See the heritage of your favorite epoch in Lithuania (click on the maps or links below).
*Medieval Lithuania. 10 sights to help you understand the might of what was the Europe's largest medieval state.
*Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth era. 10 best reminders of this both opulent and decadent era.
*Russian Imperial era. 10 best reminders of both the imperial persecutions and the 19th century industrial revolution that has changed the face of Lithuania.
*Interwar era. 10 sights reminding of the glory of interwar Lithuania.
*Soviet occupation era. 10 sights and activities to help you learn about the eastern side of the Iron Curtain and the tragedies it meant for Lithuania.
*Post-1990s independence era. 10 sights to help you understand the way Lithuania went in the recent couple of decades.
Massive medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania is held to be the most glorious page in Lithuanian history. As such this period is recreated by enthusiasts in a multitude of weekend-long festivals held at many major medieval castles and hillforts. If you are lucky to visit during one you will witness medieval arts, crafts, and knight battles. Even outside these events the Lithuanian castles and gothic buildings reward their visitor with an atmosphere of centuries gone-by. Top 10 medieval things to do:
1.Cross the pedestrian bridge to the Trakai island castle. Now renovated and housing a Museum of Lithuanian History this water castle is certainly among the Lithuania's prime sights. Lakeside Trakai may now be a small town but it used to serve as the capital of a Grand Duchy's major province. It also had a Peninsula Castle which is now ruined. Medieval festivals: ~2nd weekend of June and ~3rd weekend of August (this one aimed at arts&crafts); both at Peninsula castle
2.Climb on top of the Vilnius Gediminas Castle (in Vilnius Old Town). Its sole remaining tower rises gracefully above the capital city, providing the place for nation's prime flagpole and (arguably) its most famous lookout site.
3.Imbibe the medieval spirit by visiting the gothic churches of Kaunas Old Town. Located at the confluence of Lithuania's two major rivers (Neris and Nemunas) Kaunas served as a trade hotspot ~14th century and four churches once frequented by Hanseatic merchants remind of that era: Kaunas Cathedral, Vytautas Church, St. Gertrude Church, St. George church. There are also secular gothic buildings nearby. Medieval festival: Mid-May
4.Check the Trakai Karaim town, kenessa, museum and restaurants to learn about this unique community brought to Trakai by Grand Duke Vytautas the Great. The local restaurants offer Karaim kibin meal. The Turkic Karaim culture originates in Crimea and, having survived six centuries so far from its homeland, it remains a living proof of how expansive the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was in the medieval times (Lithuania stretched to the Black sea encompassing most of modern-day Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine and was the Europe's largest state).
5.Hike at the UNESCO-inscribed Kernavė hills where the wooden castles of Lithuania's first known capital city once stood (14th century). A modern museum nearby offers a great selection of period art and jewelry as well as reconstructions of the city which were the final pagan metropolis in Europe. Medieval festival: ~July 6th
6.See how the earliest Lithuanian brick defensive installations looked like at 14th century Medininkai castle, which is a rectangular brick enclosure. Medieval festival: ~First weekend of September (concentrates on warfare).
7.Ascend the renovated tower and descend into dungeons of the Kaunas castle (in Kaunas Old Town). The interior is modest but a short hike to the Neris-Nemunas confluence the castle had been built to protect will give you a glimpse of its past importance. Medieval festival: Mid-May
8.Go to Apuolė festival of medieval warfare. While Apuolė was the first Lithuanian placename to be mentioned in foreign written sources (854 AD) no castle remained on its hillfort so there is little reason to visit outside of the festival when many knights recreate medieval warfare and crafts. Medieval festival: A weekend in late August.
9.Learn more about the medieval Lithuanian arch-enemies Teutonic crusader knights at their Klaipėda castle (Klaipėda Old Town). While the quest to remove Soviet buildings from modest castle ruins is far from completed, a modern subterranean museum has been opened inside. While the Knights are often reviled, perhaps it was the need to defend against their outposts such as Klaipėda one that consolidated Baltic tribes into a single Lithuanian nation.
10.Spend a weekend touring the Lithuanian palaces and castles in Belarus. The eastern part of Lithuanian nation became slavicised over the centuries and many of the prime lands of Lithuanian Grand Duchy remained in Belarus. Ranging from crumbling to neatly restored they certainly have a lot to offer, while the Mir castle and Nesvizh palace are recognized by UNESCO. One drawback is that you'll likely need a visa to Belarus and the process isn't simple (that's the only reason these spectacular castles are 10th on this list).
Polish-Lithuanian era (1569-1795) left Lithuania buildings more opulent than ever before or (likely) since - including Baroque, it's major tourist draw. Looking at these magnificent churches, monasteries and palaces it may be easy to forget that Lithuania was slowly plunging into the abyss. The elite gradually Polonized, while an impossible-to-manage political system where feuding noble families had nearly unlimited powers led to the final collapse and dismemberment of the state.
Here are the top locations where you could still feel that dual spirit of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth era:
1. Be awestruck by the monumental white Baroque interior of Ss. Peter and Paul church (1668) in Vilnius (Antakalnis district), its 2000+ figurines of "life as a theater" tell about the Polish-Lithuanian nobility's wealth and religiousness better than any words (like most of its contemporaries this church was funded by a single nobility family (Pacas), doubling as its gravestone).
2. Spend a day driving or cycling at the Nemunas valley where Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth rich families dotted the pretty landscape with romantic castle-like palaces in the 17th century.
3. Explore the massive Renaissance main campus of Vilnius university, one of the Eastern Europe's oldest universities, established in 1579 by the Jesuits in their campaign against Reformation. Armed with science and knowledge the campaign succeeded and most Lithuanians never became Protestants, while the noble students of Vilnius University added a certain flavor to the city. Ss. Johns church with the tallest church tower in Vilnius (may be ascended) tells of the university's religious roots.
4. Understand the religious tolerance that prevailed in the 1550s-1650s Lithuania by exploring the area around Vilnius Gate of Dawn which has massive churches and monasteries of three separate Christian denominations (Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Russian Orthodox) within 100 m distance. At the time heretics burned on stakes in Western Europe it was not uncommon for the Lithuanian nobility to split their religious donations to several denominations.
5. Go to magnificent Baroque Pažaislis monastery in Kaunas to feel the power monks and nuns had in the Commonwealth. Far from poor, the prime monastic institutions housed those nobility kids who wouldn't have inherited their lands and towns. The head nun used to be an especially coveted position as it was one of the few ways for a female to wield political influence.
6. Visit the town of Kėdainiai, once owned by the Radvila family. A pearl among Lithuania's formerly private towns Kėdainiai has many old religious buildings of different faiths but the Reformed Christian one dwarfs the rest as this has been the faith of the town owners, who are also buried there.
7. Stare at the facade of St. Casimir church in Vilnius Old Town, the first of many nobility-funded, Italian-designed Baroque churches on Vilnius - but still among the most impressive.
8. Read the Polish-Lithuanian epoch history at the recently-rebuilt Grand Duke palace in Vilnius Old Town. The original building was abandoned in the 17th century as Kings/Grand Dukes moved to Poland and demolished after the Commonwealth fell. While its reconstruction as a museum has been both controversial and of doubtful authenticity the building still is a reminder of that era.
9. See the ramparts of Biržai fortress, the best preserved military installation of the era. Like nearly everything at the time it was privately funded by a noble family (Radvila) to defend private lands. Not that strange given that even king himself later became elected by the nobility.
10. Walk the main streets of Vilnius Old Town (Pilies, Šv. Jono, Dominikonų, Vilniaus), seeing numerous Commonwealth era urban palaces at the sides. So important was the nobility that their downtown palaces were not even considered part of the city and different law applied inside them. In a sense, these palaces served as embassies for the powerful families that acted as states-within-the-state. Unfortunately, no interiors have been saved, but you may still see original interiors in many Baroque churches you'll encounter en-route.
Lithuania spent its extended 19th century (1795-1914) under the Russian Imperial rule. Rural huts that housed most Lithuanians of the era can still be seen, while the grand "New Town" districts define Lithuanian downtowns even today. Russian Orthodox churches remind of Russification drive that was eventually defeated by Lithuanian National Revival (and its new Catholic spires). Then there are cute nobility manors and larger-than-ever Imperial military installations that competed for the real Power over the slowly-but-surely advancing Lithuania.
Here are some ideas to catch a glimpse on the 19th century Lithuania:
1. Stroll the main arteries of 19th century Vilnius civic center (the "New Town") to witness the city's grand industry-fuelled expansion of 1880s-1910s. Gedimino Avenue is the main street but Basanavičiaus, Kalinausko and Žygimantų are possible alternatives. The Historicist architecture of the era sought to combine elaborate details of past styles into a new single whole, leading to massive buildings like the Railroads HQ.
2. Catch the final glimpse of the old Lithuanian countryside in Rumšiškės folk museum. Wooden homes have been moved here from all over Lithuania, housing period furniture, arts, and crafts. Such poor peasant lifestyle was nearly universal throughout the 19th century as Russian Empire planned Lithuania as its agricultural hinterland; serfdom was only abolished there in 1861.
3. Explore the mighty Kaunas Fortress (1882-1915), one of the largest Russian Imperial fortresses ever built and certainly the best preserved one. It is not a single building - its forts surround the entire Kaunas city. 7th and 9th forts serve as museums but abandoned ones such as the 6th one may be even more atmospheric. Additionally, you may peek into the fortress cemetery, abandoned-or-restored barracks and much else of what remains all over Kaunas.
4. Visit the Kaunas New Town, developed as the center of Kaunas fortress. The Sobor (Russian Orthodox cathedral of the garrison) became Catholic after independence when the Russian troops departed but it still has the iconic Russian style.
5. Splurge at Druskininkai resort. Following the craze for "healing mineral waters" that swept through 19th century Europe Druskininkai was erected as the local version of UK's Bath or Germany's Baden-Baden. The intricate wooden villas here combine Eastern and Western styles, while the original spas are still operational.
6. Take a walk at Žvėrynas borough in Vilnius, one of the multiple wooden suburbs that surrounded the rapidly expanding Lithuanian cities ~1900. Later urban planning left them largely intact and Žvėrynas still has many turn-of-the-20th-century homes, a period bridge connecting it to New Town as well as two Russian Orthodox churches (a must in every new neighborhood of the era).
7. Walk the straight route from Rokiškis town manor to the church to understand how the life went on in many 19th century Lithuanian towns. Local noble family (Tyzenhauzas) used to effectively run the town from the park-surrounded palace (1801). Regular main square markets attracted salesmen and villagers - who would also visit the Tyenhauzas-funded church, a pearl of Gothic Revival (1877), where the local nobles are also interred.
8. Take a breath of "the other 19th century Lithuania" in the Curonian spit villages (Smiltynė, Juodkrantė, Nida). While the majority of Lithuanian areas were under Russian yoke the coastal part of the nation was ruled by Germany, following the Lutheran faith and growing increasingly Germanized (yet illegally sending Lithuanian books into Russia where they were banned). Colorful fisherman farmsteads, resort villas, symbolic weathervanes and red-brick churches all date to that era as does the scenery itself: period's engineers successfully transformed barren dunes into pine forests.
9. Visit Anykščiai town to grasp the tremendous cultural, political and technological changes that swept through Lithuania ~1900. There you can ascend the tallest-in-Lithuania church spire (made possible in 1909 after the relaxation of anti-Catholic policies), explore an authentic narrow-gauge railroad station (1901) and learn about the famous Anykščiai-born National Revival writers at the local museums and monuments.
10. Stroll at the "hidden" Bernardine cemetery in Vilnius Užupis area, one of the early 19th century suburban graveyards meant to replace their cramped churchyard counterparts. Many luminaries of the era are interred there under Polish-inscribed gravestones. National Revival was still to restore the prestige of using Lithuanian tongue universally and Polish thus served as the language of culture and science.
The interwar Lithuanian independence may have been short (1918-1940) but it solidified the nation to survive further decades under occupation. Early modern buildings (monuments, government offices, cultural/religious institutions) of the era still makes it impossible to forget those prosperous times. Most of them are located in Kaunas which served as the capital because Vilnius was under a fiercely-disputed Polish rule.
1.Absorb the essence of patriotic interwar Lithuania in Vienybės (Unity) square at Kaunas New Town, with its key national museums (War, most famous painter M. K. Čiurlionis) and monuments (Freedom, Unknown Soldier, National revival heroes). It gets even more atmospheric when the local carillon (built in 1937) offers regular free concerts.
2.Ascend the roof of plain white art deco Christ Ressurection Church (Žaliakalnis borough of Kaunas), commissioned over Kaunas to be its new symbol and the largest church in the Baltics. Turned into a factory by the Soviets the church it has only been completed after independence.
3.Search for other rather monumental interwar buildings at Kaunas New Town. With its status of "Temporary capital", Kaunas boomed increasing its population by 66% in 1923-1939 period. Some architects sought to use this momentum to develop a new architectural style combining art deco and Bauhaus ideas from the West with Lithuanian ethnic patterns. The central post office and Officer's club are among its key examples.
4.Take a calm walk in tree-lined Žaliakalnis borough, the interwar addition of Kaunas where Lithuanian elite of the era built their new homes. Among the memorial plaque-clad homes some of the interwar Lithuania's largest projects were undertaken: Europe's first basketball-specific arena, a funicular, a zoo, a stadium. All these together turned Kaunas into a true capital city.
5.Visit the modest Interwar presidency in Kaunas Old Town, now used for temporary exhibitions related to Interwar Lithuania.
6.Find out why Kaunas served as a capital in museum of Šlapelis family in Vilnius. Poland conquered Vilnius region from Lithuania in 1920 and Šlapelis's bookstore served as a hub of the mistrusted Lithuanian language and culture afterward.
7.Pray at Šiluva village where the earliest church-recognized Europe's Maryan vision took place (1608). The pilgrimages became especially popular during the interwar period when Catholic tradition, widely seen as the most Lithuanian one, liberated itself from Russian Orthodox domination. The fact that Virgin Mary chose Lithuania to appear at was seen as extremely important; clubs used to organize Santiago de Compostella-like cross-country pilgrimages on foot and an obelisk-like chapel has been erected in 1924 on the site of the vision.
8.Explore Petrašiūnai cemetery in Kaunas which served as a pantheon for Kaunas elite. While many of these luminaries were later expelled or forced to flee by the Soviets, some of their remains were nevertheless repatriated to Petrašiūnai when possible, e.g. semiotic Algirdas J. Greimas and ethnologist Marija Gimbutas.
9.Stroll at Rasos cemetery in southern Vilnius where one can say the interwar Polish-Lithuanian conflict over Vilnius is interred. Polish dictator Juzef Pilsudski (the person behind the 1920s idea to annex Vilnius to Poland) ordered to bury his heart there. Not far away lie the graves of Polish soldiers who fought for the city within Poland. Further on the Lithuanian interwar luminaries who have never acknowledged Vilnius as a Polish city rest in piece.
10.Take a detour to the manor built for authoritarian president Antanas Smetona in his native Užulėnis village (near Ukmergė). Combining remnants of the old Lithuanian countryside lifestyle (e.g. stables for horses) that still prevailed among commoners (and were respected by the elite) with a more modern architectural style it epitomizes the dreams of that time now known as the "Smetonic era" (1926-1940).
Lithuania's 5 decades-long Soviet occupation (1940-1990) has been a period of genocide, persecutions, and censorship. Unlike many other occupations, it was also long enough to influence culture and cityscapes. Lithuania is one of the few places where Soviet history could be explored with all the modern amenities and freedoms. A rich array of Soviet-related locations includes the ordinary and extraordinary: apartment blocks, nuclear launch site, propaganda art, locations of the freedom struggle and memorials for those who perished. Here is our Top 10:
1.Visit the Museum of Genocide victims in the former Vilnius KGB headquarters to learn about the Soviet genocide that destroyed hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians and shattered lives of millions of others. Vilnius New Town borough.
2.Get impressed at the Hill of Crosses where Lithuanians secretly erected tens of thousands crosses throughout the Soviet occupation. In the atheist-ruled Soviet Union, this was illegal and the crossbuilders faced persecutions. But nevertheless, every time the Soviet bulldozers had razed the crosses even more used to "appear" on that hill soon.
3.Enter the authentic nuclear missile shafts at a former Soviet secret military base at the Samogitian National Park. The missiles that waited here would have obliterated Great Britain; now the launch site has been transformed into the world's first Cold War Museum.
4.Take a walk at the controversial Grūtas park (near Druskininkai) where all the once-mandatory Soviet statues and monuments ended up after being removed from urban centers. This park in a pleasurable natural setting has earned its developer an Ig Nobel peace prize.
5.Spend several hours in one of many Soviet districts that surround all the cities (Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipėda...) to understand how and where a common citizen of Soviet Lithuania lived. While the dull architecture mostly remains the same, you'll need to erase most businesses and cars in your imagination: back under the Soviet occupation car was a luxury few families would own and there were also few shops, services, and nearly no restaurants in such residential districts (entire Vilnius had ~10 places for eating out).
6.If a Soviet district is not enough you may visit a Soviet town. That's Visaginas, built in 1980s for workers of a nearby nuclear power plant. Nuclear workers were upper middle class back then, making the town a little more lavish and barring most ethnic Lithuanians from settling there. Therefore Visaginas still seems as transplanted from somewhere much further East with 55% of its population ethnic Russians (interestingly, the same percentage as in the 1980s Soviet Union) and Russian language a lingua franca.
7.Descend into the underground clandestine printing house "ab Spaustuvė" in northern Kaunas suburbs. Illegal historical, religious and other materials used to be printed here by local activists and then secretly distributed, circumventing the tight Soviet censorship laws.
8.See the preserved fraction of barricades near the Lithuanian Parliament building that were hastily built after the 1990 03 11 parliamentary independence declaration to protect the MPs from expected Russian invasion. Unbelievable unity of armless civilians indeed stopped the Russian tanks on January 13th, 1991, sealing the fate of the Soviet Union. The entire Soviet collapse started here, at the parliament in Vilnius, which was the first to declare independence (New Town borough).
9.Witness the evolution of prime-location Soviet architecture on the Neris river banks at Vilnius. Stalinist buildings (1940s-1950s) here adopted Imperial grandeur and Baroque forms, upscaling the building size and downscaling the number of decorations (House of Scientists, Žaliasis bridge). After Stalin, all these "unnecessary details" were forbidden but the city center buildings retained some "functionalist poshness" compared to residential districts (Hotel Lietuva, Opera/Ballet theater), some experimenting with modern styles such as brutalism (Palace of Sports).
10.Go to the 9th fort of the Kaunas fortress. Already outdated by the time World War 2 started it was used to imprison and exterminate regime's enemies by both Soviet Russian and Nazi German occupational powers. After World War 2 Soviets remained in power and thus used the fort for a museum of Nazi German brutality (forgetting their own); a gigantic nearby monument dates to the era. Today both occupations and genocides are covered in the 9th fort museum.
The pace of change in Lithuania after its 1990 independence has been tremendous. An instant fortress of libertarianism in the 1990s Lithuania was again transformed by the EU membership in 2004. The quick triumph of capitalism and democracy over totalitarian socialism, as well as the subsequent changes, may be seen in many places of the country.
1. Raise your head up while checking the New City Center of Vilnius - the once-controversial skyscraper district of the early 2000s, the glass-facaded office blocks of which added a touch of modernity to Vilnius skyline. Two malls, National Art Gallery and a Baltic Way memorial are located near the shade of Europa Tower (the Baltics' tallest building), while a short stroll to the remains of a wooden 19th-century suburb just north will give you a glimpse how the "Vilnius New Downtown" looked right before redevelopment.
2. Shop at Gariūnai marketplace, the birthplace of Lithuanian capitalism in 1990s. It is hard to find a Lithuanian who wasn't a businessman in that era, and many tried their luck in Gariūnai, joined by arriving Asian salesman in what was the newly-capitalist Eastern Europe's prime trade melting pot. Even if a tame "business park" has been constructed nearby in the 2000s, the old open-air bazaar still attracts thousands of customers every morning, however strangely "Wild West" (or "Wild East") it seems in a modern European context. Total trade area surpasses 300 000 m2.
3. Ask a Tuskulėnai museum caretaker to let you inside the Tuskulėnai memorial, an Egyptian revival styled underground burial chamber for murdered Soviet political prisoners. It is among the most impressive places of respect for the victims of Soviet genocide as well as a great example of modern Lithuanian architecture. Žirmūnai borough of Vilnius.
4. Spend a weekend in Palanga resort which captured the imagination of the Lithuanian 1990s as new villas, hotels, funfairs and restaurants sprung up freely to accommodate the exploding numbers of tourists. While the music has been since volumed down in the main street evening gigs, Palanga is still the "Summer capital of Lithuania", its Basanavičiaus street and beaches getting crowded on summer weekends like some Asian metropolis.
5. Spend an evening at Akropolis mall in Vilnius which since its 2000 opening became synonymous to "shopping Mecca" for many Lithuanians and Belarusians alike. Over 100 000 sq. m in size its offers range from the ordinary shop/restaurants to an indoor ice skating rink.
6. Spectate a basketball match in the Baltic States's largest Kaunas arena (~15 000 spectators), constructed for the Eurobasket 2011 basketball championship finals. Hosting Eurobasket was seen both as a major achievement for the basketball-loving nation as well as the final return of a major debt by FIBA (Lithuania was to host the 1941 event but the 1940 Soviet occupation precluded this).
7. Ski at Druskininkai indoor alpine skiing track (opened 2011) which is among the largest in the world and exemplifies the new Lithuanian desire to attract tourists from abroad. A skiing track that is open even when the temperature gets to +35 C is still something not that common in the world.
8. Check up the world's first statue of Frank Zappa in Vilnius New Town. Erected by his local fans in downtown Vilnius in 1995 it kind of epitomized the libertarian 1990s when everything seemed possible if there were enough people behind the idea. Such initiatives would likely be impossible today - both due to more restrictive laws and people feeling less need to assert the emotion of freedom by undertaking such projects.
9. Drive around the suburbs of Lithuanian cities to see how Lithuanians, once packed up in Soviet apartments, realized their culturally-important dream of building their own home soon after this was permitted. Massive, self-designed and built "for generations" houses of the 1990s were later joined by modern gated communities of smaller but more efficient Western-style homes.
10. Stop by Elektrėnai church at the mid-point between Vilnius and Kaunas, one of many massive new churches hastily constructed in the 1990s when construction was cheap and state atheism had been just replaced by religious freedom. Large white concrete facades and interiors prevailed. As a Soviet-built industrial town, Elektrėnai lacked a church before 1990s (same as all the other Soviet era new towns and neighborhoods).