In the center of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, there’s a hidden bohemian paradise.
More than a neighborhood that attracts creatives, Užupis is a full-fledged art project-turned independent “nation,” official in everything but paperwork. As symbolized by a sculpture of an angel blowing its trumpet in the “national” square, the creators’ goal was to usher in a new era of creativity and quality. Having already erected a statue of Frank Zappa in the city two years prior to founding Užupis (no reason, they just liked him), the creative collective (which included Užupis “Foreign Minister” Tomas Čepaitis) was looking for a bigger challenge. And from the looks of it, with the help of streets filled with art and a handful of unorthodox guiding principles styled as an official constitution, 21 years later, they’re still succeeding wildly.
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The Heart of the City
If you’re familiar with Freetown, Christiania in Copenhagen, a commune in the middle of the city that has unofficially declared itself a country, you’ll appreciate Užupis, an independent nation in the heart of Vilnius, founded by local artists on April 1, 1997, as a tongue-in-cheek celebration of artistic freedom and egalitarianism. It’s only one square kilometer, but for locals, it’s the heart of creativity within their city. The name translates to “beyond the river” (which makes sense, given that it’s separated from the city by Vilnele River), but ideologically, it’s just a bit beyond daily life.
Yes, their Independence Day is celebrated (no joke!) every year on April 1, a date chosen specifically to emphasize the lighthearted nature of utopia. The bridges are ceremonially guarded on that day. It’s also the one day a year you can have your passport stamped. (However, there’s some debate over whether or not “unofficial markings” can invalidate a passport, so this might not be advisable.) It’s also the only time you can use their official currency.
April 1 also the one day a year that beer also flows from a water spout in the central square. It is worth noting that if you visit on the other 364 days of the year, Vilnius is known as an emerging hotspot in the craft beer scene. Stop by Devinkė baras, Špunka, or Mi Casa Tu Casa to sample Užupis’ relaxed bar scene.
The Art of Transformation
The mini-country revitalized an area that was once known for its high crime rate. Less than a square kilometer in size, the area was gutted during the Holocaust and neglected until Lithuania became an independent nation in 1990. Now it ranks among the most expensive areas in Vilnius. Of its 7,000 residents, it’s estimated over 1,000 are artists.
Symbols are everywhere. Their national flag is a hand with a hole in it, an artistic interpretation of their inability to take bribes. Depending on the season you visit, the flag will look different, as it changes color with each season: blue in the winter, green in the spring, yellow in the summer, and red in the autumn.
Going (Sort of) Legit
Jokes are everywhere too. The sign at the river crossing entrance reads “res publika” rather than “respublika” so the creators wouldn’t have to go through official government channels to legalize their “country.” Whether or not this is a joke or the actual method of skirting impossible levels paperwork is one of heavy debate.
Know Your Rights
Their constitution—displayed in many languages on Avenue of Constitution—includes such amendments at “People have the right to live by the River Vilnelė, while the River Vilnelė has the right to flow past people” and “Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.” There’s a sense of balance to the document with entries like “A dog has the right to be a dog” and “A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of nee[d].” To date, the document has been translated into 41 languages and was even blessed by Pope Francis.
In 2002, Romas Vilčiauskas created a bewitched mermaid sculpture that sits on the banks of the River Vilnelė, with the hopes that her gaze will mesmerize travelers into never leaving. Also keeping the area safe in a very tongue-in-cheek way is a school of trout, released into the water to act as “border guards.”
Live Like a Citizen
Užupis is still considered to be a creative hub. Of its 7,000 residents, roughly 1,000 of them are artists, and they work hard to maintain a sense of community. Upcoming events include art exhibits, street performances, public hearings, music shows, improve, and more.
Meet the Boss
Want to meet a high-ranking official? Stop by Keistoteka bookstore (just opposite the constitution) to say hello to their most important ambassador, a large orange cat named Ponulis. Užupis’ 11-person army has been retired, so if you’re interested in staging a coup, now’s the time.