Apr082016

Greetings from Vilnius, Lithuania

The general response when telling friends we were traveling to Lithuania was “What’s there?” Aside from some inexpensive hotels, I really was not sure what we would find.

The fact that Americans have little general knowledge of Lithuania is in part due to low tourism. Only around 20,000 U.S. travelers visit Vilnius each year.

Vilnius VNO

Vilnius Airport VNO

There was no tourism office at the airport from what I saw. Arriving from Amsterdam meant we did not even go through passport control, so no Lithuania stamp for us upon arriving from Amsterdam on Air Baltic.

Air Baltic

Lithuania is on Eastern European time, one hour ahead of neighboring Poland or Amsterdam and western European countries on Central European time.

Google Maps Vilnius Lithuania Europe location

Google Maps – Vilnius, Lithuania is closer to Moscow than Amsterdam. Vilnius is slightly east of Helsinki in longitude, my previous easternmost travel point in Europe.

Lithuania Currency = Euro

I made an effort to spend all my Euro coins before we left Amsterdam. Ironically, after arrival in Lithuania I learned the country adopted the Euro as the national currency last year. I still had a 5 Euro note to pay for two bus tickets into the city at 1 EUR each.

What’s in Vilnius, Lithuania?

Vilnius is a city of about 550,000 and the capital city of Lithuania, a country of around 2.9 million people. At 25,000 square miles in size, if Lithuania were a U.S. state it would rank #41 in size behind South Carolina and slightly larger than West Virginia.

Wikipedia informed me Old Town Vilnius was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

Vilnius Bastion

Vilnius Bastion.

According to the UNESCO site, “Vilnius has had a profound influence on the cultural and architectural development of much of eastern Europe. Despite invasions and partial destruction, it has preserved an impressive complex of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and classical buildings as well as its medieval layout and natural setting. By the 15th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with its capital Vilnius, had become the largest country in Europe, stretching from the Baltic Sea in the North to the Black Sea in the South.”

Vilnius church

Lithuania is predominantly a Roman Catholic country, yet also holds the distinction of being the last pagan country in Europe, with Christianity only widely accepted in the 17th century. About 80% of the country’s population is Christian.

Another aspect of Vilnius probably unknown to most Americans is the city was coined the ‘Jerusalem of the North’ by Napoleon when the Grande Armée took over Vilnius on the march to Moscow in 1812. Vilnius had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe for several centuries. There were more than 100,000 Jews living in Vilnius at the start of World War II, about 45% of the city population. There were over 100 synagogues in Vilnius. At the beginning of World War II, Jewish refugees flooded into Lithuania to grow the country’s Jewish population to an estimated 250,000.

Lithuania also had the highest proportion of Jews die (94%) in the Holocaust of any European country. There are only about 2,000 Jews in Lithuania today and only one Synagogue remains in Vilnius.

Synagogue

A fascinating story I read is how Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara stationed in Lithuania in 1940 illegally supplied transit travel visas to thousands of Jews before the Germans invaded. He is credited with saving around 6,000 Jews from the holocaust. Since Spielberg’s movie, he is often called the ‘Japanese Schindler’.

Vilnius Japan embassy

Embassy of Japan in Vilnius.

Russian Influence

Lithuania is fiercely independent as a nation and quickly sought to throw off Soviet occupation when the U.S.S.R. began to fracture in the late 1980s. Lithuania was the first of the Soviet republics to declare independence on March 11, 1990. Soviet troops attacked Vilnius on January 9, 1991 to suppress the independence movement. A battle at the TV Tower killed 14 civilians and wounded 700 more. The Soviet Union recognized Lithuania’s independence in September 1991.

Vilnius TV Tower

Vilnius TV Tower (1980) is 326.5 meters or 1,071 ft. tall.

I read that English is spoken as a second language by about 30% of the Lithuanian population, primarily young people. Russian is spoken by about 70%, mostly older people. Lithuanian sounds like Russian to my untrained ear, but letters are Latin alphabet, not Cyrillic script.

Lithuanian

Encountering English speakers and some sign language has meant little English language barrier in communication to get the things we need.

Remembering Lithuanian words is kind of challenging. We have learned ‘thank you’ is ačiū, pronounced kind of like a sneeze, achoo.

Days of Week

Days of week in Lithuanian.

Spring has Sprung in Vilnius

Europe had a heat wave this week. When we planned our packing for this trip the prevailing weather forecast was daytime temperatures in the 40s. Then a sudden warm spell came across Europe bringing the warmest temperatures of 2016. The temperature was 67 degrees on our first day out and about the city.

Vilnius wildflowers   Vilnia River

Wildflowers blooming in the parklands beside the Neris River.

Our favorite activity in Lithuania has been beer drinking. The city has numerous microbreweries and beer prices are low in the stores. A 0.5L bottle of beer is about 70 cents and there are dozens of styles and brands in most markets. A bottle of vodka sells for around 5 EUR. We have eaten a lot of roast chicken since seafood is mostly packaged and heavily salted. A fresh roasted whole chicken is about 2 to 3 EUR. We have found fresh vegetables and fruits in the market, but kind of limited selection.

In Amsterdam I estimate an average day of groceries is about 30 EUR for the two of us. In Vilnius the cost is around 15 EUR. Yesterday we went to a pub and had two pints of beer and falafel meals for 9.50 EUR.

The Lithuanian National Museum admission price is 2 EUR.

Lithuania is also ranked as the European country with the lowest nightly hotel rates.

Vilnius hotel

Hotel-Viesbutis in Old Town Vilnius advertises 23 EUR room nights. That is a couple of dollars less than I am paying for our Vilnius hotel.

Club Carlson, Choice Privileges, IHG Rewards Club and Wyndham hotel brands are all represented in Vilnius. Most of these hotels garner highly favorable ratings. The Ramada Vilnius has been awarded Best Hotel in Lithuania, however, the hotel does not appear bookable through the Wyndham Rewards site.

More on Vilnius hotels and city sights to come.

About Ric Garrido

Ric Garrido of Monterey, California started Loyalty Traveler in 2006 for traveler education on hotel and air travel, primarily using frequent flyer and frequent guest loyalty programs for bargain travel. Loyalty Traveler joined BoardingArea.com in 2008.

More articles by Ric Garrido »

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  1. Looks great! Very interested to read about your experiences there. My grandfather is from Lithuania so it has always been on my visit list. Thanks for the post!

  2. Vilnus was the biggest surprise for us. What an interesting place! If you haven’t checked out the KGB museum, I strongly recommend it. A little creepy, but absolutely fascinating. Gave me an incredible respect for the resilience of the people – who continued to fight for independence and to keep their language alive despite Russia’s best efforts to crush both. One of my favorite museums ever – perhaps in part due to how little I previously knew about Lithuania and what was going on there when I was growing up.

  3. “Gave me an incredible respect for the resilience of the people – who continued to fight for independence and to keep their language alive despite Russia’s best efforts to crush both”

    “Russia’s best effort to crush their language” also involved state-sponsored TV, newspapers and movies in Lithuanian as well as economic stability (until 1980’s) and constant population rise. Did you know that BBC Radio Ulster began broadcasting a nightly half-hour programme, called Blas (‘taste’), in Irish only in the early 1980s while we always had TV in Lithuanian? Or let’s speak about Indian languages in USA first before you even dare to comment anything about Lithuania! Nowadays as Lithuania is governed through American puppets (literally, since one of the former presidents was a US immigrant that spent most of his life there) we’ve got Lithuanian population decline to 2.9 million, immigration from the country and unprecedented suicide rate which ranks Lithuania number one in the world! I keep saying that the time in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union we sought era of unparalleled cultural efflorescence and enlightenment.

  4. “Vilnius is predominantly a Roman Catholic country” Gosh, Vilnius is not a country!

    It’s remarkably interesting that “Russian Influence” Section only took you a brief paragraph regarding events in 1990 as if both Russia and Lithuania existed separately in some sort of a vacuum. Yet, you state that “by the 15th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with its capital Vilnius, had become the largest country in Europe, stretching from the Baltic Sea in the North to the Black Sea in the South” conveniently forgetting that Lithuania OCCUPIED most of today’s Belarus and Ukraine and violently subjugating their population.

    I never expected to come across an officious propaganda and distortion of historic facts in a travel blog like this. Maybe 20 000 American tourists should stay in America since they are incapable of cultural competence anyway?

  5. This is a travel blog…that is prefaced by the fact that he admitted to not knowing much about the country before arriving. Don’t jump down his throat as he is learning about the history/culture…seriously just chill. I’m going there this July, I’ll try to be historically accurate when I post my experiences on Facebook…lol

  6. You can’t be possibly historically accurate when you come here in July simply because the whole “history” you’ll be presented with is a carefully selected brain-washed propaganda implying how much Lithuania suffered in the past from the Russians (lies!) and how much we owe to God’s gift aka Americans and … NATO!

  7. @Patriotas – thanks for the correction on Vilnius when I should have written Lithuania.
    I also mislabeled the river in my photo as the Vilna, when my photo is actually the Neris River. Vilna was in my mind after walking around that riverbank yesterday. Vilna feeds into Neris in Vilnius.

    I realized today walking around Vilnius that Viesbutis is Lithuanian word for ‘hotel’ and not the name of the hotel I photographed.

    The section on Grand Duchy of Lithuania is taken directly from the UNESCO document.

    I have rarely heard any mention of NATO during the many trips I have made to Europe in recent years. I have heard about NATO every day while in Vilnius. There were U.S. military NATO personnel on the Air Baltic flight to Vilnius. There are currently NATO military exercises happening in Lithuania.

    There seems to be a lot of animosity to Russia from what I have seen around Vilnius and in the news over the past few days in Lithuania. There is a trial happening now against a Russian soldier who was in a tank during the January 13, 1991 TV Tower battle.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/January_Events_(Lithuania)

    http://www.dw.com/en/lithuania-prosecutes-ex-soviet-soldiers-over-cold-war-crackdown/a-19008565

    I checked and Lithuania does have highest suicide rate of European countries. Kelley had commented about how few people smile at us. Today people seemed much more friendly and upbeat. TGIF I guess.

    Frequently I comment in my posts about how I simply share my perceptions and impressions of a place I am visiting as a tourist. I make efforts to be accurate, but there is no editorial team fact checking my work. I rely on readers to point out mistakes when they appear in articles.

    My next Vilnius post will focus on restaurants like the Cat Cafe, where Kelley was playing with cats, while I tried to fend off other cats from eating her salmon lunch. An article on Vilnius food and drink should result in far less debate on the facts.

    @Nico – walked by former KGB building which now houses The Museum of Genocide Victims around closing time. We will try to get there tomorrow.

  8. I went to the USSR, Latvia and Estonia in the summer of 1989 on a People to People exchange. It was supposed to include Lithuania, but for some reason never explained to us students, the trip was changed to skip it – I assume some fear of unrest. When I was in the Baltics, people were quite passionate about us not using the Russian phrases we had learned, and taught us a few from their own language.

    I can’t imagine that everyone in Lithuania shares the “patriot’s” opinion about the good old days of Russian imperialism.

  9. Great article Ric! I made a brief visit to Latvia 10 years ago and have always wanted to return to visit Estonia and Lithuania as well.

    I wouldn’t take the rants of Patriotas too seriously. I imagine that he thinks that Putin is merely a strong leader – a misunderstood man of peace. Just ask the Ukrainians how that worked out for their nation.

  10. Hey, congrats on Your choice to visit my country! There are suprises everywhere and i would suggest not to stick only to the history of Lithuania, but on the present and (bright) future;) and a must visit place is Trakai (20 km outside Vilnius) with local food and drinks tasting.

    Your blog reader from Lithuania;)

  11. @Tomas – Agree that there is plenty going on in Vilnius at present. There is an international film festival. We felt like we had visited two different cities based on our walk yesterday through the tourist sections of Vilnius Old Town. Kelley said our walk the day before must have been the ‘old old town’ since we were walking mostly in untouristed parts of Vilnius.

  12. I think three or four days for the city if you want to see museums. We moved at a very slow pace, only spending about 6 to 8 hours outside of hotel each day. We never ventured very far from the city center. I am considering returning to the area in September to visit Latvia too.

    We find Vilnius very laid back and a comfortable place to hang out. Kelley was reluctant to come to eastern Europe. She liked Prague, did not like Budapest much. We are thinking we will visit Poland this summer and I will be in Norway in September and considering coming back to the Baltic region.

    The cost of travel is low. We have eaten in a restaurant every day, had all the beer we could drink, bought fresh vegetables, fruit and hot chicken from the markets every day and we spent 140 EUR for the two of us for five days in Vilnius.

    Stayed at the Crowne Plaza Vilnius for four nights on IHG Rewards Club PointBreaks for 5,000 points (about $30 per night) and upgraded to a suite. Paid for Holiday Inn Vilnius 67 EUR including breakfast (better hotel location for tourist with closer proximity to Old Town).

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