Wandering across the serene Vilnia River in historic Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, into the quaint and compact neighborhood of Užupis, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After all, this is the kind of place whose reputation precedes it: Once a dubious den of drugs and crime, Užupis has blossomed during the past two decades into a colorful community of oddballs and freethinkers. This is Lithuania’s freest neighborhood.
Shortly after the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, Užupis did the same — but from the rest of Lithuania. Locals drafted a constitution, which, though purely symbolic, conveys a simple spirit through 41 articles such as: “Everyone has the right to be unique.” Each article, translated into two dozen languages and etched on a silver plaque, hangs side by side on a wall on Paupio Street.
Tinged with equal parts grit and glamor, it’s caught in an ever-shifting balance between gentrification and authenticity.
Like the Brooklyn of Lithuania, Užupis is brimming not only with hippies and artists, but also fancy coffee shops and yuppies with kids. Tinged with equal parts grit and glamor, it’s caught in an ever-shifting balance between gentrification and authenticity. Charming pastel two- and three-story buildings anchor its main street, Užupio Gatve, which is lined with bistros and boutiques selling local crafts. But off the same street you’ll also find dusty, tumbledown courtyards decorated with graffiti. Meanwhile, the Užupis emblem — a hand with a circle through it — can be found scattered throughout the neighborhood’s nooks and crannies.
Užupis, admits Linas Cicenas, a prominent local artist who’s lived here for nearly three decades, derives part of its cachet from a “myth” he says lends it a curious character and attracts tourists. But he also says the district’s foundational element lives on: “It has more freedom than any other part of the city.” Sidewalk parties with artwork on display are common, Cicenas says. So is wandering across the street in slippers to visit your neighbor for tea. Both, locals assure me, are simple pleasures that are distinct to Užupis. The rest of Old Town Vilnius, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of beautifully preserved medieval buildings that draws countless tourists, is exquisite — but it’s missing the openness and neighborly warmth found here.
While having partly shed its original poor-but-sexy vibe, Užupis retains its vibrant artistic flair. Perhaps the best case in point: a giant mural promoting the legalization of marijuana, based on Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting, Liberty Leading the People. It depicts the Goddess of Liberty emerging from a cloud of smoke, waving a flag with a cannabis leaf. Visitors are encouraged to sign their names on the wall in support of its message. Sponsored by the same team behind the infamous mural of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin kissing — found on the other side of Vilnius — this artwork has helped spark discussion about legalizing marijuana, says creator Rúta Jankauskaite.
And there was probably no better place to do that than right here. “Užupis is really about peace, community, art and freedom,” she says.
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