OMG this is the year! Vilnius is a 700 years
old young city! And even though the times are rough, it’s still important to acknowledge how far we came. So in this not so short text I will explain why Vilnius is celebrating its birthday in one of the darkest months in Lithuania and how you can join the fun!
Why the 25th of January? History of Vilnius
A famous legend tells us that the Grand Duke Gediminas was on a hunting trip in the forests of Šventaragis valley where rivers Vilnia and Neris meet (around present day Cathedral square in Vilnius Old Town). As the night fell, the party decided to set up camp in the valley. While the Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas was asleep, he had a dream of an iron wolf standing on the top of a hill with its head raised proudly towards the moon howling as loud as a hundred wolves. Awakened by this strange vision, the Duke immediately consulted the pagan priest Lizdeika about it. The latter told Gediminas that the dream was a sign from the Gods. The iron wolf, explained the priest, was the symbol of a city, a great capital. This future city will be as strong as iron and as famous across the world as hundred wolves howling! And who was tasked to build this incredible capital? The Grand Duke Gediminas of course!
After reading this you might have a few questions. Did the Grand Duke actually sleep in the woods in the middle of January? Since our pagan rulers were not famous for keeping calendars and work schedules, how do we know that it happened on the 25th and not 28th? Well, traditionally the first known written mention of a citys’ name is considered its’ birthday. So when was Vilnius mentioned for the first time ever?
As Grand Duke Gediminas wanted to make Vilnius the greatest city of all, he started the greatest marketing campaign of the 1300s! His secretaries were writing letters to promote the city to europeans. Sadly, none of those original texts have survived to this day. However, we have the transcripts made in Riga shortly after the letter was received. From those documents we know that in the second letter written on January 25, 1323 Vilnius is mentioned for the first time! And already as the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
You might be also wondering what else was mentioned in the letter? First of all the letter was addressed to the German cities of Lübeck, Sund, Bremen, Magdeburg, Cologne and other cities in the Holy Roman Empire. The citizens of these cities were assured that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, even though a pagan country, was very tolerant to the Christians. Moreover, The Grand Duke invited knights, squires, merchants, doctors, smiths, wheelwrights, cobblers, skinners, millers, and others to come to the Grand Duchy and practice their trade and faith without any restrictions. His invitation notably included German Jews as well as Christians, and its issuance is closely linked to the establishment of the Jewish community in Vilnius and Lithuania. The peasants were promised tax exemption for ten years. The merchants were also exempt from any tariffs or taxes. Nice offer, right? These letters till this day are considered the true calling of Vilnius - to be tolerant, inclusive and open to everyone. However, you have to pay taxes now…
So now you know why we have the official celebrations in January. But how can you join the fun? Here’s my ideas for what to do in Vilnius this week!
acknowledge how far we came. So in this not so short text I will explain why Vilnius is celebrating its birthday in one of the darkest months in Lithuania and how you can join the fun!
1 - See the transcript of the letter at Gediminas Castle Tower!
Take advantage of the extremely rare opportunity to see what Gediminas letters looked like! Count how many times the word “Vilna” is used in the text. It’s also a great opportunity to visit legendary Gediminas Castle Tower and howl like a wolf from its rooftop. However, you might get some weird looks after that…
2 - Send a letter. Or a postcard. Or at least a text message!
Postcards for Vilnius700 anniversary © Go Vilnius
After seeing the transcripts, write your own letters! Maybe you have a crazy dream and need help to fulfill it? Or are you simply having a time of your life in Vilnius? Here is the list of places to find the best postcards:
Mint Vintetu (Šv. Ignoto 16, Vilnius) A bookshop of used books, where you can find postcards and write your dreams down, while enjoying good tea and coffee.
MO museum (Pylimo str. 17) For art lovers!
Vilnius tourist information center ( Pilies str. 2) you can find limited edition Vilnius700 postcards here.
Post offices are located at Vokiečių str. 7 or Totoriu str. 8.
For more unique and artsy postcards head to the Republic in Užupis!
Užupis Border Control ( Užupio str. 1) very interesting/unique/hand drawn postcards from local artists. This place also serves as a post office.
Keistoteka (Paupio str. 2) has quite a collection of vintage postcards from the 60s to 90s!
Feeling bad about your handwriting skills? Don’t worry, you can simply create your own Vilnius’ Belated Birthday E-Card!
3 - Have a dad joke competition next to Gediminas monument!
Gediminas monument at the Catdedtral square. Light installation by Kipras Krasauskas © Lightfestival.lt
Ok, I know it sounds crazy, but I did suggest howling as a wolf at Gediminas Tower…And Gediminas is a dad of Vilnius after all. So it does make sense if you don’t think too hard about it. So how about this: "Why do seagulls fly over the ocean?" "Because if they flew over the bay, we'd call them bagels."
Talking about food…
4- Have some desert!
Traditional Lithuanian cake - Sakotis © Vilnius with Locals tours
What is a birthday without a cake or two? And we have a perfect one for the occasion. Have you ever heard about Šakotis? This weird shaped cake baked on a rotating spit over an open fire is a must before you leave Lithuania. You can buy the entire cake in many places, like traditional food markets, or in Senamiesčio krautuvė. Many cafes in Vilnius also sell sliced Šakotis, so you can try it first without buying the entire tower.
5 - Dress up!
Pins & socks for Vilnius birthday © Go Vilnius
Why not, it’s the 700th b-day after all! Of course, maybe buying a new designer coat is not in your plans (or budget) right now. But how about funky socks or a t-shirt with Vilnius inspired art? Or a badge? Many souvenir shops around Vilnius Old Town will have something to offer, however the official Vilnius700 memorabilia can be found only in Vilnius tourist information center ( Pilies str. 2).
I, on the other hand, decided to get a celebratory manicure to celebrate my beloved city!
6- Join the light festival and see Vilnius in a different light!
An installation from Vilnius light festival by Robyn Moody © Lightfestival.lt
For four nights (from 25th till 28th) the streets and squares of Vilnius will be filled with light installations, illuminated architecture, contemporary digital art and various lighting design solutions. Believe me, it’s a must see. Scared of the cold? Here is a video from last year to convince you.
The festival will start in the Cathedral square, where spectators will time travel through 700 years of history with an impressive light and laser show. Huge stage/installation is being built as I am writing these words, so I can’t wait to see what it’s all about on 25th of January at 7.30 PM
The rest of the festival exhibits will be open from 6 PM to 11 PM each evening. To find them all, I recommend getting a special app.
7- Make a wish!
Postcards, cakes and socks… what did I forget? Oh yes, we need to make a birthday wish! Before or after the light festival head directly to Cathedral square and find a little tile with the word STEBUKLAS written on it. It means a miracle and locals know that if you step on it and spin 3 times, all your wishes will come true. Feel a bit dizzy after spinning? This is how you will feel after your dream comes true!
8- Party all year long!
Last but not least, it’s important to mention that Vilnius’s birthday will last more than one day or even one month! Our wonderful capital will be surprising you with impressive birthday events throughout 2023. Concerts, exhibitions, theater performances, festivals and adventures await everyone who takes part in the celebration. So check the official calendar and plan your visit to Vilnius today!
So here are a few ideas on how to celebrate Vilnius b-day! Feel inspired? Definitely join our Vilnius city walking tours and we will share even more personal recommendations to discover Vilnius!