What Vilnius has is soul. The Old Town is somewhat shabby around the edges but those deteriorating structures that have been renovated shine in baroque glory, and some that haven't been renovated serve as homes for the city's artsy squatters—otherwise known as the independent "Artist’s Republic" of Užupis, ruled by its own "constitution."
Founded by Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas in the 14th century, Vilnius was an important center of Lithuanian, Polish, and Jewish culture until World War II. This former "Jerusalem of the East" is now a national symbol to extradited Poles, a ghost town to the 150,000 Jews who once lived here, and home to 100,000 displaced Russians. But above all, it is a friendly, bustling capital city, still celebrating its independence from the Soviet Union and gladly welcoming visitors from the world over. The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with several interesting museums, lush parks, a historic university, a wealth of baroque churches, and myriad courtyards, many with cafés. Thirty kilometers west of Vilnius is the ancient town of Trakai, worth visiting for the famous castle found on the lake island.