Don’t be ashamed if you can’t point out this pocket-size country or its fairy-tale capital on a map—or if you have no idea what you might find there. That’s all the better for insiders who’ve had the considerable charms of this former Soviet puppet all to themselves. Let’s start with its lost-in-time architecture: ornate Romanesque churches with gilded cupolas found alongside Baroque mansions on cobblestone streets (the entire old town has been designated a UNESCO Heritage Site).
If you arrive in winter, the whole place looks like a snow globe, with locals ice skating on the huge city lake and getting quite merry on absinthe. The liquor is now legal after being banned for a century; see how much you remember after a couple of absinthe mojitos at Absento Fejos. There’s more to the nightlife than that, however: chic wine bars such as In Vino, clubs where dancing until 5 am is par for the course (try Brodvejus), and authentic local taverns—fancy grilled beaver with your beer? Take the funicular up Gediminas Hill for the great views over the city, then head to the island suburb of Uzupis, an up-and-coming artist neighborhood.
The Lithuanian capital’s pleasures are extremely reasonable—the City Park Hotel has gorgeous views over Cathedral Square for less than $200 a night, while you’ll spend half that for one of the 39 rooms at Domus Maria, a monastery turned boutique hotel. Throughout the year, Vilnius will be under the international spotlight as the European Culture Capital of 2009, with a bevy of festivals, concerts, and events set for the occasion.