Popular visiting places
Vilnius is small enough that you could probably zip around most of the tourist sites in a weekend, if you didn’t hang around any of them for too long. If you wanted to look around al the museums and galleries instead of just looking at the buildings they’re in it would probably take you the best art of a week to see all the major tourist stuff, and even longer for a thorough exploration of the Old Town.
The focal point of the city is the Cathedral Square, and the area of parks, trees and greenery that surrounds it.
Although a Cathedral has stood on this site for since the 14th Century it has constantly been altered and modernised throughout that time; what can be seen today is mostly the result of remodelling at the end of the 18th century. The current Cathedral (dedicated to Saints Stanislaus and Ladislaus, if you’re interested) doesn’t appear especially cathedral-like; with its huge columned entrance and statue studded exterior it looks more like a Roman temple. The three giant statues on the roof (which are replacements for ones taken down by the Soviets) appear to be completely out of scale, but are a visible landmark from most parts of the city centre. In Soviet times the Cathedral was pressed into use as an art gallery and the inside of the building still feels more like this than an active church. There are still lots of paintings (albeit with religious themes) on display, and not too much religious paraphernalia. The exception to this is the ornate Chapel of St Casimir, a side-Chapel of the main Cathedral containing the silver tomb and remains of Lithuania’s patron saint. This was built in the early 17th century and the over the top baroque decoration surprisingly saw off even the Communists unscathed.
The cathedral was built on the sight of an earlier, Pagan temple (Lithuania being the last country in Europe to convert to Christianity) and it is sometimes possible to have a look round the vaults under the building where artefacts from the pagan temple and from the earlier churches on this site are on display. During Soviet times a hoard of valuable gold and silver Christian relics was found hidden in the walls of the building. Rather than surrender them to the Soviets the Cathedral authorities put them back where they found them and only brought them out again after independence, but these artefacts have not yet been put on general display.
The Cathedral is surrounded by Cathedral Square, although when I was last in Vilnius much of the paving had been ripped up and an archaeological dig was in progress. Standing in the Cathedral Square is the Belltower.
This structure’s strange appearance can be explained by its long history; it was originally a defensive tower in Vilnius’ lower castle and dates from the 14th century, but over the years several more floors and a spire were added to it (as well as a set of bells). Cathedral Square also holds a statue to Grand Duke Gediminas, who according to legend was the founder of the city (apparently he had a dream to build a city on this spot. Bit of a boring dream if you ask me, but it’s all worked out for the best in the end). The statue is modern but done in a traditional style, ie you can tell what it’s supposed to be, it doesn’t have two heads, etc. Be warned that the plinth on which the statue is placed is of Ukrainian granite and is therefore avoided by some who fear that it has been contaminated by radiation from Chernobyl (interesting fact: ALL granite is naturally radioactive. At last my A-level in Geology come in useful).
The area of parks and open spaces that makes up this part of the city centre was once the site of one of Vilnius’ castles. There had been a castle in Vilnius since at least the 11th century (although according to legend the city was only founded as recently as 1323). What was once the Lower Castle was transformed into a Royal Palace in the 16th century but was then mostly destroyed at the beginning of the 19th .A few buildings still remain. One now contains the National Museum of Lithuania (at Arsenalo 1; the building was previously, and surprisingly enough, the Palace Arsenal.). This museum contains various artefacts charting Lithuania’s history from pre-history to the present day. This museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Pretty much next door (in the Old Arsenal, whereas the National Museum is in the New Arsenal; imaginative lot these castle builders) is the Museum of Applied Arts, containing samples of Lithuanian and foreign art and design. This one’s closed on Mondays. Just behind the Cathedral (at Katedros 3, between the Cathedral and Gediminas Hill) is the Lower Castle Museum which traces the history of the Lower Castle and which displays some of the finds of the extensive archaeological digs that have been conducted on the site of the Lower Castle. This is closed at the weekends.
Seeing as though there was once a Lower Castle it seems reasonable to suppose that there was once a Higher Castle, and you’d be right. You’ ll find it, or what’s left of it, at the top of Gediminas Hill. The hill is only 50 metres or so tall, which doesn’t sound like much, and there’ s a wide, cobbled road that spirals around it, but on a hot day this can present quite a physical challenge to the rotund, unfit, or the drunk. As I fall into all 3 categories I was out of breath by the time I reached the top. Fortunately some kind soul has put a row of benches up here so you can sit down for a while
and catch your breath while you admire the view. Little remains of the 14th century castle that once stood here. There are some ruined (but partially restored) buildings and parts of the defensive walls are still standing. Pretty much at the highest point on the hill is Gediminas Tower.
This octagonal building was once one of the defensive towers of the upper castle but much of what can be seen today (the top two storeys at least) is a 20th century reconstruction. The tower now contains a small museum with some swords, suits of armour and, best of all, scale models showing the two castles and the Cathedral at various points throughout their history. It’s worth paying to get into the tower though purely for the view you get from the top (there’ s an observation platform on the roof); you can see all of Vilnius from here.
From the Cathedral Square Vilnius’ Old Town stretches out to the south. It’ s the largest preserved Old Town in Eastern Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. As well it’s impressive size, the range and quality of buildings here is amazing, containing many Churches (both Catholic and domed-Orthodox), palaces as well as Vilnius University, the oldest in Eastern Europe. Happily it also contains numerous bars.
To get a good general idea of the size and layout of the Old Town first take a walk down its main artery; from the Cathedral Square this is the road that is initially called Piles gatve.Piles gatve is mostly pedestrianised and lined with numerous foreign embassies and market stalls selling anything from amber and „art“ to Soviet military memorabilia.
Heading up this road from the Cathedral the first thing of note that you’ll pass is the collection of buildings that is Vilnius University. Visitors from Britain will need to allow for a few minutes of getting over the shock of realising that students here actually study, as opposed to sitting around on their arses all day, smoking roll-ups, watching Richard and Judy or the Tellytubbies, whilst moaning about how hard life is as a student. They also study real, proper academic subjects here instead of such bollocks as drama, media studies, Dr Who and whatever else you can waste your time studying in the UK („Golf Course Management“, anybody?). If you take time to explore the University (which was founded in 1579) you’ll find a fine collection of buildings encompassing several hundred year’s worth of different architectural styles. Of particular interest is St Johns Church founded over 600 years ago but much-altered (literally! Inside you’ll find 10 altars. How’s that for „more jokes“ , Em?!) and renovated during that time, and which for some reason has a bell tower that is not attached to the rest of the Church. Also worth visiting are the University Library, and the Astronomical Observatory. One thing you won’ t find in Vilnius University are shoddily-dressed, poorly-shaved dole-scroungers trying to intimidate you into buying a copy of „Socialist Worker“ (which is, of course, a contradiction in terms). And as far as I know there’s no bar named after Nelson Mandela.