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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Baltic Beauty

Maybe it is the cobblestone byways that meander through Vilnius and appear more suited for horses than horsepower. Perhaps it is the unexpectedly historic architecture or the hulking castles that whisper of medieval derring-do. While modernity certainly intrudes -- it would not be a European capital without its Prada and Ermenegildo Zegna stores, now would it? -- somehow or other, this Lithuanian city, despite its many recent changes, often has the feel of an old-world diorama sprung to life.

In Vilnius, you'll find an easygoing, appealing and less expensive alternative to Paris or Prague. Restaurants and museums proliferate in this city of 550,000, and well-established hotel chains, not to mention stylish boutique hotels, have staked their claims in recent years. Ramada and Novotel have opened in the city center, and Kempinski will soon as well. Le Meridien, a high-end hotel and conference center on the city's outskirts, even has a golf school. At many hotels, Wi-Fi and other high-tech staples are a given.

On the streets, it is readily apparent that young people have embraced West European mores, hence all those fashion shops. English has replaced Russian as the second language of public life, after Lithuanian. In whatever language, people are welcoming.

In the Old Town, it is not difficult to get lost among the crazy-quilt streets, and you may be thankful that you do, especially when you alight at places like St. Anne's Church, as curious and enthralling a Gothic edifice as you will find. Go ahead, squint. The facade truly is made of exposed bricks of numerous shapes, even the spires, as if someone turned loose a master builder with a masonry Lego set.

All over Vilnius, nightlife is lively and unpretentious. Food culture has blossomed, and you can sample everything from Greek to Chinese. In search of local fare, we ended up at Forto Dvaras, a restaurant that is a bit of a Lithuanian culinary theme park. Rustic furniture, staff in national costumes and a menu laden with blini, pancakes and giant dumplings called zeppelin. California spa cuisine it is not. But portions were tasty and sizable, and the bill for six for lunch was only the equivalent of $35.

The contemporary art scene has also taken off. The city recently established an avant-garde visual arts center named after the Lithuanian-American filmmaker and counterculture icon Jonas Mekas, a fellow traveler of Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg. The roster of private galleries seems to grow every month, taking advantage of a robust economy and a rich artistic history.

The Jewish quarter of Vilnius was in its heyday one of the world's most vibrant Jewish communities, later decimated by the Nazis. We wandered the site of the former Jewish quarter, spotting only a few instances of Jewish stars and Hebrew writing chiseled into buildings, then feeling a little more hopeful when we reached the restored synagogue on Pylimo Street, one of the few Jewish institutions to survive the war.

After visiting the city's Holocaust museum, in a small green cottage set back from a main road, and viewing maps and photographs of the two ghettos where Jews were detained, we realized how little the footprint of the city had changed. In some places, what now look like quaint gates were once covered with barbed wire. Larger Holocaust museums may present comparable exhibits, but to gaze upon them here, after walking those very same streets, is especially affecting.

Michael Eckles / MT
In Vilnius' Old Town, it's not hard to get lost among the narrow, winding streets.
One afternoon we hiked up a cobblestone path to the Higher Castle Museum. First constructed in the 13th century, the castle offers lovely views of the city from its open-air roof, as well as exhibits of medieval weaponry. (If you don't want to walk up the hill, you can ride a funicular.)

Another walk brought us to the Gates of Dawn, a bulwark that blocks a narrow road. Once part of the city's original fortifications, it was later transformed into a small chapel containing a venerated icon that has long drawn pilgrims, including Pope John Paul II. On Cathedral Square, the city's main cathedral, which has several chapels and bell towers, is another prominent attraction.

The Old Town has an alluring mishmash of architecture -- from Gothic to neo-Classical and more -- and locals say Vilnius has one of the world's largest assortments of baroque buildings. Whatever the style, the place sure is nice to gaze upon, whether you are lugging around an architectural tome or, as we did, simply enjoying going astray among the narrow streets.

Where to Stay

Mabre Residence Hotel, on the outskirts of the old city, is in a restored former monastery and has a private sauna with a small pool that you can rent. Rooms from 120 euros (about $163). 13 Maironio St., (370-5) 212-2087,

Shakespeare Boutique Hotel, another quaint hotel in the old city, has rooms whose designs and decorations are inspired by you-know-who. Rates from 105 euros. 8/8 Bernardinu St., (370-5) 266-5885,

Ramada Vilnius and Novotel are two new luxury hotels in the city center. Rates start at around 100 euros. Ramada Vilnius, 2 Subaciaus St., (370-5) 255-3355,; Novotel, 16 Gedimino Ave., (370-5) 266-6200.

Where to Eat,
What to Do

Forto Dvaras offers typical Lithuanian food, heavy on the quaint atmosphere and sour cream, light on the wallet. Dinner for two is about 70 litas ($17.50). 16 Pilies St.,

(370-5) 261-1070,

Kazys Varnelis House Museum, has works painted and collected by the artist Kazys Varnelis, viewable by appointment only. Admission is free. 26 Didzioji St., (370-5) 279-1644.

Admission to the following museums is 8 litas or less, depending on age and student status:

Higher Castle Museum: views of the city, along with military exhibits. 5 Arsenalo St., (370-5) 261-7453.

Holocaust Museum: a small, deeply affecting museum on the massacre of the nation's Jews. 12 Pamenkalnio St., (370-5) 262-0730.

Museum of Genocide Victims: a history of communist oppression. 2A Auku St., (370-5) 266-3282,

National Museum: an overview of Lithuanian culture and art. 1 Arsenalo St.; (370-5) 262-9426;