Submitted by Pip Strickland on August 24, 2016
Lithuania is a vibrant and eccentric Baltic country in Northern Europe which has firmly asserted its nationalist pride after becoming independent from the Soviet Union in 1990. Despite its small size, Lithuania is blessed with charismatic cities rich in architectural gems, together with areas of wild natural beauty.
It wasn’t until the rise of ruler Mindaugas in the 13th century that the tribes along the shores of the Baltic Sea were united and the Kingdom of Lithuania was created. During the 14th century, it became the largest country in Europe, encompassing not only present-day Lithuania, but also Belarus, Ukraine and sections of both Poland and Russia. Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union towards the end of World War II, before regaining its independence in 1990. Today it is a member of the European Union and one of its fastest growing economies.
From the Baroque churches of the capital Vilnius, to the fortifications of Kaunas and the German heritage of Klaipeda, each of Lithuania’s cities has something unique for visitors to encounter. While the Curonian Spit offers a beachside getaway along Europe’s largest sand dunes and the Žemaitija National Park in Lithuania’s highlands boasts forested walking trails and tranquil lakes to explore. Lithuanians are renowned for their hospitality and exuberance, leaving all who visit with warm memories of a country that is still largely undiscovered by mass tourism
When to travel - weather
Lithuania experiences a humid continental climate, with short, warm summers and long dark winters, interspersed with mild, but unpredictable, fall and spring seasons. Winter is far from an ideal time to visit, with short days, freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall, coupled with windy conditions from the Baltic Sea. But if you are just visiting the cities then it can be quite magical, with a heavy layer of crunchy snow covering the ground.
While the changing leaves of fall can be beautiful, the months of September through to November tend to be cold, wet and a little foggy, while mid-late spring sees the sun return and much milder temperatures. The best time to visit is from late spring through the summer months of June, July and August when the skies are relatively dry and the days longer for sightseeing and enjoying Lithuania’s great outdoors. Nights can still get quite chilly and rain isn’t unheard of, so always bring a waterproof and warm clothing.
Food and drink
Lithuania’s cuisine is at times similar to that of other Northern European countries, particularly Polish, German and Ashkenazi Jewish traditions, while at the same time having its own distinguishing features. Potato, beetroot, barley, berries and mushrooms are all common ingredients in Lithuania’s traditional rural fare, together with herring, smoked sausage and pigs’ ears.
Try marinated mushrooms (marinuoti grybai) or cold beetroot soup (saltibarsčiai) for starters, together with stuffed potato parcels know as cepelinai. Oven roasted lamb is a popular main dish, while the preservation of meats by brining, salting, drying and smoking is a legacy of the Soviet occupation.
Lithuania also has a proud heritage of dairy production, with curd cheese particularly popular, together with sour cream which is used as a common accompaniment to main dishes. Look for curd snacks known as sūreliai or non-fermented white cheese served with local honey.
Although Lithuania is not renowned for its beer, it has maintained an independent beer tradition using farmhouse styles not found throughout the rest of the world. Microbreweries are popping up across the country and beer connoisseurs are slowly discovering Lithuania’s secrets. Mead, known as midus, is also a popular beverage, together with local spirits flavored with herbs, such as Starka and Medžiotojų.
Popular vacation spots
Vilnius - The Lithuanian capital Vilnius has been a center for religious tolerance and multiculturalism throughout its history, with a diverse display of churches and architectural styles within its cobblestoned Old Town. Witness the more than 2,000 statues housed within the Baroque-style St. Peter and Paul’s Church, admire the frescoes of the Neoclassical Vilnius Cathedral and wander the brick Gothic architecture of UNESCO World Heritage-listed St. Anne’s Church. Then learn about Lithuania’s struggle under repression within the fascinating KGB Museum and take in the views across Vilnius’ Old Town from the Gediminas Tower.
Curonian Spit - Protected within the Kursiu Nerija National Park, the Curonian Spit is an almost 100-kilometer long sandbar which separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. It is renowned for its towering sand dunes (the largest of their kind in Europe), together with an outstanding birdlife. The main resort towns of Nida and Neringa provide an idyllic base, from where you can easily access the Curonian Spit’s beautiful beaches and search for deer, elk and wild boar within its pine forests.
Trakai - Situated on the edge of Lake Galvė to the west of Vilnius is Trakai, a popular getaway resort rich in local history. The town dates to the 13th century, with a population that has included not only Lithuanians, but also Karaims, Tatars, Russians, Jews and Poles. Its most famous attraction is undoubtedly the Trakai Island Castle, connected to the town by a narrow causeway. Construction began by the medieval ruler Kęstutis in the 14th century, with most of the current structures completed by his son Vytautas the Great.
Kaunas - Lithuania’s second biggest city is Kaunas, situated at the meeting point of the Nemunas and Neris rivers. While its compact Old Town is picturesque, home to the Kaunas Cathedral Basilica and the MK Čiurlionis National Museum of Art’s outstanding collection of Lithuanian art, many of Kaunas’ major sights lie just outside the center. The Open Air Museum of Lithuania to the east features recreated villages from the 18th and 19th centuries from across all regions of Lithuania, together with the Baroque Pazaislis Monastery, built by Camaldolese monks in the 17th century. Don’t miss a trip north to the Ninth Fort Museum, which serves as a memorial to the thousands who were murdered by the Nazis during Lithuania’s Soviet Occupation.
Klaipeda - Serving as an important port in Lithuania’s northwest, Klaipeda is the country’s third-largest city and the gateway to the Curonian Spit. The cobblestone streets of its Old Town are lined with German fachwerk architecture, while the remains of the red-brick Klaipeda Castle sprawl on the left bank of the Danė river mouth. Klaipeda has a rich sea-faring history, most vividly displayed in the National Sea Museum, while tall ship regattas and festivals often ignite the streets.
Palanga Amber Museum - Set within the elaborate 19th-century Tiškevičiai Palace along the Baltic Sea, the Palanga Amber Museum houses around 4,500 pieces of amber within its collection of artwork and jewelry. Many of the amber pieces contain plants, insects and spiders, while the largest is the so-called Amber Sun. In addition to detailing the cultural and historic uses of amber along the Baltic Sea coastline, the museum boasts magnificent botanic gardens to explore.
Žemaitija National Park - Located within the Žemaičių Highlands, the Žemaitija National Park is a magnificent spot to escape for hiking and cycling along its forested trails and relaxing on the shores of its many lakes. The town of Plateliai is the main tourist hub where the park headquarters are located, while to the northeast lies the Christian pilgrimage site of Samogitian Calvary, where 20 chapels commemorate Christ along a 7-kilometer trail.
Lietuvių kalba, or Lithuanian, is the official language in Lithuania, forming part of the Baltic language group and closely related to Latvian. Polish is spoken by the Polish minority groups of the southeast and Russian by the Ukrainians, Belarussians and Russians who reside in the larger cities. Around 80% of Lithuania’s youth now speak English as a second language and travelers won’t find any trouble conversing or finding someone nearby to translate for them.
Lithuania’s currency is the Litas (Lt), which is divided into centai and pegged to the Euro at €1= 3.45Lt. Banks and exchange offices will change currency, while ATMs are widespread in the major towns and cities, and credit cards accepted at most hotels, restaurants and shops.
Health and Safety
The crime rates in Lithuania are relatively low, with pickpocketing the major issue for tourists during daylight hours. After dark, muggings are not uncommon and scams used to lure drunk tourists into bars and pay exorbitant drink prices are on the rise.
Hepatitis A is the only shot advisable (in addition to routine vaccinations) for travel to Lithuania and the level of health care generally good in hospitals. Emergency health care is free within the country, but comprehensive travel insurance which includes medical is still highly advised.