Any exploration of Vilnius should begin at the Bell Tower. It's a former military base first erected in the 13th Century that is still one of the city’s tallest structures. These days, all the tower defends the citizenry against are the dozens of teens trying to skateboard around its plaza — but hey, that’s progress.
Inside the tower is a small collection of bells, liturgical artifacts, and a very creepy crypt. But the showstopper is the view from the top of the tower: all of beautiful Vilnius spreads out before you. Tf you’re there at 5 p.m., be sure to plug your ears when the bells ring out: You can almost feel the bells’ deep clang bouncing off the massive, sugar-white Vilnius Cathedral, pinging over the dark rooftops of the tangle of arcades and ballrooms that was once the Palace of the Grand Dukes, then finally coming to a rumbling rest on the green slopes of Gediminas Hill, a steep eruption on the city’s otherwise flat landscape that also happens to have a castle on top.
That’s the way things are in Lithuania’s capital: if there’s a hill, or a good flat plain, or a sweet little spot by the Vilnia river, somebody, sometime, has built something grand right there for you to admire. The Old Town is clotted with spectacular, silver and gold encrusted churches, bulky (and bursting) museums, and winding streets where elderly ladies sell handmade socks while chubby cats roam around coffee shops looking for pats (or a bit of cappuccino foam to lick off the end of your finger). Vilnius’s tone is genial and casual, even homey, but the surroundings look like the opposite, like a town-sized charm bracelet ornamented with expensive baubles. And that is the secret to the city’s success: Vilnius understands its dual nature.
Some guide books unfortunately advise that, because Vilnius is small in size, it is only worth one day, since you can purportedly see all of the city in eight hours. This is not true. Of course, you could speed-walk across the Old Town and check off the major sites as you rush past, but you’ll never catch the city’s real nature by frog-marching from place to place. Vilnius is a church-y city, by which I mean that it is full of churches but also, and more importantly, that Vilnius is a meditative, quiet city that reveals its charms slowly. Patient study and an embracing of the city’s bookish personality are amply rewarded. You could live for a year in Vilnius and still only scratch the surface of its long and turbulent history. Lithuanians have long memories, so why not make like the locals?
If you do want to meet people, go to the Kalvariju Turgus, a sprawling market with bustling halls and rickety open-air stalls. Everything is available here, from strings of dried wild mushrooms to shoe laces; lemony gingerbread confections to tiny aquariums; and table after table of Soviet relics. You can buy underpants or you can buy rare books — or both — and usually from the same shopkeeper. While many of the sellers have little English, that hardly stops them from explaining the virtues of their wares. Conversation fuels the market, as does rich, foamy giliu kava, a.k.a. “Lithuanian coffee”, which is made from ground acorns that are first boiled in milk and then roasted.
If you want to hang out with artists and designers, walk across the tiny Uzopio Tiltas, a pedestrian bridge guarded from beneath by a statue of a water nymph, and continue on into the feisty Uzupis neighbourhood. Vilnius’s Montmartre, Uzupis declared itself a micro-republic in 1997 (complete with an absurdist Constitution, one that includes proclamations such as Article 26:“Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday”). Although Uzupis houses fewer than 10,000 people, an apparent one in five is an artist. Street art is everywhere, as are local designers peddling stationery, footwear, visual art, and all manner of clothing made from repurposed textiles. Meanwhile, the busy sidewalk cafes and restaurants favour communal seating, so be ready to cram into whatever spot is cleared for you (and perhaps to show off your new purchases).
If you crave political discussions, you can easily meet the Ambassador of the Republic of Uzupis ... unless he’s asleep, which he often is, since he's a cat. Everyone just calls him The Cat, and his official residence is the stuffed-to-the-rafters used book store Keistoteka. As you watch The Cat let himself be fawned over, tickled and photographed, you may begin to really see and absorb the gentleness and resistance to formality, the affability, that defines Vilnius.
Maybe it’s something in the water. Or the kibble.