Lithuania is a vibrant, quirky and largely unspoiled country, which has undergone rapid change since becoming independent from the Soviet Union. You’ll find lively nightlife, both in Vilnius and on the coast, ample grounds for outdoor pursuits in the national parks and several great beaches, as well as a stark contrast between city life and rural simplicity. Here's our pick of the best things to do in Lithuania.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, your essential guide for visiting Europe.
A cosmopolitan city with an ancient, Baroque heart, Vilnius is relatively compact and easy to get to know, with a variety of inexpensive attractions and a lively nightlife. Its numerous churches and palaces jostle for space in the Old Town’s winding cobbled alleys, where glitzy restaurants stand incongruously beside dilapidated old buildings
At the centre of Vilnius, poised between the medieval and nineteenth-century parts of the city, is Cathedral Square (Katedros aikštė). The Old Town, just south of Cathedral Square, is a network of narrow, often cobbled streets that forms the Baroque heart of Vilnius, with the pedestrianized Pilies gatvė cutting into it from the southeastern corner of the square.
To the west of this street is Vilnius University, which was constructed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries around nine linked courtyards that extend west to Universiteto gatvė. Within its precincts is the beautiful Baroque St John’s Church (Šv. Jono bažnyčia), founded during the fourteenth century, and taken over by the Jesuits in 1561.
The Vilnius TV tower was designed by a Lithuanian engineer V. Obydovas. It was originally built to provide broadcasting in the Lithuanian SSR, then part of the Soviet Union. Today it continues to function as a Lithuanian broadcasting tower for several Lithuanian stations. The TV tower is one of the tallest buildings in Lithuania and one of the tallest TV towers in all of Europe.
When considering things to do in Lithuania, visitors to Vilnius should not miss the TV tower, as its observation deck provides a stunning panoramic view of the city and its surroundings.
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Around 30km west of Vilnius lies the little town of Trakai, a mix of concrete Soviet-style buildings merged with the wooden cottages of the Karaite community, Lithuania’s smallest ethnic minority. Standing on a peninsula jutting out between two lakes, Trakai is the site of two impressive medieval castles and makes for a worthwhile day trip from the capital.
Once you arrive, follow Vytauto gatvė and turn right down Kėstučio gatvė to reach the remains of the Peninsula Castle, now partially restored after having been destroyed by the Russians in 1655. Skirting the ruins along the lakeside path, you will see the spectacular Island Castle (Salos pilis), one of Lithuania’s most famous monuments, accessible by two wooden drawbridges and preceded by souvenir and rowing-boat rental stalls.
Aukštaitija National Park (Aukštaitijos nacionalinis parkas), has an area of 4,530 sq km (1,750 sq miles) of which 15 percent is lakes. Around three-quarters of the land is forested, and there is a great diversity of flora and fauna, with more than 700 species of plants, 100 species of mammals and 78 species of fish. Canoeing and other water activities are popular, and there are many nature trails.
The best way to explore the park is to start in the tiny hamlet of Palūšė, where there is a handsome 19th-century wooden church and belfry. The park has an additional administrative centre at Meironys. Perhaps one of the quirkiest museums in the country is the folksy Bee-keeper’s Museum in the village of Stripeikiai. There are various hives in the shapes of pagan gods, along with woodcarvings of bee-related deities.
Around 25km north of Klaipėda, Palanga is Lithuania’s top seaside resort – and party central in the summer. Palanga’s biggest attraction is its white, 18 km-long sandy beach. Throughout the summer months, it hosts several outdoor all-night music events. e wooden pier, jutting into the sea at the end of Basanavičiaus gatvė is where families and couples gather to watch the sunset.
From the beach, head east along pedestrian Basanavičiaus with the rest of the human tide, past the street musicians and vendors, countless restaurants, arcade games, amusement park rides and amber stalls. You can dance until morning at one of the clubs on Vytauto gatvė, the main street, or on S. Darius ir S. Girėno gatvė, which leads off Vytauto gatvė to the beach.
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Shared between Lithuania and Russia’s Kaliningrad province, the Curonian Spit is a 98km sliver of land characterized by vast dunes and pine forests. Much of the Lithuanian stretch is covered by the Curonian Spit National Park (Kursiu Nerija National Park). Some of the areas can be seen as a day trip from Klaipėda, though it warrants a stay of several days to soak up the unique atmosphere.
It has no rivers, a few lagoons and along its shore lies a chain of manmade beaches and dunes. A bird’s-eye view is a wonderful picture of white, sandy hills against a dark blue background. Curonian Spit was awarded Unesco World Heritage Site status in 2000.
Up on a hill, 12km north of the town of Šiauliai, 188km northwest of Vilnius and 170km east of Klaipėda, lies the Hill of Crosses (Kryžių kalnas), an ever-growing, awe-inspiring collection of more than 200,000 crosses, statues and effigies. There are many myths surrounding the Hill’s origin, some dating back to pagan times.
The most plausible is that it was to commemorate rebels killed in nineteenth-century uprisings against the Russian Empire. In the Soviet era, they were planted by grieving families to commemorate killed and deported loved ones and kept multiplying despite repeated bulldozing by the authorities. Today, crosses are often planted to give thanks for a happy event in a person’s life.
Among the top things to do in Lithuania, a visit to Kaunas is a must. Located 98km west of Vilnius and easily accessible by bus or rail, Kaunas is considered by many Lithuanians as the true heart of their country, serving as Lithuania's second city. The most picturesque part of Kaunas is the Old Town (Senamiestis), centred on Town Hall Square (Rotušės aikštė), on a spur of land between the Neris and Nemunas rivers.
Occupying the northeastern shoulder of the square, the red-brick tower of Kaunas’s austere cathedral stands at the western end of Vilniaus gatvė. Predating the cathedral by several centuries is Kaunas Castle, whose scant remains survive just northwest of the square.
Little more than a restored tower and a couple of sections of the wall are left, with temporary art exhibitions inside, but in its day the fortification was a major obstacle to the Teutonic Knights.
Some 7km (4 miles) to the southeast of the Kaunas town centre is Lithuania’s Baroque gem, the Pažaislis Monastery (Pažaislio vienuolynas). Isolated in the countryside above a dam on the River Nemunas, it was built in the 17th century with orchards and gardens that are still cultivated. Entrance is through the Holy Gate, and the church has a fine 45-metre (150ft) cupola, on the inside of which is a painting of the Virgin Mary.
The marble and oak interior is enriched with frescoes restored under the aegis of the Čiurlionis Museum, which became responsible for it in 1966. Built for the obscure Camaldolese Order, it was briefly populated by Lithuanian-American nuns in the early 20th century, and again in 1992. The huge reservoir beside the monastery is called the Kaunas Sea (Kauno Marios) and is popular for recreation.
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Visiting the Anikščiai Tree Walking Trail is one of the best things to do in Lithuania for outdoor activities. This unique wooden construction allows visitors to walk through the treetops of the forest and enjoy nature from a new perspective.
The Treetop Walking Path is built as suspended wooden bridges, stairs and viewing platforms through the forest. The path offers amazing views of the surroundings of the forest, including the Anikščiai pine forest and the Šventoji River valley. In addition to natural views, visitors can also observe Lithuanian wildlife up close, including various animal species.
The Lithuanian Sea Museum and Dolphinarium is home to several seals, penguins and dolphins. The Dolphinarium has 40-minute-long dolphin shows, especially enjoyable for younger visitors. Nearby is Klaipėda Yacht Club, one of the venues of Klaipėda’s annual Sea Festival.
The museum is located in a former 19th-century fortress that was used to defend the port of Klaipėda. Today, the museum's exhibitions cover a wide range of subjects related to marine life, marine history and sailing.
Also of note is Witches’ Hill (Raganų kalnas), which was established in the 1980s by a group of local sculptors. This large wooden sculpture park is filled with fabled figures – such as the main pagan god, Perkūnas, and Neringa, a local girl who became a giant and helped sailors in trouble – make a pleasant excursion through the pine trees.
Visiting this spot is one of the best things to do in Lithuania with children, as some of the sculptures double as slides and see-saws. Look for the sign on your right as you are heading south through Juodkrantė town. A walk beside the lagoon path with its stone sculptures provides a pleasant contrast.
There are several spa towns in Lithuania which are popular tourist destinations for those seeking relaxation, recreation and treatments. The most popular spa towns are Druskininkai and Birštonas.
Druskininkai is located in the southern part of Lithuania and is one of the most famous spa towns in the country. It is not only famous for its mineral waters and mud treatment, but also for its modern spa resorts, water parks and entertainment activities that make a visit to this town one of the best things to do in Lithuania for the whole family.
Another equally popular spa town in the country, Birstonas is situated in central Lithuania, next to the Nemunas River. It is also known for its mineral springs, mud spa and natural attractions, which include the neighbouring Nemunas Loops Regional Park.
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Tucked in the woodlands around Druskininkai, which are abundant with mushrooms in autumn, there are some ancient farmsteads: at Latežeris, for example, just to the east. Nearby is the small village of Grūtas and its famous Grūtas Park of Soviet Sculptures (Grūto Parkas).
A controversial and rather startling place, it has collections of former Soviet leaders and various Communist bigwigs acquired from the scrap heaps of the early independence years.
Lithuanian cuisine is based on the traditional rural fare. Typical starters include marinated mushrooms (marinuoti grybai), herring (silkė) and smoked sausage (rukyta desra) along with cold beetroot soup (saltibarsčiai). A popular national dish is cepelinai, or zeppelins – cylindrical potato dumplings stuffed with meat, mushrooms or cheese.
Others include potato pancakes (bulviniai blynai), and koldųnai – boiled or fried dumplings with meat or mushroom filling. Popular beer snacks include deep-fried sticks of black bread with garlic (kepta duona) and smoked pigs’ ears. Pancakes (blynai, blyneliai or lietiniai) come in a plethora of sweet and savoury varieties.
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