Vilnius

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Vilnius
Population: 554,400
Main industries: Wholesale and retail trade; food and beverage processing; manufacturing of basic and fabric metals; manufacturing of clothing apparel; printing and publishing.
Mayor: Arturas Zuokas
Founded in 1323
Interesting fact: The town of Bernatai, which lies just 26 kilometers north of Vilnius, is recognized by The Guinness Book of World Records as the geographical midpoint of Europe.
Sister cities: More than 40, including Moscow, Riga and Tallinn.
Helpful contacts: Mayor Arturas Zuokas (+3 705-211-2889; meras@vilnius.lt)

VILNIUS — Standing at the top of Gediminas Hill and looking out over the city of Vilnius, it is easy to see why this Baltic capital is considered one of the greenest cities in Europe. With an estimated three-fifths of the city untouched by development, Vilnius is a veritable kaleidoscope of vegetation.

The locals, when not out tending their countryside garden plots for the weekend, can often be found relaxing in the city's many outdoor recreational areas, a further nod to the slower-paced and more organic attitudes that dictate life in the capital.

Indeed, the relationship between man and nature is a dominant theme in Lithuanian folklore, and it is fitting that Vilnius should continue to benefit from this close alliance with the earth. According to Siemens's Green City Index, Vilnius has the cleanest air of any city in Europe, a fact that can be attributed to the large number of trees downtown.

As local legend would have it, Duke Gediminas founded the city nearly 700 years ago, following a dream in which he saw a gigantic iron wolf howling atop a nearby hill. Having consulted a Pagan priest over the meaning of the dream, Gediminas was told to build a town around the very spot where he saw the wolf. The priest's advice was followed. Eventually the city of Vilnius, which takes its name from the nearby Vilnia River, became the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Major Businesses

Maxima (47 Kirtimu Gatve; +3 705-219-6000; maximagrupe.eu/en/) is a food retail chain that operates 467 stores across Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Bulgaria. Employing more than 26,000 people, the company is the largest employer in the Baltics states, headquartered in Vilnius.
Vilniaus Prekyba (vilniausprekyba.eu/) is a private holding company that oversees the management of a number of subsidiary companies. In addition to the food retail chain Maxima (see above), the company also controls the pharmaceutical chain Euro Apotheca (25 Lvovo Gatve; +3 705-204-2122; euroapotheca.eu) and Ermitaziz, a firm specializing in construction and finishing materials (25 Adresas Ozo Gatve; +3 705-249-2800; ermitazas.lt)
IKI (33 Lentvario Str., +3 705-260-1700; iki.lt/en.php) operates 280 food retail stores across Lithuania and Latvia and is one of the largest companies in the Baltics.

Although Russian forces overran the Grand Duchy in the 18th century, the city's historic town center serves as a reminder of this past time. A number of architecturally important buildings are located in this area of the city and the red roofs of the Old Town help to bring a splash of bright color to the landscape. Boasting a number of baroque, as well as renaissance and neoclassical buildings, Vilnius's Old Town has been recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site since 1994.

The very fact that the Old Town is even still standing has to be considered in light of the dramatic history of Vilnius in the 20th century. In the postwar years of 1918-1922, the city's leadership was to change hands no less than 10 times. Meanwhile, during World War II, Vilnius was occupied twice by the Soviets and once by Nazi forces.

In accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviets annexed Lithuania in 1939 and attempted to impose a new ideology on the capital. The Nazi forces, which took Vilnius in 1941, set about exterminating its Jewish population.

Thousands of residents were killed or deported as a result of the Nazi policies. The city's Museum of Genocide Victims serves as a testament to all who lost their lives. In 1944, the city was once again invaded by Soviet forces, under whose control it remained for the next 50 years.

With their nationhood under threat, the people of Lithuania sought to preserve their national identity through the retelling of folk stories and the singing of traditional folk songs. Perhaps the most poignant act of civil disobedience came in August 1989 when 2 million people formed a human chain across the Baltic states, linking the city of Tallinn, in the west, with the city of Vilnius, in the east.

Six months later, Lithuania became the first country to declare independence from the Soviet Union, and Vilnius was once more declared the capital of an independent nation.

Lithuania joined the EU in 2004, and up until 2008, was to enjoy a highly prosperous period of economic growth. Yet, just as with the other Baltic states, Lithuania was severely affected by the financial crisis in 2008.  The country's economy shrank nearly 15 percent in 2009, and by 2010, unemployment had rocketed to 17.8 percent.

Since 2011, however, Lithuania's economy has started to stabilize. Moreover, with a predicted GDP growth of 3 percent in 2013, Lithuania is expected to have one of the fastest growing economies in the EU this year. With Vilnius sitting proudly at its county's helm, the future is looking a lot rosier for this green city.

For MT
Arturas Zuokas,
Mayor
Q: Why should potential investors consider Vilnius?
A: Vilnius has everything necessary for international business, including a highly qualified workforce and excellent infrastructure. Approximately 16 million inhabitants live within 300 kilometers of Vilnius; the other Baltic cities only have a potential surrounding market of about 8 million to 10 million people.
We have a clear set of priorities for which urban areas need to be developed and in the article, "How Innovative Cities Are Thinking, How They Work," The New York Times named Vilnius as one of the top 10 best-managed cities in the world.

Q: What measures have been taken to encourage investment here?
A: We take every effort to encourage investment in the city, and our municipality's best professionals work with investors to find solutions to any challenges that may arise.
For example, IKEA executives have recently said they were delighted at how quickly we were able to respond to their needs. A detailed plan for a shopping center was prepared and approved within six months.

Q: What sectors should investors focus on?
A: The New City Center and an array of former factory buildings near the Old Town are all set for redevelopment. It is the city's goal to stimulate real estate projects and investments in these areas. We also believe that transportation and infrastructure are essential elements of city life, and we plan to introduce trams into the city, for which the development contract will be tendered internationally. AirLituanica Airlines is also set to improve connections between Vilnius and other major European cities.

— Jen Monaghan

What to do if you have two hours

Your best bet is to head down to the Old Town, with Cathedral Square being the best place to start. The square is home to Vilnius Cathedral, and visitors wanting to take a look inside this neoclassical building can do so free of charge.

Outside the cathedral, one's eye cannot help but be drawn to the large, freestanding belfry tower located nearby. Yet, be sure to also glance downward as you wander around Cathedral Square: A small "magical stone" marks the spot where the "Baltic Chain" was started in Vilnius 14 years ago. The locals say that if you twirl three times on this magic spot, all your wishes will come true.

From Cathedral Square, it is only a short walk to the top of Gediminas Hill, where an observation deck offers fantastic views over the city. Alternatively, for those not fond of hiking, a 16-person funicular regularly shuttles visitors up and down the hill. A return adult ticket costs 3 litas ($1.10) while children under seven travel for free (5 Arsenalo Gatvė; +3 705-212-0017; lnm.lt/en/exposition-locations/gediminas-castle-tower/funicular.html).

From the bottom of Gediminas Hill, a stroll down Pilies Street allows access to a number of quaint cafes and shops, while a detour down Bernardinu Street will bring you out at the impressive St. Anne's Church. If time permits, this 500-year-old Gothic building is well worth a visit.

What to do if you have two days

No visit to Vilnius would be complete without a trip to Uzupis, a small and eccentric district in the east of the Old Town. Having declared itself a republic in 1997, Uzupis has its own anthem, a president and even an 11-person army. A copy of the constitution, which includes the passage "a dog has the right to be a dog," can also be found on display at the head of Paupio Street.

As a natural hangout for artists, there are frequent concerts, exhibitions and festivals held in this area of the city, so be sure to check with the Tourist Information center for further details (2 Sventaragio Gatve; +3 705-262-6470; vilnius-tourism.lt/en/tourism).

For those interested in finding out more about Vilnius's 20th-century history, a trip to the Museum of Genocide Victims is well worth a visit. With the museum housed in the former headquarters of the KGB, the building itself — most notably the prison cells in the basement — forms an integral part of the exhibition. It is a sobering experience. Adult tickets cost 6 litas with concessions available (2 Auku Gatve; +3 705-249-8156; genocid.lt/muziejus/en/).

For those willing to travel a little further, a 30-minute bus ride separates Vilnius from the beautiful lake resort of Trakai — home to the equally picturesque Trakai Castle. A return adult ticket on the bus should cost no more than 13 litas while discounts are available for students and children (22 Sodu Gatve; +3 706-206-6068; autobusustotis.lt/en/online-booking).

Trakai Castle, which is completely surrounded by water, was once an important political and military center and visitors can take a yacht tour around the complex with prices starting at 80 litas for a 40 minute cruise (69 Vytauto Gatve; +3 705-285-1934; trakai-visit.lt/en/trakai). Alternatively, one can visit the castle on foot with an adult ticket costing 14 litas and concessions for students, children and seniors available (4 Kestucio Street, +3 705-285-3946; trakaimuziejus.lt/#/lan=en/submenu=137/menu=131). Access to the surrounding national park, a vast forested area, is free of charge, or visitors can choose to soak up the atmosphere by the lake side.

Peter Herchen,

Canadian expat and owner of Jimmy Jumps Hostel in the Old Town
Q: Why did you decide to set up a business in Vilnius?
A: The people here have a connection with the land that is increasingly rare the further west you go. The food is healthy and real, while the natural environment is clean and quite splendid. I used to labor in the oil patch in Canada and decided that I would rather spend my time doing other things. My savings reached a lot further here in Lithuania than they would have in Canada; Lithuania gave me a future that Canada could not.

Q: What have you found most difficult about establishing a business here?
A: The most difficult thing is bureaucracy. Ironically, I find that the further west you go, the more anti-business the "law" tends to be. More taxes, more regulations, more restrictions on everything. Lithuania, while it is heading in that direction, is not so bad yet. Let's hope that the EU and its army of bureaucrats fades away or that Lithuanians decide to walk their own path.

Q: How has the city changed during your time here?
A: It has certainly gotten more expensive, and many young people are leaving the country in search of opportunities elsewhere. I would like to see Lithuanians more actively and regularly embrace their roots instead of trying to emulate the Western lifestyle. Vilnius and Lithuanians in general have a bright future ahead of themselves, if they want it.

— Jen Monaghan

Nightlife

At the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theater, guests can enjoy all the major shows at very reasonable prices (1A Vienuolio Gatve; +3 705-262-0727; opera.lt/en). Tickets in the stands start at 10 litas a piece, while the best seats in the house will set you back 200 litas. If you happen to be celebrating your birthday, you will get a free ticket to that day's performance with your guests receiving a 30 percent discount.

There are a number of bars and clubs in the Old Town, though face control has become a lot stricter in recent years. For the best cocktails, head down to Alchemikas Cocktail Lab on Islandijos Gatve (1 Islandijos Gatve; +3 706-129-9800). This small bar has an extensive drink menu, a good atmosphere and is popular with the locals.

Where to eat

Just a few minutes walk from Cathedral Square, the Pinavija Cafe and Bakery is a perfect pace to grab a quick bite to eat during the day (21 Vilniaus Gatvė; +3 706-764-4422; pinavija.lt/). With a range of homemade pasties and cakes on offer, guests don't leave hungry.

For those wanting something a little more upmarket, Druskos Namai, located in the Uzupio district of the city, surely tops the bill (30 Uzupio Gatve; +3 705-215-3004; druskosnamai.lt/). The menu here is European and, where possible, is sourced from local products. Red meat features heavily on the main menu, though the fish dish is particularly recommended. A two-course meal will cost about 60-65 litas per person. You may wish to book a table in advance.

For a taste of the local cuisine, head down to Medininkai in the heart of the Old Town  (8 Ausros Vartų Gatve; +3 706-008-6491; medininkai.lt/news/). Consisting of two rooms and a wine cellar, the restaurant also opens out onto a 16th century courtyard where guests can dine outside in the summer months. If visiting Medininkai, be sure to try the Cepelinai, a popular Lithuanian dish of mashed potato dumplings with a ground meat filling. A two-course meal costs about 50 litas per person.

Where to stay

The three-star Rinno Hotel, with the Old Town on its doorstep, presents an affordable and attractive option with rooms starting from 145 litas a night including breakfast (25 Vingriu Gatvė; +3 7052-62-28-28; rinno.lt/). Inside the hotel, a small "art-gallery" features photographs and paintings by prominent local artists, while a summer terrace allows guests to relax outside in the warmer months.

A five-minute walk from the Old Town and three minutes from the train and bus station, the Comfort Hotel LT also benefits from a good, central location (27 Mindaugo Street; +3 705-250-5111; comforthotel.lt/). With an emphasis on "healthy living," guests are invited to make the most of the free, 24-hour gym while organic breakfasts are served fresh every morning. Rooms start from 135 litas per night, including breakfast, though it is worth checking online for off-peak discounts.

Conversation starters

During the Soviet occupation, the Lithuanian people had to fight to keep their national identity alive, and language became a key part of this struggle. While there are no real issues between Lithuanian and Russian speakers in the capital — 14 percent of the city's population is Russian — efforts to learn a few Lithuanian words will not go unappreciated. Useful words include: labas (labus; hello) prašau (prushow; please) and ačiū (achoo; thank you).

How to get there

Two trains a day depart from Moscow's Belorussky Station to Vilnius Railway Station (7 Ploshchad Tverskaya Zastava; +7 800-775-0000; pass.rzd.ru/). A second-class return ticket costs about $260, with a first-class return costing about $520. The journey time is a little more than 14 hours.

Aeroflot (+7 495-223-5555; aeroflot.com/cms/en), Air Baltic (+3 716-700-6006; airbaltic.com/public/index.html and UTair (+7 345-245-5099; utair.ru/en/) all fly regularly between Moscow and Vilnius International Airport (+3 7052-30-66-66; vilnius-airport.lt/en/). Flights depart from all three of Moscow's airports, and the flight time is less than two hours. Prices start at $215 for a return ticket.

From the airport, a shuttle bus takes passengers into the center of town with a one-way ticket costing 2.50 litas (+3 705-273-8655; m.stops.lt/vilnius/#bus/en). Visitors can also take a train from the airport to the city's main station for the same price (+3 705-269-2038; litrail.lt/wps/portal). If hailing a taxi, expect to pay 3 litas for the fare into town.

Contact the author at bizreporter@imedia.ru