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Encyclopedia > Wilno
Vilnius Old Town

Vilnius (sometimes Vilna; Polish Image:Ltspkr.png Wilno, Belarusian Вільня, Russian Вильнюс, see also Cities alternative names) is the capital city of Lithuania.


Geographic and population data

City situated in Southeastern Lithuania (5441" north latitude and 2517" east longitude) at the confluence of the River Vilnia (Vilnelė) and the River Neris. This non-central location can be attributed to the changing shape of the nation's borders throughout past centuries; Vilnius was once not only culturally, but geographically the center of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and was also a major city of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The distance from Vilnius to the Baltic Sea and Klaipėda, the main Lithuanian seaport, is about 312 km. The distance is rather large, but other cities such as Kaunas, Šiauliai, and Panevėžys can be reached quickly and easily. They are 102, 214 and 135 km from the capital respectively.

The current area of Vilnius is 402 square kilometres. Buildings cover 20.2% of the city and in the remaining areas, greenery (43.9 %) and waters (2.1%) prevail.

According to official 2001 statistics, there were about 574,000 inhabitants in Vilnius (553 232 in 2003); 52.8% Lithuanian, 19.8% Polish, 19.2% Russian, 4.8% Belarusian, 3.3% of other nationalities.

Vilnius is the largest administrative centre in Lithuania with all major political, economic, social and cultural institutions located in the city. The County of Vilnius covers the regions of Vilnius, Šalčininkai, Širvintos, Švenčionys, Trakai, Ukmergė and municipality of Elektrėnai; totalling up to 9,650 km.


Cathedral in Vilna, as seen in
Cathedral in Vilna, as seen in 1912

Vilnius has been inhabited for centuries, as is proven by numerous archaeological findings in different parts of the city and is possibly a forgotten capital Voruta of the king Mindaugas. Lithuanians have a tale about Vilnius' founding: according to the story, Vilnius per se was founded after the ruling Grand Duke, Gediminas had a prophetic dream about an iron wolf houling on a top of the hill. When he asked a priest krivis Lizdeika for an explanation, he was told that he must build a castle on the top of that hill, which is strategically surrounded by three rivers (Vilnelė, Vilija (also known as Neris) and Vingria (now underground)) and a grand city around that hill, so that "the iron-wolf-like sound about this great city would spread around the world". So Gediminas somehow turned pagan Lithuania back to Mindaugas pro-Western and Christian Europe establishing a capital in the former capital place though forging the original name to Vilnius.

Vilna in 1576

The city was first mentioned in written sources by the new name Vilnius in 1323. Vilnius became famous after a letter of invitation was written to German merchants, by Gediminas. The original part of the city was the Castle built by Gediminas on Castle Hill. Vilnius was established as a city in 1387, when the city was granted Magdeburg Rights by Ladislaus II of Poland. The town was initially populated by local Ruthenians, but soon the population began to grow and craftsmen and merchants of other nationalities settled in the city.

Between 1503 and 1522 the city was surrounded with walls that had nine gates and three towers. Vilnius reached the peak of its development under the reign of Sigismund II Augustus, who moved his court there in 1544. In the following centuries, Vilnius became a constantly growing and developing city. This growth was due in part, to the establishment of Vilnius University by King and Grand Duke Stephen Bathory in 1579. The university soon developed into one of the most important scientific and cultural centres of the region and the most notable scientific centre of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Of course, political, economic and social life was also in full swing there. This is proved by statutes issued in the 16th century, the last of which was still in force until the 19th century. Also, in 1769 the Rasų cemetery was founded; today it is one of the oldest surviving cemeteries in the world.

Rapidly developing, Polish-Lithuanian Vilnius was open to migrants from both East and West. Communities of Poles, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Jews, Russians, Germans, Karaims, and others established themselves in the city. Each group made its contribution to the life of the city: At that time crafts, trade and science were prospering in Vilnius. In 1655 Vilnius was captured by the forces of Russia and was pillaged, burned and the population was massacred. City's growth lost its momentum for many years, yet the number of inhabitants quickly recovered and by the beginning of the 19th century the city was the third largest city in Eastern Europe. This made the destruction of the city walls a must and after 1799-1805 period, only the Aušros Vartai gate (also known as Miedniki Gate and Ostra Brama) remained.

Chapel commemorating the fall of the , now non-existent
Chapel commemorating the fall of the January Uprising, now non-existent

After the Third Partition of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, Wilno was annexed by Russia and became the capital of a gubernya. In 1812 the city was seized by Napoleon on his push towards Moscow. After the failure of the campaign, the Grand Armee retreated to the area where thousands of French soldiers died and were buried in the trenches they had built months earlier. After the November Uprising the University was closed and repression halted the further development of the city. During the January Uprising in 1863 heavy city fights occurred, but were pacified by Mikhail Muravev. Muravev was nick-named Korikas or Wieszaciel (The Hanger) by the population because of the number of executions he organized. After the uprising all liberties were halted and the Lithuanian, Polish, and Belarusian languages were banned.

During the World War I Vilna was occupied by Germany from 1915 until 1918. In 1919 Vilnius was proclaimed the capital of the short-lived Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania and Belarus. It was seized on January 1, 1919 by Polish defence units recruited from the local population. The city was later taken by Bolshevik forces advancing from east. On April 19, 1919 the city was seized again by the Polish Army led by Edward Rydz-Śmigły, but on July 14 it was again lost to the Russian forces. Shortly after the Russian defeat in the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, the withdrawing Red Army handed the city over to the newly reborn Lithuania. However, on October 9, 1920 the Lithuanian-Belarusian Division of the Polish Army (Gen. Lucjan Żeligowski) seized the city after a staged mutiny. The city and its surroundings were proclaimed a separate state of Central Lithuania and on February 20, 1922 the local parliament passed the Unification Act and the city was incorporated into Poland as the capital of the Wilno Voivodship.

The view of Vilna in 1912
The view of Vilna in 1912

The League of Nations Conference of Ambassadors accepted the status quo in 1923, yet the city remained a territorry disputed between Poland and Lithuania (the latter state treated Vilnius as its constitutional capital). Lithuania declined to accept the Polish authority over Central Lithuania and it wasn't until the 1938 ultimatum, when the Lithuanian authorities resolved diplomatic relations with Poland and thus de facto accepted the borders of its neighbour.

For yet another time in its history Wilno started a period of fast development. The Stephen Bathory University was reopened and the city's infrastructure was improved significantly. By 1931 Wilno had 195,000 inhabitants, which made it the fifth largest city in Poland.

As an effect of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Polish September Campaign the city was occupied by the Red Army on September 19, 1939. Only sporadic fighting by the local self-defence units occurred since most of the Polish Army was already fighting Germany in other parts of Poland. The city was initially planned as the capital of Belarus, but after talks in Moscow on October 10, 1939 the city and its surrounding areas were transferred to Lithuania in exchange for Soviet military bases established in various parts of that country. The Lithuanian authorities entered Vilnius shortly afterwards and the capital of Lithuania started to be gradually transferred there. However, the process was not yet finished when in June of 1940 Vilnius was again seized by the Soviet Union and became the capital of the Lithuanian SSR. Approximately 35,000 - 40,000 of the city inhabitants were arrested by the NKVD and sent to Gulags.

In June 1941 the city was again seized by Germany. Approximately 100,000 inhabitants of the city were murdered in the mass executions in Ponary, among them were 95% of the local Jewish population. A failed Ghetto uprising on September 1, 1943 (the Vilna uprising) led to the final destruction of the ghetto. Vilnius was taken by the Polish Home Army during Operation Ostra Brama, also known as Wilno Uprising.

After World War II, Soviet government decided to expel Polish population from Lithuania and Belarus. This decision was implemented during so-called repatriation, organized by Soviet and Polish governments. Despite the fact that repatriation was voluntary and certain part of Polish population did not take part in it, it was very questionable from the side of humanity and justice. This way the city's population changed completely and most links with the city's past and traditions were broken. This fact is still seen by many people as unhappy, especially of its negative effect on city's community traditions.

These events had certain influence on demographic situation in the city. However growth of the city during post-war years was the deciding factor in the changes of demographic rates. Growth of cities in Lithuania during this period and decreasing number of rural population caused rapid population upsurge since approximately 1960 year. This way demographic distribution among nationalities became more comparable with the average of Lithuania in Vilnius. Vilnius became more Lithuanian, than it had been already few hundreds of years. On other hand, numerous Polish community still lives in Vilnius with deep understanding of their traditions.

Beginning in 1987 there were massive demonstrations against Soviet rule in the city. On March 11, 1990 the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian SSR announced its independence from the Soviet Union and restored the independent Republic of Lithuania, which had been annexed by Soviets in 1940. The Soviets responded on January 9, 1991, by sending in troops, and on January 13 during the Soviet Army attack on the State Radio and Television Building and the Vilnius TV retranslation tower 14 people were killed and more than 700 were seriously injured. However, the Soviet Union finally recognized Lithuanian independence in August 1991.

Vilnius Coat of Arms

The Vilnius coat of arms is St. Christopher (Kristupas) wading in the water and carrying the Infant Jesus on his shoulders. The coat of arms was given to the city in the seventh year of its existence, i.e. in 1330.

In pagan times, i.e. until the end of the 14th century, the Vilnius coat of arms featured Titan Alkis, hero of Lithuanian ancient tales, carrying his wife Janteryte on his shoulders across the river.

The origin of the Vilnius Name

It is believed that Vilnius, like so many cities, was named after a river on whose banks it lies, i.e. the River Vilnia (Pol. Wilejka).

Tourism information

Central Vilnius in winter

Since Lithuania's restoration of independence was recognized by the Soviet Union in August 1991, Vilnius has been rapidly evolving and improving, transforming from a Soviet into a Western city in less than 10 years.

Today, Vilnius is a modern, cosmopolitan city reminiscent of Copenhagen or Paris. There are more than 40 churches in Vilnius to see. Restaurants, hotels and museums have sprouted since Lithuania declared independence, and young Vilnius residents are providing the city a reputation for being the most hospitable in the world as evidenced by the large membership of the Hospitality Club.

Like most medieval towns, Vilnius has developed around its Town Hall. The main artery, Pilies Street, links the governor's palace and the Town Hall. Other streets meander through the palaces of feudal lords and landlords, churches, shops and craftsmen's workrooms. Narrow, curved streets and small cosy courtyards developed in the radial layout of the medieval Vilnius.

The Old Town, historical centre of Vilnius, is one of the largest in Eastern Europe (3.6 km). The most valuable historic and cultural sites are concentrated here. The buildings in the old town – there are mearly 1,500 – were built over several centuries, therefore, it is a polyglot of many different European architectural styles. Although Vilnius is often called a baroque city, here you will find some buildings of gothic, renaissance and other styles. The main sights of the city are the Gediminas Castle and the Cathedral Square, symbols of the capital. Their combination is also a gateway to the historic centre of the capital. Because of its uniqueness, the Old Town of Vilnius was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994. In 1995 the only known cast of Frank Zappa was installed in the centre of Vilnius with the permission of the government. Konstantinas Bogdanas, the renowned Lithuanian sculptor who had previously been casting busts of Vladimir Lenin, immortalized Zappa.

Famous Vilnians

  • Michał Andriolli (1836-1893), painter
  • Teodor Bujnicki (1907–1944), poet
  • Jan Karol Chodkiewicz (1560-1621), politician and hetman
  • Gaon mi Vilno (1720-1797), Jewish scholar and Kabbalist
  • Antoni Gorecki (1787-1861), writer
  • Stanisław Jasiukiewicz (1921-1973), actor
  • Kazimierz Kontrym (1776-1836), writer and politician
  • Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004), poet, Nobel prize in Literature
  • Maurycy Orgelbrand (1826-1904) and Samuel Orgelbrand (1810-1868)
  • Jerzy Passendorfer (1923-2003), film director
  • Artūras Paulauskas (b. 1953), speaker of the Lithuanian Seimas
  • Emilia Plater (1806-1831), soldier and revolutionary
  • Kazimierz Plater (1915-2004), chess master
  • Ada Rusowicz (1944-1991), singer
  • Bolesław Bohusz-Siestrzeńcewicz (1869-1940), general
  • Piotr Skarga (1536-1612), theologist, writer and the first rector of the Wilno Academy
  • Irena Sławińska (1913-2004), historian and theatrologist
  • Jędrzej Śniadecki (1768-1838), chemician, biologist and philosopher
  • Jzef Świętorzecki (1876-1936), general
  • Władysław Syrokomla (1823-1862), poet, writer and translator
  • Zygmunt Vogel (1764-1826), painter
  • Antoni Wiwulski (1877-1919), sculptor and architect
  • Tomasz Zan (1796–1855), poet


The climate of Vilnius is transitional between continental and maritime. The average annual temperature is + 6.1 degrees Celsius, in January being – 4.9 and +17.0 degrees Celsius in July. The average precipitation is about 661 mm per year.

There are extremely hot summers with temperature above thirty degrees Celsius throughout the whole day. It is a real joy for owners of bars, cafs and night clubs as well as for people preferring entertainment: night life in Vilnius is in full swing on such days.


Vilnius is the starting point of the Vilnius-Kaunas-Klaipėda and the Vilnius-Panevėžys highways. Though the river Neris may be navigable, no regular water routes exist. Vilnius International Airport serves most Lithuanian international flights to all main European destinations. Vilnius railway station is an important hub as well.

There is a trolleybus network for main public transport routes. An urban rail system is planned for the future. More information can be found at the Vilnius Transport (http://www.vilniustransport.lt/e_index.htm) website.

External links

  • Vilnius' website (http://www.vilnius.lt/new/en/gidas.php) - the best guide in the city
  • Uherope - Travel Tips to Vilnius and more (http://www.freewebtown.com/uherope)
  • Vilnius in Old Photographs (http://www.vu.lt/mb/Vilnius/index_en.htm) - archive of photographs at Vilnius University
  • Law University of Lithuania in Vilnius (http://www.ltu.lt/)
  • Polish site about Vilnius (http://www.wilno.pl/miasto/)
  • Hospitality Club Vilnius (http://secure.hospitalityclub.org/hc/membersrcexternal.php?country=115&xregion=Vilnius&city=Vilnius) - stay with friendly inhabitants of Vilnius for free

  Results from FactBites:
Wilno Voivodship - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (174 words)
Wilno Voivodship (Polish Województwo wileńskie) was one of the Voivodships in the 1922-1939 period.
The Wilno Voivodship was formed as the last of the Polish voivodships in the interbellum.
Wilno Voivodship (Polish: Województwo Wileńskie) was a unit of administrative division and local government in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) since 15th century till the partitions of Poland in 1795.
Vilnius - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2621 words)
Wilno, Russian Вильнюс, formerly Вильно, German Wilna; see also cities' alternative names) is the capital and largest city of Lithuania, with a population of over 540,000 in 2003.
The city and its surroundings were proclaimed a separate state of Central Lithuania (Litwa Środkowa) and, after free parliamentary elections, in a result of the decision of the Central Lithuanian Parliament, on February 20, 1922 the whole area was made a part of Poland, with Vilnius as the capital of the Wilno Voivodship.
Vilnius is the major economic centre of Lithuania and one of the largest financial centres of the Baltic states.
  More results at FactBites »



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