This year has been a good one for Vilnius. The Lithuanian capital celebrated its 700th birthday on 25 January 2023, and a few months later it was named the European Union’s green capital for 2025. Perhaps most symbolically – as Lithuania continues to firmly reject its Soviet past and align itself closer with the west – Vilnius played host to the Nato summit in July.
In short, there’s a lot for the Vilnese to be proud of and happy about. Given the progress the city has made since I first fell in love with it almost 10 years ago, local people want to share their joy and sense of accomplishment with visitors seeking a good time. The city even recently established a “night office” to ensure a night out is as enjoyable, friendly and safe as possible.
To top it off, a recent survey carried out by the Post Office showed Vilnius to be the second best value city break in Europe.
Cheers, or “į sveikatą”, to the next 700 years!
Located eight kilometres out of the city centre, Lazdynai appears to be yet another microdistrict of drab, slightly crumbling Soviet tower blocks. But it isn’t. Not entirely, anyway. Built from 1963 to the early 1970s, this residential area was developed by a group of canny Lithuanian architects who drew on research trips to Finland to subversively create a western living space in the sprawling mass that was the Soviet Union. The topography of Lazdynai is layered, its roads wide, and architecture unique courtesy of the looping Architektų gatvė with its zigzag, conjoined five-storey Khrushchevka apartment blocks and now dystopian-looking 16-storey monoliths. Lazdynai earned the Lenin prize – the highest award attainable in the USSR – for architecture in 1974, and it became a tourist attraction and the standard bearer for urban planning across the entire union. In light of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, microdistricts like this are a controversial topic in countries once illegally annexed by the USSR. Yet in my mind they remain a key part of Vilnius’s social fabric, and Lazdynai can make a strong claim to being the most important of them all.
Near to Vilnius town hall, Kazys Varnelis House-Museum is home to more than 40 exhibition spaces curated by the Lithuanian emigré artist Kazys Varnelis, who returned to the country in 1998 after almost four decades of living in the US. Varnelis is known for his optical artworks, which incorporate 3D illusions with elements of constructivism, minimalism and the abstract. They are considered by some to be modernist interpretations of Lithuanian folk art. In addition to his own work, the museum exhibits Asian art, sculpture, and historic furniture curated and collected by the artist, who died in 2010. It is also the only branch of the National Museum of Lithuania to be dedicated to art. Adults €5.
In the heart of the city, Sultiniai is a valgykla – Lithuania’s equivalent of a Soviet-style canteen-cum-greasy spoon. While the food won’t be winning any awards for presentation, it ticks all the boxes when it comes to wallet-friendly home-style cooking – a square meal will cost about €6. Lithuanian soul food, such as pork-stuffed cabbage rolls (balandeliai), or the celebrated national dish of potato and meat dumplings (cepelinai) are the go-to here. Should an act of mass carbicide not appeal, the freshly baked buns stuffed with a choice of cabbage, rice, meat or sausage, alongside a glass of warm, equally fresh chicken broth, are just as nourishing. Sultiniai opened in 1969 and is somewhat of a time capsule. The interior is finished in largely brown Formica, and the kitchen, with its bubbling, steaming pots and pans, has almost certainly not been renewed over the past five decades. The only hint of modernity in this delightful piece of history is the addition of a card machine. Viva la valgykla!
A 30-minute walk north of the centre, Kalvarijų turgus has been part of the city’s social fabric since 1903. This ungentrified market serves as a gritty, unpretentious cultural reminder that Vilnius has always been a place of coexistence. Expect to overhear Lithuanian, Polish, Russian and Belarusian being spoken against the backdrop of an Old Believers’ church. Note that Lithuanians are world class at smoked meats, pickled vegetables and dairy products – farmhouse cheese (varškės sūris) is particularly special.
For the most part, people here are fond of a drink, so it’s no surprise that finding a reasonably priced bar in Vilnius isn’t hard. Plenty of watering holes offer a decent range of craft beers, but Local Pub – with its bare brick walls, small tables, chalkboard menus and well-stocked fridges – is probably the standout. Most of its beers are from neighbouring Poland or Latvia, and the array of offerings are a journey down the rabbit hole to the oft quite dizzying world of eastern European craft beer.
YDA is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bar specialising in organic wines from around Europe, and is pretty much packed with locals. This cosy venue combines the quirky (look at the outdoor YDA mural wall to see what I mean) with the traditional – as the owners appear to have drawn on European wine bar chic and put their own, unique spin on it. As well as wines and high-end cocktails it serves Burbulosé – a sour cherry beer brewed with champagne yeast by a local brewery called Kuro Aparatūra. It’s one of the finest beers to come from the craft beer scene that has taken Lithuania by storm since 2014.
To round out the holy trinity of hops, grape and grain, there’s Flow Bar. This intimate, catacomb-like locale is pretty much standing only, and it specialises in vodka – Lithuanian vodka, which is clean and balanced in flavour. On top of its 30-plus selection, Flow Bar offers an array of cocktails, rums and – if you fancy it – Lithuanian bacon schnapps. Snacks, including the classic “pig fat on rye bread”, can be ordered as a soak up. There’s also a massive carpet woven with Jesus’s face on the wall.
Nightlife and music
The National Opera and Ballet Theatre is an outstanding piece of glass-fronted modernist architecture located near the banks of the River Neris. Built in 1974, the venue offers everything you would expect, from performances put on by local music schools to A-list opera and ballet performances. Ticket prices start at about €11. On top of being a low-priced venue in comparison with other European capitals, the dress code is much more relaxed than in the west – you’ll be fine in a decent pair of jeans and a shirt. As a side note, musical education is still a thing across the country as a whole.
Lukiškių kalėjimas 2.0 is at the other end of the cultural spectrum, and the site served as the city’s main prison from 1905 until it closed its doors in 2019. Once home to prisoners including Vincas Kudirka, the author of the Lithuanian national anthem, and Menachem Begin, future prime minister of Israel, the venue is now a playground for year-round gigs and exhibitions hosted by Vilnius’s abundance of bright, young alternative musicians and artists. It was also one of the filming locations for the Netflix series Stranger Things.
In the trendy Naujamiestis part of town, Gallery 1986 is one of the city’s hubs for contemporary art and culture. What makes it pop is the interior’s intriguing use of natural lighting, courtesy of colour-tinted windows, neon tubes and bare concrete surfaces. It’s mainly a club, but like Lukiškių kalėjimas 2.0, it also holds alternative art exhibitions, theatre performances and cinema screenings throughout the year.
Vilnius is 62% green space, making it Europe’s greenest city and the third greenest in the world. With that in mind, Downtown Forest & Hostel offers the best bang-for-buck Vilnius experience. Located in the redeveloped Paupys part of town, it’s wallet-friendly and a 20-minute walk from the old town. During summer it’s also home to live outdoor gigs. To me, it’s everything Vilnius should be about: friendly, green and inexpensive.
From €47.60 for a double with bath.
Despite its clunky moniker, Comfort Hotel LT – Rock ’n’ Roll Vilnius is an equallyworthy option. No prizes for guessing the theme of the hotel, but it’s clean, modern, and has a gym and a decent bar/restaurant called Mellow. Conveniently, it’s also 300 metres from the train station.
Doubles from €46.
George East is a freelance writer specialising in the territories formerly occupied by the Soviet Union