Lithuania Minor used to be the Lithuania's most distinct region. Save for a few brief periods it had been ruled by German states until the 20th century. Its peasantry however spoke Lithuanian and in a sense this region was the heartland of Lithuanian culture. First Lithuanian books were printed in Lithuania Minor (1547) and knygnešiai (book carriers) of the 19th century smuggled Lithuanian literature from there to the Russian-occupied Lithuania where Lithuanian language was banned. Even the flag and anthem of Lithuania Minor predate those of Lithuania.
Over the centuries the Lithuanians of Lithuania Minor adopted some German cultural practices, among them the Lutheran faith, and called themselves "lietuvininkai". Some campaigned for unification with Lithuania-proper and were partly succesful after World War 1 when Klaipėda Region, the northernmost tip of Lithuania Minor, went to newly-independent Lithuania amidst German prostests (to this day Klaipėda Region is the only part of Lithuania Minor inside Republic of Lithuania). Klaipėda region was ~55% Lithuanian at the time - as in the rest of Lithuania Minor its cities were primarilly German.
Lithuania Minor and both its communities were shattered by World War 2 and the subsequent Soviet Genocide of Lithuania Minor (1944-1949). Soviet army attrocities left 300 000 civilians dead, including 130 000 Lithuanians (most of the remaining locals fled or were expelled). In a sense this killed the region itself. Most of Lithuania Minor was then ceded to Soviet Russia as Kaliningrad Oblast, new Russian placenames coined for its towns and Russian settlers came from the east. Klaipėda Region remained more authentic as it is still Lithuanian and uses the original placenames. However most people there are also post-WW2 settlers and their descendants as lietuvininkai communities were destroyed or displaced.
However, the buildings still remind of the past. The downtowns here are built of bricks. The barns are brick, the churches are built of red brick as well. Some wooden frame buildings exist.
Klaipėda is the area's most interesting city. Albeit severely damaged in the World War 2 and afterwards with most of its imposing churches torn down by the Soviets its downtown with rectangular street plan and German-built homes is still nice.
Curonian Spit, a peninsula reachable only by a ferry or some 200 km detour via Russia, is a popular resort and the most popular tourist attraction of Lithuania Minor. Its beautiful dunes and forests that were planted to tame these moving sands are inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage.
Smaller towns of Lithuania Minor, such as Šilutė, are also of interest especially for their architectural difference from the similarly-sized towns in the rest of Lithuania.
The part of Lithuania Minor along Nemunas river delta is flooded every spring. Local people are well adapted to this. Many own boats whereas others rely on military amphibian transporters that help local people in these times. These are prime locations for angling and birdwatching. Rusnė island sometimes become inaccessible due to floods, but if it is accessible, it is worth a detour.
In the Kaliningrad Oblast a smaller share of historical buildings remain and out of the surviving ones many are ruined. The area was completely ethnically cleanised and not only the entire German and Lithuanian population replaced by Russians after 1945, but also every placename and even many river names changed into communist-themed Russian ones.
Klaipėda is the only port in Lithuania and its heart is beating together with the sea, with annual summer Sea Festivals and biannual Tall Ships regattas, Sea museum, Sea faculty in the local University, numerous beaches and major stevedoring companies.
Ever since its establishment by the Teutonic Knights (as Memelburg) in year 1252 the city was distinct from the rest of Lithuania. It was ruled by Germans together with the rest of Lithuania Minor. Even its Lithuanian name “Klaipėda”, first mentioned in the 16th century, is believed to be a pejorative, meaning “Bread eater” (as the city dwellers used to eat bread grown by the Lithuanians of surrounding countryside).
On the eve of the World War 2 Klaipėda looked just as it did for centuries: 70% of its people were Germans, while in the surrounding Klaipėda County the situation was reverse with 70% of the population being ethnic Lithuanians. But the War changed everything and the advancing Soviet armies found only some 20 local human beings when they captured the city in 1945.
Klaipėda was swiftly repopulated by Russians (22%), Russophones (5%) and Lithuanians from elsewhere (72%). Some of its iconic German-style buildings that survived the war were torn down soon afterwards. Unfortunately, this included all the imposing churches (Saint John church used to have the tallest spire in Lithuania).
However, much more of its past remained visible in Klaipėda than in cities like Kaliningrad (formerly Koenigsberg) or Sovetsk (formerly Tilsit) in Russia, where the German history was wiped out almost entirely.
In the Klaipėda Old Town and New Town there are still many pre-war buildings, art nuoveau and wooden frame, even if they are frequently standing side-by-side with newer ones. Among the more interesting is the post building and various red brick port warehouses. Strolling on the straight narrow old town streets may be as rewarding as seeking specific landmarks.
In Smiltynė, the part of Klaipėda that could be reached by ferry alone, there is a former German 19th century sea fortress, currently housing the National Sea Museum, which covers both shipping, fishes and sea mammals, many of which live in large acquariums here.
Smiltynė together with Melnragė, Giruliai and Karklė (north of the city) are also popular for their beaches.
The streets of downtown Klaipėda are adorned by numerous small playful statues built in 2006 and later. Among these are a bag of money, a canine "Guardian of the Old Town", a small mouse that supposedly makes wishes come true and a dragon climbing a building wall. They revitalise Klaipėda urban landscape and remind some aspects of the city past and folklore. You never know what you will encounter in that side-street and this makes your time in Klaipėda even more interesting.
Neringa (population 4500) with its spectacular UNESCO-inscibed scenery is the elite seaside resort of Lithuania. It is on the narrow peninsula called the Curonian Spit, only some 2 km wide and 98 km long, with half of that length in Lithuania (forming the bulk of the Neringa municipality). Curonian Lagoon separates it from the mainland Lithuania.
The Curonian Spit was for centures an area of travelling dunes, the “Lithuanian Sahara”. Few fishing villages that existed there were at a constant threat of being buried by sands. This used to happen regularly and over 10 villages are known to have been consumed by the dunes.
Breathtaking dunes such as the Parnidis dune in Nida still exist, but since the 19th century the landscape is dominated by pine forests, a titanic successful attempt by the local people to tame the nature.
The former fishing villages of Neringa are now resorts. These are the most authentic seaside villages of Lithuania. Their lagoon coasts are lined by numerous wooden ethnic style fishermen homes, some still adorned by grass roofs. In late 19th century these were joined by elaborate villas as Curonian Spit became a popular summer retreat. Famous artists such as the German writer Thomas Mann spent their holidays in these buildings (his villa in Nida is now a museum). Small neo-gothic Lutheran churches of Nida (1888) and Juodkrantė (1885) are where the elite of those days prayed. In Juodkrantė the German mass is still held on Sundays.
Unfortunately the Soviet era brought in large concrete hotels to the area that marred some views but did not entirely obscured neither the nature nor history. In Nida such buildings are more common and they are larger in size whereas Juodkrantė is more authentic, its 2 km long main street still surrounded by the Lagoon and wooden homes. After independence major construction is banned in Neringa as the entire municipality forms the Curonian Spit National Park (Kuršių Nerijos nacionalinis parkas). Among the few recent aditions is the wooden Nida Roman Catholic church of 2003, a great example of how it is possible for a building to conform with the scenery that surrounds it.
Despite all the changes in the past century fishing is still important (albeit for tourist industry rather than subsistence) and there is a great number of stores and restaurants offering freshly caught fish. The fishing is done in the Lagoon and all the villages are located on the lagoon side. The swimming and sunbathing is mainly done at clean seashore beaches, an easy stroll 2 kilometers to the west by a forest path.
Alongside the main road that spans the entire length of the Neringa municipality (~40 km) you may sometimes encounter wild animals. From a couple of higher places you may see both the lagoon and the sea. The most famous is the aforementioned Parnidis dune, now crowned by a sundial. From its top you can see the vastness of Neringa sands as well as the town of Nida, drowned among the greenery of countless trees.
Other tourist sights of Juodkrantė include the Witches Hill full of wooden sculptures and the Museum of small paintings. In Nida there is the Neringa historical museum and a Fishemen ethnographic homestead.
You will have to use a ferry to go to Neringa from Lithuania and to pay additional tax for entrance with a car. To top it off the prices here are greater than elsewhere in Lithuania. If you need nightclubs, loud music, shopping malls or funfairs this is definitely not a resort to choose (opt for Palanga instead). But for calmness of nature, ecology, countless bicycle paths and benches, possibilities for boat trips, emptier and cleaner beaches this is the place to choose.
Neringa is also soaked in first world atmosphere and here you may feel that you have suddenly arrived to a much richer country than Lithuania is. Even some forest roads have benches to sit down and are well lit in nights while tourist information is provided in modern computer screens. Juodkrantė and Nida are adorned by beautiful landscaping and sculptures. Small population, a special law that allows the municipality to collect entrance fee as well as many rich people paying their income tax here makes this possible.
Neringa is the closest thing to a remote island you can find in Lithuania with storms sometimes cutting Neringa off (with the advent of better ferries in the mid 2000s the disruption of service became rare).
Šilutė (pop. 20 000) is likely the most intact town of Lithuania Minor and therefore northern East Prussia. Its 2,5 km long tree-lined main avenue was largely spared from the mass Soviet demolitions that ravaged the Kaliningrad Oblast and the churches of Klaipėda.
Šilutė is now regarded to be the unofficial capital of Lithuania Minor since the pro-Lithuanian Klaipėda Revolt captured it but not Tilsit/Tilžė in 1923. While the 1918 declaration calling for the unification of Lithuania Minor and Lithuania Major was signed in Tilsit the later 1923 act of actual unification was signed in Šilutė.
Šilutė became a single entity only in 1910 with the unification of the four villages (Šilokarčema, Žibai, Verdainė and Cintijoniškės, or Heydekrug, Szibben, Werden and Cynthionischken if you prefer the Germanized names). As such the town has several centers. In the east the main street begins at the former market square of Šilokarčema, still an extensive rectangular open area surrounded by pre-war buildings. 1911 yellow truss bridge over the Šyša river and the late 18th century Šiultė manor are nearby.
Main Lietuvininkų street goes eastwards, connecting Šilokarčema main square to the main square of Žibai. Laid in the 19th century the throughfare still reminds of those days. Large 3-floored detached art nuoveau buildings are partly hidden by its linden and chestnut trees. Among these buildings stands the Lutheran church dedicated to Martin Luther, completed in 1926, known for its interior murals depicting 104 famous historical personalities, among them Biblical figures Noah and Moses, Šilutė's local luminaries H. Scheu and T. Eicke, Roman Emperors Justinian and Constantine, founders of the reformation M. Luther and J. Calvin, and seccular people such as S. Kierkegard and Dante Alighieri. Unfortunately the church is closed outside of mass.
Žibai main square is of irregular layout and a national romantic red-brick builidng now housing a vocational school (1909) is arguably its most impressive one.
Going further east you will reach the railroad, before World War 1 a trunk route from Karaliaučius/Koenigsberg to Klaipėda/Memel, both still part of Germany at the time. Modest 19th century station building still exists north of the main street but in 2011 the last passenger services to Klaipėda have been cancelled.
Beside the railroad, south of the main street, stands a red-brick Holy Cross Roman Catholic church (1854). Built in a romantic style more typical to Lutheran architecture of the area it is much smaller than its local Lutheran counterpart. This indicates the relative size of the two communities in the pre-WW2 era. Like the rest of Lithuania Minor Šilutė used to be overwhelmingly Lutheran, both Lithuanians and Germans adhering to that faith.
Lutheran communities were largely destroyed by the advancing Soviet armies, this genocide barely mentioned in the history books even today. The extensive Lutheran cemetary in a forest beyond the railroad serves as a powerful compensation for the never-built memorials. Overgrown and eerie, it has no sinlgle grave left undamaged and unransacked by the Soviets. Their metal fences are bent, most inscriptions hardly readible, crosses swaying and never visited as most relatives of the deceased have been murdered or exiled decades ago, leaving nobody to care for what was once a nicely landscaped area of an East Prussian provincial town. And yet unlike most other Lutheran cemetaries in Lithuania's cities and towns this one was not demolished (except for the graves of German soldiers), its hundreds of interesting gravestones and a funeral chapel still available for all to see.
While the main street is interesting and worth a stroll, the districts north and south of it are largely dating to the Soviet occupation.
Šilutė is the hub of the Nemunas Delta region, known for its annually submerged floodplains, bird migration paths and the prime location for boat related activities in Lithuania.
The Delta of the Lithuania's largest river with its many flumes, Nemunas branches and lakes is the prime spot for boat tourism, angling and birdwatching in Lithuania. It has extensive annually flooded plains, a major bird migration path, a beach full of seashells (Ventė) and a fishermen village where a river serves as a street (Mingė). The Nemunas Delta area is located next to the Šilutė town.
The floodplains of Nemunas delta are submerged every spring, transforming the small hills crowned by farmsteads into islands (yes, these homes are inhabitted despite all the odds). Rusnė island town (pop. 1 600) 11 km west of Šilutė is also annually cut off by high water, the transportation organized by amphibious vehicles and high-clearance tractors in such days. Rusnė is known for its 1809 Lutheran church with a fortress-like tower and Uostadvaris where 1907 polder and 1873 lighthouse (possible to accend) are located. It is possible to sunbath and swim in Atmata, a brach of Nemunas, near Rusnė.
Mingė (also known as Minija) village is known as the "Venice of Lithuania". This place is a far call from the Serenissima, but it shares with it the importance of water passages. In Mingė the river Minija is the "main street" faced by all the building facades. The time-battered boats of Lietuvinink fishermen have been largely dipslaced by modern yachts moored in its anchorage (Nemunas delta is the prime spot for boat-related tourism in Lithuania). A regular some 4x daily ship connects Mingė to Uostadvaris and Nida in summer. Up to this day there is no bridge, so a 13 km detour is needed to go from one bank of the village to another by non-water means. The western side has more buildings, although both sides are authentic and devoid of modern buildings.
West of Mingė you may reach the Ventė Horn peninsula (25 km from Šilutė), famous for its bird ringing (ornithology) station with the world's largest bird trap (69m x 113m, 25m pillars). Established by naturalist Tadas Ivanauskas in 1929 it is also among the oldest such institutions. The station is under a major bird migration routes convergence spot, as many as 3 000 000 birds passing over it daily during the migration season, and some 1 000 - 6 000 ringed. In the breeding season (spring) the area boasts some 200 local bird species. 1863 lighthouse, 11 m tall, is nearby, while the Curonian Lagoon coasts at Ventė are known for thousands of seashells washed away.
Kaliningrad Oblast is now an exclave of Russia but it is populated by Russians only after it was conquered by the Soviet Union in year 1945. Prior to that the area was ruled by Germans. Ethnic Lithuanians made a significant portion of inhabittants. The area was part of Lithuania Minor and it is in Kaliningrad (then known as Koenigsberg in German and Karaliaučius in Lithuanian) where the first Lithuanian language books were printed.
History, however, is nearly swept away in the Oblast. All the placenames were changed. Even many river names were changed from German and Lithuanian ones to Russian (a rare practice after conquests). Instead of Bareiškiemis there is now Pervomaiskoe (litterally "May 1st town"), in place of Koenigsberg - Kaliningrad (named after a famous communist Kalinin who never visited the city), Tilsit/Tilžė is now Sovetsk (after Soviet Union).
In Kaliningrad little remains of Koenigsberg as entire downtown was obliterated and only the long-abandoned cathedral is now restored by German donations. The massive medieval castle has been torn down and its place is now occupied by the Soviet Palace (actually a dull white tower block).
Some other towns were more lucky, however it is well understandable why German exilees used to weep when they saw their former hometowns after finally being allowed to visit them once the Soviet Union collapsed. Even those stately German buildings and churches that were not obliterated now lay in ruins. Not a single old town is intact. The few remaining old buildings dissonate heavily with the modern poverty surrounding them. They are joined by countless plain Soviet ones and ones rebuilt after 1945.
Chenekhovskoe (Insterburg / Įsrūtis), Sovetsk (Tilsit / Tilžė), Zelenogradsk (Cranz / Krantas) are among the more interesting towns.
In the times of Soviet Union travel to the heavily militarized Oblast was forbidden. Now this ban on foreigners still applies only to the town of Baltijsk (Pillau / Piliava). Still however a Russian visa is needed and the waiting times on the borders may be long. They tend to be shorter in Neringa (Curonian Spit), but there you will have to pay local tax for entering the national park on both sides. It may be quicker to get in by train from Vilnius. Oblast being an exclave every train from Moscow to Kaliningrad stops at Vilnius station.
Kaliningrad city itself may be reached by bus or train from Vilnius, and by bus from other main cities. Still if you want to explore smaller and more interesting locations it will be better to drive a car.