The Lithuanian capital of Vilnius is somewhat unique compared to the major cities in the rest of the Baltic States. Its old architecture is a hodgepodge of styles with Scandinavian, Russian, and German influences.
The mix blends well into a charming 'Vilnian Baroque', filling the cobblestoned, winding streets of the old quarter. Enhanced by its picturesque setting in a valley at the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia rivers, nestling beneath wooded hills in the southeast corner of Lithuania.
Overlooking the city from a central hill is the landmark Gediminas Castle, named after the medieval Grand Duke who founded the city, with its impressive tower, from which visitors can enjoy an unrivalled view of the old town and the shiny new section on the right bank of the Neris.
Gediminas Square is the heart of the old quarter, featuring the splendid classical cathedral. The city boasts numerous other interesting churches, beautiful historic buildings, museums, monuments and parks, and the splendid University of Vilnius, one of Europe's oldest institutions of learning, chartered in 1579.
In its 'golden age' during the Middle Ages, Vilnius was renowned as the region's centre for culture and learning, and today it has reclaimed that reputation, with a packed programme of events always on the go.
These include the classical music evenings at the Philharmonic Society Hall and performances at the Opera and Ballet Theatre, Youth Theatre, and Academic Drama Theatre, to exhibitions in numerous art galleries and a vast modern art centre.
The city also plays host to numerous commercial fairs and exhibitions annually. Last, but not least, when the sun goes down Vilnius reveals the fun side of its nature, with a nightlife that is fast gaining a reputation as one of the hottest in Eastern Europe.
Standing guard over the city of Vilnius since the 13th century, the landmark Gediminas Castle was built by the founder of the city and has served as defence bastion, prison, and now major tourist attraction.
Originally, the castle was made of wood, later clad in 10-foot (3m) thick stone walls, and then all but destroyed by Russian troops in the 17th century. Now completely and carefully restored to its former glory, the top of the majestic octagonal tower provides a breath-taking view of the old city.
It is the highest point in the Vilnius Old Town, which itself is a UNESCO-listed site. The castle also contains a museum depicting the history of Lithuania and Vilnius, with exhibits including models of the city at various points in history as well as archaeological finds from the region.
The castle is also an emotional landmark for those who remember the Baltic Chain, or Chain of Freedom, a peaceful political movement which united the three Balkan states in their fight for independence back in 1989 when Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia were republics of the Soviet Union.
The Baltic Chain was a demonstration in which more than two million people joined hands in August 1989 to create a human chain spanning the three Baltic countries to demonstrate their solidarity and their desire for freedom. The chain, a memorable and impactful moment in European history, ended at Gediminas Castle in Lithuania.
The resplendent Vilnius Cathedral, which stands proudly on the central square of the Old City, has a chequered history that left it decaying and abandoned through the Soviet era. The Cathedral now resembles a classical Greek temple more than it does a Christian church.
It's now once again the pride of the city, filled with incredible artworks, traditional icons and history. The cathedral, originally built in the 13th-century, stands on the site of an ancient pagan temple. Rebuilt several times in the succeeding centuries after fires and storm damage, Vilnius Cathedral is an unusual and architecturally impactful cathedral, containing more than 40 paintings and frescoes.
There are a number of chapels which are interesting in their own right, located around the premises. Most noteworthy is the Casimir Chapel, first constructed in 1623, containing eight silver-plated statues and décor wrought by artist Constantino Tencallo. No matter what their religion, visitors tend to find the cathedral impressive and the grounds peaceful and attractive.
Vilnius has some amazing churches and other special attractions in the city include the St Peter and St Paul Church, which houses numerous sculptures, and St Anne's Church, a beautiful Gothic building.
A few miles north of Vilnius town centre, Lithuanian sculptor Gintaras Karosas founded the Europos Parkas (European Park) on a 55-hectare site that encompasses the geographic centre of Europe, as determined by the French National Geographic Institute in 1989.
The Park attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, who come to stand in the centre of the continent and admire a permanent outdoor sculpture exhibition, set amid rolling hills, woods and fields dotted with natural springs.
About 100 works by artists from dozens of different countries are on display. Guided tours are available, and the site includes a small restaurant, shop and post office. European Park is also a really lovely place to enjoy a walk in the natural surroundings and have a picnic.
Autumn is particularly beautiful because of the striking colour of the trees and vegetation but it still remains gorgeous through spring and summer too. In winter, it's perhaps a bit cold but an invigorating stroll through the snowy landscape can be fun, as gates are open all year round.
If you are travelling in Lithuania with children, then Europos Parkas is the ideal family excursion from Vilnius. It's a good opportunity to enjoy some fresh air and let the kids get rid of some energy. Lovers of contemporary art will also enjoy the park, where the sculptures are well integrated into the natural scenery.
In the early 20th century, about half of the population of Vilnius were Yiddish-speaking Jews and the city was dubbed the 'Jerusalem of the North'. The Nazis in World War II effectively obliterated this community, encircling the Jewish quarter in barbed wire.
They marched the 60,000 or so residents into the Paneriai Forest and executed them. Sadly, some sources estimate that the number of Jews killed in Vilnius was far higher. Today, the Genocide Museum has been established at the killing field in memory of the victims of this horror.
There is also a Jewish Museum depicting pre-war Jewish life and visitors are welcome at the only remaining Vilnius Synagogue. The Jews were once numerous in Lithuania, with efforts now underway to rebuild and restore many aspects of the former Jewish Quarter.
Incredibly, some say that Vilnius once housed more than a hundred synagogues, not to mention schools, libraries and other cultural institutions. Tours of Jewish Vilnius incorporate these sombre but extremely worthwhile historical and cultural attractions.
Several private operators offer these tours which should captivate any visitors with an interest in Jewish culture or European history. However, young children may not be prepared for the realities of these tragic sites.
The dark days of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania are preserved in this disturbing collection, which is contained in the former KGB headquarters building; a building which is a symbol of hardship for the Lithuanian population old enough to remember the realities of the occupation.
Those who drew the antagonism of the authorities were detained, tortured and often executed in this building. The Museum of Genocide (Genocido Auku Muziejus) is also often called the KGB Museum and the building remains almost exactly the same as it was during Soviet occupation.
Some of the museum's exhibitions include the 'Eavesdropping Room', highlighting the use of secret surveillance by the KGB, and 'Life Goes On', a look at the day to day living of Lithuanian deportees and prisoners.
There is also the haunting experience of the prison in the basement. Audio guides are available for a small cost and they bring the place vividly to life. Guided tours of the museum are also available in English.
The Genocide Museum is one of the top-rated tourist attractions in Vilnius and the collection is informative, well-organised and haunting. Visitors should note that some of the material is rather macabre and may not be suitable for young children.
Vilnius has a humid continental climate. Summers (June to August) are warm, with daytime temperatures often topping 72°F (22°C), although average temperatures are closer to 62°F (17°C). June is the rainiest month of the year. Winter (December to February) is very cold, with temperatures rarely climbing above 32°F (0°C) and often dropping below 16°F (-9°C). Lakes and rivers freeze over at this time of year.
The central old quarter of Vilnius is compact and most of the sights visited on foot. Those who would prefer to take in the sights in a more leisurely manner can make use of the city's efficient network of buses and trolleybuses; fares can be paid on boarding or tickets bought at a discount from newspaper kiosks.
Most visitors prefer to make use of taxis, which are relatively cheap, although it is wise to ensure the driver has switched on the meter before leaving on the journey, or to negotiate a fare before setting off.
Taxis can be hailed on the street, ordered by telephone or found at ranks at strategic spots in the old town. Self-driving in the city isn't recommended because of heavy, undisciplined traffic. All the large international car hire companies have offices in the city and at the airport.
Visitors to Vilnius should be aware that, although the city is generally very safe, petty theft and pick-pocketing can unfortunately be a problem on public transport. People are also sometimes targeted while walking around. So although it is a great destination to traverse on foot, try not to walk alone at night, or display conspicuous wealth while getting around in the city.
Slap bang in the middle of Europe, the capital of Lithuania is a delightful medieval city of magnificent churches, art and nightclubs. It's a combination which gives it a unique ambience and explains why more people are enjoying holidaying in Vilnius.
It is an historic old city, with a wealth of cultural attractions and very picturesque surroundings. The UNESCO-listed old quarter is particularly enthralling. Many of the most popular attractions in Vilnius are memorials, it's a city that has seen much tragedy in its long history.
Worthwhile sites include the Museum of Genocide Victims, several memorials to the Jewish population wiped out during World War II, and the Hill of Three Crosses, which legend decrees was originally the site of the martyring of several monks.
Although some of the subject matter in the city's museums and memorials is sombre or macabre, Vilnius is a proud city and there is an aura of triumph as well. The numerous lovely churches, pretty surroundings, sidewalk café culture and charming cobbled streets offer many happy diversions for tourists.
The best time to travel to Vilnius is during its sunny, warm summers when temperatures can soar to 86°F (30°C) and it remains light long into the evening, making it possible for those enjoying a Vilnius holiday to make the most of the outdoor restaurants and bars. Winter, by contrast, is not a good time to travel to Vilnius as temperatures plummet below freezing.
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