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Lizzi’s Luxury Edit: Why Vilnius, Lithuania needs to be at the top of your bucketlist

In Vilnius, the local tourist office sells T-shirts emblazoned with the words ” I didn’t know where Vilnius was, but I’m glad my pilot did!”

Indeed, when I’ve been talking about my recent visit to Lithuania, most people admit, with a little embarrassment, that they aren’t quite sure where it is. So, to set the record straight, Lithuania is one of the three Baltic countries, alongside Latvia and Estonia, and lies on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. It is in Northeastern Europe. In fact, Latvia is very close to Finland. Lithuania’s immediate neighbours are Poland, Latvia, Belarus, and Russia.

Surprisingly then, Lithuania is only just over a two-and-a-half-hour flight from London. Why don’t we know it better? Well, it was occupied by Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) from 1940 to 1990, when Lithuania broke free of Russian influence, claimed independence, and went on to join the EU and NATO.

I wasn’t at all sure what to expect and was surprised to see, during my taxi transfer from Vilnius airport to downtown, that this is a modern, affluent city, with futuristic skyscrapers, IKEA, shopping centres and well-dressed people driving around in new cars. The first of many preconceptions flew out the window! If you Google Lithuania, you will learn that it is a wealthy country with a high standard of living.

However, most people come first to see the beautiful old town, with its cobbled streets, and striking architecture, dotted with churches, many with characteristic onion-shaped domes. Although there are a few Russian Orthodox churches, most are actually Catholic. Be sure to see Vilnius Cathedral and Basilica and St. Anne’s Church at the Benedictine monastery, the latter a beautiful example of Gothic architecture. Another interesting fact is that Lithuania was one of the last countries to give up Paganism.

It is a great little city to wander around on foot, perhaps stopping in one of the many cafés. I felt absolutely safe, at all times. The main tourist attractions are the 14th century Gediminas Castle, which dominates the city and the Hill of The Three Crosses atop Kalnu Park, which you can climb up, or in the case of the tower, take the funicular. There are great panoramic views of the city from both these. There is a splendid museum next to the Cathedral and the MO and National art museums.

Not for the faint-hearted, but I visited the former KGB headquarters, with its basement cells and the Lukiskes Prison, which only closed down five years ago and is now used as an entertainment venue. I had a guide in both prisons and was incredibly moved and deeply troubled to learn of the atrocities committed during the time of the Soviet occupation. The former Jewish quarter is lovely now, full of cafes and cute narrow streets, but again, it is good to be aware of the thousands of Jews who were killed and who “disappeared”.

Just outside Vilnius, there is the lovely Trakai castle to visit, standing fairytale-like on the lake, and the oldest ethnic people, called Karaims, still live in the town and have their own customs and language. You can even sample their traditional food.

Talking of food, there are local dishes such as the Kibinai, which resemble our pasties. Lots of hearty stews and soups, too and some unusual flavours to try. Don’t miss the beetroot soup! Not so great for vegetarians, be warned, but ok if you eat fish.

Vilnius has glorious parks, lots of sporting possibilities, regular colourful festivals and outside of the city, there are lovely sandy beaches, forests and parks for hiking and water sports. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to run out of things to do!

Public transport is efficient and affordable, with high-speed trains and buses connecting you to other parts of Lithuania and also to Latvia and Estonia in just a few hours. In fact, the three capitals of Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn make an excellent three-centre holiday.

So, time to put the Baltics on your map and experience something very different.

Get in touch with Lizzi by emailing [email protected] to book your dream trip!

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