Now here is the country of my heritage. My grandparents were born there, as well as my uncle on my mother’s side. Growing up in a Lithuanian household, I was immersed in the culture. I was recently inspired to write about what to do in Lithuania so I can share some of my heritage.
The food, the family ties, and the special get togethers with family and friends will always be close to my heart. I still enjoy preparing some ethnic dishes today to share with friends and family. The only regret I have is not learning the language. I know a few words, but my parents mostly spoke Lithuanian when they didn’t want me to know what they were talking about.
What’s So Special about Lithuania? — A Bit of History
Located in the southernmost part of Europe’s Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia), Lithuania borders Belarus, Poland, Russia, and Latvia. It was formerly a Soviet bloc nation, and it re-established its sovereignty on Marth 11, 1990 after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. This act of independence resulted in some political and economic sanctions by the Soviets, and actually some armed violence in January 1991. There was another coup d’etat by the Soviets in August 1991, but that also failed due to the fierce independent nature of the Lithuanian people. Lithuania was admitted to the United Nations on September 17, 1991.
Lithuania was the largest state in Europe in the fifteenth (15th) century, and then formed a union with Poland (the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) in 1569, which lasted until 1795; after that they were under the rule of the Russian Empire until the twentieth (20th) century.
They were re-established as a democratic state on February 16, 1918, and remained so until the beginning of World War II (1918 to 1940), when they were taken over and occupied by the Soviet Union. There was a brief occupation by Germany during the war, but then they were again absorbed back into the Soviet Union for close to fifty (50) years.
A privatization campaign was put together as part of the economic transition to capitalism. Government-owned commercial and residential entities were sold off, and investment vouchers were issued to be used during the privatization campaign in lieu of currency. The Lithuanian litas was issued in June 1993 with a fixed exchange rate to the United States dollar in 1994, and the Euro in 2002. On January 1, 2015 the litas was changed to the Euro.
Even though independence was gained, Russia did not withdraw its presence completely until August 31, 1993. Lithuania joined the European Union in October 2002. Lithuania was hit hard by the global financial crisis, and in 2009 had its worst recession ever. After its admission to the European Union, Lithuania has lost close to twenty (20%) percent of its working population to better economic opportunities elsewhere.
A Few Interesting Facts
Here’s a short video to give you a little background on the source of my roots.
- Located in Eastern Europe on the shores of the Baltic Sea
- The capital is Vilnius
- The name ‘Lithuania’ was first mentioned in 1009 in the Annals of Quedlinburg
- The physical size of Lithuania is 25,212 square miles (65,300 square kilometers)
- The population fo Lithuania is over two million eight hundred thousand folks (2,850,400)
- A French scientist in 1989 discovered that Lithuania is the geographical center of Europe
- There are many well-known Lithuanians who are writers, actors, singers, sports figures, and artists. Dick Butkus formerly of the Chicago Bears football team and Frank Thomas who played for the New York Mets in the 1960s, and actors Ruta Lee, Laurence Harvey, Charles Bronson, and the singer Pink and also Brandon Flowers, lead singer of the Killers.
- The only country in the world that has a national perfume, The Scent of Lithuania, released in 2010 consists of sandalwood, musk, wild flowers, raspberry, and ginger.
- The fastest broadband with download speeds of thirty (30) M bps. One of the fastest internet connections anywhere in the world with plenty of free WiFi spots throughout the country.
- The first country in Europe to introduce ‘Local Breakout’ (LBO) technology which provides inexpensive mobile internet for travelers and avoids large roaming charges.
- Known for its breweries and great tasting beer. Many awards have been won at the World Beer Awards.
- The distilling of vodka from corn was first made by the Lithuanians.
- The National Dish of Lithuania is Cepelinai — dumplings made from grated and riced potatoes and stuffed with ground meat or dry curd cheese or mushrooms
- On Easter the children always get ready for the Easter Granny who deliveries the eggs in the early morning while the children are fast asleep. The bunnies help her decorate the eggs and load her cart.
- The most popular sport in Lithuania is basketball. It has the fourth (4th) best basketball team in the world. Arvydas Sobonis played in the NBA for the Portland Trail Blazers after playing several years for the Lithuanian National Team. Currently playing in the NBA are Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Jonas Valancuiunas, and Domas Sabonis.
- An Indo-European language, it is the oldest language and closest to Sanskrit. German, Greek, Latin, Celtic and Slavic are all ancient languages but not as old as Lithuanian.
- With forests covering one third (1/3) of the country, Lithuania is known as the Land of Nature. There are many nature reserves, national parks, and protected regions.
- The National Bird is the stork so it is also called the Land of Storks.
- It has the oldest oak tree in Europe, The Stelmuze Oak, which is more than one thousand five hundred (1500) years old, and is seventy-five (75) feet high (23 meters).
- The Curonian Spit is one of the largest moving sand dunes in Europe located by the sea.
Some Things to Do
Now let’s get down to what there is to do around here. Obviously, sightseeing throughout the country is an enjoyable venture with the many lakes, forests, national parks, and small intimate towns scattered about. There are many historical and military heritage sites as well as spa resorts to check out.
Most of all the people here are friendly and will make any activity fun and worthwhile. Okay, let’s get a bit more specific and discuss a few locations of interest.
Kedainiai Old Town is one of the oldest towns in Lithuania with stunning baroque architecture. Founded in 1372 as a fishing village, it has many Protestant and Orthodox churches as well as synagogues. There are many townhouses from the Baroque period as well as several market squares where you can obtain produce anytime during the week.
An interesting site is the Beekeeping Museum which opened in 1984, and is located in the Aukstaitija National Park. Here you can learn the complete history of beekeeping where at one time bees were considered sacred, and honey even today is a friendship symbol. The Atomic Bunker Museum in Kaunas describes the war history of Lithuania. It is located in an underground nuclear bunker which was built during the Soviet period. To learn about the folk customs of Lithuania check out the Rumsiskes Open-Air Museum. Covering the past two hundred (200)) years you get a glimpse of over eight (80) buildings and reconstructed villages containing traditional toys, costumes, and religious artifacts. The Devil’s Museum, also in Kaunas, displays over three thousand (3000) pieces of artwork with images of mythological creatures, witches, and the devil.
A lake resort close to Vilnius is Trakai, which dates back to the thirteenth (13th) century. It is located within the Trakai Historical National Park. Surrounded by water the Island Castle hosts the Trakai Castle Festival. There are over two hundred (200) lakes in this region of the country. Also, for more than seven (7) centuries descendants of a Crimean family have created a Karaim culture in Trakai with its own unique cuisine and language.
The Curonian Spit, a product of a glacier five thousand (5000) years ago, is a long strip of sand between the Curonian Lagoon and the Baltic Sea. In the Curonian Spit National Park is Naringa, which is a natural spa from the waters of the Baltic Sea. It is known for its healing properties because of the minerals in the water. Visit the Kursiu Nerija National Park and view some of the highest dunes in all of Europe. The park was established in 1991 to protect the ecosystems of the Curonian Spit.
In the city of Siauliai you will find the Hill of Crosses. It is quite amazing, as there are thousands (1000s) of different kinds of crosses, large and small made of metal and wood. It stands as a memorial for those who died over the years defending their country.
The 19th Century Ginuciai Water Mill is located near Ignalina along the waters which lead to Lake Linkmenas. Previously used to produce electricity and flour, today it is a museum with a hotel. Containing all of its traditional machinery, it is the only remaining wooden mill in the country.
Grutas Park, located near Druskininkai about eighty-one (81) miles (130k) southwest of Vilnius, is a cultural center with Soviet era relics and a sculpture garden. There are over eight-six (86) different Soviet monuments and statues, as well as models of Soviet prison camps.
An interesting place to visit is Uzupis, a former part of Vilnius, when it was the Jewish section of town. In 1997, it declared independence from Vilnius and now has its own constitution and president. Today it is one of the most vibrant areas of Lithuania filled with art galleries and an underground music scene. Also, every Thursday you can pick up some organic produce from all parts of the country at the street market.
The second largest city, Kaunas, is located at the junction of the Nemunas and Neris rivers. Known as the city of culture, it has a beautiful old town area and over forty (40) museums. Visit Vyautas Church, Kaunas Castle, and Kaunas Cathedral Basilica while you are there. There are many Gothic, renaissance, and baroque designs which may captivate your interest.
The most beautiful Italian baroque building in all of Lithuania is the Pazaislis Monastery, and it is the largest monastery in the country. Built in 1662 and remodeled in the 1990s it has been used as a psychiatric hospital and art gallery. It is also the location of an annual international music festival during the summer.
Filled with beautiful pine and spruce trees, Aukstaitija National Park is a great place to take in the local fauna and flora. There are also deer, elk, and wild boar to be seen. With thirty (30) rivers and one hundred and twenty-six (126) lakes, thirty (30%) of the entire park is water. Lake Baluosas has seven (7) islands to explore while viewing the gorgeous scenery. This is where the Beekeeping Museum is located, as well as an old water mill.
Known for its baroque architecture, the capital of Lithuania offers much to do and see. Its population is approximately 544,386.
The street art here is fantastic; like elsewhere around the world it has a sociopolitical bent. Although prevalent throughout the city, the bests places to view it is in the Uzupis area of town on Pylimo Street and across the Neris River on Olimpieciu Street, also known as Graffiti Pier.
Located in the old Gestapo and KGB headquarters is The Museum of Genocide Victims. It may not be the most pleasant part of your trip, but it is a significant part of the history of this area. You will definitely get a glimpse of what it was like to be under Nazi and Soviet rule. The Amber Museum Gallery is in the basement of a fifteenth (15th) century home which has pieces of amber on display that are claimed to be fifty million (50M) years old. Formerly known as Baltic Gold, it was an integral part of maritime trade routes way back when. There is also a gift shop on the premises.
On the banks of the river Neris you will find Verkiai Regional Park where you will find tourists and local mingling in order to relax and take in the large green spaces, great lakes, and cycle paths. In addition to swimming, walking, or jogging, you can also drop into the Verkiai Mill which is the local beer garden/restaurant.
With its well-preserved buildings and architecture, Vilnius Old Town is considered one of the top medieval towns in all of Europe, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The cobbled streets of the main plaza are where you will find plenty of bars and restaurants. Also, located in the Old Town area are the Presidential Palace, St. Anne’s Church, and two (2) Jewish sections of the city.
A high wall with nine (9) protected gates was built six hundred (600) years ago surrounding the city of Vilnius. Only one of these entrance points remains today, The Gate of Dawn. It is an attraction for many who seek a miracle from the icon of the Virgin Mary which is situated in the Gate’s chapel.
Once of the prettiest buildings in the city is St. Anne’s Church with rose windows and brick towers. It was constructed in 1501 in Gothic style with a grand bell tower. Inside you will find high ceilings and carved pews.
At the former site of the Bank of Lithuania is the Money Museum where you can learn about the local currency, the litas, as well as other currencies. You will learn about the history of banking of the country, and how after the fall of Communism silverware was returned to Lithuania. You can also weigh yourself to find how much you weigh in gold or other precious metals.
Built in the fifteenth (15th) century, the Church of the Holy Spirit is one of the most beautiful churches in Vilnius. It was formerly a Catholic church and monastery, and then became an Orthodox church. With sixteen (16) altars, marble inlays, and frescoes, it is a location worth visiting. Dating back to the thirteenth (13th) century, the Vilnius Cathedral had quite a history having been destroyed by fires several times. The current structure was built in 1801 in neoclassical style.
Dating back from the fourteenth (14th) century, the Presidential Palace is the home of the President (Gitanas Nausėda — elected in (2019) n Daukanto Square. There is a daily changing of the guard as well as a flag changing ceremony on Sundays.
To get a full ‘flavor’ of the food scene in Vilnius, check out the Food Tasting Tour. It takes about three (3) hours but is time well spent. Sample the local cuisine while also visiting the Hales Market, which has been around since 1906, and is one of the oldest markets in the city.
Plenty to See and Do
As you can see from my brief description above, there is a heck of a lot of stuff to do in Vilnius and the surrounding areas. In addition to the natural beauty and numerous lakes and rivers throughout the country, the cities provide much activity as well as a glimpse into the history of this part of the world.
As far as accommodations are concerned you will find places available within any budget option.
A bit more upscale is the Artagonist Art Hotel with gorgeous rooms and plenty of original art.
Also, there are plenty of options (over 500) with Airbnb in the area.
I look forward that I have expanded your travel vision a bit, and opened up this area of the world to your future travel consideration and options.
Enjoy your travels and many adventures,