Gluten free Vilnius, Lithuania
Living in the United Kingdom, traveling to Lithuania is not a thing people consider doing. The travel insurance girl asked me where Lithuania is (Europe) and the money exchange girl didn’t know what currency they used (the Euro). Even my friend JP who traveled with me admitted to never considering Lithuania before.
View from the Hill of Three Crosses (Photo by JP)
A quick history lesson
Lithuania is one of the Baltic states (along with Latvia and Estonia) and used to be a part of the Soviet Union. The Kingdom of Lithuania dates back to the 1230s, and during the 14th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest country in Europe. But, in Europe things change, and by the end of the 1700s Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire. They declared independence in 1918, but were occupied during World War II, first by the Soviet Union and then by Nazi Germany. After the war, the Soviet Union reoccupied Lithuania and held it until 1990, when Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare its independence. Lithuania is now a member of the European Union and Schengen area, and adopted the euro at the beginning of 2015. (Source: Wikipedia)
And back to travel
Thanks to the recent addition of a Wizz Air direct flight between Glasgow and Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, getting there was an easy three hours in the air. We arrived very late on a Wednesday night and I departed Sunday night (JP left Monday to go directly to London for the next leg of her trip.) Here’s what we did in gluten free Vilnius, Lithuania.
Vilnius Cathedral. If you look closely (click to see full-size) you can see the Hill of Three Crosses in the background, between the two lightposts (look for three white crosses.)
Getting settled and oriented
Since we’d arrived really late the night before, we spent our first night in the AirInn Vilnius, just next to the airport (you walk outside for two minutes to get there.) We enjoyed the buffet-style breakfast featuring salad vegetables, lunch meats and cheese, fried eggs, yogurt and fruit (and some other gluteny stuff).
A street in the old town.
We hung around until check out time as we were still pretty tired from our late night, then headed back across to the bus stop in front of the airport to move into the city for the next three nights. Our bus arrived just as we walked up (score!) so on we hopped, paid 1 euro for the ticket, and were off. We told the driver where we were going and she told us when to get off the bus for the Corner Hotel. It’s a bit outside of the old town and tourist destinations, but it’s walkable or there’s a bus that loops around the old town that stops just in front of the hotel. The neighborhood was quiet and there was a large supermarket just two blocks away.
The hotel itself was kind of a cross between a hotel and a dorm; our twin room was Ikea-furnished and plain, but comfortable and clean. We had a mini-fridge in the room. There seemed to be a lot of tours coming through, many of them with large groups of teenagers. It was not quiet; take earplugs if ruckus bothers you. JP discovered a laundry room and a small shared kitchen space down the hall. The staff were very helpful and all spoke English.
Bambalyne, Vilnius old town
After dropping off our bags, we set out walking with a map in hand. We headed into the old town, were the streets are lined with restaurants and shops. We stopped for lunch at Forest, which touted itself as featuring “Salad & Grill” and is part of a chain. We ended up eating there three times over the trip as it was inexpensive and offered a range of healthy choices like soup, salad and smoothies, as well as some grilled meats and Lithuanian specialties. I carried my Celiac Travel card in Lithuanian and used that every time we ate — I only had a couple of places tell me they couldn’t do much, which was better than I’d expected.
We spent the afternoon and evening exploring old town, stopping to eat or drink at our leisure. We had a drink at Bambalyne, a cool beer cellar that had been recommended to me by a friend from college. They do have a couple ciders which are gluten free, and I saw a corn lager but didn’t investigate it further.
We stumbled across Bistro 18 and had dinner there, and later found out it was in TripAdvisor’s top 10 restaurants in Vilnius. We had an after dinner glass of wine at Notre Vie, which we’d read had hammocks. Alas, no hammocks, but there were hooks in the ceiling that made it seem like they’d been there before. We did have a good glass of wine for 4 euros.
Getting lost and finding some epic street art
Orchestra flash mob! Note the drone overhead. Watch the video here.
We spent our second day walking around the city. We started with a walk north from the hotel and then along Gediminas Avenue, which is a main road filled with shops and cafes. We stumbled across an orchestra performance taking place in the middle of the street, which was really cool (I’ve now found the video, from the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra — watch it here.) From there, we took a long walk across the old town and down to the bus station (we planned to go to Trakai the next day, so we checked out the scene.) We were trying to make our way back up to the hotel but got some bad directions (we got a lot of bad directions this day) and stumbled across some incredible street art.
Street art on Pylimo, not far from the bus and train stations. It says “make everything great again.”
Friday night the rain arrived, so we stuck close to our hotel for dinner. After trying to go to Meksika, which touted their allergen-friendliness on their website (no good for gluten free!) we ended up at Fortas. It looked like a steakhouse mixed with a wine bar, played really repetitive electronic music, and served an inexpensive menu of pub food with some Mexican specials. It was a very confusing place and it’s apparently a chain. They were able to accommodate my needs, though the marinated vegetables on my plate were replaced with a salad (sounds better to me anyway!)
We called it a night early as our plan was to get out to Trakai early in the morning — the weather was forecast to be horrible from midday.
Trakai, then Vilnius, in the pouring rain
Inside at Trakai Castle
After another hotel breakfast, we walked back to the bus station and hopped on a minibus bound for Trakai. The driver didn’t speak English but we managed to pay our 1.70 euro fare (one way) and found seats at the back. The trip took about half an hour. We stepped off the bus and walked across the town of Trakai to reach the castle on the other side. Just near the castle, there are lots of stands selling souvenirs. We decided to see the castle first, so we crossed the bridge out to the island where the castle stands. We paid our 6 euros to get in, and explored the castle, which was full of museum exhibits in different rooms. We saw everything from pottery to weapons to furnished rooms.
After we’d had a good long around, we headed back across the bridge just as the sky opened up. The wind was crazy and we were soaked in minutes. We decided to take shelter in a nearby restaurant and try to wait until the rain slowed a bit. Here I ran into some gluten free problems — they said the only thing I could eat was a cold salad. They brought me the saddest salad ever — lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, red bell peppers and a couple olives — with olive oil. That’s it. I had some cashews in my bag so I tossed a few on the sad salad and tried to make due. By the time we’d finished, the rain had slowed into a steady drizzle, so we trekked back across the town to reach the bus station. Another 1.70 fare took us back to Vilnius.
Gate of Dawn, in the rain, taken through a plastic bag.
When we arrived, it was still drizzling, but we figured that being from Glasgow, we could manage, so we set out walking again. We’d noticed an indoor market the day before, but hadn’t stopped in. It was a good way to get out of the rain, so we popped in to the Hales Market for a wander. It reminded me a bit of Seattle’s Pike Place Market, with everything from produce to fish to clothes and other goods on offer. We wandered into a stall selling scarves and JP was accosted by a rather aggressive sales lady who only spoke Lithuanian to us the entire time.
After that we were pretty much done with the market, so we headed back out and walked towards the Gate of Dawn. The rain had picked up again so we decided it was time for a break and wandered in to little café nearby called 12 Istoriju. I was already hungry thanks to my lunch of sadness, so I got a bunless cheeseburger and fries. We had a glass of wine and tried to wait out the rain, but we’d hit the worst of the storm, and it was pretty much relentless. We finally decided to give up and head back to the hotel to warm up and dry off.
The storm ended around 6:30, so we headed to Shark Tail Sushi, about a block behind the hotel. It was a very small place that was decorated more like a coffee shop than a sushi place, but we managed to order. Note that they don’t have gluten free soy sauce, so I had to eat my sushi dry. I was able to find plenty of rolls that were safe, though, and it was really inexpensive. We took another little walk around the area before deciding to call it a night.
We still had quite a few major sights to see, so we headed out early on a whirlwind of tourism on my last day. We took the bus from the hotel into Uzupis, an artist’s community and self-declared independent republic adjacent to the old town. Some notable things to see there include the mermaid of Uzupis, the angel of Uzupis, and the constitution of the community. Of all the neighborhoods we explored, this was my favorite.
From there we walked north into the Kalnai Park of Hills. The park is huge and lovely, and it is home to the Hill of Three Crosses. We approached the Hill of Three Crosses from the south, which meant we had to climb the longest, sketchiest set of wooden stairs I’ve ever seen. I told JP I was going to have a heart attack at one point.
Worst. Stairs. Ever.
It was also pretty isolated — we only saw a couple other people and a dog during this leg of the walk. After reaching the end of the stairs, we wove our way across hills until we saw a group of nuns and followed them — right up to the top of the Hill of Three Crosses. The view of Vilnius from there is spectacular; however, there’s a much easier way to get there, and that’s to approach from the north.
We descended to the north instead, and walked around to our next stop, Gediminas’ Tower. Another steep incline on a weird, rocky hill with a few stairs mixed in leads you up to the tower. We didn’t go in the tower, but you could for 4 euros. (I was pretty sure I couldn’t climb another stair at that point.) We spotted a lift that would take you down for a euro, so we jumped in. You’re supposed to buy tickets at the bottom, but if you find yourself at the top, just ride down and buy your ticket before exiting. You can’t get out otherwise.
From the bottom of the lift, we walked around the Vilnius Cathedral. As it was Sunday, we walked in the doors just as services were starting, so we stood quietly in the back for a minute to have a look around and then snuck back out. It’s really beautiful, but obviously I couldn’t take any pictures inside. I recognized the Lord’s Prayer being recited as we left (in Lithuanian, but the pacing is the same.)
After this, we walked back along the section of Gediminas Avenue we’d missed two days prior, and then wove our way back across the old town for one last lunch at Forest. When we left Forest, we found ourselves in an unexpected downpour which thankfully only lasted a few minutes. We made our way back across to the hotel where I cleaned up, packed the last of my stuff and caught the bus back to the airport.
If you go
- Hot air balloons over Vilnius
- For UK residents, it’s easy. Take your EU health insurance card and your passport. No visa needed for tourism.
- For US residents, it’s mostly easy. Take evidence of medical insurance — even though I wasn’t asked for it, it’s required for entry into the country. Take your passport — no visa needed for tourism.
- We had very few issues with language and most of the people in restaurants, shops and hotels spoke English. If you’re gluten free, take a travel card, as that was a bit more tricky to communicate effectively. I had a few problems, but for the most part gluten free Vilnius was easy to manage.
- If you do the tour we did on the last day, go in reverse order — Cathedral, Tower, then Hill of Crosses. It’s a much easier walk that way. It’s still super hilly so wear comfortable shoes!
- Graffiti in Uzupis
Have you been to any of the Baltic States? Is Lithuania on your must-see list now? Tell me in the comments!