In 2009 Vilnius will officially become the European Capital of Culture, serving up a sizzling selection of contemporary and traditional cultural highlights.

Lithuania is the first former soviet bloc country to be accorded this status, which will allow the destination to enjoy the spotlight both the capital and country richly deserves, having often been overshadowed by its Baltic neighbours.

Stepping from the museum’s dark basement back onto the tree-lined Gedimino Avenue is a relief and a perfect contrast between the Vilnius of then and now. The parade of boutiques and stores sweeps south toward Vilnius Cathedral, whose clean white stonework and Parthenon-like facade are dramatic against a blue sky.

Behind the cathedral rise Gedimino Hill and the medieval castle tower dating from the 14th century, commanding arguably the best views of the city’s spires, rooftops and the distant TV tower that played such a prominent role in Lithuania’s progression to independence in the early 1990s.

Descending the winding cobbled path from the tower on the east side of the hill, it’s a 10-minute walk to St Anne’s Church, a gothic masterpiece of majestic red brick spires and fairy-tale shapes, which Napoleon fell in love with.

Just a stone’s throw away is the centre of the Old Town, a maze of cobbled streets and mixed architectural styles.

Head to Pilies Street, the main artery that will take you to the Presidential Palace, the Grand Courtyard of Vilnius University & Church of St John and the ‘Gates of Dawn’, built in the early 16th century
as a defence for the city.

Once you’ve ticked off the cultural sites it’s time to see the city by night. Vilnius doesn’t disappoint. Patrons spill out
onto the historic cobbled streets of the Old Town and move toward Gedimino Avenue, home to Prospekto Nightclub. The aptly named Skybar at the top of the Reval Hotel Lietuva, is the perfect place to a sip a Cosmopolitan as the sun sets over the city.

For a real slice of Bohemia, head to the Uzupis Republic, where artists and students philosophise in street cafes, dine out and party til late. The so-called Republic has its own traditions, border crossing points and constitution that appears on the wall of Paupio Street, purporting to such values as ‘a dog has the right to be a dog’.

Expect the unexpected in this open-air gallery, where modernist sculptures are suspended across Vilnia River and fabulous murals decorate the sides of buildings.

It’s a far cry from the Museum of Genocide Victims. And as the city revs up to become Capital of Culture, the contrast between the past and the future will only get greater. Walk across the Green Bridge and you’ll see the Socialist Realist statues which adorn either end of the structure, a sardonic reminder of the city’s communist struggles. Most other examples of soviet art were destroyed or shipped off to the Park of Statues, but another seems to remain until you look closely.

A Soviet-style bust of Frank Zappa was erected as a memorial to the rock legend’s death in 1993. Today it’s both tribute and testament to Lithuania’s new found independence, freedom and democracy.