Traditionally the Lithuanian castles were wooden hillforts. None of them survived to this day, but many castle hills remain, some dating to the Bronze age. 5 of them are in Kernavė, the UNESCO-inscribed former capital (Aukštaitija region). There is an undergoing project to rebuild a wooden castle in Anykščiai (Aukštaitija).
Medieval brick castles were constructed in strategic locations along the rivers and near the political heartland of the country (Vilnius). The remains of the Vilnius and Kaunas castles are in the Old Towns and symbolically important. The reconstructed Trakai Island Castle is the most popular day-trip from Vilnius. Castle remains exist in Medininkai (East of Vilnius) and in Klaipėda. The Klaipėda castle constructed by the Teutonic knights, the arch-enemy of Lithuanians at the time. At this time entire cities were walled, but save for the few fragments the walls were destroyed in the 19th century. Some of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania castles are now in Belarus and Ukraine.
The end of the Teutonic crusades in the 15th century permitted Lithuanian nobility to move from their castles to newly-built opulent manors. The richest ones covered tens of hectares and included many buildings and extensive gardens. Poorer nobles lived in wooden manors that differed from peasant homes only in size and architectural details. Some of the nobility palaces of 17th-19th centuries are built to resemble medieval castles. Three such castles are built near Nemunas west of Kaunas. The manors make an important part of the Lithuanian countryside as there are some 800 of them remaining, in different states of repair. The era of the manors ended with the land reform of 1923 and was completely struck down in 1944 with the nationalization and mass looting by the Soviet soldiers. As many of the manors eventually had a town built around them, see the page on towns of Lithuania to learn more about non-castle type manors.
The need for defense did not disappear with the increasing peace but artillery advances rendered castles obsolete. They have been replaced by bastion fortresses such as Biržai castle, at the time of construction among the most modern in Europe.
Industrial city growth replaced the idea of a single fortress to that of a massive ring of forts. In the 19th century the size of fortifications reached its pinnacle, with the Kaunas fortress absorbing the entire Lithuania's second largest city to such extent that the ruling Russian Imperial officials exclaimed: "There is no [longer a] Kaunas city. There is only Kaunas fortress". All the further city improvements were meant to serve the fortress and soldiers/officers made up 28% of city dwellers. Still surrounding the city the Kaunas fortress is one of the best preserved examples of such 19th century fortresses in the world.
20th century mobile warfare and air force advances made such fortresses obsolete and they were supplanted by compact hidden installations, manned by several soldiers each. Such buildings may be found in woods near Vilnius (built by the Poles in 1930s) and elsewhere (built by the Soviets). In the forests you may also see modest secret bases of Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisans. Arguably the most interesting military installation of the 20th century is the underground Plokštinė Soviet nuclear missile base in Samogitia.
The favourite day-trip from Vilnius, town of Trakai (pop. 5000) is famous for its island castle.
Trakai takes a great pride from having been the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania although the Grand Duke ruled from this area only for a couple of years in 1321-1322. Even after the move of the ruling family to Vilnius Trakai remained an important city, capital of one of several Voivodships of Lithuania from 1375 until the 18th century.
In fact, Trakai was considered to be two different cities: one Roman Catholic and one Karaite. Karaites are ethnic Karaims, a peculiar Turkic community with its own religion (an offshoot of Judaism). They were brought to Trakai in 15th century and only 65 of them remain in the town, but Trakai is their heartland to this day. The Kenessa (Karaite temple) still operates, many wooden homes still have the iconic Karaim three façade windows. You can taste the Karaim kibins (hot pasty with meat inside) and krupnik (38% alcoholic beverage) in most local restaurants, even if this renaissance of Karaim cuisine is mostly due to tourism. Additionally, you may visit the Karaim museum.
The former importance of Trakai is evident in the mighty 14th century Trakai Island Castle in Lake Galvė (Eastern Europe's only water castle). It has been reconstructed in years 1929-1987 and currently houses a museum of Lithuanian history. Some events such as Pilėnai opera performance are periodically held in the castle courtyards.
Even older is the Peninsula Castle built on the mainland. It lays in ruins but its yard houses wooden medieval tools. All these spring into life during the two medieval festivals that take place here (~2nd weekend of June and ~3rd weekend of August). The plaque "Trakai historical museum" near the Peninsula castle is misleading as this is actually a small museum of religious art located in a former Dominican monastery near the castle.
The Transfiguration of Virgin Mary church dating to the 15th century is among the oldest churches in Lithuania's smaller towns, its miraculous altar painting reportedly having been brought from 12th century Byzantium.
Only after the Russian Imperial occupation (1795) did Trakai cease to grow and became an ordinary provincial town it is today. To cater for the new Russian community a Russian Orthodox church was constructed in 1863.
Entire Trakai town is squeezed between multiple lakes and therefore is long and narrow. The lakes attract many people of Vilnius in summer weekends. In addition to sunbathing and swimming it is popular to rent a boat, a yacht or a catamaran for a romantic sail, or join an organized tour in Lake Galvė.
From water you may see castle from every possible side. On the opposite shore of Lake Galvė you may see the Užutrakis Manor. Built by Tiškevičiai family in 1897 the palace and its formal garden recently restored. Many concerts take place there in summer.
There is no bridge to Užutrakis and thus a 6 km detour is needed. Close to that route the Hill of Angels has been created in 2009, which is a collection of wooden angel sculptures, each of them funded by a different institution or family.
The town is easy to reach from Vilnius by car, by train or by bus. If you come by car during the tourist season be prepared for parking troubles in the center. Local people typically allow to use their own yards for a price, additionally, as Trakai is a small town, it is always possible to park beyond town limits and have a stroll 1 or 2 km to the main sights.
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.
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 villages
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 path Jesus Christ took to his execution (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 elsewehere (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).
The massive ring of fortifications, batteries and other installations that surround the city of Kaunas is indeed impressive. Unlike in many other places where such magnificient 19th century urban fortresses existed in Kaunas you can still see a large percentage of all this.
The Mighty Red Forts of the Fortress
All 13 forts still exist in various stages of decay. The first circle (1st-8th forts) surrounds the city center completely whereas on the intended second circle only one fort (the 9th fort) was completed and additional 4 (10th-13th) under construction by the time Germans captured the entire fortress after a mere week of siege (fortress commander was then tried by the Russians). No two forts of the 1st circle are more than a couple kilometers away from each other so that no enemy could easily enter the city without deadly barrage from the surrouding forts. Every fort is designed to resemble natural grass-covered hills for the advancing enemy, but inside the territory there are many semi-subterranean structures (barracks, escarpments, warehouses, tunnels).
Two of the forts have been turned into museums. The 7th fort in the northern part of the 1st circle is the Fortress museum. Owned by a group of military history enthusiasts it is continuously improved although not yet complete. The museum that is set up in the concrete 9th fort (the newest of the completed forts) is dedicated to the genocides of people of Lithuania because the 9th fort used to be a prison (since 1920s) and a place of mass killings in the World War 2. The museum was established by the Soviets to portray Nazi German brutality (some 15 000 Jews were murdered in the forts) but the place is now expanded to include Soviet massacres as well.
The remaining forts are largely abandoned and while most can in theory be visited, muddy/dirty paths provides the sole access to many of them. One derelict fort that you can easily drive directly into is the 6th fort which also served as a Soviet and German prison. Its eerie walls overgrown with grass and paintball is now played in some of the buildings. The nearby 6th fort roundabout where three major streets converge is overlooked by a small "forest" of large crosses. These were built by people largely in 1991 and represents the then contemporary strive for independence. There are crosses for Iceland and Denmark (a gratitude for recognising independence), another one for the liberators of Kuwait (Gulf War). Some later crosses are related to other problems, such as abortions and organized crime. A small column calls for peace on earth to prevail.
Šančiai Borough: Abandoned Barracks and Warehouse Church
Together with the military installations many new streets were laid, new districts were built with barracks for the soldiers, warehouses and other infrastructure.
Among such districts is Šančiai to the southeast of the New Town. Red brick 3 stories barracks still line the Juozapavičiaus Avenue there. Some of them are restored and turned into hotels or apartments. Many others stand abandoned or even decayed to a mere outer shell with nothing purposefully changed since the times of the czar a century ago.
Another interesting building in Juozapavičiaus Avenue is the Jesus Heart church. Its industrial-style walls do not let one forget that this building has been built as a military warehouse and converted to a church after Šančiai became a civilian district.
Military cemetary where soldiers of World War 1, World War 2 and other eras lie is also in Šančiai. Lithuanians, Germans, Russians and others have their final resting place less than "a cannonshot away" inbetween them.
Panemunė Borough: Barrack Zone That Turned Into Resort
On the opposite bank of Nemunas from Šančiai is Panemunė, another district built for 19th century barracks. Barracks of Panemunė are concentrated in two groups, both visible from the main Vaidoto street, the smaller one to the north and the larger one to the south, surrounding a stadium (the southern group of barracks served as Lithuania‘s military academy in the 1930s).
Panemunė also has a fair share of interwar wooden and brick buildings as its calm atmosphere between Nemunas river and Basanvičius park was sought for by Kaunas residents of the era. In fact Panemunė was a recognized resort. The pre-1940 buildings are mostly on the outskirts of the district whereas the center of Panemunė is dominated by Soviet apartment blocks.
Basanavičius park (280 ha) north of Panemunė is larger than the borough itself and a popular place to stroll.
Freda Borough: Botanical Garden and Old Cemetary
To the west of Panemunė lies the district of Freda. Once it was home to the Central Fortification of the fortress that was effectively a ring 0 of its defensive might. In every place not covered by the rivers this additional circle made the last major obstruction for the enemy before he could finally conquer the heart of the city.
Next to the former Central Fortification and the small Freda manor the Kaunas botanic garden is now established. In summer tickets are sold whereas in winter it is free to visit. Not far away along a new district of modern homes (called Freda Township - Fredos miestelis) a 19th century cemetary remains. First commander of the Kaunas fortress as well as German soldiers of the World War 1 are buried here next to the now abandoned Saint Sergei Russian Orthodox Church once used by the soldiers of nearby barracks. Several old barracks still survive in the neighborhood.
Napoleon Hill near Piliakalnio street between Freda and Panemunė is the location where the French Emperor's doomed invasion of Russia began by crossing Nemunas (trees now obstruct the views he saw).
Medininkai village (pop. 500) 2 km from the Lithuanian-Belarusian border is (in)famous for several very different things.
A medieval 14th century castle still towers above the village marking the importance it once held. Today however it is just a large walled enclosure. One tower has been restored to house a small museum offering nice images of Lithuanian castles in their heyday and medieval weaponry.
The wooden church next to the castle may be not that old (1931) but it is one of the first 7 parishes established in Lithuania. Today the mass is in Polish as 92% of the villagers are Poles. As the rest of Eastern Dzūkija Medininkai has Polish street name translations next to the official Lithuanian plaques. This is controversial as centuries of polonization, germanization and russification left Lithuanians wary of any official status to other languages.
During the Medininkai massacre (July 1991) Russians murdered 7 Lithuanian customs officials and handicapped the 8th one in order to make a point that Lithuania could never be an independent country nor have its own customs. The cold-blooded killing is marked by a memorial 2 km north of the village which includes the original demure customs office trailer where the tragedy took place, a plaque with gunned down ten commandments. While political events made Russia recognize Lithuania merely a month later (August 1991) it refuses to hand over the perpetrators so the sores of Medininkai are still alive. One of the busiest Lithuanian-Belarusian border crossings right next to the memorial shows that the desperate attempts to save the Union failed (while both Lithuania and Belarus were Soviet-ruled there was no border in this location).
3 km south of Medininkai Aukštojas hill is the Lithuania's highest place; a local lookout tower offers few vistas however as the height is merely 293,84 m (Lithuania is the world's largest country to lack a 300+ m locality).
The public transport is available but limited (~6 buses a day from Vilnius) so Medininkai is best accessible by car (30 km from Vilnius). It is not a top destination but is a pleasurable detour if one prefers out-of-the-beaten-path locations, or a convenient stop en-route to Belarus.
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.