Welcome to Vilnius, Lithuania; Population: 539,939, Time Zone: 7 hours ahead of New York, Weather: ~20 Celsius in September with an expected 75+ mm of rainfall. Fun Fact: Lithuania was the first country to leave the Soviet Union (Source).
I’m generally a hyper-organized person, but the thought of traveling to a foreign country, trying to navigate in a language I don’t know and doing it all on my own was daunting. So my travel itinerary read something like:
See a cathedral, try a Lithuanian meal, find a museum, YOLO.
However, I soon realized the incredible advantages of “winging it,” since from the moment I landed in Lithuania, I said “yes” to every opportunity to experience something new. And without reservation, as there was no plan that I would be missing, it was liberating to let go of any expectations.
That being said, I soon realized that there are, indeed, a few big tourist attractions in the city, and, after landing and checking in at the AirBnB apartment where I was staying, I set out to explore.
Busses have always been the most particularly daunting form of transportation to me. To have to request a stop at a station you’re not familiar with in a language you don’t understand on a route you’re not clear on, all just felt impossible, but somehow I figured it out (maybe out of necessity). The apartment where I was staying was relatively central, just a twenty minute walk to the main road in the old city, which was not difficult to find, due to its impressively large open-air market.
Something about this city felt like Stars Hollow had come to life. It was a gorgeous fall day and I was really enjoying the walk through the market towards, what my map told me, was a cluster of cathedrals. Street vendors sold leather, beeswax, wool, handmade knit goods, bakery items, and hot food. There were these especially odd looking mushroom-shaped cookies, sold on every corner.
Wool was extremely cheap, only ten euro for a kilogram (I don’t know how many dollars for a pound that is, let’s just say less than I’d pay in the States).
I finally made it to the end of the road and was astounded by the view.
Entry to the cathedral was free, so I took a look around. The cathedral first opened in the late 1700s. It felt incredible to be surrounded by so much history.
I had yet to spot the Gediminas Tower, one of the main attractions, according to the “3 Days in Vilnius Tourist Map” I got at the information desk in the airport, as well as a kind friend’s travel recommendation (shout out to Katie S). Walking through “Cathedral Square,” I saw a long cobblestone trail leading up to the tower. This photo was taken from halfway up the hill:
The entry fee to climb to the top of the tower was two euro, and the panoramic view of the city was easily worth it.
You could see for miles!
After taking in the expansive view at the top, I was about ready for dinner, so I set out to find a restaurant. I was lucky enough to pass a bustling street. It looked so European: cobblestone streets and cafes, that I decided to walk further, when a man stopped me, speaking in Lithuanian.
“Do you want a photo?” He motioned to a seriously old-school camera. I was intrigued.
“Pay what you want to pay.”
“Can you take a photo of me taking a photo of you?’
The man proceeded to take the photo over to his table, where he immersed it in liquid to begin the process of development. As he did so, a crowd of people began to cluster around to watch the process. It was incredible to see the image of the negative dissolve and reappear in black and white.
Distracted by the photo process, we were startled when a huge and wacky parade approached. It was seriously something out of Alice and Wonderland:
I wondered if this was a typical occurrence and followed the parade down the street and into a restaurant, where I ordered a traditional Lithuanian dish. This meal was essentially potato gnocchi with cottage cheese covered in sour cream. Weird, I know.
I’d say that the strangest part about being here was that I seriously look Lithuanian, and yet felt so foreign. Simple customs were unexpectedly different, i.e. the light switches are always located outside of the bathroom, and when paying with cash in a store, money never exchanges hands, and instead, is placed in a tray on the countertop.
By this time, it was getting dark. I had made one plan for the day, when arranging this trip, which was to attend the Couchsurfing weekly meeting. It seemed like a great way to meet some locals, and travelers around my age. And, in fact, I met some awesome friends that night! (Though I got helplessly lost on my way to the bar, “7 Fridays” where we met).
I spoke with some Lithuanians about how hard it was to pronounce the street names, and about how most locals speak Russian as well as Lithuanian. While I had made a guide of “Key Phrases” to learn for when I arrived, I hardly used “hello, how are you” because the answer would always be indecipherable, not to mention that to greet someone in the language suggests that you’re going to carry out some sort of followup.
On the plane home I made a list of terms I wish I had learned, including “I’m sorry for bumping into you/excuse me,” “how much does this cost,” “thank you,” “do you speak English,” and “how do I get to…” as well as a note-to-self to learn the alphabet and how to count in whatever language of the country I’m visiting. Just for the record:
Learn Lithuanian: Atsiprašau! – Excuse me
(click link to hear pronunciation; the IPA is beyond me)
Ok! Another Lithuanian surprise was the prevalence of basketball. “It’s our second religion!” Said one of my new Couchsurfing friends. Lithuania was playing Serbia tonight and the bar was packed. We’d hear cheers every time the team score a point, and, ultimately when we won the game. Wooooh!
What they don’t tell you about basketball culture is that once the team wins, the streets fill with cars and people shouting, honking, waving flags. It made for a very confusing trip home, where (surprise) I got lost again. It was stressful to have to ask people where to go, especially because most of the people I met over 30 didn’t speak English.
Travel Tip: Circle your destination on a printed map. Also, write down your address somewhere easily accessible to use as a reference in asking for directions. This will be vital when your phone dies, which it will.
I arrived back at the apartment at around 2am feeling sufficiently out of my comfort zone, when the key didn’t turn in the lock. I was locked out. This nightmare/retrospectively-good-story helped me meet a new friend, anyway: the taxi driver who drove me to the hotel I wound up paying for, who had spent ten years in Madrid, and spoke to me in Spanish.
Exhausted, the next morning I resigned to take it easy, and when I made it back to the apartment, this time the door was unlocked and I was able to retrieve my things. I found this awesome cafe on Gediminas Avenue, where I wrote post cards for the family.
On my way out, I spotted a photo gallery, Prospekto Galorija, where I stopped in to check out some very cool pics. Wandering (read: searching for another cafe to sit in) I spotted a sign for Saint Anne’s Cathedral. On another detour, I popped into Vilnius’ Amber Museum and Gallery.
But on my way back to Gediminas, I was a sign for the Bernadinai Garden, another landmark on my map. Naturally I had to check it out.
There were a surprising number of weddings taking place in the Garden that day. While I was expecting a botanical garden from the name, it was, in actuality, more like Central Park.
Walking back, I noticed that I was close to Vilnius University and decided to check it out as well.
On my way home, the sun was setting as I passed through the market once more. Two Ukrainian men were selling hand-painted Easter eggs. They let me take their picture:
Approaching the apartment, there was some rad street art.
I had survived a weekend on my own, and have come to the conclusion that solo traveling is well-worth the experience. While at times I was utterly terrified, it was so validating to recognize that I was independent enough to get along on my own and resourceful enough to get myself out of some tricky situations.
My playlist for this trip: