Exploring Vilnius, Lithuania on Foot
By Judith Longmeyer
My cab from Vilnius’ airport to the Ecotel Hostel threaded through surprisingly dense rush-hour traffic. Located a few blocks from the Old City, the location of my base of operations made for easy walking to the heart of the Lithuanian capital with over a half million souls. Locals abided my marginal language skills, partly because their English, learned in the public school system, surpasses my Lithuanian.
A tidy, quiet and eminently affordable third floor cubicle (at $60 American per night) featured a bathroom whose uni-floor also drained the shower and a TV offering English language news from the BBC. An S-shaped steam pipe device on the bathroom wall dried hand-washed laundry. For more options, find unique Vilnius accommodations and intrepid tours in Vilnius.
The gleaming, modern Europa Mall a few blocks away put shopping and meals within striking distance of my quarters without vehicular help. A supermarket inside displayed an ample assortment of Lithuanian and other cheeses, making evening snacking in my room a gourmet treat. And the three lita to one American dollar exchange rate demanded shopping in the other stores.
Over the River Neris
Donning sturdy hiking boots on my first morning in Vilnius, I crossed the River Neris to find Cathedral Square and the National Museum immediately over the King Mindaugas Bridge.
Modern statues in the plaza recognized both Lithuania’s first and only King, Mindaugas, and Duke Gedminas, a 14th Century figure credited as father of a Lithuanian empire that linked the Baltic and Black Seas by the 17 th Century.
Lithuanian statuary tends to date from the 1990s because Soviet policy during their half-century occupation aimed to extinguish local culture.
Inside the museum, wall-mounted maps documented the ebb and flow of Lithuanian history from pagan times to contemporary independence. Crusaders, frustrated in efforts to bring Christianity to Moslems, turned to converting Lithuanian pagans in the Middle Ages.
A 19th Century farmhouse model replicated historical living conditions including prominent religious icons and a fireplace top bunk. Grade school children absorbed their heritage while seated on the floor drawing floor length period native dresses and farm work clothing. Priestly statues and crucifixes illustrated deeply engrained local Catholicism.
Renovation work raised dust around the national Catholic cathedral in its world class historical setting. Construction recalls a debate over how far modern development should go in the Old City. Opponents suggest the wrecking ball may sacrifice Vilnius’ historic landmarks blending medieval, renaissance and later architecture on the altar of 21 st Century progress. Other denominations, including Orthodox, also have places of worship in the Old City.
Narrow Old City streets easily accommodated horses and wagons, but max out with increased traffic from numerous tiny French, German and Russian cars. For nearly a half mile along Didzioji Street vendors hawk amber articles and other local treasures in the street.
Savvy souvenir shoppers know that a fine line separates translucent yellow plastic from prized Lithuanian amber. Nearby upscale jewelry stores offer the real deal. Banks and diplomatic missions occupy the ornate, sometimes balconied buildings along the way. Book stores, cafes, clothing and other shops also line the street. Plenty of walk-up ATMs along the way encourage spending.
The Gate of Dawn marks the remaining piece of the Old City wall. One elderly lady prayed on her knees before its shrine, visible at street level. Nearby, St. Teresa’s Church offers sanctuary surrounded by elaborate interior trappings just before the Old City ends.
Filling up on Local Cuisine
Cafes and restaurants in and around the Old City serve everything from a cup of heavily sugared black coffee up to major meals. English-Lithuanian-Russian language menus advertise Italian, Chinese and American food. The Old City even hosts a McDonald’s with a more limited menu than in the U.S. For my favorite mealtime experience, I ordered Lithuanian cuisine by pointing at what looked good in the Europa Mall’s third floor cafeteria. Fewer than ten litas bought a tasty and substantial dumpling, potato and pork centered meal.
A Farmers’ Market just over the River Neris inside the Old City offers produce grown on privately owned agricultural land. A city block long series of small stands display fresh flowers to meet the serious Lithuanian demand for them.
Getting Around Town
Miles long walkways along the Neris make for scenic and flat jogging trails, although few Lithuanians use them. Would-be cyclists will find rental bikes readily available if they’re willing to brave the gnarly center city traffic congestion.
Frequent buses and abundant cabs motor through the heart of Vilnius, easing transport for short-haul or weary walkers. Handy kiosks all around town stock products to quench thirst, inform via reading material or nurture a tobacco habit. Shimmering steel and glass skyscrapers punctuate Vilnius’s skyline but, at ground level, a few antique frame homes still recall simpler times.
Carrying a few litas in coin on those walking tours helps in case of a call of nature. While restaurants, bus stations and public places, such as the park at the National Museum, have rest rooms, they often charge a nominal fee… usually a lita coin for using them. And Turkish style toilets built flush to the floor make an interesting experience themselves.
In some ways visiting Vilnius resembles entering a time warp back to a gentler, simpler time, such as the Fifties in the U.S. Lithuanian citizens now own units in the huge Soviet-era apartment buildings which rose over the sites of bulldozed private homes. Lace curtains adorn nearly all private windows. And people buy and carry cut flowers everywhere, demonstrating a refreshing thoughtfulness. Membership in the European Economic Community, already underway, probably will impact the Vilnius lifestyle.
Walking offers the most practical transportation for seeing Old Vilnius. The comfortable and affordable Ecotel Hostel, where I stayed, is just off Seimynskiu Street. The neighborhood also has other larger properties.
City of Vilnius website in English.
Nearby restaurants offer Italian, Chinese and American cuisine. My personal favorite was a Lithuanian cafeteria upstairs in the Europa Mall, also on Seimynskiu.
The Mindaugas and the Zaliasis Bridges over the Neris River offer easy access to the narrow, winding streets of the Old City from Seimynskiu. The national Museum and Cathedral Square lie just over the Mindaugas, within less than a mile. The Old City itself has lots of cafes and coffee shops for refreshing pauses.
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