Travel Through History in Vilnius
Vilnius was not necessarily a stop on my dream destination list. Until I began cruising through my Eastern Europe guidebook, I had never even heard about Lithuania’s capital. Maybe this is because the public school system’s geography syllabus failed me, or because Vilnius has not received a lot of attention in the tourism sphere; either way, I was feeling pretty ambivalent about my upcoming visit. As per usual, my attitude was not justified. Vilnius may not be the most colourful city and it doesn’t boast the same kind of attractions of the neighbouring country’s capitals. Where Vilnius really outshines its neighbours is history. Lithuania has seen a past that history class can never do justice and I know for a fact that I left the country with a greater sense of understanding of the events that have shaped our world.
From the charming history of Trakai castle to the haunting significance of the city during the Holocaust, learning about Lithuania’s history quickly become the most important part of my European adventure and an experience I would recommend to anyone. When visiting Lithuania, here are a few of the stops you cannot miss.
To begin with a lighter side of history, a visit to Trakai is a must. A train from the city centre should get you there within an hour and you will be free to explore this charming town. The obvious attraction is the bright orange castle, where visitors can explore the grounds or pay a small fee to explore the inner workings of the castle. While the bump in tourism has made this place a little cheesy (I’m looking at you, fake guillotine), the castle is so unique from any other you will see in Eastern Europe and made notably more badass by the surrounding moat. At this point in my trip I was looking for any excuse to whip out a dorky costume and thanks to this perfect setting, I pretty much killed it.
After doing the castle justice, skip the gift shops and stroll down the residential streets based on the water. These cute little houses have been homes long before Trakai became a tourist destination and help the town maintain it’s quirky charm. Polish off the day with some fresh kibinai, a Lithuanian pastry dish special to the area. I don’t want to pressure you, but if you don’t personally devour at least three, you don’t deserve to wear the knight helmet. Just sayin’. It’s hard to make a day at Trakai a poorly spent one, so enjoy the escape of the city and explore the naturally gorgeous setting around you.
While you should obviously base your visit around the historically significant sights and monuments, don’t miss the weird Vilnius has to offer. For example, we spent a good two hours searching for the Frank Zappa monument, just because we could. I can personally guarantee that you will not find a 30-foot tall buff featuring the lead singer of The Mothers anywhere else, so it really is a once in a lifetime moment for you. Chase that moment.
A walk through Vilnius’s city square is already guaranteed to be different from anything else you’ve experienced on your journey thus far. Instead of rustic churches and faded pastel tudors, you’ll find a wide open square of tile with bright white columns and shining black statues. On entering this square, I was issued a challenge. Find the “miracle tile,” spin 3 times, and make a wish. I’m always down to look like a crazy tourist in public, so I was completely game. This tile marks the spot where the longest human chain in history ended, containing 2 million people and stretching through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This human chain was a peaceful protest for sovereignty in times of Soviet control and is known as one of the major factors in Lithuania’s following freedom. The myth is that if you find the tile and complete the ritual, your wish will come true. I would tell you where it was, but that would obviously jinx my wish. Duh.
Perhaps the greatest shock of my visit to Lithuania was the realization of the city’s role in WWII. I will never be able to do this history justice and highly recommend reading more about the murder and labour camp placement of hundreds of thousands of Jewish Lithuanians and Jewish German refugees here. This kind of history can really only be felt by seeing the sights and facts firsthand. This will undoubtedly be one of the most heartbreaking experiences you’ll have in your travels, but is so important to see. Start at the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum in the city to see historical accounts and artifacts and get some context for your visit to Paneriai. The small and intimate museum is also known as the Green House and is marked by the Vilnius Sugihara Memorial statue.
If you can, try to immediately follow your museum visit with a trip to Paneriai Memorial, which is easily accessible by train. Prepare for an extremely powerful experience as you walk around the death camps where approximately 70,000 people were killed and burned. An expert at the small museum will be there to answer any questions you have about the history of Paneriai and to guide you through the significance of each sight. The near silence and emptiness of the memorial only makes the experience hit harder and your visit is not likely one that you will ever forget.
Your visit to Vilnius is likely to be filled with a lot of ups and downs, from the joys of exploring castles and chasing superstitious symbols to learning about the country’s devastating Holocaust past. Vilnius was without a doubt the biggest surprise of my Eastern European adventure and is hopefully one that you can experience for yourself.