Vilnius

Basics

Vilnius Basics

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Alcohol

Lithuanian beer (alus) is among the best in the world. Without doubt. Test as many as you can before settling on a regular brand! The big names are Švyturys from Klaipėda, Utenos from Utena and Kalnapilis from Panevėžys, but there are loads of smaller varieties to try. Visit a microbrewery (see Nightlife) or go for a selection from your nearest menu. Lithuanian beers tend to be stronger than their Western counterparts, making the forming of the simplest words (such as alus) a challenge after just a couple. But the variety is as eclectic as anywhere else. In the Old Town expect to pay about €3 for half a litre. Lithuanian vodka (degtinė) is quality too, though in bars it defers to beer in terms of popularity. Among local spirits, look out for starka, a 15th-century concoction of syrupy rye vodka fortified with apple leaves and lime blossom, and the local semi-illicit firewater samagonas. Imported alcohol isn't cheap, so buy the local stuff. Check prices before a session. Lithuania is currently tightening its booze laws, so that from the start of 2018 youngsters under 20 will not be able to buy booze. Alcohol shopping sales times will also change, to Mon-Sat 10:00-20:00, Sun 10:00-15:00.

Basic data

Population
Lithuania 2,821,674 Vilnius 635,377
Ethnic composition (Lithuania)
Lithuanians 86.9% Poles 5.6% Russians 4.6% Belarusians 1.2% Ukrainians 0.6% Others 1.1%
Territory
65,303 square kilometres Roughly twice the size of Belgium, and the largest of the three Baltic nations. Fertile lowland, peppered with many lakes. North to south, the greatest distance is 276km, east to west is 373km
Borders
Baltic Sea 99km Belarus 502km Latvia 453km Poland 91km Russia (Kaliningrad) 227km
Longest river
Nemunas 937km (475km in Lithuania)
Largest lake
Drūkščiai 4,479ha
Highest point
Aukštasis 293.8m

Borders

Lithuania is bordered by the Baltic Sea, Belarus, Latvia, Poland and the peculiar Russian exclave born out of the ashes of WWII and the disintegration of the Soviet Union that is Kaliningrad. EU membership and Schengen agreements have as good as removed all border formalities with Latvia and Poland, although getting in and out of Belarus and Kaliningrad remains a process wrapped up in red tape for holders of most passports. Visas for both can be obtained from the Belarusian and Russian embassies in Vilnius, as well as from a few travel agencies. Note, however, that short-term visas for Kaliningrad are now available if you arrive in the exclave by air. For more information about getting in and out of Lithuania, see the website at www.pasienis.lt.

Claim to a name

The origins of the words Lietuva (the Lithuanian name for Lithuania) and Vilnius are far from clear. Of the former, many claim it comes from the local word for rain, lietus, although this is nothing but fanciful speculation. Others are of the belief that it can be traced back to Lietava, the name of a small river close to Kernavė, the capital of the emerging Lithuanian nation. Likewise, this theory is, no pun indented, far from watertight. Interestingly, the origin of the anglicised form, Lithuania, is also unknown. As for the word Vilnius, its first use wasn’t noted until fairly late in the 19th century, having formerly been known even to the Lithuanians as Vilna, which with the addition of the letter i spells Vilnia, the name, once again, of a local river. So, rather strangely, the word Vilnius is a lithuanianised version of a Lithuanian name.

Crime & Safety

It is not an exaggeration to say that Lithuania is one of the safest countries to visit in Europe. While petty crime - mainly in the form of pickpocketing - is as big a problem in this country as anywhere else in the world, violent crime is almost unheard of. Even late at night you will not usually be presented with any potential threats whilst walking around city centres, and this goes for single women as much as for large groups of lads. That said, you do need to keep your wits about you, and be sure that if you go looking for trouble you might well find it. Keep your valuables close to hand, particularly on busy buses and trolleybuses, and do not leave coats and handbags unattended in bars, pubs and clubs.

Customs

Those arriving from other EU countries have no import restrictions placed upon them, although they will need to make it known if they’re arriving with more than €10,000 worth of cash. When arriving from non-EU countries you’re entitled to bring in one litre of spirits or four litres of wine or 16 litres of beer. If arriving by air you can bring 200 cigarettes, 100 cigarillos, 50 cigars or 250g of tobacco, a figure that’s drastically reduced to 40 cigarettes, 20 cigarillos, 10 cigars or 50g of tobacco if arriving by any other means. You can’t bring meat, milk or dairy products from outside the EU except under certain circumstances. You can’t arrive with live birds other than pets for non-commercial purposes. Dogs require vaccinations and passports (or other proof of vaccination). You can take home as much art as you wish tax free unless it’s over 50 years old, in which case expect to pay 10-20 per cent duty. Take two photographs of the art piece and your passport to the Committee of Cultural Heritage, Šnipiškių 3, tel. (+370) 52 73 42 56. Many of the better antique shops in Vilnius can take care of all the paperwork for you. For more detailed information check www.cust.lt, and for information on animal related arrivals, check www.vet.lt.

Disabled travellers

While things have greatly improved for the disabled in recent few years, Lithuania is still a tough place to get around on anything other than two well functioning legs. Even places that claim to be wheelchair friendly can be flanked by deep kerbs or stairs, or are located on cobbled streets. Wheelchair accessibility for public buildings outside the capital is improving slowly. Some newer trolleybuses and buses in Vilnius have low entry platforms, spaces for wheelchairs and hearing loops.

Electricity

Lovely Lithuanian domestic electricity flows out the walls at 220V, AC 50Hz, and nearly all sockets are of the round two-pin European variety. Some thinner Russian sockets still exist, although if you push hard enough you should get the plug in. Travellers from non-socket-friendly societies should bring an appropriate adaptor, as they're almost impossible to find in Lithuania.

Floors

The Lithuanians use the same system as the Americans, considering the floor at street level to be the first floor and so on.

Language

Lithuanian is a very odd language indeed. One of the oldest still spoken today, the tongue that time forgot is supposedly similar in grammatical form as well as sharing many of the same words with, of all things, Sanskrit. With seven noun cases, four declension patterns, absolutely no similarity to anything you’ve ever heard before and an obligation to pronounce the stress on every word in the right place to stand any chance whatsoever of being understood, getting to grips with the local lingo is at best tough although there is the advantage when learning it that it’s bound by rules that simply need to be learnt by rote. Thankfully, most places where tourists congregate in the country are now fairly English-friendly, plus Lithuania’s rich cultural past has left an accumulation of polyglots nationwide, with Russian spoken almost everywhere, Polish in and around the capital and German the closer you get to the coast.

Local time

Lithuania is in the Eastern European Time (EET) zone at GMT+2hrs. When it’s 12:00 in Vilnius it’s 05:00 in New York, 10:00 in London, 11:00 in Warsaw, 13:00 in Moscow and 19:00 in Tokyo. Eastern European Summer Time (EEST, GMT+3hrs) falls between the last Sundays of March and October respectively.

Market Values

Prices in Lithuania vary but can seem quite high compared to neighbouring countries like Poland. Here are some typical everyday products and prices. Market values as of August 22, 2017.
McDonald’s Big Mac € 2.65
Loaf of white bread € 0.60
Snickers € 0.45
0.5ltr vodka (shop) € 7
0.5ltr beer (shop) € 1.05
20 Malboros € 3.50
Public transport ticket (1 journey) € 1
1ltr for unleaded petrol (95) € 1.15
Cinema ticket € 6

Money & Costs

Most places of any note in Vilnius happily accept major credit cards, and ATMs are ubiquitous in urban areas, although if you're planning a trip to the countryside make sure you take plenty of cash along. Lithuania is no longer the cheap country for foreigners it used to be, although it still offers great value to most visitors from western Europe and North America.

National holidays

January 1 New Year’s Day & National Flag Day
February 16 Independence Day
March 11 Restoration of Independence Day
April 1 (2018) Easter Sunday (Catholic)
April 2 (2018) Easter Monday (Catholic)
May 1 A day off for the workers!
May 6 (2018) Mother's Day
June 3 (2018) Father's Day
June 24 Joninės (Midsummer)
July 6 Crowning of King Mindaugas
August 15 Žolinė (Assumption)
November 1 All Saints’ Day
December 25, 26 Christmas (Catholic)

Plastic & glass

Lithuania imposes a super-efficient eco-system for your empty plastic and glass bottles and beer cans. Most supermarkets have a supirkimas – a couple of machines where you can load each one at a time and hear them being scruched into nothing. Make sure they're completely empty. At the end, press the screen and it'll print a ticket. Take it to the counter inside the supermarket and they'll give you some cash. Simple!

Religion

Contemporary Lithuania is a predominantly Catholic country with almost 80 per cent of the population pledging allegiance to the Pope. Pagan Lithuanians avoided Christianity until relatively late in European history, finally converting for political reasons in 1387 in the eastern half of the country and in 1413 in the west. The country’s pagan heritage can still be seen in many aspects of life including the days of the week (literally First Day, Second Day etc.), the continued naming of its female population after flowers and plants and the countless festivals throughout the year that remain very much as they were before the coming of Christianity. The area that makes up contemporary Lithuania has historically been the proud home of countless religions over the centuries, among them Russian Orthodox, Protestantism, Islam and of course Judaism, of which the former makes up the second largest population at just under five per cent. It’s considered polite for men to remove their hats and women to cover their shoulders when visiting a Catholic church.

Service

There are exceptions - and we take pride in exposing such places in our listings - but as a general rule private-sector service in Lithuania (particularly Vilnius) has improved beyond description during the 20-odd years we have been publishing Vilnius In Your Pocket. When we began, part of our raison d'etre was to highlight those few places which offered decent service; now our role is the exact opposite. If you need to deal with public servants (and usually the average visitor does not) you might well still come across the odd surly survivor of a bygone age, but even here the trend is towards a new era of service with efficiency, if not always a smile.

Smoking

Lithuanians by and large like a cigarette (and compared to countries like the UK cigarettes are cheap) but that has not stopped the country adopting some tough anti-smoking legislation. Smoking is banned in almost all indoor spaces, including cafes, bars, pubs and clubs, except in carefully separated smoking rooms: look for the smoking symbol in our listings. Smoking is also now banned in two outdoor spaces in Vilnius: Kudirka Square and Bernardinų Sodas, as well as at bus stops. Smoking here can leave you open to a fine of between €5.80 and €14.48. If the ban is successful in these areas, other parts of the capital could also be declared puff-free.

Sports

Lithuanians go nuts about basketball. It's often even referred to as Lithuania's second religion. Whenever there's an important game on, the nation shuts down to huddle round the nearest TV screen. To watch players in action or just practicing, visit Siemens Arena.

Street smarts

Below is a list of Lithuanian street and place names. We shorten some of these as is standard practice using just the main name. For example, Gedimino Prospektas is simply referred to as Gedimino.

Aikštė Square
Alėja Alley
Gatvė Street
Kelias Road, way
Plentas Highway
Prospektas Avenue
Tiltas Bridge

Toilets

Just utter the two magic words kur tualetas? (where's the toilet?) and away you go. Bars and hotels happily let you use their facilities, although some have started to enforce a small charge for non-patrons. With the exception of a few non-tourist bars, all toilets are clean and are stocked with plenty of paper and soap. A ghastly relic from days gone by that refuses to go away even in many of the swankiest establishments is the provision of a filthy bucket, kept next to the toilet, and used for the collection of spent paper.

Visas

Lithuania is a member of both the European Union and the Schengen border-free travel area. Visitors from the EU may stay in Lithuania for as long as they like, while visitors from 30 or so other countries (including Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the United States) don’t require a visa to stay for up to 90 days within a six month period. A visa issued by or for any Schengen country is valid in Lithuania. For more information, including the full-list of visa-free countries, take a look at www.urm.lt.

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