The D&O Diary’s European travels continued with a visit over the weekend to Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city. Vilnius has long history, a prosperous feel, and a very cool vibe. Vilnius may not be the first city many Americans think of when they think of Europe, but it truly is a special place.

Vilnius is located in Southeastern Lithuania, about 25 miles from the border with Belarus, at the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia rivers. Vilnius, located at 54.7 degrees Northern latitude, feels like the Northern city that it is. (New York, by contrast, is at 40.7 degrees Northern latitude.) Lithuania as a whole has a population of about 2.7 million, and around 600,000 live in Vilnius.

Vilnius is justly famous for its beautiful Old Town, one of the oldest surviving medieval old towns in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Because it developed over the course of many centuries, it incorporates a wide variety of architectural styles. It was badly damaged in World War II, but has been largely restored. Today it is full of cafés, restaurants, and bars, and on warm summer evenings its many narrow atmospheric streets are vibrant and lively.

Vilnius Old Town, viewed from Gediminas Hill
Scenes of Old Town Vilnius

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Vilnius was to see the neighborhood of Užupis, a district across the Vilnia River from the core of the Old Town, which in 1997 declared itself an independent republic, with its own flag, anthem, president, cabinet of ministers, and ambassadors. It also has its own constitution, copies of which are preserved in over 20 languages on plaques along one of the district’s streets. The area, once derelict and nearly abandoned, has long been a haven for artists, and it still preserves a uniquely idiosyncratic feel.

A tower mounted with the Angel of Užupis stands over the district’s main square, which is full of tables with people drinking coffee or beer.
A post marking the border of Užupis. On the post is the republic’s symbol, a hand with a white spot. The symbol also appears on the republic’s flag.
A copy of the constitution of Užupis in English. The constitution embodies important rights, such as, for example, “A dog has the right to be a dog.” It reflects several paired articles, such as, “People have the right to be happy” and “People have the right to be unhappy.” It also embodies three mottos: “Don’t Fight”, “Don’t Win”, “Don’t Surrender.” Article 3 declares that “Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.”
The Mermaid of Užupis, which sits in a niche on the Vilnia riverbank. According to legend, it is she who attracts people from all of the world to Užupis, and if you stare into her eyes, you will never want to leave.
The view from the bridge crossing into Užupis from Vilnius.

Vilnius is a great city to walk around in. It is surprisingly full of green space, including numerous parks. The rivers are lined with walkways, as well. Although I faithfully fulfilled my tourist duties of looking at historic buildings, I also spent a fair amount of time just enjoying the shady parks, full of songbirds and blooming flowers.

A fountain in the Bernadine Garden, a lovely park behind the Vilnius Cathedral, at the foot of Gediminas Hill.
Climbing the stairs in the heavily wooded Hill of Three Crosses. The woods were full of the calls of songbirds.
A view of the Three Crosses Monument. The crosses were originally built of wood, in the 17th century, to commemorate Franciscan monks who had been martyred on the site (or so the legend goes). Concrete crosses were built in the early 20th century. In 1950, the Soviets tore down the crosses as part of a campaign to suppress national and religious symbols. When Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, the crosses were rebuilt and now stand as a a testament to resilience and remembrance.
I took a picture of this building because it is interesting in and of itself, but I also wanted to get a picture of the flags. Throughout Vilnius, there were displays like this one of the Ukrainian flag along side the Lithuanian flag. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is very real to Lithuanians, especially given the country’s history of Soviet occupation. Coincidentally, my hotel in Vilnius was located next to the local NATO headquarters building. Being in a small country like Lithuania brings home how important NATO is. NATO literally stands for what kind of world we are going to have.

Part of being in any country is enjoying its food, and I made sure while I was in Lithuania to try some of the country’s traditional food.

It rained overnight on my first evening in Vilnius, and it was a little bit chilly the next morning. The perfect thing for a cool, cloudy morning is a bowl of beetroot soup, along with boiled potatoes and bread.
What’s for dinner? How about some Cepelinai (the name literally translates as “Zeppelins,” so called because of their shape), potato dumplings stuffed with ground meat — the national dish of Lithuania! Tasty but filling. I enjoyed this meal by the side of the Vilnia River, with a view of the mermaid.
A statute of Adam Mickiewicz (in Lithuanian, Adomas Mickevičius), the Polish poet, dramatist, and political activist. He was born in what was then the Russian-partitioned Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and is considered the poet laureate of Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus. The statute is surrounded by a beautiful garden of blooming salvia.
I thought I would end this post with this picture. My first night in Vilnius, I wandered around the Old Town and made my way to a hilltop park where there was an outdoor café. It was a pleasant evening and families with kids were strolling in the park and playing games. In the seating area behind the café, this man was playing the accordion. He might be the best accordion player I have ever heard. He was playing Bach fugues on the accordion. Anyway, this is the reason I travel, for experiences like this, to be in a calm, peaceful park full of happy people on a warm early summer evening, and enjoying a beer while listening to possibly the world’s greatest accordion player. As I said at the top of this post, Vilnius has a cool vibe. What a great place.