June 28 – July 26, 2018 (Summer)
Greeting: Sveiki (formal/hello), Labas (informal/hi)
Currency: Euro (€)
Cost of living: Medium
After a few below-par months, we craved some safe and familiar. So we jumped at the opportunity when Skyscanner suggested the cheapest escape from Georgia was our old favorite, Vilnius. Half a year of bad beer made Lithuania’s heavenly nectars stand out even stronger in our memories. And once back in mainland Europe, we’d have all sorts of freedom to follow the low fares to new and exciting places if we chose.
Still, we weren’t sure what to expect this time around. We basically fell in love with Vilnius last year, but this would be our first-ever repeat stay. There’s no way we could expect to recapture the experience, was there? Fortunately we didn’t have to worry. It turns out that our love of the city’s “livability” was justified. It didn’t matter that we weren’t seeing the city with new eyes; that wasn’t the point. We simply saw it as home.
This post is about our 2018 return to Vilnius. Read about the original 2017 stay here↗.
Where we stayed
Airbnb↗ rentals were thinner on the ground and more expensive than last year. Finding a deal was always going to be a challenge, considering the high tourist season and summer-time celebrations. But after a good deal of searching, we lucked into a great loft in Užupis. This neighborhood is to Vilnius what Fremont is to Seattle: once a hippie/counterculture capital, now increasingly gentrified and hipster. It was one of our favorites to visit last year, and where we hoped to stay if we ever returned. Now we had that chance!
Bernardine Cemetery, something we went out of our way for last year, was literally right behind our house. The picturesque and quiet grounds were perfect for evening walks. Only a handful of tourists filtered by each day to visit the graveyard. And while much of the opposite bank of the Vilnia was (still) under heavy construction, none of the noise made it over our way.
Our walking route to the Old Town passed small coffee shops and trendy restaurants. One shortcut shaved off a few minutes and deposited us right in scenic Bernardine Park. Since Užupis considers itself an independent republic (constitution and all), we had our passports stamped at their information center.
The apartment was compact yet roomy. One main room contained a living area, kitchen, and dining space. An open loft upstairs served as the bedroom. It was the closest thing to a studio we’ve ever tolerated, but the split-level design made it feel much homier and more accommodating than we feared. The massive windows and abundant skylights added light and a sense of openness. The only thing missing was an oven in the kitchen – stove tops and microwaves meet most needs, but an inability to roast or bake put a severe hamper on our favorite dinner options.
Possibly the best part of the Airbnb was Dos, our surprise window cat. He showed up without prompting, but once Danielle caved and dished out some leftovers he became incorrigible. After that, he popped in several times a day to beg. Or at least look regally disdainful, until he got snacks.
What we did
In the Baltic States, Song Festivals are a Big Deal. Lithuania’s only occurs once every four years. The 2018 edition coincided with the 100th anniversary of the restoration of independence, making it an even more important celebration. Tens of thousands came from across Lithuania and around the world to participate in the festivities. And we were lucky enough to be in town for it! Nearly a week’s worth of events culminated in the iconic Song Day, and we attended as many as we could↗.
During the rest of our stay, we revisited favorite spots and wandered the Old Town. Vilnius’s famously sprawling city center is both beautiful and extremely walkable. Strolls along the Neris River were also just as pleasant this year, aside from the ever-present clouds of flybugs in our faces (one of the downsides of a city built among swampland). We spent more time in the conveniently-close Bernardine Gardens park, criss-crossing the many paths and tracing the curves of the smaller Vilnia River. Its waters form the border of Užupis and wind back into the countryside. Pavilnių Regional Park offers a sweeping view of the river valley about an hour’s walk east of our apartment. Unfortunately, the panorama-producing perch we remembered from Gediminas’ Tower was no longer accessible. The entire hilltop is closed for renovations due to erosion dangerously undermining its stability. Luckily the nearby Three Crosses hill in Kalnų Park is plenty stable and makes a great substitute.
Since Bernardine Cemetery was just behind our house, we stopped in frequently for evening walks. We got to know it well: the interesting names (the vast majority of them Polish), the sad stories, even the local graveyard kitty. One of the tombstone angels was missing a head last year, but has since been made whole. Rasos Cemetery was a new stop for us. Situated on a rather steep hill, it’s the oldest and most famous cemetery in Vilnius. Many distinguished Lithuanians rest there, while the entrance is dominated by graves of fallen Polish soldiers.
There are almost too many churches to count in Vilnius. Probably the most iconic are the Vilnius Cathedral and the twin churches of St. Anne and St. Francis of Assisi. The cathedral was less memorable with its simple decorations, but any time we stepped inside we were reminded of the size of that lad (absolute unit). St. Anne, made of bright red brick with a Gothic flair and accented by its pastel neighbor, continued to impress no matter how often we walked past. Last year the crumbling Church of the Assumption appeared to be bordering on abandonment. Since that visit a thorough reconstruction has begun and pastel trim has started to spread across the decaying interior. Our newest favorite was St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church. The stark-white ceiling and pillars are completely covered with a vast array of impressive sculpture. A skeletal Death and knights wielding maces were just some of the unusual creations we picked out. Our visit happened to be at the same time a youth chorus was practicing their hymns, which added a charming touch of humanity to the intimidating interior.
Two museums worth seeing a second time were the Money Museum and the National Art Gallery. The Bank of Lithuania’s Money Museum is free and is really well-done, with interesting coins and bills from around the world and a thorough look back at Lithuania’s own complicated currency history. The world record coin pyramid, over a million coins in all, hides in the basement. A time-lapse video► of its construction details the exhausting process of stacking all the obsolete centas on the occasion of the country’s ascension to the Eurozone. The art museum was similarly fun to revisit. The modest collection had plenty of captivating work on display, including a whole room of propaganda art we missed on our first visit. This season’s temporary exhibit celebrated Lithuanian design. It helped us understand some of the practicalities and trends in design during the restrictive Soviet era, and how the country started to find its own voice in later years and especially since independence.
In an attempt to make her office more transparent and approachable, the president of Lithuania has opened the Presidential Palace grounds on weekends and, like the Palacio de la Moneda↗ in Chile, offers free tours. Identification documents (i.e. a passport) and a quick security check are required. Highlights included the press room, meeting rooms and ballrooms, and the office of the President herself. Ornate and intricate gifts from various state visits are also visible. Items from President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many of Lithuania’s neighbors are on prominent display. But probably the most cherished is a Michael Jordan-autographed basketball, given by President Bush as a nod to the country’s favorite sport. Outside, the grounds feature some eclectic statues and even house a museum, the Centre for Civil Education. An iPad-guided tour translates some exhibits into English and taught us a great deal about Lithuania’s constitution, government, and history.
Fun fact: President Dalia Grybauskaitė‘s surname roughly translates to English as “mushrooms,” which are beloved in Lithuania. And who wouldn’t love a President Mushrooms?
Even though we were headed to Gdynia, Poland next month, it was actually simpler to bus to Białystok from right here in Vilnius. We jumped at the chance to finally scratch off a bucket-list visit to Białowieża Forest. Famous for its European bison and for being one of the last surviving patches of primeval forest in Europe, our feelings about actually visiting the place were conflicted. We wrote about the experience here↗.
Food & Drink
With few exceptions, this past year has been a bad one for beer. Those unparalleled brews we discovered last year↗ in Lithuania were looking less like a treat and more like a curse as time went on and nothing new lived up to those fond memories. Had we… ruined beer for ourselves? There was only one option left: we had to come back and try to reset our sky-high expectations.
Instead, we confirmed them. Lithuanian beer still delivers! Our very first stop was at Alaus Namai🌐 – their farmhouse ales made the biggest impression on us last year. The familiar haunts out of the way, we started to explore options we’d somehow left on the table last time around. Šnekutis🌐 was the closest bar to our apartment and a fast favorite. Even ignoring the proximity bonus, their excellent lineup of local and craft beers, Lithuanian pub food, and the best gira in the city earned it plenty of repeat visits. Devinkė Baras🌐 was another winner in central Užupis. A honey-flavored beer there was outstanding and refreshing without going completely overboard on the sweetness. We’d even missed Nisha Craft Capital🌐 in the Old Town, a mistake we corrected this year. Their selection of craft beers emphasized imported goodies from Europe and around the world, but also included plenty of eclectic and obscure Lithuanian options.
Unfortunately our favorite craft bottle shop from last year had closed down, but Smagus Raugas / Happy Brew🌐 filled the gap handily. The folks at Happy Brew were full of suggestions and we walked out the door pretty thrilled by our choices. Bready and sweet tamsus (dark) beers still dominated our favorites list (especially Kanapinis), but Lithuania had clearly gotten onto the IPA/APA train as well. Our pick for best craft beer goes to Vilniaus Ąžuolas, a whiskey-barrel-aged beer that isn’t a stout or porter and was essentially immaculate in taste and character.
Click the globes 🌐 to see these locations in Google Maps.
Our nearest grocery store was a Rimi, and we did the majority of our shopping there. Walking inside a true hypermarket after months of tiny mom & pop shops was a pretty big culture shock. A few smaller supermarkets (IKI, Maxima) filled the bill on walks back from the Old Town. But true markets were the best places for the produce and breads at unbeatable prices. The closest daily market was Halės Market. It was a bit more expensive and felt a bit haphazard. Kalvarijų was still the best choice, with its huge selection of produce and glorious hall of cured meats. Summer berries were in season, so we stocked up on raspberries, blueberries and strawberries. Each Thursday Tymo Turgus transformed into a pop-up market, full of hipster goodies, organic options, super-local foods and local super-foods. We found it overpriced and underwhelming, but happily returned on Fridays (and to a lesser extent Saturdays) to avail ourselves of the wonderful food truck gathering on the same lot.
Many of our favorite eats were repeats of last year’s hits: cepelinai, kibinai, Taffel nacho cheese balls, and Estrella dill chips. We also sampled previously-overlooked dishes, like greasy potato pancakes and greasy fried garlic bread. For the 4th of July we visited Uncle Sam’s American Pub for passable order of nachos & guac. At Šnekutis we noshed on Lithuanian peas (just a notch below Latvia’s↗) and koldūnai, potato dumplings that were essentially Lithuanian pierogi. A lunch at Būsi Trečias🌐 offered some good eats paired with a healthy serving of an introvert’s favorite side: solitude.
Our flight to Vilnius left Batumi↗ very early in the morning and laid over briefly in Minsk. Transiting through such a “forbidden” country was kind of exciting. The airport itself is striking, and the airplane proudly displaying World of Tanks livery (a Belarusian-developed MMO) and a literal caviar vending machine really amped up the fun factor. Of course, just days after we passed through word came down that they were significantly relaxing their visa restrictions. Before long everyone is going to have been to Belarus!
Uber↗ was available to us for the first time in months and was relatively cheap ($2-3 US) for short trips around the city center.
En route to Białystok, we took a Eurolines Business Class bus from the main bus terminal, right next to the train station. Both stations are easy to navigate and have lots of national and international connections.Vilnius Airport is quite close to the Old Town, and planes regularly passed low overhead (but not nearly as loudly as in Chiang Mai↗). We got to experience that beautiful flightpath ourselves out our departure to Gdańsk. One majestic turn gave us the best aerial view of any city we’ve ever enjoyed. Picking out our home and all our favorite landmarks from barely a thousand meters up was truly inspiring.
Transit to and from the airport was quite simple. A bus took us as far as the city center (near VCUP), and a transfer took us within a few minutes’ walk of our place in Užupis. Tickets cost €1 each and can be purchased from the driver. Buses are frequent and (mostly) reliable, though we still preferred walking. Getting back to the airport we took an Uber to the transit station and a train to the terminal. The ride was only 7 minutes and cost €0.70.
Stuff of interest
Our SIMs↗ came from Pildyk by Tele2. The chips cost €2 each and €8 bought 5 gigs of data. Roaming plans started at €1 for a day’s worth or €4 for a week’s worth of coverage around the EU. We purchased one week for our trip to Poland. Plans auto-renew and overwrite one another, so it’s very important to keep track of renewal dates when juggling multiple plans in one stay.
After several months of limited communication in the Caucasus, it was actually really nice to be somewhere more people spoke English than not. It’s not usually a big deal for us, but in this case it came as a welcome relief.
Cans and bottles of beer (but not wine) come with a €0.10 deposit. Fortunately it’s fully refundable, for cash or as credit toward purchases, and many supermarkets have automated return kiosks to eliminate any interpersonal stress.
Plenty more stuff changed since our last visit to Vilnius:
- Šnipiškės continues to grow at a shocking pace, and was noticeably more developed than even a year ago
- Lukiškės Square, which was closed for renovation last year, finally opened and is looking very nice
- Lithuania has fought back hard against rampant alcoholism in the country with strict new liquor laws. Measures included limiting hours of sale and raising the drinking age to 20, the highest in Europe
What we learned
It’s challenging to put to words just what it is about Vilnius that we love so much. Good parks, great beer, efficient transit, low cost of living and high quality of life all fall under the broad banner of “livability.” But it’s more than just checking all the boxes. The city had a relaxed vibe that we really connected with. Our second month was every bit as pleasant as our first, and it almost certainly won’t be our last.