Vilnius was first mentioned in written sources in the early 14th Century. In 1387 W?adys?aw II Jagie??o, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, granted it municipal rights. Its population was multi-ethnic, consisting of Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Germans, Poles and Jews. The city walls were erected in the early 16th Century. There were nine gates to the city, and three towers. Sigismund August moved his court to Vilnius in 1544. Stephan Batory founded a university in 1579. The city grew and flourished as a cultural, scientific and trade centre of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1655 the town was raided by Russian forces, looted and put to fire, and the population was massacred.
It took Vilnius decades to recover but by the 19th Century it had become the third largest city of the Russian Empire. The city walls were destroyed during the Russian occupation. Napoleon captured Vilnius in 1812 on his march to Moscow. German forces occupied it during World War I. After the war, the city changed hands many times, and was contested between Russians, Poles and independent Lithuania. The Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in 1940 and Vilnius became the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. Tens of thousands of its population were arrested and sent to labour camps. The Germans occupied the city in 1941 and set about liquidating the Jewish population. Some 250 000 perished between 1941 and 1943. In 1944 the city was retaken by the Red Army. Lithuania remained part of the Soviet Union until 1991 when it proclaimed independence. The transition did not go without bloodshed: Moscow sent in troops which attacked the radio and television building in Vilnius, killing 14 civilians. In the past 15 years, Vilnius has been developing fast as a modern European city.
The historical old town contains Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance buildings. It is included in the UNESCO list of World Cultural Heritage.
The Town Hall Square in the old town has been the heart of Vilnius since the 15th Century. It used to be flanked by small shops, and trade was strictly regulated. The building which now houses the National Philharmonic used to be a guest house for the numerous foreign traders who came to Vilnius. Acrobats and comedians would perform in the square. Today, concerts and festivities often take place there.
The Town Hall itself has a portico supported by six Doric columns. It used to have a tall tower with a clock and bells. The building was severely damaged by fire in 1610, was reconstructed but the tower soon collapsed and was never again restored. The building of the Town Hall of today is the result of a reconstruction in 1939.
Pilies Street is the main street in the Old Town, running from Town Hall Square to Cathedral Square. It is a popular place to buy gifts and souvenirs, and the site of the Kaziukas folk art festival.
The Cathedral stands at the foot of Gediminas Hill. Its interior contains beautiful works of art, including an 18th-century goblet-shaped pulpit and silver-plated statues of the Polish kings and the Grand Dukes of Lithuania.
Gediminas Castle was first built in the 14th Century by Dune Gediminas of the Grand Duchy of Lithiania. The first building was in wood, and was replaced in 1409 by a brick castle. Today it houses an archeological museum. A funicular takes visitors up to Gediminas Hill from where they can enjoy a great view of the Old Town.
Worth visiting is the Amber Museum which displays a fascinating collection of amber pieces and objects, some containing fossilized lizards and bugs.