Enjoy Vibrant Vilnius
The historic core of Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, is an eye-pleasing assemblage of bright baroque houses, inviting alleyways and colourful churches built around quiet courtyards. But this is no museum piece. Push through big wooden doors to find lively pubs and bars, hidden terraces and romantic restaurants. Tumbledown buildings hide designer boutiques and high-end handicraft shops. The proportions are manageable, making this an ideal city break.
Count the crosses
We wouldn’t know where to start at the remarkable Hill of Crosses in Šiauliai, north-central Lithuania. This manmade monument is literally a mound of thousands and thousands of crosses left here over the years by pilgrims, visitors and even newlyweds on their wedding day. The crosses range from big and elaborate to tiny mass-produced wooden ones purchased on the fly at the nearby souvenir shop. Many of the crosses tell their own stories and are marked with photos of loved ones or personal messages.
Dance on a sand dune
The southern stretch of Lithuania’s Baltic Sea coastline is a narrow, long-running sandbar, the Curonian Spit, which extends some 60km south of the town of Klaipeda all the way to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. It’s a lonely, lovely strip of land topped by dunes and pines and tiny, charming villages, like Nida at the southern end. In summer, the beaches come alive with merrymakers. Other times, an end-of-the-world feel returns. German writer Thomas Mann was so smitten he kept a cottage here.
See the castle on the lake
The most popular day trip from the capital is the short train journey (about 30km) to the Trakai Historical National Park, an outing that combines the natural beauty of several interconnected lakes with a lesson in Lithuanian history. The high point is to cross a small footbridge to the restored Gothic Island Castle that juts into Lake Galvė to see the seat of Lithuanian authority way back in the 14th century. The Trakai History Museum tells the story of the castle and features a collection of medieval weaponry. Afterwards, dawdle along the shoreline or hire a pedal boat to explore one of the lakes at your leisure.
Pay your respects at Paneriai
For centuries, Lithuania – particularly the capital, Vilnius – was a vital centre of Jewish culture and learning. The Nazi occupation of World War II and the Holocaust dealt a tragic blow to this storied history. In the years from 1941 to 1944, tens of thousands of Jews were murdered here under the trees of the Paneriai Forest, about 10km southwest of the capital. There are a couple of moving monuments and a small museum that tell this very sad story. Paneriai is easily reachable from Vilnius by train.
Indulge in a bit of devil worship
Lithuania was pagan until the end of the 14th century, long after other European nations adopted Christianity, so it’s no surprise that devils and pagan symbols play an important role in the country’s mythology. The diabolical Museum of Devils, in the central city of Kaunas, displays hundreds of devil figurines, dolls and statuettes collected over the years by Lithuanian painter Antanas Žmuidzinavičius (1876–1966). The exhibitions are decidedly tongue-in-cheek, and there’s enough English text on hand to let you weave your own devilish tales to the delight of little ones.
Relive the Cold War
Around Lithuania you’ll find scattered military remains from when the country was part of the Soviet Union. The most fascinating – and frightening – of these arguably is a former Soviet nuclear missile base hidden among the forests and lakes of Žemaitija National Park. Don’t panic, the missiles have long since been decommissioned, but that chilling ‘Dr Strangelove’ effect remains intact.
Eat a ‘zeppelin’
No visit to Lithuania would be complete without sampling some of the native cooking. Our favourite main course would probably be a cepelinai – nicknamed a ‘zeppelin’ because of its elongated oval shape. These are big potato dumplings stuffed with meat or occasionally curd cheese, and served with sour cream and crispy bits of cubed bacon. And don’t miss the unpronounceable šaltibarščiai, a cold soup of minced beets, cucumber, dill and a hard-boiled egg.
Spot a warbler, corncrake or grebe
Lithuania’s setting on the southeastern edge of the Baltic Sea makes it a prime destination for both birds and birders. The marshes and wetlands of the Nemunas Delta, on the eastern edge of the Curonian lagoon south of Klaipeda, are particularly fruitful and offer sanctuary for hundreds of species, including black storks, white-tailed eagles, godwits, pintails and snipes. The centre of the action is the Ventės Rago Ornithological Station, which has been tagging birds for scientific study since 1929 and has a visitors’ deck for first-hand birding.
Get banished to ‘Siberia’
Well, if only for an afternoon on a visit to fascinating Grūtas Park in the south of the country, 8km east of the town of Druskininkai. Lithuanians must have a good sense of humour about their recent history. How else to explain a fun, family-friendly statue park built to resemble a Siberian concentration camp and comprised exclusively of Soviet-era statues of Lenin, Stalin and other communist ‘luminaries’? Exhibitions focus on the various hardships of day-to-day life under Soviet rule and are well done, making an outing here both enjoyable and educational.
Mark Baker is an independent travel writer based in Prague. He’s a frequent traveller around central and eastern Europe and co-author of the Lonely Planet guide to Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania, among other titles.