As I come up to the last country remaining on my to-visit list in Europe, I’m left retrospectively thinking about my travels across the continent. There’s 51 nations in all, or at least 51 nations that I count, and I have enjoyed some more than others.
One in particular is Lithuania.
I’ve visited twice – both times Vilnius – as part of trips where I’d then go on to another country. The first time it was a foray through the Baltic states, on to Riga, Tallinn then across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki; the second was split in two by a stay in Belarusian capital, Minsk.
Vilnius wasn’t somewhere I wanted to visit in particular, but it was a great tag-on destination both times I’d visited that region of Europe. I remember before our Baltic adventure I was looking forward to Helsinki the most, then Riga, Tallinn and, finally, Vilnius.
Out of the four destinations, Vilnius turned out to be my favourite. My first visit there is distinct in my mind. I remember getting off the plane at the airport – we’d travelled from Liverpool – and texting my Mum to let her know we’d got there safely. I also remember getting the train from Vilnius Airport to the central station and working out it cost little more than 41 pence.
Then there was our first meal, where we dined at an Italian restaurant at an outdoor seating area that was in the middle of a main road. I got a pizza – I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I suspect quattro formaggio – and I remember just looking around buzzing for the two weeks that lay ahead, sitting in the first of four countries we’d be visiting in just shy of 14 days. It was the first time I’d travelled to multiple countries in such a short period of time – and, even better, they weren’t the hotspots that everyone and their dog would be frequenting that summer.
Still, I find it a little odd that when I think back through my European adventures, Vilnius remains prominent and is held by myself in such high regard.
When recommending Vilnius as a place for others to visit, I usually add a disclaimer professing my understanding towards those who may not see Lithuania’s capital in the same light. There are no marquee attractions, the city is quite small and it has little revisit value – yet I still love the place. But why is that?
The feeling I had when I was in Vilnius the first time is one of my most treasured travel memories, and maybe my feelings for the city stem from that trip. I loved the feeling of discovering somewhere that I knew virtually nothing about and at the time I was so excited because we had three more countries to come after.
But it wasn’t just the first visit, the second time in Vilnius was great as well and, on that trip, I also got to sample the nightlife. It was sick, and partying the night away at three venues stacked on top of each other – starting at Crazy Bull, moving on to Dirty Duck and then ending up in Salento – was one to remember (regardless of how much alcohol I consumed that evening).
Then there’s the memories of getting the funicular up Castle Hill to visit Gediminas’ Tower, getting a taxi to Vilnius TV tower for incredible views of the region and enjoying our evening meal in Town Hall Square while the sun was setting and hot air balloons sailed by.
Because it invokes reminders of such good times, nostalgia may well play a big part in my feelings towards Vilnius.
There’s something about mid-sized cities that I really enjoy. I’m a city boy, so I love it when there’s always something going on. But there can be some places where it’s too much, and this is aided by mass tourism. One of the reasons I loved Moscow so much was the relative absence of tourism – and it may sound hypocritical as I am a tourist myself – but Vilnius has that mutual benefit with its Russian neighbor.
But Vilnius is both an important centre for Lithuania and while it has the plus points of any good city – solid transport links, plenty of attractions, beautiful architecture and plenty of places to eat and drink – it retains a quaintness and relaxing quality I’ve found in few cities with some beautiful green spaces both in and out of the city.
It’s one of those cities that I could genuinely see myself living in, and that feeling of homeliness means I’ll probably return to Vilnius again and again.
Value for money
Most of my travel to date has happened whilst I was at university, so travelling on a budget is something I’ve been conscious of for quite a while. That’s another great thing that Vilnius brings to the table – value for money.
You can get a stein of beer for €3.20, a bottle of Coca-Cola is around 60p, there is plenty of availability when it comes to cheap flights (make sure to check out Ryanair and Wizz Air) and you can get a lot of bang for your buck at the city’s finest restaurants. I’ll always be a fan of a cheap city, and Vilnius definitely falls in to that category.
Whether it’s nostalgia, homeliness, value for money, a combination of the three or something completely different, I’ll always have a soft spot for Vilnius – the heart of Lithuania.