True Lithuania

19th century in Lithuania: Top 10 sights

Lithuania spent its extended 19th century (1795-1914) under the Russian Imperial rule. Rural huts that housed most Lithuanians of the era can still be seen, while the grand "New Town" districts define Lithuanian downtowns even today. Russian Orthodox churches remind of Russification drive that was eventually defeated by Lithuanian National Revival (and its new Catholic spires). Then there are cute nobility manors and larger-than-ever Imperial military installations that competed for the real Power over the slowly-but-surely advancing Lithuania.

Here are some ideas to catch a glimpse on the 19th century Lithuania:

1. Stroll the main arteries of 19th century Vilnius civic center (the "New Town") to witness the city's grand industry-fuelled expansion of 1880s-1910s. Gedimino Avenue is the main street but Basanavičiaus, Kalinausko and Žygimantų are possible alternatives. The Historicist architecture of the era sought to combine elaborate details of past styles into a new single whole, leading to massive buildings like the Railroads HQ.

2. Catch the final glimpse of the old Lithuanian countryside in Rumšiškės folk museum. Wooden homes have been moved here from all over Lithuania, housing period furniture, arts, and crafts. Such poor peasant lifestyle was nearly universal throughout the 19th century as Russian Empire planned Lithuania as its agricultural hinterland; serfdom was only abolished there in 1861.

3. Explore the mighty Kaunas Fortress (1882-1915), one of the largest Russian Imperial fortresses ever built and certainly the best preserved one. It is not a single building - its forts surround the entire Kaunas city. 7th and 9th forts serve as museums but abandoned ones such as the 6th one may be even more atmospheric. Additionally, you may peek into the fortress cemetery, abandoned-or-restored barracks and much else of what remains all over Kaunas.

4. Visit the Kaunas New Town, developed as the center of Kaunas fortress. The Sobor (Russian Orthodox cathedral of the garrison) became Catholic after independence when the Russian troops departed but it still has the iconic Russian style.

5. Splurge at Druskininkai resort. Following the craze for "healing mineral waters" that swept through 19th century Europe Druskininkai was erected as the local version of UK's Bath or Germany's Baden-Baden. The intricate wooden villas here combine Eastern and Western styles, while the original spas are still operational.

6. Take a walk at Žvėrynas borough in Vilnius, one of the multiple wooden suburbs that surrounded the rapidly expanding Lithuanian cities ~1900. Later urban planning left them largely intact and Žvėrynas still has many turn-of-the-20th-century homes, a period bridge connecting it to New Town as well as two Russian Orthodox churches (a must in every new neighborhood of the era).

7. Walk the straight route from Rokiškis town manor to the church to understand how the life went on in many 19th century Lithuanian towns. Local noble family (Tyzenhauzas) used to effectively run the town from the park-surrounded palace (1801). Regular main square markets attracted salesmen and villagers - who would also visit the Tyenhauzas-funded church, a pearl of Gothic Revival (1877), where the local nobles are also interred.

8. Take a breath of "the other 19th century Lithuania" in the Curonian spit villages (Smiltynė, Juodkrantė, Nida). While the majority of Lithuanian areas were under Russian yoke the coastal part of the nation was ruled by Germany, following the Lutheran faith and growing increasingly Germanized (yet illegally sending Lithuanian books into Russia where they were banned). Colorful fisherman farmsteads, resort villas, symbolic weathervanes and red-brick churches all date to that era as does the scenery itself: period's engineers successfully transformed barren dunes into pine forests.

9. Visit Anykščiai town to grasp the tremendous cultural, political and technological changes that swept through Lithuania ~1900. There you can ascend the tallest-in-Lithuania church spire (made possible in 1909 after the relaxation of anti-Catholic policies), explore an authentic narrow-gauge railroad station (1901) and learn about the famous Anykščiai-born National Revival writers at the local museums and monuments.

10. Stroll at the "hidden" Bernardine cemetery in Vilnius Užupis area, one of the early 19th century suburban graveyards meant to replace their cramped churchyard counterparts. Many luminaries of the era are interred there under Polish-inscribed gravestones. National Revival was still to restore the prestige of using Lithuanian tongue universally and Polish thus served as the language of culture and science.

19th century itinerary in Lithuania map

Map of the top 19th century locations in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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