A hot air balloon floats over Lithuania's capital city of Vilnius.

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Looking down at Lithuania’s capital city from a hot air balloon was a lot like studying the growth rings on a tree.

At the center, the charming medieval Old Town of Vilnius was tightly packed with time-worn buildings sporting clay tile roofs. As the radius expanded beneath me, the architecture began to evolve with Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque splashes.

The rings changed dramatically outside of Old Town. First with a slick new downtown district, followed by blocks of utilitarian concrete Soviet-era apartment buildings that possessed the charm of a rusty can.

As the hot air balloon moved past the blocky apartments, it hovered over new suburban neighborhoods with swimming pools and lovely yards until finally reaching the pine forests and farms, where it gently touched down as the sun set far to the west toward the Baltic Sea.

Gliding over the capital of Lithuania in a hot air balloon on a balmy Friday night was not how I planned to spend my first night in Vilnius, a city of about 500,000. I had come because I read that several of Lithuania’s Soviet-era bunkers and fallout shelters had been converted into clubs, restaurants, and even Airbnbs.

I was ready to go underground and party like it was 1959.

But by the time I got to Lithuania this summer, many of these businesses had closed. The one bunker bar I found had been converted into a rather uninspiring beer garden. It didn’t take long to figure out why these reminders of Soviet Cold War domination didn’t stick around.

The winding narrow streets of Vilnius Old Town in Lithuania
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