Tim Richards enjoys the 'new Europe' in a pint-sized nation with ale, amber and a magic tile to wish upon.
Vilnius has seen plenty of change in the past century. It was part of the Russian Empire, then ruled by Poland; under military occupation by the Soviet Union and Germany; incorporated into the USSR; and finally transformed into the capital of a diminutive Baltic state within the European Union.
Given this tumultuous history, it comes as a surprise to discover how well the city's historic centre has survived the passing of empires. Its narrow, winding cobblestone streets, tiled roofs and baroque churches are a stereotype of visitors' expectations of a small European city.
With its facades restored since the decay of Soviet times and its streets dotted with new restaurants and bars, Vilnius is a shining example of what Michael Palin has called "New Europe".
There is no better place to begin a morning exploration of the Old Town district than the Gates of Dawn. Passing through this surviving portal from the now-vanished city walls, inspect nearby St Teresa's Church, which is a picture of baroque splendour. And in a cobblestone courtyard opposite you'll find the studio of Jonas Bugailiskis, a sculptor creating striking wooden figures with a pagan vibe.
Jonas Bugailiskis, Ausros Vartu 17/10, (+370) 5 261 7666.
Proceed along Ausros Vartu to the Vilnius Town Hall on its broad square. Take a seat at cafe Amatininku Uzeiga, with its bright planter boxes and even brighter floral tablecloths, eavesdrop on the German tourists at adjacent tables and marvel at the waitresses in peasant blouses and tiny tartan aprons over denim miniskirts. Oh, and order some arbata (tea) for $2.
Amatininku Uzeiga, Didzioji 19/2, (+370) 5 261 7968.
Browse through the nearby outdoor craft market, where you'll find Russian dolls and amber jewellery aplenty, then take a detour west past Vilnius University. At the back of a car park off Kalinausko Street is one of the city's oddest attractions: a bust of musician Frank Zappa, erected by artists in the wake of the Soviet Union's dissolution.
Return to the Old Town and have lunch at Forto Dvaras. This homely eatery is dedicated to Lithuanian standards, the most memorable of which are cepelinai (zeppelins). These large football-shaped potato dumplings ($6) are traditionally stuffed with minced pork and served with a crackling and sour cream dressing. You're hardly indulging in health food, so order a stein of Svyturys beer for $3 to wash it down.
Forto Dvaras, Pilies 16, (+370) 5 261 1070, see fortas.eu.
Walk on to Cathedral Square where you'll encounter the neoclassical architecture of Vilnius Cathedral. In the square near the belfry, locate the Stebuklas, the colourful "miracle tile", which was the end point of a human chain that stretched from Estonia to Lithuania in 1989, in the dying days of the USSR. Stand on the tile, close your eyes and turn clockwise while making a wish.
Behind the cathedral, catch the funicular railway up to the ruins of Gediminas Castle, whose fortifications once dominated the hill above the Old Town. Nowadays there's a remnant tower to climb and some fine views over the city.
Upper Castle Museum, Arsenalo 3, (+370) 5 261 7453. Entry: adult/concession $2.50/$1.
Having descended, head west along Gedimino Prospektas, a boulevard that has reclaimed its 19th-century glory as a fashionable shopping street. Take a table outside micro-brewery Avilys and watch the beautiful people passing by, while sipping a $5 Korio, a dark ale laced with ginseng.
Avilys, Gedimino Prospektas 5, (+370) 5 212 1900.
Vilnius' darkest history is memorialised at the Museum of Genocide Victims, further west. This was once the local headquarters of the KGB and its exterior is adorned with plaques remembering those who "disappeared" into its cells. The interior, left largely as it was when the KGB departed, is a sombre but moving place to visit.
Museum of Genocide Victims, Auku 2a, (+370) 5 249 7427, genocid.lt. Entry: adult/concession $3/$1.50.
From the Old Town, cross the narrow Vilnia River into Uzupis, an eccentric district that was declared an independent republic in 1997 by a group of bohemian artists. Follow Uzupio Street, dropping into galleries along the way, to the Angel of Uzupis, a dynamic statue of a windswept angel.
On a wall in nearby Paupio you'll find the Uzupis constitution outlined in six languages (one clause of which is "everyone has the right to be misunderstood").
Follow Uzupio further uphill to Tores. Its terraced dining area, framed by trees and ornate lamp posts, has spectacular views over the castle and cathedral. Order a pizza and, why not, another beer, and follow it with a hot cherry kisiel (pudding) topped with ice-cream.
Tores, Uzupio 40, (+370) 5 262 9309. Pizza $10, beer $3.50, kisiel $5.
For a musical conclusion, head to the Aula Blues Club, which also presents jazz and rock. It's a cool place to chill out after a busy day out walking the cobblestones.
Aula Blues Club, Pilies 11, (+370) 5 268 7173, see bluesclub.lt. Cover charge $7.50-$10, some events free.
Air Baltic has daily flights from London Gatwick to Vilnius for about $132 one way including tax. Finnair has a through fare of about $1628 return including tax from Melbourne and Sydney. This entails flying a partner airline to Asia where you change to Finnair.