True Lithuania

Top 10 post-independence sights

The pace of change in Lithuania after its 1990 independence has been tremendous. An instant fortress of libertarianism in the 1990s Lithuania was again transformed by the EU membership in 2004. The quick triumph of capitalism and democracy over totalitarian socialism, as well as the subsequent changes, may be seen in many places of the country.

1. Raise your head up while checking the New City Center of Vilnius - the once-controversial skyscraper district of the early 2000s, the glass-facaded office blocks of which added a touch of modernity to Vilnius skyline. Two malls, National Art Gallery and a Baltic Way memorial are located near the shade of Europa Tower (the Baltics' tallest building), while a short stroll to the remains of a wooden 19th-century suburb just north will give you a glimpse how the "Vilnius New Downtown" looked right before redevelopment.

2. Shop at Gariūnai marketplace, the birthplace of Lithuanian capitalism in 1990s. It is hard to find a Lithuanian who wasn't a businessman in that era, and many tried their luck in Gariūnai, joined by arriving Asian salesman in what was the newly-capitalist Eastern Europe's prime trade melting pot. Even if a tame "business park" has been constructed nearby in the 2000s, the old open-air bazaar still attracts thousands of customers every morning, however strangely "Wild West" (or "Wild East") it seems in a modern European context. Total trade area surpasses 300 000 m2.

3. Ask a Tuskulėnai museum caretaker to let you inside the Tuskulėnai memorial, an Egyptian revival styled underground burial chamber for murdered Soviet political prisoners. It is among the most impressive places of respect for the victims of Soviet genocide as well as a great example of modern Lithuanian architecture. Žirmūnai borough of Vilnius.

4. Spend a weekend in Palanga resort which captured the imagination of the Lithuanian 1990s as new villas, hotels, funfairs and restaurants sprung up freely to accommodate the exploding numbers of tourists. While the music has been since volumed down in the main street evening gigs, Palanga is still the "Summer capital of Lithuania", its Basanavičiaus street and beaches getting crowded on summer weekends like some Asian metropolis.

5. Spend an evening at Akropolis mall in Vilnius which since its 2000 opening became synonymous to "shopping Mecca" for many Lithuanians and Belarusians alike. Over 100 000 sq. m in size its offers range from the ordinary shop/restaurants to an indoor ice skating rink.

6. Spectate a basketball match in the Baltic States's largest Kaunas arena (~15 000 spectators), constructed for the Eurobasket 2011 basketball championship finals. Hosting Eurobasket was seen both as a major achievement for the basketball-loving nation as well as the final return of a major debt by FIBA (Lithuania was to host the 1941 event but the 1940 Soviet occupation precluded this).

7. Ski at Druskininkai indoor alpine skiing track (opened 2011) which is among the largest in the world and exemplifies the new Lithuanian desire to attract tourists from abroad. A skiing track that is open even when the temperature gets to +35 C is still something not that common in the world.

8. Check up the world's first statue of Frank Zappa in Vilnius New Town. Erected by his local fans in downtown Vilnius in 1995 it kind of epitomized the libertarian 1990s when everything seemed possible if there were enough people behind the idea. Such initiatives would likely be impossible today - both due to more restrictive laws and people feeling less need to assert the emotion of freedom by undertaking such projects.

9. Drive around the suburbs of Lithuanian cities to see how Lithuanians, once packed up in Soviet apartments, realized their culturally-important dream of building their own home soon after this was permitted. Massive, self-designed and built "for generations" houses of the 1990s were later joined by modern gated communities of smaller but more efficient Western-style homes.

10. Stop by Elektrėnai church at the mid-point between Vilnius and Kaunas, one of many massive new churches hastily constructed in the 1990s when construction was cheap and state atheism had been just replaced by religious freedom. Large white concrete facades and interiors prevailed. As a Soviet-built industrial town, Elektrėnai lacked a church before 1990s (same as all the other Soviet era new towns and neighborhoods).

Map of the top 10 post-independence sites in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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