“Wow! There really are many great, “under-discovered” spots in this world of ours.” That was the brief note I received from a friend after I had euphorically sent out a plethora of pictures that I had taken in Lithuania’s capital city.
It’s a fact: Vilnius is still a well-guarded insider’s travel destination tip, an authentic, distinctive spot on the map with a long history and people who know how to enjoy life. Here the clocks seem to tick more reflectively somehow than in the rest of Europe and that sense helps make Vilnius the incredibly congenial city that it is.
The historic Old Town
The Vilnius Old Town is reputedly Eastern Europe’s largest and prized as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage that some call the Rome of the East because of its many churches. Many of them stand on unconsecrated ground, having been suppressed during the Soviet era and used for other things, but they are being renovated now at a good clip and reconsecrated.
The baroque Old Town truly cast a spell on me. The steel-blue, clear sky like that which I have experienced only in the far north and the marvelously bracing clean air naturally just heightened the thrill. And so it turned out that I took home with me nearly a thousand photos of the Old Town’s bell towers, roofs, churches in the most varied architectural styles, street canyons, row houses huddled against each other and colorful this and that that caught my eye time and again. And even though I’m already at a loss how to pick a handful of the best ones from this pictorial treasure, I’m already thinking about taking more photos on a next visit to Vilnius!
From Zurich to Vilnius direct by air
The newest Swiss airline, Germania Flug AG, will operate two direct flights per week from Zurich to Lithuania’s capital starting in June 2016. Urs A. Pelizzoni, the airline’s chairman of the board, is sure of the city’s potential. And not least because they have a good sense of humor there, he is quick to add with a smile. That Urs and the airline’s CEO Tobias Somandin personally shepherded us journalists, bloggers and travel agents on this familiarization tour speaks volumes about their enthusiasm for the airline’s new destination. And let me be up front about it: like me, all of their fellow travelers were very much smitten by this heretofore neglected Eastern European beauty. As I noted earlier, beginning in June 2016, Germania will fly you to Vilnius every Monday and Thursday and will do so at unbelievably low fares.
Getting a bit ahead of the story of our first trip to Vilnius: Agné Mažeikyté, responsible for Vilnius Airport public relations, put the brakes on my enthusiastic notion of making a repeat trip on the airline’s June inaugural flight for a longer stay this time in her city:
“Hold off until July. We get much too much rain in June, and also the students will have left town by then. That’s when it gets beautiful. We picnic along the river or in the park and there are uncounted events and concerts in the city.”
Lithuania’s honorary consul Bruno Kaspar with us on the tour also gave us good advice: take a trip to the sea shore. A three- and-a-half hour bus ride (he discourages taking the train) will take you from Vilnius to the Baltic shore. The Curonian Spit National Park located there is one of Lithuania’s best known venues, also with UNESCO World Heritage status. It gets crowded accordingly. However, he reveals that there are other places along the Baltic shore more off the beaten path and deserving of a visit.
Dainius Kinderis, Lithuania’s well-known globetrotter, then expanded my horizons even more by proposing to either get me kayaking in the northeastern high country with its many lakes and few tourists or mushrooming in the country’s southeast, the area that he maintains is populated by the happiest Lithuanians and ideal for picking chanterelles and porcinis. I would presumably have to apologize to every single mushroom of whatever sort I pick, considering that in the past I was never quite sure what to make of “Lithuania” on the supermarket package’s label of origin. Starting this coming fall, I will gladly buy them without a second thought.
And I would really also like to beat the drums for an import treaty to get Lithuanian potatoes here. Yes — truth be told, to the amusement of my fellow travelers, I lugged two kilos of the Soraya variety home to Zurich. Regrettably, they didn’t taste quite as good as the ones I had eaten earlier close to where they grow them. And this brings me to my favorite subject: the Vilnius food scene.
Fortunately, I did not have to find a good restaurant on my own that first evening. “You have a table reserved here” it said on the slip of paper our tour hosts handed us. To our amazement, for a mere 2 euros a taxi took four of us in just 12 minutes to DINE Restoranas. I have to confess to being a bit disoriented at first as we began our meal: were we really so fortunate as to have one of the city’s, if not the country’s, most innovative young chefs cooking for us?
And what a treat it was!
The next day I realized that every member of our group had only raves about their individual culinary experiences. Based on their recommendations, I can suggest the following restaurants; all received top reviews:
- Dine Gedimino per 35
- Sweet Root Uzupio g.22
- Dublis Traku g. 14
- Time Comfort Hotel, Kauno g. 14
- Ertlio Namas Sv. Juno g. 7
- Lauro Lapas Pamenkalnio g. 24
A brief food glossary
- Kepta duona: garlic bread they serve with the beer
- Cepelinai: potato dumplings with ground meat filling
- Kibinai: meat-filled pastries, similar to empanadas or Cornish pasties
- Ruginė duona: rye bread
- Šaltibarščiai: beetroot soup with buttermilk
- Grybai: mushrooms in cream sauce
- Sakotis: traditional Lithuanian baumkuchen
For down-to-earth Lithuanian fare in an inn with brewery pub feel and a medieval flair I recommend a visit to Alinė Leičiai. The house-brewed beers are highly recommended. We were served a matching beer with every course!
Alinė Leičiai Stiklių g. 4
A similar pub on the same street, but a bit more touristic and folkloric and able to accommodate larger groups, is Lokys. Here we tasted for the first time Trejos Devynerios, the bitter Lithuanian liqueur (see 10 must things to do in Vilnius) before they served up the hearty food. Order beaver here as a main course – if you’re feeling brave…
Lokys Stiklių str. 8
“We Lithuanians are beer lovers. Anytime we get together with friends, we have beer and Kepta duona,” my Vilnius guru Agné Mažeikyté told me. Here are some hip bars on her recommended list:
- Šnekutis – a quaint alehouse, located at Šv. Stepono g. 8
- Turgus where the locals meet up for an after-work beer, Pylimo g. 59
- Peronas behind the train station with a view of the tracks. Very happening. Geležinkelio g. 6
“Delivering” our colleagues at the Crown Plaza Hotel late in the evening, we did not miss having a nightcap with them in the Hotelbar «Horizontas». The roof-top view is enchanting (unlike the rest of the hotel). Vilnius doesn’t just do baroque – they have skyscrapers on the other side of the Neris River! the Europa Tower being the tallest. I think I’ll have a closer look during my next visit – in daylight this time ;-) …
Note: the Radisson’s Skybar could well offer a similarly spectacular view.
See all my Vilnius and Trakai pictures in this Flickr-Album.
My thanks for the invitation to this unforgettable whistle-stop tour go to Marketing & PR Manager Severine Isaac, Chairman of the Board Urs A. Pelizzoni und CEO Tobias Somandin of Germania Flug AG as well as to Simon Benz of PrimCom.