Everyday life and the lanscape of Vilnius

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1. Route 11

Like many cities, Vilnius has a special route you can take to see many of the city’s attractions. The writer Jurgis Kunčinas wrote about this route in his work. Living in a wooden house at Žvėrynas, he knew perfectly well that if you take a bus at the Žvėrynas bus terminal near the press kiosk, wriggle through traffic lights and rivers, pass by the Church of St. Anne and Bernardine Complex, you can reach Užupis. These two districts were once the edges of the city. Today, they are in the heart of the city. But both remain unique because Užupis is an independent republic, and Žvėrynas…a colourful empire. You can find everything in Žvėrynas: a church, an Orthodox church, a kenesa, Panama and a bunch of embassies. But this ‘empire’ is a safe and quiet shelter. That was how Kunčinas felt about the district.

2. Palace of the Noble Families

The Radvila noble family that played an important in the history of Lithuania had ornate residences in Vilnius. Among them was the 16th-century palace with an Italian-style garden built on the Neris riverbank. Sadly, it did not survive. Barbora Radvilaitė lived there, and Sigismund II Augustus visited it. The 17th-century Jonušas Radvila Palace on Vilnius Street was probably the most beautiful in the city. At the turn of the 17th century, Chodkevičiai built a fortified residence with towers where Didžioji Street currently is. It was later rebuilt to its former glory. At the end of the 17th century, the impressive Baroque-style palace of Kazimieras Sapiega was erected in Antakalnis. The palaces of Pacai, Brzostowski, Sluškos, Umiastowski, Tiškevičius, Oginskis, Kossakowski, Zavišis, Tyzenhaus and other dynasties were also built in Vilnius. An impressive Residence of Bishops in Verkiai survived through the ages. At the beginning of the 20th century, Petras Vileišis, the famous public and cultural figure, built an ornate palace in Antakalnis.

3. The first train and the industrial revolution

In 1860, residents of Vilnius saw a train for the first time. That train connected St. Petersburg, Vilnius and Warsaw a few years later. The trains opened the city up to the distant world and symbolised the beginning of industrial change. At the turn of the 20th century, class differences rapidly disappeared in Vilnius, larger industrial enterprises emerged, and new residential quarters for workers and civil servants were formed. The city included Antakalnis, Šnipiškės, Naujamiestis, Naujininkai and Žvėrynas within its borders. Other attributes of a modern city appeared – paved streets and lighting, sidewalks, public spaces, gas and electricity, water supply and sewerage. It is important to note that Vilnius did not fall victim to industrial change. There were no major explosions of social exclusion in the city – it remained green and perhaps a bit romantically untidy.

4. The legendary cafes of Vilnius

The history of Vilnius’ cafes and bars best marks the changing face of the city. The prototypes of restaurants were born in the suburbs of Vilnius in the 16th century, but taverns and inns were still more popular. Residents and guests of 18th-century Vilnius rushed to the tavern in Pohulianka. In the 19th century, a Tyrolean garden with a restaurant in Antakalnis became the new centre of attraction. The cafes and restaurants of the 20th century in Vilnius already met the more whimsical needs of the residents: the three cafes belonging to the merchant Štralis – White, Red, and Green – attracted a different audience. Birutė, the first Lithuanian café with a view of the Cathedral, opened its door in 1920. It was renamed Pas Rudnickį just a year later. Writers and journalists in Vilnius gathered there during the interwar period. During the Soviet era, the cafe was renamed Literatu Svetainė, but the true intellectuals gathered at the Neringa cafe. The Soviet bohemian audience of Vilnius was attracted to Suokalbis, which was connected to the Writers’ Union, Vaiva on Pilies Street, and Pasaka and Rotonda in Sereikiškės Park. After Lithuania regained its independence, a new generation of cafes emerged and their visitors started creating their own legends and rules in Vilnius. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Vilnius presented the world with a unique idea of ​​open-air café squares and streets, creating a new legend of Vilnius as one giant outdoor cafe.

5. Between the 5th and 16th floors, between the 1960s and the 1990s

A small and poorly planned apartment with paper-thin walls…but belonging to you. Treaded grass, running children and a grandmother’s garden – such a typical yard. A school, a shop, a kindergarten and a household service factory – it may be uncomfortable, even ugly, but this district is your home. As the population of Vilnius grew, the city expanded. And not just in width, but in height. New sixteen-story towers were erected in Vilnius, next to which lay five-story boxes. A new generation of people grew up in apartment blocks. Not everyone liked these architectural innovations. The writer Ričardas Gavelis was a critic of the faceless and lifeless new neighbourhoods; he saw the contrast between the old and the new cities. Others have tamed these districts, so maybe someday we will write about “the romance of the district.”

6. Barracks: From the city wall to the Northern Town

Vilnius was both a goal and an obstacle for various armies traveling from East to West or from West to East. Therefore, inhabitants made sure to be prepared to defend the city. Over the centuries, with the changing nature of warfare, former military objects became a part of the city and its inhabitants. Take a look: the defensive wall built in the 16th century is now surrounded by houses, the defensive bastion (Barbican) fell asleep, the Gates of Dawn became a place of worship and the Northern Town inhabited by Tsarist, Polish, and Soviet military units became a new space for work and life, symbolising the change of the city and the steps towards future.

7. Wooden Vilnius

In addition to its beautiful masonry, Vilnius has always been a city abundant with wooden architecture. Despite fires, modernisation and natural change, the Old Town and the New Town of Vilnius were surrounded by wooden suburbs at the turn of the 20th century. They consisted of fragments of old villages, stylish villas, mansions, small houses, slums and other buildings. Wooden architecture is still an integral part of the life and landscape of Vilnius. From Pavilnys to Žvėrynas and from Šnipiškės to Aukštieji Paneriai, you can find the exceptional heritage of the wooden Vilnius.
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