David Atkinson ,The Observer, Sunday 18 January 2009
Year of culture … thousands of people watch the Gert Hoff light show in the Cathedral Square of central Vilnius.
Photograph: Ray Tang/Rex Features
Why Go Now?
The explosion of luminous green signs around the Baltics signals the start of the Lithuanian capital’s reign as one of the two new European Capitals of Culture (the other is Linz in Austria). The Culture Live programme (www.vilnius2009.lt) features 900 events, 60% of which are free to attend. Lithuania is evolving fast having gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. A new National Art Gallery, opening in June, will host the V&A’s blockbuster “Cold War Modern” exhibition from October and specialist tour operator Baltic Holidays (0845 070 5711; www.balticholidays.com) has launched two-night packages from £229 including flights.
To soak up the winter-wonderland charm of the Old Town, the Stikliai Hotel (Gaono 7; 00 370 5 264 9595; www.stikliaihotel.lt; doubles from £228) is best placed, with a genteel ambience, although the Kempinski Hotel Cathedral Square (www.kempinski.com) will give it a run for its money when it opens this summer. Klaipeda Hotel (L. Stuokos-Guceviciaus 3; 00 370 5 210 7461; www.klaipedahotel.lt) boasts a great location opposite Cathedral Square, with comfortable doubles from £148, while Grybas Hotel (Ausros Vartu 3; 00 370 5 261 9695; www.grybashouse.com) has homely rooms in a family-run baroque house (doubles from £98).
Hit the Streets
Vilnius is small, so explore on foot. The Old Town is the atmospheric hub; the Gates of Dawn, with its chapel housing a gold-leaf image of the Virgin Mary, is the must-see. Heading northwest, the KGB Museum (www.genocid.lt/muziejus) is both moving and shocking in its graphic illustration of the brutality of the Soviet regime. The nearby statue of Lenin has long since been removed, but, a touch bizarrely, there is a bronze bust of zany rock star Frank Zappa, a cult figure in Lithuania. The Vilnius Picture Gallery (www.ldm.lt) is currently hosting an exhibition of works by the Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani.
Blusyne (Saviciaus 5; 00 370 5 212 2012; www.blusyne.lt) is a cool cafe many tourists miss. It’s named after the owners’ dog, hence the sign: “In Dog We Trust”. Blusyne is one of Vilnius’ growing band of talking cafes, where debate and coffee fuel the creative ambience. Mano Guru (Vilniaus 22; 00 370 5 212 0126) is notable as Lithuania’s first non-smoking cafe and for its programme of giving jobs to reformed drug addicts.
The self-styled “Republic of Uzupis” is Vilnius’ hippest hang-out for its galleries and boho vibe. At Galera (Uzupio 2; www.umi.lt), catch the latest art installation, while Uzupio Kavine (Uzupio 2; 00 370 5 212 2138) keeps the republic fed and watered. Uzupis publishes a constitution, which includes the maxim that “Man is free to be idle”. Most people in Uzupis are fashionably so.
Baltic amber is the traditional souvenir and the Amber Museum Gallery (Sv. Mykolo 8; 00 370 5 262 3092; www.ambergallery.lt) is the place to learn about its history before purchase - a simple stone starts from £5. Otherwise, Stikliu street is a haven for designer boutiques and second-hand treasure troves.
Worked up an appetitie?
Zemaiciai (Vokieciu 24; 00 370 5 261 6573; www.zemaiciai.lt) is a cellar restaurant to stock up on hearty Lithuanian favourites, such as meat-filled zeppelins (that’s pancakes to you and me). Try a glass of traditional gira, a non-alcoholic drink made from bread and honey with a distinctive burnt aroma. Otherwise, Avilys (Gedimino 5; 00 370 5 212 1900; www.avilys.lt) is a popular microbrewery with hearty fare. For pub grub Lithuanian style, try Busi Trecias (Totoriu 18; 00 370 5 231 2698) - good beers and sturdy local fare. The pig’s ear pancake does exactly what it says on the tin.
Big night out
Go cultured with a recital at the National Philharmonic (www.filharmonija.lt), where tickets start from £10, or Baltic bling with the credit-crunching cocktails at Mojito Naktys (Didzioji 33; 00 370 6 100 4131). La Bohème (Sv. Ignoto 4/3; 00 370 5 212 1087) is stylish and cosy with its huge fireplace and tasty tapas. The latest in-place is In Vino (Ausros Vartu 7; 00 370 5 212 1210), where the wine list is as eclectic as the crowd at the candlelit tables.
The morning after
The bar at the Shakespeare Hotel (Bernardinu 8/8; 00 370 5 266 5885; www.shakespeare.lt) is a tucked-away retreat for good coffee. Better still, get away from the crowd with a laid-back secret Vilnius tour by one of the city’s alternative guides. As well as pointing out the Old Town’s legends, they can arrange a visit to the White Hall and Astronomical Observatory at Vilnius University, founded in 1753. Climb the spiral staircase for a blow-away-the-cobwebs panorama across the cityscape.
Lithuanian Airlines (00 370 5 252 5555; www.flylal.com) flies direct from Gatwick from about £210. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted, Luton and Birmingham to Kaunas, about two hours by train from Vilnius, from about £50.
• This article was amended on Sunday 25 January 2009. Lithuania’s national carrier, FlyLAL-Lithuanian Airlines, had its operating certificate revoked last Friday, after Observer Escape went to press. All flights have been grounded indefinitely.