Lithuania: the country where in one day you can eat breakfast in an art deco city, wander through the UNESCO award-winning capital at lunch, and relax on the coast or in a forest by nightfall.
In just under 30 years since gaining independence from the Soviet Union, award-winning restaurants, bustling food markets, a flourishing craft beer culture, mind-bending architecture, plus a thriving music scene have become pretty much the standard across Lithuania. With the bar set, let’s take a look at what makes each of this cities in this Baltic State of just under 3 million people unique.
Once home to literary giants Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Adam Mickiewicz, Vilnius is the Lithuanian capital and bridges the gap between East and West. The heart of the city is home to a UNESCO award-winning Old Town where Baroque facades and golden orthodox spires carefully watch over winding cobbled streets. Meanwhile, locals and visitors alike spend late afternoons and evenings strolling amongst the world-class bars and restaurants that line them. Compared to nearby capitals such as Minsk, Warsaw, and even neighbouring Riga, Vilnius is small. Yet like some sort of Baltic jack-in-the box, it keeps surprising. One such point of awe is - during spring and summer at least - how leafy the city is. To see why Lithuania’s largest city was previously voted the greenest city in Europe, ride to the top of 326 metre-high TV Tower to get a panoramic view of Vilnius and the abundance of its inner-city woodlands. In the tower’s neighbouring district of Lazdynai, take a wander through some of the residential architecture that won Vilnius the clumsily-titled Lenin Prize for All Union Architectural Design during the Soviet Union’s 50-year occupation of Lithuania. If leisurely walks through Old Towns, panoramic views from TV Towers and Soviet architecture are not necessarily what you’re looking for when visiting a city, Vilnius is unique in that during summer months, more active tourists are encouraged to hire a canoe and paddle along the Neris river that snakes through the heart of the city. Finally, Vilnius is also home to one of two unique monuments - one to the Pagan god of beer, Ragutis, and the other to Frank Zappa - because why not.
Vilnius was occupied by Poland in the interwar period, and Kaunas became its temporary capital in 1920s. It held this status until 1940. Kaunas quickly became the center of culture, gastronomy and Lithuania’s rapidly growing political and intellectual life. As the country lurched from a planned to a free economy following Lithuania’s independence from the USSR, Kaunas earned a bad-boi reputation for crime. Thankfully, those days are gone, and Lithuania’s second largest city began regenerating itself around five years ago and has showed no sign of stopping since. In fact, it will be European Capital of Culture in 2022. Much of Kaunas’ appeal lies in its art deco city centre, which was inherited from the interwar period. Geometrics, bold colours, and visual drama are the order of the day here, and this boldness is reflected in the Kaunese character - in recent years, the interwar capital became the home to the Genys Brewing Co, one of the breweries that are leading Lithuania’s craft beer revolution. If that wasn’t enough for beer lovers, nearby is the Šakiškės brewery. Yet Kaunas cool isn’t just about curvaceous cafes, stained glass windows and posh beer - it is also home to the Lituanica, one of the first ever aircraft to cross the Atlantic, and the only museum in the world that is dedicated to the Devil. Unlike any other city in Lithuania, including the capital, Kaunas can lay claim to Lithuania’s only mosque.
Klaipėda is Lithuania’s only coastal city and until World War 2 was part of Germany - no surprise then, that its city centre is filled with 19th century fachwerk buildings which now serve as hotels, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. The surrounding beaches and soft dunes of the neighbouring Curonian Spit are the gift that keeps on giving during summer months, and visitors flock from all over Europe to indulge in the best that the Baltic coast has to offer with its warm days, long nights, and endless nets of fresh fish and seafood! Whilst much of Klaipėda is all sun, fun, and the summer jazz festival, there’s more to the city by the sea than this - by making the trip to nearby Plateliai, you can visit the former Soviet underground nuclear missile base, which was active right up until the USSR’s collapse. Thankfully, all that’s left are some creepy looking mannequins in nuclear protective clothing and no nukes. Visitors wishing for another unique experience should travel further afield to the ‘Hill of Crosses’ in Šiauliai, which according to recent estimates, features over 100,000 crosses of all shapes, materials, and sizes. During the Soviet occupation, the hill was repeatedly bulldozed by the authorities. However, defiant Lithuanians continued to return the crosses to the site as a middle-fingered salute to the oppressive regime, which is why it’s viewed today as a site of resistance and immense spirituality.
Druskininkai is referred to as the ‘Lungs of Lithuania’ thanks to the forests in the surrounding Dzūkija National Park. It’s also known for a wide variety of healthy mineral water springs and medicinal mud. Druskininkai’s reputation as a place of health and wellbeing was recognized by the rulers of Imperial Russia who ordered the construction of sanatoriums and spas to help soothe the ailments that naturally come with dictating the world’s biggest landmass. Yet despite Lithuania’s turbulent history, its position as a spa town has remained and is still home to some of the most luxurious and long-standing spas in Europe. The Alpine Centre in the heart of the city allows for year-round skiing, and its aquapark is amongst the largest top three of its kind in Europe. Yet despite the ‘active tourism’ tag that makes Druskininkai so attractive to visitors, those seeking slow-lane thrills need not worry - the Dzūkija National Park is a forager’s folly thanks to the abundance of wild (and eatable, but ask a local to double-check!) mushrooms that grow there during autumn months. Like the rest of Lithuania, Druskininkai’s Old Town is host to adventurous architecture aplenty, with Italian-style villas made from wood, and the blue Joy Of All Who Sorrow orthodox church being just a few standout examples.
As the meeting point of Eastern European quirks and Northern European cool, Lithuania is a necessary destination for those who are prepared to expect the unexpected.