewish history tour and the chance to learn more about what was once a thriving and very important center for Jewish life. The 2+ hour tour was worth way more than the €10/each we paid for it. Our guide Milda was fantastic and the other guests were pretty neat too (even if the couple from the UK was a bit overly zealous and a tad bit pushy about their missionary agenda…). The last stop of the tour was the Choral Synagogue, which shockingly survived both the Nazis and the Soviets and is again a place of worship to a small community now led by a Chabad rabbi originally from the States.

Perhaps a bit tired from Saturday, we kept Sunday afternoon pretty mellow and strolled leisurely through the old town. A quick walk through the quirky “republic” of Užupis and stop offs to take pictures of pretty churches filled our time. I would have liked to have seen the interior of St. Anne’s but an early afternoon mass meant that we missed out on anything other than wafts of incense floating through the doors.

I did, however, get my spiritual-but-not-religious fix at another holy site — the Gates of Dawn. I had read that it’s best to visit in the very early morning (the chapel opens at 6am) or in the hour before close (at 7pm) when the crowds were gone and you’d likely only find a few old ladies asking for miracles. Arriving just as the sun was setting, we almost missed the door in the wall that took us up the stairs to one of the strangest, most beautiful man-made places I’ve prayed in. It’s hard to describe the glow coming off the room, but this panorama might give you an idea.

Maybe due to the laziness that comes after 20,000 steps or maybe because the February chill had me craving hearty Baltic cuisine, we stayed close to the hotel for dinner. Šnekutis filled us up with stuffed cabbage rolls, potato pancakes and fermented beverages (local beer for him and draft kvass for her) for €16. Yes, you read that right. (Have I mentioned how much we loved this city?)

Our last day in town found us a bit lost for what to see or do. Museums were closed and fog seemed to be getting in the way of our plans to go up the TV tower on the edge of town. So we took our time at Beigelstai which is just past Literatu Street, a series of wall plaques celebrating Lithuanian writers. By the time we were done with our bagels, the sun seemed to be pushing through the clouds so we walked to the train station, dropped our bags in lockers and set out for the tower. I was rather skeptical when the trolleybus pulled up and looked as if it was held together by baling wire. I wasn’t any more reassured when it dropped us off on the side of the ring road amongst a neighborhood of Soviet block-style apartment buildings that may or may not have ever seen any glory days. But we did indeed make it to the TV tower. We took the elevator 19 stories up to the “observation deck” which turned out to be nothing more than a revolving cafe. After seriously considering heading back down feeling annoyed about the €7 elevator ride, we decided to take advantage of the lack of crowds and stay for a coffee. It ended up being incredibly relaxing to rotate around the tower with the clouds just below us and the sun streaming in through the windows.

But all good things must end, so we headed back down to the ground and boarded a bus (held together by paint this time) and made our way back to the station to catch the (thankfully modern) airport train and head home.

Let’s just say that one of us was more excited about riding the trolleybus…

Let’s just say that one of us was more excited about riding the trolleybus…

City Hotels Rūdninkai. Not fancy at all, but the price (at a mere €38/night) was right. And, it passed our clean, comfortable and safe threshold. My only serious complaints were a bit of street noise (for which I should have followed Joe’s lead with some earplugs) and a slightly warm room temp that could only be lowered by opening the window to let in the literally freezing cold air.

Getting around town
Vilnius — at least the parts we were most interested in — is incredibly walkable with shoes that can handle serious cobblestones. We did end up on the bus a few times to see things on the edge of town and because Joe’s a transportation nerd who wanted to ride the ancient trolleybuses. You can purchase a transit card at any Narvesen kiosk for €1.50 and load it up with single ride tickets or day passes. I opted to pay 20 cents more and pay the driver €1 for each of my rides so that I could get paper tickets to stash in my travel journal. We took the airport train on our way out of town mostly because we could and because it’s only 70 cents.

A word about the language
Neither Joe nor I speak a word of Lithuanian — the oldest surviving Indo-European language is tricky! We found it pretty easy to navigate the city as there were plenty of English (and Russian) translations and everybody we encountered under the age of 40ish spoke near fluent English.

His and Hers top Vilnius travel tips
His: Lithuanian food is delicious but if you get tired of it or it’s not your thing, the food options are truly impressive for a city of its small size and low ethnic diversity. The local craft beer doesn’t imitate the hipster breweries of the Anglosphere — it is both incredibly good and distinctly Lithuanian. {Editor’s note: for the non-drinker, the local craft gira (kvass) is also delicious.}
Hers: When your travel partner decides it’d be fun to take the ancient and rather decrepit trolleybus out to the Soviet-era TV tower, don’t roll your eyes too hard. You’ll probably end up enjoying the excursion.

Would we visit again?
Vilnius isn’t terribly big, so three days is probably enough to explore just about all the “must see” spots. But, we’d be happy enough to visit again on a summer road trip to check out some of the outlying attractions like Trakai Castle.

How do you like them pineapples? (Brussels ed.)

How do you like them pineapples? (Brussels ed.)

So this is 36.

So this is 36.