Best Things to Do in Vilnius, Lithuania in One Day
Before making my way to Moscow for my Trans-Siberian journey in 2018, I decided to make quick stops at each of the capitals of the Baltic countries.
Where I come from, these countries are pretty much unheard of. Whenever Europe is mentioned, people would think of the usual suspects: France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and perhaps Germany. Those who are slightly more well-traveled may also think of the Balkans. But rarely do the Baltic states get a mention.
So, I was admittedly uninformed about the cities I was going to visit apart from the few blog posts I managed to read before my trip. However, there’s a certain charm about visiting a new place without knowing what to expect. You feel like there’s an exciting surprise waiting for you at every corner.
My first stop was Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania — the southernmost of the Baltic states.
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Overview of Vilnius, Lithuania
Vilnius is the largest city in Lithuania and the second largest in the Baltic states. In 2009, it was named the European Capital of Culture, together with Linz, Austria. Vilnius is best known for its Old Town, which is the largest baroque Old Town in Eastern Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Vilnius is located at the confluence of the Vilnia and Neris rivers in southeastern Lithuania. It occupies an area of 402 square kilometres (155 sq mi), 29.1% of which are buildings, 68.8% green spaces, and 2.1% waters. This modern city has eight protected nature reserves.
Vilnius has been inhabited since the Mesolithic era, but only became the country’s capital in 1323 when Grand Duke Gediminas transferred the seat from Trakai to Vilnius.
In 1654, Vilnius was captured by Russia and in 1915 by Germany. Lithuania gained its independence in 1918, but was later annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, followed by the Germans one year later, and again the Russians in 1944.
It was only in 1991 that Lithuania became properly independent and joined the United Nations.
As of 2023, Vilnius has a population of close to 550,000, made up of at least 55% Lithuanians and large numbers of Poles, Russians, and Belarusians.
Before World War II, Vilnius was one of the largest Jewish centers in Europe, which earned it the nickname “Jerusalem of the North”. However, the Germans practically decimated the entire Jewish population in 1941.
Today, there are only about 2,000 Jews in Vilnius. The biggest faith group is Roman Catholicism.
Best Time to Go to Vilnius
The weather in Lithuania is quite unpredictable throughout most of the year, except in winter, when it’s almost guaranteed to be dark and freezing.
In general, the best time to visit Lithuania is between May and September. During these months, the weather is pleasant enough for city strolls and outdoor activities.
Within the two days that I spent in Vilnius in October, it drizzled for a few hours, and was cloudy for the rest of it.
How to Go to Vilnius
There are several bus companies connecting Vilnius with other cities in Lithuania and other countries in Europe, including:
There are direct train connections between Vilnius and Warsaw (Poland), Riga (Latvia), Minsk (Belarus), and Moscow (Russia). Vilnius is also well connected by rail with other Lithuanian cities. Visit the Lithuanian Railways website to buy tickets or check the schedule.
The Vilnius International Airport (IATA: VNO) is the largest civil airport in Lithuania and serves as a base for Air Baltic, Ryan Air, and Wizz Air. There are direct flights to Vilnius from most major cities in Europe. I flew in from Berlin with Ryan Air.
From the Airport to the City
Vilnius International Airport is located about 6 kilometres from the city center. Getting to and from the airport is fairly easy, as the city bus stop is immediately next to the main entrance. Tickets cost EUR 1 and can be purchased from the driver. The journey takes around 15 to 20 minutes, depending on traffic.
A cheaper and faster option is the train. The ticket is only EUR 0.80 and the journey takes 10 minutes, but to get to the station, you have to walk across a pedestrian bridge outside the airport’s passenger terminal.
If you have a lot of luggage, a taxi to the city center should cost you between EUR 15 to 17.
Check out Vilnius Airport official website for latest updates.
How to Get Around in Vilnius
Although the Vilnius Old Town is one of the largest in Europe, it can easily be explored on foot, since many of the attractions are within close distance to one another.
However, if you need to go further afield, here are your options:
By Bus / Trolleybus
Buses and trolleybuses run from around 5:30 a.m. to midnight every day. A single ticket for either one of these buses costs EUR 1 if purchased from the driver, or EUR 0.65 for 30 minutes if you have the Vilniečio kortelė (Vilnius Citizen Card). These cards cost EUR 1.50 each, and can be purchased and topped up with cash at kiosks, “PayPost” outlets, post offices, and “Maxima” supermarkets.
Please note that for every bus ride, you need to validate your tickets/cards using the machine near the driver.
Note: Buses and trolleybuses may have the same numbers but the routes are completely different. Check their website for routes and timetables.
A regular taxi may cost around EUR 5 – 10 to get from the city center to the periphery. Generally, using a mobile application to book taxis is a much cheaper option than stopping one on the street.
There are several mobile taxi and ride sharing apps available in Vilnius, including Uber, Bolt, eTaksi, eTransport, A2B, Jazz Express, and Taxi.lt.
Best Things to Do in Vilnius in One Day
1. Explore the Old Town
Since this is what the city is most famous for, it makes sense to start your day in Vilnius by exploring its Old Town.
In fact, I’d highly recommend staying in a hotel somewhere in the Old Town or nearby so that you can spend as much time as possible admiring the baroque architecture. And if you tire of that, nip into one of the many cafes lining the cobbled streets.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site boasts a number of attractions that you should look out for.
2. Visit St. Anne’s Church
Often considered one of the most famous landmarks in Vilnius Old Town, this red-brick Roman Catholic church features beautiful Gothic architecture that has survived for over 500 years. It was originally built for Anna, the Grand Duchess of Lithuania.
Next to it stands the Bernardine Church, its Renaissance architecture contrasting drastically with the tall Gothic spires of St. Anne’s.
3. Climb the Bell Tower of St. John's Church
One of the most picturesque buildings in the Old Town, the Church of St. John has a Gothic interior as per its original construction and a Baroque exterior (due to a redesign in later years). It is now part of the Vilnius University and is often used for major community events in the city.
Be sure to climb the 68-metre tall bell tower to get a fantastic view over the old town.
4. See the Gate of Dawn
Constructed in the 1500’s, the Gate of Dawn is another must-see attraction in Vilnius. It is the last remaining city gate out of the five that once formed a wall surrounding the city limits.
Today, the Gate of Dawn is an important pilgrimage site in Lithuania, attracting devotees from all over the world. This is largely due to the icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the gate chapel, which is said to have miraculous powers.
While you’re there, don’t forget to visit the nearby Church of St. Theresa, a Baroque-style church with high-vaulted ceilings, vibrant frescoes, and intricate carvings and sculptures.
5. Visit St. Casimir’s Church
Also in the Old Town is Vilnius’ first and oldest Baroque church, built by Jesuits in 1604 to honor St. Casimir. Over the course of a few decades, the church was burnt down several times. With each restoration, it gets a new look, and as a result, the facade is a patchwork of different styles: Baroque, Renaissance, and Gothic.
This Roman Catholic church has been converted a few times — first into a Russian Orthodox church under Russia’s occupation, then into an Evangelical Lutheran prayer house during Germany’s occupation, and lastly into a Museum of Atheism during the Second World War. It was only in 1991 that it was reconsecrated as a Catholic church once again.
6. Walk Along Pilies Street
Pilies Street (literally, Castle Street in Lithuanian) is the oldest and most ornate street in Vilnius Old Town. It runs from the Town Hall Square to Cathedral Square.
Popular among souvenir hunters and Christmas shoppers, Pilies Street is also notable for its architectural variety — there are Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architectures all on one street.
In addition, a lot of festivals take place on this street, including the Kaziukas Fair, which is a gathering of folk artists from all over the country to display and market their latest artworks.
7. Visit Vilnius Cathedral and Cathedral Square
Another thing you must not miss in Vilnius is the Vilnius Cathedral (full name: The Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus of Vilnius). Built in 1783, the Vilnius Cathedral is the main Roman Catholic Cathedral of Lithuania. During the Soviet era, the cathedral was converted into a warehouse, but was later restored as a cathedral in 1989.
Inside, there are more than 40 works of art from as early as the 14th century. Visitors are also allowed to visit the catacombs, where many kings and dukes were buried.
Somewhere between the Cathedral and the freestanding bell tower on the Cathedral Square, there is a small magical tile called “Stebuklas” that is said to be able to grant your wishes if you jump on it on one leg and turn clockwise three times.
8. Wander Around Užupis
One of the most unique attractions in Vilnius is the self-governing town called the Republic of Uzupis.
It declared its independence on 1st April 1997, initially as an April’s Fool joke, but it has now evolved into one of the smallest republics in the world, with its own president, currency, constitution, and even its own navy!
Uzupis has an artistic and free-spirited vibe to it. Places of interest that you can expect to find in this republic include an arts center, a potters’ guild, Uzupis Art Incubator, and a weekly organic market.
If you visit on 1st April, you can get your passport stamped as you cross the bridge to enter the republic. On all other days, the border is not guarded.
9. Hike Up to Gediminas Tower
Located on top of Gediminas Hill, the Gediminas Tower is the only remaining part of the Upper Castle. Its location on top of the hill allows it to be seen from afar and thus makes it a prominent symbol of Vilnius.
Today, it serves as a museum and a great spot to get 360-degree views of Vilnius from above.
Once you are done with the tower, make your way to the stairs leading up to the Three Crosses — a monument dedicated to Lithuania’s bleak past under the Soviet regime.
10. Subačiaus Observation Deck
If you still have time, head over to Subaciaus Observation Deck near the crossroad between Subaciaus Street and Maironio street. This place is claimed to be one of the best spots to see sunset in Vilnius.
How Much Time Do You Need in Vilnius?
The Vilnius Old Town is one of the largest in Europe, so it’s impossible to see everything in one day.
Fortunately, the main attractions are located quite close to one another, so you’ll still be able to see most of the highlights even if one day is all that you have.
Ideally, you should spend at least 2 – 3 days if you want to take your time exploring the Old Town and beyond at a comfortable pace.
If You Have More Than One Day in Vilnius
If you have more than one day to spend in Vilnius, consider adding these to your itinerary:
1. Watch a Show
Check out the Lithuanian Opera and Ballet Theater website to see their upcoming performances. They usually offer multiple shows per week with tickets as low as 3 euros.
2. Visit the Genocide Museum
The Genocide Museum (also known as the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Rights) is a must-visit to pay homage to the country’s dark past.
The three-story museum building was once the Gestapo headquarters during the Nazi occupation in 1941, and was later used by the KGB to torture and execute prisoners when they took over the country in 1944. Visitors can still see the prison where the execution took place.
3. Visit the National Museum of Lithuania
Even if you’re not much of a history buff, it’s always good practice to educate yourself in the history of the country you’re visiting. And there’s no better place to do so in Lithuania than the National Museum.
The detailed exhibits will tell you all you need to know about Lithuanian history from the prehistoric up to the modern times. Tickets go for only 4 euros per adult. You can take the nearby funicular to go up Gediminas Hill.
4. Visit the Artillery Bastion
If you’re more interested in Lithuania’s weaponry and defense practices, you can go to the museum at the Bastion of the Vilnius Defense Wall instead. Here, you can learn all the intriguing facts about the use of artillery in Lithuania’s past, including early grenades and mortars, cannons, and other gunpowder-firing weapons.
Before being turned into a museum in 1987, the fortification bastion was part of the city’s defensive wall system built in the 16th century.
5. Make a Day Trip to Trakai Island Castle
Trakai Island Castle is a 14th-century island castle located in the middle Lake Galve in Trakai.
If you have your own transport, there’s no excuse to skip Trakai Castle because its majestic beauty makes it one of the most beautiful attractions in Lithuania. But even if you don’t have a car, there are plenty of buses and tours that can take you there on a day trip. The journey should take around 30 minutes.
Where to Stay in Vilnius
Throughout my trip across Europe and Siberia, I was lucky enough to not have to spend any money on hotels. At each of my stops, I was hosted by kind locals (except that one night I spent in prison in Latvia).
But if you’re not too keen on staying at people’s houses, Vilnius has a vast array of accommodation to suit all budgets:
Downtown Forest Hostel & Camping – Located only a 10-minute walk from the Old Town, this hostel is surrounded by trees and is close to St Anne’s Church and the Vilnele River. It features a garden, a terrace, a bar, and a camping area. It also offers free WiFi and a shared kitchen for guests. Rates start from EUR 7.65 for a bed in an 8-Bed Dormitory Room.
Ivolita Vilnius – This 3-star hotel is located in the Old Town, 5 minutes’ walk away from the famous Gate of Dawn. Each room comes with free WiFi, satellite TV, private bathroom, and free usage of safety deposit box at the reception. From EUR 49 for a Single Room with breakfast.
Hotel PACAI – Strategically located in the Old Town, Hotel PACAI is a 5-star design hotel set in a Baroque palace dating back to 1677. It features a restaurant, a bar, a 24-hour fitness center, a sauna room, and a hammam offering various massages and beauty treatments. From EUR 191 for a Standard Double Room with breakfast.
Final Thoughts on Vilnius, Lithuania
It was quite a shame that I only had a short time in Vilnius and that part of it was hampered by bad weather.
There are a variety of things to see and do in this charming capital city, especially if you love history and beautiful architecture of centuries past. It’s a wonderful pleasure to get lost among the cobbled streets and courtyards that are filled with old churches, small cafes, and quaint shops.
Vilnius is definitely a must-visit on your Baltic tour route.
Have you been to Lithuania? What did you like most about it? Share your experience in the comment section below.