Vilnius

Basics

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Alcohol
Lithuanian beer (alus) is strong, cheap and often very good indeed. Among the big names are Švyturys from Klaipėda, Volfas Engelman from Kaunas, Utenos from Utena and Kalnapilis from Panevėžys, although with the exception of Volfas Engelman we recommend you search out one of the countless local craft beers available in most bars and restaurants in Vilnius. The Lithuanians also make very good—and very affordable—vodka (degtinė), although for those looking for something a little more exotic we suggest you keep an eye out for starka, a 15th-century concoction of syrupy rye vodka fortified with apple leaves and lime blossom. Bearing all this in mind, it’s a sobering thought to remember that according to a 2017 World Health Organisation report the Lithuanians drink more alcohol than any other nation in the world. Alcoholism is a massive problem in the country, a fact reflected in the current laws. You have to be 20 (and prove it with picture ID) to drink the stuff, and shops can only sell alcohol between 10:00 and 20:00 during the week and from 10:00 until 15:00 on Sundays.

Borders
Lithuania is bordered by the Baltic Sea, Belarus, Latvia, Poland and the peculiar Russian exclave born out of the ashes of the Second World War that’s Kaliningrad. EU membership and Schengen agreements have as good as removed all border formalities with Latvia and Poland, although entering the country from Belarus and Kaliningrad remains a process wrapped up in red tape for most. For more information about getting in and out of Lithuania, see www.pasienis.lt.

Communism
There’s very little nostalgia for the period of Soviet occupation in Lithuania, which is hardly surprising when you think about the hundreds of thousands of crimes against humanity committed by the Kremlin during Communist rule. Our advice is to leave your Che Guevara T-shirt at home and remember that displaying the hammer and sickle in public in Lithuania is an offence punishable by a court appearance and a fine. In a bitter twist of irony that could only exist in a country such as Lithuania, the nation that somewhat dubiously claims to have single-handedly dismantled the Soviet Union exists in a deluge of Soviet-era attitudes. As the saying goes, you can take a person out of the USSR but you can’t take the USSR out of the person.  

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 in 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 percent duty. Take two photographs of the artwork in question 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
Whilst things have drastically improved for the disabled in the last 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
Lithuanian 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, but if you push hard enough you should be able to get the plug in. Travellers from other socket 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.

Health & Safety
Lithuania is one of the safest countries in Europe. Whilst petty crime and corruption flourish at all levels of society, violent crime is almost unheard of outside of the domestic setting. Even late at night you’re extremely unlikely to come up against any potential threats when walking around the city, a situation that goes for women walking in their own as much as it does for large groups of drunken men. That said, keep your wits about you and be sure that if you go looking for trouble you’ll probably find it. Keep valuables close at hand, particularly on busy buses, and don't leave coats or handbags unattended anywhere. Tap water, some of which comes directly from underground springs, is safe to drink and tastes good.

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 of being understood, getting to grips with the local lingo is at best tough. Thankfully, most places where tourists congregate are now fairly English-friendly, plus Vilnius’ rich cultural past has left an accumulation of polyglots speaking Lithuanian, Russian and Polish throughout the city.

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.

Money & Costs
Almost all places in Vilnius accept major credit cards, and ATMs can be found all over the city, although if you're planning a trip to the countryside be sure to take plenty of cash along. Lithuania is no longer the cheap country for foreigners it used to be, but it still offers great value to most visitors coming from Western Europe and North America.

Market values
0.5ltr beer (shop) €1.10
0.5ltr vodka (shop) €7
1ltr unleaded petrol (95) €1.20
20 Marlboro €3.75
Big Mac €2.85
Cinema ticket €6.50
Loaf of white bread €1
Public transport ticket (single journey) €1
Snickers €0.50


National Holidays
January 1 New Year’s Day & National Flag Day
February 16 Independence Day
March 11 Restoration of Independence Day
April 21 (2019) Easter Sunday (Catholic)
April 22 (2019) Easter Monday (Catholic)
May 1 A day off for the workers!
June 24 Joninės (Midsummer)
July 6 Crowning of King Mindaugas
August 15 Žolinė (Assumption)
November 1 All Saints’ Day
December 25, 26 Christmas (Catholic)


Religion
Lithuania is a predominantly Catholic country with around 77 percent of the population pledging allegiance to Rome. 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 region has historically been the proud home of countless religions over the centuries, among them Russian Orthodox, Protestantism, Islam and of course Judaism. It’s considered polite for men to remove their hats and for women to cover their shoulders when visiting a Catholic or Orthodox church and for men to cover their heads when entering a synagogue and remove their shoes when visiting a mosque.

Service
Low wages and appalling working conditions in many places ensure that Lithuania’s shops, restaurants, bars and public institutions remain staffed by people who’ll ruin your good mood given half a chance. Service is definitely improving, albeit at a snail’s pace. If—or rather when—you run up against an obnoxious or hopeless public servant, try turning the other cheek. Every cloud has a silver lining, and the happy consequence of this situation means that you’ll likely save money in tips you feel no obligation to leave.

Street Smarts
Below is a list of Lithuanian street and place names. We shorten some of these 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
Skveras Square
Tiltas Bridge


Tipping
Despite the fact that standards of service have improved dramatically over the last decade or so, the average waiter or waitress in Vilnius still has a long way to go before genuinely earning their tip. Ten percent is considered the norm if you think it’s been worth it.

Toilets
Just utter the two magic words kur tualetas? (where's the toilet?) and away you go. Bars and hotels tend to let you use their facilities if you’re caught short, although some enforce a small charge for non-patrons. Several places also keep their toilets locked, meaning you have to ask at the bar. With the exception of a few non-touristy establishments, toilets are usually clean and stocked with plenty of paper and soap. One relic from days gone by that refuses to go away, even in many of the swankiest establishments, is the provision of a bucket kept next to the toilet, used for the collection of used paper.

What’s in 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. As for the latter, its first use wasn’t noted until fairly late in the 19th century, the city having formerly been known even to the Lithuanians as Vilna, a word which with the addition of the letter i spells Vilnia, the name of a local river.

Visas
Lithuania is a member of both the European Union and the Schengen border-free travel area. Visitors from the EU can stay here as long as they like, whilst 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.

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

 

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