The Baltic States are a really interesting part of the world and are fast becoming one of my most favourite places to visit. There’s a sense across the region, and particularly within the larger cities, that the history of these places is so very current, and there is constant change and flux. Let’s not forget that Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania were militarily occupied by the Soviet Union from the start of WW2 right up until 1991, and as a result there’s a feeling of cultures constantly shifting and moving, beyond independence to a self-defined state of identity.
Lithuania was our last Baltic State to visit and as the capital, Vilnius was the obvious choice for a weekend break in May. The city has one of the largest preserved medieval town centres in Europe, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, and, in 2009 became European Capital of Culture (the first city in the Post-Communist block to win that award) so is an absolutely stunning place to simply stroll and enjoy. Having said that, it is still a little off the main European tourist trail, meaning that it still has an identity of a “real” city where people eat, drink, shop and work.
For the travelling vegan, the city has a limited number of options, but enough nonetheless to keep you fed for a weekend, as well as pretty well watered, thanks to an excellent craft beer scene which seems to be very into unfiltered brews.
Vilnius Old Town
The historic Old Town is big but is just about navigable by foot. Walking from one side to the other takes around half an hour, but of course if you’re anything like us it will take you a lot longer as you stop to take pictures, take a look in shops or stop for the odd beer or coffee (yeah we did a lot of that). The main route is Pilies Street, which runs north-south, starting at Cathedral Square and Gediminas Hill at the north.
Continue south down Didzioji St right to the end of the Old Town and you’ll get to the Gates of Dawn, whose adjacent chapel famous (apparently) houses an icon of the Virgin Mary and has been responsible for quite a few miracles over the years.
Vilnius University is also worth your time, but the best way to explore is to just see where the streets take you. It’s a beautiful city and absolutely made to be explored on foot.
The minute we arrived we fell in love with the self-declared Independent Republic of Uzupis, situated in a bend of the Vilnia river to the east of the Old Town. Formed “officially” in 1991, Uzupis has its own currency, president, border crossing and national holiday.
Pop into the Information Centre just north of Uzupis Bridge; there’s an art incubator next door with a rotating exhibition schedule and the whole place is just incredibly friendly, welcoming and down to earth. Make sure to get your passport stamped, study the constitution (displayed on nearby Paupio St) and pick up a map and self-guided tour of the republic.
Trakai is a gorgeous little town located around 17 miles west of the city. From the bus station you can get a very rickety and sweaty bus for the meagre cost of €1.80 and 45 mins later you arrive in a beautiful lakeside fairytale.
The town is famous for its island castle, dating back to the 15th century, but the whole peninsula is a stunning little place, absolutely worth taking the time to explore the colourful wooden houses lining the streets or just sitting on one of the many little piers that jut out over Galve lake. There are plenty of activities on the lake – boat trips and pedalo and row boat hire, or just soak up the view at one of the lakeside cafes.
Vegan Restaurants & Cafes
Vegan friendly food options in Vilnius seem to fit into one of two main categories: the younger hipster venue that has some veg*an options on their omni menu, or the ever-present super ethical outfit that wears its hippy leanings very obviously.
It’s also worth mentioning that (of course) we didn’t get to eat everywhere that we wanted; there appears to have been, until recently, a high end vegan restaurant called “Alive“, but we couldn’t figure out of it closed down or not, and I had high hopes for Gyvas Baras, so imagine my near tears when we turned up on a Sunday lunchtime to find it closed. Note to self: always check opening hours in advance.
According to the entire internet, Vegafe is THE place for veg*an food in Vilnius. There are two locations – their main location just southwest of Cathedral Square and a smaller outfit further south, which has a much more limited menu although arguably a nicer zen garden kinda setting.
We visited the larger outpost, which is pretty spacious and also houses a small supermarket and takeaway counter. All food follows ayurvedic principles, which apparently means no mushrooms, bouillon, yeast, garlic and onion, but some dishes do contain dairy. There’s also no alcohol.
To start we ordered green pea dumplings and giant momo (Tibetan dumplings), which were actually pretty good. The dumplings were a little inconsistent in flavour, with some a lot more curried than others, but the momo had a good earthy flavour and the accompanying sweet sesame dipping sauce was so good I nearly downed it.
For main we ordered aubergine and tofu paneer in tomato chutney and onion bhajis, which weren’t very onion-y (which now makes total sense now I’ve learnt what ayurvedic cooking is). I’m afraid this is where the whole experience fell down a little bit; the bhajis were basically mixed veg patties with a really strange cold red pepper sauce and the aubergine and tofu was really greasy. The whole thing just felt a bit lacklustre.
Look, I get it, and I fully value and appreciate the sentiment that eating in a certain way and with certain ingredients can balance the body and bring inner happiness. And the food wasn’t bad at all, it just wasn’t, well, great.
A little dejected from the Vegafe experience, we literally stumbled across Chaika, which is pretty much next door. I’d heard about this place online, as a really nice cute little tea shop that has an incredible selection of hot drinks, but I was not prepared for the outstanding selection of vegan cakes that greeted us. Every cake sold here is vegan, and there’s also a small sandwich menu that includes at least one vegan option.
We picked up a slice of caramel chocolate cheesecake (delicious) and a peanut butter chocolate brownie sandwich (divine) and I clung onto the box incredibly tightly as we headed home.
If Ayurvedic principles don’t bring me inner peace then I was pretty sure that donuts would. And boy, was I right. Holy Donut is an amazing little outpost in Vilnius, an absolute oasis, serving donuts (obvz) as well as bagels and a pretty decent brunch menu.
It’s an omni cafe, but when we visited they had 3 vegan donuts available plus vegan apple fritters, as well as some delicious looking vegan options on their menu, including pancakes and oatmeal, with bagel options including a hummus & veg sandwich and peanut butter & jam. They also do great coffees and soya milk is available.
Over the course of the weekend we tried pretty much every vegan option on the menu, and of course it’s absolutely worth your time to try and do the same, but if you can only focus on one thing then it has to be the donuts. Aside from being unbelievable value, ranging from €1-2 each, they’re delicious, with top marks going to the “3d chocolate” donut and apple fritters.
Located about a minute away from Holy Donut, Zatar is a lovely little cafe serving a variety of falafel based dishes. Again, the menu here is omni rather than veg*an, but please don’t let that put you off. The falafel here are delicious, and there are a number of different sauce options to choose from. We went for the falafel wrap with tahini sauce, which comes with pickled gherkins; you’re definitely in the Baltics now!
Vieta is an incredibly cute little cafe that we managed to walk past every day on the way to the old town from our airbnb in Uzupis. They have a small menu with some delicious looking veg*an options, very much on the comfort food spectrum, with options including tofu scramble, falafel, and a good selection of vegan burgers at incredibly reasonable prices.
We ordered one each of the tofu and soya burgers which were both really tasty, though the reason this place gets such high marks is for the very chilled out & friendly atmosphere. Though we were there for dinner there was a good mix of people – some on laptops with a cup of coffee, a group of friends drinking their way through a bottle of wine. We both felt very much at home here, it’s the kind of place you could happily spend a decent quality of time, sipping on some good drinks and putting the world to rights with your buds.
Open Kitchen is located on the eastern edge of the old town, on the site of the farmers’ market which runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Each Friday & Saturday this place turns into a really cool little street food market, and, if like us, you’re lucky with the weather, it’s a lovely place to enjoy the sun with some good food and a pint of locally brewed beer.
Vegan options here are limited; when we visited there was a food stall by Zatar (see above) and we also managed to pick up a veganised version of the bean tacos from Peligroso, both of which were excellent.
As we were a little nervous about the number of veg-friendly options, we decided to go self catering. For us, therefore, the Veggo grocery store was an absolute godsend. There’s a good deli section with some amazing sausages, cheeses (Violife with mushroom!) and steaks and slices, as well as tofu and tempeh, and the chocolate choices are also pretty unreal. There are two locations in the city but we visited the Totoriu street shop, which is located in the basement of the Botanique raw restaurant, in the same building as Vegafe.
As mentioned previously, Vilnius has a really cool craft beer scene, as well as a few good wine bars scattered around the city. We usually follow the rules that unfiltered and/or organic beers and wines are safe bets, and thankfully there are plenty of these options available across the city.
Pretty close to the train station, Deveti is a little dingey but has an excellent selection of local and regional beers from breweries such as Dundulis and Tanker. We visited during the day but I get the impression (thanks to the extensive shots menu on the wall) that this place kicks off at night.
With a big outdoor seating area in the adjacent square, Bukowski is a really nice spot for a sunny beverage. We found beers here from Dundulis (which seems to be everywhere in Vilnius) as well as Kuro Aparatura.
An amazing little spot right in the centre of the Old Town, Bambalyne is basically a small basement beer shop with a large seating area that feels like it’s in a dungeon. Pretty cool. There are around 5-6 fridges full of local and regional beers, which you can purchase to drink in or takeaway. The music selection is also exceptional (basically just Depeche Mode) and the staff are incredibly helpful and friendly, which is pretty much essential in helping you navigate what’s on offer here.
Spunka, located on Angel Square in Uzupis, is one of the smallest bars I’ve ever been to. The beer selection is excellent though, and there are probably more beers on offer here than there are seats in the whole bar. You get the feeling that this place has been here for a long time and most people in the room know each other. Try and pretend like you fit in.
We discovered Snekutis while going on a little explore through the self-declared Independent Republic of Uzupis. This part of Vilnius feels almost village like, strongly resisting the gentrification that’s creeping up on much of the rest of the city. According to our map, Snekutis is the first craft beer pub in Vilnius, and one of three in the city owned by the same eccentric beer loving family. The Uzupis outpost is the original one though, and it feels a bit like a junkyard shed on the inside. This is a proper traditional Vilnius beer bar.
All the beer is local, much of it homebrewed, and there’s a small terrace wrapping around the building which makes it a great spot if the weather’s nice, though I can imagine on cold days the interior gets pretty cosy too.
Vijoklai Beer Garden
Vijoklai is a strange little place – basically a decent sized yard that’s been repurposed as a beer garden just a few minutes’ walk from the station, meaning it’s a good stop for a “last beer” before the sad journey back to the airport. The beer selection is limited, and the bbq kitchen means there are some occasionally funky smells, but the furniture made from old bathtubs, scaffolding and beer crates make this a pretty cool spot.