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 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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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’.
Embassy of Japan in Vilnius.
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 (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.
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 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.
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.
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.