hundred years ago, it was said that no matter in what direction a person looked in Vilnius, at least four churches always would be seen. The skyline remains a marvel of spires, domes and crosses.
Visitors can wander through this salad bowl of nations and imagine the hustle and bustle of bygone years. Much of that spirit has returned to the city since it was granted independence by the Soviet Union in 1991, although the last Soviet troops did not depart until 1993. In 1990, Lithuania was the first Soviet state to declare independence.
Lithuania has been a crossroads of East and West for many centuries, even as the gatekeeper of the amber route to Rome. Later, having driven off the German Knights of the Sword in 1236, Lithuania emerged as a unified state under Grand Duke Gediminas. It was the grand duke who first consolidated its multiethnic diversity in 1323 by inviting merchants, artisans and religious folks to come and settle around the capital of Vilnius.
Among the Slavs, Tartars, Germans, native Lithuanians and Jews, Vilnius came to be known as the Rome of the North, and to Yiddish speakers as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Throughout much of its history since the 18th century, Lithuania has been dominated by or been a part of other nations, including Russia, Poland, Prussia and Germany, and then the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991.
Since 2004, Lithuania has been a member of NATO and the European Union. The nation has gained visible achievement in a short time.
Though always an international city, Vilnius is decidedly Lithuanian in its spirit. A visitor hears the lilt of the Lithuanian language everywhere — in the marketplace, in the new and old districts, and flowing out of the cafes and pubs.
The best way to see Vilnius’ Old Town may be on a bicycle, but strolling around affords plenty of time to savor the sites. Vilnius is large enough for visitors to make new discoveries for weeks on end and yet small enough for them not to get lost. Still, there are bike paths for the adventurous, and cyclists can pass through Vilnius’ Center district, home of many stately neighborhoods and beautiful parks.
It’s a quick spin across the Neris River to the New District with the Forum Palace — a sports, entertainment and business center — and even to the new Municipal Center overlooking the river.
One can bike to the Television Tower, the symbolic center of Lithuania’s independence movement, except during the holidays, when it becomes a huge Christmas tree. There’s also the Kalvariju flea market and bazaar, the forested park at Verkiai and the Hill of Crosses, about eight miles away near the small city of Siauliai, which also can also be reached by bike. The crosses, thousands of them, may have originated in the medieval period as a warning to invaders. The Soviets would remove crosses, but more would appear in their place.
Many visitors like to walk about Old Town, visiting the Amber Market on Pilies Street or the Contemporary Art Gallery. For a beer at the end of the journey, stroll into the Republic of Uzupis, home to the bohemian community. Another attraction of the area is the small but sparkling Vilnia River.
This is the area favored by working artists, who open their studios to the public. Sculpture pieces are tucked along the river, and local cafes play host to poets and university students.
No trip to Vilnius would be complete without visiting some of the most breathtaking religious structures in Europe.
St. Nicholas Church, built in the 16th century, was the only Lithuanian-language church in Vilnius between the two world wars. A little farther to the east is the Church of St. Teresa, and adding to the diversity is the nearby Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity, now belonging to the Uniate Basilian monks.
The most famous is the Cathedral of Vilnius. The church in its current, restored form dates from the late 18th century and is a stunning example of classical architecture. Closed by the Soviets, the cathedral was desecrated and plundered and became a warehouse in the 1950s. Since 1990, it has again belonged to the Catholic Church.