With over a third of its land covered in forests, a culture deeply rooted in Paganism and a history of resistance Lithuania offers the most discerning traveller a rich travel experience. From foraged fine food to imposing street art here are ten ways Lithuania will stir your wanderlust.
Cold War history
It would be foolish to visit a Baltic state and ignore its past. The Cold War Museum, in a former missile base, in Plokščiai, is a poignant reminder of a dark age within our lifetime. The underground bunker was built by 10,000 Estonian soldiers in the rural village in a cloak of silence. Four R12 nuclear missiles, in heavily guarded vaults, placed here were aimed at Norway, Great Britain, Spain, West Germany and Turkey with the targets changing every three to four years. The museum offers a sobering insight and a reminder of the pointlessness of war.
The Curonian Spit, extends 60km south of the town of Klaipeda down to the Russian border of Kaliningrad. It’s a long sand-dune separating the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea coast. The dunes here are amongst the highest drifting in Europe with an average height of 35 kiometers. Pine forests and the Baltic sea coast as well as the dunes offer magnificent scenery that will take your breath away. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site shared by both nations.
European Capital of Culture (2022) – Kaunas
It would be fair to say that Kaunas is the cultural capital of Lithuania. After all, it has been named the European Capital of Culture for 2022. In its more recent history the city has embraced street artists; buildings are adorned with impressive street art both in style and scale. To enjoy Kaunas it’s important to walk the streets; spot the pink elephant of love painted in honour of an unassuming Deima + Arwnas scribble left on the wall by a passer-by.
For a less pleasing experience there is also the Museum of Devils which displays hundreds of devil figurines, dolls and statuettes collected by Lithuanian painter Antanas Žmuidzinavičius between 1876 and 1966. It’s a fitting homage to Lithuania’s Pagan past. However, fear not as the displays are rather less scary than quirky.
Fine food movement
Lithuanian culture pivots around seasonal foraging. The new generation of chefs have taken this tradition and worked marvels in fine dining restaurants. Amandus Restaurant, in the Old Town, is at the forefront of all that is good. It was here that I experienced beetroot bread with citrus butter; something I cannot forget. Regular produce such as lamb, porcini mushrooms and goats’ cheese transformed by innovative molecular gastronomy made Amandus an exceptional dining experience.
Hill of Crosses
Arrive in Šiauliai to experience the enigmatic Hill of Crosses. The first crosses were placed here as an act of rebellion in 1836. An uprising against the Russian tsar had resulted in the slaughter of the local population. Lithuanians placed crosses in the former hill fort, after the confrontation, to remember the dead. During Soviet occupation, between 1944 – 1990, the regime bulldozed over the site at least three times. But Lithuanians travelled here to show allegiance to their identity. It is estimated that the hill has over 10,000 crosses left by generations. Unsurprisingly, it has evolved into a place of significance among Catholics and even been visited by Pope John Paul ll.
Hill of Witches
Folklore features heavily all over Lithuania. The Hill of Witches en route to Nida is an outdoor sculpture gallery near Juodkrante. Around 80 wooden characters linked to folklore are carved in the forest retelling stories of love, mythology and witch-craft. It’s a chilling yet curious place but worth a visit to appreciate the country’s deep connections to Paganism. The gallery takes less than 30 minutes to explore making the hill an exciting addition to a road trip.
Nida is the impossibly charming fishing village you must not leave Lithuania without visiting. German writer Thomas Mann was so smitten by the village that he kept a cottage here. Life centres around its port and marina. Brightly painted wooden houses with white picket fences, quiet leafy streets, beautifully low-key cafes and mere 2,385 residents will leave a stamp on your heart.
Head out for your fish supper around 6pm when local restaurants smoke their catch of the day. Sit around communal tables and enjoy the spirit of Nida. It’s wonderful hospitality and friendly locals will enchant you with stories of folklore and legends late in to the night.
Trakai Island Castle
28 kilometers west of the capital Vilnius is the historic city of Trakai famous for its lake resort. Lake Galvé is home to Trakai Island on which sits a terracotta-hued 14th century castle. Trakai Island Castle, in the past, has fallen in to disrepair a fair few times. However, between 1946 and 1961 a major reconstruction project restored it to its former glory. A hot air balloon ride over Trakai’s 200 lakes, forests and castle offers mesmerising views and is the best way to appreciate its natural beauty.
Further north west in the district of Mazeikiai is Villa Dubgiris; a hunting lodge and sprawling estate complete with its own lake, woods and luxury accommodation. The two-storey restaurant serves a menu of mainly game, mushrooms and seasonal vegetables as well as an invigorating breakfast. A lake, boat house, bicycle rental and fishing offer a wonderful all-round outdoor experience. Inside, a spa and bathhouse on the premises is an opulent escape of tranquility rivalling the outdoors. You will need at least two nights here to really appreciate it.
Vilnius the capital city
If you only have a weekend in Lithuania Vilnius makes for a great short city break. It’s small in size and easy to navigate with a fine mix of culture and food. Cathedral Square and its distinctive bell tower are its most popular attractions. Another is the Church of St. Casimir; the oldest baroque building in the capital. The Old Town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. Take a walk down to Užupis. It’s a labyrinth of cobbled lanes with a bohemian feel, artisan coffee shops and bakeries. The Old Town, in particular, makes for a wonderfully romantic get-away.
I was a guest of the Lithuanian State Department of Tourism. All opinions expressed are my own. For more information visit www.lithuania.it