UNESCO Spotlight: Vilnius, Lithuania – City of Secrets, Smarts, and Zappa

UNESCO Spotlight: Vilnius, Lithuania – City of Secrets, Smarts, and Zappa

The oldest, most historic heart of many cities is sadly often in disrepair or abandoned. Yet the core of Lithuania’s capital is an historic Old Town so vibrantly alive that it’s named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Vilnius is filled with smart people, too, not to mention a statue of 1960s rock star Frank Zappa. Yes, Zappa.


Hidden CityVilnius may be a question mark in many travelers’ minds, like – where is it, exactly? (It’s two hours from the Baltic Sea coast, located in eastern Lithuania near Belarus.) Yet this out-of-the-way journey is worth it, with travelers drawn to the city’s deep past and relatively low prices compared to other capital cities.

Vilnius’ historical heart is also one of the largest medieval old towns in Northern Europe, and certainly one of the most beautiful. Imagine more than 70 streets and almost 1,500 buildings set aside for future generations to cherish.

Gothic interior of St. Anne's Church (see above photo), a Vilnius landmark for 500 years <br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Gothic interior of St. Anne’s Church (see above photo), a Vilnius landmark for 500 years
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Vilnius' Old Town main square bursts with Gothic, baroque, Renaissance and neo-classical architecture  Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Vilnius’ Old Town main square bursts with Gothic, baroque, Renaissance and neo-classical architecture
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Three muses – Drama, Comedy and Tragedy – crown the Lithuanian National Drama Theater in Vilnius <br>Photo credit: Lithuanian State Dept of Tourism

Three muses – Drama, Comedy and Tragedy – crown the Lithuanian National Drama Theater in Vilnius
Photo credit: Lithuanian State Dept. of Tourism

Cyber SmartsAnd, although steeped in ancient history, Vilnius is super-modern when it comes to having the fastest Internet connections in the world. The New York Times called Vilnius one of the “world’s 10 best smartly managed cities,” while New Economy Magazine named Vilnius a “2014 Smart City,”and the city of Vilnius itself is continually developing smartphone apps for local transportation and traffic.

They're smart:  97%  of Vilnius residents speak a second language <br>Photo credit: Lithuanian State Dept. of Tourism

They’re smart: 97% of Vilnius residents speak a second language
Photo credit: Lithuanian State Dept. of Tourism

Sacred SecretsFounded in 1323, Vilnius has survived successive attacks by invaders from the Crusaders and Crimean Tatars to Poles and Napoleon’s armies. Despite these invasions, examples of Gothic, baroque, Renaissance and neo-classical buildings still stand today. 18th century neo-classical Vilnius Cathedral in Cathedral Square grabs attention with its famous leaning belltower. The cathedral grabs imaginations with relatively recent discoveries of ancient crypts, earlier churches, pagan temples, and even hidden church jewels tucked into its walls. Today Catholic Masses are celebrated here; it’s quite a change from when the cathedral was used as a warehouse during Soviet times.

"Leaning Tower of Vilnius" crookedly stands before Vilnius Cathedral in the town's main square <br />  Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

“Leaning Tower of Vilnius” crookedly stands before Vilnius Cathedral in the town’s main square
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Vilnius’ Main VeinThe main artery of Vilnius’ Old Town is lively Pilies (Castle) Street, lined with artisans’ shops, historic architecture, and cafes. It leads to the town hall in Town Hall Square, with more shops and space for concerts, cultural events, and Christmas gatherings. Street names – Tatar, Russian, Jewish, German – reflect the multi-cultural composition of this capital city, known throughout history for its religious and national tolerance.

Locals head to famous Pilies Street for shopping, festivals, and sports celebrations <br>Photo credit:  Lithuanian State Dept of Tourism

Locals head to famous Pilies Street for shopping, festivals, and sports celebrations
Photo credit: Lithuanian State Dept of Tourism

A must-see is the 16th century Gates of Dawn, where holy icons were once brought to protect the city from invaders. Today its chapel safeguards one of Lithuania’s most beloved icons, the golden-clad Mother of Mercy. Nearby is 430+-year-old Vilnius University, one of the oldest educational institutions in Northern Europe.

Last of five surviving gates, Gates of Dawn guards the "Vilnius Madonna" painting, said to perform miracles <br>Photo credit: Lithuanian State Dept of Tourism

Last of five surviving gates, Gates of Dawn guards the “Vilnius Madonna” painting, said to perform miracles
Photo credit: Lithuanian State Dept of Tourism

State SecretsBeyond church secrets, KGB secrets are on display at the KGB Museum (officially the Museum of Genocide Victims), a building that once headquartered the Soviet secret police. Those with strong stomachs can take in the prison, torture chamber, execution room, spying equipment, and brutal history of 50 years of Soviet repression. Names of KGB victims are etched into the walls.


ZappaFrom somber KGB history to wacky trivia: What’s brilliant rock legend Frank Zappa got to do with Vilnius, or Lithuania for that matter? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Vilnius' Frank Zappa statue was a 1990s test of Lithuania's "anti-establishmentarianism." <br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Vilnius’ Frank Zappa statue was a 1990s test of Lithuania’s “anti-establishmentarianism.”
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Yet there’s a bronze head of Zappa that’s become the second-most popular tourist attraction in town, after the KGB Museum. In a bold, offbeat act, organizers for Lithuania’s independence in the early 1990s built a bust of Zappa – a non-Lithuanian who’d never visited this country – simply because they loved his music and wanted to test their newly won freedom. No one’s ordered it removed – yet.

This is Vilnius – spirited, smart,  hip and independent.

 

Travel to the Baltics with MIR

MIR has more than two decades of Lithuania travel experience, offering on-the-ground support and quality you can trust and guides and tour managers that clients rave about. 

You can explore the history, culture, and landmarks of Vilnius on these MIR itineraries:

Or book your own uniquely designed custom private journey. MIR specializes in personalized, private journeys, and we’d love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip tailored especially for you. Travel wherever, however, and with whomever you like, relying on our expert assistance. Contact us to find out more about our custom and private travel expertise – each trip handcrafted to your interests, dates and pace.

Chat with a MIR destination specialist by phone (1-800-424-7289) or email today. We would love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip tailored especially for you.

 

(Top photo credit: Lithuanian State Department of Tourism – St. Anne’s Church is a prominent landmark in Vilnius’ UNESCO-preserved Old Town)

PUBLISHED: November 24, 2014

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