Aukštaitija (litterally: High Land) is an ethnographic region in the Northeast Lithuania.
Many of the most interesting small towns in Lithuania are in Aukštaitija. This includes Kėdainiai with its brick old town, Biržai with its 17th century castle, Ukmergė with its 19th century downtown, Rokiškis with its beautiful manor and church, Joniškis with its basketball museum, Anykščiai with its many interesting places, and the newest one, the Soviet-built Visaginas where the workers of Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant lived, the essential place for anybody interested in how life was under the Soviet rule.
Aukštaitija National Park with its 126 lakes provides a nature‘s answer to Aukštaitija‘s towns. In the surrounding areas (such as Molėtai area) many people of Vilnius own summer homes. Eastern Aukštaitija has the largest concentration of lakes in Lithuania and most of them are outside the National Park limits but are not any less beautiful.
The only main city in the region is Panevėžys (pop. 100 000). Largely damaged in the World Wars the city lacks the appeal of some local towns. In spite of that Panevėžys is still the best place for shopping with its newly-built Babilonas shopping district that includes several shopping malls and many smaller shops.
Southern part of Aukštaitija enjoys the proximity of Vilnius and Kaunas whereas its northeastern reaches are less accessible and therefore suffered depopulation with many towns and areas now having less inhabittants than they did 100 years ago.
Northwestern part of Aukštaitija is unique architecturally in that lack of wood in the 19th century implicated the use of different materials for construction there. Even pre-1860 churches are built of brick while barns are built of adobe. However it is the turn-of-the-century (19th-20th) century gothic revival churches that are the most impressive. Anykščiai church is the tallest in Lithuania, Rokiškis one is among the most beautiful, but many others exist.
Northern Aukštaitija is also known for many windmills still standing in various stages of decay (some rebuilt) and for beautiful restored manors, like the ones in Rokiškis and Pakruojis. In Central and Northern Aukštaitija the narrow-gauge railway with its authentic pre-war wooden stations may eventually prove to be a major tourist destination (many local enthusiasts would wish so), but today suffers neglect and limited services.
Demographically Aukštaitija is dominated by Catholic Lithuanians. Only in the immediate surroundings of Visaginas the Russians predominate whereas in the Biržai area there is a significant minority (10%) of Reformed Christian Lithuanians. Additionally over the entire span of Aukštaitija there are a few Old Believer Russian villages in hard-to-reach places. Many of them are depopulated now after the inhabittants moved to local towns and cities, where the Old Believer communities and their small wooden churches also exist.
Kėdainiai (population 32 000) is a town near the center of Lithuania well known for its brick old town. With most Lithuanian old towns being wooden and therefore less intact, the lovely small medieval district of Kėdainiai is unusual. The well-cared clean streets run towards numerous squares where markets used to take place. The main one, called "Great Market" (Didžioji Rinka) opens to Nevėžis river at one side. On the opposite side there stands a former city hall with a tall roof.
This many market squares signifies the importance of medieval Kėdainiai to the trade. The House of Scottish merchants (Radvilų street) also reminds of this.
In times when Lithuania was virtually ruled by several important families Kėdainiai was the seat of Radvila family. This branch of famous family adopted a Reformed faith and therefore the Kėdainiai main square is dwarfed by a Rennaisance Remormed Christian church (1652) rather than Catholic one.
Catholics have a black wooden church of Saint Joseph not far away (Radvilų street). It is famous for being one of the oldest and biggest wooden churches in Lithuania, having been built in 1766. Gothic St. George church beyond the Nevėžis river is even older (1662).
Other religious communities set their footprint in Kėdainiai as well. Lutheran church was built by German traders in 1629 while the Russian Orthodox church dates to Russian Imperial rule (1861). Two white synagogues (summer and winter) are well restored despite not being in original use anymore.
It was in Kėdainiai where Jonušas Radvila signed the Union of Kėdainiai with the Swedes, terminating the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and establishing a Swedish-Lithuanian one instead. As this was during the 1655-1660 war which the Swedes subsequently lost the Commonwealth with Poland was restored afterwards.
Unfortunately, neither the magnificient Radvila palace, nor the later manor owned by Russian general Tottleben (who fought in the Crimean War) survived to this day. The ruins of Tottleben manor and the exotic Turkish-inspired minaret he built as an observation tower in his private park are beyond the train station rails.
Known as the land of a thousand lakes eastern Aukštaitija is famous for its pristine nature. 1300 sq. km of it has been set aside in 1970s-1990s for protected areas, including the nation's first National Park.
Aukštaitija National Park is especially packed with lakes. They may be better if experienced rather than watched (which you could do by swimming, renting a boat, angling). That said, the prettiness of irregular forested shorelines are best grasped from above and there are free lookout towers for this. You may ascend a 30,5 m observation platform south of Šiliniškės, or enjoy an easier access to Ladakalnis hill near Ginučiai.
For the area's (and indeed Lithuania's) best natural panoramas you would need to leave National Park however and opt for the trembling-in-the-wind guyed observation mast at Lake Sartai. That long islanded lake is also famous for the annual winter sled carriage race on its ice. The tradition started in the 19th century though the early February race has been moved to Dusetos hipodrome.
Limits on construction left the Aukštaitija National Park's villages quite authentic. Some hamlets (e.g. Salos II) reachable only by dirt roads have been designated as "ethnographic" as their wooden homes and barns are little changed since before World War 2.
Much of what happens takes place in the larger villages however where most tourist facilities are also located. Pretty buildings there include Palūšė wooden church (1757) and several water mills converted into hotels/museums. That said, Aukštaitija National Park lacks world-class wonders so if you want to be awestruck you may want to choose Neringa NP, Samogitian NP or Trakai NP instead.
With its easy access from Vilnius (110 km) Aukštaitija National Park turned into a gentrified Lithuanian countryside, with all its original joys and none of the troubles. Lake swimming, boat rides and saunas fully displaced hard farm labor as the farmsteads had been largely bought up (and neatly repaired) by urban dwellers for summer weekends.
Outside the National/Regional Park borders the towns are far more prosaic (but offer more shopping/eating opportunities that are extremely limited in protected areas). Molėtai (pop. 7000) area, merely 50 km from Vilnius, became a favored place for a second home and weekend tourism. Ignalina (pop. 6000) posits itself as a minor resort, also having a skiing hill winter attraction. Squeezed by lakes so much that its original 19th century "fan layout" had to be altered Zarasai (pop. 7000) has a nice lakewatching platform and an island favored by Lithuanian summertime musical festivals. Utena (pop. 28 000) is the area's largest town completely detached from the lake resort atmosphere, while Visaginas (pop. 20 000) is a unique Russian-speaking Soviet-commissioned town.
Lakes are not the only natural experiences in Aukštaitija. Museum of ethnocosmology (Kulionys village near Molėtai) introduces the millennia of shifting relationships between the Man and the Space. This unique-in-the-world topic is however not covered broadly enough and the museum is quite hard to visit with its limited opening times and required advance registrations. Nevertheless its post-modern buildings that look as an UFO armada descended on the Aukštaitijan landscape are an attraction on themselves. The top "flying saucer" serves for observation (daytime) and stargazing (through a 80 cm telescope). An improvised prehistoric Baltic observatory has been laid out in the surrounding fields while the Lithuania's prime modern observatory with the Northern Europe's largest 165 cm telescope is merely 2 km north (open only on pre-arranged visits).
Ukmergė (population 25 000) is a town on the highway Vilnius-Panevėžys.
Destroyed by fire in year 1877 Ukmergė was swiftly rebuilt and remains a great reminder of that era. Its two floor homes that surround the central Kęstučio square are what have once adorned many small towns of Lithuania. North of the square is the small downtown where narrow streets still have cobbled surface and old advertisements invite to the shops of gone-by era.
Two small but pretty Ukmergė's churches are east and west of the downtown. Eastern Saints Peter and Paul church (1820) is an interesting example of Neoclassical architecture. Western Neobysanthic Holy Trinity church was built as a Russian Orthodox church in 1869 on a ground nationalised from Catholic Piarist monastery. The church was transferred to Catholics in 1919.
South of the main square there is a firefighter tower which is part of a local relatively dull provincial museum and may be climbed. Free views of Ukmergė downtown can be enjoyed from a hill (Piliakalnis) to the east, once crowned by a 14th century castle. A wooden blue-and-turquoise Old Believer church (1873) is at the bottom of this hill on the banks of Šventoji river.
Among the Lithuania's largest cities in the interwar years Ukmergė also received a fair share of investments back then, such as the Antanas Smetona gymnasium (not far away from the St. Peter and Paul church) or the "Lituania Restituta" obelysk in the main square.
Compact Ukmergė downtown is surrounded by the typical 19th century outer districts, still consisting of detached single-family wooden dwellings in streets like Darbininkų, Kurklių or Vilkmergėlės.
Thanks to its place near the highway Ukmergė is easy to visit if you go from Vilnius to Panevėžys or Riga. While this road is new Ukmergė's position as a traffic hub is not as its main Vytauto street coincides with the historic Saint Petersburg-Kaunas-Warsaw route and lacking a bypass it is still full of traffic.
Anykščiai (population 12 000) lies on the Šventoji river, the longest river to both start and end in Lithuania. Despite not having magnificient buildings (other than the imposing gothic revival Saint Matthew church of 1909 with its tallest-in-Lithuania 79 m twin towers) the town has quite many interesting places for its size. Some of these places are outside the town however (up to 10 km from the center), therefore a car would be convenient.
What you can see in the town itself besides the church is the narrow-gauge railroad, declared to be a technical monument. Built in the late 19th century this railroad once connected far-away places like Biržai and Švenčionys and had hundreds of kilometers in lenght, quite unusual for European narrow gauge railways. It was shortened to Panevėžys-Anykščiai-Rubikiai line by the Soviets. However, some of the stations, water towers are dating to the turn of the 20th century. After a brief cessation of service the line has been partially restored by rail enthusiasts. Tourists may now enjoy a short ride to the nearby lakeside resort of Rubikiai in weekends. A hire of entire train is also possible. A short ride by a handcar or a railbike at the narrow-gauge railroad museum in Anykščiai station is much cheaper and you may also witness old rail machinery and memorabilia there.
Southwest of Anykščiai lies the Puntukas stone, the second largest stone in Lithuania. It is covered by indentations reminding of the flight accross the Atlantic Ocean by pilots S. Darius and S. Girėnas, the first Lithuanians to complete this mission (and worldwide air mail pioneers). The bas-relief was made in secret by Bronius Pundzius in 1943 as Lithuania was occupied by the Nazi Germany at the time.
Liudiškės hill, on top of which lies the grave of famous Lithuanian wirter Jonas Biliūnas, is nearby. The grave is shaped like the "Phleron of happiness" in one of his short-stories. Everybody sought for that Phleron but it was on a large tower, and many people fell down to their deaths. Only after many died somebody climbed over the dead bodies of the earlier braves and took the Phleron, and made everyone happy (possibly an allegory of a fight for independence, where many have to die before somebody is able to successfully declare it).
North of Anykščiai Šeimyniškėliai hill is a possible location of mysterious Voruta city where Lithuania's first king Mindaugas had been crowned. The massive triangular hill is surrounded by a defensive ravine and may be accended by wooden stairs. Unfortnuately no fortifications remain on top. However to help one imagine how the castle may have looked like a wooden tower and outer wall is reconstructed nearby. Tower hosts a mini-museum inside and one may also try out shooting old-style bows.
In Niūronys north of Anykščiai there is a popular Horse museum, dedicated to horses and pre-war countryside lifestyle. Craftsmen (blacksmith, weaver, wheelmaker) show their work and its results. 19th century horse-drawn vehicles and the cultural role of horse are also well-covered (mostly in Lithuanian though). The museum is famous for programmes where you can try the old village crafts yourself - such as making bread (reservation needed).
Anykščiai placed a bid to become an official resort. It offers active tourism opportunities including a skiing hill. In summer the same hill serves as a place for "summer sled" (a kind of roller coaster with an ability to control its speed) and zorbing. Wakeboarding park and labyrinth park are available elsewhere.
Visaginas (population 20 000) has been built in the 1970s and 1980s for workers of a new nuclear power plant built nearby. Once a secret settlement, this is a good example of a Soviet city. All its buildings are multi-storey apartment blocks built according to common layouts. They are separated by pedestrian alleys and wide four-lane streets, all of which still bear names like Tarybų (Soviet), Kosmonautų (Cosmonaut), Taikos (Peace) or Draugystės (Friendship). In the Soviet Union every city had streets named this way.
Only the name of the city itself was changed from Sniečkus (surname of a Lithuanian communist leader) to Visaginas after independence. The new name comes from a pharse „Everybody defend themselves“ and while it reminds of poisonous snakes that used to live around the local lake, it is also surprisingly appropriate for a cold war nuclear town.
The ethnic make up of the city strikingly reminds former Soviet Union as well with 52% of population being ethnic Russians. Other ethnicities that once lived in the Soviet Union, such as Ukrainians or Belarusians, are also well represented. Russian is still the lingua franca in Visaginas. The population density is highest among Lithuania’s cities, but you are never far from nature as Visaginas is surrounded by forests and several lakes are nearby. In fact fragments of pine forests are left even between apartment blocks making Visaginas a unique forest city.
Although it may seem so when you are in Visaginas time does not stand still here. The Ignalina Nucear Power Plant which once employed half of the population was closed down as requested by the European Union. The gigantic industrial building east of the city that once housed the most powerful nuclear reactors in the world now stands empty. It never reached its full potential as 2 of the 4 planned reactors have not been built. Should they have been built Visaginas would have been doubled in size to house around 50 000 inhabitants. Right now the town's population already went down by a third from its peak. Visaginas ages as a whole: it was known as the "youngest town" in 1999 with an average age of 30,6 years but in 2012 the number went all the way to 39,3, showing little generational change.
The enormous power plant is a must-see. The massive pipes leading to Visaginas from the power plant once provided cheap heating. This was once the heart of the city that is now empty. In order to expedite the plans of a new power plant people of Visaginas are staging protests in favour of nuclear power. A NIMBY object anywhere else a NPP is more than welcome in what is the Nuclear Town.
Other than that, a simple stroll around the town is rewarding. The nuclear workers used to live well by Soviet standards, therefore Visaginas was built for upper middle class. With the exception of few additions the city is still as it was in the 1980s (even the atom-shaped streetlights remain).
The post-independence additions are a modern shopping mall and several churches. The Orthodox Church of the Birth of John the Baptist (1992) constructed in a converted shop between two apartment blocks in Sedulinos Avenue is probably the most interesting. The Catholic St. Paul's (1998) and Russian Orthodox St. Pantaleimon's (2000) are more typical religious buildings. Atheism was the first Soviet-introduced cultural practice to wither: in 2001 the city still had the highest share of irreligious in Lithuania (25%), down to 9% in 2011.
Visaginas is now also famous for the largest Country music festival in the Baltics, taking place in summer.
This town (pop. 15 000) far in the northeastern Lithuanian outback is known for its 17th century castle. The main building surrounded by fortifications forms the most impressive surviving military structure of this era in Lithuania.
The castle/fortress (now housing a relatively dull provincial museum) was owned by Radvila family. Together with the Sapiegas and some other noble families the Radvilas virtually controlled the Lithuania’s political life of the 17th century.
Radvilas were proponents of Reformed Christianity and this is still visible in Biržai as the town has a red-brick Reformed Christian church (1876) as well as the usual Roman Catholic one (1861). Surrounding villages boast old Reformed churches as well although now only some 10% of district‘s population proffess this faith. Biržai Reformed church offers services only in Sundays whereas the Roman Catholic parish celebrates mass every day.
Biržai is in a nice location near Širvėna artificial lake that is spanned by a long pedestrian bridge leading to a manor on the other side. The town used to be a terminus both for the Aukštaičiai Road from Kaunas and the narrow gauge railway, a kind of place in the end of Lithuania. But despite it being far from main tourist locations the town offers several restaurants and other facilities.
Panevėžys (pop. 100 000) is Lithuania's 5th largest city and the largest city in Aukštaitija region. Heavily hit by the World Wars and post-war demolition Panevėžys of today is different from the city it was before the war. Only some old buildings remain amidst post-war Soviet public buildings and apartment blocks.
In the Panevėžys Old Town probably some half of the buildings are pre-1940s and the other half is newer. As they stand side-by-side or on opposite sides of the same streets it is hard to immerse yourself in that atmosphere of centuries gone-by that you could feel in Vilnius or Kaunas.
The key features of the central Panevėžys are the Senvagė (billabong), a popular "lake" for strolling around, and the triangular Laisvės square that serves as the central square of the city. A few more interesting buildings in this area include a modest church (Holy Trinity, 1808) and an old factory. Two theaters (drama and musical) are also located in the area, as is the municipality, city library, courthouse and other institutions. Trade however has largely moved to the shopping malls elsewhere.
Districts that surround the downtown are dominated by suburb-style single-story single family dwellings. The oldest among them date to 19th century when the first streets were laid in these areas, but the majority are newer, with recent homes having replaced the older ones. The majority of churches are located in those districts, including the wooden Lutheran (east of the downtown), Russian Orthodox and Old Believer churches (both west of the downtown). Among these smaller houses of worship the square castle-like tower of the Lutheran church is the most interesting feature.
Panevėžys Cathedral, south of the downtown, is the most impressive among the city‘s religious buildings. Completed in the 1920s for the newly erected diocese this nicely restored church still boasts a solemn light blue interior adorned by murals such as that of the spires of diocese‘s main churches behind its altar.
Another imposing church is the neo-gothic Saint Peter and Paul's (1885) that stands north of the downtown, beyond the Nevėžis river.
The Ekranas stadium where the local football team plays is also in the near north of Panevėžys. The modern multi-purpose Cido arena with velodrome and basketball court is in the near west. Built for the Eurobasket 2011 it hosted the coveted games of Lithuanian national team and now is the home of Panevėžys basketball team as well as various events.
Beyond the low-rise districts of Panevėžys stand the Soviet apartment blocks. They are most prominent in the western and southwestern parts of the city where Panevėžys expanded in years 1945 - 1990. In the very north of the city (north of the railroad) stands a Soviet low-rise district known as Rožynas.
Panevėžys bus station is next to the Laisvės square (downtown) whereas the railroad station is in the north of the city. It is only served by infrequent Šiauliai-bound trains.
Panevėžys is the central point between Vilnius and Riga and therefore a good stop if you go this way. Babilonas real estate project covering 80 ha of territory is only 2 kilometers from the Vilnius-Riga road on the western outskirts of Panevėžys. Here are located two major shopping malls and smaller shops.
One day trip possibility is Pašiliai European bison park (30 km south of Panevėžys) where a bunch of these majestic animals live in a large enclosure and can be spectated. There is also a post-WW2 Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan defensive installation nearby, reconstructed to help you catch a glimpse of what the life in eternal danger in the forest should have been.
Rokiškis (pop. 15 000) is among the most appealing towns of northeastern Lithuania (Aukštaitija). It is centered around a very large rectangular main Nepriklausomybės (Independence) square. The square connects the Saint Matthew church (a neo-gothic masterpiece) on its western side to an extensive 18th century Tyzenhauzai family manor in the east.
The manor consists of 16 buildings, its main palace and the nearby servant buildings restored and housing a municipal museum. Some other buildings are still crumbling, separated from the palace by Soviet streets, but the entire complex is impressive nonetheless.
1 kilometer separates the palace from the St. Matthew church, also funded by the Tyzenhauzai family (1877). The church and the palace are visible from each other through a sraight urbanistic axis that consists of the 400 m long square, 400 m long Tyzenhauzų alley between two ponds and 200 m long paths of the palace garden.
The church has fine exterior and equally interesting interior.
The northern and southern sides of Nepriklausomybės square are full of 19th century buildings. Despite of some modern additions the area managed not to loose the atmosphere of an early 20th century town center. The square is well kept with new streetlights and benches. There are two monuments in the square, the new one is for Rokiškis while the old one (built in 1928) is dedicated to the decennial of Lihuania's independence. It is very rare among such monuments to survive the Soviet occupation. Depicting mythological and allegorical figures it also has a Baltic swastica inscribed.
Streets immediately surrounding the square tends to have some old buildings as well, but if you wander further north or south, the magic of Rokiškis downtown will be quick to wane.
Joniškis (pop. 11 000) is a town in northern Lithuania, dominated by a truly massive historicist church, dating to 1901. Uncommon to the area this grey building with a mezzanine incorporates elements of various previous architectural styles rather than emulating a single one.
Among its historic residentials and other buildings the town also has two synagogues, named "white" (1823; neoclassical) and "red" (1865; historicist) as one is plastered and the neighboring one has its red masonry visible. The red one partly collapsed in 2007 but now both are undergoing state funded restoration. Prior to World War 2 Joniškis was home to some 900 Jews.
Recently Joniškis became famous for its new museum of basketball, the only one of its kind in Lithuania. The museum's enthusiastic owner has a great collection of memorabilia of Lithuanian and Soviet basketball national teams and clubs. You may compare your own feet with a shoe of Arvydas Sabonis (2,20 m tall most famous Lithuanian player of the recent decades, who spent 7 seasons in NBA), review famous basketball games on a big screen, acquire bilingual books on the sport, see medals of important competitions, among other things.
Joniškis is important to Lithuanian basketball as it was in this Lithuanian-Latvian border town where the Lithuanian national basketball team were greeted by happy crowds in 1937 after winning their first European championship in Riga. After this event basketball was catapulted to the level of national sport where it has remained ever since, despite all the trials and tribulations that fell on the Lithuanian nation.
The basketball museum is located in Livonjos str. 3 and you will need to contact it to arrange opening times. Official website is here.
This UNESCO inscribed scenery consists of several small round hills near the banks of river Neris. Until the 14th century Teutonic attacks every one of them was crowned by a wooden castle as Kernavė was the capital of Lithuania until 1321 and the home for Grand Dukes Traidenis and Vytenis. None of the castles remain today.
The surrounding town of the era had up to 5000 inhabittants. However it has also turned into dust. The area is now best known for its lovely scenery, a nice background for a short summer hike.
To better imagine that old pagan town start your visit by checking out the refurbished archeological museum. Its atmospheric dimly lit halls offer a nice selection of Stone Age, Iron Age and Medieval tools, jewelry and weapons, well explained by interactive screens and 3D graphics.
The nearby modern Kernavė village is very small (population 350) but it has a church (1920) and a chapel near the archaeological site.