Vilnius Old Town Architecture

Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.” – Frank Gehry

In this article, we will take a closer look at the different architectural styles Vilnius collected through ages. It was a long journey from Gothic to the Modernist. When you walk in Vilnius you can read the history using the knowledge of architecture.

Vilnius history

Vilnius Old Town, the historical core of the capital of Lithuania, was formed in the 5th-6th centuries on the confluence of Vilnia and Neris rivers. Its growth and wealth took off in the early Middle Ages, in the 12th century, a citadel surrounded the city on Gediminas Hill and an impressive city wall. In 1471, a fire swept through the rapidly growing city, burning down many sacred buildings. The Medieval street plan of the town and the triangular market square next to the Town Hall have fortunately survived to the present day.

Rapid changes contributed to the mixture of architectural styles in Vilnius. The city has always adapted to the latest European trends, and each architectural style influenced the other.

Vilnius’ historic buildings are in Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Classicism styles and have a distinct appearance, spatial composition, and elements of internal and external finishes. They create a townscape of great diversity and yet, at the same time, coexist in overarching harmony.

 

Gothic architecture in Vilnius

The Gothic style formed in France and spread across other European countries. It flourished in Vilnius from the second half of the 14th until the end of the 16th century. Most gothic pearls are religious landmarks. Including St. Anne’s Church, The Church of St. Nicolas, Church of St. Johns, Sanctuary of the Divine Mercy, Kazys Varnelis House- Museum, Bernardine church, and some residential buildings.

The most significant Vilnius gothic buildings are Churches of St. Anne and the Bernardine ensemble. The Church of St. Anne is one of the most impressive buildings, not only in Vilnius but also throughout Lithuania. None of the Gothic buildings resembles its gravity and the richness of the details of the ornament. Meanwhile, the Bernardine Church and monastery are among the largest ensembles of gothic sacral buildings in Lithuania.

 

Renaissance period in Vilnius

In the 16th century, Renaissance architecture began to appear, which flourished until the middle of the 17th century. The Renaissance reached Lithuania directly from Italia, when the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, Žygimantas, and his wife Queen Bona Sforza, invited Italian artists to the court. These artists were responsible for the most important buildings of this era.

In early Renaissance buildings, architects combined gothic structures with Renaissance décor. As a result, many buildings have both lavish baroque and delicate gothic elements. During this period, education became more important and prominent, with the establishment of several universities and printing houses of note, including Vilnius University (1579), Vilnius Aluminate (1582), and Vilnius Jesuit Novice (1602).

Baroque Architecture in Vilnius

Baroque reached Vilnius at the turn of the 16th-17th century, giving rise to the status of Vilnius as the capital of “Eastern European Baroque.” Baroque-style churches and houses in Vilnius reached a previously unseen variety and glamor in Lithuania. The rich architecture served as a dramatic backdrop to liturgical rituals. In the wake of Counterreformation, the wealth of Catholic churches were a stark contradiction to Protestant prayer house restraint.

Early Baroque churches were designed and built according to the Church of the Gesù. Jesuits carried out constructions in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that were controlled by the Ordinance Center in Poland. The most vivid example of Baroque in Vilnius is St. Peter’s and Paul’s Church, which is unique for its interior decoration, statues, and ornamentation.

Other distinctive examples of the baroque are the façades of the graceful towers at the Church of St Catherine, Church of the Ascension of the Lord, and Church of St Raphael the Archan. There is also the Church of St. Casimir, distinguishable by a little wieldy lower part and a dome with a crown, and the Church of St Johns with its bell tower, harmoniously integrated into the architectural ensemble of Vilnius University.

Neo-Classicism Architecture in Vilnius

After the “overdecorated” period of Baroque, people wanted to balance it with more austere arts and went back to Classical architecture. It was a period of Neo-Classicism, such a school spread to Vilnius in the middle of the 18th century. Architect Laurynas Gucevičius, who studied in Rome and Paris, designed the most important buildings of Vilnius Classicism – Vilnius Cathedral, Vilnius Town Hall, and some of the Verkiai Palace ensemble buildings.

Overall, Vilnius’ Old Town feels inviting and charming. As one of the largest old towns in Europe, the Town has many distinct churches and a harmonious landscape that plays nicely with nature, urbanism, and architecture.

Art Nouveau in Vilnius

Art Nouveau was a new trend in Europe at the end of the 19th century. It required vast investments and was a prerogative of the wealthy cities. You can read about Riga Art Nouveau in one of our tour descriptions.  Vilnius was not rich to this standard but still was able to contract at least some Art Nouveau facades. You can spot here and there some art nouveau buildings when you stroll in the new city.

 

Soviet period architecture in Vilnius

The soviet period is quite often criticized for being grey and too practical in terms of design and architecture. The country suffered severely from WWII, and locals rebuilt the cities according to the available funds and strategic preferences. Nevertheless, architects built a unique and friendly building. The most vivid example would be the Parliament house, TV tower, and Sports centers.

Modernist architecture in Vilnius

To my pleasure, modern times brought a lot of new construction in the city. The hi-Tech town is in the very center of Vilnius, on the right bank of the Neris river. This area has plenty of ultra-modern high buildings. And it is a pleasure to walk around and enjoy modern architecture and urban design.

Final word

Architecture is the art and science of creating and designing buildings and any other structures. A more expansive definition often includes the design of the total built environment from the town planning, urban design, and landscape architecture to the construction of details and, sometimes, furniture. In tourism, we use the attractiveness of architecture as a landmark and a reason to visit a country or to drive miles to see a place. It is hard to imagine tourism without observing architectural pearls.