From investigative journalism to post-punk anthems, tattoo start-ups to pulled pork, Vilnius isn’t just tower blocks and snow.
In five words
“Being relatively unknown has advantages.”
Sound of the city?
“Kita stotelė” means “next stop”. It’s Vilnius’ equivalent to “mind the gap” in London, and is one of the first things visitors hear when they get on a bus or a trolleybus here.
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Recently, investigative journalism has really taken off in Lithuania, and the best example of it is a Vilnius-based journalist called Šarūnas Černiauskas.
Although Lithuania’s press enjoys all the freedoms you would expect, unfortunately, some bad habits such as corruption and bias linger. However, one of Lithuania’s newspapers is now heavily investing in investigative journalism – probing politicians’ and their business connections, for example.
Loftas is a warehouse-style music venue that has brought well-known musicians to Vilnius since 2010. From 2012 it has held Loftas Fest, which is the biggest musical festival in the city. The opening of Loftas also kickstarted the regeneration of the uptown post-industrial district.
More recently, Keulė Rūkė, a burger joint that specialises in pulled pork and ribs, has accelerated uptown’s regeneration and brought a Hackney vibe to the area.
Who’s top of the playlist?
The contemporary Lithuanian music scene is really diverse, and more people should know about it! There’s a huge amount of hip-hop, techno, pop and rock to choose from. The jazz and classical scenes are also more popular with younger audiences than you would expect.
If, however, I had to choose one musician, it would be ba., who takes his initials after his name – Benas Aleksandravičius.
He sings his own electronic rock post-punk anthems and despite being just 19, has already released two albums. For me, he really sums up what new-generation Vilnius is about and his confident and energetic performances show that Vilnius is populated by bright young people who are determined to shape the city according to their generation’s ideals.
Favourite local artist
I’d probably say tattoo artist Kamila Faithful Doorway (as she calls herself on Facebook). Not only do her designs stand out, she also inspires her followers to pursue their dreams. She started her own business with her boyfriend, they taught themselves everything and she’s always posting positive advice.
As our mayor Remigijus Šimašius would say – smagu, which translates loosely as “nice”.
The look on the street?
There’s no specific “Vilnius style” – people just try not to look the same. Check out Humans Of Vilnius on Facebook for a sample. Run by photographer Vincas Alesius, the project shows us everything from grannies wearing Soviet-era bonnets, to supermodels getting out of Porsches.
Either way, it doesn’t really matter – everyone’s pretty good looking here, and most people take pride in their appearance.
Best cultural Instagram?
Daina Dubauskaitė is a prolific blogger and the leading authority on nightlife in Lithuania. She Instagrams from parties and an unexpectedly wide variety of events and exhibitions happening all over the country. She also interviews visiting musicians in English.
What’s the big talking point in your city right now?
Immigration. Like all European Union member states, Lithuania will accept a quota of refugees from war-zones in Africa and the Middle East in early 2016. There is some skepticism about them arriving, as a small minority are concerned they will destroy Lithuanian culture and traditions. However, as the Jewish, Polish, Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian communities show, immigrants have played a significant part in Lithuania’s development since the 16th century – particularly in and around Vilnius.
What your city does better than anyone…
We specialise in surprise! Not a lot of people know what to expect before arriving in Vilnius. I think they have an image of the city being just tower blocks and snow. Tourists are greeted by a church-filled, red-roofed old town, which is super clean, and crammed with trees and green spaces. There’s also a Marks & Spencer here. And it sells crumpets.
Oleg Surajev. Oleg’s a multi-ethnic Lithuanian, and one of the country’s leading comics. Unfortunately, he rarely performs in English – you’re just going to have to learn Lithuanian if you want to appreciate his awkward sense of humour! He is also working on a Lithuanian-British documentary called Freetime in Kiev, where he reveals his more serious side by returning to his birthplace to interview Kievans about the conflict in Ukraine.
During the Soviet-era, the Sąjūdis was the Lithuanian independence movement led by Vytautas Landsbergis. On August 23 1988, it organised the biggest rally in the country’s history in Vilnius’ Vingis Park.
As the Soviet Union started to disintegrate, 150,000-200,000 Lithuanians gathered in the 400 acre park to rally for their country’s independence from Moscow.
The 1988 Sąjūdis rally was also held on the 49th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact; a protocol signed between Nazi Germany and the USSR, which led to Lithuania being invaded once by the Nazis, and twice by the Soviets.
Incident-free, the event was more than remembering what happened 49 years previously. The thousands of attendees, waving independent Lithuanian flags with black ribbons, plus rallying speeches from Landsbergis, Justinas Marcinkevičius and Sigitas Geda – two prominent anti-Soviet poets, marked the Lithuanians’ fight and desire to be an independent country.
By March 1990, Lithuania had gained independence for the first time since 1940.
Best street art?
Vilnius holds an annual street art festival and this year its organisers invited British street artist Mobstr to the Lithuanian capital. In the Uptown district, Mobstr was given a half-used building on Pelesos street, and he painted the mural “every building will be famous for 15 minutes” in massive pink and black letters on its front.
It overlooks the train station, so it’s one of the first thing visitors see. Their general reaction is “wow, that’s cool”. It’s certainly striking, and it’s certainly a talking point.
George East is the online editor for a Vilnius-based NGO, Music Export Fund, and a freelance writer. He has also lived in Russia, and moved to Vilnius in March 2015. Despite having been asked numerous times, he is not a spy.
This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.