Vilnius has a beautiful old town. It is one of the oldest medieval old towns of Europe and is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. There are many beautiful churchs, squares and side streets to visit. But below you will find a walking guide of the things we think are the BEST of Vilnius and the easiest way to see them, starting from the Gate Of Dawn.
* Gate of Dawn: Built between 1503 and 1522 it is the only surviving gate of the original fortification that surrounded the city. Notice the thickness of the wall at the gate as well as the slits on the outside were soldiers would be able to peer out of the wall in order to protect the city from hostile forces outside. Notice also how the atmosphere of the city dramatically changes once you exit the old town at the gate and enter the more modern and more chaotic new town.
* Chapel in the Gate of Dawn: Walk into the old town about 10 meters and on the right side you will see a door that is sometimes opened. Enter the door (it is free) and on the left you will see a gift shop, on the right you will find a set of stairs going up. If you go up those stairs you will enter into the Chapel in the Gate of Dawn. The Chapel houses an icon of the Virgin Mary, which is reputed to have miraculous healing powers. For example, in 1671 a two year old child fell from a window and was thought to be dead. The parents brought the body of the child to the painting and the next day they found him healthy without even a bruise.
On September 4, 1993 Pope John Paul II said Rosary at the Gate of Dawn Chapel.
* Town Hall and Town Hall Square: Continue to walk away from the Gate of Dawn, past the Philharmonic (on left) and in about 200 meters you will find the Town Hall Square. The Town Hall Square is one of the festive centers of the city. Though the Town Hall no longer functions as the Center of Government, it still uses that name. There are many celebrations in the Square and many parties in the old Town Hall. The Town Hall is also the home of a visitors center.
Although there has been a Town Hall there since the 1400’s, that was destroyed and rebuilt. The current structure there was built starting in 1799.
* Kazys Varnelis House-Museum: Directly across from the town hall on the right side of the street, you will find this small private museum. Varnelis left Lithuania for the USA and returned in the 90’s a well recognized artist. “During his fifty years in the US (1949–1998) Kazys Varnelis became renowned for his paintings of optical and three dimensional illusions based on geometric abstractions and minimal forms”. Varnelis has paintings in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit. If you only see one museum in Vilnius, this is the one to see. Entrance is free but by appointment only (279 16 44).
* Pilies Street: Continue to walk in the same direction, away from the Gates of Dawn and you will find yourself on Pilies Street. Pilies is the heart of the old town, full of cafes, bars and restaurants. On a warm day musicians will be performing and people will be enjoying the weather in one of the many outdoor cafes. Pilies is a pedestrian street, closed off at one end and this allows the street to take on a calm and peaceful character.
At the end of Pilies Street, you have a choice of three directions. All of them are good ones:
* Kalnai Park (to the right). Kalnai Park is the home of tennis courts and chidren’s play areas. But there is also a very nice walk along the Neris River. It is a breath of fresh air on the boarder of the city.
* Gediminas Tower (straight ahead). The only remaining part of the Upper Castle which was built between 10th and 18th centuries. You can reach the castle either by the foot path at the beginning of the park, or by going around the back of the castle and taking the funicular to the top.
* Cathedral Square (to the left). The Cathedral Square is probably the most important landmark in Vilnius. In the Square is:
– the Cathedral: The Lithuanian King Mindaugas built the original cathedral in 1251 after his conversion to Christianity. But it was destroyed and reconstructed until the present day vesion of 1793.
– Bell Tower: lower section built in 13th century
– Stebuklas Stone: Literally “Mircale Stone”. Under a piece of glass in the middle of the suare, there is a stone the word Stebuklas. It was the beginning of the “Baltic Way”, a human chain of 2 to 2.5 million Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonians, spanning over 600km, protesting against Soviet rule of the Baltics. Now, it is said that if you stand on that stone, turn 3 times counter-clockwise and make a wish, your wish will come true.
– Monument to Gediminas: The founder of Vilnius who ruled from 1316–1341
* Gedimino Street: Once you have visited the Cathedral, continue on to Gedimino street. Gedimino Street is sort of a transition between the old town and the new town. Most of it is quite modern, but it has an architectural charm that is very attractive. Gedimino is the main “Shopping Street” that many cities have, but without the top high end brands. You will not find a Versace or Gucci shop on Gedimino. But you will find attractive shopping malls, cafes and boutiques. Gedimino becomes a pedestrian street in the evening and weekends making it particularly nice walk.
* KGB Museum (Museum of Genocide Victims): Located on Gedimino, but with its entrance on Aukų gatvė the KGB museum is shocking. You are taken into the basement of the museum to see where a generation of people were tortured and executed. This is a very sobering tour, but it is a must to see the reality that Lithuania survived until just a generation ago.