Updated 2006-12-28

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Vilnius, Street Life and Institutions

Flying low over Vilnius, the capitol of Lithuania

Vilnius’ institutions have fine old traditions and are always architectonically uplifting. Those that have no traditions (read: ex-Soviet) are per definition not very uplifting to see. And of course the University surpasses everything, but other libraries around town, as well as the Parliament with its violent history, are worth visiting.

This article describes all the good, beautiful and expensive in Vilnius, i.e. all institutional buildings, museums and libraries that you might happen upon, various types of restaurants, as well as the unpreventable shopping.

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Parliament, the
Technical Library, the
Vilnius University
University Bookshop Litera
University Library flashy door
University Church, the
Arts and Music
Drama Theatre, the
Lietuvos dailes muziejos
Lietuvos nacionaline Martyno Mazvydo biblioteka
Lietuvos nacionalinis muziejos

Martynas Mazvydas National Library of Lithuania
Lithuania’s National Museum
Vilnius Picture Gallery
Vilnius Opera, the
About Martynas Mazvydas
Eating and Shopping
Europa Centras
Freskas, café
Lokys, restaurant
Stikliai , restaurant
Food in general


Vilnius University

Vilnius University is the pride of the city and a symbol of free thought. It is a magnificent institution that dates back longer than most universities in Europe. The University celebrated its 400:th anniversary in 1979. The beauty of the interiors is hard to match. Top that, Stockholm University!

Vilnius University, reading room

Smugleviciaus sale, the professors' reading room. This is not just “a room”, it has to be the most good-looking room in existence!

Vilnius University, reading room

Smugleviciaus sale, the professors' reading room from another angle.

Vilnius University, reading room

The professors' reading room with a fantastic ceiling with inserts in blue and yellow.

Vilnius University, the Library

Lelevelio sale, the librarians' office.

Vilnius University, the Library

Lelevelio sale, the librarians' office.

Vilnius University, reading room

The professors' reading room “The White Hall” under the clock-tower.

Vilnius University, the Linguistic Institution with ceiling paintings

The Linguistic Institution with fantastic, contemporary ceiling paintings.

Vilnius University, the Linguistic Institution with ceiling paintings

The Linguistic Institution with fantastic, contemporary ceiling paintings.

Vilnius University, the Linguistic Institution with ceiling paintings

The Linguistic Institution with fantastic, contemporary ceiling paintings.

Vilnius University, the Linguistic Institution with ceiling paintings

The Linguistic Institution with fantastic, contemporary ceiling paintings.

Vilnius University, the Linguistic Institution with the Tree of Life

The Linguistic Institution, the Tree of Life.

Vilnius University, the Linguistic Institution with coffin

The Linguistic Institution, the coffin symbolising the suffering of the Baltic peoples.

Vilnius University, wall painting

The Muses, wall painting in Greek style in the Linguistic Institution.

Vilnius University, wall painting

Baranauskas hall, with wall paintings of Lithuanian famous people.

Vilnius University, wall painting

Detail of wall painting, depicting bishop Antanas Baranauskas, poet, 1835-1902.

Vilnius University, the book shop with ceiling paintings

Litera, the University bookshop, with an interior that surpasses most other bookshops.

Vilnius University, the book shop with ceiling paintings

The bookshop from another angle. All walls have frescoes.

Vilnius University, the book shop with ceiling paintings

The ceiling of the bookshop is completely covered in humouristic paintings of teachers that worked at the university, with symbols of their profession.

Vilnius University, one of the inner yards

Sarbievijaus Yard, one of the 12 university yards, as green and quiet as befits a schoolyard. It really invites studies.

Vilnius University, one of the inner facades

Beautiful colours on the renovated walls contrasting nicely with the sky.

Vilnius University, the Observatory yard

The Observatory Yard. Viewed up towards the Observatory balcony with the clock tower behind. The clock is so old it has been removed for restoration.

Vilnius University, one of the inner yards

Sarbievijaus Yard from another angle.

Vilnius University, panorama from the clock tower

Panorama made from the clock tower, with the Cathedral in the middle. The houses and yards of the university are in the front.

Vilnius University, the alumnae

The Alumnae, the old “dormitory” was built by old Italian renaissance masters.

Vilnius University, the clock tower

The Observatory clock tower as viewed from the yard of the President’s Palace on University Street (Universitetu gatve). The Observatory is the balcony to the right. The only thing left of the clock is four square holes. Walking straight up to the tower you will get to the new Library door and the University Main Entrance. The other tower sticking up is the University Church.

The Library Door

In 2004 the Library got its new grand entrance door, that was so expensive it caused a commotion in the newspapers. Well, it’s so nice, I don’t mind it costing a arm and a leg. The door has some bronze...

The Library door, the Catechism plaque

plaques describing the art of printing in Lithuania, commemorating the first Lithuanian printed book and some early scientists. The Catechism...

The Library door, the Book of sermons

and the Book of sermons, of course. The writing around the book images is 16:th-century Lithuanian from the books, fully readable to a modern day Lithuanian. That’s exciting.

The Library door, plaque depicting printer’s shop

Note the cat in the printer’s shop.

Vilnius University, the door of the Historic Faculty

The door of the Historic Faculty is rather more austere.

Vilnius University, main entrance

The University is so magnificent that a main entrance like this seems like an understatement. It doesn’t match up to the Library luxury door right beside.

Kristjonas Donelaitis, Lithuanian writer

This mean looking guy stands next to the University main entrance. His name is Kristijonas Donelaitis (1716-1780) and he was a priest and writer. He wrote first Lithuanian work of fiction. His greatest work is “Metai” (The Seasons) which describes the seasons passing, the nature’s course and life in general, in a humorous way.

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Arts and Music

Art, music, festivals and mysterious fire-feasts are all part of Lithuania. Vilnius and Trakai castle are natural foci for large gatherings. The city happens to be filled of art, apart from being a macro sized piece of art in itself. Museums are for visiting and enjoying all the nice stuff, despite the often terribly boring facades. And unlike in, say, Stockholm, you can actually get opera tickets, when you want them, and at affordable prices.

Vilnius Picture Gallery - Lietuvos dailes muziejos

Sure, the Dutch painters, like van Gogh and those were great, and yes, the French 19:th century painters could paint OK, but the Lithuanian ones from the same time were just as good. Convince yourself by visiting the Vilnius Picture Gallery in the Old Town. The house was made an art museum in 1994.

Vilnius Picture Gallery, front

The museum is housed in a former palace built in the 17:th century by the noble Lithuanian Chodkeviciai family.

Vilnius Picture Gallery, room 1, the Kings’ room

The gallery starts with room number one, displaying fictive pictures of all early kings.

Vilnius Picture Gallery, painting 1, Vytautas

Painting number one shows Grand Duke Vytautas. No one knows what he looked like.

Vilnius Picture Gallery, original living room

Ceilings and walls are completely intact, with stucco and gold leaf. I could live there.

Vilnius Picture Gallery, painting “Harvest Girl” (Pjoveja)

Perhaps the museum’s most famous painting of all, “Harvest Girl” (Pjoveja) av Kanutas Ruseckas. It is used everywhere, on chocolate gift boxes and such.

Vilnius Picture Gallery, painting “Forest Fire” (Misko gaisras)

“Forest Fire” (Misko gaisras) av Vincas Dmachauskas is another famous painting. It reminds me al lot of the Finnish “Burn-beating Fins” (Svedjefinnar) I saw in Helsinki

Vilnius Picture Gallery, copperplate “Lower Castle”

If you are a true Vilnius fan and know the city and surroundings, there’s a lot of goodies to be found here. Especially in the Vilnius exhibition, such as Basanavicius’ paintings and copperplates of environments and buildings from the 18:th century. With a little imagination you’ll recognise modern Vilnius and after some time you can navigate around on the century old images.
All names and descriptions of the works are translated into faltering English. It is somewhat miserable that a government-run museum doesn’t use proper translations. “The Lower Castle” has become “The Law Castle”.
Maybe, perhaps photography was just a little prohibited, but I thought it was better that I show the works to the world than they remain unseen. People weren’t exactly stampeding to get into the museum.
Unfortunately they had only two paintings by Cirulionis, the great composer, mystic and Science Fiction painter. If you want to se more of him, you’ll have to got to the
Ciurlionis Museum in Kaunas. Do it! Ciurlionis is unique, to say the least.

Vilnius' Opera

Vilnius, opera house foyer

The Vilnius Opera is a magnificent building with extravagant interiors. It was built in the Soviet days, but works well and has good acoustics anyway. In those days, when the Bolshoi Theatre was booked, the great operas and plays were premiered in Vilnius instead.

Vilnius, opera house bar

In the Opera House bar. This is how a bar should look like. All sorts of liquors, coffee and goodies for the pleasure-seeking opera-goer, and not like in Stockholm, buns in plastic bags, with astronomic prices.

The Lithuanian National Museum - Lietuvos nacionalinis muziejos

The National Museum is situated in a park beside the cathedral, below the castle hill with Gediminas Tower. The house is slightly crooked in the middle because it is built along the old city wall (gone a long time ago). It was originally built as an arsenal (and is therefore on 1 Arsenal Street), but has been rebuilt many times. The last time they did something to it was in the 17:th century.
The museum depicts Lithuanian history from the sticks and stones age, through crooked-rusty-swords age, farming society with harvest and flax preparation, traditional costume, kings, the Radvilas family’s contributions to museums, and a giant painting of the nobleman and culture magnate Tiskevicius. The history of Vilnius University and staff is also illustrated, with images from the end of the 19:th century when the university was closed and used as a museum.
Don’t expect flashy tableaux or fantastic dioramas. Instead it is more of the grey everyday history from a country which had to fight and bleed to be allowed to show it.
Paintings, on the other hand, you’ll find at
Vilnius Picture Gallery in the Old Town. History about weapons and fighting is on the War Museum in the Arsenal.

Vilnius, National Museum, front

The museum is in the absolute city centre, beside the cathedral. In front of the gate is the new statue of king Mindaugas.

Vilnius, National Museum, traditional costume

Lithuania has a very rich costume tradition. The ornate wooden crosses are district specific, and are found all over the country.

Vilnius, National Museum, paintings of scientists

The gentleman to the left is Rector Primarius Skarga, who was ordered to change his religious school in Vilnius to a university. He became its first headmaster in 1580 and had the first schoolyard named after him. Skargas’ yard.

Vilnius, National Museum, church plate

In the middle is a collection of religious art, objects saved from the Communists from various churches around the country.

Vilnius, National Museum, chasubles

All this is things you really should see if you are interested in Lithuanian history.

Vilnius, National Museum, giant Vatican keys

These giant Vatican keys are salvaged from the church in Trakai village.

Vilnius, National Museum, barbed wire picture of the Soviet Union

One room contains an unpleasant collection of object from the Soviet time, art and objects collected from or made by the innumerable Lithuanians deported, tortured and eliminated in the Soviet concentration camps. This not very nice picture shows the Soviet Union border made in barbed wire, with crosses in all the places where captive Lithuanians died or were executed. Lithuania is inserted, properly scaled, in the upper left corner. Then there are old diaries, suitcases, weapons and terrible stories about life in Siberia, and the horrible life and death of the Forest Brothers in Lithuania’s forests.

Martynas Mazvydas National Library of Lithuania - Lietuvos nacionaline Martyno Mazvydo biblioteka

In 1547 Martynas Mazvydas had the first book in Lithuanian language printed, the Catechism (n.b. only 160 years after the country was Christened, in 1387) and so laid the foundation of all Lithuanian library activity. Thus he has been honoured by giving his name to the Lithuanian National Library. The interior is more than grand, it’s super-grand. But you won’t get in there. Only the library card holders, the “readers” will get in through the electronic gates. As a tourist you might want to expose yourself to a lengthy registration procedure, or sweet-talk them into giving you a temporary pass. This probably helps decreasing theft, but it doesn’t feel like a public library.

Vilnius, National Library, front

The National Library is situated beside the Parliament on Independence Square.

Vilnius, National Library

Between the library and the Parliament is a pool with a controlled waterfall and a fountain at the far end.

Vilnius, National Library, pillar

The house was built long before Communism. It looks nice. The Commies would never make adornments like this.

Vilnius, National Library, main staircase

This is the most common view of the library in the media, the main staircase to the first floor. At the far wall is a giant glass mosaic.

Vilnius, National Library, main staircase from top

With your back against the glass mosaic the staircase looks like this. Mazvydas stands opposite and checks you out.

Vilnius, National Library, computers for the catalogue

Just like in Swedish libraries, there are computerised, microfilm and cardboard catalogues. All registration on cardboard cards ended in 1997.

Vilnius, National Library, sculpture of Martynas Mazvydas

Here Mazvydas himself sits, writing in a specialist literature room. Behind him is a replica of his first Lithuanian book, the Catechism.

Vilnius, National Library, sculpture of Martynas Mazvydas, detail

The first text page in the first book, beginning: “Brothers and sisters, take me and read me.” Sculptor K. Kisielis.

Vilnius, National Library, specialist literature room

A specialist literature room. The large, enormous book collections are absent. This is an ordering library. The books are kept all over the town, but you could get any book within an hour.

Vilnius, National Library, big guy

Unknown giant. Any comments welcome.

Vilnius, National Library, guarded gate

Electronic gates and guards probably lets the library keep its books.

Vilnius, National Library, the bar

A bar at the library? This would be unthinkable in sober Sweden, but on the continent it’s okay. They would rather enjoy than sit around and be bored.

About Martynas Mazvydas
circa 1520 - 1563

Martynas Mazvydas’ statue at the National Library

Martynas Mazvydas was a priest, poet, author, public educator and a hip guy in general. He printed the first book in Lithuanian, the beginning of all Lithuanian literature and poetry. The book was called “The simple words of Catechism” but was much more than a religious textbook. It also had an ABC book and a number of songs. The idea was to teach the Lithuanian people to read their own language and spread the culture, apart from fearing God. He tried to eliminate the remains of paganism and push for Protestantism.
The book starts with a dedication to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, two prefaces in Latin and Lithuanian, and then the famous Lithuanian preface. Knigieles pacias byla Letuvinikump ir Zemaiciump, that is “The Book speaks to Lithuanians and Zemaitijans”. It is the book, or perhaps the art of reading, that proclaims to its brothers and sisters that the world waits for the one who starts reading here.

About Mazvydas, Catechism cover

The cover text (left) reads “The simple words of the Catechism, a reading and writing manual, songs for Christians and for young children, recently prepared i Köningsberg, the eighth day in the moth of January in the Lord’s year 1547. Glory be unto God alone.”

About Mazvydas, the poetic foreword of the Catechism

Pacias byla Letuvinikump ir Zemaiciump

BRalei, seseris, imkiet mani ir skaitikiet
  Jr tatai skaitidami permanikiet.
Maksla šito tevai iusu trakzdava tureti,
  Ale to negaleia ne venu budu gauti.
Regiety to nareia sava akimis,
  Taip yr išgirsti sava ausimis.
Jau nu, ka tevai nakada neregieia,
  Nu šitai viss iusump ateia.
Veizdekiet ir dabakietese, zmanes vysas,
  Šitai eit iusump zadis dagaus karalistas.
Malanei ir su dziauksmu ta zadi prijimkiet,
  A iusu ukiusu šeimina makikiet.
Sunus, dukteris iusu tur tatai makiety,
  Visa šyrdy tur ta deva zady milety.
Jei, bralei, seseris, tus zadzius nepapeiksit,
  Deva teva ir sunu sau milu padarisit.
Jr pašlavinti pa akimis deva busit.
  Visosu daiktosu palaimi turesit.
Šitu makslu deva tikrai pazysyt
  Jr dagaus karalistasp prisiartysyt.

The LITTLE BOOK [Itself] Speaks to Lithuanians and Zemaitijans

Brothers, sisters, take me and read me,
  And reading, consider this:
Your fathers fervently desired to have this doctrine
  But were not able to obtain it in any way.
They wanted to see it with their eyes,
  And also to hear it with their ears.
Now what your fathers never saw,
  Now all this has come to you.
All men, look and pay attention,
  Look the word of the kingdom of heaven is coming to you.
Receive this word graciously and with joy
  And teach the family in your homes.
Your sons and daughters should know this
  And love this word of God with all their heart.
If your brothers and sisters will not scorn these words,
  You will make God the Father and the Son dear to you.
And you will be blessed under the eyes of God.
  You will have blessing in all things.
With this doctrine you will truly know God
  And will come near to the kingdom of heaven.

Map of Little Lithuania

The same text is reproduced on the extravagant door to the University Library.
The reason that the book was published in Köningsberg (Karaliauciai = King’s City), modern day Kaliningrad, is that it was the capital of ancient Little Lithuania, stretching from Kalaipeda in the north to Karaliauciai in the south. He addresses both Zemaitijans and Lithuanians, because Little Lithuania was his country, partly overlapped by Zemaitija, an independent country at the time. Greater Lithuania, on the other hand, once stretched all the way to the Black Sea and nearly reached Moscow.
The text is in a Zemaitijan dialect, the language spoken near Kalipeda. The text misses many diacritical marks, so it is not possible to pinpoint it to any one of the dialects spoken around 1547. Scientists differ about where Mazvydas actually lived although his official dwelling is in present day Kaliningrad. Tourists still visit it.
Despite there being no distinction between “i” and “j”, and the pronunciation of some characters have changed (“y”, long i-sound is now “i” in some modern Lithuanian words etc)...
and ancient character combinations of ch-sounds has been replaced by accented characters (sch > š, sz > z) a modern day Lithuanian has no problems reading the text as the sounds are still the same. The Lithuanian language is unique in that written and spoken languages are identical. And an “ump” (u with nose) and an “asp” (e with nose) here and there was something you just had to accept in the medieval days. They are concessions for the cases.
(Swedish, on the other hand, has changed so much since the 16:th century that you have to be a linguist to be able to understand and old text.)
He was a smart man, Mazvydas. He fixed his own copyright by weaving his name into the first letter of each line (in Latin):) MARTINUS MAŠVIDIUS and not only in the introduction but at many other places in the text.
There are statues of Mazvydas all over the country. He has even got a mountain peak in Khirgistan named after him. The Mazvydas Peak stretches 4560 meters above sea level, and is part of the Terskej Alatau range. It got its name from Lithuanian climbers, the first ones there, in 1979.
Read more about Zemaitija here.

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Eating and Shopping

Eating is a good thing, very much so in Vilnius. All the world’s cuisines are represented, anything you would expect in a metropolis. But what’s the use when there is Lithuanian food? We’re talking about the traditional restaurants, of which there are lots in the Old Town for example, although the prices have been adjusted upwards, lately. Some people just have to shop and the new Western style shopping arcades multiply year from year. Unfortunately they are no different from other boring, fashion-hysteric shopping malls, and deserve no praise. If you want to know more about shopping the Lithuanian way and how this has changed since the bad old days, please read about the New Lithuania.

Restaurant Lokys (The Bear)

One of the hangouts that survived the transition to Capitalism is the restaurant Lokys (The Bear), which never lost its popularity. It is partly housed in the tunnels and vaults under the Old Town. A bit of spelunkering. These vaults have been food places, beer places, shops and assembly halls since medieval times.
Lokys opened in 1972. Those who went here at the time, agree it was cheap and good. You could have a plate of sausages, a cup of coffee and a great night out for three roubles. Lokys was popular.
It’s still a great place today, with very elegant, attentive and polite service, although the prices have been adjusted towards a tourist level. Then, it was ABBA in the loudspeakers, whereas today a medieval image is preferred, with more folk music at low level, so you can fully enjoy the food. More about food in general
is on the Food page< FONT COLOR="white">.

Vilnius, Restaurant Lokys, flag

There’s a big bear in the street and the Lokys flag hangs in the archway.

Vilnius, Restaurant Lokys, the yard

A sunny summers day you might want to eat in the back yard.

Vilnius, Restaurant Lokys, down we go

But in the evening one dines down in the vaults. Follow us down the winding staircase down to the cellar.

Vilnius, Restaurant Lokys, entrance with bearskin

A large bearskin is nailed to the wall in the entrance.

Vilnius, Restaurant Lokys, Mr. Bear

Down in one of the vaults we meet Mr. Bear himself.

Vilnius, Restaurant Lokys, cosy corner

The cosy factor is high. Lighting has been arranged to create a cheerful atmosphere.

Vilnius, Restaurant Lokys, the laid table

The food is exquisite and the menu is available in several languages.

Vilnius, Restaurant Lokys, boar trophy

Gediminas the Grand Duke and his pals had nothing better to do than to hunt boars in the old days.

Vilnius, Restaurant Lokys, the White Room

There are room for large groups in the cellar. There is also a “Swedish Room” upstairs.

Café Freskas

Silence is an rare commodity in any metropolis. But you can find it if you look around. Café Freskas in the old City Hall is one of the few eating places where you can escape pop music, rest your mind and enjoy very well cooked food in an elegant theatre environment, with low-key violin music. The staff is very attentive and polite and the service is excellent. The silence might seem a bit expensive, though, as the prices are quite elevated.

Vilnius, Café Freskas, sign

A small sign at the back of the old City Hall on City Hall Square hides something nice.

Vilnius, Café Freskas, table

Elegant, calm environment, exquisite food and wine. The place can be rented for private parties.

Vilnius, Café Freskas, dining hall

The wine of the house is good and the Mexican dishes are quite fiery. The apple tart was somehow microscopic.

Vilnius, Café Freskas, theatre costumes

Freskas is a theatre café. The old City Hall is now a theatre and assembly room. There are lots of theatre props on the walls.

Vilnius, Café Freskas, interior detail

Chic or kitsch? Anyway it’s theatre stuff. “Pizarro was here.“ Bring the big wallet, go there and spoil yourself.

Europa Centras, the Latest and Most Elegant

We said earlier that Vilnius was divided in two major parts, the Old and the New Town. A third one has been added. The Europa Centras. Because Vilnius lies at Europe’s geographic centre, they decided that the new high-risers about to eat the age-old Snipiskes should be named the ”Centre of Europe”. The renovated hotels and new shopping high-towers are assembled on Neris’ northern shore, just where it makes a turn in the middle of the city.

Vilnius, Europe Centre, skyline

Is this Vilnius’ new skyline?

Vilnius, Europe Centre, exterior

The tower is a business hotel with a view balcony on the top, and a square with a fountain at its foot. Vilnius, Europe Centre, the tower Take the lift to the 31:st floor a sunny day, and there is Vilnius at your feet, just like a painting. Bring a good binocular!

Vilnius, Europe Centre, wavy interior

One has to admit that it looks fine. The centre is a long, undulating building with glass roof, interesting...

Vilnius, Europe Centre, café-cocoon

café-cocoons hanging in the air, and video monitors everywhere. Sony’s elegant showroom, one of the few shops not selling... Vilnius, Europe Centre, glass roof fashion and glittering knick-knacks, and the chocolate shop on the bottom floor, are the only shops worthy of some real interest.

Vilnius, Europe Centre, City Hall

The new City Hall is to the left, and a bank to the right.

Vilnius, Europe Centre, bank palace

Vilnius, Europe Centre, bank palace

Vilnius, Europe Centre Some distance away the high-risers continue scraping the skies.
Here, traditional Lithuania is completely lost, and merged with a pan-European, streamlined mixture of glossy high-price fashion, trinket shops, glass and aluminium. Looking around, you see only fashion and more fashion, likely to bore you to death. Carelessly made, fashion-coloured clothes with fashion looks, presented by booming rock music for the new generation of fashion kids, who have left the old poverty behind, or who never had the misfortune of having to live through it. For the fashion hysteric this is, of course, paradise. It is now just as easy to buy short-lived garments in Vilnius as in Paris or London.

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