Vilnius Old Town Walking Tour, Vilnius

Vilnius Old Town Walking Tour (Self Guided), Vilnius

The historic and present-day capital of Lithuania, Vilnius is known for the architecture in its Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994.

The name of the city originates from the River Vilnia (which is the Lithuanian for “ripple”). According to legend, Grand Duke Gediminas (c. 1275–1341), having hunted near the confluence of the Vilnia and Neris rivers, saw a dream in which a huge Iron Wolf, standing on top a hill, howled as strong and loud as a hundred wolves. The pagan priest interpreted the Wolf as a castle to be set upon this site to become the capital of the Lithuanian lands. Thus, Gediminas, obeying the will of the gods, established the city and named it after the river.

Vilna first appeared in written documents in 1323. As the capital of the flourishing Grand Duchy of Lithuania (from the 13th century to 1795), it commanded over the territory of modern-day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Transnistria, and portions of modern-day Poland and Russia. In the 16th century the city enjoyed rapid development, with the ensued inflow of migrants akin to Babylon. In 1795 the city was annexed by the Russian Empire, and in 1922 fell to Poland. It wasn't until 1990 that Vilnius finally became capital of the independent Republic of Lithuania.

The Old Town of Vilnius, Senamiestis, is one of the largest surviving medieval towns in Northern Europe. Here, some of the continent's greatest architectural styles—Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical—stand side by side and complement each other.

Pilies Street is the Old Town's main artery. Abuzz with life, it leads to a number of churches, including St. Anne's and St. Francis of Assisi's (Bernardine), and extends from Cathedral Square to the Town Hall Square. The latter houses the Vilnius Town Hall, a Classic-style edifice built in 1799.

Another key lane, Gediminas Avenue, is also partially located in the Old Town. Dominating the medieval part of the city is the Castle Hill, topped by the Gediminas Tower, which is now a historical museum.

At the foot of the hill, Cathedral Square is home to the Vilnius Cathedral with the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania (aka the Palace of the Rulers) located nearby. In 2013, two of the Palace's four buildings were opened to the public.

Not far from here, S. Daukanto Square is overlooked by the Presidential Palace and Vilnius University. The latter, established in 1570, occupies nearly a quarter of the Old Town and is one of the most elaborate architectural complexes within the country.

To find your way around the Vilnius Old Town and acquaint yourself more closely with its most notable sights, take this self-guided introductory walk.
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Vilnius Old Town Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Vilnius Old Town Walking Tour
Guide Location: Lithuania » Vilnius (See other walking tours in Vilnius)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 11
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.5 Km or 2.8 Miles
Author: emily
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Town Hall and Town Hall Square
  • Pilies Street (Castle Street)
  • Vilnius University
  • Presidential Palace
  • St. Anne's Church
  • Bernardine Church
  • Gediminas Tower
  • Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania
  • Vilnius Cathedral
  • Gediminas Avenue
  • KGB Museum
1
Town Hall and Town Hall Square

1) Town Hall and Town Hall Square

Vilnius has had a town hall since 1432. The original building was Gothic but has been rebuilt several times over the centuries. The previous town hall had a tower that the well known Lithuanian architect Laurynas Gucevičius tried to save. However, the tower collapsed, and the city decided to build a new town hall.

Laurynas Gucevičius studied architectural design in France. His works include the Vilnius Cathedral, the town hall and the summer palace of bishops in Verkiai. The current town hall dates to 1799. It has been a central part of city life for centuries. The building has been used as a theatre and hosted Vilnuis' first opera performance. Furthermore, it hosted the merchant's society, shops, the treasury, and a prison.

Today, Town Hall is used for events and concerts, and visitors can tour Town Hall's catacombs.

Town Hall Square hosts various events, including fairs and concerts. In the past, this was the site of citizen punishment, bear performances, and markets.

The square is large and open, and is beautifully lit at night. Residents and visitors often gather around the large fountain in the square’s center. The square is decorated for the winter holidays with a large Christmas tree. In addition, Town Hall Square has several examples of the Vilnius coat of arms, which features St. Christopher.
2
Pilies Street (Castle Street)

2) Pilies Street (Castle Street)

Castle Street is one of the main streets in the Old Town of Vilnius. It is a rather short street, running from Cathedral Square to the Town Hall Square.

Out of several locations across Vilnius used by market traders to sell the wares made by folk artists, Castle Street is the most popular. It has a natural advantage over the Town Hall Square as the street is generally busy and less likely to be interrupted by the political or cultural events commonly held at the Town Hall. Many local people visit the street to buy Christmas gifts or before going abroad to visit friends. The market is also popular with souvenir hunters. Souvenir shops offer amber ware and amber jewelry as well as linen clothes. The street is also known for the annual folk arts and crafts fair called St. Casimir Fair in March, when folk artists from all four corners of Lithuania gather here to display and sell their latest merchandise.

Festivals in Vilnius frequently take place on Castle Street – most processions will make their way through here at some point. This is true whatever the festival – be it Christmas, Easter, the day of Restoration of Independence, or just a spontaneous celebration following a major win for the Lithuanian basketball team. The main buildings of Vilnius University are located between Castle Street and University Street. The House of the Signatories where the Declaration of Independence was signed on February 16, 1918 is also located on this street.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
3
Vilnius University

3) Vilnius University

Vilnius University is the Baltic's oldest university. Founded in 1579, it is also one of Northern Europe's oldest and most popular universities. It was founded by the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, Stephen Bathory. The university was originally the Jesuit Academy of Vilnius.

University operations were suspended between 1830 and 1919 due to the Polish-Russian War 1830-1831. The university faced more disruptions during World War I and II. When Lithuania regained independence in 1990, the university was again one of Lithuania's most prestigious universities.

Vilnius University features Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical architecture. Because Vilnius has been ruled and influenced by different cultures and countries, the city part of the name has changed several times. It has been known as Vilna, Wilna, and Wilno.

Vilnius University has an impressive array of 13 courtyards with arcades and galleries. The Grand Courtyard, the pantheon of the University, has a gallery commemorating the university’s founders, patrons and eminent scientists. In fact, every courtyard has its own secrets that worth exploring.

The campus has an impressive library with over five million books. The library stores the first book printed in the Lithuanian language. The priceless book dates to 1547. The library's interior is stunning and features several beautiful halls.

Vilnius University is also home to St. John's Church. This beautiful church was rebuilt in 1749 in the Baroque style. Visitors can climb 193 wooden stairs or take the elevator to the top for a fabulous view of the city.
4
Presidential Palace

4) Presidential Palace

The Presidential Palace has a long history. It was originally built in the 14th century and has been enlarged and renovated throughout the centuries.

During the 16th century, it was a residence for Vilnius bishops. The palace was damaged by fires in 1737 and 1748 and rebuilt by architect Laurynas Gucevičius in 1750.

When Lithuania was annexed to the Russian Empire in the 18th century, the palace became the residence of the Governor-General of Vilnius. The palace hosted many historical politicians such as Russian Tsar Alexander I, Emperor Napolean Bonaparte, and French King Louis XVIII.

The palace was reconstructed from 1824-1834 in Empire style. St. Petersburg architect Vasily Stasov supervised the reconstruction, which survives today.

The building was renovated in 1997. Today, the building is the President of Lithuania's official office. When the President is present, the Presidential flag is displayed.

Visitors can watch the ceremonial changing of the guard in front of the palace every day at 6:00 PM. At 12:00 PM on Sundays, visitors can see the flag-hoisting ceremony.
5
St. Anne's Church

5) St. Anne's Church (must see)

St. Anne's Church is a Roman Catholic church in Vilnius' Old Town, on the right bank of the Vilnia River. It is a prominent example of both Flamboyant Gothic and Brick Gothic styles. St. Anne's is among the historical landmarks of Vilnius Old Town that enabled the district to be included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The first church at this site, constructed of wood, was built for Anna, Grand Duchess of Lithuania, the first wife of Vytautas the Great. Originally intended for the use of Catholic Germans and other visiting Catholics, it was destroyed by a fire in 1419. The present brick church was constructed on the initiative of the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Alexander I Jagiellon in 1495–1500. The exterior of the church has remained almost unchanged since then.

According to a legend, Emperor Napoleon, after seeing the church during the Franco-Russian War in 1812, expressed a wish to carry the church home with him to Paris 'in the palm of his hand".

The main facade, designed in the Flamboyant Gothic style, is its most striking feature of the church. Traditional Gothic elements and shapes were used in unique ways. Gothic arches are framed by rectangular elements dominating a symmetrical and proportionate facade, creating an impression of dynamism. The church has one nave and two towers. It was built using 33 different kinds of clay bricks and painted in red. The interior is decorated in the Baroque style, as is its altar. The imitative neo-Gothic bell tower, constructed in the 1870s, stands next to the church.

Operation hours: May - September: Tuesday - Sunday 10 am - 6 pm;
October - April: half an hour before masses (they take place at 5.30 pm on weekdays and on Sundays and holidays at 9am and 11am in the Lithuanian language).
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
6
Bernardine Church

6) Bernardine Church

The Church of St. Francis and St. Bernard (also known as Bernardine Church) is a Roman Catholic church in the Old Town of Vilnius. It is located next to St. Anne's Church. Dedicated to Saints Francis of Assisi and Bernardino of Siena, it is an important example of Gothic architecture in Lithuania.

After their arrival in Vilnius, Bernardine monks built a wooden church in the second half of the 15th century, and at the end of the same century - a brick one. In the early 16th century it was reconstructed and the church was incorporated into the construction of Vilnius defensive wall.

Renaissance and Baroque features were added in the 17th and 18th centuries. The church is much larger than the nearby St. Anne's Church. According to the legend, the Bernardine monks used to tell such good sermons that crowds would come to listen. That is why the church is so large.

During the Soviet time, the church was closed down and used as an art institute. It re-opened as a church in 1994. The church features some mural paintings dating from the early 16th century and are considered unique in the world. The painting's composition and subject matter belong to Renaissance, while their stylistics belongs to the Gothic style.
7
Gediminas Tower

7) Gediminas Tower (must see)

Gediminas Tower is one of Vilnius's most visible and iconic landmarks. The tower was featured on the previous national currency and is mentioned in folk songs and poems.

Gediminas Tower was part of the Upper Castle, which was originally a wooden structure built in the 14th century. A popular legend says that Grand Duke Gediminas built the wooden castle due to a dream. Gediminas saw an iron wolf howling on top of the area's tallest hill in the dream. An interpreter said the dream meant a great city would be built on the hill. Gediminas built the tower, and the city became Vilnius.

In 1409, a brick castle replaced the wooden castle. Today, the Gediminas Tower is all that remains from the original castle. The tower has been used for many different purposes. In 1838, it became the city's first telegraph building. Polish architect Jan Borowski rebuilt the tower in 1933 and restored the upper floors.

Gediminas Tower is part of the National Museum of Lithuania. Visitors can see exhibitions about the city's history and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The museum features models of Vilnius castles from prior centuries and exhibits showing archeological findings from the area.

The museum displays military items and Baltic jewelry. An interactive exhibition shows a Crusaders attack. Another exhibit shows information about the Baltic Way, when two million people joined hands between Vilnius and Tallinn to protest against the Soviet Union.

Visitors can climb to the observation area to see panoramic views of Vilnius.
8
Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

8) Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

The Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania has a long history. It was originally built during the 13th century as a stone castle. It was reconstructed in the 15th century as a residence for the Polish royalty and rulers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

From the 15th to the 17th century, the palace was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania's political, administrative, diplomatic, and cultural center. During this time, the palace housed one of Europe's richest libraries and exquisite paintings, tapestries, and jewels.

During the 18th century, the palace fell into disrepair. The Russian Empire administration had the original palace torn down in 1801.

The current palace was built between 2002 and 2018. The rebuilt palace features Renaissance styling and matches the Vilnius Cathedral. The palace was used as a meeting site during Lithuania's presidency of the Council of the European Union. Heads of state such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, and British Prime Minister David Cameron met for an Eastern Partnership Summit held in the palace.

The palace houses a museum with models showing the palace's development throughout the centuries. In addition, the museum's exhibitions look at the palace resident's daily life, musical heritage, and the palace's armament history.
9
Vilnius Cathedral

9) Vilnius Cathedral (must see)

The Vilnius Cathedral is Lithuania's Catholic spiritual home. The cathedral was originally built in 1251 when King Mindaugas converted to Christianity. Before that, the site may have hosted a Baltic pagan worship site. Remains of this structure have been unearthed beneath the current cathedral. After King Mindaugas's death, the site reverted to a place for pagan worship.

In 1387, Lithuania officially converted to Christianity, and a new Gothic cathedral was commissioned. This cathedral burned down in 1419. Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas, also known as Vytautas the Great, built a new cathedral in 1429 to celebrate his planned coronation. The coronation never took place, but the walls and pillars of this iteration still survive.

The cathedral was renovated in 1522, and a bell tower was added. More chapels and crypts were added between 1534 and 1557.

The future King of Poland was crowned Grand Duke of Lithuania in the cathedral in 1529. The cathedral was rebuilt with two new towers in 1610. In 1636, the Baroque Saint Casimir chapel was added. In 1692, artist Michelangelo Palloni decorated the chapel with frescoes. Artist Pietro Perti added the stuccowork and the altar. The chapel also features Jagiellon king statues.

The cathedral's southern tower collapsed in 1769. Following the collapse, the entire cathedral was reconstructed in its current Neoclassical style. The facade and roof feature saintly sculptures. Today the cathedral tower hosts an exhibition recounting the history of the church and offers visitors a spectacular view of the old town.

In 1993, Pope John Paul II began his Lithuanian journey in the cathedral.
10
Gediminas Avenue

10) Gediminas Avenue

Gediminas Avenue is the main street in Vilnius and was named to honor the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Gediminas. Gediminas was Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1315 until his death in 1341. He is credited with founding the political entity of the country and expanding its territory which later spanned the area ranging from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

The street was built in 1836 and was first called St. George Avenue. The street was named Mickiewicz Street during Polish rule from 1922 to 1939. During the Nazi occupation, it was called Adolf Hitler Street, and during Soviet rule, it was known as Stalin Avenue and then Lenin Avenue.

The area from Vilnius Cathedral to Vincas Kudirka Square was reconstructed in 2003 to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the coronation of King Mindaugas, the only recorded King of Lithuania. In the parking garage, visitors can see archeological findings discovered during the reconstruction.

Most of Lithuania's governmental institutions, including parliament and the Constitutional Court, are located along Gediminas Avenue. The street is also home to several cultural institutions, such as the Lithuanian Academy of Music, the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre, and the Martynas Mazvdas National Library.

Motorized traffic is prohibited in the evening and on weekends, and Gediminas Avenue becomes pedestrian-only. The street is a popular shopping street and features a variety of restaurants. Gediminas Avenue is busy and vibrant night and day.
11
KGB Museum

11) KGB Museum (must see)

The KGB Museum is also known as the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights. Before 2018, it was called the Museum of Genocide Victims. The KGB Museum is housed in the former KGB headquarters.

The Soviets governed the area from 1944 to 1991. During this time, the KGB used the building as offices, an interrogation center, and a prison. From 1944 to the 1960s, the KGB executed over 1,000 prisoners here. Most of the prisoners were accused of resisting Russian occupation.

The museum has exhibits that focus on Lithuania's resistance to occupation. The exhibits show books, documents, and photographs depicting non-violent resistance. The collection also displays items related to the Forest Brothers' armed resistance.

Visitors will find a display focusing on the victims of arrests, deportations, and executions. In 2020, the museum expanded its exhibition on the Holocaust in Lithuania. During the Holocaust, 95% of Lithuania's Jewish population was massacred.

Opening hours: Wednesday - Saturday: 10 am - 6 pm; Sunday: 10 am - 5 pm.

Walking Tours in Vilnius, Lithuania

Create Your Own Walk in Vilnius

Create Your Own Walk in Vilnius

Creating your own self-guided walk in Vilnius is easy and fun. Choose the city attractions that you want to see and a walk route map will be created just for you. You can even set your hotel as the start point of the walk.
Užupis District Walking Tour

Užupis District Walking Tour

A tiny isolated area and a former suburb, which now forms part of the Old Town of Vilnius, the Uzupis district is often compared, for its bohemian and laissez-faire atmosphere, to Montmartre of Paris and Freetown Christiania of Copenhagen. Similarly to the latter, in 1997, the district declared itself an independent republic; the tongue-in-cheek constitution of the self-proclaimed “republic”,...  view more

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.2 Km or 0.7 Miles
Historical Churches Tour

Historical Churches Tour

Vilnius is well-known as the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vilnius. Here you will discover a large number of gorgeous religious buildings designed in different architectural styles such as Gothic, Baroque, and several other designs. Take this self-guided tour to explore the most prominent historical churches in Vilnius.

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.4 Km or 0.9 Miles