5. For comfort food
All this contemporary taste-making is a world away from the stodgy but satisfying mainstays of conventional Lithuanian cuisine.
The food here is famously spud-based – and you can understand why comforting specialities such as cepelinai (stuffed potato dumplings in a zeppelin shape) are still a firm favourite, especially in the icy-cold winter months.
Another antidote, should you need one, to trendy small plates and amuse-bouches comes in the form of half-moon-shaped pastry parcels, kibinai. These are a speciality of the minority Karaite population in lakeside Trakai, 25km from Vilnius.
At Kybynlar these tasty triangles are a precursor to a variation on chicken pot pie and dessert of yet more pastry – this time sugar-dusted and curd-cheese-filled. If you dine here, you can work off your meal with a stroll across the footbridge to Lake Galvė’s medieval castle, restored in Soviet times.
David Kosmos Smith/Flickr
6. For escapes to the countryside or coast
Trakai is the smallest of five national parks in Lithuania; at the other end of the scale is Dzūkija National Park, also within reach of Vilnius by train or car. The wide roads, rolling fields, dense forest and secluded houses you’ll pass en route bring to mind the great open spaces of North America.
You can discover Dzūkija’s pine forests, crystal-clear springs and traditional wooden houses on foot or opt for one of ten marked cycle routes. Foraging for mushrooms and berries has always been essential for the sparse population here, as cultivating the sandy soil is a struggle. Come in late summer or early autumn and you’ll encounter locals selling recently gathered bounty – or you can hunt for your own (following the usual precautions).
If you want to feel sand between your toes, you’ll need to put in some time to reach the coast from the main transport hubs. The breathtaking Curonian Spit – a shifting, 4km-wide strip of huge sand dunes, separating the Baltic Sea from the Curonian Lagoon – is worth the effort. Another spot best explored on two wheels, it’s also a place for hiking, birdwatching or quiet contemplation, not to mention delicious smoked fish.
7. For twenty-first-century art
While reconstruction work is underway at Vilnius Airport this summer, some flights will be redirected to Lithuania’s second city, Kaunas (which should be on your itinerary anyway).
Down by Kaunas Castle, at the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris rivers, an empty footwear factory is the site of experimental art movement, Ministry of Fluxus (FxM). The huge “old wise man”, a crouching, red-clad figure covering one outer wall, is one of many examples of street art in Kaunas.
Check out the courtyard gallery Kiemo galerija, an ever-expanding open-air exhibition space, where Banksy’s influence is evident in the assortment of graffiti and installations. A new, handy street art city guide can be ordered for collection at Kaunas tourist office.
FxM started life in 2010 in Vilnius, but moved to Kaunas two years later. While the capital’s artistic enclave, the self-declared Republic of Užupis, has witnessed rapid gentrification and the inevitable backlash (waterside bars and exquisitely tasteful restaurants come at a price), in Kaunas it feels like creativity is blooming. Its year as European Capital of Culture (2022) may still be a way off, but there’s definitely the sense of something in the air.
Monica travelled with support from the Lithuanian State Department of Tourism. Header image: Vaidotas Mišeikis/Flickr.