In 1323, an iron wolf on the top of Gediminas’s Hill is said to have appeared to the Grand Duke in a dream and inspired him to found the city. The hill remains a good vantage point to take in the breadth of Lithuania’s capital, which has turned its gaze resolutely toward modernity. The decaying ruins in the city are steadily giving way to stucco facades, Prada storefronts, and refurbished Baroque, Gothic, and Neoclassical architecture—reminders that Vilnius flourished for centuries before WWII and the iron grip of Soviet rule.
Geležinkelio runs east from the train and bus stations to Aušros Vartų, which leads downhill through the Gates of Dawn (Aušros Vartai) and into the Old Town (Senamiestis). Heading north, Aušros Vartų becomes Didžioji and then Pilies before reaching the base of Gediminas Hill. On the hill, the Gediminas Tower of the Higher Castle presides over Cathedral Square (Aikštė) and the banks of the River Neris. Gedimino, the main commercial artery, runs west from Aikštė.
When Vilnius geared up for its dsignation as a 2009 European Capital of Culture, its growing community of avante-garde artists fueled the city’s burgeoning art scene. Not confined to museums, the energy spills out to free street-side galleries run by local artists and students eager to talk about their work. Besides art, history is a main attraction – from Church of St. Anne to Vilnius University to Jewish Vilnius, the “Jerusalem of the North.”
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The streets of Vilnius are bursting with inexpensive restaurants dishing out both regional cuisine and fare from the far corners of the globe. Cafes offer delicious meals at almost any hour, but budget travelers might find supermarkets and picnic lunches the most economical.
Lithuanian cuisine is heavy and sometimes greasy. Keeping a vegetarian or kosher diet is difficult. Restaurants serve various types of blynai (pancakes) with mėsa (meat) or varke (cheese). Cepelinai (“zeppelins”) are potato-dough missiles of meat, cheese, and mushrooms; karbonadas is breaded pork fillet; saltibarščiai is a beet-and-cucumber soup prevalent in the east; and koldunai are meat dumplings. Lithuanian beer flows freely. Kalnapis is popular in Vilnius and most of Lithuania, Baltijos reigns supreme around Klaipėda, and the award-winning Utenos is everywhere.
Since the 17th century, regional craftsmen have gathered to display their wares each March in Vilnius at the Kaziukas Fair. The annual Vilnius Festival, held in June, attracts classical and jazz musicians from around the world and features performances at the Lithuanian National Philharmonic Hall. In the fall, the capital also hosts the Vilnius Jazz Festival and the avant-garde theater festival, IRENOS (during the last few weeks of September). Beautiful Trakai Castle hosts classical music concerts in July and August during the Trakai Festival. During spring’s Uzgavenes festival, citizens dress as animals or demons and burn an image in effigy.
The Vilnius bar and club circuit is vibrant and diverse, but also small. if you linger long in town, you’ll begin to recognize names and faces. Keep an eye out in cafes for postcards advertising upcoming events and club nights throughout the city.
The earliest Luthuanian writings were the Chronicles of the Grand Ducky of Lithuania, written in an East Slavic dialect. The first book in Lithuanian, a Lutheran catachism, was printed in 1547. The year 1706 saw the appearance of secular literature with the publications in Lithuanian of Aesop’s Fables. A Lithuanian translation of the New Testament was published in 1701 and a Lithuanian Bible in 1727. Despite the 1864 Tsarist ban on publishing Lithuanian works in Latin letters (as opposed to Cyrillic), many writers continued to write in their native tongue, seeking to overthew Russian political and Polish cultural control. Known for both dramatic and lyric poetry, Jonas Maclulls (a.k.a. Maironis) launched modern Lithuanian poetry with his 1895 Voices of Spring. During the interwar period, ex-priest Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas pioneered the modern Lithuanian novel with In the Shadows of the Altars. After WWII, Soviet rule gagged and shackled Lithuanian writers; however, the poetry of Alfonsas Nykas-Niliunas and the novels of Marius Katiliskis flouted propagandistic Soviety Socialist Realism. Pre-Dawn Highways, by Bronius Radzevicius, is considered the strongest work of the late Soviet period.
Both Lithuanian music and painting have been heavily influenced by traditional folk culture. Much of the visual arts’ development has centered on the Vilnius Drawing School, founded in 1866, in which painter Mikalojus Clurlionis was a central figure. Folk songs, called dainos, are essential to Lithuanian music, and are often accompanied by the kandle, a zither-like instrument and the lumzdelis, which sounds like a whistle. The traditional raeliai is a circular dance, usually unacconpanied by music. During Soviet Rule, rock music was seen as symbolic of a decadent, corrupt society, and was discouraged; only in the few decades has it become popular. Even so, some rock bands, such as Vilnius’s Zalvarinis, still draw on folk music for their inspiration and their beats.
Lithuanian-American independent filmmaker Jonas Mekas is best known for his 1976 film Lost Lost Lost – the story of his arrival in New York and contact with New York counter-culture icons of the 50s, like Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara.
Reserve informal greetings for those you know personally. Say “laba diena” (“good day”) whenever you enter a shop. In polite company, you can never say “prasau” too many times (both “please” and “you’re welcome”). Lithuanians usually tip 10%. Bargaining is acceptable at street boths and for taxis, but is not at shops and restaurants.