Urban Adventures is a division of Intrepid Travel and offers tours in 153 cities around the world. All Urban Adventures tour guides are locals and have intimate knowledge of the cities they’re representing. Unique tours are offered in each city, ranging from historic walking tours to hands-on cooking classes, and there is also the possibility of designing a customized tour for your group. Because we do our best to interact with locals wherever we travel, I chose an Urban Adventures tour for my family when we were in Vilnius, Lithuania. My husband is of Lithuanian descent (hence, so are my children) so it was important to us to have an authentic experience. Who better to give us a taste of Lithuanian life than a local Lithuanian?
Our tour guide, Vilija, is a lifelong resident of Vilnius. Before our tour began, Vilija took the time to get to know all of us, including my children. She took into account their ages and advised that we might stray from the published tour itinerary. Vilija knew as well as we did that the kids probably wouldn’t be too keen to walk for hours on end. I certainly appreciated the consideration and, it turns out, that would be the first of several actions taken by Vilija throughout the day to absolutely personalize our tour. She was very mindful of the kids’ waning interest in certain places and topics, and knew to mix things up a bit when they started becoming restless. For this reason, we all had a blast, and I believe Vilija did, too.
We spent most of the time in the Old Town of Vilnius, one of the largest surviving medieval old towns in Northern Europe. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, given such designation because of preservation efforts, diverse architecture, and its medieval layout and natural setting.
The highlight for me was hanging out in Užupis, the independent republic that exists within Vilnius city limits. Užupis was one place I definitely wanted to see so I was thrilled when we made our way there. Formed by a group of bohemian artists and eccentrics, Užupis was declared a republic in 1997. It has its own flag, anthem, constitution, and Independence Day – celebrated annually on April 1 (truly, no foolin’). Vilija knew it was important for me to see Užupis so she was sure to take us around every corner and to point out some obscure landmarks. She even made sure the kids got to “ride” the giant rocking zebra. Not a horse, but a zebra. Well, it seems it once was a unicorn zebra that may have lost its horn. At any rate, the kids thought it was the best thing ever. (I plan to write more about Užupis at a later date, so stay tuned!)
My husband, being of Lithuanian descent, had asked Vilija a number of questions about Lithuanian food. He was curious to know if what his grandmother, great-aunt, and mother cooked at home when he was growing up was similar to modern Lithuanian cuisine. Vilija answered honestly and did us one better: she took us to a street market just outside Užupis so we could try some Lithuanian staples. Vilija procured samples for us from the vendors and communicated, on our behalf, with those who did not speak English. The vendors were more than willing to provide us with sample after sample, and we reciprocated by purchasing a healthy supply of delicious items. The various breads were scrumptious and Mark was a big fan of the cured meats and lard (sounds gross, I know, but it was pretty darn tasty). Vilija explained that a common snack is a toasted piece of bread with butter, the cured meat (or lard), and sliced pickles. Guess what we had for breakfast the next morning?
As we walked, Vilija recounted her first-hand experiences of the early 1990s when Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Things didn’t go smoothly; in 1991, the USSR imposed a fuel embargo and Soviet troops killed Lithuanian civilians in an attack at the Vilnius TV Tower. Months later, in September of 1991, the USSR finally recognized Lithuanian independence. As a young American student, I remember hearing news stories of what was happening in Lithuania and the former Soviet Union but I couldn’t personally relate. Vilija certainly could, and I was moved by her stories.
Vilija shared with us another special memory from her childhood. She wanted the kids to try a particular ice cream treat that, nowadays, is sold in only one shop in Vilnius (well, one shop that Vilija knows of). It warmed my heart that Vilija was intent on doing something so special for my kids. The gesture was not lost on Lucia; she’s still talking about that ice cream!
We ended our day with Vilija at the top of the bell tower of St. John’s Church at Vilnius University. It was a gorgeous, warm, sunny day, so we had unobstructed 360-degree views of the city. After spending almost the entire day exploring much of Vilnius on foot, the aerial view was a fitting conclusion to our tour. Before parting ways with Vilija, she asked the kids if they had fun. Lucia wasted no time in exclaiming, “It was the BEST.DAY.EVER.”
My family and I received a complimentary tour from Vilnius Urban Adventures. All words and opinions about our experience are genuine and, as always, my own.