Vilnius - Abbey Travel, Ireland



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Welcome to Vilnius


The Lithuanian capital of Vilnius is somewhat unique compared to the major cities in the rest of the Baltic States, its old architecture being a hodge-podge of styles with Scandinavian, Russian and German influences. The mix blends well into a charming 'Vilnian Baroque', that fills the cobblestone winding streets of the old quarter. The city is further enhanced by its picturesque setting in a valley at the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia rivers, nestling beneath wooded hills in the south-east corner of Lithuania.

Overlooking the city from a central hill is the landmark Gediminas Castle (named for the medieval Grand Duke who founded the city) with its impressive tower, from which visitors can enjoy an unrivalled view of the old town and the shiny new section on the right bank of the Neris. Gediminas Square is the heart of the old quarter, featuring the splendid classical cathedral. The city boasts numerous other interesting churches, beautiful historic buildings, museums, monuments and parks, and the splendid University of Vilnius, one of Europe's oldest institutions of learning, chartered in 1579.

In its 'golden age' in the Middle Ages, Vilnius was renowned as the region's centre for culture and learning, and today it has reclaimed that reputation, with a packed programme of events always on the go, from classical music evenings at the Philharmonic Society Hall and performances at the Opera and Ballet Theatre, Youth Theatre and Academic Drama Theatre to exhibitions in seven art galleries and a vast modern art centre. The city also plays host to numerous commercial fairs and exhibitions annually.

Last, but not least, when the sun goes down Vilnius reveals the fun side of its nature, with a nightlife that is fast gaining a reputation as the hottest in Eastern Europe.

Information & Facts


With a continental/maritime climate, Vilnius has vast discrepancies between its summer and winter temperatures. In summer the mercury can reach as high as 86°F (30°C), bringing holidaymakers and locals alike into the outdoor bars and cafes to enjoy the long, light evenings. Usually though temperatures are more moderate. Winter, by contrast, is bitterly cold with temperatures dropping below 32°F (0°C) and the rivers often freezing over, making ice-fishing a popular pastime. Rainy days are possible all year round, but most rain falls during mid-summer.

Getting Around

The central old quarter of Vilnius is compact and most of the sights can be visited on foot. Those who prefer to save their shoe leather can make use of the city's efficient network of buses and trolleybuses; fares can be paid on boarding or tickets bought at a discount from newspaper kiosks. Most visitors prefer to make use of taxis, which are relatively cheap, although it is wise to ensure the driver has switched on the meter before leaving on the journey. Taxis can be hailed on the street, or found at ranks at strategic spots in the old town. They can also be ordered by telephone. Self-driving is not recommended in the city, which has heavy, undisciplined traffic, but all the large international car hire companies have offices in the city and at the airport.

Lithuanian is the official language, but Russian and English are widely spoken.

The official currency is the Litas (LTL), which is linked to the euro at a fixed rate of 3.4528 Lt to EUR1. ATMs are found in Vilnius on the Cirrus and Visa networks, but are rare in smaller towns. Most retailers, hotels, restaurants and the like accept credit cards, and banks and hotels will cash travellers cheques.

A few miles north of Vilnius town centre Lithuanian sculptor Gintaras Karosas founded the Europos Parkas (European Park) on a 55-hectare site that encompasses the geographic centre of Europe, as determined by the French National Geographic Institute in 1989. The Park attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, who come to admire a permanent outdoor sculpture exhibition, set amid rolling hills, woods and fields dotted with natural springs. More than 90 works by artists from 27 different countries are on display. Guided tours are available, and the site includes a restaurant, shop and post office.

Standing sentinel over Vilnius since the 13th century, the landmark Gediminas Castle was built by the founder of the city, and has served as defence bastion, prison, and now major tourist attraction. Originally the castle was made of wood, later clad in 10ft (3m) thick stone walls, and then all but destroyed by Russian troops in the 17th century. Now completely and carefully restored to its former glory, the top of the majestic octagonal tower provides a breathtaking view of the old city. The castle also contains a museum depicting the history of Lithuania and Vilnius, exhibits including models of the city at various points in history and archaeological finds.

Near the Gediminas Castle in the Old City stands a hill topped with a trio of crosses, originally erected in the 17th century in memory of seven Franciscan monks who were crucified and thrown into the Vilnia River. The crosses were destroyed by the Soviet regime, but restored in 1989 to mark Lithuanian independence as a symbol of faith and national identity. There is an excellent view from the site, and pleasant walks on the wooded hillside.

In the early 20th century about half of the population of Vilnius were Yiddish-speaking Jews and the city was dubbed the 'Jerusalem of the North'. The Nazis in World War II effectively obliterated this community, encircling the Jewish quarter in barbed wire and eventually marching the 60,000 or so residents into the Paneriai forest where they were executed. Today the Genocide Museum has been established at the killing field in memory of the horror. There is also a Jewish Museum depicting pre-war Jewish life, and visitors are also welcome at the only remaining Vilnius synagogue. Efforts are underway to rebuild and restore many aspects of the former Jewish Quarter. Tours of Jewish Vilnius are offered by several private operators.

The dark days of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania are preserved in this disturbing collection of exhibits, which is contained in the former KGB headquarters building. Those who drew the antagonism of the authorities were detained, tortured and often executed in this building. Some of the Museum's exhibitions include the 'Eavesdropping Room' that highlights the use of secret surveillance by the KGB and 'Life Goes On' - a look at the day to day living of Lithuanian deportees and prisoners. Guided tours of the Museum are available in English.

The resplendent Vilnius Cathedral, which stands proudly on the central square of the Old City, has a chequered history that left it decaying and abandoned through the Soviet era. The Cathedral, which resembles a classical Greek temple more than it does a Christian church, is now once again the pride of the city, filled with awesome artworks, traditional icons and history. The cathedral, originally built in the 13th century, stands on the site of an ancient pagan temple, and has been rebuilt several times in the succeeding centuries after fires and storm damage. It contains more than 40 paintings and frescoes. Most noteworthy is the Casimir Chapel, first constructed in 1623, containing eight silver-plated statues and décor wrought by artist Constantino Tencallo.

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