Vilnius’s medieval defensive walls originally had nine entry gates, all built in the early 16th century; as was custom then, each was decorated with a portrait of the Virgin Mary to ensure the protection of the city. Today only remnants of these walls still stand after the Russian attacks of 1799, and the whitewashed Gate of Dawn, completed in 1522 with an ornate pediment, is the last remaining of the original fortified city entrances.
Around 1630, Carmelite monks from a nearby monastery replaced the original image on the Gate of Dawn with a new icon named the ‘Vilnius Madonna’, painted on oak boards and widely believed in both Catholic and Orthodox faiths to have mystical healing powers. The Renaissance-style, pastel-blue-and-white Chapel of Our Lady of the Dawn was grafted on to the southern side of Gate of Dawn around 1706 to house the painting, which became one of Lithuania’s most revered icons.
Every Baltic city has an amber museum to reflect on the days when it was regarded as "Baltic gold" and served as the cornerstone of maritime trade, helping to bring wealth into Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Vilnius’s miniscule museum was opened in 1988 and is housed in the 15th-century basement of a Baroque house built 200 years later.
The collection showcases pieces of amber that are more than 50 million years old, as well as white, black, green and red varieties found along the Baltic shores. There are also several pieces with fossilized prehistoric insects trapped inside. The highlight of the collection is the reconstructed display of the fabled Treasure of Juodkrante, a stash of Stone Age amber jewelry discovered in the 1880s on the Curonian Spit, a peninsula shared by Lithuania and Kaliningrad in Russia. The ground-floor shop exhibits and sells contemporary amber jewelry, and there are daily displays of amber polishing.
The Artillery Bastion in Vilnius is one of the last surviving parts of the city’s old defensive wall. Built in the 17th century, it is a horseshoe shaped building with a tower and connecting tunnel. Damaged during the Russian occupation in the late part of the 17th century, the bastion gradually lost its defensive function. By the beginning of the 19th century, most of the defensive wall had been destroyed and the bastion was turned into a garbage dump for the city.
Reconstruction of the bastion began in 1966 as the tower was rebuilt and the tunnel and interior rooms were renovated. A museum opened within the bastion in 1987 and there visitors can see weapons and armor from the 15th to 19th centuries, as well as cannons and stone cannon shells. A viewing platform also offers a nice view of Vilnius’ Old Town.
A frenzied whirligig of Baroque ornamentation, the Church of the Holy Spirit was constructed at the beginning of the 15th century and is one of the most ornate of all Vilnius’s churches. Over the centuries and depending on who was ruling Lithuania at the time, it has been a Catholic church, a Dominican monastery, a parish church, a prison, and finally, today it is the Orthodox parish church of the Polish diaspora in Lithuania.
Owing its present Baroque and rococo appearance to a facelift by architect Jonas Kristupas Glaubicas after a fire in 1749, the interior is a heady clash of colors, gilt, carved wooden pews, ornate lecterns, and bright sprays of flowers. The crypt contains the skeletons of nearly 2,000 bodies, thought to be a mixture of plague victims and fallen soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century.
The official residence of the President of Lithuania is found in Daukanto Square and began life in the 14th century as a luxury home built for the city’s first Catholic bishop, Andrzej Jastrzebiec. The building remained the residence of Vilnius’s wealthy clergy until the Russian invasion in 1795, when it became the resplendent home of the city’s Tsarist governors.
By this time the splendid neo-classical façade had been added and the palace was extended to form one side of today’s grand piazza, surrounded by other aristocratic mansions. Although Napoleon briefly sent the Russians packing in 1812, Lithuanian independence from Russia only finally came in 1990. The palace was renovated in 1997 before becoming the official home of the Lithuanian President.
Among the notorious figures that have overnighted in the palace over the centuries are Tsar Alexander I, French King Louis XVIII, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Polish national hero Józef Pilsudski.
As happened so often in Vilnius over the centuries, the imposing Church of St Francis and St Bernadine was built on the site of an earlier wooden church and originally formed part of the city’s defensive walls. It was built in the early 16th century as the dedicated church of a Dominican monastery nearby and is a curious mix of Gothic and Baroque styling with a multi-colored brick upper façade. Completely overshadowed by the Gothic pinnacles and spires of St Anne’s Church immediately in front of it, the Bernadine Church nevertheless had one of the finest interiors in Vilnius. It survived several fires and the ravages of war with Russia relatively intact until the Soviet occupation of Lithuania began in 1944 and the ornate interior was destroyed. Now as restoration work is in progress, the church’s 14 intricate altars, the oldest crucifix in the country and the splendidly ornate carved wooden lecterns and pulpits are slowly coming back to life.
Gediminas Castle Tower is practically all that remains of Upper Castle, the medieval complex that was constructed in Vilnius in the early 14th century. The tower was once the reward that followed an arduous climb up Castle Hill through Vilnius Old Town, but these days a funicular makes the journey up to the castle from the courtyard outside the Cathedral and Lower Castle much easier.
Perched at a height of 157 feet (48 m) above the rest of the city, not much of the Upper Castle has survived the civil wars and Russian sieges of Lithuania’s 15th through 17th centuries. After being damaged during the war with Moscow in 1655, the castle lost its strategic importance and was not rebuilt, gradually falling into disrepair. The remaining sturdy and hexagonal Gediminas
Tower has become a redbrick symbol of peace to the people of Lithuania; it now forms part of the nine-branch National Museum of Lithuania, and inside there is a small exhibition of weapons and armory.
Vilnius’ main boulevard stretches from the River Neris in the west to the sweeping expanse of Cathedral Square in the southeast, and is named after the country’s greatest hero, the legendary Grand Duke Gediminas, who is credited with founding the fledgling country of Lithuania in the 13th century. Built in 1836 as Vilnius expanded with the arrival of the railway line from St Petersburg, Gediminas Avenue was originally named Georgij Avenue and has been renamed several times according to the regime in power. The wide avenue is lined with trees and glamorous Baroque townhouses in pastel colors; these house many government ministries and courthouses as well as banks, the national library and several leading Lithuanian theaters. By day a popular shopping and meeting place, Gediminas Avenue comes into its own at night when it morphs into one of Vilnius’ most upmarket dining spots.