We’d noticed that Ryanair operated flights to Vilnius from our local airport so we couldn’t resist the temptation of arranging a first visit to Lithuania. The flight schedule was quite good with our outbound flight departing Leeds-Bradford airport at 4.00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and returning late evening on a Tuesday, giving us four full days to explore the city.
Lithuania is two hours ahead of GMT so it was 8.30 p.m. when we landed in Vilnius, after a smooth two and a half hour flight. We had the option of taking a train into the city centre but as the station was quite a distance from our hotel, we chose to take an Uber taxi instead at €9 (£7.80).
We had reserved a room at the IBIS Vilnius Centre Hotel which had only been open for two months. Check in was quick and efficient and we were soon taking the lift to our stylish room on the 7th floor. The room was of a good size and came equipped with a gorgeous bathroom that would not have looked out of place in a luxury hotel. After quickly unpacking we popped back downstairs for a late evening snack in the attractive bar and enjoyed complimentary welcome glasses of wine which are offered to Accor members who have silver status.
We woke at 8.00 a.m. feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast buffet of hot and cold dishes to set us up for the day. It was around 9.45 a.m. when we left the hotel and walked into the city centre, a short 10 minutes walk away. Located at Cathedral Square is the Vilnius Tourist Information office so we called in there for a map and to pick up our 72 hour Vilnius City Cards which can be ordered on-line. The cards can be purchased to include public transport at an additional cost and offer admission to the majority of the city’s tourist attractions making them good value if, like us, you like to see as much as possible.
Across the square lies Vilnius Cathedral so we took a look in there first. The Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus is the main Roman Catholic cathedral of Lithuania and is where the coronations of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania took place. During the Soviet era the cathedral was converted into a warehouse but masses were celebrated again from 1988. Its status as a cathedral was finally restored the following year with major renovations taking place in 2006-2008. The cathedral is once again magnificent displaying its elaborate artwork.
Standing next to the cathedral is its Bell Tower. The tower originally formed part of the city’s 13th century defensive wall and it was not until the 16th century that it became a belfry. Admission to the tower is $4.50 (£3.90) and is included in the Vilnius City Card.
A narrow spiral staircase winds its way up the tower which accesses internal rooms. One of these contains a collection of old bells where visitors can try their hand at playing a melodious tune using a wooden hammer. A further exhibition hall details the history and construction of the bell tower.
Continuing upwards, the spiral staircase came to an end and we had to climb up wooden ladders to reach the summit. The steps have large gaps between them in places so great care needs to be taken to reach the summit which is 52m above ground. On a clear day the outlook from the top of the belfry will be very good but on a dull, grey November morning our views were somewhat restricted.
After carefully negotiating the steep staircases back down to ground level we made good use of our Vilnius Card by visiting the nearby Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania which forms part of the National Museum (admission €6 £5.20). The original palace was one of the most famous in Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries but was demolished at the start of the 19th century and reconstructed in 2011.
We followed two tour routes around the palace, the first route highlighted the historical and architectural development of the palace. Along here we could see the excavations of the former building and of the castle walls.
The second tour concentrated on the ceremonial halls which had been reconstructed to demonstrate the changes in architecture from Gothic, Renaissance through to early Baroque. I found this section more interesting than the first as we were able to view examples of what the private apartments of the Grand Dukes and their consorts would have looked like. There was also an opportunity to take in the views from the top of the tower, this time by means of a lift rather than an awkward staircase.
Looking at our map, we made our way to the river and strolled through the Bernardino Park which is located on the right bank of the Vilnius River. The park features ponds, ornamental fountains and specimen trees. There was a pleasant riverside path with picnic benches which would be attractive in summer but with the exception of autumn leaves there wasn’t a great deal to see at this time of year.
Just outside the far end of the park and located next to the Bernardino Monastery we came across the Church Heritage Museum and as it was included in our card we decided to take a look around (normal entrance €4.5 (£3.90). This small museum is housed in the church of St. Michael the Archangel and had some elaborate woodcarvings and tapestries from churches around the country. There is also an old wind-up organ upstairs on the balcony. The theme of the museum is to demonstrate the importance of Lithuanian cultural heritage through paintings, books and other artefacts. Next to the church stands its bell tower but this was closed when we visited.
All this sightseeing had made us feel hungry and so we wandered through the historic old town to find somewhere suitable for lunch. Several people seemed to be going into the Gusto Pancake Cafe which was near the market place, so we followed them and managed to get the only remaining window table. Although the cafe specialises in pancakes we actually ordered bowls of cabbage soup with rye bread and a beer each. It was cosy in the cafe and from our window seat we were able to observe life in old town Vilnius. Prices were very reasonable, the bill amounting to only €9 (£7.80) with a 10% discount for holders of the Vilnius City Card.
Feeling rested, we continued our walking tour of Vilnius, stopping off next at the Hales market hall which has been in existence since 1906. To celebrate its centenary, a full-scale renovation of its interior halls took place transforming the market into a spacious and airy place to browse the many stalls. Some stall holders offered us samples of locally produced sausages and honey and in one corner we found an attractively furnished, cosy cafe but as we had just eaten lunch we didn’t try it.
From the market it wasn’t too far to our next attraction at the railway station where the Lithuanian Railway Museum is located. The museum has a nominal entrance fee of €1.80 (£1.57) and is included in the Vilnius City Card. It is divided into two parts with outdoor and indoor sections. We started with the outdoor section which is situated on some sidings to the left of the actual station. This part is only supposed to be open from April-October but was still operating at the beginning of November which was fortunate for us.
Here we found an extensive collection of old steam engines, locomotives and rolling stock in use over the years on Lithuanian railways. Steps had been positioned so that visitors could look through the windows of several carriages but it was somewhat disappointing that it wasn’t possible to actually climb on board as all the trains were locked. We passed an old restaurant car but we were unable to see inside which was such a shame.
Moving on to the indoor section which we found on the upper floor of the main station hall, we just had to show our tickets to enter. Covering three rooms, the museum charts the history of railways in Lithuania and contains a large collection of old railway related paraphernalia. Exhibits include old station signs, lamps, signals, posters, clocks, uniforms, ticket machines and everything else you could possibly think of. The only negative aspect being that very little of the signage was in English.
One room contained two model railways, both using different gauges and we were enthralled pressing the buttons and watching the trains pass along the tracks and through the tunnels. The museum is closed on both Sunday and Monday but should you arrive early for your train or have a little free time, I would recommend a visit. Any bus or trolley bus with the word ‘Stotis’ on the front will take you to the railway station.
It had started to rain heavily when we returned outside so we took a No.20 trolley bus back to the old town, paying with our Vilnius City Cards. The travel option on the card works independently from the attractions and the 72 hours only commences when it is first activated on public transport. The card doesn’t need to be used again on future journeys but must be carried in case of inspection. Back in the old town we looked in some of the shops trying to keep out of the rain as much as possible and then walked back to our hotel for a cup of tea and a little rest.
We’d reserved a table at the Mykolo 4 restaurant in the old town which shares its name with its address. The restaurant specialises in traditional Lithuanian cooking but with a modern twist so we were looking forward to our dining experience. As it was still raining we took an Uber taxi which was very reasonable at only €2.10 (£1.82) and saved us from getting soaked. The restaurant looked inviting with fairy lights twinkling over its windows. The entrance is accessed at the side of the building through an archway and we were warmly welcomed and shown to a window table in the cosy, attractive restaurant.
Whilst selecting from the menu we enjoyed an appetiser of duck and apple paté served with home made dark rye bread All the dishes on the menu were appealing and it was difficult to choose but eventually we both decided to have the fried herring on a bed of potato for our starter course. This arrived beautifully presented and was served with pickled cucumber, carrots and a horseradish sour cream sauce, the combination of flavours being sublime.
We both selected different options for the main course. I’m a lover of lamb and my slow cooked lamb shank with roasted baby potatoes served on an aubergine and ragout sauce was top notch. It fell off the bone and was cooked to perfection. Across the table, Mr. C’s venison loin with a parsnip and cherry sauce, accompanied with portobello mushrooms sautéed in a pastry crust looked amazing. The venison was served rare and the loin was so tender that it melted in the mouth and so we were both delighted with our chosen dishes.
The service was impeccable and our two waitresses, Victoria and Ieva were both friendly and efficient, speaking excellent English. Our dessert selections of apple soufflé and beetroot ice cream with honey cake crumbles were irresistible.
I was intrigued to taste beetroot ice cream as I couldn’t imagine what it would be like. Beetroot is quite divisive with many people either loving or hating it. I’m actually fond of beetroot especially if it’s served with goat cheese, then it’s a marriage made in heaven. The beetroot ice cream arrived and was paler than I had imagined and after tasting it, I was in raptures. Beetroot has a natural sweetness and combined with its deep, earthy flavour made me savour every spoonful.
I would definitely return to Mykolo 4 on a future visit to Vilnius as we enjoyed exceptionally good food prepared to the highest standards in a relaxed setting. I’d recommend a meal there if you are visiting Vilnius as prices are much more affordable for a fine dining experience than in most European cities. It was the perfect end to a lovely first day in Vilnius.
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