Vilnius is a safe bet for its 700th anniversary

Vilnius' Unesco-listed Old Town. The capital of Lithuania is marking its 700th anniversary with special events.
Vilnius' Unesco-listed Old Town. The capital of Lithuania is marking its 700th anniversary with special events. Photo Credit: Felicity Long
Felicity Long
Felicity Long

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is marking its 700th-anniversary this year. While that's a lot of years and certainly deserves celebrating, I found myself wondering whether the festivities are a little muted because of the war in Ukraine.

This is tough for a country that was just beginning to emerge on the radar of mainstream travelers from North America, so I reached out to Go Vilnius, the city's official tourism and business development agency, to get a sense of the local mood.

"While some uncertainty may be justified given the close proximity to Ukraine, there is no reason to believe that these circumstances are a security threat," said Inga Romanovskiene, Go Vilnius' director.

Street art is everywhere in Old Town Vilnius.
Street art is everywhere in Old Town Vilnius. Photo Credit: Felicity Long

She admitted, however that Russian aggression in Ukraine is affecting the way some travelers perceive the region. 

"We recognize particular safety concerns from a small number of travelers, especially those who are less familiar with the region. However, we want to emphasize that Lithuania and its capital Vilnius are currently not experiencing any issues that could be reasonably deemed as safety risks."

Close to the war, but safe

For the record, while Lithuania shares a border with Russia and is about 500 miles from Ukraine, the country has consistently supported Ukraine during the conflict and has been a member of NATO and the EU since 2004.

At the onset of the war in Ukraine, Lithuania was just beginning to climb out of the impact of the pandemic. Tourism from North America to Vilnius plunged by around 70% in 2020 and 2021, then rose just as sharply last year.

In 2022, tourist numbers from North America were almost fully restored to prepandemic levels, reaching 93% of the numbers recorded in 2019 -- the country's most best year for tourism. The hotel occupancy was 62% -- a modest 3% less than in 2019.

While it's too soon to tally the impact of the war on these numbers for 2023, it's interesting to explore why the country has emerged as a popular destination in recent years.

"Vilnius has a lot to offer to travelers," Romanovskiene said, "[including] a Unesco-listed Old Town with walkable distances between the restaurants and tourist attractions, unique experiences like riding a hot air balloon over the city, high-quality hotels and a 700th-anniversary program jam-packed with cultural events."

Music and art highlights

One of the events, Music for Vilnius, will feature the music of international composers -- including American Michael Gordon, Anna Korsun from Ukraine, Toshio Hosokawa from Japan and Heiner Goebbels from Germany -- at such unusual venues as a courtyard in a former ghetto and the Gediminas Castle Tower.

Scheduled for July and August, the Vilnius Biennial of Performance Art, was created specifically for the anniversary. The biennial will transform the public spaces -- including streets, historical buildings and parks -- into stages for international artists who will present a program that reflects what Vilnius regards as its most intrinsic values: boldness, multiculturalism and creativity. 

Other highlights will include a music festival called As Young as Vilnius, set for July 21 to 25, in honor of St. Christopher, the patron saint of Vilnius. The free event will feature a concert and dance party in Vingis Park headlined by international and Lithuanian artists.

From Sept. 1 to 3, the annual Vilnius Capital Days Festival 2023 will be dedicated to the city's 700th anniversary. Festivities will include dance performances, opera, exhibitions and music events featuring rock, pop, jazz and classical performances.

Meanwhile, the National Museum of Lithuania is mounting a free, interactive exhibition, "Pavilion: Vilnius 200 Years Ago," which depicts the life of the city two centuries ago.

Set to run through October, the show will use light, sound, projection and augmented reality technologies to re-create the city as it once looked.

Finally, as a gesture of defiance against its ominous neighbor, an exhibition at the MO Museum running through the end of the year focuses on the downfall of the Soviet regime in Vilnius, while showcasing the city's transformation into a modern European city. The immersive travel through time is directed by Oskaras Korsunovas, one of Lithuania's most prominent artistic directors. The exhibition is called "Vilnius Poker," which is also the name of a well-known Lithuanian novel by Ricardas Gavelis.


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