I just spent 10 days in Lithuania and I can definitely see why people would choose to live in Vilnius.
It’s a beautiful, safe and very walkable city with a lot of history.
But what is expat life in Vilnius like?
In this Ask an Expat series I interview people living all over the world but outside of their home country. I try to help paint an honest picture of the ups and downs of life abroad. In the interview, the expat shares tips for anyone thinking about moving abroad and information about what to see and do in the city, town or country the expat now calls home.
Expat Life in Vilnius, LithuaniaName: Brendan
Hometown: Carlow, Republic of Ireland
“I grew up in a small rural town in the southeast of Ireland, but thankfully, through a childhood love affair with books, I knew there was a big world out there waiting to be discovered.
As the youngest of a family of nine kids, I lived a normal kid’s life in a rural town. I went to school, which I detested – if it wasn’t for English and Geography I’m not sure I would have made it through my school years at all. I played football, listened to way too much music and grew my hair way too long (at least that’s what my parents and teachers said), and I never really excelled academically.
When I finished school I went to work in a department store – they too thought my hair was too long. I liked the artistic side of the display managers job, so I went to college and studied visual merchandising.
This was my career for many years and all the while I watched my friends emigrate to the USA, the UK, Australia, and anywhere else that was better than life in the middle the economic depression which permeated Irish society at the time. I envied all those travelers.
Then my day came. I was sent to work in Moscow – then still in the Soviet Union. This job took me to various cities across Russia and other former occupied states, Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Minsk, Tbilisi, and more. That’s when the travel bug really started to bite.
Writing was always the one constant that accompanied me through the years and through my further travels. So, at the age of 40, I did the most natural thing I could think of, I went to university to study Creative Writing, with my mind firmly fixed on becoming a travel writer, something I did quite successfully for over 12 years.
In a roundabout kind of way, that’s finally what brought me to Vilnius.”
Why Did You Move to Vilnius?
“I was sent on a newspaper assignment to write about tourism in Vilnius.
At first, it just felt like another nice, pretty, eastern European city. Then, some weeks later I was sent again for another publication, this time to both Kaunas and Vilnius.
To cut a long story short I returned to Lithuania, and Vilnius three more times in the space of six months. Every time I returned I just felt more and more at home, at ease, and at peace in Vilnius.
The pace of life was slower. The air seemed fresher, and despite not knowing the language, understanding the culture or the mentality of the people I felt, pretty quickly, that it was a city where I could be content.
So, I upped sticks, sold my home in Ireland and moved to Vilnius.”
What Do You Like About Vilnius?
“Despite the fact that Vilnius is a capital city, it has the feel of a large town. You can cross the heart of the old city on foot in forty-five minutes. The traffic is never overwhelming. The biggest street in the city center, Gedimino Prospekt, is never busy, unless it’s for some celebration, market day, fair, or event.
I also like the fact that there seems to be something to do every day and night – if you have the time and the energy. Concerts, art exhibitions, sporting events, opera, ballet, and the city always has a buzz of creativity about it.
And, I adore the fact the city is surrounded by living forests. From my home, I can be watching eagles, wild boar, foxes, pine martens, and deer within thirty minutes of leaving the house. In fact, on occasions, I’ve even had wild boar, fox, squirrels, and a huge array of birdlife visiting my garden, in the city center.
The area of the city where I live, Uzupis, has the feel of a village where many people know each other, and people regularly shake my hand as I make my way to work or just go about my daily business.”
What Do You Dislike About Vilnius?
“What I don’t like about living in Vilnius, is one or two very simple things.
It’s not the city itself, but the lack of interaction among the city’s inhabitants in general. People who arrive first – as I did – call it the coldness of Lithuanians, but I don’t think that’s correct. There is a privateness, a closedness in the peoples’ demeanor. Perhaps it’s a hangover from times past, I really don’t know, and I’m not sure I’ll ever understand it.
For example, I will hold a door open for someone in a supermarket and get no reaction, no thank you, no words, not even a recognition that I exist.
A group of people will stand on the pavement, smoking, outside a bar or restaurant, an old lady will have to step off the pavement to pass them. It’s not like they’re being deliberately rude, it’s almost as if they are so engrossed in their own world that nobody else exists.
But, if you get through the invisible barrier everything changes. The people can be warm, friendly, engaging, but no matter how close you get, that barrier will always be there, at least that’s what I feel.
As for the physical city itself, there are many things which could be improved. But Lithuania is a relatively new country to western values, so everything will take time. Slowly but surely the pavements are being repaired, the street lighting has seen huge improvements, the roads and infrastructure still leave a lot to be desired, but everything is moving forward bit by bit.”
What is Your Favorite Thing to Do in Vilnius?
“In winter, when the country is covered in snow I love to walk in the forest – which is right in the heart of the city. I also love to go to some cozy bar or restaurant knowing that it’s minus whatever outside, and spend some time sharing food and drinks with friends.
In summer – and when it’s not minus something outside – getting as much of the outdoors as possible is huge, not just for me, but for everyone who gets tired of long gray winters.
I also love visiting music venues in and around Vilnius. Whether it’s to hear visiting international acts or sampling some of the many amazing new bands which seem to proliferate in the city.
The year is punctuated by music festivals of all genres. In summer it seems that every weekend has yet one more outdoor music festival located on an island, or deep in the heart of a forest. If I was younger I would be gone every weekend of summer.”
What is Your Favorite Place to Hang Out in Vilnius?
“Where I live in the quirky arty district of Uzupis – which is a self-proclaimed autonomous republic – there’s a bar called Spunka. It’s tiny, but it’s a real local hangout. I know that when I go there I will meet someone to chat with.
There’s also another bar, run by some friends of mine, called Spiritus, which is for an older crowd who mostly work in TV, film, politics, or the arts. The music is always laid-back but really funky. I guess most younger people would say it’s kind of ‘square’ but I really like the vibe in the place. And, if you’re a tequila fan, they’ve got the biggest and most authentic collection in the Baltics.
For ordinary food, at really affordable prices, if you’re visiting Vilnius you can’t miss Pianoman or its sister bar, Gringo. Both places have a friendly atmosphere, they show sports on TV, and it’s easy to strike up a conversation with strangers.
For upmarket dining, Gaspar’s is unbeatable. They offer a mix of Goan, Portuguese, and modern European cuisine, but aren’t a place I could afford to go every week, unfortunately.”
Also Read: Where to Eat in Vilnius, Lithuania
What is the Expat / International Community Like in Vilnius?
“There’s an expat community in Vilnius? Yes, there actually is. There are thousands of expats living in Vilnius, but there is no one central place where you can be sure to meet them, at least not like in cities like Warsaw, Stockholm, Berlin, or even Tallinn.
As a native Irishman, the ‘Irish pub’ is usually the center of expat life in most cities, but believe it or not, there is no Irish pub in Vilnius.
Of course, you will always hear accents and the voices of other foreigners wherever you go, but they don’t mix so much, like in many other cities in Europe and around the world. Or, maybe I’m just too settled in my ways, and there really is an expat community that I don’t know about.”
Any Tips for Moving to / Living in Vilnius?
“My only tip would be that if it’s your choice to move to Vilnius, first visit the city as many times as possible, in both winter and summer, before you make your choice.
If you’re still happy with what you find – like I was – by all means move to Vilnius.”
Any Resources You Found Useful During the Process of Moving to and/or Building a New Life in Vilnius?
“This didn’t exist when I moved to Vilnius, five years ago, but I wish it did.
Until recently it was almost impossible to discover the ins-and-outs of getting started in the city. You had to use social media channels to ask others for advice, and even then it was often incorrect.
But, now the city authorities have compiled a great list of most of the information you need, and the word on the street is that the bureaucracy is getting less and less every month.”
Is There Something You Just Have to See or Do When You are in Vilnius?
“Relax. That’s my advice.
Slow down your pace of life, wander the backstreets, stop in little bars, coffee shops, bookstores, wherever takes your fancy, but slow down.
Nobody is in a hurry in Vilnius, even when you’re waiting to be served in bars and restaurants (they’re not being rude, just being Lithuanian). Learn to take it easy. Life runs at a different pace here.
Also, this is just one tiny tip, but it’s one I share with any visitors who come to say hello. Visit St. John’s bell tower in the heart of the old city. For three euros you can take the lift, or stairs, to the top and see – at least for me – one of the most beautiful views of the city.
The red-tiled roofs spread all around you, the President’s Palace, the ancient university buildings, the real heart of the city is beneath you, it’s a sight you won’t get from the even higher vantage points on Castle Hill or at the monument of the Three Crosses, the more famous city landmarks.
Finally, it may be touristy, but having dinner in the revolving restaurant at the top of the TV Tower, is a must. Just be sure you go on a clear day with no cloud cover.
And mostly, enjoy this great and beautiful city steeped in so much history.”
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania and its largest city. But with a population of less than 600,000 it’s by no means a large capital city.
Vilnius is known for the architecture in its Old Town, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
Before World War II, Vilnius was one of the largest Jewish centers in Europe. Its Jewish influence has led to it being described as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” and Napoleon named it the “Jerusalem of the North”.
Vilnius has always been a multi-national city populated with Lithuanians, Poles, Germans, and Slavs. More recently, during extensive urbanization through 1950-1970, more people from other parts of Lithuania, neighboring parts of Belarus, as well as Russia, Ukraine, and other Soviet republics arrived and became an integral part of the city population.
Nowadays Vilnius is both a contemporary and ancient city. It is rich in architecture, historical monuments, cultural heritage, thematic festivals, and entertainment.
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