After spending two weeks exploring Poland, I travelled on a weeklong road trip to Latvia and Lithuania. This ultimate road trip guide includes general travel information and useful tips to help you plan the perfect Baltic road trip and save $$$. This article focusses on the best things to do in Vilnius. Along the way, I not only discovered new and exciting places but learnt a few things that I’d like to share with you.
Travel Begins After You Visit the Big Four
Generally, most first-time travellers head to places like London, Rome, Paris and Barcelona. Don’t get me wrong, everyone must visit the magnificent ‘Big Four’ destinations in Europe. They are truly magical and memory builders.
However, frequent travellers who have already visited those countries tend to look for new and exciting destinations that aren’t as touristy and less expensive. Even when the Australia dollar is not performing well against the euro, you can travel Europe on a budget especially when the cost of living is cheaper in places like Poland and the Baltic States.
Why You Should Take a Road-Trip in Eastern Europe
Taking a road trip has many cost saving benefits. You can choose to stay out of the heart of a city which also makes it easier when you have a car to park. A car allows you to get to places off the beaten track and you can stop wherever and whenever your heart desires. Without a car it would have been difficult and time consuming to get to Hill of Crosses in Latvia.
Prepare and Plan For Your Road Trip in Advance
I knew very little about Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia other than what I could remember from my school history lessons decades ago! Be sure to do your research in advance and create a rough plan before you set off on your road trip. Although, the Baltic States are said to have the fastest internet speed in the world, you don’t want to waste your spare time looking for things to do or places to stay.
Download your maps from the Maps.Me app which are FREE, fast, detailed and can be used entirely offline with turn-by-turn navigation. Save your mobile data, Map.ME requires no internet once your maps are downloaded. You can navigate anywhere in the world – driving, walking and cycle. This map app is used by over 100 million travellers worldwide.
Riga Perfect Starting Point
Riga is a great entry point city with several budget airlines offering daily flights from various countries.
There is a lot to love and do in Riga and you can read my Top 5 Things to Do in Riga here. After 3 exceptional nights in Riga, I hired a car online through RentalCars.com and headed to Lithuania. At the end of this article I have included some useful car hire tips that you should know if you are planning to hire a car in Latvia or Lithuania.
The flight duration from Riga, Latvia to Vilnius, Lithuania is 50 minutes. Visit Skyscanner for the cheapest flights from Riga to Vilnius Airport. Skyscanner is the world’s leading free, fast and easy search engine and booking site of flights, hotels and car hire worldwide. Uber or Taxi from Vilnius Airport to the old town takes just 15 minutes.
Why Visit Lithuania?
I had heard that Lithuania has a picturesque countryside, colourful wooden houses, a beautiful sandy coastline, thousands of lakes and rivers and a third of the territory is forest. So, I was keen to see as much of these on my road-trip.
When to Visit Lithuania?
Choosing when to visit Vilnius in Lithuania is important especially if you are not fond of cold weather. Generally, it is a hot and sunny place during the short summer months, but winter can be long and cold. Whilst most Europeans seek warmer destinations, visitors from other countries are attracted and want to experience what a magical winter wonderland offers.
Whether you visit in summer or winter come expecting some wet weather as it can rain a lot in Lithuania. Beach lovers and those who follow the sun would be wise to visit in July and August however, remember you may still need a jacket at night.
Places to Visit Along the Way
Hill of Crosses and Kaunas Lithuania
There are a number of places worth visiting along the way to Vilnius. Hill of Crosses is Lithuania’s most inspiring and impressive religious sight. An ancient hill covered in thousands of crosses is a testament of Lithuanian independence and religious beliefs. Click here to learn more about the history of Hill of Crosses, a 2-hour drive from Riga and 2.5 hours from Vilnius.
One Night in Kaunas Lithuania
Two hours further south from Hill of Crosses is the medieval village of Kaunas. I choose to stay a night at Brother House Kaunas in the heart of the old merchant city as Kaunas is considered one of the major players in Lithuanian history.
Kaunas’ old town is home to a 15th-century Gothic (Cathedral Basilica of apostles St. Peter and St. Paul of Kaunas) cathedral and a range of ancient churches. Uncover the city’s history in 14th century Kaunas Castle, Art Gallery and City museum. Read more here about the history of Kaunas and the many wonderful things you can do there.
Top Things to Do in Vilnius
This popular weekend break destination in Lithuania proves it’s not just somewhere to visit in the summertime! Here are some my favourite things to do in Vilnius.
Architecture in Vilnius historic centre is quite well preserved despite the many invasions. Within the medieval layout of the old town there are an impressive collection of Neo Classic, Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance buildings to admire and photograph. From the 13th to the end of the 18th century, Vilnius played a significant part in cultural and architectural development of much of eastern Europe.
Pilies Gatve (Castle Street) is the oldest street in Vilnius. It features varied architectural styles plus has a beautiful view of the remnants of Gediminas Castle that sticks out between the buildings. The street is buzzing with restaurants, cafes and shops selling two of the main products of Lithuania, amber jewellery and linen.
Address: Pilies Gatve
Gate of Dawn and Virgin Mary
Find the last remaining entrance of the former city wall that once surrounded Vilnius. The Gates of Dawn is where pilgrims come from all over the world to visit an icon of the Virgin Mary without baby Jesus held above the 600-year-old entrance in the Gate chapel. The image of the Virgin Mary was placed above the gates to protect the city.
The Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy icon on display was painted on eight pieces of oak by an unknown artist around 1630 and some four decades later it was embellished with gold and silver. In the very early 1700s (possibly 1706) the image was housed inside the Gate Chapel which was purpose built above the gate. It is believed to have healing powers and locals and visitors can be seen walking underneath offering a silent prayer. Access is via a small door at the side of the Gate and up a set of stairs. Entry is free.
Address: Aušros Vartų g. 14, Vilnius
Best Panorama View of Vilnius City
Vilnius is a stunning city and from above, you can admire the medieval layout, architectural styles and green spaces abundant in the heart of the city. The best panorama of unobstructed views is from St. Johns Church (St. John the Baptist and St. John the Apostle and Evangelist) Tower, a symbol of Vilnius university.
The striking 400-year-old baroque style bell tower stands 68 metres high and among the highest buildings in the Old Town. You can get to the 45-metre observation deck by the authentic wooden stairs or modern elevator. There is a small fee but well worth it.
Address: 3 Universiteto St., LT-01513 Vilnius
One of the most impressive views of Vilnius is from a hot-air balloon. Viator a world leader in global tours offers a Hot Air Balloon Flight Over Trakai from Vilnius. When weather conditions are favourable hot-air balloons can take off and land in the heart of the city centre. Each balloon flight is unique and breathtaking.
Your flight takes in the Trakai Island Castle, where you will see aerial views of the island castle that few visitors experience. See exceptional views that span across a scenic part of Lithuania’s remarkable countryside as well as Lake Galve’s islands and shoreline. Included is champagne to toast your return to earth after soaring over Trakai. Convenient pickup and drop-off is available from your Vilnius hotel.
Trakai Island Castle
Trakai is a quaint town that you must visit when you are staying in Vilnius. Located 28 kilometres west of Vilnius and 45 minutes’ drive from the old town to Trakai Castle. Viator runs daily private Trakai tours of the 14th century medieval castle complex that was one of the most important political and military cities. The Castle built on one of the 200 Lake Gavle islands is surrounded by water on all sides and considered a masterpiece of medieval defensive architecture.
For a long period, the stone castle decorated with red bricks was the royal residence for the Grand Dukes of Lithuania as well as a cultural centre. Today, a permanent museum, various exhibitions, music festivals and performances are held here in the large castle halls and courtyards.
Colourful Houses of Trakai
Trakai streets are dotted with small colourful two-story homes of a distinct look, remnant of a bygone architectural period. Each wooden home has a triangle shaped single gable façade, three windows and single front door. Karaimu houses as they are known are painted either little peach, lemon or jade green with white trims. These homes were once owned by a tiny Lithuanian religious sect or cult called Karaite. Located approximately 15 minutes’ walk from the Trakai Island Castle.
Address: Karaimų g., Trakai
A visit to the Money Museum is a good activity for those on a tight budget or when the weather is cold and rainy. The museum is free to enter and features the history of the world and Lithuanian currency in five small rooms over two floors. There is plenty of interesting money facts displayed in English and interactive Q and A games to test your knowledge at the end of the tour. On display is a large pyramid made from one million one cent coins from Lithuania’s old currency. The pyramid is Guinness Book of Records certified. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Address: 1-8, Totoriu 2/8
Most are familiar with the atrocities inflicted on the Jews in WW2. Like Poland, the Lithuanian people suffered unbelievable hardships and experienced the same brutal fate as other European Jews. To understand better the country’s history, you must see the exhibits on display at the Genocide Victims Museum.
From 1940 -1991 this building housed the NKVD and then KGB, and between 1941 and 1944 the building was controlled by the Gestapo. The role of the Gestapo was to systemically kill the city’s Jewish population. The majority of the exhibit is created around the bleak and violent period of the oppression and genocide by the communist regime. In the basement there are many chilling prison cells and a dedicated execution room where hundreds of falsely accused prisoners were summarily dragged in, shot and disposed of through a small window to an awaiting truck.
Address: Aukų str. 2A, LT-01113
Where to Stay in Vilnius?
Depending on the length of your stay and budget, like all metropolitan cities, the choice is up to you. For stays longer than a day or two; opt for an apartment in or on the outskirts of the old town. There is plenty of apartments and hotels to choose from and most include free parking on site or close by.
Before you book send the host a friendly message and ask whether the apartment is in a noisy area, has double glazing and block out curtains, stairs or lift, and if there is a washing machine. Most accommodation comes with free Wi-Fi but check the quality of the connection.
The best accommodation booking search engine is Booking.com You can search for the best deals for hotels, apartments, resorts, villas, B&Bs even budget hostels and homestays.
Vilnius Luxury Hotel Stay
Grand Hotel Kempinski Vilnius is a luxury stay with a fitness centre, spa and wellness centre. A sauna and hot tub is also available for guests. Situated in the heart of Vilnius Old Town district and 700 metres from Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre and 400 metres from Gediminas Tower. Other popular points of interest near Grand Hotel Kempinski Vilnius include Cathedral Square, Bastion of the Vilnius Defensive Wall and Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania.
Some rooms include a balcony, and all are fitted with a desk, a flat-screen TV, coffee machine, seating area and private bathroom. A continental breakfast is served each morning and there is an on-site restaurant serving International cuisine and outdoor terrace.
Mid-Range Vilnius Hotel Accommodation
15th Avenue, a 3+ star hotel surrounded by restaurants, cafes, bars, night clubs, shops and all kinds of activities. Located on the main street of Vilnius city centre and under a 10 minutes’ walk to Cathedral Square.
Rooms are modern and air-conditioned, fitted with satellite and cable TV, private bathrooms plus a hairdryer. Hotel 15th Avenue has a 24-hour front desk and solo travellers particularly like this location.
The Narutis Hotel is located on Pilies Street, the main street of Vilnius’s Old Town. Each room is stylishly decorated with unique wall paintings, elegant frescoes and original 16th century ceilings. All Narutis Hotel rooms are air-conditioned and overlook the old town. A minibar, satellite TV, private bathroom with hairdryer, free internet and parking and staff are available 24/7 for guest services and tourist information. Hotel features a spa and wellness centre with indoor swimming pool, sauna, steam bath, hot tub and massage therapies. The two hotel restaurants serve international cuisine together with an extensive wine list.
Whether you’re staying in Vilnius for two nights or an entire week, I can personally recommend Town Hall Square Apartment. Set in the Vilnius Old Town district, 500 m from St Anne’s Church, 700 m from Vilnius University and 2.8 km from Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights. Featuring garden and city views, this apartment also has free fast speed Wi-Fi.
The apartment features one bedroom, flat-screen TV with cable channels, well-equipped kitchen with microwave and fridge, washing machine, bathroom with a bath and separate toilet. Free parking at rear.
Popular points of interest near the apartment include Gediminas’ Tower, House of Signatories in Vilnius and Amber Museum-Gallery in Vilnius. The nearest airport is Vilnius Airport, 6 km from Town Hall Square Apartment.
Best Coffee and Dining Experience in Vilnius
Looking for a great Vilnius restaurant that is filled with locals who are in the know? Well, a local resident I met in Fairytale coffee recommended I dine at Bistro 18 who have a very simple approach to food. The food is very simply and made daily from the best and freshest ingredients available.
Address: Stikliu g. 18, Vilnius
Car Hire Tips
When you hire a car, the basic price you pay upfront more than often does not include everything. Booking car hire online doesn’t mean that’s all you will be charged on your credit card. There might be additional fees to pay when you pick up your rental car or when you drop it off.
These useful tips will help you to avoid the pitfalls hidden in the car rental agreement that can be hard to spot in the small print.
What is a One-Way Fee?
Having hired a car from Riga International airport to visit Latvia and Lithuania, I decided to make my way to Tallinn from Riga rather than pay the one-way fee.
So, what is a one-way fee? You pay a one-way fee if you pick up a hire car in one place and drop it off in a different location. This extra fee is charged to cover the cost of taking the hire car back to its original location. There can also be a one-way fee applied when you hire a car between countries, cities and towns; between airports and downtown locations.
Cross Border Fee
Even crossing a National border can incur an additional fee. Like I found out! Going from Latvia to Lithuania incurred an extra 36€ fee although the car was returned to its original location.
Other extra charges can include baby and toddler seats, GPS, roof and ski roof racks. It is essential you prebook these items as most car rental companies have limited supplies.
Car Wash and Fuel Up
Full to full is the most common fuel policy in the car rental industry however that was not the case in Latvia. The tank was half-full, and I was instructed to return the car with the same amount of fuel, or an extra fee would be incurred.
Whilst I have never seen a set rule that a hire car must be washed before it is returned, it is reasonable to expect that a car should be returned in a similar state as it was collected.
It was obvious that Latvia was more diligent than other countries as the valet went over the car with a fine-tooth comb and gave strict instructions to return the car clean and in the same condition as pick up. Should the rental company deem the car to be excessively dirty or soiled you are likely to be charged.
Why you should take photos and a video before you drive off in a rental car?
One thing I learnt early on about car hire was the importance of taking photos and videoing the rental car before and after hire. We all know how expensive it is to fix a tiny scratch or small dent and the additional expense of insurance excess. If you notice any car damage that is not already noted by the company, it is important that you bring this to their attention immediately to make sure the paperwork both parties hold is modified.
Take the time to thoroughly look over the car including tyres, aerial, mirrors and especially the undercarriage panels. Use your torch built into your mobile to go over the car in the dark. This is especially important when there is no valet or in self-pick up locations. Make sure your photos includes the car number plate, location markers such as signage, bay numbers or posts. Report any damage before you drive off and avoid an extra charge on the credit card when you get home.
Travel Planning Resources
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RentalCars.com is where you will find the right car in the right place at the right price. It’s the best car rental site for comparing prices and offers.
My go-to-online accommodation search engine is Booking.com. With over 830,000 hotels, apartments, villas, resorts, guest houses and B&Bs, you will be spoilt for choice. They offer great rates, *free cancellation, no reservation fees and best prices are guaranteed. Through the booking site you have access to customer reviews, special offers and great deals. Plus, each accommodation is shown by location and photos, so you know exactly what to expect.
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