With its medieval layout, baroque cityscape, and cobblestone streets, the heart of Lithuania’s capital city, Vilnius, charms in any season of the year. But add a dusting of snow to the castles, Gothic churches, and red-tile roofs, and the Vilnius Historic Center, or Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage site), becomes an utterly enchanting winter wonderland.
“I love seeing the frozen River Neris in the middle of the beautiful Old Town,” says Vilnius resident Inga Aukselyte. “Every time I cross one of the bridges I notice the glaciers [ice floe] quietly flowing through the town. It is especially romantic in the evening when all the city lights are on.”
Celebrate winter in Vilnius at seasonal events such as the free Christmas in the Capital (November 27 to January 6); performances of "The Nutcracker" at the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre; and a Three Kings Procession from the Gate of Dawn toward Cathedral Square (January 6). There’s also a Winter Safari on Snowmobile through nearby national park forest trails and across snow-covered fields and frozen lakes.
How to Get Around: Vilnius Airport is fewer than four miles south of the city. Take light rail from the airport to the Vilnius Railway Station, or bus 88 from the airport to Old Town. Walking is the best way to travel around Old Town and to nearby center city attractions.
Where to Stay: The 18-room Moon Garden Art Hotel is close to the Gate of Dawn, the only remaining gate from Old Town's original 16th-century city wall. Book a room through the hotel website for a free ride from the airport, and ask for help with your luggage—there’s no elevator. A larger Old Town option is the 118-room Artis Hotel. The popular conference hotel is located near the Presidential Palace. Rates include a buffet breakfast.
What to Eat or Drink: The menu at Old Town’s Ertlio Namas celebrates the traditions of early Lithuania. Dishes such as sturgeon with mustard sauce and veal with steamed root vegetables are based on recipes from the 17th to 19th century. Reservations recommended.
What to Buy: Locals keep their hands warm by wearing thick wool mittens knit in snowflake and geometric patterns. Buy a pair (and wool sweaters, hats, and scarves) at Wool House, a family-owned traditional woolen-wear enterprise originally founded in 1936 and revived in 1988.
What to Read Before You Go: Ellen Cassedy’s award-winning memoir We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust details her efforts to learn Yiddish as a way to discover her family’s Jewish Lithuanian roots and, in turn, explore Lithuania’s brutal history under Stalin’s Soviet regime and during Nazi occupation.
Fun Fact: The name of Vilnius’s main street reflects Lithuania’s tumultuous modern history. Built in 1836 as Georgij Avenue, the street was renamed Mickiewicz by the Polish, and first Stalin and then Lenin Avenue by the Soviets. The current name, Gediminas Avenue, was briefly used in 1939 and 1940 (between the Nazi and Soviet occupations) and was reinstated in 1989. The name honors Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania (circa 1275 to 1341).
Staff Tip: During my Baltic tour, the quirky Užupis area of Vilnius stood out the most. This self-proclaimed republic of artists possesses its own anthem and has its constitution displayed on a fence, as well as a bronze angel keeping watch at the entrance to the neighborhood. Cross the river to find alternative shops, arts performances, and fashion festivals in this charming, unique district. —Christine Blau, @Chris_Blau, associate producer, National Geographic Travel