June 21 – July 19, 2017 (Summer)
Currency: Euro (€)
Cost of living: Medium
Our extraordinary stay in Estonia made us eager to see more of the Baltic states. The earliest opportunity came after Prague, when Lithuania was just a few tantalizing days away by bus. Here we were spoiled for choice in such a small country. Do we visit Klaipėda for a seaside escape? How about Kaunas, the country’s crossroads and second city? Ultimately, we settled on Vilnius, the nation’s accessible capital, for the sheer variety of options and adventures it offered.
In some ways it is the middle child of the Baltic capitals, overshadowed a bit by little Tallinn and big Riga. But it has a ridiculous amount of understated charm. The walkable riverfront was the perfect place to enjoy our temperate version of summer while the rest of the continent baked in a heat wave, and the sprawling and undercrowded Old Town felt like it belonged to us alone. Most of all, we discovered beers that we connected with on an almost spiritual level. By our account Lithuania produces the world’s most magical brews, hands down… and bottoms up.
This post is about our original 2017 stay in Vilnius. Read about the 2018 return here↗.
Where we stayed
Our Airbnb↗ pick this month was well outside the Old Town core. But we lucked into something even better: a remarkably livable and walkable neighborhood in a great part of town, exactly as near (or far) from everything as we needed it to be. The biggest park in the city was 30 minutes to our west, groceries and markets were only 10-20 minutes north, and the Old Town a lovely 20 minute walk east along the Neris River. Just across the water, the neighborhood of Šnipiškės bustled as new skyscrapers spiraled upward, symbolizing the economic resurgence of this tiny post-Soviet nation. And just steps from our door was Alaus Namai, arguably the best bar in the city.
After smaller places in Prague↗ and Warsaw, we were especially excited to have a more spacious apartment all to ourselves. Most of the unit was made up of the ample living room and dining area. Two large bedrooms (with three queen-size beds between them) were excellent for sleeping, but also pretty okay when pressed into service for home office use. An ironing board converted into a standing desk in the better-lit of the two, and the broad window overlooking the interior courtyard made it feel very “corner office.” Both sides of the apartment had small balconies as well.
The apartment complex was surrounded by offices so evenings and weekends were pretty quiet and solitary. Sadly, construction noise followed us yet again. One of the offices across the way was in the process of being stripped out and remodeled. For whatever reason, this involved tossing a lot of construction material out of the third floor windows at the crack of dawn. At the same time a unit in our own building was undergoing renovation, producing a fair amount of wall-shaking and floor-pounding. A small haunted-looking nightclub nearby may have been the source of the rare late night house music we detected. Still, with the windows closed none of it was too awful.
Our kitchen was kind of a conundrum. The cooking area was small, with little counter space and only a mini fridge. The cupboards were clearly designed for humans much taller than we. The one above the sink housed a dish rack, and we crammed everything we needed on the bottom shelves of the rest. We were well stocked with dishes and kitchen appliances though. And the nice furnishing throughout the apartment more than made up for the indignation from that one area.
During rush hour, the parking lot outside our home backed up with fleeing professionals and jumpy drivers seeking a shortcut. We had a lot of stormy afternoons during our stay, and the lot was fairly prone to flooding. On one occasion, a particularly nasty windstorm dropped a massive tree branch on some poor (unoccupied) vehicle. So we got to witness quite a bit of mild after-work misery and foolhardy driving from the warmth and safety of our balconies. What better reminder of how lucky we are to work from home?
As much as we liked living in our acquaintancely and professional neighborhood, if we make it back, we’d probably try for a place in the quirky district of Užupis. A self-declared “independent republic,” the area had a distinctly bohemian and hipster vibe. It reminded us a lot of Seattle’s Fremont. We immediately connected with the profound ethos laid out in their constitution, and feel like we have kindred spirits waiting for us there if we choose to return.
What we did
Vilnius’s Old Town is one of the largest in Europe at more than 3.5 km². Relatively wide streets and large squares make it feel roomier than many medieval cores we’ve visited. Couple that with fewer tourists in general, and we found ourselves in one of the world’s more pleasant and less crowded capital cities. Which also meant it look longer to get anywhere on foot. This was fine with us – we never ran out of new streets to discover or things to see! Maybe if we were there during the famously brutal winter we would feel differently. The most visible landmark is Gediminas’ Tower, a hilltop castle that overlooks the Old Town sprawl below. Nearby Vilnius Cathedral is the central Catholic church in the city. During our stay, it hosted the beatification mass for Teofilius Matulionis, a national hero who practiced his religion despite harassment and imprisonment from the Soviet government. The square outside is the biggest and most important in the city, the site of numerous gatherings, a magic stone tile, and one of the endpoints of the Baltic Way. While the cathedral may be the most recognizable church in Vilnius, the twin red churches of St. Anne and St. Francis of Assisi may be the most beautiful. Finally, the Presidential Palace was every bit as accessible as the one in Tallinn↗. We sheltered on the front steps during a sudden downpour, grateful for a government that looked out for the little guy.
Since the summer days were long and not too hot, it was easy to take advantage of the city’s green spaces. Scenic shore paths traced the curves of the Neris River for kilometers. Across the river from us, a wide lawn provided the ideal place for frisbee, outdoor yoga, and at least one young group of LARPers. It was popular for festivals as well, everything from concerts to carnivals to company picnics. To the west, Vingis Park spanned a particularly large bend in the river. A network of paths connected every corner of its forested acres. In the center is the Amphitheater, where huge crowds gathered in the 1980s to sing for freedom. It was very reminiscent of Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds. Near the entrance, a memorial cemetery reminded visitors of the heavy price paid by all sides during the World Wars. Closer to the city center, Bernardine Park provided a convenient and peaceful getaway for families, while Bernardine Cemetery looked haunting from its perch over the smaller Vilnia River.
Just across the Vilnia from Gediminas’ Tower was Kalnai Park, the Park of Hills. Named for its four component hills, including Crooked Hill (home of the Three Crosses Monument) and Table Hill. This last one is where we found ourselves on July 6th, Lithuania’s Statehood Day. Since this small country celebrates many independence days (from many occupations), this holiday serves as more positive commemoration of its historic founding. Namely, the coronation of Mindaugas, the (one and only) King of Lithuania, in 1253. The holiday is celebrated somewhat like the Fourth of July in the US: cities are decked out in flags, families host barbecues and reunions, and everyone gets a day off work. But there are no fireworks displays. Instead, the nations gathers on hilltops or in town squares at 9 p.m. to sing the national anthem. We started out headed for Cathedral Square, but ended up following a much larger crowd on a scramble up a steep hillside into the woods. There, the trees cleared and the ground leveled off, and we found ourselves in a massive crowd. An announcer said a few words, and then right on cue, the whole nation started singing► in unison. It was an eerily moving display, patriotic but not the least bit nationalistic; we felt privileged to be a part of it. Then it was over, and the crowds dispersed back to the city below.
Naturally the city also has its share of museums. The National Art Gallery was closest to us, and housed an impressive (if curious) collection. There was plenty of Socialist realism, but also a surprising amount of art that pushed back against the oppressive regime and embraced Western counterculture. The National Museum of Lithuania sat behind Vilnius Cathedral and below Gediminas’ Tower. We visited the more historical half, which exhibited traditional dwellings and attire, some neat artifacts and maps, and even a diorama reconstruction of the Battle of Grunwald, one of the pivotal moments in the region’s history. On the quirkier side, the Money Museum of the Bank of Lithuania was a fun and free diversion. It showcased banknotes from the country’s past and the world over. In the basement is the largest coin pyramid in the world, made up of 1 centa coins (0.01 litas) that became obsolete with the switch to the euro.
We had no idea when we decided on Vilnius that it also came with a side of Trakai. We stumbled on pictures of the Instagram-infamous island castle and learned it was in Lithuania. Hmm, anywhere near where we’re staying? Indeed, the town was less than 30km from the capital, and well-connected by bus and train. As big castle lovers↗, this was one palace we couldn’t pass up. We decided to make our visit count by trading in some of our credit card rewards points to arrange a kayaking tour. The weather cooperated with one of the sunniest and warmest days of the month. Our guide Tomas was excellent, taking the two of us to hidden spots far removed from the paddle boarders and party boats. We explored for hours, only stopping for pictures and a picnic of kibinai (an empanada-like local specialty) on a small private island. After that, we entered the castle on foot. From the outside, the reconstructed towers are fantastical, right out of a fairy tale. The interior was less interesting, just a few exhibits and displays. A day on the waters of the world’s most beautiful moat was definitely the way to go.
Food & Drink
This was a good couple of months for beer. First we got to see Prague, and experience its famous beer culture. Then we had a few days in Warsaw↗ to confirm our rosy memories – Poland was actually the better place for beer. And yet! From day one in Lithuania, we realized our narrative was in trouble. This stuff was something else entirely.
We did some research before we arrived, of course. Sources mentioned the unique brewing yeasts and “farmhouse ales,” where small family producers still craft beer according to old traditions and family recipes. Unlike places where production was consolidated decades or centuries ago, the antiquated approach has survived here, even thrived. That in itself sounded pretty intriguing. Then we had a sip.
First, just the mass-market beers off the shelf: Rinkuškiai, Švyturys, Vilniaus Alus/Amber City, Volfas Engelman. Wow, okay, pretty good start. Already better than any macrobrew we’ve ever tried. Next we branched into the slightly higher-end bottles, like Butautų and Taruškų, whose Kanapinis line of kanapių (hemp seed) beers immediately raised the bar so far beyond the rest of the world that it was no longer a question – Lithuania wins beer. We had to see how far we could go with this. We stopped in shops. Vilniaus Alus in the nearby VCUP mall was bemused by our attempts at ordering, but nevertheless offered a tidy selection of on-demand draught growler fills not sold in supermarkets. Alaus Pirkliai – Craft Beer Merchants was a trendy little outlet that lived up to its name by offering great selection of handpicked microbrews. All incredible.
We need to go deeper. Google, show me “craft beer” in Vilnius. Bars! Alinė Leičiai is a pub that offers a generous tasting flight, while next-door Bambalynė is a common recommendation. We found their service to be the worst and the content overpriced, but it was also the only place that carried some of the more elusive labels from Sakiškių (a highly-esteemed craft brand). Baras ŠUO was just a few blocks away, small place with a cool aesthetic and some recognizable styles. The beer here resists easy categorization. Sure, IPAs were popular, and we saw a few wheats or pilsners. But most beers are simply šviesus (light) or tamsus (dark), with a style best described as “trust us.”Beer Museum was an unassuming bar in a strip mall, but with some trustworthy picks. We met a friendly Dutch tourist and beer aficionado sitting outside, ditching his family for one last taste of this delicious nectar before they moved on to a less heavenly destination. Craft & Draft was right across from the National Theater. We ducked in to avoid another surprise rainstorm, but found their menu worth a stop in the best of weather.
But for our money, nobody beat Alaus Namai. Where everyone else offered craft, microbrew, and generally small-batch beers made with heart, this place sold true farmhouse family ales from remote parts of the country, shipped in fresh, priced reasonably and undeniably made with love. The bartender talked us through the myriad options: we had light beer, dark beer, cloudy beer, beer made with nuts or berries or peas. It was intense, delightful, and only available in Lithuania. Conveniently located just steps from our door, it was by far our favorite place to drop in and down a few future cherished memories (and maybe erase a couple of old ones).
Clearly, our focus here was on beer. But it wasn’t the only option. Lithuania is squarely in the vodka belt, and the local stuff was well-regarded. Other specialties included distilled mead and starka, an aged vodka somewhat similar to whiskey. Kvass was popular, too. Here called gira, the beverage is made by fermenting bread, producing a sweet and (almost) non-alcoholic drink. Lithuania is too far north to produce good grapes, but compensated with a wide variety of fruit and berry wines. One especially interesting glass was made from goldenrod flowers. It was unique, with dried grass undertones and a distinct honey color. With long winters, Lithuania does get in the spirit of mulling. Grape wine was fortified and spiced with cloves, oranges, raisins, and nutmeg into “hunter’s wine,” hearkening back to a time when it was the last line of defense against the chilling winds out in the woods. Luckily for us, plenty of Georgian wine was imported and priced competitively. We tried a few bottles and doubled down on plans to someday visit↗ the little Caucasus country ourselves.
Don’t worry, we did consume some non-liquid nutrition. Our local grocery stores were Rimi and Maxima XX (their naming scheme went from X for minimarts all the way up to XXX for hypermarkets); the former was bigger and had a better selection, but the latter was more convenient. A bit further was the Kalvarijų Market, best for local produce and meats. The prices were sometimes half that of the already affordable grocery stores, and the quality was through the roof. We loaded up on fresh fruits and handmade sausages, and found deals on eggs, jam, and dark bread dense enough to serve as building material. For dessert, šakotis – a spit cake similar to Czechia’s trdelník – made a light (if bland) snack.
Like in neighboring Latvia, potatoes dominate Lithuanian cuisine. They were in everything: kugelis (potato casserole), blynai (potato pancakes), baked whole, cubed in soups or served alongside šaltibarščiai, a fluorescent-pink beetroot borscht. But the most popular iteration might be cepelinai. Originally known as didžkukuliai but now named after “zeppelins” for their shape, they resemble a plain potato but are actually a potato-based dumpling filled with meat and/or cheese. Topped with an onion and sour cream sauce, they were an acquired taste (the dumpling had an almost gelatinous texture), but they were filling and quickly grew on us. We made gravy a few times for personal staples like poutine, but couldn’t even find corn starch. In Lithuania, only starch is potato!
Once again, we were in a place where duck was cheap and plentiful, so we made sure to eat enough of it to satiate ourselves ahead of leaner months to come. Fish was more common than in Prague, but rarer than in Tallinn. Pork was clearly the money meat. Snack foods were much more varied and interesting than elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Dill chips, Emmental cheese Pringles, and even nacho cheese balls made appearances. The weirdest find was a small tub of krill, the little crustaceans at the bottom of the food chain, processed into a fluffy white condiment. It was an experience!
Friday was a good day to eat out thanks to Open Kitchen, a weekly gathering of food trucks at Tymo Turgus. There we found some pretty great Western European, East Asian, and even American food. They had probably the best Uzbek lamb dumplings in the city, and the second best burger (after Boom! Burgers’s Mother of Dragons, which amusingly required signing a liability waiver for being “dangerously hot”).
Stuff of interest
Telia SIMs↗ come in two brands, Ežys and Extra. We ended up with the second choice, though the differences are negligible. Two cards with 4 gigs of data and some call time set us back around $13 total.
Vilnius had some truly remarkable street art. Big, beautiful murals were commonplace. One little restaurant became internet famous for their Trump/Putin mural, though the rest of their art was equally pointed. Even the graffiti was funny and cute. Birds were popular subject; sometimes armed, other times committing more white-collar crimes.
This city was one of the ends of the Baltic Way↗, a massive political demonstration where millions of people joined hands to form a human chain connecting the three Baltic capitals. We learned a bit about it when we were in Tallinn, but seeing the matching marker here, hundreds of miles away, really put into perspective the scale of the event. A colorful monument was just a short walk from our house, a compelling reminder of the power of peaceful protest.
More than anywhere else in our travels, Lithuania had an abundance of Little Free Libraries. There are at least two dozen registered around the country, and they were easy to find throughout the city.
We didn’t make much use of transit, except to get to Trakai well outside the city borders. Uber↗ came in handy to get to and from our intercity buses when we were loaded down with gear. We walked everywhere as usual. Actually, all that walking caught up to us this month, when a pair of our hiking shoes finally bit the dust. I’d chalk it up to the many hundreds of miles we’ve walked across four continents, but it could just as easily have been sabotage. A creepy kid’s train seemed to have it out for us, following us everywhere we went. If we were to disappear during our stay, we’re 100% sure that train would have been the culprit.
What we learned
Lithuania is virtually unknown as a beer destination. Heck, it’s virtually unknown period. But we fell in love with Vilnius, which combined all our favorite aspects of Tallinn with a few secret charms all its own. For anyone with a penchant for chill cities and craft beer, there’s no better place than this underrated Baltic burg.