Travel in Lithuania presents no real hardships, and even in well-trodden destinations, the volume of visitors is low, leaving you with the feeling that there’s still much to discover here. Vilnius , with its Baroque old town, is the most architecturally beautiful of the Baltic capitals, with an easy-going charm all of its own. Lithuania’s second city Kaunas also has an attractive old town and a couple of unique museums, along with a handful of surprisingly good restaurants and bars. The port city of Klaipeda , despite its restored old town, is more a stopping-off point en route to the low-key resorts of Neringa , a unique spit of sand dunes and forest that shields Lithuania from the Baltic.
Top Attractions in Lithuania
Trakai Island Castle and Museum
Trakai, the erstwhile capital of Lithuania, stands on a peninsula jutting between two lakes. The Island Castle in the midst of Lake Galve, which now houses a museum, is one of Lithuania’s most famous monuments, built by the Grand Duke Vytautus when the country was at the pinnacle of its power.
The Genocide Museum
Vilnius’ Genocide Museum will take you on a haunting step back into the past as you wander around the cells and courtyard where thousands of Lithuanians were held and tortured by the KGB. The building has had a history of terror, also serving as the Gestapo headquarters during the German occupation.
The Devil’s Museum
The Devil’s Museum in Kaunas houses a collection of over 2000 figures of devils put together by the artist Antanas Zmuidzinavicius. Don’t miss the diabolical figures of Hitler and Stalin dancing over Lithuania.
Ninth Fort Museum
The Ninth Fort, just outside Kaunas, was the ninth such structure built by the Russians to defend their empire’s western border. Later used by the Nazis and Stalin for more macabre purposes, it now houses a museum that will tell you all about the fate of the Jews of Kanaus.
The Neringa Peninsula, the Lithuanian section of the Kurland Spit, is a 95-kilometer bar of land replete with sand dunes and pine forests. The most beautiful village on the peninsula is Nida, an old fishing settlement full of painted wooden houses with thatched roofs and kitchen gardens.
In a forested suburb of Vilnius, the Paneriai Memorial marks the entrance to a Nazi killing ground. Its three stone slabs commemorate the hundred thousand people, mostly Jews from the city, who were killed at Paneriai in World War II.
The Gediminas Tower
The Gediminas Tower, which houses the Vilnius Castle Museum and is one of the city’s best-known landmarks, is the ideal place to take some rooftop photographs of Vilnius.
M.K. Ciurlionis Art Museum
Lithuania’s most celebrated artist, M.K. Ciurlionis (1875-1911) has a museum dedicated to him in Kaunas. It contains 360 pieces of his mystical artwork that is often suffused with religious imagery, as well as other pieces of pre-1940 folk art, sculptures, and paintings.
Food & Drink
Lithuanian cuisine, based on traditional peasant dishes, is less bland than that of its Baltic neighbors, partly as a result of Polish influence. Typical starters include marinated mushrooms ( marinuoti grybai ), herring ( silke ) and smoked sausage ( rukyta desra ) along with cold beetroot soup ( saltibarsciai ). Potatoes play a major role; one of the most commonly encountered dishes is cepelinai , or zeppelins – cylindrical potato dumplings stuffed with meat, mushrooms or cheese and topped with pieces of fried bacon. Also popular are potato pancakes ( bulviniai blynai ), and cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat ( balandeliai or “pigeons” . Desserts include stewed fruit ( kompotas ), sweet fruit sauce ( kisielius ), and innumerable varieties of pancakes ( blynai, blyneliai or lietiniai are synonyms for more or less the same thing) – a real treat.
Some restaurants serve indigenous cuisine, and even the ubiquitous post-Soviet chops ( karbonadas ) and roast meat ( kepsnys ), tend to be better than in the other Baltic States. Even in a fairly upmarket place a meal shouldn’t work out much more expensive than in a mid-range restaurant in Western Europe, and it’s possible to eat really well for much less if you head for simple self-service places. Western fast food is making inroads, and Vilnius has a few ethnic places. Although vegetarianism has yet to establish itself here, it is possible to find meat-free options on most menus – mushroom- or cheese-filled pancakes being the most widespread. As an alternative to restaurant dining, most cafés and bars do reasonably priced food.
Beer ( alus ) is the most popular alcoholic drink. The biggest local brewers – Utenos, Svyturys, and Kalnapilis – all produce eminently drinkable light lager-type beer ( sviesus ) as well as a dark porter ( tamsus ). The leading Lithuanian fire-waters are Starka, Trejos devynerios and Medziotoju – invigorating spirits flavored with a variety of herbs and leaves.
Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipeda can all muster a growing range of lively bars – many aping American or Irish models, although there are also plenty of folksy Lithuanian places. Cafés ( kavine ) come in all shapes and sizes: some are trendy and modern in style and have a wide food menu, others are chintzy places serving pastries and cakes. Coffee ( kava ) and tea ( arbata ) are usually served black.
History of Lithuania
Unlike its Baltic neighbors, Lithuania once enjoyed a period of sustained independence. Having driven off the German Knights of the Sword in 1236 at Siauliai, the Lithuanians emerged as a unified state under Grand Duke Gediminas (1316-41). The 1569 Union of Lublin established a combined Polish-Lithuanian state which reached its zenith under King Stefan Bathory. But the Great Northern War of 1700-21, in which Poland-Lithuania, Russia, and Sweden battled for control of the Baltics, left the country devastated, and by the end of the eighteenth century most of Lithuania had fallen into Russian hands. Uprisings in 1830 and 1863 presaged a rise in nationalist feeling, and Russia’s collapse in World War I enabled the Lithuanians to re-establish their independence. In July 1940, however, the country was effectively annexed by the USSR.
German occupation from 1941 to 1944 wiped out Lithuania’s Jewish population and wrecked the country, and things scarcely improved when the return of the Soviets resulted in executions and deportations. When Moscow eventually relaxed its hard line in the late 1980s, demands for greater autonomy led to the declaration of independence on March 11, 1990, way ahead of the other Baltic States. A prolonged stand-off came to a head on January 11, 1991, when Soviet forces killed fourteen people at Vilnius TV Tower, but as the anti-Gorbachev coup foundered in August 1991, the world – soon followed by the disintegrating Soviet Union – recognized Lithuanian independence.
Getting to Lithuania
- Vilnius to: Kaunas (12 daily; 1hr 15min-2hr); Klaipeda (3 daily; 5hr); Riga (2 daily; 9hr); Sestokai (2 daily; 3hr 30min); Warsaw (1 daily; 11hr). The only way to get from Vilnius to Warsaw by train without passing through Belarus, for which you will need an expensive visa, is to travel indirectly via Sestokai and Suwalcúki.
- Kaunas to: Klaipeda (3 daily; 3hr 30min); Riga (1 daily; 7hr); Vilnius (12 daily; 1hr 15min-2hr).
- Klaipeda to: Kaunas (3 daily; 3hr 30min); Vilnius (3 daily; 5hr).
- Vilnius to: Kaunas (every 20-30min; 1hr 30min-2hr); Klaipeda (10-12 daily; 4hr); Riga (5 daily; 6hr); Tallinn (2 daily; 11hr 40min); Warsaw (4 daily; 12hr).
- Kaunas to: Klaipeda (10 daily; 3hr); Riga (2 daily; 4hr 30min); Vilnius (every 20-30min; 1hr 30min-2hr).
- Klaipeda to: Kaliningrad (2 daily; 3hr 50min); Kaunas (10 daily; 3hr); Nida (departures from Smiltyne; 8 daily; 50min); Vilnius (10-12 daily; 5hr).
- Kaunas to: Nida (hydrofoil service; June-Aug 1 daily; 4hr).
“Narrow cobblestone streets and an orgy of Baroque: almost like a Jesuit city somewhere in the middle of Latin America,” wrote the author Czeslcaw Milosz of prewar VILNIUS . Soviet-era satellite suburbs aside, it’s a description which still rings true today, though the city Milosz knew was, in many ways, a different one to modern Vilnius. Between the wars, Vilnius, known as Wilno , belonged to Poland and was inhabited mainly by Poles and Jews, who played such a prominent role in the city’s life that it was known as the “Northern Jerusalem”. Though now firmly part of Lithuania, Vilnius is still a cosmopolitan place – around twenty percent of its population is Polish and another twenty percent is Russian – though with just 578,600 inhabitants it has an almost village-like atmosphere, making it an easy place to get to know.