When trying to decide where to go for our Easter Break (and a rare weekend we were both free!), I hadn’t really thought we would be flying off to the east to experience Soviet-led Belarus, and the irresistible sights of Lithuania and Poland. From Gothic spires to Stalinist capitals, Eastern Europe really is a warehouse of cultures waiting for exploration. In general, prices are low throughout these countries. A meal in a nice restaurant will not break the bank, and every museum we visited worked out under £5 per person. There is so much to discover, so why wait?!
When to go?
We made our trip in early May, and experienced some bitterly cold weather in Vilnius (it was snowing and lakes were frozen over still) and some boiling hot weather (it was 26C degrees when we landed in Warsaw!). High season is July and August, where you can expect high temperatures and high prices. Hotel rates can rise up to 30%! Big cities will also be crowded. May-June and September to October is often still pleasant weather, and you will beat the crowds travelling in this time.
Trying to imagine what Lithuania was like pre-1900 is quite difficult; much of its capital, Vilnius, boasts bleak Soviet-era remnants which are still sprawled throughout the city. Still, the charming 13th-century historic centre, the largest still remaining in central and eastern Europe, seems to flow seamlessly into the newer Soviet-inspired boulevards. It’s a changing city; adopting the euro in January 2017, it will soon be a top pick for weekend travellers looking for history, architectural heritage, and a bustling cafe culture that won’t break the bank.
We had planned 48 hours in Vilnius, and felt like we had enough time to explore the city. There were a couple of places we didn’t go to due to opening times, which we should have foreseen.
We flew with Wizz Air from London Luton to Vilnius. Beware that if you want to sit with somebody, you will have to pay for select seats; we didn’t do this and then were separated even though we checked in together and at the same time!
Arriving at Vilnius airport was easy. The airport building itself looks more like a grand train station, and it is small. There are a few options to get into town from the airport. The Bus 1 runs from the airport to Vilnius train station, a shuttle train service runs connecting the two (this should cost less than €1), or you can get a taxi. We opted for an Uber, which we tend to try and use when we’re away – it’s easy to track where you are and where you’re going, especially if you don’t speak the language! Our Über journey cost us only €5 (£4.30) and took only around 15 minutes.
On arriving at our apartment, we decided to walk around to get our bearings of the city and planned to take the free walking tour (more about that later!) tomorrow. We were staying right in the heart of the old town, and opposite our front door was St. Anne’s Church, so started there! This late-15th-century Gothic church built with red brick, ornate stained glass, and huge arches may seem impressive, but not much of it is original; most features are reconstructed. Even so, it’s worth a visit to admire the architecture, and whilst you’re there, take a look at the Bernadine Church behind it that dominates the local skyline.
Top foods to try in Lithuania
- Bulviniai blynai (potato pancakes)
- Cepelinai (potato-dough ‘zeppelin’ stuffed with meat, mushrooms, or cheese)
- Beaver stew
- Bear or game sausages
- Smoked pigs’ ears (we did not try these!)
- Kepta duona (deep-fried garlicky bread sticks)
Be aware you will start to smell like garlic if you spend too long in Lithuania! Everything seems to have it in, and this along with the smell of fried potatoes will be your lasting smell of the country! Make sure you have some mints on you!
We ate at Lokys (Stiklių gatvė) that evening as we wanted traditional Lithuanian food on our first night in the country. This restaurant has become something of a Vilnius institution, and many a local and tourist can be found in the vaulted 16th-century cellars. Being a hunter’s restaurant (with animal busts hanging through the former merchants house), it’s best servings are its game; roast venison, boar, game sausages, quail and even beaver stew. Matt had the roast boar, and I decided to go for the “Lokys House Royale,” a selection of different meats with roasted courgettes and potato wedges.
On our first morning waking up in Vilnius, we did the 10am free walking tour with FreeTour. We try to take part in a free tour as soon as we arrive in a city, as they are often run by locals, and you get to find your bearings of the city without getting lost! Our guide, Rita, gave us a combination of both history, fun facts and stories from nowadays life that only the locals know about! We covered most of the highlights of the old town, as well as Uzupis, a district over the river which is now known for its swarm of artists that have settled there. Uzupis even has its own constitution, and considers itself an independent country (not UN recognised though!). The free tour sets off at 10am and 12pm from the town hall. Check out the website for different tours they run, including a Pub Crawl, Jewish Vilnius, and an ‘Alternative’ Vilnius.
Recommended by our walking tour guide Rita, we headed to Forto Davras for a traditional Lithuanian lunch. This restaurant feels like a bit of a tourist trap, especially as it is on the main road, but it serves good food at a reasonable price, so there’s no shame in eating here (in fact we ate here twice!). Good traditional food and cheap beer, set in the downstairs cellar (something that seems to be quite common in restaurants in Lithuania!)
We had read about a picturesque red-brick castle which seemed fairly close to Vilnius. Deciding it would be nice to leave the city for a little while and explore parts of Lithuania slightly more rural, we headed to the bus station and bought an open return for around €2 each. This is obviously a popular route, as the ticket officer had pre-printed lists of the return buses and their times. We would make the 2pm bus out, and they return up until around 8pm (ask for a list when you book at the ticket office!). The journey takes around 30 minutes.
Get the bus to Trakai from Vilnius – the bus station in Trakai is around a 20 minute walk through the town to the castle, whereas the train station is a longer walk and is more complicated to find. The bus journey is also a nicer journey, and there is more to see along the way, instead of staring out into forest. Trakai-visit has information on how to travel there.
Arriving at Trakai castle was quite overwhelming. We realised that the entire lake it is situated on was completely frozen over and people were walking on it to cross over to the castle. The castle was €7/£6 or €3.50/£3 for students, and any updates listed on the castle website along with opening times. As we were dealing with fairly poor weather conditions (it was snowing and sleeting by this time), we were happy to find lots of indoor exhibits (with quick dashes across the courtyard). The museum has an interesting collection of antiques and reconstructions from its 14th-century beginnings, as well as a few more modern works of art. Lots of reconstruction work has gone on over the last few centuries, taking the castle from almost rubble and disrepair, to the major tourist attraction it is today.
On the next morning, we walked from our apartment in the Old Town north-east towards the Museum of Genocide Victims. This haunting former headquarters of the Gastapo and then KGB houses a museum dedicated to the thousands of Lithuanians who were deported, imprisoned, or murdered by Nazi Germany and then Soviet Union from WWII until the 1960s; exploring the basement prison is a chilling, but poignant and important experience. The museum is closed Monday and Tuesday, and cost €4 (£3.50) for adult admission, and €1 (85p) for students – this museum will ask for your student card!
I was a bit apprehensive about visiting Belarus. It is the closest country politically to Russia, and doesn’t see itself as European at all. Due to high tensions in Russia at the moment, particularly with LGBT rights, I was sceptical about enjoying our visit, but what we found the complete opposite – a friendly, welcoming country with a lot to take in!
Travelling to Belarus got a whole lot easier in January 2017 when President Alexander Lukashenko signed a document allowing nationals from 80 states visa-free entry into the country. You have to have proof of medical insurance for your stay in Belarus; if you don’t have travel insurance, firstly why not? But secondly, and more important for your stay, you can purchase travel insurance at the airport before security, and it will cost you €6 (£5.25) for the 5 days.
If you are travelling visa-free, there is a slight snag. You can only stay for 5 days (including the day you arrive and the day you leave), and you have to fly in and out of Minsk International Airport. Because of the times of inbound and outbound flights, it doesn’t really give you enough time to explore the country. If you are wanting to exploring further afield than Minsk, perhaps to Brest, you might be better off applying for a visa and spending more than 4 nights in the country. This would also make travel easier, as there are international trains that run to Moscow (requiring a separate Russian visa) or Warsaw (which was our next stop).
After exiting the airport, we again decided to take an Über from the airport to our apartment located just off of pr Nezalezhnastsi (Independence Avenue), one of the main streets in Minsk. It cost around 30 BYN (€12/£10.40) and took around 35 minutes.
Another tip would be to make sure you have any offline translations already (difficult for Cyrillic languages) downloaded, and you know exactly where you are going. We couldn’t find our AirBnb apartment and our greeter only spoke Belarusian or German. Luckily, we managed to broken translate from German, and then asked some locals nearby to help translate.
On arriving in Minsk city centre, we had planned to take part in a pub crawl organised by FreeWalkingTourMinsk (the company running the free walking tour on tomorrow’s agenda). This runs every Thursday, Friday & Saturday at 9pm and costs 35 BYN (€13/£12). Unfortunately, we had just missed it as it took us a while to get through security (a missing medical insurance certificate), so we headed into the first pub, Gambrinus. Self-proclaimed “spiritual gastro-pub” serves more than 100 varieties of bottled beer and 18 types of draft beer. They also offer a European food menu, and it is a great way to try national cuisine. We had local beers, and ordered the “assorted beer fries” for 30 BYN (€12/£10.40), which came out as a huge plate of onion rings, chicken nuggets, ribs and deep-fried bread!
The next morning, we met our tour guide, Roma, for our FreeWalkingTourMinsk. These run in English, and depart every day at 11am from the front of City Hall in Svabody Square, near the statue of Voigt, the bronze figure holding the key and paper. Unfortunately, it was wet and windy on the morning of our tour, but come rain or shine, our guide was ready to whisk us through the sights, with a stop at a coffee shop to warm us up on the way. The Old Town tour covers the Upper part of town (Old Town), the former residence of Lee Harvey Oswald (the elleged assassin of former US President John F Kennedy), a park, the Opera House, and finishing up at the Victory Monument.
Recommended to us by our walking guide Roma, the Hrai restaurant set in the … part of town served great traditional Belarusian food at a great price. The draniki here was top notch, and we also had the buckwheat pancakes with pork and mushrooms.
Cuisine through Eastern Europe is very similar, with lots of countries boasting that their traditional way is better than their neighbours. Belarusian cuisine, similar to Lithuania and Poland, consists of lots of meals based around food from the earth. The most famous dish is draniki, which is a potato pancake (think hash brown) often served with pork, onions and mushrooms. Krupnik is a traditional Belarusian vegetable soup served in a loaf of rye bread, and pork ears feature widely throughout menus in the region. Similarly, buckwheat pancakes are heralded throughout history, known since the middle 18th century for being served at the court of King Augustus III, Stanislaw Poniatowski.
The quaint State Museum of the History of the Theatrical and Musical Culture is set in a former monastery, but includes lots of traditional Belarusian theatre and music exhibits. We were probably their only visitors for the day, and we had a personal tour by a museum steward. There are no English signs or captions, but it was a nice half hour looking at the exhibits.
On our second full day in Minsk, we decided to visit the castles of Mir and Nesvizh (Njasvich). We hired a car from the branch of Europcar based at Hotel Minsk (we had prebooked this online for £35), which was just around the corner from our apartment. An easy hour drive brought us to the small town of Mir, dominated by its impressive red brick castle. There’s not much else to see in Mir, so don’t feel like you have to make many pitstops, apart from maybe the pub-restaurant opposite for coffee or tea before you go in (this was well needed as it was cold and snowy as we arrived).
Entry fee for Mir Castle (as of June 2018) is 12 BYN(US$6/£4.50) or 14 BYN (US$7/£5.25) at the weekends, with students going at half rate. Because of the inclement weather, we were happy to be inside exploring the history and original castle artefacts. The castle has towers and turrets to climb, and lovely views of the English gardens (which would have been nice to walk around had it not been snowing and sleeting!)
A lot of the museums and sights to see in Minsk are closed on a Monday. Because we were visiting the city over catholic Easter Sunday (Orthodox Palm Sunday due to calendars), a lot of these were also closed on the Sunday. To make the most of our time, we decided to leave the city for the day and visit the castles further south that were open on Mondays.
Another half an hour drive took us to the town of Nesvizh (Niasvizh or Njasvizh), where we stopped for lunch before heading onto the castle. This town has a few more sights, including a town gate, town hall and cathedral, but once you’ve driven past these, there is no need to stop. We ate lunch at Skarbnitsa, which sits opposite the town hall, and serves great draniki (I had the frying pan) and other traditional Belarusian food.
The walk from the castle car park to the castle itself is a nice walk along the lake, and the castle is impressive on first sight. Entrance is 14 BYN (US$7/£5.25) and half rate for students. The exhibitions there are well laid out across different floors, and wind around the different areas of the castle (it is all inside apart from the run across the courtyard to different exhibitions!). Nesvizh Castle feels more traditional than Mir, and closer to what it would have looked like, and the interiors and decorations are fascinating.
We had devoted the next day to the great Museum of the Great Patriotic War. This museum hosts an excellent display detailing Belarus’ suffering and heroism during the Nazi occupation. It is an interesting look to see the national pride of the country and it’s close ties to the Soviet, and the role they played in helping the country; of course the Soviet’s “saved” Belarus from the Nazi’s, and the country has leant this way ever since. There is also a range of tanks, airplanes and artillery from WWII, and some great dioramas throughout, making it one of Minsk’s few must-see attractions. Entrance is 9 BYN (US$4.50/£3.30) or 7 BYN (US$3.50/£2.60) for students.
Another highlight of the museum is the stunning Victory Hall, which on a clear day, is one of the best architectural designs you will see on your trip!
After visiting the museum, we stopped by the haunting Zaslavsky Jewish Monument and the still snow-logged Memorial Gardens.
For dinner that evening, we ate at Kamyanitsa, located slightly further east on the north part of the river. This restaurant is a great grill restaurant serving loads of traditional Belarusian food, and is thoroughly recommended. We had the ribs from the grill, which were great!
This filled us up for our visit to the Opera House that evening, where we saw a Belarusian production of La Traviata. We had been told about the Opera House on our walking tour, and our guide, Roma, explained ticket prices are inexpensive due to state funding and low expenses. We paid a total of 18 BYN (US$9/£6.75) for two dress circle tickets! Bargain! If you have a free evening, and there is something on, I’d definitely recommend it!
The next morning, before heading back to the airport, we ate breakfast at My English Granny, and had a sorely missed fry up! The restaurant serves the closet thing to traditional food we found on the trip, and was a nice change to pastries on the move!
When leaving the country from the airport, be aware that most airlines require you to tag luggage, regardless of if it’s being checked in or carried on as hand luggage. We queued for 45 minutes to get through security to be told we didn’t have tags on our luggage and had to go back to check in (even though we had checked in online!).
What you will learn about Warsaw from your stay is that it is different to much of Poland, and other European countries. It has suffered the worst history imaginable, including virtual destruction, but it has survived, rebuilt itself, and flourished into a diverse, friendly capital. Our third and final city treated us to glorious weather throughout our stay. We arrived at the airport to 25 degree sunshine, and again took an Über to our apartment. This took about 30 minutes and cost around 30 BYN (US$15/£11).
I wouldn’t usually offer recommendations for AirBnB’s as I think they are so personal to what travellers require, but our apartment was beautiful. Jan was a great host, and has renovated the apartment perfectly; everything we needed was available, and we were just a five minute walk from the town centre. We were just sad we didn’t stay for longer!
Free Walking Tour Warsaw operate a huge amount of tours, and we met Agatha for the 4pm free tour of old town Warsaw. This fascinating walk took us around the city, and gave us lots of interesting local knowledge.
The legend of the Warsaw Mermaid
The City’s literature says that two mermaids from Denmark were swimming in the Baltic Sea. One, Den lille Havfrue (The Little Mermaid), bored of swimming returned home to Copenhagen (where she now sits on the waterside), but her sister, Melusine (or Melusina), decided to carry on swimming and made her way to Warsaw, stopping on a riverbank near the Old Town. Fishermen noticed something was creating waves, tangling nets, and releasing their fish. They planned to trap the animal, then heard her singing and fell in love. A rich merchant trapped and imprisoned the mermaid, thinking he could make money from her. Hearing her cries, the fishermen rescued her. Ever since the mermaid, armed with a sword and a shield, has been ready to help protect the city and its residents.
For dinner we ate at Pub Pod Zegarem, which was recommended to us by Agatha from the tour. If you take a free walking tour, get a map and show it to the restaurant at dinner and you even get a free shot of Polish vodka! Here is the best place to try every type of food you’re supposed to try in Poland – we had the pork knuckle and the ribs (and shared both of them!)
The next morning, we had breakfast at Warszawski Sznyt to set us up for the day, and then made our way to the Palace of Culture and Science. This huge building is like marmite; half of the city hate it, and half love it. Given by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, this ‘gift of friendship’ is the tallest building in Poland, at 231m. The building basically houses some shopping malls and conference spaces, but take the high-speed lift to the 30th floor and there is an observation deck where you can see the span of the city. This costs 20zl (US$5.50/£4) or 15zl (US$4/£3) for students (in the summer they open the terrace in the evening as well, so you can see the city with the sun setting).
After viewing the city from above, we made our way towards the Chopin Museum. Being a pianist, Kris was very excited to visit this museum. Completely high-tech with interactive multimedia including images, videos and score extracts for you to listen to, this museum is a must-see for any music fan. They even have the last piano that Chopin owned on display! Entrance price is 22zl (US$6/£4.50) or 13zl (US$3.50/£2.60) for a reduced ticket, and it is recommended to book in advance as they limit the entrance of people to the museum.
To fully complete your Chopin story whilst in Warsaw, visit the Church of the Holy Cross (ul Krakowskie Przedieście), and find the second pillar on the left side of the nave. This pillar, adorned with an epitach of Chopin, contains what remains of the composers heart. It was illegally smuggled here from Paris after his death by his sister, who did it to honour the composers last will and testament; although he had body from Poland to France, his heart remained in Warsaw.
The museum is closeby to Łaziesnki Park, where we then walked to and explored. We stopped for a refreshing Aperol spritz at a cafe, and then spent some time spotting red squirrels in the trees.
Our last full day was spent visiting two great museums. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is a huge exhibition with lots of multimedia and interactive features, illustrating 1000 years of Jewish history. Regular admission is 25zl (US$6.75/£5) or 15zl (US$4/£3) for a reduced ticket.
We also visited the Warsaw Rising Museum, which is well recommended. This museum traces the history of the city’s heroic but doomed uprising against the German occupation in 1944. Filled with displays, photographs, film archives and personal items, there is even a bomber plane which fills much of the 1st floor. Regular admission is 25zl (US$6.75/£5) or 20zl (US$5.40/£4) for reduced rate (admission on Sundays is free!).
No matter where you visit in these three beautiful countries, you will always find friendly faces welcoming you to their home, and wanting to share as much culture with you as possible.