# 10 Surprising Facts About Vilnius

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, may not be the first city that comes to mind when thinking of European destinations, but it is a city rich in history and culture with plenty of surprises. Below are ten facts about Vilnius that might pique your interest and tempt you to book a visit to this intriguing city.

1. A City Founded on a Dream

Legend has it that the Grand Duke Gediminas founded Vilnius in the 14th century after a prophetic dream. He dreamt of an iron wolf howling on a hilltop, which a local priest interpreted as a sign to build a city that would become the capital of the Lithuanian lands and known far and wide. To this day, the iron wolf is an important symbol of Vilnius and a testament to the mysticism that envelops Lithuania’s historical narratives. The dream’s significance is so profound that sculptures and references to the iron wolf can be found all over the city, each narrating the legendary beginnings of this Baltic capital.

Vilnius was officially founded in 1323 when Gediminas issued a letter inviting merchants, craftsmen, and monks from across Europe to come and live in the city. This declaration also signaled the international recognition of Vilnius as a centre of trade and culture. As a result, Vilnius became a melting pot of various cultures and religions, which is still evident in the cityscape today, with churches, synagogues, and other historic buildings.

2. The Geographic Centre of Europe

According to the French National Geographic Institute, the geographical centre of Europe is located just outside of Vilnius. A monument and a small museum mark this point, providing a quirky yet educational stop for visitors. The calculation is based on the geographic centre-point of all the points on the continent’s extremities, placing it 26 kilometres north of the city centre.

Though the designation of the European centre has seen several claimants due to different methodologies used for calculations, Lithuania takes pride in the recognition. The spot has become something of a pilgrimage site for those fascinated by geography and travelers aiming to stand in the heart of the continent. It’s a representation of the Lithuanian connection to the broader European context and highlights Vilnius’s significance on the continental map.

3. A UNESCO World Heritage Old Town

Vilnius boasts one of the largest old towns in Eastern Europe, filled with an intricate web of medieval streets and a wealth of architecture ranging from Gothic to Renaissance to Baroque. The old town of Vilnius was inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1994, recognized for its unique urban fabric and its role as a symbol of Eastern European history.

The old town is not just a static relic of the past; it is a living and breathing area where contemporary businesses, art galleries, and cafes are nestled among historic structures. Walking through the cobblestone streets, one can enjoy the beautiful settings of the Pilies Street, the grandeur of the cathedral square, and observe the magical blend of architectural styles, that are remnants of the complex history that Vilnius has seen over the centuries.

4. The Republic of Užupis

Nestled within the heart of Vilnius is the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Užupis. This bohemian and artistic neighborhood declared itself an independent republic on April Fool’s Day 1997. It even has its own president, constitution, flag, and currency, which changes annually. Užupis is akin to Montmartre in Paris or Christiania in Copenhagen and is a haven for creative souls, filled with galleries, workshops, and cafes, as well as some of the city’s most intriguing street art.

The constitution of Užupis, displayed on a wall in multilingual plaques, contains articles such as “Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation,” and “Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.” The playful and philosophical air of Užupis is a vivid example of Vilnius’s diverse cultural tapestry and its residents’ sense of humor. Wander through the streets of Užupis, and you might just feel like you’ve stepped into an alternate universe where art and whimsy reign supreme.

5. A City of Churches

Vilnius is sometimes called the “Rome of the East” due to its high density of Catholic churches. There are about 40 churches in the city center alone, showcasing a variety of architectural styles. St. Anne’s Church is perhaps the most famous, a breathtaking Gothic masterpiece that, according to legend, Napoleon wanted to take back to Paris in the palm of his hand because he was so charmed by its beauty.

The churches are not just historical landmarks; they are active places of worship and community gathering spots that reflect the fervent Catholicism of Lithuania. The awe-inspiring interiors are often packed during services, with congregants immersed in the rich traditions and rituals that are heavily intertwined with Lithuanian identity and culture.

6. The Vilnius TV Tower and Its Role in History

The Vilnius TV Tower is the tallest building in Lithuania, standing at 326.5 meters (1071 feet). It is a symbol of the country’s Soviet past and the struggles for independence. On January 13, 1991, the tower was the site of a tragic event when Soviet forces tried to take over the tower, resulting in the death of 14 civilians. This event galvanized the nation and the world against Soviet aggression and is seen as a turning point in the Lithuanian fight for independence, which was achieved later that year.

Today, the TV tower hosts facilities for broadcasting as well as a revolving observation deck and restaurant with panoramic views of Vilnius. A visit to the tower provides not only spectacular vistas but also a deeper understanding of the recent history of Lithuania, as it houses an exhibition dedicated to the January events.

7. Vilnius’s Surprising Literary Connections

Vilnius was the literary stomping ground for major Jewish writers and intellectuals during the interwar period, earning the city the nickname “Jerusalem of the North.” It was a center of Jewish learning with numerous libraries, synagogues, and the famous Strashun Library. The city’s Yiddish Institute continues to uphold this legacy by promoting the study and preservation of the Yiddish language and culture.

Moreover, one of Lithuania’s most celebrated poets, Czesław Miłosz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, lived and worked in Vilnius. His impact on the city is commemorated in various ways, including a street named after him and memorials. The city has a vibrant literary scene today, with book festivals and events that celebrate Vilnius’s historic relationship with the written word.

8. The Cross Hill (Kryžių kalnas)

Vilnius is near one of Lithuania’s most dramatic and moving sights, the Hill of Crosses, a short journey away in northern Lithuania. This pilgrimage site features a small hill blanketed with thousands of crosses of all sizes. The tradition of placing crosses began during the November Uprising in 1830, and the site has taken on various political and spiritual significances over time, particularly as a symbol of Lithuanian resilience against oppression.

The sight of the hill, with its dense mosaic of crosses, is at once eerie and awe-inspiring, reflecting the depth of spirituality and perseverance in Lithuanian culture. Visitors from around the world contribute to the site, bringing crosses, rosaries, and sculptures to add to this poignant testament to human faith and freedom.

9. The Gates of Dawn

The Gates of Dawn, or Aušros Vartai, holds a special place in the hearts of the faithful in Vilnius and pilgrims from around the globe. It is the only remaining gate out of the original nine city gates, and it houses a chapel with a revered image of the Virgin Mary, believed to have miraculous powers. Countless miracles and healings are attributed to the painting, making the chapel one of the most important religious sites in the city.

The icon has a firm place in the city’s lore; it is a beacon of hope and an emblem of the collective spirituality that permeates Vilnius. Pilgrims and visitors alike flock to the Gates of Dawn both for spiritual solace and to admire the historical and architectural significance of the site.

10. A Taste of the Unique Lithuanian Cuisine

Vilnius is a great place to dive into Lithuanian cuisine, which is characterized by its hearty, comforting dishes. Visitors can indulge in Cepelinai, potato dumplings stuffed with meat, curd, or mushrooms, alongside a sour cream sauce. There is also the cold beetroot soup, Šaltibarščiai, a refreshing dish especially popular during the summer months.

Though rooted in its peasant traditions, the culinary scene in Vilnius has evolved to include modern interpretations of classic dishes. The city boasts a vibrant gastronomic culture, with a growing number of fine dining establishments and food festivals celebrating both traditional and innovative fare. No visit to Vilnius is complete without a culinary exploration that tantalizes the taste buds with the flavors native to this region.

In conclusion, Vilnius is a city steeped in history, culture, and a rich tapestry of experiences that might not be as well-known as other European capitals but is equally captivating. If you’re feeling inspired to see these wonders for yourself, remember that you can enhance your visit by staying responsibly. To book an eco-friendly hotel in Vilnius and contribute to sustainable tourism, visit ETIC Hotels for options that combine comfort with sustainability. Whether you’re marveling at the old town’s architecture, standing in the geographical center of Europe, or finding serenity at the Gates of Dawn, a stay through ETIC Hotels ensures your adventure in Vilnius supports the values of preserving our beautiful world.