Vilnius, Lithuania

Photo: Congress Avenue Hotel
Photo: Congress Avenue Hotel

After jet lag woke you up much too early a few hours ago, you jumped out of bed and pulled open the steel-gray curtains in your room, before climbing back under the covers. At first, the city was quiet. Spotlights showed off the Cathedral of Vilnius, the Town Hall, and the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. Slowly, the black sky started to brighten. The dark shadows turned out to be green parks, former palaces, and the Neris River. Movement began in Cathedral Square. Pilies Street prepared itself for another busy day. Church bells started ringing. Then the sun spread over the Old Town. Good morning, Vilnius.

You may be overlooking one of the largest surviving medieval old towns in Northern Europe, but there’s nothing old about your hotel room. The Congress Avenue Hotel sits in a 19th-century building along Gediminas Avenue, one of Vilnius’ main streets. The recently renovated rooms are decorated in sleek gray and cool white tones. The bathrooms are modern, though a little small. Plus the balconies look out on the river and the Old Town. Stop downstairs for Italian coffee and warm cake before heading out to explore Lithuania’s capital.

Vilnius sits in southeastern Lithuania along the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia Rivers. The little city has a tumultuous history. It was founded in the early 14th century. Protective walls, including nine gates and three towers, were built in the early 16th century. They didn’t matter. The Russians, the Poles, the Germans, and the Soviets each occupied Vilnius over the next couple of hundred years. Independence wasn’t regained again until 1991.

Photo: Diliff (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Diliff (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, Vilnius has one of the most beautiful, peaceful, and certainly underrated Old Towns; it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. Pass through the Gates of Dawn and the Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn chapel to see the only remnants of the old defensive wall. Stare at the gorgeous architecture—from Gothic to Baroque to neo-Classical—that stand side-by-side on the narrow streets. People watch in the squares, Cathedral and Town Hall, which are surrounded by cafés, courtyards, and museums. Hope for peace, regardless of your religion, as you check out the churches. The Cathedral of Vilnius is full of crypts and catacombs of famous Lithuanians. The brick St. Nicholas Church, from 1387, is the oldest still-standing church in the country. While the Baroque Church of St. Casimir became a Russian Orthodox Church and an atheism museum before returning to a Catholic Church. And don’t miss the grand palaces, especially the Presidential and the Slushko.

Along the way, stop in little boutiques that sell Lithuanian fashion designers’ clothing next to luxury international brands. Buy kibinais, pastries stuffed with meat and potatoes, like an empanada. Sip a chilled Švyturys beer from one of the oldest breweries in the country. Find Bistro 18 for dinner. The scallops with pea puree might be worth a return visit. Complete the meal with a glass of Krupnikas, a sweet honey liqueur. Then, at the end of the evening, take your time walking back through the cobblestone streets. The twinkling lights will escort you back to your hotel.

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