The first stop on the Baltic trio has a whole load of must-sees and must-do sites up its sleeve.
Forged by long alliances with Poland to the west, conflicts with Russia and Sweden and the Teutonic Knights, and shaped by Slavic builders and Orthodox faiths to name just some of the influences, it’s hardly surprising that Lithuania has so many interesting places for the budding traveler.
Let’s explore the best places to visit in Lithuania:
The historic capital of the Grand Duchy is a veritable treasure trove of medieval wonders and gorgeous Gothic come Russo-flavoured Baroque architecture.
In the Old Town, cobbled roadways weave under the buttresses of the beautiful St Anne’s Church, over café-spattered plazas and under the soaring Gediminas Keep and Upper Castle citadel dating from the 13th century.
Meanwhile, the new town’s blocks pulse with beer bars and sleepless rock clubs, and Europe’s boho district extraordinaire – the self-proclaimed Republic of Uzupis – beckons on the edge of town, a place of shabby-chic, graffiti-strewn streets and more drinking joints than you can shake a cepelinai potato dumpling at!
Jutting out over the confluences of the Nemunas and Neris rivers right in the heartlands of central Lithuania, the second-city of Kaunas proudly stakes its claim as the country’s alternative hub and partying capital.
Thousands of students drive the nightlife, which bubbles up on the tree-shaded boulevard of Laisves Aleja and between the countless craft bars and underground drinkeries of the historic centre, while daytime means seeking out the crumbling bulwarks of the red-brick Kaunas Castle and wandering the enchanting cobblestone alleys of the Old Town – Kaunas’ prettiest district and the home of charming medieval merchant guilds and one gorgeous city hall.
Then there’s the exhibitions dedicated to M. K. Ciurlionis (arguably Lithuania’s best-known artist), which simply shouldn’t be missed!
UNESCO-attested Kernave is steeped in a history and heritage that goes back further than many of the other towns in Lithuania.
It’s hailed as one of the first ever medieval capitals of the Grand Duchy, and it’s thought that the golden age boom happened here in the 13th and 14th centuries, before the onslaught of the Teutonic Order came and razed the fortifications and keeps.
Today, travelers who make their way to the archaeological reserves lining the meanders of the Neris River can spy out mounds (literally!) of relics, now clad in earth but concealing layer upon layer of bulwarks and burial sites, throne rooms and more, and tracing back to the late Palaeolithic Period no less!
Erstwhile Memel was once one of the strongholds of Teutonic rule in the Baltic, later becoming a thriving port and trading town of the Duchy of Prussia, and then the northernmost city in the German Empire of the late 19th century.
Today, Klaipeda bursts with relics of this 800-year-long history, all the while combining them with the more modern edge and nightlife scene expected of the touristic gateway to the Curonian Spit (Lithuania’s most famous coastal stretch). That means travelers can weave between curious sculptures and cobbled squares in the Old Town, hit Lithuanian taverns to sip the locally-brewed beer and case out the bulwarks of Klaipeda Castle all in the same day, and that’s not even mentioning the medieval docksides, the cannong-dotted Prussian bastions and the German-styled beer halls of the main square!
A patchwork of verdant pine forests and flat grasslands, undulating dunes and sandy beaches that curves its way along the Baltic Coast where Lithuania arches towards its long-time Polish compadre in European history and the curious Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, Neringa is one of the most coveted destinations in the country for sure.
Encompassing the whole Lithuanian length of the Curonian Spit, the area offers prime biking and hiking, windsurfing and fishing on the waters of the Curonian Lagoon, the sun-kissed resort strips of Nida and the earthy cottages that makeup age-old towns like Pervalka.
Then there’s Thomas Mann’s charming cottage to see, and the various artist workshops and galleries that sprouted here with the German exodus out of Konigsberg in the 1800s.
Palanga has become a byword for summertime hedonism amongst Lithuanians right across the country, and today this one’s high-season electro and chart parties rage from June to August on the Jonas Basanavicius boulevard and amidst the countless bars and al fresco cocktail joints that line its fringes.
The beach is another magnet during the dog days, offering perhaps Lithuania’s most accessible and sunbather-friendly stretch of golden Baltic sand.
But it’s not all late nights and lazy afternoons in Palanga either.
There’s the picturesque neo-Renaissances charm of the Tiskeviciai Palace to see too, along with the interesting Amber Museum, and the nature reserves of the Curonian Spit nearby!
7. Dzukija National Park
Lithuania’s largest national park covers a whopping 550 square kilometers of land, and makes its home on the edge of the Belarusian border in the extreme south-east of the country.
It’s adorned with great swathes of pine forests and riparian wetlands, all of which come cut through by the meandering channels of the Nemunas River.
Inland dunes are an interesting feature too, rising and dropping to sandy peaks and troughs and playing host to a kaleidoscope of different grasses and rock strata.
Boardwalk treks delve deep into the woods for those donning the hiking boots, while mushrooms bloom in the undergrowth and traditional waxwork crafting abounds in the rural villages.
Trakai is a fantastical fragmentation of islets and grassy hills, shimmering waters and rolling meadows.
It makes its home just a little to the west of the capital at Vilnius and draws crowds of travelers and locals right throughout the year.
Many come to wonder at the Lord of the Rings-style castle that forms the heart of the Trakai Historical National Park; a sprouting of red-brick keeps and turrets that mirrors perfectly against the lake waters all around.
Others come for the summertime recreation that clusters around the banks of the trio of large lakes: Akmena, Galve, Skaistis.
Then there’s the curious multicultural remainders of the Karaim community – a unique Turkic tribe that still uses the pretty timber Trakai Kenesa synagogue that’s seen on-site.
Sat midway between Kaunas and the Latvian border in the east, the indelibly green town of Anyksciai offers a natural getaway balanced with some truly handsome religious architecture.
Check out the soaring Gothic spires of the red-brick Basilica of Apostle Evangelist St Matthew that dominate the banks of the meandering Sventoji here.
With a history going back more than 500 years, this striking construction now touts the tallest church towers in all of Lithuania and some bright stained-glass works by the revered artist Anorte Mackelaite.
After that, be sure to dust off the walking boots (if summer) or wax down the skis (if winter), because Anyksciai has also got the humble ski resort of Kalitos Kalnas and endless arrays of hiking trails on its peripheries.
Moneyed, manicured Druskininkai is the prime spa town in all of Lithuania.
It was famed as far back as the 1600s, under the Grand Duke Stanislaw August Poniatowski, and then rose to prominence in the 19th century with the patronage of one tsar Nicholas I of Russia no less.
The city continues to go from strength to strength, and today its gilded mansions and spa facilities ooze with the chatter of well-to-do Muscovites and city livers.
But mineral-packed waters and healing powers aside, the spot also hails in as the onetime home of Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (and there’s a fine museum chronicling the artist’s life), and the spot of the all-new Forest Museum – an immersive exhibition that takes visitors on a haunting journey through Lithuanian folklore and witchery.
Lithuania’s fifth-largest cityscape can be found sprawled out on the rolling floodplains of the Nevezis River, in the very heartlands of the country’s northern reaches.
Once a royal charter town in the boom days of the Grand Duchy, the city was rumbled and rocked and razed with the Industrial Revolution and tumultuous European conflicts of the 20th century.
That said, some remnants of the pre-war elegance do remain, whether in the ochre-hued facades and Russian Imperialist styles of the city cathedral, or the lines of aged cottages that occasionally pop up amidst the utilitarian blocks courtesy of Stalin et al.
Most people who flock to the post-industrial, onetime Soviet powerhouse city of Siauliai come in search of the legendary Hill of Crosses, which rises in a haunting array of crucifixes and effigies of Christ to the north of the town proper.
However, linger just a little in this off-the-beaten-track center and you’ll discover an array of pretty tree-lined streets, a buzzing café culture, and a gorgeous local cathedral with eye-catching whitewashed faces and a spiked tower.
Be sure to stroll the cobbles of Povilas Visinskis Square, too and flit in and out of the curious and quirky exhibitions on offer at the town’s Bicycle Museum and Radio and TV tech institutes.
13. Aukstaitija National Park
The first ever national park in Lithuania continues to turn heads with its beautiful backcountry patchwork of old growth pine forests and nigh on 30 individual lakes and river ways.
Yes sir, Aukstaitija is a veritable outdoorsy gem of the country’s north-east, offering adventurous types a glimpse of the famed riparian wilds that roll all over this section of the Baltic.
Deer stalk the woodland paths here, while rushes sway on the banks of colossal Lake Tauragnas.
Meanwhile, ancient artifacts and rustic villages draw the attention of anthropologists (it’s thought this area has been inhabited for more than 11,000 years!), and there are haunting burial sites and timber churches to rival even the Viking mounds and staves of Scandinavia.
Standing right in the midst of another of Lithuania’s great natural jewels, Plateliai is the much-loved gateway to the Zemaitija National Park, which crowns the grassy Zemaiciu Highland region just a short way from the salt-washed coast of the Baltic Sea.
The verdant and lush surroundings here make for great walking, and even host attractions like the Plokstine missile base left over by the Soviets – now home to the fascinating Cold War Museum.
In the town of Plateliai itself, visitors can spy out one gorgeous timber church from the 1700s, or opt to leave the city streets for a jaunt along the banks of the eponymous lake, where grassy meadows and laid-back hotels but right up to the water’s edge.
Creaking windmills and faded wooden cottages clad in moss and sod mark out Rumsiskes from the ever encroaching districts of Kaunas that neighbour it.
Unfortunately, the creation of a reservoir in the middle of the 20th century submerged great portions of the old town here, while efforts to preserve the centuries of history associated with the site gave rise to the largest open-air ethnography museum in the entire Baltic region: The Open-Air Museum of Lithuania.
Travelers who make their way here today can expect re-enactment tours and traditional architecture aplenty, along with collections of historic furnishings, clothing, religious iconography and more.