While Vilnius, Lithuania is a destination known for its sprawling old town, abundance of churches, and quirky Užupis Republic, its well preserved examples of Soviet architecture is what enticed me most prior to our trip (and the shopping, but I’ve already written about that). I make no attempt at hiding my affinity for the style (if one can even call it a style…), and whenever I travel in the Eastern Bloc (which is almost every time I travel these days), I do some heavy scouting on what Soviet or Communist-era relics remain in my chosen destinations.
We loved those things! But we also tend to err more on the quirky edge of the spectrum…
Vilnius turned out to be our favorite capital of the three in the Baltic states for commie-archi-peeping (trademark on that pending, btw.) Our favorite building, hands down, was the former Palace of Concerts and Sports.
Built in 1971 and located just north of Old Town (across the Neris River), it’s impossible to miss, especially if you happen to have climbed the bell tower of Vilnius Cathedral or climbed up Gediminas Hill. The building itself looks straight out of Star Trek – and I’m talking the original series, nothing new and fancy. The futuristic curves and portholes are straight midcentury Communist modern, and I was living for all of it.
It’s also the site of some controversy. The site was once home to Vilnius’ largest Jewish cemetery, which was demolished by the Soviets in the 1950s. At some point the car park in front of the structure was replaced with grass, I believe to commemorate the damage done in the past, but one can’t tell as the whole environs is in pretty shabby shape nowadays.
We, of course, had the entire site to ourselves on the day we explored it – and spent a solid hour wandering around, climbing up questionable rebar ladders and such. The basement of the building was unlocked, but there were surly looking Lithuanian construction workers inside who we didn’t want to confront to explore further. A pity, as the building’s insides looked pretty stunning as well.
Just north of the Palace of Concerts and Sports sits the Žalgiris stadium, what seemed to be a once rather significant place. In fact, it apparently is still the largest stadium in Lithuania – despite being completely abandoned and boarded up. We did our best to infiltrate the stadium from many different vantage points, but were again discouraged by rough and tumble looking locals and our desire to eat street food at the nearby Kalvarijų turgus.
After strolling through the market, we ambled back toward the Old Town, stopping to photograph the lovely and wacky National Ballet Theater, and the spooky statues adorning the National Drama Theater. Both great Soviet Modernist constructions – but I’ll be honest with you, we were having some ATM card issues at the time, so my focus was not as much on these buildings as it was on how we were going to get to the airport the next morning.
Once we had our financials figured out, we ventured to the KGB museum via a bonus stop at the Vilnius Palace of Weddings. I had known about this spot from one of the books that sparked my interest in Soviet architecture, “CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed.” I’ve been making my way through the buildings and monuments in this book slowly and surely, and have by now ticked off quite a few in the former Soviet states I’ve had the opportunity to visit.
I was kind of disappointed with the Vilnius Palace of Weddings, but I think those feelings were more due to the weather and general fatigue than the building itself. It was the weekend when we were there, so there was a general bustling atmosphere around the place despite the rain spitting at us from all directions. A man was out front with an accordion, playing for tips, and there was a very atmospheric, very gawdy Russian Orthodox Church (redundant, I know) just kitty corner from us. You know, when I write about it like this, it sounds pretty fantastic, actually.
The Palace of Weddings is adjacent to a sprawling park whose name Google Maps does not know – but what I can tell you is that if you walk through the part (toward the north), you will be spit out just a couple blocks from the KGB museum. Despite the sprawl of Vilnius, it was quite walkable once we got our bearings.
Vilnius was a great destination, and despite our general fatigue after our Baltic Road Trip Honeymoon™, it made for a great final city with some excellent examples of Soviet architecture for us to geek out over. And despite knowing the least about it (of the three Baltic capitals), I think it’s the one I could most easily see myself living in – especially if I could convince local civic authorities to let me convert part of the old Palace of Sports and Culture into a midcentury modern loft of some kind…
Practically speaking, all of these buildings are within walking distance from one another – though it would be quite a long walk. Let it also be known, however, that Vilnius is one of the only places I’ve ever been lost – I like to think I have a great sense of direction, and Vilnius had me turned around more than once. I recommend studying a map or having a mobile device with good signal for ease of orientation.
A great option that Elizabeth at In Search Ofs told me about before my trip is the Soviet-themed Walking Tour, which hits all the buildings I listed above save the Palace of Weddings. It is only run regularly in the summertime, it seems, and then only once or twice a week. Be sure to get in touch with the folks at Like a Local tours beforehand to ensure the tour will be running when you go.