True Lithuania

Museums of Lithuania: Introduction

Lithuania has many museums all over the country.

The best few of them are a great introduction to the nation. Many others are just rooms full of poorly-explained mediocre-quality exhibits (with limited opening times and no English used). Learning more about a particular museum is, therefore, crucial before visiting.

In general, large urban museums tend to be better, but the countryside has quite a few gems as well. Private museums (of which there are few) tend to be better presented than the public ones. Among the latter, those renovated after independence are the best options.

Most Lithuanian museums fall into five types and here we suggest the best museums of each type:

Ethnographic museums

Ethnographic museums showcase pre-modern traditions, tools, arts and crafts of a Lithuanian village. Some of them are outdoors and include reconstructed pre-WW1 homes.

Rumšiškės Ethnographic Museum is the most famous among them – 195 ha in area it is also among the largest museums of the world. Entire villages from every Lithuanian historic region have been built here: together with churches, mills, artisans and some farm animals. Traditional holidays are celebrated the traditional way.

A typical farmstead in Rumšiškės museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Much smaller regional alternatives are Horse Museum in Anykščiai (Aukštaitija region) that specializes in re-enacting pre-modern crafts and giving information on horses and Telšiai Countryside Museum, which is more static.

Prussian-Yotvingian settlement in Southern Sudovia is a reimagination of a prehistoric village that puts atmosphere before historical authenticity and is more of a sight than a museum. Pakruojis manor living museum (weekend-only) is the only one to concentrate on nobility rather than the peasantry.

Art museums

Art museums usually feature either works of a single Lithuanian artist or a collection of art particular period(s)/style(s).

The best period collections are National Art Gallery (Lithuanian 20th century paintings) in Vilnius and Grūtas park (Soviet propaganda sculptures which every artist was forced to create). Excelling in their fields are Museum of Archeology in Kernavė (Baltic prehistoric art) and Museum of religious art in Vilnius (pre-modern religious art) - although for religious art Vilnius churches may be a better fare to see it in authentic context.

Among the one-artist museums M. K. Čiurlionis art gallery in Kaunas is the most important one by far, as Čiurlionis's symbolist otherworldly style is almost synonymous with "famous Lithuanian paintings". Other artists that have their own museums are mostly Lithuanians who once escaped the Soviet occupation and bequeathed their works to Lithuania after independence: Vytautas Kasiulis (uber-colorful style paintings, Vilnius), Kazys Varnelis (optical art, Vilnius), Kazimieras Žoromskis (optical impressionism, Vilnius), Antanas Mončys (sculptures made of a single slab of wood, Palanga).

Works by Lithuanian-American Kazimieras Žoromskis in his eponymous museum. Photo ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Catch-all regional museums

Catch-all regional museums typically cover the local archeological finds, flora and fauna, manor riches and peasants tools, customs and pictures of recent history. Most regions aren’t that unique so visiting many such museums is not advisable. Opt for the ones that are located in buildings worth visiting (e.g. manors) and renovated.

National Museum in the Vilnius Old Town covers entire Lithuania. Not as great as the name suggests it is still a nice introduction.

Alka museum of Samogitia in Telšiai had its collection amassed before World War 2 and Soviet destruction, resulting in a great quality.

Kretinga museum’s lack of exhibits are compensated by a nice manor location with an indoor garden restaurant.

Interior of the restored Kretinga manor (now museum). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Museums of genocide and resistance

Museums of genocide and resistance serve as a repository for images, stories, letters of Soviet Genocide victims and fighters against the regime. Many such museums have been established all over Lithuania in the 1990s as memorial halls to the locals who perished. In the small towns, their opening times are especially sporadic. Opt for visiting the major such museums in Vilnius instead as their collections are the most extensive and best suited to non-Lithuanians.

The most famous are the Museum of Genocide Victims in a former HQ of KGB Soviet secret service where many have been tortured and murdered, Vilnius New Town. Interior is as it was left by KGB.

Tuskulėnai Museum built over a KGB mass murder site is restored and boasts a nice modern memorial.

Interior of Tuskulėnai Memorial. The symbolic round central room (right) is surrounded by a corridor full of numbered urns with the remains of Tuskulėnai victims. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

9th fort in Kaunas covers both the Soviet and Nazi German genocides as its site was used for murders by both regimes.

Thematic museums

Thematic museums cover a single topic and its relation to Lithuania. Museums on topics that are the “essence” of Lithuania are especially worth visiting. Other museums are interesting only if they are related to your hobby.

The most “Lithuanian” thematic museums are those of Amber (inside Palanga manor palace), Lithuanian history (inside Trakai island castle), Grand Duchy of Lithuania (inside Vilnius Grand Dukes Palace), Lithuanian folk musical instruments (in Kaunas Old Town), Basketball (in Joniškis).

Museum of the Seas in Klaipėda is likely the most extensive among the rest (it includes shipping history info and a kind of sea animal zoo). Museum of Ethnocosmology has the most ingenious building, but it may be more of an artwork than a museum with few exhibits inside. Cold War museum has the most appropriate location (inside a real Soviet missile silo).

Lookout/telescope tower in the museum of ethnocosmology. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Some other thematic museums: Railways, Energy and Technology, Military Vehicles (all in Vilnius), Communications, Sport, War, Aviation, Cold War spy equipment (all in Kaunas).

Memorial museums

Lithuania has a large number of Memorial museums, each dedicated to a single famous person or family. Typically they are located in that person’s former home and exhibit their original furniture and things. A foreigner is unlikely to know most of these people but a chance to feel the spirit of a particular era that is still present in many such museums can be rewarding. Vilnius and Kaunas have the most of those with some half of them requiring an advance arrangement to visit.

A memorial museum of interwar opera singer K. Petrauskas in Kaunas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Museum opening times and discounts

Most museums are open for 5-6 days a week. If there is one non-working day it is usually either Sunday or Monday, if there are two such days then the second one is either Saturday or Tuesday.

Major and private museums tend to stay open late into the evening while small and regional museums may close at ~17:00.

Discounts are available for children, students, and old-age pensioners.

English inscriptions are available in the renovated and private museums, but unrenovated museums may have just Lithuanian or Lithuanian-Russian ones.

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Vilnius museums

As the capital of Lithuania Vilnius has the most of its greatest museums.

Art museums excels in modern Lithuanian and Lithuanian diaspora art. Historical museums tend to focus on either the most glorious (Medieval era) or the saddest portions of city history (20th-century occupations and genocides). Technical museums are an interesting place to learn about Eastern European technology, tools, and vehicles. Off-the-beaten "memorial apartments" of local luminaries may have little in particular to offer - but a more personality-based experience of Lithuanian lifestyle and history may be interesting.

Art museums and galleries

Art in Vilnius museums is split according to its period. National Art Gallery (Šnipiškės) has a nice collection of 20th-century Lithuanian art in an appropriately 20th-century building.

Pre-20th-century art is housed in Vilnius Picture Gallery which spreads over several historic palaces in the Old Town. Many temporary exhibits are also housed there whereas the permanent exhibition is rather lackluster (various invaders have carted away many of the old paintings).

Religious art had been a target as well but more of it survived. Some of it, like the Cathedral treasure, had to be hidden from the Soviet eyes. Now this treasure is openly displayed in the new Museum of Religious Art (in St. Michael church, Old Town). However, the best religious art remains located in churches, some of which are rich enough to look like museums (e.g. Ss. Peter and Paul in Antakalnis).

Europe Park is a large permanent exhibition of modern outdoor art in Vilnius suburbs not far from the geographic center of Europe (Vilnius suburbs). Some of its most famous works are 1990s gifts by foreign modern artists to newly independent Lithuania.

Chair-pool by American modern artist Dennis Oppenheim at Europe Park. Photo ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For 21st century art, Contemporary Art Centre (Old Town) hosts temporary traveling exhibitions of modern art (mostly foreign). It also has a permanent Fluxus room exhibiting 20th-century Fluxus movement that was pioneered by Lithuanian diaspora. Additionally, there are multiple galleries that double as shops in the Old Town, mostly dedicated to paintings or amber.

Three Lithuanian-American painters forced to flee Lithuania after Soviet occupation have bequeathed their works to their homeland after its independence. All three painters now have dedicated museums in Vilnius. All three had their iconic styles: carnival-like colorful for Vytautas Kasiulis, so-called optical impressionism for Kazimieras Žoromskis and optical illusion constructivist for Kazys Varnelis. Varnelis has also been an avid collector and his museum includes minor works by major artists such as Goya. Varnelis museum is in the Old Town while Kasiulis's and Žoromskis's ones are in the New Town.

Museum of Applied Art (Old Town) houses pre-modern applied art.

Museum of film, theater, and music (Old Town) is rather massive but quite chaotic with its copies old performance adverts and pictures of obscure actors unlikely to interest a foreigner.

Museum of Verbos in Vilnius suburbs may be small but it provides good examples of this Vilnius region vernacular art (contraptions of dried flowers which replace palm leafs in local churches).

Verbos museum. Photo ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Prehistoric Baltic crafts and jewelry from archeological digs are best presented at the Kernavė museum, which may be visited in a day trip from Vilnius.

Historical and cultural museums

Various occupations and genocides have been an unfortunate part of recent Vilnius history and many of the largest historical museums are dedicated to it. Tuskulėnai Peace Park and Museum (with impressive memorial) is located at the place of where the Soviet Union secretly buried its victims (Antakalnis) whereas Paneriai memorial and museum is located at a Nazi German killing field (Vilnius suburbs). Soviet Genocide is well documented at the Museum of Genocide Victims (former KGB headquarters, New Town) while the information on the Holocaust is also kept in Jewish Museum (Old Town) among other Jewish memorabilia.

Earlier Lithuanian history and culture is presented in the smaller-than-the-name-implies National Museum (Old Town) and its even more modest section in the castle tower above.

The newly-rebuilt Grand Dukes Palace (Old Town) has rather many informational panels on the Grand Duchy's history (1200s-1700s) and plainer-than-the-real-thing reimaginations of palace rooms.

Grand Dukes palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Trakai castle Museum of Lithuanian history may be visited as a day trip from Vilnius.

Technical museums

While technics is now rather international, the technical museums of Lithuania present the Soviet and Eastern European technologies that are hard to come by in the West. Furthermore, they are likely to amuse children.

Museum of Technics (Žirmūnai) housed in Vilnius first power station (1904) is the largest, presenting the Lithuanian technical history among the old turbines. There are also run-of-the-mill do-it-yourself physical experiments.

Museum of Military Vehicles (Antakalnis) exhibits many old military vehicles in open air, much of it either Soviet or donated by the Western countries in the 1990s. Touching and entering is possible.

Museum of military vehicles allows touching. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Privately-owned Toys museum (Old Town) is, however, the one that will be loved the most by kids but adults may also be interested in learning with what toys children used to play in the Soviet Union.

There is also a Museum of Railways in the train station (New Town) and a modern Museum of Money (Old Town) in the Lithuanian Central Bank (both should interest fans of particular fields as they concentrate heavily on Lithuania).

Memorial museums in famous people's homes

While a foreigner is unlikely to know many of the people who have their "memorial apartments", one or two of these may be nice to visit as they are located in former homes that shed light on a Vilnius home of the eras these people live in (mostly 20th century, as the Soviet occupation has largely destroyed the earlier interiors and furniture). They also give an easy access to Lithuanian apartment building stairwells.

Arguably the most famous of these people was Saint Faustyna Kowalska, a Polish nun whose visions of God inspired her to create the Divine Mercy painting venerated by Catholics all over the world. Her former wooden nunnery in Antakalnis is as modest as it used to be in the 1930s and receives many pilgrims.

Also famous is poet Adomas Mickevičius (Adam Mickiewicz) who once lived in Vilnius Old Town.

The Šlapelis family are local heroes who published Lithuanian books in Vilnius under foreign (Russian, Polish) occupations (Old Town).

Writers Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas and Vincas Krėvė-Mickevičius, as well as blind opera singer Birutė Grincevičiūtė, also have their former downtown apartments turned into memorial museums. The first two are more "interwar / early Soviet" while the last one is more "late Soviet" in style. All are located in New Town.

Memorial apartment of Vincas Krėvė-Mickevičius furnished in a 1930s-1940s style. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

One person has a museum in Vilnius even though he has never visited the city - that's Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. He was venerated by the Soviet government which established his memorials all over the Union. However, the wooden manor in Southern Vilnius, once owned by Pushkin's relatives, is more interesting for presenting authentic furniture and lifestyle of 19th century Russian provincial nobility which was influential in Russian-ruled Lithuania.

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Kaunas museums

While Kaunas is Lithuania's second city, a considerable number of top national museums are located there. A lot of them either date to the era Kaunas served as temporary capital of Lithuania (1920-1940) or are otherwise influenced by that period.

Art museums and galleries

All the Kaunas art museums are located in the New Town.

Mykolas Čiurlionis art gallery is the top location to see the works of Lithuania's most famous artist (a symbolist painter and a composer) who has an asteroid and a mountain range in Russia named after him.

A fragment of 'Tale of Kings' by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis.

Mykolas Žilinskas art gallery is the main Lithuanian encyclopedic repository of international art, ranging from Egyptian mummies to modern era. Everything was bequeathed by a Lithuanian-American art collector Mykolas Žilinskas. It's not Louvre but it has a few great underrated artworks.

Museum of Devils presents a unique-in-the-world collection of devil and demon statuettes based on Lithuanian and foreign mythologies collected by painter Antanas Žmuidzinavičius. His own works are exhibited in the next building.

Historical and cultural museums

War museum (New Town) gives information on Lithuanian warfare from the ancient times to recent NATO missions. Underground crypt and surrounding memorials glorify those who created modern Lithuania or died for it.

Sports museum (Old Town) is full of cups and prizes ever won by Lithuanian sportsmen internationally, in Lithuania or Lithuanian diaspora events. It will interest collectors of such items and fans of professional sports but may bore the others. A circus section is available nearby.

Lithuanian top basketball trophies at thes sport museum of Kaunas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

ab printing house (Suburbs) is an underground (both literally and metaphorically) institution where locals printed illegal press to circumvent Soviet censorship. The location itself is the most intriguing. Prior arrangement is needed to visit as the premises are still owned by the same dissident family.

Kaunas castle (Old Town) is mostly destroyed, but the rebuilt tower has a minor Medieval exhibition.

VII and IX fort museums present the history of Kaunas fortress and (especially) the later usage of these buildings for Soviet and Nazi German imprisonments and extrajudicial killings. IX fort museum is the more throughout and famous one.

9th fort museum of Kaunas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Kaunas interwar presidency (Old Town) offers temporary exhibitions focusing on the interwar lifestyle of Kaunas city.

Museum of literature is rather empty, explains works of merely a few writers and may be not very interesting to foreigners who are not literature buffs.

Technical museums

A few of the historic museums are also rich in old technics, with old weapons available in War museum and old printing materials exhibited in ab printing house.

A former anti-Soviet activist demonstrates a secretly assembled printing press her family used to create material exposing Soviet injustices (ab Spaustuvė). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Atomic bunker (Kaunas Soviet districts) is a major private collection of KGB surveillance devices, gas masks and other peculiarities of the Cold War, housed in an underground nuclear shelter. Arrangement recommended for visiting.

Aviation museum (Aleksotas) has a couple of aircraft and much information on Lithuanian aviation history (with old pictures) including (of course) the Lituanica flight.

Museum of National musical instruments (Old Town) offers a complete array of ethnic Lithuanian musical instruments (used by folk originally and by "folk orchestras" today). However it is not possible to listen to their sound.

Traditional Lithuanian instruments at the Kaunas folk instrument museum (left-to-right): skrabalai, skudučiai, kanklės, džingulis. Skudučiai are played by a band of people each taking some of the pipes; top skudučiai are amateur-made while the bottom ones are a modern professional v20th-century century kanklės shown here are decorated in patriotic motifs as is now popular. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Retromobile museum (Aleksotas) is a middle-sized garage of restored old vehicles, especially Soviet ones. Prior arrangement needed to visit.

Memorial museums

In the interwar Temporary capital era Kaunas housed all the Lithuanian luminaries of the era and their impressive houses are often open for visitors, offering a glimpse of rather luxurious interwar lifestyle.

Ones most seeping in the local spirit (and not requiring a prior arrangement to visit) are those of opera singer Kipras Petrauskas and composer Juozas Gruodis. Writer Balys Sruoga lived in a rather more plebeian house. Japanese tourists love the Chiyune Sugihara museum dedicated to their consul who helped Jews escape Nazi Germany, but it has less of that authentic "taste of history".

Writer S. Nėris memorial museum in Kaunas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis

All the above memorial museums are located in prestigious Žaliakalnis borough. Interesting homes beyond it are those of writer Salomėja Nėris (self-designed building in the suburbs) and star-priest Juozas Tumas-Vaižgantas (apartment near the Old Town church he worked at).

Natural museums

Museum of zoology is the Lithuania's largest repository of taxidermist works as well as beetles and butterflies, both local and foreign

If you prefer live animals, you'd like Kaunas zoo more. Both were started by naturalist Tadas Ivanauskas during interwar period and both seem somewhat shabby today - if one was in similar places in foreign countries and is not particularly fond of them one won't find much of interest.

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Rumšiškės Ethnographic Museum

Rumšiškės open-air museum is a massive recreation of pre-industrial Lithuania. With ~150 buildings spread over landscaped 195 ha it is also among the world‘s largest museums.

Nearly everything in Rumšiškės had been moved from somewhere else. 19th-century huts, sheds, and farmer homes that stood all over Lithuania have been saved from destruction by reassembling them here. They are joined by mills, churches, workshops and inns that were the backbone of the economy, entertainment and lifestyle.

The area is so huge that ~10 km of walking is required to see everything. Much of the museum consists of open spaces, ponds, and forests that put the "secluded villages" into context. The villages may be somewhat sanitized compared to historical reality, but that makes them more picturesque and no less interesting to explore.

In summer many of museum‘s mostly-wooden buildings may be entered, witnessing period tools and crafts inside. Rumšiškės is the most lively during some traditional festivals which are celebrated here in the traditional way.

A farmstead in Rumšiškės with masked performers during Užgavėnės festival. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Interpretation and wayfinding cues are weak spots (especially for non-Lithuanians) and much of the museum is rather static outside festivals, but the atmosphere of "Old Lithuania" is nevertheless unique.

Main areas: the town and countryside regions

Small "Rumškiai town" is the museum‘s hub. Its large square is surrounded by small townhouses and a church. Many Rumškiai townhouses have recreated interiors of 19th – early 20th centuries: a single-room school, craftsmen workshops (with interpreters), an inn. Others host permanent exhibitions of period goods, such as sleights. During festivals, the square is turned into a marketplace.

"Back then" church services and regular markets would have attracted the people of surrounding populous countryside to the towns. The Rumšiškės "countryside" has 5 areas, one for each ethnographic region of Lithuania. Buildings of various ages stand next to each other: from an early 19th century chimneyless huts that used to be full of smoke, to early 20th century pretty wooden homes with large windows. Each farmstead, consisting of a family home and multiple additional buildings (barn, bathhouse), has been brought intact, however.

Rumškiai town with a market square on the left and a church on the background. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Aukštaitija is both the largest region and Rumšiškės area. It includes an entire orderly single-street village of 8 farmsteads, as well as 3 separate farmsteads. Exhibits inside them include wedding traditions, language-ban period, traditional medicine, folk holidays and tailoring. Octagon wooden church and pretty wayside crosses are the area‘s main draw. Other specialized buildings are small and mid-sized windmills, textile mill and blacksmithy.

Samogitia area is second in size. Its 6 farmsteads, each with more buildings than is common in other regions, are grouped into a chaotic village peculiar to the area. Žemaitukas breed horses/ponies (the backbone of medieval Lithuanian cavalry) are kept there. The farmsteads are outflanked by a large windmill and joined by an inn, icehouse and pigeon house.

Dzūkija area has a 4-farmstead "shared village" (where each "farmstead" actually has numerous buildings scattered across the entire settlement) and one separate farmstead. The large forests and infertile lands made Dzūkians to exploit the forest (e.g. foraging), which is reminded by a mushroom-drying house in one farmstead.

A fragment of the Dzūkija village. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Sudovia area has an oil mill and 3 farmsteads, one of which includes a small windmill and the other has a cattle-drawn mill. As Sudovian farmers were among the richest, the exhibits concentrate on technical heritage (agricultural tools, locomobiles).

Recent additions to cover the entire Old Lithuania

Originally built under Soviet occupation (1974) Rumšiškės had many "political omissions". Firstly, they went in-line with the general Soviet policy of presenting only the pre-modern peasant life. The life of later eras or of higher classes was considered to be ideologically dangerous. While the relative prosperity of the 1920s and the late 1930s would have been preferred by many over the Soviet persecutions and stagnation, the spartan existence of turn-of-the-century Lithuanian village would hardly lure anyone. Therefore the non-Russian nationalism in the Soviet Union was relegated to the level of rural clothes and songs.

Moreover, entire Lithuania Minor ethnographic region was missing in Rumšiškės: as most of Lithuania Minor had been transferred to Soviet Russia rather than Soviet Lithuania, the propaganda attempted to wipe out the existence of this region altogether. The museum is working to redress this all, albeit extremely slowly.

Aukštaitija region wooden cross, chapel-posts,and the octagonal church. While the Soviet regime was anti-religious these were allowed as original exhibits, owing to the wish to equate religion to the outdated rural lifestyle. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuania Minor area has been established recently although currently it has just a single farmstead and fails to thoroughly represent the area‘s unique Lutheran German-influenced heritage and lifestyle.

As Lithuania Minor is a seaside land, its Rumšiškės area appropriately rests next to Kaunas reservoir with an observation tower offering vistas partly covered by trees. An unrelated nearby inn (relocated from Aukštaitija) offers food.

Exile and Resistance zone is another post-independence addition, showing how thehref="http://www.truelithuania.com/world-war-2-in-lithuania-1940-1944-249">47% of people and the land was nationalized, destroying that old bond between a Lithuanian and his family farmstead which Rumšiškės meticulously recreate.

Appropriately modest exhibits include an anti-Soviet partisan bunker, a cattle carriage used for The Exile, a Siberian yurt-like those Lithuanians had to build for themselves during The Exile and humble crosses from Siberian villages that used to be erected for Lithuanians who succumbed to cold and forced labor. Here it’s easy to see how the Soviet occupation worsened even the 19th-century village conditions to many Lithuanians.

A yurt of the Exiled Lithuanians. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In order to also represent the upper society of pre-modern Lithuania Aristavėlė Manor has been moved in. However, so far it just has a wooden palace with closed interior and is a far cry from real multi-building Lithuanian manors.

Planned future additions include religious minority houses of worship.

When and how to visit

Rumšiškės is easy to reach as it is next to the Vilnius-Kaunas highway. Vilnius-Kaunas buses (non-express at least) stop here if asked (~2 km from the museum entrance).

While the museum is opened year-round, the building interiors are only available for view May-to-September.

A visit during pagan-rooted feasts (such as Užgavėnės / Carnival or Joninės / June 23rd) is atmospheric, although one should read in advance about the traditions of that holiday as they won’t be explained locally [video of Užgavėnės at Rumšiškės].

It is also always possible to book special events, workshops, and seminars on many topics, some available in English.

The “real” Rumšiškės town that adjoins the museum is a Soviet creation of a little interest. The original Rumšiškės was submerged after the Kaunas dam was built in 1959. Only the wooden church was saved from that fate by moving it to a higher ground.

English tourist map of Rumšiškės ethnographic museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Trakai Town and Castle

The favorite day-trip from Vilnius, the 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, the capital of one of the 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 the 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.

Trakai Island castle is undoubtedly the most famous sight of Trakai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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.

Karaimų (Karaim) street in Trakai not far from the castle. Almost every home has three façade windows. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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 the water, you may see the 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.

An excursion ship passes by the palace of the Užutrakis Manor in summer. These vessels may also be rented for corporate events and birthdays. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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.

English map of Trakai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Telšiai Town

Known as the capital of Samogitia the Telšiai town (pop. 30 000) hugging the coasts of Mastis lake is interesting for its relatively authentic main street and main square.

Like many capitals, Telšiai claims to be built on seven hills. The most prominent hill is crowned by a Neoclassical Telšiai St. Anthony Cathedral (1794), the only two-floored church in Lithuania. 4-story diocesan priest seminary in a former monastery and a bishop's residence stand nearby. Telšiai diocese has been erected in 1926 and covers the whole western Lithuania, including the city of Klaipėda (until 1997 also Šiauliai).

Telšiai's religious importance helped to establish the town as the unofficial capital of Samogitia in people's minds. Locals take a great pride in this designation: ~2,5% of them even reported "Samogitian" as their ethnicity in the 2011 census. Samogitian dialect is widely used, including sculptures and plaques in the well-kept downtown.

Telšiai Cathedral (center) and some of the sculptured plaques that tell Samogitian history in the local dialect at the bottom of the hill. The right plaque in question reminds that the christianisation in Europe ended only in 1413, after Samogitia was christianed (600th anniversary in 2013). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Main square, its Respublikos street approach and the surrounding side-streets on the bottom of Cathedral hill have the most authentic pre-WW2 buildings. Virgin Mary Assumption church is a former Orthodox church transferred to Catholics in 1932 as it has been built to replace a previous Catholic church. Some derelict industrial buildings stand on Gedimino street further west.

The Telšiai Alka museum that was established in the interwar period is among the best of Lithuania’s provincial museums. It represents art from the Samogitian manors, Samogitian clothes, church art and other things about Samogitia. Most exhibits are good quality making the museum well worth a visit.

~1,5 km southwest of Alka stands the Samogitian countryside museum, which is actually a neat park with authentic buildings dating to ~1900 moved in from Samogitian villages. Farmsteads of varying affluence and a mill could be explored introducing to the traditional Lithuanian peasant life (a smaller alternative to the Rumšiškės museum).

5 km to the southeast of Telšiai stands Rainiai village, where a chapel marks the place of the infamous 1941 Rainiai massacre when Soviets brutally tortured and murdered at least 73 Lithuanian civilians.

This chapel reminds of the Rainiai massacre which took place in the forest behind it. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

English tourist map of Telšiai, Lithuania.

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Plokštinė Soviet Nuclear Missile Base & Samogitian NP

Soviet nuclear missile base in Plokštinė (part of Samogitian National Park) offers a rare opportunity to enter the shafts where Cold War nuclear missiles 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. A multi-story 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.

Each of the 4 missile shafts (left image shows the top portion) is covered by a massive metal/concrete lid (right image) which could have been quickly moved aside on rails. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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 existence.

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 many pilgrims in a festival every July 2nd-12th and archaic Samogitian Christian songs known as "the hills" may then be heard).

An inspirational place to some, a junkyard to some others the Orvidas farmstead combines the 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 elsewhere (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.

An installation of stones and broken gravestones from the Soviet-desecrated Lutheran cemeteries in the Orvidas farmstead. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

English tourist map of Samogitian National Park, Lithuania.

Joniškis Town

Joniškis (pop. 11 000) is a town in northern Lithuania, dominated by a truly massive historicist church, dating to 1901. Uncommon to the area, this gray building with a mezzanine incorporates elements of various previous architectural styles rather than emulating a single one.

Church of Virgin Mary Assumption towers over Joniškis. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Among its historic residentials and other buildings the town also has two synagogues, named "white" (1823; neoclassical) and "red" (1865; historicist) as one is plastered and the neighboring one has its red masonry visible. The red one partly collapsed in 2007 but now both are undergoing state-funded restoration. Prior to World War 2, Joniškis was home to some 900 Jews.

Two synagogues of Joniškis stand side-by-side east of the main square. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Recently Joniškis became famous for its new museum of basketball, the only one of its kind in Lithuania. The museum's enthusiastic owner has a great collection of memorabilia of Lithuanian and Soviet basketball national teams and clubs. You may compare your own feet with a shoe of Arvydas Sabonis (2,20 m tall most famous Lithuanian player of the recent decades, who spent 7 seasons in NBA), review famous basketball games on a big screen, acquire bilingual books on the sport, see medals of important competitions, among other things.

Inside the Joniškis basketball museum. The screen beyond the ball-shaped door shows the controversial final minute of Munich Olympics final USA vs. USSR. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Joniškis is important to Lithuanian basketball as it was in this Lithuanian-Latvian border town where the Lithuanian national basketball team was greeted by happy crowds in 1937 after winning their first European championship in Riga. After this event basketball was catapulted to the level of national sport where it has remained ever since, despite all the trials and tribulations that fell on the Lithuanian nation.

The basketball museum is located in Livonijos str. 3 and you will need to contact it to arrange opening times. The official website is here.

English tourist map of Joniškis. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Pakruojis Manor and Town

Pakruojis (pop. 5000) town is primarily known for its manor, the largest in Lithuania.

With 43 surviving buildings spread over 48 ha area it serves as a great reminder of a pre-WW1 Lithuania when noble families residing in such manors dominated politics, business and culture alike. They also effectively owned the surrounding villages with all local peasants (serfs) living there.

Pakruojis manor palace looking from the technical yard. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Pakruojis manor grounds consist of four sections.

Nobility and its guests would have stuck to the Main section, dominated by a small Neoclassical palace and a partly-overgrown park.

Two Technical sections were devoted to keeping the manor operational. They included servants housing, stables, barns and cattle sheds.

Industrial section held the manor owners' business power, with two mills, an inn and a Roman-aqueduct-styled dam (1821). It is prettier than its rather prosaic purpose would imply.

Industrial zone of Pakruojis manor with dam and water mill visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Like many of the Lithuania's large manors, Pakruojis was owned by non-Lithuanians (a German Von Ropp family). As the serfs were generally Lithuanians the manors were often seen as a source of discrimination. Together with independence (1918) came a land reform when  the manor landholdings were severely reduced, forcibly selling the rest to peasants. The true destruction, however, came in the 1940s as Soviets nationalized the manor, remodeling the palace for an agricultural school and letting many other buildings to slowly crumble. After 1990 independence much was restored, although the full splendor has yet to return.

In weekends part of Pakruojis manor turns into Lithuania's sole American-style living museum. Marketed as "a single day of Pakruojis manor life in late 19th century", the activity combines actual history (tours of the partly-renovated manor interior), 19th century-inspired performances, entertainment and artisan souvenir shopping. Each visitor may participate in shortened adaptations of historical traditions (a wedding party with traditional songs) and witness local urban legends (a "punishment cellar" is inspired by tales of manor owner Hermann Von Ropp bloodthirstiness, although the torturing devices exhibited there are copied from all over Europe). Professional actors perform the key roles and Lithuanian language knowledge is essential (non-speakers are advised to have somebody to translate for them).

A serf is to be beaten by the manor administrator (tijūnas) during the living museum event. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Pakruojis town itself has few sights: a 19th-century small red-brick printing house, a church, an abandoned wooden pre-WW2 fire watch tower.

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