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 2500) with its spectacular UNESCO-inscribed scenery is the elite seaside resort of Lithuania. It spans a narrow peninsula called Curonian Spit, merely 2 km wide and 98 km long, with half of that length in Lithuania. Curonian Lagoon separates the Spit from mainland Lithuania.
The Curonian Spit for centuries has been an area of massive travelling dunes, the “Lithuanian Sahara”. Its few fishing villages used to be ephemeral: over 10 of them are known to have been consumed by the moving dunes.
Some large swatches of breathtaking dunes remain, but since 19th century the landscape is dominated by pine forests, a titanic successful attempt by the locals to tame the nature.
The former fishing villages of Neringa are now authentic resorts. Their lagoon coasts are lined by numerous wooden vernacular style ex-fishermen homes, some still adorned by thatched roofs and many housing small family-owned guesthouses and restaurants.
Few fish for subsistence today but fishing and other boat-based activities and sea cuisine are now well enjoyed by tourists. Nevertheless Neringa's main drag is a glorious sandy beach that spans the entire seashore of the peninsula. A 2 km healthy hike is necessary to get there as the accommodation is limited to lagoon side. Natural beauty, laidback feel, cleanness, bicycle paths and boat trips also draws people to Neringa. If you need nightclubs, loud music, shopping malls or funfairs opt for Palanga instead.
The landscapes of Neringa attract vacationers since 19th century when the Spit (then part of Germany) was “discovered” by German artists and politicians. While the Soviet era brought in concrete hotels, they have not entirely obscured neither the nature nor history and the National Park status bans new construction.
In the Curonian Spit one gets soaked in that First World atmosphere of a much richer country. Benches line every forest path, roads are well-lit, tourist information screens and pretty landscaping available. This comes at a price however: getting into the Spit is costly (ferry service and car entrance fees) while prices there are among the steepest in Lithuania (although average on Western standards).
In summer Neringa's unique atmosphere and fishing history is capitalized on by multiple weekend-long celebrations/festivals.
Nida resort village
Nida (pop. 1200) is the municipal center and its largest resort. "Large" is on Neringa scale though so most restaurants are still one-family affairs with a few tables and shops are compact.
Pedestrianized Central Nida boasts the Curonian Spit's best collection of dark red vernacular former fishermen homes. A few offers accommodation, some are owned by urban rich and one serves as a modest Fishermen Farmstead museum.
The nearby port is still the village's heart but pleasure vessels, many available for hire or excursions, have since replaced the traditional kurėnas fishing boats.
Further from the lagoon old buildings give way to Soviet hotels, luckily they are not as monstrous as outside Neringa.
New construction is now nearly banned in Neringa but an exception was made for the Roman Catholic church (2003). Its design tastefully incorporates vernacular architecture combining wood and thatch with modern forms.
Prior to World War 2 Neringa was overwhelmingly Lutheran. The red-brick Lutheran church (1888) still offers German Sunday mass in addition to Lithuanian. Its nearby restored cemetery is famous for krikštai, a type of wooden “gravestones” ubiquitous to seaside Lithuania.
The original Curonian Spit inhabitants (a unique blend of Lithuanian, Latvian and German cultures) largely fled the Soviet Genocide but their traditions are still cherished. The weather vanes that once crowned their boat masts (identifying the village of origin and thus helping to prevent overfishing) have now became village emblems and an art form. They are common in landscaping, asserting the local identity.
In summers you may hear so much German language in Nida that you may feel it is still ruled from Berlin. These Germans are nearly all tourists however, tracing the paths of pre-WW2 luminaries. They visit Thomas Mann house, built by the legendary writer in 1932 for summer vacations. They also glimpse at the one-room H. Blode museum located in the sole remaining building of the Blode’s hotel where he accommodated Sigmund Freud, Albert Speer and, most famously, held symposiums for some 200 artists. Most original works were burned by Soviets but reproductions are available. More info on area's history is available at Neringa history museum on the opposite side of the road. The museums are small and meant to augment rather than replace sunbathing.
The most famous sight in Nida is undoubtedly Parnidis dune. From its sundial-crowned 52 m high top you can see the vastness of Neringa sands as well as the town of Nida, drowned among the greenery, the Sea and the Lagoon. At Nida the lagoon is wide enough to put the mainland beyond horizon, making it romantically appear that sun both rises from and sets into water. Parnidis may be accessed by car or a calm lagoon-side footpath.
On another 52 m high hill (Urbas) the views are obstructed by trees but the lighthouse there is among Nida symbols, its nightly light surrealistically racing across the dunes and lagoon.
Juodkrantė resort village
Juodkrantė (pop. 700) is centered around a 19th century Villa district. These elaborate wooden contraptions, still housing hotels and restaurants, almost seem too large for the village. A port is nearby while a 2 km long lagoon-side promenade adorned by stone statues goes both northwards and southwards from there.
Southern Juodkrantė hosts a small Lutheran church (1885) and a Museum of Miniature Paintings (these artworks feel much more in place at the scaled-down Juodkrantė than at bustling Vilnius). Another attraction there is the Hill of Witches, its numerous scary wooden statues popular with kids.
Beyond the southern town limit the Europe‘s largest cormorant colony is undoubtedly an eerie sight. The birds‘ feces destroyed a large chunk of pine forest. ~4000 cormorants and ~1000 grey herons live on top of these trees, causing calls to “protect nature from the nature”.
Northern Juodkrantė has the Amber Bay. Today‘s laid-back small gulf was a massive amber mine in between 1860 and 1890, annually excavating 75 tons on Lithuanian national mineral, including the famous stone age Juodkrantė treasure. Thatch sculptures are now built there regularly and burned every Autumn solstice.
Preila and Pervalka resort villages
For the most pristine Neringa experience one should head to Preila (pop. 200) and Pervalka (pop. 20) one-street villages with nothing more but a couple of small restaurants, a shop and some accommodation opportunities. Entertainment is largely limited to the usual seaside beach, forest hikes and a few lagoon activities.
Pervalka is also merely 3 km from the Nagliai dune reserve where a footpath offers spectacular views of the grey dunes and their surroundings. Four villages and two cemeteries lie buried under the Nagliai sands.
Getting to and around Neringa
Neringa is the closest thing to a remote island you can find in Lithuania with storms sometimes cutting it off (with the advent of better ferries in the mid-2000s the disruption of service became rare).
Klaipėda ferries are the only option to bring your car in (red tape largely precludes the route through Russia). Curonian Spit is spanned by a single road with its only gas station in Nida.
The costs may make you think twice before driving in Neringa in which case you may also sail there by other vessels (Klaipėda-Juodkrantė-Nida; Mingė-Nida). This is at a premium but offers sights.
Inside Neringa an hourly bus service connects all the villages but with so many bicycle paths you may cycle instead (renting a bike is easy). Only a couple buses a day go outside Neringa (to Vilnius, Kaunas and Kaliningrad) so a ferry ride and transfer at Klaipėda is usually the most convenient way to travel onwards.
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).
Inspirational place to some, junkyard to some others the Orvidas farmstead combines unique stone art of Vilius Orvidas (1952-1992) with rusting Soviet machinery. Targetted by Soviet authorities for its religious overtones the Orvidas farmstead gained a special meaning to many locals as well as "outcasts" from elswehere (addicts, ex-inmates) who had been helped by Orvidas. 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.