As part of her ongoing mission to see the whole of the world, Hannah Al-Othman visited Vilnius, Lithuania in January for a birthday mini-break with friends. Here she shares her top ten things to see and do.
1. Abandon the diet
If you go to Lithuania you must of course try Lithuanian food, but beware, most dishes involve a lot of cheese, and everything, and I mean everything is fried. On our first proper night in Lithuania we went to a traditional restaurant for dinner.
Given that I’d spent an unhealthily large chunk of the previous two weeks in the gym, I decided to go for the healthy option for my starter: beetroot soup. Soup has hardly any calories in it, beetroot has even less, can’t go wrong here. Actually, Lithuanian beetroot soup is full of fried onions and bacon (good job I’m pretty lax with my vegetarianism), and comes topped with a huge dollop of sour cream. Not so healthy after all.
And my main course of potato pancakes was no better. Again, the pancakes were fried, and served with the obligatory mountain of sour cream.
So my advice is: try the food, eat whatever you like, go all out and try the fried garlic bread with melted cheese, and make up for it when you get home. Lithuania isn’t the place to diet, and you wouldn’t want to anyway, you’ll need all your extra fat for insulation, its bloody freezing.
Fried garlic bread.
2. Pack swimwear
Bet you weren’t expecting that one. But yes, pack swimwear. On my birthday we’d booked a trip to a sauna in the middle of a remote forest, but in the morning we were greeted with the news that it was so cold that the pipes had frozen over and the sauna had broken. As an alternative, we were offered a trip to an indoor water park, which we were told had plenty of saunas. With visions of Blackpool’s Sandcastle at the forefront of our minds we weren’t really keen, but with limited options we thought we’d give it a go.
How quick we were to judge. Vichy water park is amazing. There are loads of big slides; there’s a swim-up bar; there’s a heated outdoor pool, where you can swim outside despite the fact that it’s minus twenty degrees; there’s an amazing room full of saunas, jacuzzis and steam rooms; there’s a massage suite and beauty salon. In short, Vichy has pretty much everything you’d ever want from a water park (apart from maybe sunshine.)
One word of warning though: when you go in they give you a little electronic wristband, which you charge all of your food, drinks, and treatments to before paying at the end. This is dangerous. Very, very dangerous.
3. Visit Grutas Park
If you’re a fan of political history, then you’ll love Grutas Park, better known as ‘Stalin World’. Stalin World is a beautiful park filled with Soviet-era statues of communist leaders (although is should really be called ‘Lenin World’, because there are far more statues of Lenin than anyone else.) The founder of Stalin World bought statues that were pulled down from cities across Eastern Europe after communism fell, and transported them to the Lithuanian countryside. Each statue is illustrated with a little plaque telling visitors who the statue represents and where it was originally located – sometimes with photographs.
Controversially, Stalin World also features re-creations of Soviet Gulag prison camps: wooden paths, guard towers, Gulag-style trains, Soviet-era music, and barbed-wire fences.
One word of warning though: buses from Vilnius to Stalin World are infrequent, and somewhat unreliable. We visited Stalin World on the day we flew home, and when our bus didn’t turn up we were left with no option but to hitchhike back, in order to make it to the airport on time. (Sorry Mum.)
4. Leave room in your case
Vilnius has some brilliant vintage shops and markets. From Soviet-era war medals, to fur hats, to Christmas jumpers, you can find some real treasures in Lithuania. Head to De Zavu Vintage Boutique on Savičiaus street, where you can pick up a one-of-a-kind bargain or ten for just 5 litas (around £1.50) each. Or visit the Soviet Market, where you’ll find a wide range of curiosities on sale.
The Soviet Market.
5. Visit the independent Republic of Uzupis
This little bohemian neighbourhood within Vilnius itself has its own constitution, currency, flag, cabinet of ministers, and president. It’s home to Vilnius’ arty types, and it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site. On your way into Uzupis you can see the constitution displayed on the wall in multiple languages.
6. Befriend the locals
Don’t look for the tourist nightspots. Instead head to Salento Disco Pub, where you can dance with the locals until 9am. Tell them it’s your birthday and/or that you’re visiting from England and they’ll buy you shots of tequila, let you share their buckets of vodka and orange, and teach you how to swear in Lithuanian.
7. Visit the KBG museum
Call us twisted, but my friends and I like to visit a prison museum wherever we go, and this was one of the best. Housed in the old KGB headquarters, this museum provides visitors with plenty of information about Lithuanian history, and also gives a real insight into how the KGB operated in Lithuania during the Soviet occupation.
You can listen in to phone conversations in the eavesdropping room, and see sacks of genuine shredded KGB documents, and there are also some really good displays of war memorabilia, photographs, documents, and army uniforms.
Inside the KGB Headquarters.
Shredded KGB documents.
In Soviet times the basement of the KGB headquarters was used as a prison, and this has been reconstructed. There are cells – including a somewhat eerie padded cell, torture rooms, a prison library, shower blocks, and a rather disturbing execution chamber, where you can still see blood stains on the floor and bullet holes in the walls.
8. Play in the snow
Find a pile of snow and prepare for the most fun you’ll ever have without spending any money or taking your clothes off. Make some snow angels; throw it at your friends; push your friends over into it; pull your friends over into it; and best of all, do as the Lithuanians do: throw a bucket of water down a hill, wait for it to freeze, and slide down it on a piece of cardboard.
Sledging Lithuanian style.
9. Visit Trakai castle
Just a short bus ride outside of Vilnius is the beautifully reconstructed Trakai Island Castle, which is now a museum, educating visitors about Lithuania’s medieval history.
Construction on the castle began in the middle of the 14th century, but it wasn’t finished until the early 15th century. The castle was left to fall into disrepair, but a major reconstruction project was started after the second world war, and it was restored in 15th century stlye.
The finished castle is rather impressive, and the surroundings are very picturesque. The castle sits on an island in the middle of Lake Galve, there is a bridge across the water, but in winter it is possible to walk across the frozen lake to reach the castle, which is an experience in itself.
The small market close to where the bus drops you off is worth a look too.
10. Spend a night with Quentin Tarantino
Lithuania may seem like an unlikely place for a Tarantino themed nightclub, but you can find one in Vilnius. Tarantino is an underground club decorated with film posters and experimental furniture. You’ll see Tarantino’s Hollywood star on the floor and the tables, and the cocktails are named after Tarantino characters.
Sounds like it could go one way or the other? Well amazingly it manages to come down on the side of cool, rather than tacky. Well worth a visit, especially during cocktail happy hour, when drinks are buy-one-get-one-free.
Hannah flew to Vilnius from Liverpool with Wizz Air, and stayed at Jimmy Jumps House. Most tourist attractions in Lithuania offer student discount, but some will ask for an ISIC card.