Legend says Vilnius was founded in the 1320s when Lithuanian grand duke Gediminas dreamt of an iron wolf that howled with the voices of 100 wolves - a sure sign to build a city as mighty as their cry. In fact, the site had already been settled for 1000 years.
Moat, wall and tower atop Gediminas Hill protected 14th- and 15th-century Vilnius from Teutonic attacks. Tatar attacks prompted inhabitants to build a 2.4km defensive wall (1503-22), and by the end of the 16th century Vilnius was among Eastern Europe's biggest cities. Three centuries on, industrialisation arrived: railways were laid and Vilnius became a key Jewish city.
Occupied by Germany during WWI, it became an isolated pocket of Poland afterwards. WWII ushered in another German occupation and the death knoll for its Jewish population. Postwar Vilnius ushered in new residential suburbs populated by Lithuanians from elsewhere alongside immigrant Russians and Belarusians. In the late 1980s the capital was the focus of Lithuania's push for independence from the USSR.
Vilnius has fast become a European city. In 1994 its old town became a Unesco World Heritage site and four years later the Old Town Renewal Agency (www.vsaa.lt) was established to spearhead its dramatic revitalisation. Since his election at the tender age of 32 in November 2000, dynamic city mayor Artūras Zuokas, from the Liberal Union Party, has worked wonders in raising the city's profile internationally and transforming it into the tourist hot spot it is today.