Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, and its largest city. It is located in the southeast of the country. It is the second biggest city of the Baltic states, after Riga.
Vilnius is the seat of the Vilnius city municipality and of the Vilnius district municipality. It is also the capital of Vilnius County. The first known written record of Vilnius as the Lithuanian capital is known from Gediminas' letters in 1323.
Historian Romas Batūra identifies the city with Voruta, one of the castles of Mindaugas, crowned in 1253 as King of Lithuania. During the reign of Vytenis a city started to emerge from a trading settlement and the first Franciscan Catholic church was built.
According to legend, Gediminas dreamt of an iron wolf howling on a hilltop and consulted a pagan priest for its interpretation. He was told: "What is destined for the ruler and the State of Lithuania, is thus: the Iron Wolf represents a castle and a city which will be established by you on this site. This city will be the capital of the Lithuanian lands and the dwelling of their rulers, and the glory of their deeds shall echo throughout the world". The location offered practical advantages: it lay within the Lithuanian heartland at the confluence of two navigable rivers, surrounded by forests and wetlands that were difficult to penetrate. The duchy had been subject to intrusions by the Teutonic Knights.
Its growth was due in part to the establishment of Alma Academia et Universitas Vilnensis Societatis Iesu by King Stefan 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 Commonwealth.
During its rapid development, the city was open to migrants from the territories of the Grand Duchy and further. A variety of languages were spoken: Lithuanian, Polish, Ruthenian, Russian,Old Slavonic, Latin, German, Yiddish, Hebrew and Turkic; the city was compared to Babylon. Each group made its unique contribution to the life of the city, and crafts, trade, and science prospered.
The 17th century brought a number of setbacks. The Commonwealth was involved in a series of wars, collectively known as The Deluge. During the Russo-Polish War (1654–1667), Vilnius was occupied by Russian forces; it was pillaged and burned, and its population was massacred. During the Great Northern War it was looted by the Swedish army. An outbreak of bubonic plague in 1710 killed about 35,000 residents; devastating fires occurred in 1715, 1737, 1741, 1748, and 1749. The city's growth lost its momentum for many years, but the population rebounded, and by the beginning of the 19th century its population reached 20,000.
|St Anne's Church|
Following the November Uprising in 1831, Vilnius University was closed and Russian repressions halted the further development of the city. Civil unrest in 1861 was suppressed by the Imperial Russian Army.
During the January Uprising in 1863, heavy fighting occurred within the city, but was brutally pacified by Mikhail Muravyov, nicknamedThe Hangman by the population because of the number of executions he organized. After the uprising, all civil liberties were withdrawn, and use of the Polish and Lithuanian languages was banned. Vilnius had a vibrant Jewish population: according to Russian census of 1897, out of the total population of 154,500, Jews constituted 64,000 (so around 41% percent). During the early 20th century, the Lithuanian-speaking population of Vilnius constituted only a small minority, with Polish, Yiddish, and Belarusian speakers comprising the majority of the city's population.
Under Polish rule, the city saw a period of fast development. Vilnius University was reopened under the name Stefan Batory University and the city's infrastructure was improved significantly. By 1931, the city had 195,000 inhabitants, making it the fifth largest city in Poland with varied industries, such as Elektrit, a factory that produced radio receivers.
The war had irrevocably altered the town – most of the predominantly Polish and Jewish population had been either exterminated during the German occupation or deported to Siberia during the first Soviet occupation. Many of the surviving inhabitants, particularly members of the intelligentsia, were now targeted and deported to Siberia in the beginning of the second Soviet occupation. The majority of the remaining population was compelled to relocate to Communist Poland by 1946, and Sovietization began in earnest. Only in the 1960s did Vilnius begin to grow again, following an influx of Lithuanian and Polish population from neighbouring regions and well as from other areas of the Soviet Union (particularly Russians and Belarusians). Microdistricts were built in the elderates of Šeškinė, Žirmūnai, Justiniškės and Fabijoniškės.
- The Cathedral of Vilnius is the main Roman Catholic Cathedral of Lithuania. It is situated in Vilnius Old Town, just off of Cathedral Square. It is the heart of Lithuania's Catholic spiritual life. In 1387, the year in which Lithuania was officially converted to Christianity, the Gothic style Cathedral with five chapels was begun and eventually constructed, but this cathedral burnt down in 1419. During the preparation for his coronation as King of Lithuania, Vytautas built a significantly larger Gothic Cathedral in its place; the Cathedral had three naves and four circular towers at its corners. Flemish traveler Guillebert de Lannoy noticed its similarity to the Frauenburg Cathedral. The walls and pillars of this cathedral have survived to this day. In 1522, the Cathedral was renovated, and the bell tower was built on top of the Lower Castle defensive tower. After the fire of 1530, it was rebuilt again and between 1534 - 1557 more chapels and the crypts were added. The Cathedral acquired architectural features associated with the Renaissance. In 1529, Crown Prince of Poland and future king Sigismund II Augustus, was crowned Grand Duke of Lithuania in the Cathedral. After the fire of 1610, it was rebuilt again, and the two front towers were added. The Cathedral was damaged during the war of 1655. It was renovated and decorated several more times.
- Gediminas' Tower is the only remaining part of the Upper Castle in Vilnius. The first fortifications were built of wood by Duke of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Gediminas. Later the first brick castle was completed in 1409 by Grand Duke Vytautas. Some remnants of the old castle have been restored, guided by archeological research. It is possible to climb to the top of the hill on foot or by taking a funicular. The tower houses an exposition of archeologic findings from the hill and the surrounding areas. It is also an excellent vantage point, from where the panorama of Vilnius' Old Town can be admired. Gediminas' Tower is an important state and historic symbol of the city of Vilnius and of Lithuania itself. It is depicted on the national currency, the litas, and is mentioned in numerous Lithuanian patriotic poems and folk songs.
- St. Anne's Church is a Roman Catholic church in Vilnius' Old Town, on the right bank of the Vilnia River. It is a prominent example of both Flamboyant Gothic and Brick Gothic styles. St. Anne's is a prominent landmark in the Old Town of Vilnius that enabled the district to be included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. The first church at this site, constructed of wood, was built for Anna, Grand Duchess of Lithuania, the first wife of Vytautas the Great. Originally intended for the use of Catholic Germans and other visiting Catholics, it was destroyed by a fire in 1419. The present brick church was constructed on the initiative of Grand Duke of Lithuania Alexander in 1495–1500; the exterior of the church has remained almost unchanged since then.
- The Cathedral of the Theotokos is the main Orthodox Christian church of Lithuania.
The cathedral was built during the reign of the Grand Duke Algirdas in 1346. It was constructed by Kievan architects with the blessing of Saint Alexius Metropolitan of Kiev and all Rus in 1348. The Cathedral of the Theotokos is one of the most ancient churches of Vilnius, built before the christianization of Lithuania when the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the last pagan state in Europe. It became an important spiritual centre for the growing Christian population of the duchy. In 1495 the marriage between Aleksandras of Lithuania and Yelena of Muscovy (Ivan III's daughter) was held in the cathedral in the presence of Saint Macarius. It was there that Yelena was buried in 1513.
- The Presidential Palace (Lithuanian: Prezidentūra), located in Vilnius Old Town, is the official office and eventual official residence of the President of Lithuania. The palace dates back to the 14th century and during its history it has undergone various reconstructions, supervised by prominent architects, including Laurynas Gucevičius and Vasily Stasov. The Palace traces its history back to the 14th century, when Jogaila, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, issued an edict donating land in the city to the Vilnius Diocese, for this reason the palace is sometimes referred to as the Bishops' Palace. Construction of the Palace took place in the late 14th century under the auspices of the first Bishop of Vilnius Andrzej Jastrzębiec, and over succeeding generations, the building was gradually enlarged and renovated. During the Renaissance, the Palace was once again renovated, and parks and gardens surrounding the building were expanded.