It has been said that each Baltic country has its own unique personality, and traveling through Lithuania puts that idea into sharp focus. For example, the fellow Baltic country of Estonia is among the least religious countries in the world and Lithuania is one of the most devout Catholic. Additionally, other Baltic neighbors range anywhere from not having a drinking age, to age 16 or 18, with alcohol available for purchase anytime. Lithuanians set a conservative drinking age of 20 and allow limited opportunities to buy alcohol during select hours daily, depending on the day of the week. These differences prove that though there are many physical similarities, these countries are not “one-size-fits-all” and each deserve a visit.
Maybe religion provides Lithuanians with extraordinary strength. Or perhaps it’s their curtailed drinking that forces clear minds, as opposed to citizens of neighboring countries. Sorry Russia, Belarus, Poland and Latvia, we Americans enjoy our pints of pale lager quite well, too. Whatever the reasoning, Lithuanians were bravely the first to vote for independence from the USSR in 1991. Their strength is endearing and is still reflected in small ways throughout the country today.
If you have basic geographical knowledge of the former Baltic states, Lithuania’s bustling city of Vilnius might or might not come to mind. And if by chance, you are not Lithuanian and can recall names of its other cities, be proud and know you are among the select few. Don’t let the country’s lack of fame fool you into thinking it has little to offer visitors. See below what makes Vilnius and the rest of Lithuania special and use the tips to help plan a visit.
For a city with a population of just over 500,000 people, Vilnius surprisingly has a multicultural feel. While the official language is Lithuanian, it is not uncommon to hear German, Polish and even some Russian. What you’re less likely to hear is English. While many of Vilnius’ younger generation are learning English, most of the older populations are unable to converse in it. What they lack in English skills, they make up for in strength to patiently formulate other means of communication to help their foreign visitors. Don’t expect to speak English with many locals, but at the same time, don’t let communication challenges stand in your way of visiting this fascinating country.
Home to one of Europe’s best preserved medieval Old Towns, stroll through the cobblestoned streets and take in the varied mix of architecture. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, you’ll find an eclectic mix of Gothic, Romanesque, Neo-Classical, Renaissance, and Baroque buildings, which reflect an interesting mix of diverse styles and eras. Stop in some of the many charming shops and welcoming cafes in between tourist site visits.
Religion is everywhere. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a vantage point in Vilnius that doesn’t afford a view of at least one church, cathedral or other religious landmark. One of the most popular to visit is the prominent landmark of St. Anne’s Church, built in 1500. This place of worship is widely known to be the most impressive building in the city and proudly flaunts its Gothic style near the Old Town. St. Anne’s shares the grand bell tower with St.Francis and St. Bernadine churches. Another must-see is the Hill of Three Crosses. Enjoy the magnificent views from atop this hill and learn the interesting history behind the monument. As a teaser, it involves past beheadings and currently symbolizes the country’s “reawakening” from their life under former Soviet oppressors. Check out the fabulous Baroque interior of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. The Church of the Holy Spirit was built in the 1400s and is worth a visit.
Non-religious sites include the Gediminas Castle Tower, pictured above, located on Castle Hill, where you’ll be treated to fantastic views and the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, which is home to a museum with interesting exhibitions. Don’t forget to step through the Gate of Dawn, the last remaining segment of the city wall standing. For a bit of sobering history, visit the KGB Museum.
Outside the capital, make sure to visit the Trakai Island Castle, pictured above. Located on an island in Lake Galve, its impressive history dates back to the late 14th century. The National Parks of Aukstaitija and Kursiu Nerija are great for exploring and outdoor activities. Be sure to learn a bit of history at the Rumsiskes Open-Air Museum.
By Lisa Osborne Blalock
Footloose Travel & Tours