Take a map. That would be my advice for those hoping to navigate their way through the historic centre of Vilnius. Get an offline map for your smart phone, and keep your phone in your hands at all times; otherwise, before you know it, you’ll be heading in entirely the wrong direction.
Don’t believe me? Think you’ll be fine navigating by instinct?
Normally, sure. But not in the confusing labyrinth that is the historic centre of Vilnius. Your instincts will be of no help here whatsoever. The first street you head down will twist, and turn, and bend around on itself, and you’ll end up further away than you started.
Feel like trying again? Go ahead, but you’ll only end up even further and further afield. The layout ofVilnius dates back to medieval times; it’s as far away from a grid pattern as it is possible to get. And it’s no good trying to make sense of it. Don’t trust your instincts. Trust me: use a map.
Founding of Vilnius
The story of Vilnius begins with a small wooden castle, built circa 1000 CE, on the banks of the Vilna River (the city takes its name from the river).
Roll forward to 1323 CE, and that little wooden castle has become the capital city of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania flourished in the early 14th Century CE under the reign of Grand Duke Gediminas. The country was continually expanding its borders through military conquest, and by the 15th Century it encompassed all of modern day Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine, along with parts of Russia and Poland.
At its greatest territorial extent the Grand Duchy stretched from from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. It was, believe it or not, the largest country in Europe at the time.
Gate of Dawn, Vilnius
Defensive walls were constructed around Vilnius between the years of 1503 and 1522 to protect the city from attacks from the Crimean Khanate. The city walls included 9 gates, of which the Gate of Dawn, also known as the Medininkai Gate, is the sole survivor (the rest of the gates were demolished by the Russians in the 18th Century).
The Gate of Dawn contains a religious icon, known as the Icon of Virgin Mary, which has become the symbol of the city.
Gediminas Tower, Vilnius
Gediminas Tower (seen in the righthand side of the photo above) was originally a wooden structure, built during the reign of Grand Duke Gediminas. The tower was upgraded to a brick structure in 1409 CE, and was rebuilt into the modern structure you see today in 1933.
Those who make the effort to climb to the tower base can expect fine views over Vilnius, even on a misty winter’s day.
Church of St. Casimir, Vilnius
The Church of St. Casimir, completed in 1608 CE, is the oldest Baroque church in Vilnius.
The church was built in honour of Saint Casimir, a prince from the 15th Century CE Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It was paid for by Lew Sapieha, a rich nobleman from Belarus.
Cathedral Square, Vilnius
In 1569 the Grand Duchy of Lithuania entered an alliance with its neighbour, forming the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
In 1792 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was invaded and conquered by Russia. The lands of the Commonwealth were subsequently divided into three parts, with a third going to Russia, a third to Prussia, and a third to Austria.
Vilnius (and Lithuania) went to the Russian Empire. Vilnius was now Russia’s 3rd largest city.
Cathedral Square was formed in the 19th Century as a place to hold Russian military parades.
The cathedral that fronts the square dates back to the 13th Century (although it was rebuilt in entirety many times over the centuries; the structure you see today was completed in 1783).
Museum of Genocide Victims, Vilnius
This grand building, completed in 1890, when Lithuania was still ruled by the Russian Empire, was initially used as the court of the local government.
But things went downhill after that. The building was occupied by the German military during WWI, and used by the Gestapo during WWII. And following WWII, when Lithuania was forced to join the USSR, it became the headquarters for the KGB.
The building currently houses the Museum of Genocide Victims (it’s also called the KGB Museum). More than 1,000 individuals were executed in the basement between 1944 and the 1960s (mostly members of the local intelligentsia who were critical of the USSR).
Lithuania became independent of the USSR in 1991. The constitution of the new country included the condition:
“…the capital of the State of Lithuania shall be the city of Vilnius, the long-standing historical capital of Lithuania”.
Practical information and how to reach Vilnius:
Vilnius has an international airport with flights to major cities throughout Europe. Intercity buses run to Kaunus, Lithuania (2 hours), Riga, Latvia (4 – 5 hours), Warsaw, Poland (6 – 7 hours), and Tallinn, Estonia (7 – 8 hours). More transport info here.
Read more on Vilnius in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.