Stuck for summer holiday inspiration? Lithuania has loads to offer, from wild, dune-backed beaches to even wilder festivals. And, with the country gearing up to celebrate 100 years since the restoration of independence (in 2018), there's never been a better time to visit.
The Centenary Song Festival (in the capital Vilnius, June 2018), an extravaganza of folk music, dance, art and costume, will form a major part of the commemorations – but there’s plenty more to keep you entertained this summer.
From café culture in Vilnius to street art in Kaunas, and from peace and quiet on the coast to adventures deep in the forest, here are seven reasons why Lithuania should be your next trip.
Lithuania kicks off festival season with nationwide celebrations for St John’s Day (June 24), also known as Day of Dew, which has been celebrated on midsummer’s eve for centuries.
Locals stay up until dawn, taking over town and village squares, or heading to the countryside where bonfires are lit, herbs gathered and dew collected – magical powers can be harnessed, it is believed. Of course, all this is experienced against a backdrop of feasting, drinking, music and barefoot dancing.
Kernavė, 40km northwest of capital Vilnius, is a quiet spot for most of the year. But this rich archaeological site comes to life when thousands descend for the summer solstice.
The area includes hill forts and burial grounds and has UNESCO World Heritage status. Finds dating back to Paleolithic times were first uncovered in the seventies and are strikingly well preserved thanks to the layers of silt that submerged them when the River Neris flooded. Many are on show at the site museum, from padlocks and arrowheads to fine jewellery and what look like extremely well-worn shoes.
At its peak in the thirteenth century, Kernavė was considered the country’s capital and the crafts that helped earn it that status are celebrated in the popular Kernavė Festival of Experimental Archeology. Held every July, the festival sees lively demonstrations of traditional skills (from mead production to yarn dyeing) and contemporary local arts and crafts to browse alongside.
The city has been a longtime favourite for stag and hen dos thanks to the cheap, flowing booze, not to mention the craft-beer revolution (coconut milk stout, anyone?). But Vilnius is a destination for high culture too.
Lithuanians are keen theatre-goers and a night at the opera in Vilnius – in a landmark seventies building, its imposing concrete and glass facade belied by a plush, light-filled interior – will only set you back around 20€.
It’s also one of the venues for the annual Vilnius Festival (June), which hosts home-grown and international musicians, performing both classical and contemporary work – everything from organ recitals to Japanese drumming.
Line your stomach before an evening’s bar-hopping at one of Vilnius’s exciting new restaurants. Fresh openings across the capital are reinterpreting traditional Lithuanian cuisine with the latest gastro trends and experiments.
Feast on meticulously devised tasting menus using the best local produce in cool, pared-down surroundings. Try Ertlio namas in the heart of the old town, Sweet Root in Užupis or 2017 opening Džiaugsmas for standout dishes, such as baked pike with almond milk, beetroot ravioli stuffed with ox cheeks, or zingy lemon ice cream and verbena sorbet.
Local staples buckwheat and beetroot make frequent appearances on menus (this is a good thing), and the summer season ushers in gooseberries, asparagus and mushrooms. You can get a particularly good deal opting for the “business lunch” menus that are often available.
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.
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.
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.
Top image: © dgfotografija/Shutterstock