Punch Vilnius into Google Maps and gradually zoom in, and all kinds of long names start to pop up, from Antakalnis to Žirmūnai. All are absolutely safe and fun to get completely lost in. Just grab a bus or trolleybus and jump out at the end of the line or wherever it looks intriguing. You can walk to some of the nicest suburbs quite easily. Quirky Užupis is basically an eastern extension of the Senamiestis (Old Town), while Žvėrynas to the west is leafy, peaceful and generally well-to-do. Naujamiestis, Rasos and much of Antakalnis are also reachable on foot. Further out, the city suburbs can also be described as Soviet micro-districts, or sleeping districts, and are best reached by public transport (or taxi if you’re in a group or splashing out). They were mostly built in the 1970s and 1980s as the population mushroomed. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t all look utterly alike. Not really. Each has its own subtly defined character, even if it is hard to put into words. Every city between Berlin and Vladivostok has these rows upon rows of identical, low-cost, concrete-panelled housing blocks, each one impersonally numbered and grey. But every flat within is a home, personally decorated according to the means of the family or individual living there. With playgrounds dwarfed by the high-rises, trees and parks never far away, schools and kindergartens, stores and shopping malls, markets and fitness centres, offices and bank branches all a convenient walk or a few bus stops away, many people choose to spend their entire lives in the suburbs, rarely making the journey to the pricier city centre. Starting due south of the Old Town, written below is a brief description of each inseparable part of Vilnius. We’ve probably lived in most of them at some time or other. But if you think we’ve missed something out, write to us and let us know!
Rasos Fascinating for having a prison (corner of Rasų and Drujos) and a peaceful cemetery full of old luminaries (further down Rasų), this old district is surprisingly not much explored. Quiet, cobbled streets beside the railway tracks like Balstogės and Pelesos are lined with rundown yet elegant houses, many of which were divided up for poverty-stricken families in the early Soviet period. Countless plots and gardens are still laden with vegetables, fruit and the odd goat.
Naujininkai Stretching south between the railway station and the airport, for years this has unfairly been considered a no-go area for wandering and exploring. Absorbing walks can be had in the mazes of paths and rural lanes between Tyzenhauzų and Liepkalnio, walking all the way from the station to the Maxima supermarket and cafés at the top of Liepkalnio hill – if you don’t mind overgrown gardens, the barking of chained dogs, occasional drunks and planes flying low overhead.
Naujamiestis The “New Town” to counterpoint the Old Town, Naujamiestis covers diverse territory from the gentrified (around the Forum Vingis multiplex) to Soviet-era factories taken over by fresh-faced start-ups and concert venues (down Švitrigailos) to areas still a bit dodgy at night. Some of the huge courtyards encircled by housing are more like parks. Closer to the Old Town, this is one of the best zones for restaurants and bars (streets like Mindaugo, Algirdo, Naugarduko, Basanavičiaus), and the stroll down Čiurlionio to Vingis Park is one of the pleasantest walks in Vilnius.
Vilkpėdė Beyond Naujamiestis, all the way down busy Savanorių past a monstrous junction with Laisvės, is Vilkpėdė, an area combining choking chimneys, gaping warehouses, disused and decaying industrial zones and, up the hill, houses with luscious gardens.
Paneriai Even further on lies Paneriai, infamous for its association with the Holocaust. A solemn memorial park marks the place where around 100,000 men, women and children were massacred during World War II. The villages of Žemieji and Aukštieji Paneriai lie either side of the railway tracks, where the clanking of slow cargo trains echoes eerily through the forest.
Lazdynai Visually the most interesting of the Soviet micro-districts, and one of the first to be built back in the late sixties, Lazdynai is layered across a hillside, the towering housing blocks surrounded on all sides by trees and framed by the snaking River Neris and the Television Tower in neighbouring Karoliniškės. The Lithuanian architects of the tallest blocks, with their bulky balconies and Finnish-inspired design, were awarded the Lenin Prize for Architecture in 1974. Down a path beyond a school in the northern part of Lazdynai is a hard-to-find clifftop viewpoint above the Neris overlooking Vingis Park. Also located by the river is the Litexpo Exhibition Centre, popular for expos of everything from tourism to furniture to literature. Not far away, Oslo Street leads past one of the city’s two major hospitals to Gariūnai, the Baltics’ mightiest market.
Karoliniškės Dominated by the extraordinary structure of the TV Tower, its restaurant-in-the-sky slowly rotating at the top, this neighbourhood built in the seventies has a busy little farmers’ market popular with babushkas, an Impuls fitness centre with a modest pool, a decent eatery serving local grub called Buga and the HQ of bureaucracy itself, the state social security fund Sodra. Between Karoliniškės and Lazdynai there’s a thickly wooded park with sculptures inspired by fairy-tales called Pasakų Parkas. Running alongside it, L.Asanavičiūtės Street is named after the only female victim of the 13 January 1991 attack on the TV Tower. Several monuments and a display at the tower memorialise the tragedy.
Žvėrynas See our separate section about Žvėrynas under Districts.
Pilaitė Constantly expanding with new offices, houses and apartment blocks stretching forever westwards, Pilaitė first emerged as a suburb in the late eighties. But way before that there was a 16th-century hilltop manor, now completely disappeared. Its old watermill and windmill have been restored. A number of shops and cafés are centred round the Pupa shopping mall and a couple of fitness centres satisfy Pilaitė’s generally younger inhabitants. Extending away from Pilaitė, dirt roads and paths stretch out past lakes into the countryside – fertile ground for new construction.
Viršuliškės This high-rise district contains Catholic and Jewish cemeteries, the gigantic, white, beetle-shaped Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis Church, a popular little shopping centre called Mada (“Fashion”), and a health and beauty centre. Named after the street it's on, which is in turn named after a Japanese diplomat who saved many Jewish lives in Kaunas during the war, Sugihara is an affable beauty clinic with massages, saunas and a pool. Not far away is SEB Arena for tennis, squash and other sports, Sportima for indoor football, and an indoor entertainment hall for concerts and ice shows.
Justiniškės Centred by a Norfa supermarket – and a big new Rimi supermarket nearby for competition – Justiniškės has for years felt like one of the city’s grimmest and most distant suburbs. Views from its eye-catching tall and slender blocks of flats are panoramic, but on the ground it struggles for characterisation. Since a new western bypass opened, it feels even more hemmed in.
Pašilaičiai Pašilaičiai is also pretty bleak, despite being erected fairly recently, in the eighties. Known for the late Soviet tendency to construct huge residential blocks in massive rings, like meteor craters, there isn’t a great deal of room left to build much in the way of entertainment, though one or two eateries and shops can be found along Laisvės. A little more attractively, newer blocks, car showrooms, the shopping centre BIG and the well-reviewed Green Park Hotel line Ukmergės, a highway that heads north towards Latvia.
Fabijoniškės Slumped to the east of Ukmergės and its facilities listed above, Fabijoniškės has countless more high-rises but also the fairly pleasant Mandarinas shopping centre. Inside the shopping centre, like in every shopping centre in Lithuania, is a pizza restaurant.
Šeškinė It must have been incredible to see Vilnius in the mid-seventies. Šeškinė erupted at about that time, its brand new housing blocks rising from the earth like fresh mushrooms, placed across a hill where for centuries there had been just the odd wooden shack. Today, super-popular shopping malls and department stores are set amid the housing blocks; Akropolis and Ozas attract crowds of locals – and coachfuls of Belarusians – to buy the latest international mass-market fashions. Numerous eateries and entertainment zones lie within. Further north, Senukai is one of the city’s biggest home improvement stores. Nearby, north of Ozo Street, is an unjustly ignored swathe of green parkland. People don’t go to parks anymore.
Šnipiškės Amazing for its clash of old tumbledown wooden houses and spanking new glass-fronted office structures like the circular Europa Tower, Lithuania’s tallest building, Šnipiškės lies in the city centre to the north of the River Neris. Wander up streets like Giedraičių or Daugėliškio and you’ll wonder what era and what country you’re in, with Russian heard as much as Lithuanian. Kalvarijų Market is a genuinely authentic experience, selling everything you ever dreamed could fall off the back of a lorry.
Santariškės and Jeruzalė Best known for its sprawling Vilnius University Hospital complex, Santariškės is also a new zone for the flashier kind of low-rise housing blocks with manicured lawns, stretching their tentacles northwards into the countryside. A bit closer to the city centre, Jeruzalė is characterised by its once sought-after red-brick housing blocks. Divertingly, several Catholic destinations are also there, including the baroque Church of the Invention of the Cross and a path of Stations of the Cross that weaves through woodland slopes. Just to the east is the beautiful, classical palace of Verkiai.
Žirmūnai and Baltupiai Some of the flats in these residential districts have sweeping riverside views from above the steep-banked, tree-covered Neris. But most have views only of more blocks. Squeezed into the morass is Šiaurės Miestelis, once a secretive army base in the Stalin era where tank parts were made, but now a fun-packed area for wholesale and family shopping with tons of restaurants and cafés. Along the riverside, a scenic road and cycle lane reaches northwards towards Verkiai.
Antakalnis One of the oldest suburbs, Antakalnis winds north-eastwards between tree-covered hills and the River Neris, a mixture of spacious houses in the upper valleys and unsightly apartment blocks closer to the river and alongside Antakalnio, the main road. The stunning St Peter and St Paul’s Church marks the start of the district, while Antakalnis Cemetery is a tree-shrouded resting place for artists, writers, politicians and forgotten soldiers. Further on, university faculties and dorms are a hub for egghead innovation in the fields of science, law, economy and business. But up in the hills, in places like Rokantiškės and Dvarčionys, are endless plots of tightly packed former collective gardens, older dachas and newer mansions, growing every fruit, vegetable and herb the climate can allow.
Towards Naujoji Vilnia With the rolling countryside around Belmontas on one side of the bubbling River Vilnia and rural Upper and Lower Pavilnys on the other, Vilnius to the east is clearly far less developed than the north and west – and all the better for it. The steep hills and infinite, luscious greenery are seemingly impenetrable to asphalt and concrete. It’s a wild European jungle protected as a regional park. Further east, by the railway tracks to Russia, Naujoji Vilnia is the last outpost of industry and urban alcoholism before you get to Minsk. Closer to the city, quaintly rundown Markučiai holds the Pushkin Museum, a magnificent wooden manor with a park and a lake where the great poet’s son once resided.
Užupis See our separate section about Užupis under Districts.