Checklist: Vilnius, Lithuania

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With an autonomous republic pushing the boundaries of culture, a statue of Frank Zappa and a network of winding streets, a walk through Vilnius presents colorful evidence of Lithuania’s uniqueness. After suffering through World War II and ensuing Soviet control, Lithuania’s unique character is beginning to shine through the grit and grime thanks to its quirky capital Vilnius. And one thing has become increasingly clear: Poland’s Northern neighbor knows how to get weird.

The city has spent the last 25 years celebrating freedom of expression and creativity in Lithuania, and the fabric of the city reflects this change from a downtrodden and heavy past.

Here are some things to make sure to do when visiting Lithuania’s capital city.

1. Drink Lithuanian beer

Šnekutis is a microbrew paradise in the old district that has collected an impressive list of microbrews from across Lithuania. Constructed out of wooden walls adorned with rusted instruments, old Lithuanian beer posters and dusty lanterns, this bar adopts the straightforward attitude of a homey dive. Try any one of the Lithuanian beers available, especially the Jovaru Su Naturaliu Mediumi, a pale ale with a touch of honeyed sweetness. Šnekutis also serves some standard Lithuanian bar snacks, like pig ears or crispy peas, and Lithuanian dishes like cepeliani, made from potatoes and stuffed with minced meat and covered with a sour cream sauce and bacon bits.

2. Visit Old Town

Old Town Vilnius, a UNESCO world heritage site, has an ancient Eastern romance to its winding, hilly streets. It contains several protected landmarks essential to the fabric of the city. The Church of St. Anne, a red brick emblem of the flamboyant gothic, gave the old city serious weight when it came to UNESCO’s consideration. Next, the Gates of Dawn, the only remaining city gate of Vilnius, is the site of pilgrimages to Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, an icon of the Virgin Mary said to have religious powers. Finally, find Literatu Street near the university, an art installment dedicated to the great literary tradition of Lithuania’s past.

3. Enjoy art

Vilnius’ abundance of art continues to make it a top travel destination for the art fiend. Atop a hill beside the Neris River, the National Gallery of Art has crafted a concise and colorful collection of Lithuanian art, which you can enjoy for two euros. Look for the Contemporary Art Center, the biggest of its kind in the Baltics, near the infamous Gates of Dawn in the old city center. The Center hosts national and international artists, curating a tasteful collection to stir Lithuania’s cultural landscape and charges about two euros for admission as well.

4. Remember the rich Vilnius Jewish heritage

5. Get your passport stamped in the Republic of Užupis

Vilnius was once a center of Jewish scholarship and culture; around 40 percent of the overall population identified as Jewish until the Second World War. After the war, 95 percent of the Jewish population disappeared. The local Jewish community now consists of only about 3,000 people. As the city considers reconstructing Jewish edifices destroyed by the Germans and the Soviets, visitors can at least tour the Jewish ghettos, where they will see traces of the city’s former Jewish population. Vilnius honors the memories of those lost with the Holocaust Memorial and the Holocaust Exhibit. Visit the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum for a more comprehensive history of the former “Jerusalem of the North.”

Uzupis%2c Vilnius%2c Flickr%2c Lev Glick.jpg
Photo via Flickr/Lev Glick

Formerly filled with abandoned factory buildings, Užupis, declared its status as an autonomous republic April 1, 1997. Now every April Fools’ Day, visitors line up to get their passports stamped and celebrate the anniversary of this bohemian haven. Užupis (pictured above) is located in Vilnius’ Old Town next to the Vilnia River (Užupis translates to “place beyond the river”) and is known to be a creative quarter. It houses artist studios and niche workshops like the Užupis Blacksmith’s Workshop, where visitors can find original blacksmith art with Lithuanian motifs. Make sure to read Užupis’ constitution, look for the statue of the angel of Užupis and explore the small studios and street art decorating alleyways; gardens; and decaying buildings hidden in lopsided courtyards.

6. Adore Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa never once set foot in Lithuania, was not Lithuanian, and not a single one of his songs even mentions Lithuania. Yet Vilnius erected the first ever Zappa statue in the world in the late 1990s. It replaced a bust of Lenin, which they hastily dismantled after the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the republic. As Lithuania reshaped its identity, the same group of artists that began Užupis also created the Frank Zappa Fan Club and petitioned for the statue. This tested just how closely the new Vilnius government would adhere to the wants of the people. The ensuing campaign dramatically expanded the Zappa fan club, helped Vilnius to reconcile its autonomy, and perfectly illustrated the rebellious and playful Lithuanian spirit.

7. Eat s?reliai

Lithuanian cuisine is a mish-mosh of the foods from the countries that surround it, including Poland, Germany, Ukraine, Russia and the Baltics. This means that meat, potatoes, dairy and root vegetables are its building blocks. Lithuania channels the Baltics’ flair for decadent dairy snacks with their S?reliai, a small sweet cheesecake. S?reliai—made from the prolific Eastern European curd cheese known to North Americans by the German word “quark”—come in a variety of inventive flavors, encased in a chocolate glaze, or filled with a fruit jam. Find them in any supermarket in Vilnius, or stop by Senamies?io Krautuv? in Old Town for some S?reliai and homemade Lithuanian groceries, including honeys, jams and breads.

8. Climb the Hill of Three Crosses

About two and a half hours north of Vilnius, a hill completely covered in crosses and crucifixes of all sizes—aptly named the Hill of Crosses— commemorates Lithuanian resistance to Russian control. If there isn’t enough time to trek up North, Vilnius has its own Hill of Three Crosses, a high point in the city topped with three stone crosses, right next to Old Town and the Vilnia River. The hill offers the perfect vantage point to look out over the red roofs of old city and reflect on the traits that produced the monument and so much more of the country’s cultural identity: a little Lithuanian rebellion, freedom and eccentric creativity.

Ashley Schneider is a Brooklyn-based writer, translator and traveler previously hailing from France and Russia.