This European City Center is Transforming into an Open Air Café!

The old town in tourist-friendly Vilnius, Lithuania, is about to become even more Instagram-worthy.

May 7, 2020

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Every year, thousands of tourists flock to Senamiestis, the quaint old town of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. Boasting classical architecture, cobblestone streets, and countless cafes, restaurants, and bakeries, the UNESCO World Heritage site is a major Instagram hotspot and widely considered one of the prettiest places on the planet. 

This year has been different, as flights around the world have been grounded and borders sealed, leading to a significant drop in tourists to Vilnius. But as restrictions are eased and Lithuania’s Tourism Ministry plans for the return of visitors, municipal officials have unveiled an ingenious initiative for restoring Vilnius’ cafe culture in a way that keeps visitors and locals safe. 

Vilnius’ mayor, Remigijus Šimašius, announced that cafe owners could apply to use public spaces to set up tables, enabling them to reopen for business while still adhering to social distancing guidelines that require diners to be seated at least six feet apart.

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafes will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season and thus conduct their activities during quarantine,” said Šimašius. “Just open up, work, retain jobs and keep Vilnius alive.”

 
 
 
 
 
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The plan was warmly received by business owners. In just a few days, more than 160 cafe and restaurant owners applied to join the program. Eighteen areas in the city, including Cathedral Square, are available for seating patrons, with more zones expected to be added as demand increases and the peak summer season begins.

“Vilnius’ offer to help our cafés and restaurants came just in time,” said Evada Šiškauskienė, the head of the Lithuanian Association of Hotels and Restaurants. “This additional space will help them accommodate more visitors and bring life back to the city streets without violating security requirements.”

Similar ideas are being floated for cities across the world. “Los Angeles should take inspiration from Vilnius’ willingness to experiment with public spaces,” wrote Kerry Cavanaugh in the Los Angeles Times. The sunny southern California city, known for its excellent year round weather, is an ideal setting for al fresco dining on a mass scale.  

Local media reported that Tel Aviv is also preparing to launch an initiative turning public spaces into giant open air cafes. The city’s mayor, Ron Huldai, has offered restaurants the use of iconic Rabin Square, where several hundred diners can be seated.

“Of course, the top priority remains safety for all,” said Šimašius. Lithuania’s Health Ministry still requires people to don face masks in public. Limits on the number of people in shops at one time, as well as distance between diners, remain in place. But the creative move to open up Vilnius’ public spaces to restaurant patrons is a welcome step towards a return to normalcy.

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LAUREN MARCUS, CONTRIBUTOR
Fascinated by storytelling since childhood, Lauren is passionate about the written word. She’s a freelance writer who has covered everything from the latest developments in tech to geopolitics. When she’s not writing, Lauren is interested in genealogical research and family folklore.