Lithuania is a lowland country. Its highest point is merely 294 m above sea level (in fact Lithuania is the world's largest country without locations above 300 m). The lack of mountains on the horizon is compensated by lush forests and countless lakes. There is lots of empty space and much of it is accessible as the law limits obstructions by land owners. With 55 people per square kilometer population density Lithuania is sparsely inhabitted compared to the Western European heartland.
The most impressive screnery of every region is safeguarded in five national parks.
Curonian spit (Kuršių nerija) national park is rightfully the most famous one. This UNESCO-inscribed 98 km long narrow Baltic Sea peninsula, now spanned by two countries (Lithuania and Russia), is unique both naturally and culturally. The powerful dunes that used to bury entire fishermen villages were tamed by planting pine forests. Much of the both worlds remain, with endless possibilities for hiking, swimming, sailing and cycling as well as meeting some wild animals that roam the forests.
On the opposite shore of the Curonian Lagoon there is the annually flooded delta of Nemunas, Lithuania's main river. The lower valley of this river, full of castles, is also beautiful. Both lack the National park status but are popular among naturalists.
The national parks of Aukštaitija and Samogitia are well known for their lakes. They receive many visitors in summer. Lake Plateliai in the Samogitian NP is the largest lake completely in Lithuania while Tauragnas of Aukštaitijan NP - the deepest (62,5 m). Aukštaitija has many lakes outside the national park area.
Dzūkija National Park in the southeast is covered by a dense forest. Population density there is mere 2 people per square kilometer. It is a popular place to gather berries and mushrooms as well as kayaking in its streams. Nearby Čepkeliai swamp is a great representative of yet another typical feature of Lithuanian landscape.
The fifth national park, Trakai, is dedicated to the historically important Trakai town rather than natural scenery. However its numerous lakes are also popular among tourists especially because of their easy reach from Vilnius (27 km).
Unlike some of their Western counterparts the Lithuanian national parks are not completely devoid of human habitation. Homes do exist - such as the wooden fishermen huts in the Curonian spit. Limitations on new construction mean that the villages within the park limits remain more authentic.
Nature-lovers will not be left without activity outside the National Parks as well. There are possibilities for active tourism - e.g. walking a physically demanding route through a swamp. Angling is very popular, icluding the winter angling through special holes drilled in the ice layer (ice thickness needs to be checked as there are casualties every year). Foraging is another popular pastime with berry picking prevalent in summer and mushroom picking in autumn (city dwellers may ride 100 km in train for accessing the best forests).
While driving you may see wild animals, including rabbits, foxes, boars, deers, elks and squirells. These encounters are not very common however but birds are.
The most common trees are pines, spruces, birches and alders (in that order), though oaks are especially venerated.
Cultural landscape of Lithuanian countryside is a guaranted sight, with its roadside chapels and elaborate wooden crosses (Lithuanian cross making is part of UNESCO world heritage).
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). In summer Neringa's unique atmosphere and fishing history is capitalized on by multiple weekend-long celebrations/festivals.
Dzūkija National Park is the largest protected area in Lithuania (697 km2) and the country's most extensive forest (91% of the park area is forested, mainly with pines).
30 rivers and streams flow there, well-enjoyed by kayakers and anglers (who also practice at 48 local lakes). 6 footpaths and 6 bicycle routes are for dry exploration of the nature. Key locations may be accessed by car (main roads are paved, side roads unpaved). There are 54 mammal species and 198 bird species.
The forest hosts occasional small villages with a feel of eras gone by. Soviets have not established their collective farms here and new construction has been limited - meaning that wooden (of course!) homes built at ~1900 prevail with large traditional wooden crosses lining the unpaved main streets. Zervynos is a good example of such village. Lynežeris, Dubininkas and Musteika are three other villages with a landmark status.
People's life in what is now the National Park has been always intertwinned with the Forest. Berry and mushroom foraging (legal and free for everybody) is still a source of food and income (though no longer the primary one). Hallowed pines dot the area - they had been used by bee-keepers decades or centuries ago. Equally numerous are the remains of Stone Age and Bronze Age settlements from the past milennia.
During the Soviet occupation (1944-1990) the Forest became a "home" to thousands of people forced out of their villages who joined the guerilla campaign for Lithuanian freedom. Massive woods provided shelter for years but sadly the partisans were defeated by late 1950s. Graves and crumbling entrenchments are their sole remains.
Merkinė pyramid (a.k.a. "Shrine of Hearts", "Church of God the Father") is a testament to the New Age contact between man and Forest. The unique triangular structure has been built in 2002 and covered by a glass dome in 2009. The owner claims he was instructed to construct the pyramid by God who also revealed him the design and exact proportions of the alloy, which makes the Pyramid a unique place of natural power where diseases heal. As evidenced by a constant stream of people performing rituals inside this is likely the largest Lithuanian new religious movement (although it does not style itself as such). The visiting instructions are present in English and include contemplation stops and energized water. Non-believers may also enter.
Entry of Dzūkija National Park is free but some activities (e.g. kayaking and angling) need permits. Headquarters of the park is at Marcinkonys (pop. 2000) where the park museum and a nice wooden church (1880) is also located. The double cross that stands in front of Marcinkonys church has been a symbol of Lithuanian-speakers popular in the linguistically heterogenous Dzūkija.
Merkinė and Liškiava towns on the northern limits of the Forest used to be more important centuries ago than they are now (even the Kings and Grand Dukes used to visit). Their rather dull looks are still rejuvenated by old Baroque churches (17th century in Merkinė, 1720 in Liškiava), hillfort remains (Merkinė), monastery (Liškiava), old town limit marks (Merkinė).
South of the Dzūkija NP there is extensive Čepkeliai swamp (110 km2) of limited access.
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).
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.
Soviet nuclear missile base in Plokštinė (part of Samogitian National Park) offers a rare opportunity to enter the shafts where Cold War nuclear missles used to stand ready to be launched any minute.
Once top secret and still reachable only by a gravel road through a forest, this underground military installation was dug by soldiers using only shovels. Multi-storey complex is barely visible from the outside and can be visited only together with a guide (hourly tours).
Inside the bunkers the world's first Cold War museum has been established in 2010. It combines authentic machinery and propaganda posters with new dioramas, plans and screens with period sights and sounds.
The most impressive part of the visit will be a 27 m deep nuclear missile shaft, still in a remarkably good condition. Had the World history taken a grimmer path and the Cold War turned "hot", the missiles based here would have wreaked havoc in the United Kingdom. Other visitable rooms include nuclear storage, generator room, command room.
Fortunately the Soviet Union collapsed and the Plokštinė bunkers remained devoid of weapons of mass destruction and soldiers. In fact, these installations were abandoned much earlier because the Western intelligence learned about their existance.
Less fortunately the post-abandonment neglect meant that thieves broke into the bunkers to steal metal. As a result of their actions the other 3 missile shafts are damaged or flooded. However the young Lithuanian state was quick to understand the importance of Plokštinė missile base and much of it was saved for future generations.
It is the easiest to reach the site by car.
Samogitian National Park
Samogitian National Park surrounds the Plokštinė base. It has numerous lakes. Central village is Plateliai (pop. 1000) where there are restaurants, bike rental and accommodation opportunities as well as a lake. It has an Užgavėnės museum dedicated to the Carnival-like Lithuanian Christian holiday which has its most fervent traditions in Samogitia. Plateliai and other National Park villages are known for old wooden churches with the one in Beržoras most famous.
Žemaičių Kalvarija (pop. 800) is the region's prime religious center with a Baroque/Classicist church and monastery (1822). The village is given its unique atmosphere by 21 mostly wooden chapels, many located on hilltops. Visiting them in a certain order may help you better imagine the final road of Jesus Christ (this is reenacted by a many pilgrims in a festival every July 2nd-12th and archaic Samogitian Christian songs known as "the hills" may then be heard).
Orvydas farmstead is full of somewhat mysterious stone art created by its former owner Vilius Orvydas (1952-1992). Targetted by Soviet authorities for its religious overtones Orvydas farmstead gained a special meaning to many locals as well as outcasts from elswehere (addicts, inmates) who had been helped by Orvydas. Located 17 km west of Plateliai it is technically outside the Samogitian National Park but easily visited from there.
Scenic Panemunė road which traces Nemunas river valley at its northern bank and connects Kaunas to Šilutė. Beyond Šilutė the road continues to Klaipėda therefore making the Panemunė road a slower yet more interesting alternative for Kaunas-Klaipėda or Vilnius-Klaipėda route by car.
The road is famous for its castles and manors that can be visited en-route. These buildings were used as opulent residences rather than defensive structures but their impressive towers and strong walls may be decptive. Only a couple kilometers from Kaunas limits is Raudondvaris with its castle-like red brick manor, built in 16th-17th centuries.
Further on you will pass Raudonė, a castle with a 33,5 m fairy-tale like gothic tower now used as a school. It was originally bult in late 16th century and rebuilt after suffering heavy damage in World War 2.
Finally there is the Rennaisance Panemunė castle. Dating to 1604 it now houses a museum and you may climb its mighty towers. The castle its being restored, the surrounding park still providing a nice stroll even after heavy damages done by Soviets.
There are other things to see on the Panemunė road. The scenery is nice and the surrounding towns are pretty. The towns in the Nemunas valley closer to Kaunas, such as Vilkija, are built on several terraces.
In the western reaches of the road (beyond Skirsnemunė) you enter Lithuania Minor. These areas were once ruled by the Germans and this is still visible in architecture. The largest town in the area is Šilutė, where you can make a detour to Nemunas delta if the approach roads are not submerged by the waters of Nemunas river (as happens every spring, but you may use a special tractor ferry).
By the way the Skirsnemuniškiai town that you pass here is famous for having the longest name among the Lithuanian single-word placenames (16 letters).
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.