Lithuania is predominantly rural – a gently undulating, densely forested landscape scattered with lakes, and fields dotted with ambling storks in the summer. The major city of Kaunas, west of the capital, rivals Vilnius in terms of its historical importance. Further west, the main highlights of the coast are the Curonian Spit, whose dramatic dune-scapes can be reached by ferry and bus from Klaipėda, and Palanga, which fills up in summer with thousands of people looking for fun.
Shared between Lithuania and Russia’s Kaliningrad Province, the Curonian Spit is a 98km sliver of land characterized by vast sand dunes and pine forests. Much of the Lithuanian stretch is covered by the Curonian Spit National Park (nerija.lt). Some of the area can be seen as a day-trip from Klaipėda, though it really warrants a stay of several days to soak up the unique atmosphere. Ferries from the quayside towards the end of Žvejų gatvė in Klaipėda sail to Smiltynė on the northern tip of the spit. From the landing stage, frequent minibuses run south towards more scenic parts of the spit, stopping at the villages of Juodkrantė, Pervalka and Preila, and terminating at Nida.
The best way to explore the Curonian Spit is by cycling along well-marked biking trails that meander through pine forest and along the sand dunes. Juodkrantė, 30km away, is home to Witches’ Hill (Raganų kalnas), an entertaining wooden sculpture trail in the woods with wonderfully macabre statues of devils, witches and folk heroes. Heading back towards Nida, stop off at the side of the road to catch a glimpse of the huge heron and cormorant colony in the trees. When passing through Preila, look for the rųkyta žuvis signs and stop at a smokery for some delicious smoked fish, which is much cheaper than in Nida.
Nida is the most famous village on the spit – a small fishing community boasting several streets of attractive blue- and brown-painted wooden houses. Although there are plenty of visitors in the summertime it never feels crowded. There are several good restaurants on Naglių gatvė and Lotmiškio gatvė, as well as along the waterfront. From the end of Naglių, a shore path runs to a flight of wooden steps leading up to the top of the Parnidis dune south of the village. From the summit you can gaze out across a Saharan sandscape stretching to Russia’s Kaliningrad province. Retrace the trail along the waterfront to see elaborate weather vanes with unique designs – each village has its own. Stop by the Neringa History Museum which traces the village’s heritage through photos of crow-eating locals and fishing paraphernalia. Also along Pamario is the church cemetery with traditional krikštas – carved wooden headstones – placed upright at the foot of the resting body. Nida’s long, luxuriant beach is on the opposite side of the spit, a 30min walk through the forest from the village.
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 over 200,000 crosses, statues and effigies. There are many myths surrounding the Hill’s origin, some dating back to pagan times, although 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.
Kaunas is Lithuania’s second city, seen by many Lithuanians as the true heart of their country; it served as provisional capital during the interwar period of 1920–1939. It is undergoing rapid modernization, with the mirror-like exteriors of new buildings reflecting parts of the medieval city wall. While much of Kaunas is a busy urban sprawl, visitors will invariably be drawn to the old heart of the city where the main attractions lie.
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. The square is lined with fifteenth- and sixteenth-century merchants’ houses in pastel stucco shades, but the overpowering feature is the magnificent Town Hall itself, its tiered Baroque facade rising to a graceful 53m tower.
Occupying the northeastern shoulder of the square, the red-brick tower of Kaunas’s austere cathedral stands at the western end of Vilniaus gatvė. Dating back to the reign of Vytautas the Great, the cathedral was much added to in subsequent centuries. After the plain exterior, the lavish gilt-and-marble interior comes as a surprise; the large, statue-adorned Baroque high altar (1775) steals the limelight. 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 wall are left, with temporary art exhibitions inside, but in its day the fortification was a major obstacle to the Teutonic Knights.
Heading east along V. Putvinskio from the Devil Museum, you’ll come to a funicular, leading up to Kaunas’s most striking modern church, Christ’s Resurrection Church (Kristaus Prisikėlimo Bažnyčia). A marvel or an eyesore? You decide. Designed by the man behind the city’s Military Museum, Latvian Kārlos Reisons, its 70m tower offers sweeping views of Kaunas.
Kaunas has experienced its share of anti-Jewish violence, both during local pogroms and then under the Nazis. During World War II, the city’s large Jewish population was all but wiped out; all that remains is the city’s sole surviving synagogue in the New Town, which sports a wonderful sky-blue interior and a memorial to the 1700 children who perished at the Ninth Fort . The small and austere former Japanese consulate is now a museum to Chiune Sugihara, the consul who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the war by issuing Japanese visas against orders.
The Ninth Fort Museum, at Žemaičių plentas, is housed in the tsarist-era fortress where the Jews were kept by Nazis while awaiting execution in the killing field beyond; exhibits cover extermination of Jews and deportation of Lithuanians by the Soviets. A massive, jagged stone memorial crowns the site.
Just north of Unity Square (Vienybės aikštė), a block north of Laisvės, Kaunas has two unique art collections. The Devil Museum (Velnių Muziejus), houses an entertaining collection of over 2000 devil and witch figures put together by the artist Antanas Žmuidzinavičius and donated from around the world. Diagonally opposite, the dreamy, symbolist paintings of Mikalojus Čiurlionis, Lithuania’s cultural hero credited with the invention of abstract art, are on display in the vast M. K. Čiurlionis State Art Museum, along with excellent temporary exhibitions. Nearby, Tadas Ivanauskas Zoological Museum, displays every imaginable animal, bird, insect and sea creature stuffed, pinned or pickled on three spacious floors.
The main thoroughfare of Kaunas’s New Town is Laisvės alėja (Freedom Avenue), a broad, pedestrianized shopping street running east from the Old Town. At the junction with L. Sapiegos the street is enlivened by a bronze statue of Vytautas the Great facing the City Garden. Here, a contemporary memorial composed of horizontal metal shards commemorates the 19-year-old student Romas Kalanta, who immolated himself in protest against Soviet rule on May 14, 1972 and whose death sparked anti-Soviet rioting. Towards the eastern end of Laisvės alėja, the silver-domed Church of St Michael the Archangel looms over Independence Square (Nepriklausomybės aikštė). The striking modern building in the northeast corner, with the controversial naked “Man” statue in front, is one of the best art galleries in the country, the Mykolas Žilinskas Art Museum, housing a collection of Egyptian artefacts, Japanese porcelain and Lithuania’s only Rubens.
Klaipėda, Lithuania’s third-largest city and most important port, lies on the Baltic coast. Though it has a handful of sights, the city is of more interest as a staging post en route to the Curonian Spit, or to the party town of Palanga.
The tourist office in the Old Town has internet access, rents bikes and stocks the excellent Klaipėda in Your Pocket . The old ferry terminal at Pilies 4 – which you’ll want instead of the new ferry terminal at Nemuno 8 if you don’t have a car – has regular departures to Smiltynė, the gateway to the Curonian Spit.
Around 25km north of Klaipėda, Palanga is Lithuania’s top seaside resort – party central in the summer. Palanga’s biggest attraction is its 18km white sandy beach; throughout the summer months it hosts a number of outdoor all-night music events. The 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. Get fired out of a bungee catapult or 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.
The lush Botanical Garden (Botanikos Sodas) houses a fascinating Amber Museum with around 25,000 pieces of “Baltic Gold”, many with insects and plants trapped inside. The Anatanas Mončys House Museum displays unique wooden sculptures, collages and masks made by the twentieth-century Lithuanian sculptor. Visitors are allowed to handle all the exhibits due to the sculptor’s will specifying that others can touch his work.