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Want to read more like this? Try also Baltic Culture in Tallinn. And watch my video blog from this trip.
Why Go Now?
The explosion of luminous-green signs around the Baltics signals the start of the Lithuanian capital’s reign as the new European Capital of Culture (along with Austria’s Linz). The Culture Live programme features around 900 events, 60 per cent of which are free to attend. Vilnius is evolving fast having only gained its independence in 1990, the first former Soviet state to do so. A new National Art Gallery, opening in June, will host The V&A’s blockbuster Cold War Modern exhibition from October. Specialist tour operator Baltic Holidays is now offering two-night cultural packages from £229 per person.
To soak up the winter-wonderland charm of the Unesco-listed Old Town, the Stikliai Hotel is best placed with refined rooms and a genteel ambiance, although the forthcoming Kempinski Hotel Cathedral Square will give it a run for its money from July 1st. Klaipeda Hotel boasts a great location opposite Cathedral Square with comfortable doubles from £140, while Grybas Hotel has homely rooms in a family-run Baroque house (doubles from £96).
Hit the streets
Vilnius is small, so explore on foot. The Old Town is the atmospheric hub with the Gates of Dawn, where a chapel with a gold-leaf image of the Virgin Mary, the must see. Heading northwest, the KGB Museum is both moving and shocking in its graphic illustration of the brutality of the Soviet regime. The original water-isolation chamber holds a grim fascination. The nearby statue of Lenin has long since been exiled but the bust of Frank Zappa still pays a bronze tribute to Vilnius’ favourite rock star. The Vilnius Picture Gallery is currently hosting an exhibition of works by the Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani, while the Contemporary Art Centre, with its permanent exhibition about the avant-garde Fluxus movement that inspired Yoko Ono, hosts Code Share, an international art exchange, until March 8.
For a cosy latte, Blusyne is a cool café many tourists miss. It’s named after the owners’ dog, hence the sign: ‘In Dog We Trust’. Blusyne is one of Vilnius’ growing band of talking cafes, where debate and coffee fuel the creative ambiance. Mano Guru is notable as Lithuania’s first non-smoking café and for its social programme of giving jobs to reformed drug addicts.
The self-styled Republic of Uzupis (pictured above), across the Neris River from the Old Town, is Vilnius’ hippest hang out for its galleries, coffee shops and boho vibe. Galera is the place to catch the latest art installation, while Uzupio Kavine keeps the republic fed and watered. Uzupis has its own president, passport stamp and publishes a constitution, which includes, amongst others, the maxim that, “Man is free to be idle”. Most people in Uzupis are fashionably so.
Baltic amber is the traditional souvenir and the Amber Museum Gallery is the place to learn about its history before purchase – a simple stone starts from as little as £5. Otherwise, Stikliu street is a haven for designer boutiques and second-hand treasure troves. Try Julija Zileniene at number 7 for designer fashions.
Worked up an appetite
Zemaiciai is a cellar restaurant to stock up on hearty Lithuanian favourites, such as beetroot soup and meat-filled zeppelins (that’s pancakes to you and me), both accompanied by lashings of sour cream. Try a glass of traditional gira, a non-alcoholic drink made from bread and honey with a distinctive burnt aroma. Otherwise, Bistro 18 has a good wine selection and Avilys is a popular microbrewery with hearty fare. For pub grub Lithuanian style, try Busi Trecias – good beers and sturdy local fare. The pig’s ear pancake, the most typical dish on the menu, does exactly what it says on the tin.
Big night out
Go cultured with a classical recital at the National Philharmonic, where tickets start from around £10, or Baltic bling with the credit-crunching cocktails at Mojito Naktys. Ignore whispers about the haunted cellars at La Boheme. It’s stylish and cosy with its huge fireplace and tasty tapas. The latest in place is In Vino, where the wine list is as eclectic as the crowd gathered at the candlelit tables.
The morning after
The bar at the boutique Shakespeare Hotel is a tucked-away retreat for good coffee and browsing newspapers. Better still, get away from the crowd with a laid-back secret Vilnius tour tailor made by one of the city’s alternative guides. As well as pointing out the stories and legends behind the backstreets of the Old Town, they can arrange for a visit to the White Hall and Astronomical Observatory at Vilnius University, founded in 1753 and based on London’s Greenwich Observatory. Climb the winding, spiral staircase to the watchtower for a blow-away-the-cobwebs panorama across the ever-changing Vilnius cityscape.
* This story was first published in the Observer in 2009.
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