Jianggan Li’s TRAVEL BLACK BOOK

Travel Black Book: Lithuania's capital, Vilnius

Mr Jianggan Li (above) at Trakai (left), a historic city and lake resort which lies west of Lithuania's capital Vilnius.
Mr Jianggan Li (above) at Trakai (left), a historic city and lake resort which lies west of Lithuania's capital Vilnius.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF JIANGGAN LI
Mr Jianggan Li (above) at Trakai (left), a historic city and lake resort which lies west of Lithuania's capital Vilnius.
Mr Jianggan Li (above) at Trakai (left), a historic city and lake resort which lies west of Lithuania's capital Vilnius.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF JIANGGAN LI

Managing director of the Easy Taxi Singapore app Jianggan Li likes the capital of Lithuania for its beautiful architecture

Who: Mr Jianggan Li, 30, is managing director of Easy Taxi Singapore, a mobile taxi-booking application. The Singapore permanent resident comes from Jiangsu province, China. He moved here 14 years ago when he accepted a scholarship from Nanyang Technological University.

Favourite city: Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania

Why: The city has beautiful architecture and Vilnius Old Town is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Despite years of Soviet rule, the city remains distinctively Lithuanian. 

After I graduated from university, I befriended a Lithuanian girl and gradually got to know half of the Lithuanian population in Singapore - about 30 people in 2007.

They invited me to visit their city, so I made my first trip there in 2008. My second visit was in 2012.

Best places to stay

Both times I visited Vilnius, I stayed with friends.

However, Mabre Residence Hotel (Maironio gatve. 13, Vilnius 01124, tel: +370-5-212-2087) is a good choice, with its quiet and classy ambience. The building is a former monastery which was constructed in the 16th century.

Located in the heart of Vilnius Old Town, it features rooms overlooking a stunning courtyard. Room prices range from €100 (S$163) a night for a single room to about €200 for a suite. The hotel also offers promotional rates, so check its website. Another option is Kempinski Hotel Cathedral (Universiteto gatve. 14, Vilnius 01122, tel: +370-5-220-1160), a luxury hotel also in Vilnius Old Town. Standard rooms cost between €200 and €250 a night.  

Best places to eat

I recommend Aula (Pilies gatve. 11, Vilnius 01123, tel: +370-5-268-7173), which was voted the Most Hospitable Restaurant in Vilnius in 2012. It is well-known for its wide selection of Svyturys beer, a popular local brew. It is a must-try for visitors.

Aula serves traditional Lithuanian cuisine with a contemporary twist. Its unique offering is food served with beer sauces, such as beer caramel or beer marinade. A three-course meal comprising a salad, main course and dessert with coffee or tea is priced at about €10.

Best watering hole

Vilnius is known for its good wine bars, such as Vynin Notre Vie (Stikliu, gatve. 10, Vilnius 01131, tel: +370-6-142-4521) and In Vino (Ausros Vartu, gatve. 7, Vilnius 01013, tel: +370-5-212-1210). The selection is mind-boggling. I would suggest trying something Georgian, which you do not usually find in South-east Asia. Georgian white wine varieties I recommend include Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane. Red wine enthusiasts should check out Saperavi.

The wines cost about €15 a bottle. A piece of trivia:  Lithuania celebrates Georgian Wine Day in honour of Georgia, said to be the world's oldest wine region.

Must-try dishes  

Cepelinai, a potato-based Lithuanian national dish which got its name from its resemblance to a Zeppelin airship. It is stuffed with minced meat and/or mushrooms. The few times I ate it, it was always accompanied by sour cream. 

Another dish to try is cold borscht, a type of soup characterised by its bright pink colour. When my Lithuanian friends in Singapore gather, this is indispensable. It is usually served with sour cream and boiled potatoes. 

Best place to shop

I am not a fan of shopping, but I love walking around markets such as the Kalvariju market (Kalvariju; gatve. 61, Vilnius 09304, tel: +370-5-272-2225), the largest one in town. You might find interesting things besides fresh food items, as market vendors sell everything from clothes to pets to furniture. Be prepared to haggle. Most sellers speak only the local language, while some speak a bit of Russian. 

Must-see places

Definitely Vilnius Old Town, with its mediaeval architecture. Walk around and you will discover more than just the monuments in the guide book. 

There is also the Museum of Genocide Victims (Auku, gatve. 2, Vilnius 01113, tel: +370-5-249-6264), commonly known as the KGB Museum because it was formerly the site of the KGB headquarters.

Visitors at the museum will be able to see how prisoners were tortured - in a tank of freezing water, in a sound-proof room where all the walls are padded to prevent suicide, or a solitary confinement chamber which barely fits one person. 

Visit the Gate of Dawn (Ausros Vartu, gatve. 14, Vilnius 01303, tel: +370-5-212-3513), the only surviving gate of the first original five gates in the city wall which was built between 1503 and 1522. There is also a famous painting of the Virgin Mary in the Chapel of the Gates of Dawn, known as "Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn". The painting is covered with gold and attracts many pilgrims, especially those from Poland. 

Best place to people-watch

Attending a Sunday Mass at the Vilnius Cathedral (Katedros aikste 2, Vilnius 01143, tel: +370-5-261-1127). Catholicism was an important force which held the people together during the Soviet communist rule (just as in neighbouring Poland, homeland of Pope John Paul II).

Must-get souvenir

Amber. The Baltic Sea area has the world's largest amber reserves. In Vilnius, you will find many shops selling amber. There are also a few amber galleries where you can see rarer types.

Place with the best view 

Gediminas Tower, a fort inhabited by the Grand Dukes of Lithuania (Arsenalo, gatve. 5, Vilnius, tel: +370-5-261-7453). Walk up the tower and you will have a good view of the city and the river. Put on headgear, a scarf and gloves if you visit during winter as it gets windy. 

Best day trip

Head to Trakai, a 30-minute drive from Vilnius, where you will find the castle of the Grand Duke of Lithuania on an island in the middle of the lake. It is beautiful in summer and you can walk on the thick ice in winter. Some locals allegedly even "surf" over the ice with their cars. 

Most memorable experience 

I will never forget getting chased by four skinheads. My friends and I encountered some tall and bald youths in military clothing one evening while walking around the city.

One bumped into me and I thought it was accidental. However, we soon realised they were following us and shouting obscenities at us.

They started chasing us and we got away by getting into a taxi. There was some dispute about the fare and the driver drove us back to where we boarded.

Fortunately, the skinheads did not notice us. After the whole saga, we went straight to the liquor shop to get a bottle of vodka.

Advice for travellers

Be careful of their "herbal" drinks. A lot of them are vodka-based and are quite similar to Jagermeister, a German herbal liqueur.

When going out for dinner or drinks, take the trolley bus for a nostalgic feeling.

Eastern Europeans tend to be very direct, while the locals of Vilnius are very shy. So, manage your expectations when you talk to them. 

brynasim@sph.com.sg