Think cozy wooden cottages—some charmingly dilapidated and others renovated with pride and painted in dollhouse colors—flowers in a riot of blooms, cats and dogs living it up as they hang out of lace-framed windows, and the peaceful buzz of village life.
The light here feels diffused, softer than it typically is in the city. Is this place out of a Studio Ghibli movie or a Thomas Kincaid painting?
No, you’ve just stepped into Zverynas, Vilnius, Lithuania’s fairy-tale neighborhood, where the small details encourage us to long for that mythical “simpler” time.
What should you know about Zverynas and what should you see when you go there?
Meaning “menagerie” and named so because it was once an area of land used for hunting, Zverynas is an attraction all on its own, particularly on a sunny day where a slight breeze makes strolling pleasant. The district has connections to the royalty of Lithuania, who first caught game here and then cultivated it specifically for hunting.
Even though it is so close to the old town center of Vilnius, the Zverynas neighborhood was once a completely separate part of the city! If you stand on the Vilnius Cathedral end of Gediminas Ave. and imagine that Zverynas is only about a twenty-minute walk from there, you will get a good idea of the scale of the city as it was in the time of the grand dukes. If they wanted wild foul for supper, their catch was hiding virtually next door.
In fact, some of Vilnius’ restaurants attempt to capture the essence of royal feasts, when game meat was a main feature of the menu. Some restaurants serving Lithuanian cuisine recreate recipes from monastery or manor life, when along with domestic animals, people hunted wild boar, rabbits, and deer.
If you’re curious about what the dukes and their retinue might have eaten after a particularly productive day of hunting, you can seek out these restaurants in the heart of the Lithuanian capital city.
Of course, Vilnius has expanded and absorbed outlying areas over the centuries. Today, Zverynas is prime real estate, properties commanding high values due to the district’s proximity to the center, its undeniable charm, and the cache that accompanies both.
However, its main feature remains the fairy-tale wooden houses, some kept in pristine condition, others with faded siding and detached window shutters. Many are (or were) painted in bright colors such as blue, yellow, and green.
These homey, family houses are surrounded by yards often full of blooming trees, garden ornaments, and rose bushes. The wooden lace elements that surround windows or adorn eaves and gables are, quite literally, from another time. That’s why this district is one of Vilnius’ treasures.
Old and New Architecture
Besides the sometimes ramshackle gingerbread houses found there, embassies and ambassadorial residences are prominent in this district.
Vingis Park is a major draw for people from all over the city with its green expanse perfect for picnics, sunbathing, or jogging.
In addition to the old-fashioned buildings, you’ll find brand-new construction as well as Soviet-era buildings, all which stick out sorely amongst the soft angles and gently peeling paint of the hundred-year-old wood-sided houses.
Unfortunately, due to the desirability of the area, its traditional feel is in jeopardy. Apartment companies stuff awkward structures into vacant lots as the architectural heritage of Zverynas crumbles. Sometimes, this neglect is due to the long-time owners, some of who have lived in the same houses for all of much of their lives, passing on, leaving their homes at the mercy of their descendants, or if there are none, fate.
North of the neighborhood is a brightly modernized area where you can find the popular Panorama shopping center and some recent riverside construction.
How to Explore Zverynas
The best way to see Zverynas is without any itinerary or time limit. Meandering through it is best done at a slow pace in order to capture the feel of the place, its scents, and its sounds. You might meet a friendly animal, rather than the wild animals of old, along the way, or a grandmother watering her garden.
A Photo-worthy Neighborhood
You will certainly find photographable doors, windows, nooks, and crannies that seem out of a different time and place. You’ll notice how some wooden houses have been jury-rigged with wires in order to connect them to infrastructure—just imagine how, when these houses were built, indoor plumbing and electricity was rare.
Zverynas still maintains some public water pumps as a remnant of that time, as indeed, some of the buildings are still free of modern amenities. As in other parts of Vilnius, when the weather turns chilly, the smell of woodsmoke cozily fills the air.
Restaurants in Zverynas
If you’d like to spend more time in Zverynas, stop for refreshments at one of the popular restaurants there.
Panama Food Garden, with its secluded terrace and greenhouse dining area, and Veranda, which also has expansive garden seating, are both good choices.
Either is a lovely place to while away the evening as the sun sinks lower into the sky.
Sights and Things to Do
Zverynas also has some points of interest. The Russian Orthodox church stands at the gateway to the neighborhood after you cross the bridge from Gediminas Ave. Surrounded by a flurry of lilacs in May and with a golden dome that catches the sun, it is an integral part of the landscape here with its unobtrusive stateliness.
The Vilnius Karaite Kenesa, or synagogue, built for the Karaite community and in a Moorish style that is surprising in this environment, has stood in Zverynas since the early twentieth century and represents one of Lithuania’s historic minority communities with a strong connection also to Trakai. It isn’t open, but you can still walk by and take a look at this often passed-by feature of the neighborhood.
If you’re spending more than a couple of days in Vilnius, Zverynas is one of the nicest “off-the-beaten-path” attractions, the best part being that it’s not too far off the path. You will find that your exploration of one of the lesser-visited historic neighborhoods of Vilnius gives you a different perspective to the city, plenty of photo opportunities, and a glimpse into a not-so-distant past. You’ll quickly realize it’s one of the best things to do in Vilnius while you’re there.
Whether you visit in the winter, with snow dusting the gabled roofs; in the spring when the flowering trees celebrate the return of warmer weather; in the summer, when green grass and blue sky create the perfect backdrop to cheerfully colored homes; or in the fall, when golden autumn is in full glory, you’re sure to find your visit to Zverynas to be one of your favorite memories of Vilnius!