Those with a penchant for history, gastronomy, architecture or the arts will find Vilnius has it all in troves. Audrey Gillan gives the lowdown
A Soviet-built housing estate, a nuclear reactor and a cold, terrifying prison cell. Not the first things you’d think of when preparing an itinerary for a visit to the beautiful Lithuanian capital Vilnius, but these locations used in HBO’s Emmy award-winning series Chernobyl have become a big draw in the Baltic city. The suburb of Fabijoniškės is substituted for Pripyat, the Ukrainian town hit by nuclear disaster in 1986, and the Museum of Occupation and Freedom Fights (a must-see, fascinating place in its own right) is the site of the jail where the nuclear scientist who exposed the cover-up is held. Guided tours of the locations and interiors afford a glimpse of life in the city during the Soviet occupation, which ended when Lithuania became independent in 1991.
Soviet-era architecture helped, too, with the filming of the BBC’s historical drama The Eichmann Show, but it was its resemblance to Jerusalem that drew film-makers to Vilnius. An elegant, Unesco World Heritage-listed city – where the baroque and medieval harmonise, and an Old Town boasts red pantiled roofs and cobbled streets – it has also recently been the shooting venue for Catherine the Great and Elizabeth I, both starring Helen Mirren, and War and Peace.
Chefs in Lithuania will tell you that their cuisine was destroyed by the Soviets and that the country once had a rich culinary tradition. “We lost our identity and our history and we forgot to be proud of ourselves. We were not allowed. All we had was bones, milk, potatoes and sour cream,” says chef Liutauras Čeprackas. But that era has passed and he and other cooks are at the vanguard of a gastronomic revival in Vilnius, one that looks to the rich past for dishes forgotten by a generation but also embraces modernity.
There is a rich gastronomical seam now being mined – in the 14th century, Grand Duke Gediminas opened the city to all religions and cultures, and as people came so did a confluence of influences and ingredients – with food from German crusaders, Eastern Europeans, Italian architects, Jewish peoples, Russia and Poland.
The city is now home to funky Džiaugsmas, a bistro ranked number one in the 30 Best Restaurants in Lithuania that serves glorious zander beignets where chunks of fish are covered in crisp sepia batter. At Ertlio Namas, in a 17thcentury house in the heart of the Old Town, the history of Lithuanian cuisine is on the plate: using just the produce of local farmers and fishermen, dishes can include mushroom soup with poularde, mushroom cheese and turnips; and baked eel with doughnut, mangolds, turnips and fennel sauce. And the serving staff will tell you stories of the history of each dish. A fairytale-like journey takes you through “seasons-inspired local cuisine” at magical Sweet Root, where you might have encounters with foraged berries, sea buckthorn and rowan berries; or mushrooms like chanterelles (Lithuanians love foraging for mushrooms).
A visit to Halés market, housed in a lovely building dating back to 1906, will bring you to stalls lined with traditional products such as salted and smoked country bacon, sauerkraut, salted herring and pickled cucumber. Stop and buy some black bread – almost exalted in this country – and some local butter to taste, or hop from stall to stall sampling.
With many of Vilnius’ younger generation returning to the city after living abroad, the hip and vibrant feel of the place is growing. Not that bohemianism is a new thing here: the self-declared Republic of Užupis was established in 1998 and it has its own president, government, constitution and currency, and even has a navy consisting of three or four small boats. Here you’ll find street sculpture and art, great galleries, bars and restaurants, and a joyous, slightly flippant vibe.
In the Station District, you can eat street food in an old train car, rave beside the railroad tracks or enjoy a drink on a platform at Peronas bar, complete with a giant statue of Sopranos star James Gandolfini in a bathrobe and shorts. The once down-at-heel, edgy area is flourishing under its rebirth. At Druska Milta Vanduo, a bakery and coffee shop, Canadian Christine saw a gap in the market – not everyone wants to eat black bread everyday – and so here you can have avocado and sourdough toast and French and American-style cakes and pastries
Where to stay
Downtown Forest is located in the heart of the Republic of Užupis and although it calls itself a hostel, it has very comfortable private rooms. Single rooms with shared bathrooms from £14.50
The rock’n’roll-themed Comfort Hotel has super-stylish rooms within walking distance of the Old Town. Standard rooms begin from £53.
Hotel PACAI has high-ceilinged rooms in a beautiful old palace in the Old Town with two great restaurants. Double rooms from £146.