A visit to Vilnius, Lithuania, for warm people and unexpected experiences

Welcome to Vilnius, the new Nordics. the hosts of The Jerusalem Post Podcast share their adventure to this unique city.

 A MONUMENT TO Grand Duke Gediminas in Vilnius’ Cathedral Square. He is credited with founding the Duchy of Lithuania in the 14th Century. (photo credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon)
A MONUMENT TO Grand Duke Gediminas in Vilnius’ Cathedral Square. He is credited with founding the Duchy of Lithuania in the 14th Century.
(photo credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon)

From the hotel décor and staff attire to the city’s architecture and cuisine, Vilnius doesn’t feel Eastern European. The Lithuanian capital wouldn’t be out of place in Scandinavia or Finland.

It’s a compact place with most of its sites easily walkable from downtown. Indeed, during our two-and-a-half-day stay, the only time we traveled by vehicle was when we visited the original capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at Trakai – more on that area later.

Direct four-hour flights from Tel Aviv with Wizz Air, augmented by a new Ryanair service, makes Vilnius the perfect getaway for a few days. The tiny airport is easily traversed and just a few minutes’ drive from the city center.

Despite arriving in the early hours, we were greeted warmly at the wonderful five-star Pacai Hotel, which brings contemporary, almost monochrome, taste to a 17th-century mansion. Even if you aren’t staying at this high-end accommodation, take a look at its balcony on the main drag through the old town – from here Napoleon addressed the masses on his way to battle with Russia.

The old Jewish Quarter is just around the corner. The businesses there today created a fund that pays for fascinating art installations around the district. Currently, there are light fixtures above the streets in the shape of hassidic hats with Yiddish words on the base, transliterated into Latin script. One artist took photos from a century ago that featured Jewish locals and painted their images on the walls at the actual spots the photos were taken. The ghetto is neither forgotten nor hidden.

 THE UŽUTRAKIS MANOR concert venue on Lake Trakai, a 40 minute drive from Vilnius, viewed from a hot-air balloon. (credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon) THE UŽUTRAKIS MANOR concert venue on Lake Trakai, a 40 minute drive from Vilnius, viewed from a hot-air balloon. (credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon)

Just a hop, skip and jump into the Jewish Quarter is the house where the Vilna Gaon, the foremost Lithuanian spiritual leader, once resided. Below is a bust of this master of Jewish study. Yards away is the site of the former Great Synagogue. While the building currently in situ is a Soviet-built kindergarten, archeologists are working to uncover the glories of the synagogue. It’s hoped the space will one day be restored in some way to its former glory but not as a place of worship. There are just 400 Jews left in Vilnius of the pre-war 70,000 and one synagogue of the once remarkable 137.

“There was a synagogue in every other courtyard,” one of our guides told us.

The neighborhood is filled with swanky restaurants, more-affordable cafes and great cocktail bars. It may be the old town but its vibe is young.

After dining in the excellent Rosehip vegan restaurant, a short stroll took us into a different country but where there’s no need to show your passport. Artists took a run-down area of the city, gentrified it and created The Republic of Užupis. The art colony is full of amusing street sculptures and paintings and offers intrepid travelers the chance to sit on a swinging sofa under a bridge – but be prepared to get wet as you ford the River Vilna.

If you are a foodie, take the short walk to the Hales market. It’s a great chance to people watch and check out typical local cuisine. There are plenty of eateries here alongside the market stalls. Be careful not to ask for “pickles” from the large plastic barrels. 

 LITHUANIA’S PRESIDENTIAL palace in the foreground, as seen from the tower of Vilnius University. (credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon) LITHUANIA’S PRESIDENTIAL palace in the foreground, as seen from the tower of Vilnius University. (credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon)

“They aren’t pickled,” we were admonished. “They’re salted.”

And that refers not just to the cucumbers but garlic, tomatoes, cabbage and many other greens.

If you are looking to do something special, it’s worth making the trip to Trakai. There are three key highlights in this lakeside area: the recently reconstructed castle, hot air ballooning (which you can also do in Vilnius itself) and getting acquainted with the 200-strong Karaite community.

The Karaites here don’t say they were originally Jewish but rather refer to their Crimean roots and Turkic language. They are less traditional than in previous generations – so electricity is used on Saturdays, for example but they still only adhere to the Torah and not later works. There’s a knesa (or knesset) house of worship a short stroll from the castle and the excellent restaurants run by Karaites – the centerpiece of which is their kybyn savory-filled pastry.

If firewater is your thing, then wash down the cheese and spinach or meat pasties with a shot of krupnik or krupnikas. While Yiddish speakers may think this is a barley-based booze, it’s actually a vodka mead with a cinnamon kick.

 THERE ARE SOME 400 members of Vilnius’ Jewish community today but the actual Jewish population is probably far greater. The Jewish community center is located downtown. (credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon) THERE ARE SOME 400 members of Vilnius’ Jewish community today but the actual Jewish population is probably far greater. The Jewish community center is located downtown. (credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon)

If you have a spare hour or two before departing Lithuania, take a stroll around what scientists have determined is the actual center of Europe. Europos Parkas or The Europa Park is a leafy area in Vilnius’s ample green belt that pays homage to the city’s geographical centrality with an array of sculptures, bizarrely including LNK Infomedis, a design that boasts the largest number of TV sets in a sculpture in the world. With a cafe and highly original kids’ play area, the park is worth the detour.

There’s something utterly charming about Vilnius. Perhaps it’s the fact that what you experience is likely not what you expected. Lithuanians wanted to make a clean break from Soviet Russia back in the 1990s. It’s a new country with Northern European, even Nordic values, blended with centuries of history. And the warmth of the people of Vilnius is the best antidote for the Baltic weather.

Mark and David are the hosts of The Jerusalem Post Podcast – Travel Edition (www.jpost.com/podcast). They were guests of Lithuania Travel.