Waiting on the steps of the prominent Vilnius Cathedral bell tower, we met Yurga, our guide for the afternoon. A Vilnius resident who is fluent in several languages, Yurga would lead us for the next three hours on a Vilnius city walking tour with Viator and Travel Mindset. A tour like this is educational, is rich in history and allows one to discover parts of the city that only a local would know.
The old part of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, boasts a number of amber stores, all selling jewelry, amber sculptures or polished and cut amber “stones.” Not knowing which of these stores is reputable, I was glad our tour included a visit to the Mizgiris Amber Museum & Gallery. We learned about the various types of amber, where it is found (much of it comes from Kaliningrad, Russia) and how it is processed. Did you know real amber when rubbed vigorously should smell like resin? The plastic or synthetic versions do not. Real amber also floats in salt water and does not melt – rather it burns like incense.
This museum features a number of pieces of transparent amber displayed below magnifying glasses to easily see the details of the encased insects up close. Dragon flies and other large insects are perfectly preserved, looking the same as the day they became trapped more than 50 million years ago.
How about Amber vodka? Is there such a thing? Yes, and you can try this unique spirit at the museum. Amber stones are aged in vodka in a dark environment for six weeks or more. The longer they stay in the vodka the more bitter the drink tastes. There is an optimum time for aging depending on how many amber stones are used.
This tour is also about sampling select local artisan products. One of the most memorable visits is to Senamiescio Krautuve, a small specialty food shop that features freshly baked breads, desserts and other Lithuanian foods. It’s warm in here and smells very good. Sample the 1000 leaf cake – a delectable bread-like dessert.
On the tour you will also taste cheeses at Baroca, a cheese and ice cream shop near the Gate of Dawn (one of main entrances to the old city). You will sample several of the same types of cheese aged for different lengths of time and believe me, you’ll taste the difference.
One of the more unique neighborhoods you will come across is the self titled “Republic of Uzupis” founded in 1997. Before you walk across the picturesque Vilnia River, a prominent natural feature of their “border,” you are notified you are entering Uzupis. A sign here pictorially informs visitors of the rules: be happy, drive no more than 20km per hour, view artwork and don’t drive your car into the Vilnia River. This artsy neighborhood has its own president and a constitution which is posted around the ‘republic’ and includes various rights and rules such as Article 16 (“Everyone has the right to be happy”) and Article 27 (“Everyone shall remember their name”).
You will spend some time exploring this interesting neighborhood with its artists, musicians and general Bohemian vibe. Plenty of galleries are located here as well as a number of public art pieces.
The tour ends at local brewery featuring Lithuanian beer and local Lithuanian snacks. Our visit was on a Monday, yet plenty of people were packed inside.
Be sure to ask your guide questions – it makes the tour more interesting and certainly more educational. Yurga was happy to share information about excellent local restaurants as well as other “under the radar” places one would find difficult to discover on their own.