For more than 600 years, the quarter that once occupied most of the present Old Town was a Jewish neighbourhood of goldsmiths, glassblowers, craftspeople and financiers. In fact, the Goldsmiths Guild was founded here 1495, followed by the first glass manufactory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1547. This historic community was named the Glass Quarter in 2018, and accounts for the fact that at one point there were once three Glass Streets within it. As if hidden among the bigger streets of the city, the quarter is still surrounded by jewellers, local artists, craft and workshops, cosy restaurants, the headquarters of the chamber orchestra, art galleries, and Stikliai Hotel, one of the city’s oldest.
Žydų St. is quiet these days, so it’s difficult to imagine that it was once one of the most vibrant of the city’s arteries. In a 1633 document, Ladislaus IV Vasa granted Jews the privilege of establishing their own quarter in Vilnius. The Great Synagogue and the Matas Strašūnas Judaistic Library stood in this quarter, and Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (the famous Talmudist known as Vilna Gaon) also lived here. The streets were filled with markets, restaurants, bars, and shops in the 17th century. Today, there are no signs of the Great Synagogue, which was able to host about 3,000 people at a time, or of the smaller synagogues around it. A map of the Little Ghetto established here during the Second World War also bears witness to the Jewish story. However, a Jewish atmosphere, prosperous craftspeople, and lively individuals are now returning to the Glass Quarter. If you look closely, you’ll see that the buildings retain the aura and memory of the quarter. For instance, the building with a rotunda at the beginning of Gaon Street marks the symbolic entrance to the quarter. With each step the past merges with the present, acquiring new forms worth exploring. Traces of Judaism are discovered in street stories and titles, restaurant menus, jewellery symbols, and art galleries. Even graffiti on the walls of the quarter reflect the impressions contemporary artists have of the old Jewish Quarter.
Today, after many twists and turns of history, this quarter looks a bit different, but its spirit still lives on in its buildings. Take a closer look. On the house at Stikliai St. 14 you will see the date of the building – 1661; the house on Gaono St. 6 where the Romanian Embassy is now located once belonged to the Goldsmiths Guild; the building on Stikliai St. 1 was the Church of the Resurrection of Christ with Gothic arches that have survived to this day; Antokolskis Street has a house where the famous Jewish sculptor Mark Antokolskis was born; and at the end of Stikliai Street you can find a large palace ensemble dating back to 1668 built for one of the noblest dukes in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – Vainos.
Take a peek into the well-hidden courtyards; all of them are edged with fancy woodwork and balconies. As a result of the density of the Jewish population, all the stairwells were built outside the houses to make for more living space inside. The special courtyard at Stikliai St. 5 inside the Centro kubas Hotel was turned into a hotel reception under a glass roof, and the house at Stikliai g. 4 was the city’s first printing house; it is believed that the first book in Lithuania was printed here in 1522. The occasion is marked with a small granite sculpture. If you look into the courtyard at Stikliai St. 6, you will see a sculpture depicting a forest goddess riding a bear. Sit down for some refreshments in the courtyard of Lokys Restaurant, which is gaurded by a wooden bear. At the Stikliai St. 7 courtyard, look for the hidden niche Fashion and Parfume boutiques Garden, and Stikliai St. 9 is home for two sewing studios.
Stikliai Quarter has upheld the former tradition of craftsmanship, and visitors to the city are encouraged to pass through the small shops or workshops where manual labour and handcrafts are appreciated. Since you’re in the Glass Quarter, let your first visit be to the Stained Glass Manufactory, where Lithuanian creators turn glass into works of art. Also, be sure to check out the museum of stained glass blocks in the manufactory’s cellars.
The goldsmith tradition has also been revived and the quarter is once again a jewel: diamonds from Tel Aviv’s Diamonds by Ribas, the Diamond House, and the Jewellery Library have all found their homes in this quarter. The Terra Recognita gallery presents unique jewellery and sculptures by jeweller Saulius Vaitiekūnas, created from the stones of the Baltic Sea and silver. Lily is a semi-precious stone and silver jewellery store. You can also appreciate the luxurious jewellery made by Darius Gerlik and his students at the Vilnensis Jewellery School-Gallery.
Woven linen is timeless – and while linen tablecloths decorate the tables of the Lithuanian grandmothers, today Linen Tales finds a new place for linen in modern interiors. You will find amber, the so-called Lithuanian gold, and jewellery at Linas and Amber. The works of Lithuanian fashion designers can also be found in My Minds, Dom Bow Ties, Denim Diaries, Taškuota Suknelė, and Pudrinė.
Marvel at the decorations, tableware and interior details from various Lithuanian artists at the Elementai Gallery. You can also find contemporary works of art at the Art Academy’s textile gallery Artifex and the work of an artist using from Tel Aviv at his Gallery Tora.
The oldest restaurant in town, Lokys, is the place to try boar and deer steaks, or a quail roast prepared using an authentic recipe (they were once a delicacy popular among nobles). Stikliai Restaurant, housed in the quarter’s most luxurious hotel, will surprise you with a tasting dinner made using products straight from the restaurant’s farms and gardens. Discover a little British corner at Marcus ir Ko., which serves its beefsteak marinated in a secret sauce. Are you looking for something to spice up your trip? When you get to Bistro18, order their special shrimp curry. And if you’re feeling hungry at night or even at dawn, you will always be greeted at Amatininkai with plates of silky curd pancakes or delicious dumplings.
Stikliai Tavern, located in an authentic 17th-century cellar, is a great place to enjoy traditional Lithuanian cuisine, including the most delicious cepelinai (stuffed potato dumplings) in town or an unusual Vilnius burger where the bun is swapped for potato pancakes. Other restaurants offering cepelinai include Leičiai and Amatininkai.
Lithuanians have long been known for their brewing traditions, which are alive and well in the Old Town. When you land in the basement of Bambalynė, you’ll soon realise you’ve discovered a quaint little treasure. Traditional and more unusual types of beer with raspberries, hemp, or red clover can be found in the fridges there. Compare Lithuanian beers to their Belgian counterparts at Rene restaurant, where you can also enjoy fresh mussels with stew or a quail roast, and decide which beer suits you best.
The Glass Quarter has some great spots for coffee and delightful desserts that are sure to satisfy any sweet tooth. A joyful discovery awaits at Bookcafe – grab a glass of fresh watermelon juice and enjoy a good book while a couple of parrots chirp above your head. For traditional desserts head straight to the legendary Ponių Laimė and order their classic Opera Cake. For a long brunch or a vegan dessert, visit Augustas and Barbora Café, where you can head straight to the fairy-tale garden that served as the setting for the famous love story between the Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund Augustus and his wife Barbora Radvilaitė.