True Lithuania

Resorts of Lithuania

For such a short seashore (99 kilometers) Lithuania surely has much to offer. Many different resort towns adorns its wide sandy beaches. In the north there is the “flagship” Palanga with its loud music, funfairs, loads of entertainment and hordes of people. Then even closer to the Latvian border is smaller Šventoji that has the image of a family resort. Klaipėda is a port city but its forested seaside districts do have a resort feel.

Half of the Lithuania's shore length is part of the Curonian Spit national park – the large moving dunes now mostly covered by a pine forest but impressive both where they is forested and where it isn’t, its former fishing villages full of wooden homes and villas of centuries gone by. That is Neringa. This resort (or rather an ecological long group of resorts), the most expensive in Lithuania, would not look out of place in any western country.

Crowded beach in Palanga on a hot and sunny summer day. Short coastine means many sunbathers per beach kilometer, but you may always find a more isolated place outside the cities and resorts. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

What you won’t find on Lithuania’s shores are the monstrous Mediterranean-type hotels. With a shoreline so short it is treasured and conserved. All beaches are public (free to use) and beyond beaches there are stretches of pine forests left for hiking and cycling (cars are largely banned there). Any real estate closer to the sea is extremely expensive and the lack of coastline is so intense that Lithuanians bought up almost every house in certain seaside villages in Latvia just beyond the state boundary.

Unfortunately, the architecturally unappealing large Soviet buildings reached even Neringa, let alone Palanga. They are built further from the coast but still stick out above the trees.

The summer sun is definitely hot and the dunes (a feature of many beaches) cover the wind, but the sea water stays cool, with 20 C water temperature considered especially warm. Lithuanians enjoy refreshing themselves in the sea after (or in-between) baking in the sun.

Although it is the seashore most Lithuanians visit in summer if they could, not every Lithuania’s resort is there. Another type of resorts are the spa towns which have been growing in popularity lately, frequented both by Lithuanians and tourists alike.

Both Lithuanian seaside resorts and spa towns tend to be surrounded by pristine nature, especially forests. This is an image of Nida in the Curonian Spit. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The largest Lithuanian spa resort is Druskininkai, built in the 19th century on the banks of Nemunas river after mineral springs have been discovered there. It has gone beyond spa in recent decades, adding an indoor snow arena, a cable car, an adventure park and a museum of Soviet sculptures, among other attractions.

Birštonas is the second largest Lithuanian spa town that has also been recently successfully reinventing itself after years of stagnation. All-in-all, the spa tourism .

A map of Lithuania's resorts. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

See also:Top 10 places for Fun and Rest in Lithuania

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Palanga Resort

Loved by many and hated by many others Palanga leaves few Lithuanians undecided. This is the country’s largest seaside resort town and its nickname “Summer capital” describes it well enough. In hot weather this small town of 16 000 locals becomes a metropolis with hundreds of thousands of people flocking in.

When people remember Palanga they frequently think of the Basanavičiaus pedestrian street with loud outdoor concerts in its restaurants and cafeterias every evening, with its lights, fountains, funfairs, lotteries, a fair share of kitsch as well as enormous crowds of people that sometimes remind Asian metropolis.

Basanavičiaus street is indeed a love-or-hate affair but Palanga is far more than that. Its long beach tends to be crowded in summer weekends, but you can always search for a place outside the city center. Palanga beach is unique in that there is a range of dunes beside it. These sand dunes are an ideal place for sunbathing in cooler days as there you can get all of the sun and none of the wind. For nudists there are two gender-segregated beaches north of town center. These pre-date the Western naturism by far: in 1920s Western diplomats used to be horrified by the naked swimmers here.

Palanga’s so-called 470 m long “Sea bridge” (at the end of Basanavičiaus street) is a great place to watch the fury of the storms or the spectacular sunsets into the sea.

Sunset over the Palanga Sea Bridge. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Unlike the Meditteranean resorts Palanga has no large hotels built on the beach. Instead, a pine forest is hugging the dunes. Its paths and the Love Avenue (Meilės alėja) are ideal for strolling and cycling (cars are not permitted there and must be left further from the sea).

Palanga became a resort in late 19th century on the initiative of count Feliksas Tiškevčius who owned vast lands around what was then a sleepy fishing village. Tikevičius era left many architectural gems such as the large wooden villas that once were the summer homes of the rich, each having a romantic name like Romeo, Džuljeta (Juliet) and Ramybė (Calmness). Arguably the prettiest one is named Anapilis (World of the dead). Some of the villas are better visible, but many others are away from the main streets.

Basanavičiaus Street with villa Jūros Akis (Eye of the Sea), built in 1898, in the foreground. Not every nice old villa is that easily visible for everyone who strolls the main street however. The area around Jūros Akis has more of them. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The main heritage of Tiškevičiai family, however, is their manor surrounded by a large Birutė park with so many exotic plants that it is now styled a botanical garden. The palace (1897) itself houses the largest amber museum in the Baltic States. Birutė hill, once a location of a major pagan shrine and crowned by a gothic revival Christian chapel since 1869, is also within the park limits. Birutė was a semi-legendary wife of grand duke Kęstutis, a former vaidilutė (pagan virgin priestess) in Palanga. A century-old tradition to provide free weekend wind instrument concerts in a park bandstand lives on.

The palace of counts Tiškevičiai in the Birutė park. The original statue of the Christ the Redeemer manufactured in Paris was of great artistic value but afterward desecrated and destroyed by Soviet soldiers. It was rebuilt in 1993. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

All the villas, the manor, and the Basanavičiaus street are to the south of a small stream variously spelled as either Rąžė or Ronžė. This is what was once the Resort zone built on Tiškevičius family grounds. Basanavičiaus/Vytauto intersection with the Palanga's first hotel (1877) is the Resort's heart.

The area north of Rąžė has traditionally been the domain of the locals. A tall gothic revival church tower dominates the skyline there (1907) and no building is allowed to surpass it in height. The surroundings of the church, however, date to the Soviet occupation era, as this area succumbed to the great fire of Palanga in 1938 that left some 1500 people homeless.

A small park with a controversial Soviet-built monument praising the occupational army is in front of the church. Unlike some other Soviet propaganda statues, this one has withstood calls to demolish it but has been somewhat balanced by a more modest memorial of Lithuanian partisan leader Jonas Žemaitis constructed in the same park.

Palanga has several museums, including that of a modernist sculptor Antanas Mončys (1921-1999) whose complex sculptures are each built from a single slab of wood (exhibit-touching permitted as per sculptor's wish). He had to spend his life away from Lithuania due to the Soviet occupation but donated his works to Palanga after independence.

Entertainment, Accommodation, Shopping and Eating in Palanga

Outside the high season (June – August) some of the restaurants and clubs close down yet many others remain open. Therefore even in the depths of winter, there are far more opportunities for accommodation, eating and entertainment in Palanga than in any other Lithuanian town of comparable size.

The area between the sea and Vytauto street has the most options for hotels, restaurants, and entertainment. Each of the sea-access streets is different. Over-the-top Basanavičiaus is counterweighted by a family-oriented Jūratės (with a musical fountain) and a tree-shaded Dariaus ir Girėno (where classical music is played on the loudspeakers), as well as a cheaper and emptier Žvejų further north.

Everything within the town could be reached on foot, but further suburbs too have some to offer, such as more reclusive hotels and the popular HBH park of low-scale family-oriented attractions and restaurants.

Basanavičiaus street in a June daytime. The best part of the Palanga season (and thus the time of largest crowds in the Basanavičiaus street) is July and August. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In summer the hotels and B&Bs of Palanga are joined by a great number of Palanga inhabitants who offer accommodation in their homes. These “part-year businessmen” line up on all entrances to the town. The municipal efforts to replace this by Western-style rental agencies have failed so far.

Celebrations and Holidays in Palanga

Palanga is known for many local celebrations, usually spanning the entire weekend. Every year there is season opening (in May) and season closure (in September). In between those two dates, there is the 1000 km endurance race weekend in July when a wide array of cars ranging from old Volkswagens to Porsches and Ferraris strive to win in a strip of highway that becomes a racetrack for a couple of days. Palanga seeks to become a year-round resort, therefore winter also has its fair share of celebrations, the most famous among which is the smelt holiday when Basanavičiaus street gets crowded with stalls selling these fishes. All these events tend to (over)fill Palanga with tourists, as does every summer weekend that comes next to a public holiday and Christmas/New Year time.

The cars line up next to Palanga main square on the eve of the 1000 km race. Spyker car is in the foreground. The race is followed by many publicity events and is well reported by the Lithuanian media. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Transportation in Palanga

Palanga boasts great infrastructure with is own international airport and a direct four-lane highway link to the Lithuania’s three largest cities (Vilnius, Kaunas, and Klaipėda). Frequent (every 15 - 30 min) buses connect it to Klaipėda (26 km south), Šventoji (12 km north) and Kretinga (11 km east). There are at least several daily buses and vans leaving for every larger city of Lithuania in summer, and rare services to many smaller ones, as well as various locations in Latvia. The nearest train station is in Kretinga.

English tourist map of Palanga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Šventoji Resort

The smaller sister of Palanga is a bit cheaper resort town with a traditional orientation towards family fun. Its population is 1700.

The main Kopų street where most restaurants are located leads to an unstable pedestrian suspension bridge over Šventoji river, a local landmark known as the Monkey bridge. The hotels are located further from here.

Šventoji is known for the Soviet “tourist bases” of wooden cabins without WCs. These cabins were once owned by particular factories and used by their workers in summer. In the post-1990 era, some of these cabins are available for rent. Few are renovated but many are closer to the sea than other types of accommodation.

Monkey bridge over Šventoji river connects Kopų street to the beach. Traditional Šventoji cabins and boats to rent are visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Šventoji was once a port and the talks of rebuilding this port never cease. The 1939 plan (drawn after Lithuania lost Klaipėda to Nazi Germany) envisioned a planned city here. Post-1990 visionaries imagine a fishing port and a yacht anchorage on the mouth of Šventoji river. All these fail to materialize and the pier of Šventoji lays abandoned.

One large project of Šventoji that was completed is its massive Roman Catholic church dedicated to Our Lady of the Seas. The 62 m tall plain tower dwarfs the town and is an example of post-independence church building boom (the construction started in 1991 and took some 20 years). The church only gets full in summer.

More unique is the Neo-pagan shrine on a hard-to-find hill in the northern part of town. Known as Žemaičių alkas (the Samogitian pagan shrine) it is the only such structure in Lithuania. It consists of a group of wooden poles, each representing a different god or goddess. Between the poles, there are places for holy fire (it is burned on certain pagan holidays when celebrations take place here). This shrine was rebuilt in 1998 based on archeological finds and aims to be a reconstruction of a shrine that once stood atop Birutė hill in Palanga.

The Samogitian pagan shrine hill visible from below. To access the hill you should cross the Monkey bridge to the opposite side from the Kopų street and then go further north. Check town maps for exact place. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Unlike the other resorts of Lithuania Šventoji is almost entirely closed down outside season. You will barely be able to find anything open there in winter besides a couple of shops. Therefore if you visit not in the summer months opt for Palanga instead. Besides the season for Šventoji businesses is somewhat shorter than in Palanga.

English tourist map of Šventoji, Lithuania.

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Neringa and the Curonian Spit (Lithuanian Sahara)

Neringa (population 2500) with its spectacular UNESCO-inscribed scenery is the elite seaside resort of Lithuania. It spans a narrow peninsula called Curonian Spit, merely 2 km wide and 98 km long, with half of that length in Lithuania. Curonian Lagoon separates the Spit from mainland Lithuania.

The Curonian Spit for centuries has been an area of massive traveling dunes, the “Lithuanian Sahara”. Its few fishing villages used to be ephemeral: over 10 of them are known to have been consumed by the moving dunes.

Some large swatches of breathtaking dunes remain, but since the 19th century, the landscape is dominated by pine forests, a titanic successful attempt by the locals to tame the nature.

An evening view from the top of Parnidis dune (Nida) towards the Lithuanian Sahara. On the left the Curonian Lagoon is visible whereas on the right the sun lands into the Baltic Sea. Endless sands are in the front, with Russian border not far away. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The former fishing villages of Neringa are now authentic resorts. Their lagoon coasts are lined by numerous wooden vernacular style ex-fishermen homes, some still adorned by thatched roofs and many housing small family-owned guesthouses and restaurants.

Few people fish for subsistence today but fishing and other boat-based activities and sea cuisine are now well enjoyed by tourists. Nevertheless, Neringa's main drag is a glorious sandy beach that spans the entire seashore of the peninsula. A 2 km healthy hike is necessary to get there as the accommodation is limited to lagoon side. Natural beauty, a laid back feel, cleanness, bicycle paths, and boat trips also draw people to Neringa. If you need nightclubs, loud music, shopping malls or funfairs opt for Palanga instead.

The landscapes of Neringa attract vacationers since the 19th century when the Spit (then part of Germany) was “discovered” by German artists and politicians. While the Soviet era brought in concrete hotels, they have not entirely obscured neither nature nor history and the National Park status bans new construction.

The lagoon coast promenade of Juodkrantė in Autumn. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the Curonian Spit, one gets soaked in that First World atmosphere of a much richer country. Benches line every forest path, roads are well-lit, tourist information screens and pretty landscaping available. This comes at a price, however: getting into the Spit is costly (ferry service and car entrance fees) while prices there are among the steepest in Lithuania (although average by the Western standards).

In summer, Neringa's unique atmosphere and fishing history is capitalized on by multiple weekend-long celebrations/festivals.

Nida resort village

Nida (pop. 1200) is the municipal center and its largest resort. "Large" is on Neringa scale though so most restaurants are still one-family affairs with a few tables and shops are compact.

Pedestrianized Central Nida boasts the Curonian Spit's best collection of dark red vernacular former fishermen homes. A few offers accommodation, some are owned by urban rich and one serves as a modest Fishermen Farmstead museum.

A row of vernacular fishermen homes in Nida. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The nearby port is still the village's heart but pleasure vessels, many available for hire or excursions, have since replaced the traditional kurėnas fishing boats.

Further from the lagoon old buildings give way to Soviet hotels, luckily they are not as monstrous as outside Neringa.

New construction is now nearly banned in Neringa but an exception was made for the Roman Catholic church (2003). Its design tastefully incorporates vernacular architecture combining wood and thatch with modern forms.

Prior to World War 2 Neringa was overwhelmingly Lutheran. The red-brick Lutheran church (1888) still offers German Sunday mass in addition to Lithuanian. Its nearby restored cemetery is famous for krikštai, a type of wooden “gravestones” ubiquitous to seaside Lithuania.

The original Curonian Spit inhabitants (a unique blend of Lithuanian, Latvian and German cultures) largely fled the Soviet Genocide but their traditions are still cherished. The weather vanes that once crowned their boat masts (identifying the village of origin and thus helping to prevent overfishing) have now became village emblems and an art form. They are common in landscaping, asserting the local identity.

The symbols of Curonian Spit culture (from left to right): krikštai gravestones, traditional fishing boats and elaborate freestanding weather vanes. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In summers you may hear so much German language in Nida that you may feel it is still ruled from Berlin. These Germans are nearly all tourists, however, tracing the paths of pre-WW2 luminaries. They visit Thomas Mann house, built by the legendary writer in 1932 for summer vacations. They also glimpse at the one-room H. Blode museum located in the sole remaining building of the Blode’s hotel where he accommodated Sigmund Freud, Albert Speer and, most famously, held symposiums for some 200 artists. Most original works were burned by Soviets but reproductions are available. More info on area's history is available at Neringa history museum on the opposite side of the road. The museums are small and meant to augment rather than replace sunbathing.

The most famous sight in Nida is undoubtedly Parnidis dune. From its sundial-crowned 52 m high top, you can see the vastness of Neringa sands as well as the town of Nida, drowned among the greenery, the Sea, and the Lagoon. At Nida, the lagoon is wide enough to put the mainland beyond the horizon, making it romantically appear that the sun both rises from and sets into water. Parnidis may be accessed by car or a calm lagoon-side footpath.

On another 52 m high hill (Urbas) the views are obstructed by trees but the lighthouse there is among Nida symbols, its nightly light surrealistically racing across the dunes and lagoon.

Juodkrantė resort village

Juodkrantė (pop. 700) is centered around a 19th century Villa district. These elaborate wooden contraptions, still housing hotels, and restaurants, almost seem too large for the village. A port is nearby while a 2 km long lagoon-side promenade adorned by stone statues goes both northwards and southwards from there.

Juodkrantė villa district. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Southern Juodkrantė hosts a small Lutheran church (1885) and a Museum of Miniature Paintings (these artworks feel much more in place at the scaled-down Juodkrantė than at bustling Vilnius). Another attraction there is the Hill of Witches, its numerous scary wooden statues popular with kids.

Beyond the southern town limit, the Europe‘s largest cormorant colony is undoubtedly an eerie sight. The birds‘ feces destroyed a large chunk of pine forest. ~4000 cormorants and ~1000 gray herons live on top of these trees, causing calls to “protect nature from nature”.

Northern Juodkrantė has the Amber Bay. Today‘s laid-back small gulf was a massive amber mine in between 1860 and 1890, annually excavating 75 tons on Lithuanian national mineral, including the famous stone age Juodkrantė treasure. Thatch sculptures are now built there regularly and burned every Autumn solstice.

Preila and Pervalka resort villages

For the most pristine Neringa experience one should head to Preila (pop. 200) and Pervalka (pop. 20) one-street villages with nothing more but a couple of small restaurants, a shop, and some accommodation opportunities. Entertainment is largely limited to the usual seaside beach, forest hikes, and a few lagoon activities.

Pervalka is also merely 3 km from the Nagliai dune reserve where a footpath offers spectacular views of the gray dunes and their surroundings. Four villages and two cemeteries lie buried under the Nagliai sands.

Dunes at Nagliai reserve as visible from the lagoon. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Getting to and around Neringa

Neringa is the closest thing to a remote island you can find in Lithuania with storms sometimes cutting it off (with the advent of better ferries in the mid-2000s the disruption of service became rare).

Klaipėda ferries are the only option to bring your car in (red tape largely precludes the route through Russia). Curonian Spit is spanned by a single road with its only gas station in Nida.

The costs may make you think twice before driving in Neringa in which case you may also sail there by other vessels (Klaipėda-Juodkrantė-Nida; Mingė-Nida). This is at a premium but offers sights.

Inside Neringa an hourly bus service connects all the villages but with so many bicycle paths you may cycle instead (renting a bike is easy). Only a couple buses a day go outside Neringa (to Vilnius, Kaunas, and Kaliningrad) so a ferry ride and transfer at Klaipėda is usually the most convenient way to travel onwards.

See also: Smiltynė, the northernmost tip of the Curonian Spit which is part of Klaipėda.

English tourist map of Neringa (Curonian Spit). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Druskininkai Resort

Druskininkai (population 20 000) is a resort town built around springs with allegedly healing powers. Essentially located in a forest the resort is full of nature, with many trees, flower gardens, parks, several lakes and two rivers in its limits.

Long-time mayor of Druskininkai Malinauskas develops his town as a year-round resort. New indoor water theme park was established in the city center. An indoor alpine skiing center with an artificial hill (Snow Arena), one of the largest such developments in the world, was built 3 km to the north. So you could swim in the coldest winters and ski in the hottest summers in Druskininkai.

Druskininkai cable car approaching the snow arena, providing great views of Nemunas river and forest canopy. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Many SPAs exist here ranging from inexpensive old Soviet ones to modern ones aimed at the rich. Charter flights from as far as Tel Aviv bring vacationers to Druskininkai. Tourists from Belarus and Poland (both countries are very close) are even more common, leading to multilingualism (Lithuanian-Russian-Polish-English) in some of the outdoor adverts here.

Druskininkai went more and more upmarket in the recent decade. Sculptures now line the pedestrianized boulevards, tourist information may be received from public computer terminals and many restaurants offer linen tablecloths. Still, the prices are low by Western standards.

The old town of Druskininkai, hugged by broad Nemunas river, dates to the 19th century when people believed that many diseases could be cured by mineral springs. Rich people of the Russian Empire constructed wooden villas here. Many of these buildings with elaborate Swiss, Italian and even Moorish architectural details are renovated to full glory in avenues such as Maironio and Kosciuškos, serving as hotels and restaurants.

An Italian style villa in Maironio street 14. Like many of the 19th century villas it is now part of a larger spa complex that is centered in a large building away from the street. This particular villa is part of the Dainava spa. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Four anchor streets converge in a diamond-shaped square where a wooden Russian Orthodox church (1865) stands in the middle. Its small size is more than compensated by its prominent location, well visible at the end of every old town main avenue (just as the Imperial Russian government intended).

East of there is a square with a dancing fountain accompanied by music and light show at least hourly. This is the heart of Druskininkai. In the renovated blue building of the original 19th century Spa (Druskininkų gydykla) you may fill a glass with local mineral water for mere 10 Eurocents. 20 differently themed baths and numerous water attractions in nearby water theme park will cost you more.

Dancing fountain at the Druskininkai main square. One of the old spa buildings is behind it, now the reception of a modern hotel. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The shaded bank of Nemunas provides an area for a calm stroll. If that is not enough you may choose to enter a ship that is moored here or visit the One Adventure Park to the north where one may zipline over the Lithuania's major river right in the center of Druskininkai.

Pedestrianized Vilniaus Avenue connects this area to the coast of Lake Druskonis where the city's Roman Catholic church (1930) and Town museum (inside a pre-war villa) stands. Its exhibits are limited to pre-1940 images and memorabilia.

Druskininkai has more small museums, all of them worth a visit only if you spend much time in the resort: Exile and Resistance museum (images of Soviet Genocide), Girios aidas (an eclectic collection of everything forest-related), M. K. Čiurlionis museum. M. K. Čiurlionis was both the Lithuania's most famous painter and Druskininkai's most famous resident, and much in the town relates to his unique symbolist work (e.g. there are large copies of his paintings in the city center, and a sculpture inspired by his painting).

Lake Druskonis, together with several reservoirs, Nemunas and Ratnyčia rivers, is one of many waters of Druskininkai. A fountain and a selection of white sculptures adorn its water which may be traversed by renting a pedal boat. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

East of Druskonis lake the newly-restored Karolis Dineika healthcare park offers various (mainly free) possibilities to exercise and otherwise healthily spend time. There are places to rest under falling water for example, and free open-air gym. Karolis Dineika was the founder of Lithuanian alternative medicine.

Under the Soviet occupation, Druskininkai was turned into a major health resort and monstrous spa buildings were commissioned. Luckily they were built further from the streets without destroying the historic villas. Today many of these multi-storey buildings are renovated and modernized, some of them are hardly recognizable, others, like Spa Nemunas (in the old town, bordered by Maironio, Žalioji, Liepų and Kosciuškos streets) remain abandoned (now undergoing demolition). Spa Draugystė in V. Krėvės street to the east of the old town is the oldest among Soviet spas (1954) and it is built in the monumental Soviet historicist style instead of the blunt functionalism.

After independence, the Soviet past of whole Lithuania was squeezed in a certain theme park in a village of Grūtas 7 km to the east of Druskininkai. There stands the monumental statues of Lenin, Four Communists and other "heroes" of the Russian communist pantheon with a Lithuanian flavor. These are the same statues that were toppled down all over Lithuania in 1990 and 1991, joined by Soviet-style meals and other attractions. This open-air museum has been controversial from its initiation as some people saw this as a glorification of the Soviet leaders. The owner (also the father of mayor Malinauskas) claimed this merely allows foreigners and younger generations understand totalitarism (he received the humorous Ignobel peace prize for his creation). When experiencing Grūtas park one must understand that what (s)he sees (from art style to funfair rides) was not merely an option for Soviet citizens but rather the only possible way with all the alternatives not available, shunned or banned.

Grūtas Park: demolished symbols of the Soviet system stand behind a barbed wire fence which symbolises the Iron Curtain that once prevented Soviet Union residents from even seeing the different way of life abroad. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The public transport system of Druskininkai is modern, with informational screens available on many stops. Its new flagship is the Lithuania's only cable car which links Druskininkai Old Town to the Snow arena, offering great views of the lush green forests, Nemunas river and an island within.

Buses, on the other hand, are infrequent, coming only several times a day on many routes. Therefore, a car, a bike or a long walk may be better solutions for reaching Grūtas park.

Druskininkai hosts many annual cultural events including a jazz festival, a poetry festival and a theater festival.

Map of Druskininkai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Birštonas Resort and Nemunas Loops

Birštonas (pop. 2500) is a mineral spa resort in central Lithuania. It is located in a scenic area where the Lithuania's main river Nemunas makes multiple bends ("loops"), hugging the town.

Birštonas castle hill provides some of the best views of Nemunas. Currently serving just as a vantage point it originally hosted a wooden castle of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, guarding the river. Nemunas is also used for recreational boat tours in summer.

Excursion boat sailing in Nemunas, as seen from the top of Birštonas castle hill. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Birštonas has been established as a resort in the 19th century as the belief in mineral water healing powers swept through Europe. Its importance continued between the World Wars when it was the closest such resort to Kaunas which then served as the capital of Lithuania. Dating to that era are the iconic central mud spa building (1927), a Gothic revival red brick church (1909) and the resort house (kurhauzas, 1931), all located next to each other in the downtown and still used for their original purposes. Unfortunately, many wooden buildings of the era have burned down during World War 1 and 1905 fire.

Under Soviet occupation (1940-1990) Birštonas expanded rapidly, mostly for the worse. The downtown was surrounded by massive eyesore Soviet sanitariums for the sick. After independence, Birštonas stagnated as Lithuanians would opt for other, more up-to-date resorts.

Tourists sitting near the central mud spa of Birštonas. Originally operated by the Red Cross (1920s), it still has its symbol on it. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

However, in recent years Birštonas has successfully reinvented itself through a partial re-orientation from the caring for the sick to those who seek spa procedures for pleasure, as well as through the addition of several new free-to-use tourist attractions.

Kneipp garden in the downtown allows people to try out procedures suggested by a German priest Sebastian Kneipp: "Kneipp coffee" (putting arms into cold water, claimed to rejuvenate the same way as a cup of coffee), "Kneipp path" (a path of various rough surfaces to be walked on barefoot, supposedly stimulating various organs) and a "Stork steps" (a pool of cold water to be walked in by raising legs above the waterline with each step).

Tourists walking on rough surfaces (left) and holding their arms in cold water (right) at Kneipp garden. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Nearby Birutė villa allows its visitors to lie indoors watching an artificial waterfall and fountain.

Further north, next to the central park, a mineral water evaporation tower is a wooden structure where mineral water is automatically poured on its every wall, allowing the water to evaporate swiftly and providing a humid air for the surroundings, where people come to breath it.

Additionally, just like for decades, the mineral waters of Birštonas are free to drink from several fountains (public faucets) if you bring your own glass or bottle. "Vytautas" spring is the most famous one, its fountain located in a small yellow building in the downtown. If the uncarbonated authentic flavor will be too much to stomach, you may also buy carbonated and bottled "Vytautas" all over Lithuania. In fact, this well-advertised "Vytautas" is one of the best known Lithuanian trademarks.

People relaxing inside the free Birutė villa at Birštonas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For the first time after 20 years hiatus, new spas have been constructed in Birštonas in the 2010s. Moreover, many of the Soviet ones were renovated. The town still has a multitude of abandoned Soviet buildings, but those now tend to be overshadowed by trees and pretty landscaping in summer rather than vice-versa.

Birštonas landscaping includes some fountains and many sculptures. Some of the biggest clusters of sculptures are located near the church (wooden sculptures) and at the southern side of the Central park (stone sculptures). The other side of Nemunas (accessible by boat or a lengthy drive through the nearest bridge in Prienai) hosts a remembrance path for Lithuanians exiled by the Soviet Union.

While what is pre-Soviet and post-Soviet tend to far surpass what's Soviet in quality and aesthetics, one may want to view the Soviet era stained glass window "Lithuania" (original name "Soviet Lithuania") inside the Birštonas house of culture (a typical Soviet institution where various events are held). 145 sq. meters in size it was the largest stained glass window in Lithuania. It lacks any outward propaganda or Soviet symbols, although its depiction of various classes of Lithuanian population (workers, soldiers, scientists, peasants...) is Soviet-style.

A fragment of stained glass window 'Lithuania'. Photo ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The "main street" of Birštonas is effectively a Nemunas bank promenade for pedestrians. It links the castle hill in the south to Central Park some 1,5 km to the north, offering benches to sit and watch the river as well as some cafes en-route. Most other things worth visiting can be discovered taking short turns inland from the promenade. The Nemunas bank promenade was created in the 1960s when a dam further downriver raised the water level of Nemunas (without the promenade, Birštonas could be submerged).

The Nemunas loops are around Birštonas provides several more good vantage points outside the city proper. Škėvonys exposure is just ~2 km from the downtown and may be reached on foot. Balbieriškis exposure is some 15 km away (so a bike or a car will be needed to visit).

Merely 5 km from Birštonas a town of Prienai (pop. 10000) is located. Both towns even share a single basketball team. While Prienai is larger, it is not a resort, making its institutions, cafes, and restaurants far more prosaic and aimed at locals rather than tourists. Sights in Prienai include a 1750-built wooden church and a 19th-century paper mill. Prienai is also the location of area's sole bridge over Nemunas.

A new spa in Birštonas and a lakeside Beach. Construction of this spa began under the Soviet occupation but was never completed as Birštonas went into decline. In 2016 it was completed according to a modernized project by the bottlers of 'Vytautas' mineral water. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Some 5 km south of Prienai in Vazgaikiemis New-Age-esque "Park for peoples' harmonization" (a.k.a. Harmony Park in English) is developed, offering some interesting sculptures (it serves as a hotel and a hippodrome).

Map of Birštonas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Festivals and Celebrations in Lithuanian Seaside

In summer the spotlight of all Lithuanian life moves to the Seaside. Klaipėda, Palanga, and the Curonian spit become the stages for many major events, celebrations and gigs.

Many summer weekends have a weekend-long annual celebration going on somewhere in the Seaside, with tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) inland dwellers attending and participating. Many events are sea-related (dedicated to shipping, fishing) but there are also modern musical festivals. Seeking to become a year-round resort Palanga has successfully established some festival weekends outside season.

Sea festival regatta in Klaipėda, one of many sea-related events. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A drawback is that many of these annual events lack a specified date meaning that every year they move in time a little. There are approximate dates however and you may Google up the exact weekend the year you visit. Moreover, pre-booking a hotel may be essential in some celebration weekends.

List of annual celebrations and events

These are just the more famous events. Additionally, every resort has a "Season opening" (May) and a "Season closure" (September) weekend. There are also many non-annual fests at the main venues or right on the beach. Among the more interesting venues is the Klaipėda Musical Ferry that offers concerts while sailing in the Lagoon.

Name Date Location Event
Palanga smelt holiday Mid-February weekend Palanga Entire Basanavičiaus high street is turned into a large open-air restaurant for smelts in this culinary/fishing holiday. If you prefer catching a smelt yourself, you may do so at the Sea Bridge where there are angling contests. Or you may swim in the cold sea yourself with a group of “health fanatics”.

The smelt holiday brings shards of summer lifestyle into deep winter with Palanga resort getting crowded, its visitors eating outdoors and some swimming in the sea. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Ship parade and regatta Third Saturday of May Klaipėda The start of summer is marked by a parade of ships in the Curonian Lagoon and a massive firework. A regatta takes place the same day.
Benai, plaukiam į Nidą Final weekend of May Nida (Curonian Spit) The oldest summertime seaside musical festival in Lithuania (est. 1994) offers open-air concerts of different musical styles.
Lagoon region fisherman’s holiday (Pamario krašto žvejo šventė) Mid-July weekend Juodkrantė (Curonian Spit) Fishermen from all over the lagoon meet up in Juodkrantė showing off their livelihood/art to thousands of tourists and letting them taste traditional fish recipes. Now they may be a minority but before the 20th century, everybody in Juodkrantė used fishing for subsistence.
Thomas Mann festival Third week of July Nida (Curonian Spit) The Curonian Spit was ruled by Germany prior to World War 1 and even after becoming Lithuanian it used to be favored by German artists and writers. Thomas Mann spent a couple of summers there and the art festival named after him includes concerts and fairs held all over Nida.
1000 km race Late July weekend Palanga Lithuania’s prime road race attracts many international teams. There are few limitations: old stock cars, Lamborghinis, buggies, and formulas all drive the same circuit. Trackside events include concerts a line-up of racecars in central Palanga prior to the race. The circuit is established by secluding a part of a highway.
Nida Jazz marathon Final weekend of July Nida (Curonian Spit) A festival that brings international jazz to atmospheric spaces of Nida (old Lutheran church to a pier).
Sea Festival Late July-Early August (one weekend) Klaipėda The main festival of Klaipėda with its roots in 1934 when it was started to promote Lithuania as a naval country. Currently, it attracts hundreds of thousand people from all over Lithuania. There are concerts, parades, fireworks and other events typically located near the sea or the lagoon, while some key ceremonies are directly related to the sea.
Palanga Table (Palangos stalas) Late September weekend Palanga A long table spans across Basanavičiaus street full of various meals. A great emphasis is put on healthy foods in this culinary festival.
Autumn equinox September 20th-22nd Juodkrantė (Curonian Spit) In this ceremony hay sculptures (crafted by artists that Spring) are set on fire in Juodkrantė Bay, symbolizing the defeat of Pagan gods.