Starting December 27, one daily train, operated by the Lithuanian Railway, runs from Vilnius to Riga and back – and I absolutely had to be on the first trip!
Know Before You Go
There are several ways you can get a ticket. You may buy one right on the train, but if it’s sold out, you’re out of luck. You may buy one at the railway station, provided you’re in Lithuania. Or you may just buy them online with your bank card and get them in your email. An app is also available, and you can add them to Apple Wallet.
A second-class ticket from Riga to Vilnius will set you back 24 euros and, yes indeed, you may splurge for a first-class ticket that goes for 34 euros. How often can you travel first class anywhere from or in Latvia?! Experience suggests, however, that these sell out really fast, so plan ahead if you want to travel in style.
Planning ahead is also a great idea when getting to the train station, but, again, experience suggests that it’s perfectly possible to show up six minutes before departure and still get on the train. The train departs from the second platform, and you can access it right from the new part of the station without descending into the tunnel. That’s certainly a plus in my book – if you squint, Riga railway station even looks a bit like a modern and convenient transportation hub!
In what would become a recurring theme, a bunch of train enthusiasts had gathered on the platform to capture this momentous occasion. If I had more time, I would even enjoy a bit of a red carpet moment – how often do you walk past a bunch of people taking pictures of you?! Unfortunately, I really was in a bit of a rush so I hopped right on the train without properly photographing it. Good thing, as it would start moving soon after, strictly on time.
Traveling in Style
The second-class ticket promised a Christmas-themed train, and indeed, they did deliver. And we’re not talking paper snowflakes on the windows or red ribbons tied to benches – they had gone all in on the “Golden Age of Rail Travel” look. Think heavy velvet curtains, soft lighting, Art Deco fixtures, and faux wooden panels. Just about the only thing missing was a certain Belgian detective sitting in the corner, reading a newspaper, and keeping an eye on everybody. It’d probably be a bit too much if they kept this all the time, but at this special time of the year, it’s a perfect fit!
Now, if you’ve taken a train in Latvia before, odds are your experience was a bit on the vintage side. Rest assured, though: this is a new train masquerading as an old one. I’m all for authenticity but, when it comes to train travel, this is much more preferable to old trains trying to look new.
Having settled in, I decided to take a look around – which did not take a lot of time. The train is a bit on the short side: just three cars, the first class is a small compartment at the front, and there’s also the standard second class – the one without the decorations, looking utilitarian but comfortable. You may also bring along your pet or your bike. Unfortunately, there’s not enough space for a dining car, so the train attendants would pass along menus. What’s even more unfortunate, the menu did not follow the overall Christmas theme, eschewing such beloved Latvian holiday classics as stewed sauerkraut and fried pig snouts for standard airline fare: crisps, chocolate, and sandwiches. It’s not much, but it’s enough to keep you from starving.
The first stop after Riga is Jelgava. If you’ve always wanted to visit Jelgava but just weren’t sure if it warrants a full day (and, to be honest, it probably doesn’t), you may squeeze Jelgava into your Vilnius trip and start your journey there. You cannot, however, buy a ticket from Riga to Jelgava. And, of course, we were once again greeted by a cheerful crowd of trainspotters.
Next up it’s the Latvian-Lithuanian border, which consists of a long stretch of forest and two border posts flying by – blink and you’ll miss it. It is, however, a border crossing, and you should have your ID with you.
The next stop on the Lithuanian side is Joniškis – and this was the first passenger train to stop in Joniškis since 2008. This means that the crowd at the station was even larger, more cheerful, and enthusiastic than in Jelgava, which, after all, sees plenty of trains every day. How often do you arrive anywhere to a very enthusiastic “Hello” from a crowd of people?!
The cheerful mood never quite went away even as Šiauliai and Kaišiadorys came and went, and exactly four hours and ten minutes after departing Riga we arrived in Vilnius. I know I sound a bit like a broken record right now, but again, I really can’t remember the last time so many people were so happy to see a train. Even the railway station was decked out in Latvian flags, and this outpouring of brotherly Baltic love was indeed a fitting end to an outstanding journey.
Things to See in Vilnius
Except, of course, that this wasn’t the end – after all, Vilnius is a destination in its own right. So what can you see and do?
The railway station is well connected to the rest of the city, with buses and trolleybuses leaving every couple of minutes. Don’t go looking for a tram, though, as Vilnius doesn’t have one. You can buy your ticket from the driver for one euro.
The train arrives shortly before eight o’clock in the evening. If Vilnius is not your final destination, you may still have to wait: the train to Warsaw leaves at half past noon. If Vilnius is your final destination, you’ll probably want to stay the night.
The timetable is perfect for party animals who can arrive in the evening, dance the night away and take the next train back to Riga at half past six in the morning. I am not, however, much of a party animal, so I really cannot provide any tips there.
Within a few hundred meters from the railway station you’ll find Aušros Vartai or the Gate of Dawn – a major must-see, doubling as an entrance to the Old Town of Vilnius. If churches are your thing, odds are you’ll be amazed – but it still has plenty of charm even if they’re not.
Speaking of charm – as one of its ambassadors I must mention the Republic of Užupis. Originally a somewhat shabby part of the town, it started attracting an artistic, free-spirited crowd that eventually declared its independence in 1997. No worries, though: it’s not a breakaway republic ruled by separatist warlords. Rather, it’s more along the lines of Vilnius’ answer to Montmartre.
Another place that seeks to attract an artistic, free-spirited crowd is the former Lukiškės Prison. Opened in 1905, it has a long and predictably gloomy history, serving as both a monument to the darkest pages of Lithuanian history and a functioning prison until 2019. It was soon reopened, however, with a decidedly stark rebranding, now housing a cultural center and artists’ residences. It also features a cafe that’s much nicer than you’d think and guided tours that are much more horrifying than you’d think. In 2020, it also served as a filming location for the 4th season of Stranger Things.
While we’re on the subject of TV series: parts of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl were shot in Fabijoniškės, a district of Vilnius. As a major residential area, it is well connected with the ubiquitous Vilnius trolleybuses and indeed does look a great deal like its TV counterpart.
Finally, Vilnius also has trains running to other cities in Lithuania and Poland; there’s even talk we may get a connection to Daugavpils, but we’re not there yet.
And, even though the train was lovely, a bus is still a better choice for the return trip to Riga: they’re much more frequent, and the travel time is about the same. Admittedly, there’s less comfort and style, but the tickets are cheaper, so it somewhat balances out.
So I probably won’t get the Christmas decorations or the enthusiastic greeters the next time. But I’ll still get a fast and comfortable journey to a remarkable destination, and that counts for something, too.