Blame it on the Baltic sea breeze or the almost-endless midsummer days: Lithuania has an otherworldly quality. In the southernmost of the Baltic states, beaches are spangled with amber and woodlands are alive with demonic statues. Medieval-style mead and traditional wood-carving never went out of style.
Offsetting Lithuania's reverence of tradition is a spirited counterculture, particularly in compact capital Vilnius. A city of churches and baroque finery, Vilnius’ cobblestoned charms haven’t gone unnoticed by tourists. Less visited are second city Kaunas and spa resort Druskininkai, where 19th-century architecture nudges against brooding Soviet buildings.
As Europe's last country to be Christianised, pagan history still soaks the land. Curonian Spit, splintering from the Baltic coast, is awash in folklore. Cyclists, hikers and beach-goers eagerly board ferries to its voluptuous dunes. Cloaking the rest of Lithuania are lakes, forests of birch and pine, and pancake-flat farmland; in Lithuania, there's ample space to breathe.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Lithuania.
Lithuania's fabled Hill of Crosses is a symbol of defiance as much as a pilgrimage site. More than 100,000 crosses have been planted on this low hill, many of them strung with rosary beads that rattle softly in the breeze. The tradition began during the 1831 Uprising and reached its height in the 1960s, in defiance of anti-religious Soviet rule. At night locals crept here to lay crosses, infuriating their oppressors. It's 12km north of Šiauliai (2km off Hwy A12) near Jurgaičiai.
If you only see one museum in Vilnius, make it this one. On a site that has been settled since the 4th century AD stands the latest in a procession of fortified palaces, repeatedly remodelled, destroyed and rebuilt. The baroque palace, built for the 17th-century grand dukes, has been faithfully revamped to house an atmospheric museum of art and history. Visitors with several hours can opt for full admission, accessing four 'routes' through Lithuanian history; otherwise choose one or two.
Stately Vilnius Cathedral, divorced from its freestanding belfry, is a national symbol and the city's most instantly recognisable building. Known in full as the Cathedral of St Stanislav and St Vladislav, this columned neoclassical cathedral occupies a spot originally used for the worship of Perkūnas, the Lithuanian thunder god. Register in advance to tour the crypts, the final resting place of many prominent Lithuanians including Vytautas the Great (1350–1430).
With Soviet-era statues of Lenin, Stalin and prominent Lithuanian members of the Communist Party that once dominated Lithuanian towns lining the forest trails, Grūtas Park pays black-humoured homage to a dark period of history. Watchtowers pipe marching songs and a train with cattle car is a sobering reminder of mass deportations. There are three exhibition buildings in the park, displaying socialist-realist art, newspapers and USSR maps. It's 8km east of Druskininkai; take bus 2 via Viečiūnai (two to five daily).
Founded in 1579 during the Catholic Counter Reformation, Vilnius University was run by Jesuits for two centuries. During the 19th century it became one of Europe's greatest centres of learning, and the university survived shutdown by Tsar Nicholas I, rebranding under Soviet rule and closure by the Nazis. Its spectacular architectural ensemble includes a 64m bell tower, baroque church, courtyard and fresco-laden hall, all of which are open to visitors.
In this leafy suburb, little-visited by tourists, Antakalnis Cemetery is the final resting place of Lithuanian luminaries and locals lost to war. Brutalist, art-nouveau and modernist headstones give the cemetery, a half-hour walk east of the centre, the feel of an open-air sculpture gallery. Those killed by Soviet special forces on 13 January 1991 are memorialised by a sculpture of the Madonna. A taxi or Bolt service from the train station costs around €6.
This former headquarters of the KGB (and before them the Gestapo, Polish occupiers and Tsarist judiciary) houses a museum dedicated to thousands of members of the Lithuanian resistance who were murdered, imprisoned or deported by the Soviet Union from WWII until the 1960s. Backlit photographs, wooden annexes and a disorienting layout sharpen the impact of past horrors outlined in graphic detail. Most unsettling is the descent to the prison cells, and one especially padded to muffle sounds coming from within.
With its hilltop location above the junction of the Neris and Vilnia Rivers, Gediminas Castle is the last of a series of settlements and fortified buildings occupying this site since Neolithic times. This brick version, built by Grand Duke Vytautas in the early 15th century, harbours an engaging museum about the city with successive floors elaborating on past centuries of warfare, medieval weaponry and contemporary history. For most visitors, the highlight is the 360-degree panorama of Vilnius from the roof.
Lithuania's dark 20th-century history is poignantly told here, 7km north of Kaunas. Begin in the sombre, church-like gallery with striking stained glass and exhibits detailing Lithuania's suffering under the Soviets and the Nazis. Then continue uphill to the Holocaust memorial and the WWI-era fort – a hard-labour prison in the early 20th century and a centre of torture and mass killings during WWII. Take bus 23 from Jonavos gatvė to the 9-ojo Forto Muziejus stop, then cross under the motorway.