A few cities, like some people, are instantly dazzling. Vilnius has a gentler charm.
It’s a pretty medieval town with cobbled streets, gothic churches and a fascinating history.
Having suffered terribly in World War II and under the Soviets, Lithuania is on the rise and ready for tourists.
WHERE TO STAY
Shakespeare Boutique Hotel
In this old-school, beautifully run hotel, a stone’s throw from the gothic glory of St Anne’s Church, every room is named after a famous writer and decorated accordingly. Mine, the Ernest Hemingway, had antlers and rifles on the wall, as well as stirring photos of the great man. Doubles from £85 (shakespeare.lt).
Artagonist Art Hotel
The mural in my room, depicting a large and sensuous pair of lips, was startling. But there’s no faulting the location of this arty, well-run hotel, which is on the main drag in the old town — nor the quality of its superb breakfast. Doubles from £85 (artagonist.lt).
Amberton Cathedral Square Hotel
This modern hotel is so close to Vilnius’s cathedral, you could hit it with a brick. Staff will give advice on what to see and where to go in the nearby old town. While enjoying your breakfast, you can gaze out at the cathedral. Doubles from £60 (ambertonhotels.com).
What to see and do
A Pauline Conversion
Lithuanians visiting London have reportedly been disappointed by St Paul’s Cathedral. They have one of their own that they rate more highly. The 18th-century Church of St Peter and St Paul, which is free to enter, is a baroque extravaganza in stucco. Address: Antakalnio gatve (037 052 340 229).
Tribute to Dr Lecter
Vilnius’s old town is a warren of cobbled streets, cosy cafes and nice surprises. On Literatu gatve (Literature Street), artists have studded the walls with plaques in tribute to authors connected to Vilnius. Among them you’ll spot Thomas Harris, whose cannibal character Hannibal Lecter was Lithuanian-born.
First Hitler, then Stalin
Not for the faint-hearted, but the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights (£3.50) is a must-see. The first part of the title refers to the fact that Lithuania was occupied by the Nazis, then the Soviets, both at horrific cost. The second part refers to partisans who continued the struggle in the forests for years after the war’s end. Address: Auku gatve (037 052 498 156).
The floating castle
Half an hour’s drive outside Vilnius (£25 by taxi) awaits the reddest castle you’ll have ever seen. Floating on an island amid the grey waters of a lake, the 15th century Trakai Island Castle (pictured, right) is built of red gothic bricks and matching roof tiles. It costs £6 to enter. Take a boat trip around the lake.
An echoing gallery
Art lovers will enjoy the Lithuanian modern art at the NDG Gallery on the north bank of the Neris river. It’s so weirdly empty of visitors that you’ll feel you’re being given a private tour. And the restaurant is excellent. Address: Konstitucijos prospektas (037 052 195 965).
WHERE TO EAT
When I asked for a large Kanapinis, the waitress smiled. That’s the name of the local craft beer, delicious at just over £2 per glass. Other highlights of this traditional Lithuanian restaurant are the herring with marinated onions (£4.40) and the oily, meat-filled dough torpedos known as zeppelins, though they should only be attempted by the brave. Address: Pilies gatve (037 061 120 576).
The sign outside boasts ‘the best coffee in Vilnius’, but the real draw is the £6 chinkali. Small meat dumplings: they are hard to eat elegantly, but totally delicious. Address: Pilies gatve (037 065 030 800).
This offers simple fare, including rich fried bread with cheese (£4), which, after exploring the surrounding streets, is perfect. The waitress doesn’t speak English, so point carefully at the menu. Address: Paupio gatve (037 060 444 700).
Gaspar’s For a treat, book a table at this European-Indian fusion restaurant. The garlic shrimps were superb (£6.60), as was the chicken tikka with cucumber and yoghurt sauce (£5.80). It’s more expensive than some, but well worth it — and you can be sure of a warm welcome from owner and chef, Gaspar, who is an inveterate anglophile. Address: Pylimo gatve (037 065 707 050).