Žvėrynas (literally the menagerie) is one of the older neighborhoods and smallest elderships in Vilnius, Lithuania. According to the 2001 census, about 12,000 people live within a 2.6 km² area. It lies on the banks of the Neris River, and is situated to the west of the Lithuanian Parliament building. The river surrounds it from three sides and isolates it from the city. On the other side of the river, to the northwest, lies Vingis Park.
Originally the district belonged to the Radziwiłł family, who maintained wild animals in the area for hunting purposes (hence the name). In 1825, a summer-house was built which later became the residence of the Governor General of the Vilna Governorate.
At the end of the 19th century, Žvėrynas became the property of businessmen who in turn sold individual tracts of land to the city’s residents. In 1901, it was incorporated into the city. Žvėrynas was the first planned neighborhood with straight streets and rectangular blocks. It remained mostly residential with very few industrial enterprises.
After Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, Žvėrynas became one of its more prestigious neighborhoods. Žvėrynas has a number of government and educational institutions, finance and insurance companies, as well as health care institutions. Žvėrynas is the site of Vilnius’ only kenesa.
It was early on a Sunday morning that I met my friend and colleague Antanas who had promised to take me on a walk around the old Žvėrynas district so that I could take photographs of some of the old wooden properties which I find both beautiful and fascinating.
As we wandered around the area we would come upon a new house of contemporary design next to a traditional wooden one, beautifully maintained and then a little further along the street an old wooden “shack” with no heating, lighting or running water (I was reliably informed) and indeed there was a water pump in front of the building.
It is a very strange area with beautiful houses, embassies and rickety old wooden housing that have their own intrinsic beauty.
Fortunately, Antanas is a walking historian and was able to appraise and inform me about the area, buildings of interest and the history of this fascinating place.
Despite it being less than a mile from Gedimino (the main city center street) it has a very different atmosphere, one of peace and tranquility.
If you are visiting Vilnius then take some time to visit and explore.