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Highlights of the Old Town of Vilnius

Posted by on June 13, 2011

Vilnius, as mentioned in my previous post, has one of the largest old towns in Europe. As such, a post dedicated to this can’t go amiss.


Vilnius, town of churches

Vilnius, town of churches

One of the most obvious features of the Old Town – with many buildings dating back to the 13th century, is the abundance of churches. Around seemingly every corner is a religious building, with various denominations – much of the Old Town was the Jewish ghetto until the Holocaust, and the Russian Orthodox have had their hand in the town as well.


The most prominent is the Vilnius Cathedral – for obvious reasons is situated in Cathedral Square. A smaller cathedral was built here in 1251, and then a Gothic style one in 1387. Converted to classical style, it has a large baroque chapel built in the 17th century.

Vilnius Cathedral and Cathedral Square

Vilnius Cathedral and Cathedral Square

Outside this cathedral, between it and the adjacent tower is a tile with the wording “Stebuklas” on it, which translates to “miracle”. It’s said that spinning around three times on this will allow a wish of yours to be granted. It also manages to make you feel like you’re making a public idiot of yourself.

This brings me to a point. I was told this by Carrie the Australian in Kraków, and read it on Wikitravel as well. And so I (and I saw others too!) blindly follow this. Which makes me wonder just how far this can be extended – if we wrote on Wikipedia/Wikitravel that in Cathedral Square in Christchurch (once it reopens after repairs from the earthquake) clapping their hands twelve times above their head in front of the main doors would grant them a wish, how long before you would start seeing tourists doing just this? And how long before removing it from Wikipedia wouldn’t stop it happening? An interesting thought.

A View Worth Looking at

Behind the Cathedral is the Gediminas castle. A red brick tower above it allegedly offers the best views of Vilnius. I contest this, however. Behind the castle is the giant park. A good walk up the road and then through the park brings you to the highest point of the park – at Three Crosses Hill, a symbol of the importance of Christianity to Lithuania, just in case the abundance of churches wasn’t enough to prove this.

Looking out over Vilnius from Hill of Three Crosses

Looking out over Vilnius from Hill of Three Crosses

It is also a monument to seven monks tortured here before Lithuania converted. I couldn’t follow the translation, but I’m guessing four of them didn’t get crosses. Anyway, the view from here looks out over all of Vilnius – and is even higher than the tower of the castle – substantially higher. It also appears to be close to several make-out points on the hill, especially at sunset, which is when I happened to be walking down.

A Church to Take Home

While I can’t go into each and every one of the churches in detail, one of them is worthy of mention. St Anne’s is one of the smaller (it’s relative) and more beautiful churches. On the banks of the Vilnia River, which flows into the main Neris river, it’s one of the major landmarks that helped Vilnius Old Town gain its status as a UNESCO Heritage Site. There is a legend that Napolean saw this church and exclaimed that he’d like to take it on his palm and bring it home to France.

St Anne's Church, Vilnius.  Not that small, Napoleon!

St Anne's Church, Vilnius. Not that small, Napoleon!

The hidden country

I’ve had many discussions over what constitutes a country – as you travel, inevitably sooner or later, someone asks how many you’ve been to, and as you travel you find it becomes harder and harder to decide what one is. Do you count Hong Kong? What about Tibet? Jersey and Guernsey Isles? Gibraltar perhaps?

Užupis District (Country)

Užupis District (Country)

But perhaps one of the more controversial definitions of one is here in Vilnius. As such it needed visiting – the Užupis District – “Užupis” meaning “on the other side of the river”. In 1998 the residents of the district – bounded by smaller offshoots of the main river, declared the area to be an independent republic, with its own president, anthem, flag and constitution – and even an army of twelve. It’s uncertain as to how serious they are, but if you visit on April 1st, border guards will even check and stamp your passport, and the ‘country’ holds a party. Perhaps the date of the party gives a clue, but if it ever is recognised by the United Nations, I can confirm I’ve been there.

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