The towns of Lithuania are centered around a church. It well might be a large historicist masterpiece of the early 20th century built after Russian Empire eased its restrictions on Catholic religious buildings. Some of these churches are so massive that they seem to have been transplanted from much larger cities. The tallest church spire in Lithuania is not in Vilnius or Kaunas, but in a small town of Anykščiai. Churches of Švėkšna, Palanga, Rietavas and others are also impressive.
Some other towns still boast older (19th or 18th century) smaller churches, more often than not built of wood in a vernacular style. Then there are settlements with post-1990 churches that either replaced ones previously destroyed by fire or were newly built because these towns never had a church as they gained their importance during the atheist Soviet era.
Churches are typically located at the pre-WW2 market square. Multiple Catholic churches or market squares mark the former importance of the town. Some towns also have a 19th-century Russian Orthodox church and an abandoned synagogue. In Lithuania Minor, there are Lutheran churches next to the Catholic ones, while in the environs of Biržai and in Kėdainiai – Reformed Christian churches.
Another gem enjoyed by some towns is a manor, built by a local noble family some 100 or 200 years ago. Such manors are sometimes still surrounded by elaborate parks that were once crafted by famous French or Italian architects. Unfortunately, the Soviet nationalization drive and subsequent destruction hit the manors heavily, but today some of them are restored. Ones in Palanga and Plungė are especially beautiful. Some of the manors, as well as other buildings, hosts regional museums but few of those are worth visiting.
The historical districts of almost every town used to be built of wood. Many buildings were destroyed by fire, others by the Soviets, therefore few old towns are intact today. The old wooden buildings were joined by Soviet functionalist shops, schools, clinics, bus stations and so-called cultural houses that were built on similar designs and layouts all across the Union. Small towns, just like cities, also received entire new districts of Soviet apartment blocks. The size of these buildings correlated with the size of the settlement, with residential buildings in villages not exceeding 2 stories, in small towns – 4 or 5. Streets of these districts are usually named after different jobs of the 20th century: “Melioratorių” (Irrigation specialists), “Mechanizatorių” (Mechanization specialists).
Soviets also built new detached homes. A popular series of these prefab buildings is known as “Alytus homes” as they used to be manufactured in Alytus.
The Soviet era districts of the towns today are somewhat run down due to low construction quality, urbanization, and emigration. These social tendencies meant that some of the towns changed relatively little since the restoration of independence (1990). However, most of them received one or more modern chain supermarkets. New family-owned restaurants and hotels were also opened in many towns to replace the gray Soviet ones although in some more remote places it may be difficult to find a place to eat on summer weekends when the marriages are celebrated.
For every rule there are exceptions, and these exceptions are the most interesting towns to visit. Kėdainiai is the only town to host a non-wooden pre-industrial Old Town. Ukmergė has a non-wooden historical district dating to the late 19th century.
The Lithuania Minor area that was part of Germany for centuries has different architectural styles with red brick facades and wooden frame architecture. You may see this in Šilutė, Neringa, and smaller towns of the area.
A couple of Lithuania’s towns were conceived and built by the Soviets together with major power plants nearby. The more interesting among them is Visaginas, a 1970s-1980s town for a nearby nuclear plant. Elektrėnai is the other one.
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.
Even older is the Peninsula Castle built on the mainland. It lays in ruins but its yard houses wooden medieval tools. All these spring into life during the two medieval festivals that take place here (~2nd weekend of June and ~3rd weekend of August). The plaque "Trakai historical museum" near the Peninsula castle is misleading as this is actually a small museum of religious art located in a former Dominican monastery near the castle.
The Transfiguration of Virgin Mary church dating to the 15th century is among the oldest churches in Lithuania's smaller towns, its miraculous altar painting reportedly having been brought from 12th century Byzantium.
Only after the Russian Imperial occupation (1795) did Trakai cease to grow and became an ordinary provincial town it is today. To cater for the new Russian community a Russian Orthodox church was constructed in 1863.
Entire Trakai town is squeezed between multiple lakes and therefore is long and narrow. The lakes attract many people of Vilnius in summer weekends. In addition to sunbathing and swimming it is popular to rent a boat, a yacht or a catamaran for a romantic sail, or join an organized tour in Lake Galvė.
From 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Šilutė (pop. 20 000) is likely the most intact town of Lithuania Minor and therefore northern East Prussia. Its 2,5 km long tree-lined main avenue was largely spared from the mass Soviet demolitions that ravaged the Kaliningrad Oblast and the churches of Klaipėda.
Šilutė is now regarded to be the unofficial capital of Lithuania Minor since the pro-Lithuanian Klaipėda Revolt captured it but not Tilsit/Tilžė in 1923. While the 1918 declaration calling for the unification of Lithuania Minor and Lithuania Major was signed in Tilsit the later 1923 act of actual unification was signed in Šilutė.
Šilutė became a single entity only in 1910 with the unification of the four villages (Šilokarčema, Žibai, Verdainė and Cintijoniškės, or Heydekrug, Szibben, Werden and Cynthionischken if you prefer the Germanized names). As such the town has several centers. In the east the main street begins at the former market square of Šilokarčema, still an extensive rectangular open area surrounded by pre-war buildings. 1911 yellow truss bridge over the Šyša river and the late 18th-century Šiultė manor are nearby.
Main Lietuvininkų street goes eastwards, connecting Šilokarčema main square to the main square of Žibai. Laid in the 19th century the thoroughfare still reminds of those days. Large 3-floored detached art nouveau buildings are partly hidden by its linden and chestnut trees. Among these buildings stands the Lutheran church dedicated to Martin Luther, completed in 1926, known for its interior murals depicting 104 famous historical personalities, among them Biblical figures Noah and Moses, Šilutė's local luminaries H. Scheu and T. Eicke, Roman Emperors Justinian and Constantine, founders of the reformation M. Luther and J. Calvin, and secular people such as S. Kierkegard and Dante Alighieri. Unfortunately the church is closed outside of mass.
Žibai main square is of irregular layout and a national romantic red-brick building now housing a vocational school (1909) is arguably its most impressive one.
Going further east you will reach the railroad, before World War 1 a trunk route from Karaliaučius/Koenigsberg to Klaipėda/Memel, both still part of Germany at the time. Modest 19th-century station building still exists north of the main street but in 2011 the last passenger services to Klaipėda have been canceled.
Beside the railroad, south of the main street, stands a red-brick Holy Cross Roman Catholic church (1854). Built in a romantic style more typical to Lutheran architecture of the area it is much smaller than its local Lutheran counterpart. This indicates the relative size of the two communities in the pre-WW2 era. Like the rest of Lithuania, Minor Šilutė used to be overwhelmingly Lutheran, both Lithuanians and Germans adhering to that faith.
Lutheran communities were largely destroyed by the advancing Soviet armies, this genocide barely mentioned in the history books even today. The extensive Lutheran cemetery in a forest beyond the railroad serves as a powerful compensation for the never-built memorials. Overgrown and eerie, it has no single grave left undamaged and unransacked by the Soviets. Their metal fences are bent, most inscriptions hardly legible, crosses swaying and never visited as most relatives of the deceased have been murdered or exiled decades ago, leaving nobody to care for what was once a nicely landscaped area of an East Prussian provincial town. And yet unlike most other Lutheran cemeteries in Lithuania's cities and towns this one was not demolished (except for the graves of German soldiers), its hundreds of interesting gravestones and a funeral chapel still available for all to see.
While the main street is interesting and worth a stroll, the districts north and south of it are largely dating to the Soviet occupation.
Šilutė is the hub of the Nemunas Delta region, known for its annually submerged floodplains, bird migration paths and the prime location for boat related activities in Lithuania.
Kėdainiai (population 32 000) is a town near the center of Lithuania well known for its brick old town. With most Lithuanian old towns being wooden and therefore less intact, the lovely small medieval district of Kėdainiai is unusual. The well-cared clean streets run towards numerous squares where markets used to take place. Kėdainiai was especially important for medieval trade.
The main square is "Great Market" (Didžioji Rinka) opens to Nevėžis river at one side. On the opposite side there stands a former city hall with a tall roof.
In times when Lithuania was virtually ruled by several important families, Kėdainiai was the seat of Radvila family. This branch of the famous family adopted a Reformed faith and therefore the Kėdainiai main square is dwarfed by a Renaissance Reformed Christian church (1652) rather than a Catholic one. The Reformed community has since dwindled and the church has one monthly mass, but the sarcophagi of underground Radvila family crypt with long epitaphs still attracts tourists. Outside summer one needs to ask at Kėdainiai museum to have the Reformed church opened.
On the opposite side of Radvilų street stands a 17th century Arnett House, built by a Scottish merchant family. Kėdainiai once had a thriving Scottish community, attracted by a common Reformed faith.
Catholics have a black wooden church of Saint Joseph not far away (Radvilų street). It is famous for being one of the oldest and largest wooden churches in Lithuania, having been built in 1766. The entire interior is wooden, including three 18th century baroque altars.
Gothic St. George Catholic church on the opposite side of Nevėžis river is even older (1662).
Other religious communities set their footprint in Kėdainiai as well. Lutheran church has been constructed by German traders in 1629 and its famous for interior decorations. Russian Orthodox church dates to the Russian Imperial rule (1861). Two white synagogues (summer and winter, 18th-19th centuries) at Senoji Rinka (Old Market) have been restored as a Jewish museum. A third synagogue stands in Smilgos street.
There aren't that many towns of this size in the world where houses of worship of 5 different faiths would stand, each of them at least 150 years old. However that old tolerance was replaced by destructive Russian and Soviet occupations of 19th-20th century when most religious buildings were looted and closed (and some destroyed), and only after 1990 was the religious life reborn, but minority faiths remained small in numbers of followers.
Pediastrianised Didžioji street is the pretty main axis of Kėdainiai Old Town. Its cute old homes house several hotels and restaurants. The former Carmelite monastery now serves as Kėdainiai museum. It has a nice collection of Lithuanian wayside crosses, as well as some modern art by local artists, historical exhibits and furniture/clothing from regional manors (furniture made of horns brought back from 1900 Paris Expo by the local nobles is interesting, even if not local). Šviesioji Gimnazija (school), established by Radvilas in 1625, is another historic institution. A two-floored townhouse at Didžioji street's eastern end has been transformed into an art project where every window reminds an episode of rich town history.
Being a hometown of Radvilas Kėdainiai also enjoyed political importance. Union of Kėdainiai was signed here, terminating the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and establishing a Swedish-Lithuanian one instead. However the Swedes subsequently lost the 1655-1660 war, leading to the restoration of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Unfortunately, neither the magnificient Radvila palace, nor the later manor built by romanticist painter Czapski. The ruins of Czapski manor and the exotic Turkish-inspired minaret built as an observation tower in his park are beyond the train station rails.
Ukmergė (population 25 000) is a town on the highway Vilnius-Panevėžys.
Destroyed by fire in the year 1877 Ukmergė was swiftly rebuilt and remains a great reminder of that era. Its two-floor homes that surround the central Kęstučio square are what have once adorned many small towns of Lithuania. North of the square is the small downtown where narrow streets still have cobbled surface and old advertisements invite to the shops of a gone-by era.
Two small but pretty Ukmergė's churches are east and west of the downtown. Eastern Saints Peter and Paul church (1820) is an interesting example of Neoclassical architecture. Western Neobysanthic Holy Trinity church was built as a Russian Orthodox church in 1869 on a ground nationalized from Catholic Piarist monastery. The church was transferred to Catholics in 1919.
South of the main square there is a firefighter tower which is part of a local relatively dull provincial museum and may be climbed. Free views of Ukmergė downtown can be enjoyed from a hill (Piliakalnis) to the east, once crowned by a 14th-century castle. A wooden blue-and-turquoise Old Believer church (1873) is at the bottom of this hill on the banks of Šventoji river.
Among the Lithuania's largest cities in the interwar years, Ukmergė also received a fair share of investments back then, such as the Antanas Smetona gymnasium (not far away from the St. Peter and Paul church) or the "Lituania Restituta" obelisk in the main square.
Compact Ukmergė downtown is surrounded by the typical 19th-century outer districts, still consisting of detached single-family wooden dwellings in streets like Darbininkų, Kurklių or Vilkmergėlės.
Thanks to its place near the highway Ukmergė is easy to visit if you go from Vilnius to Panevėžys or Riga. While this road is new Ukmergė's position as a traffic hub is not as its main Vytauto street coincides with the historic Saint Petersburg-Kaunas-Warsaw route and lacking a bypass it is still full of traffic.
Anykščiai (population 12 000) lies on the Šventoji river, the longest river to both start and end in Lithuania. Despite not having magnificent buildings (other than the imposing gothic revival Saint Matthew church of 1909 with its tallest-in-Lithuania 79 m twin towers) the town has quite many interesting places for its size. Some of these places are outside the town, however (up to 10 km from the center), therefore a car would be convenient.
What you can see in the town itself besides the church is the narrow-gauge railroad, declared to be a technical monument. Built in the late 19th century this railroad once connected far-away places like Biržai and Švenčionys and had hundreds of kilometers in length, quite unusual for European narrow gauge railways. It was shortened to Panevėžys-Anykščiai-Rubikiai line by the Soviets. However, some of the stations, water towers are dating to the turn of the 20th century. After a brief cessation of service, the line has been partially restored by rail enthusiasts. Tourists may now enjoy a short ride to the nearby lakeside resort of Rubikiai in weekends. A hire of entire train is also possible. A short ride by a handcar or a railbike at the narrow-gauge railroad museum in Anykščiai station is much cheaper and you may also witness old rail machinery and memorabilia there.
Southwest of Anykščiai lies the Puntukas stone, the second largest stone in Lithuania. It is covered by indentations reminding of the flight across the Atlantic Ocean by pilots S. Darius and S. Girėnas, the first Lithuanians to complete this mission (and worldwide air mail pioneers). The bas-relief was made in secret by Bronius Pundzius in 1943 as Lithuania was occupied by the Nazi Germany at the time.
Liudiškės hill, on top of which lies the grave of famous Lithuanian writer Jonas Biliūnas, is nearby. The grave is shaped like the "Phleron of happiness" in one of his short-stories. Everybody sought for that Phleron but it was on a large tower, and many people fell down to their deaths. Only after many died somebody climbed over the dead bodies of the earlier braves and took the Phleron, and made everyone happy (possibly an allegory of a fight for independence, where many have to die before somebody is able to successfully declare it).
North of Anykščiai Šeimyniškėliai hill is a possible location of mysterious Voruta city where Lithuania's first king Mindaugas had been crowned. The massive triangular hill is surrounded by a defensive ravine and may be ascended by wooden stairs. Unfortnuately, no fortifications remain on top. However to help one imagine how the castle may have looked like a wooden tower and outer wall is reconstructed nearby. Tower hosts a mini-museum inside and one may also try out shooting old-style bows.
In Niūronys north of Anykščiai there is a popular Horse museum, dedicated to horses and pre-war countryside lifestyle. Craftsmen (blacksmith, weaver, wheelmaker) show their work and its results. 19th-century horse-drawn vehicles and the cultural role of the horse are also well-covered (mostly in Lithuanian though). The museum is famous for programs where you can try the old village crafts yourself - such as making bread (reservation needed).
Anykščiai placed a bid to become an official resort. It offers active tourism opportunities including a skiing hill. In summer the same hill serves as a place for "summer sled" (a kind of roller coaster with an ability to control its speed) and zorbing. Wakeboarding park and labyrinth park are available elsewhere.
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.
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.
Visaginas (population 20 000) has been built in the 1970s and 1980s for workers of a new nuclear power plant built nearby. Once a secret settlement, this is a good example of a Soviet city. All its buildings are multi-storey apartment blocks built according to common layouts. They are separated by pedestrian alleys and wide four-lane streets, all of which still bear names like Tarybų (Soviet), Kosmonautų (Cosmonaut), Taikos (Peace) or Draugystės (Friendship). In the Soviet Union, every city had streets named this way.
Only the name of the city itself was changed from Sniečkus (surname of a Lithuanian communist leader) to Visaginas after independence. The new name comes from a phrase „Everybody defends themselves“ and while it reminds of poisonous snakes that used to live around the local lake, it is also surprisingly appropriate for a cold war nuclear town.
The ethnic make-up of the city strikingly reminds the former Soviet Union as well with 52% of the population being ethnic Russians. Other ethnicities that once lived in the Soviet Union, such as Ukrainians or Belarusians, are also well represented. Russian is still the lingua franca in Visaginas. The population density is highest among Lithuania’s cities, but you are never far from nature as Visaginas is surrounded by forests and several lakes are nearby. In fact, fragments of pine forests are left even between apartment blocks making Visaginas a unique forest city.
Although it may seem so when you are in Visaginas time does not stand still here. The Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant which once employed half of the population was closed down as requested by the European Union. The gigantic industrial building east of the city that once housed the most powerful nuclear reactors in the world now stands empty. It never reached its full potential as 2 of the 4 planned reactors have not been built. Should they have been built Visaginas would have been doubled in size to house around 50 000 inhabitants. Right now the town's population already went down by a third from its peak. Visaginas ages as a whole: it was known as the "youngest town" in 1999 with an average age of 30,6 years but in 2012 the number went all the way to 39,3, showing little generational change.
The enormous power plant is a must-see. The massive pipes leading to Visaginas from the power plant once provided cheap heating. This was once the heart of the city that is now empty. In order to expedite the plans of a new power plant people of Visaginas are staging protests in favor of nuclear power. A NIMBY object anywhere else an NPP is more than welcome in what is the Nuclear Town.
Other than that, a simple stroll around the town is rewarding. The nuclear workers used to live well by Soviet standards, therefore Visaginas was built for upper middle class. With the exception of few additions, the city is still as it was in the 1980s (even the atom-shaped streetlights remain).
The post-independence additions are a modern shopping mall and several churches. The Orthodox Church of the Birth of John the Baptist (1992) constructed in a converted shop between two apartment blocks in Sedulinos Avenue is probably the most interesting. The Catholic St. Paul's (1998) and Russian Orthodox St. Pantaleimon's (2000) are more typical religious buildings. Atheism was the first Soviet-introduced cultural practice to wither: in 2001 the city still had the highest share of irreligious in Lithuania (25%), down to 9% in 2011.
Visaginas is now also famous for the largest Country music festival in the Baltics, taking place in summer.
This town (pop. 15 000) far in the northeastern Lithuanian outback is known for its 17th-century castle. The main building surrounded by fortifications forms the most impressive surviving military structure of this era in Lithuania.
The castle/fortress (now housing a relatively dull provincial museum) was owned by Radvila family. Together with the Sapiegas and some other noble families the Radvilas virtually controlled the Lithuania’s political life of the 17th century.
Radvilas were proponents of Reformed Christianity and this is still visible in Biržai as the town has a red-brick Reformed Christian church (1876) as well as the usual Roman Catholic one (1861). Surrounding villages boast old Reformed churches as well although now only some 10% of district‘s population profess this faith. Biržai Reformed church offers services only on Sundays whereas the Roman Catholic parish celebrates mass every day.
Biržai is in a nice location near Širvėna artificial lake that is spanned by a long pedestrian bridge leading to a manor on the other side. The town used to be a terminus both for the Aukštaičiai Road from Kaunas and the narrow gauge railway, a kind of place in the end of Lithuania. But despite it being far from main tourist locations the town offers several restaurants and other facilities.
Rokiškis (pop. 15 000) is among the most appealing towns of northeastern Lithuania (Aukštaitija). It is centered around a very large rectangular main Nepriklausomybės (Independence) square. The square connects the Saint Matthew church (a neo-gothic masterpiece) on its western side to an extensive 18th century Tyzenhauzai family manor in the east.
The manor consists of 16 buildings, its main palace, and the nearby servant buildings restored and housing a municipal museum. Some other buildings are still crumbling, separated from the palace by Soviet streets, but the entire complex is impressive nonetheless.
1 kilometer separates the palace from the St. Matthew church, also funded by the Tyzenhauzai family (1877). The church and the palace are visible from each other through a straight urbanistic axis that consists of the 400 m long square, 400 m long Tyzenhauzų alley between two ponds and 200 m long paths of the palace garden.
The church has fine exterior and equally interesting interior.
The northern and southern sides of Nepriklausomybės square are full of 19th-century buildings. Despite some modern additions, the area managed not to loose the atmosphere of an early 20th-century town center. The square is well kept with new streetlights and benches. There are two monuments in the square, the new one is for Rokiškis while the old one (built in 1928) is dedicated to the decennial of Lithuania's independence. Unlike nearly all other such monuments, it somehow survived the Soviet occupation. Depicting mythological and allegorical figures, it also has a Baltic swastika inscribed.
Streets immediately surrounding the square tend to have some old buildings as well, but if you wander further north or south, the magic of Rokiškis downtown will be quick to wane.
Kretinga (pop. 19 000) is primarily notable for its Franciscan and nobility heritage.
Most places of interest are located along the north-south Vilniaus street. Tiškevičius family palace at its northern end now serves as a regional museum. It is primarily famous for its cozy indoor garden, housing a restaurant popular for celebrations. Other exhibits are lackluster but the Neoclassical atmosphere of some halls is nice.
Like many prime Lithuanian manors the Kretinga manor once boasted a well-landscaped park which has been destroyed and partly built up by Soviets. It is being slowly regenerated. A wooden sculptural composition for the annual holidays has been erected, while the former manor water mill now houses an exhibition of traditional Lithuanian celebrations.
The rest of the town also suffered damage by the Soviets, thus the important gems (just like the palace) are now surrounded by rather boring mid-20th-century architecture.
Going south Vilniaus street gets hugged by two cemeteries with nice chapels. The eastern gothic revival chapel houses Tiškevičius family remains.
Further south stands the Annunciation church and Franciscan monastery. Once among the prettiest in Lithuania, the church tower has been heavily simplified under the Soviet rule but the complex still has some charm left.
Nearby massive main square is the trade hub for the town, its surroundings having most shops and a marketplace. Kretinga being not far from Lithuania Minor it also houses a Lutheran church.
The passion of modern Kretinga is motoball, a sports resembling football on motorcycles that is played on some spring, summer and autumn weekends in a local motodrome, attracting attendances that surpass local basketball and football. The local "Milda" team plays in the Central European League against Belarusian and Latvian rivals.
While Kretinga may not warrant a longer trip on its own, its location makes it a convenient place to visit from Palanga Resort during those overcast days. It is also the closest railway station to Palanga and well connected by frequent buses to Klaipėda.
In three small towns of central Samogitia several out-of-scale buildings divulge their past importance. These are Kražiai, Varniai, and Rietavas, the political, religious, cultural and educational centers of western Lithuania in 15th-19th centuries.
Kražiai, the original capital of Samogitia (1416-1464). The 1762 Late Baroque church here became notable again in 1893 when a mass of people protested the Russian Imperial decision to close it down. This led to a Cossack massacre of the armless Lithuanian peasants (9 killed, 53 injured, 150 arrested) which triggered an outrage in the religious 19th century Christian world that in turn saved the church from demolition (but not closure). Only a belfry remains from a much older wooden church (established in 1416). Kražiai’s third church was at the former Jesuit college. Today’s sleepy village hardly reminds an education center but it attracted many students from afar in 1614-1844. Recently restored former dormitory (bursa) is a witness of this era.
In 1464 the center of Samogitian diocese was moved 28 kilometers west to Varniai. Two churches (one brick, one wooden) remind of that town former importance, as does the recently rebuilt 53 m tall tower of former priest seminary (1770), now home to the diocesan museum.
Rietavas, 33 km further west, is centered around a large neo-Romanesque church built in 1873. This was the golden age of the Oginskis family. Technology-loving dukes of Rietavas also constructed the Lithuania’s first telephone line (1882) and power station (1892), established a famous musical school in what were the last years when manors rather than cities were the source of progress and culture in Lithuania. The towered Oginskis Palace did not survive the trials of history, but other buildings of the manor did. Today Rietavas is also known for its bustling bazaar-like market which occupies a disused airfield every Sunday morning, attracting buyers and sellers from all over Samogitia and beyond.
Kražiai-Varniai-Rietavas route may be explored as a detour while traversing the Vilnius/Kaunas-Klapėda highway. It may also be easily combined with a visit to Šiluva Virgin Mary Shrine and Tytuvėnai Monastery, both some 30 km east of Kražiai.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
Pakruojis town itself has few sights: a 19th-century small red-brick printing house, a church, an abandoned wooden pre-WW2 fire watch tower.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).