Traditional Lithuanian food is not particularly thrilling to look at, but it reminds me of my youth. Žemaičių Asotis in uptown Vilnius is the place I usually go to when I want to eat some cepelinas (potato dumplings stuffed with minced pork) or vedarai (potato sausage stuffed into the large intestine of a pig). This is Lithuanian comfort food. All the dishes served here are what you would find outside the city. It’s basically our version of a traditional British pub, where local people gather and eat.
The hill of Gediminas and its tower, once part of a castle, defines the city, and is probably the most significant landmark in Vilnius. Everybody here knows the legend about the iron wolf and the founding of Vilnius. It’s said that Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania in the early 14th century, was sleeping near the hill after a successful day’s hunting in the Šventaragis Valley and dreamed about an iron wolf, howling at the top of it. When he awoke, he was told by a priest that this meant he should build a castle on the hill and that it would be a castle that could not be conquered, and the site of a great capital. Lithuanians all learn this story at kindergarten.
There is a renaissance happening in the uptown area of Naujamiestis, around the central railway station. Naujamiestis borders the old town, but it’s not really a tourist destination yet. The area once had a very bad reputation. During Soviet times it was where the unwary would get robbed. It was a very undeveloped place; for example, there were no toilets in the apartments. But thankfully the area has now gained a much better reputation.
The Hales Market, next to central station, has an abundance of local food producers, as well as some bars. There’s also a whole new area that has been built within Naujamiestis called Paupys, which includes the Paupio Turgus food hall. Before Paupys was built, this area housed a factory and some favelas. Now there are a lot of new houses and apartments and the area has really turned itself around.
The Bernardine Garden is a particularly beautiful area that is quite new for us. It is named after the monks from the Bernardine Monastery, who established the gardens in the 15th century, when they built the monastery near Gediminas Hill. The garden was restored in 2013 and it’s really gorgeous. They made a great job of it. The small Vilnelė River flows around it and there are benches for picnics. Everything has been designed for people to relax.
It’s also an excellent place to walk in. Visitors can go up the hill and visit the Three Crosses monument – another symbol of the city – or walk through the gardens and up the hillside to Gediminas Tower.
The best spot is at the crossroads of two streets in the old town, Vilniaus and Islandijos. In just 500 metres, you have all the nightlife of Vilnius – new bars, old bars and discotheques. This is the place where everybody goes to party. Over the past two years there have been barely any tourists in Vilnius but this place was still always full, and used mainly by locals. At weekends it gets lively from mid-afternoon and the partying goes on until around 3am.
We don’t have a lot of small hotels in Vilnius, but one that I like is Artagonist (doubles from around £90 room-only). It’s an art hotel inside an art deco building, with comfortable rooms and beautiful interiors, but not too expensive. And it’s in the perfect location for exploring the very centre of the old town. If you turn right after stepping out of the hotel door, in three minutes you will be looking at the Gediminas Tower.
Liutauras Čeprackas is executive chef of the Vilnius restaurants Gastronomika and Meat Steakhouse