Lithuania’s capital, the ancient city of Vilnius is slowly climbing in the world of Eastern European tourism, with centuries of varied and exotic architecture, a typically vibrant post-communist eye for a good time and the localized atmosphere of a place that’s still some way short of matching the likes of Prague and Tallinn when it comes to heavy-drinking touristic influx.
The relative lack of tourism is something that won’t last long, though, so if you want to catch Vilnius before the inevitable barrage of sightseeing, beer swilling westerners arrives, best head over soon and see the city at its more natural best. The 14th century cathedral looks like it’s freshly transported from the shores of the Mediterranean, while you can also explore the columned facades and gardens of the impressive president’s palace, which dates back to a similar era. The Old Town – and in particularly the magnificently ornate Pilies Street – is both a souvenir hunter’s and photographer’s paradise, hosting countless festivals and a great taste of Vilnius’ more artistic bent.
A trip outside the city can take you to Trakai, a seemingly floating nearby castle at the heart of five different lakes, or to the astounding hill of crosses - an entire hillside covered in a symbolic heap of emblems – for a day trip. Most visitors, though, will be happy enough enjoying the pleasures of a city at the heart of one of the EU’s newest nations, and the European Capital of Culture for 2009, the same year the country celebrated one thousand years from its first historical reference, seen as something of a landmark.
This city is ornate, different and despite its recent continental award, still a relative unknown for most tourists. Use it as a base for trips around the rest of Lithuania and the former Russian republics, or simply bed down and enjoy what seems to be an ongoing celebration of a nation’s development. Don’t forget to sample the extraordinarily soft and sumptuous dumplings and local vodka while you’re in town, too.