Lithuanian Summers: A Guide

A delayed post on our generous 6-week summer holiday in Lithuania

For those who don’t know, Lithuania is a small Eastern European country with just below 3 million citizens. The “Eastern” definition is more of a cultural notion as the actual geographical centre of Europe proudly sits close to Lithuania’s capital Vilnius. Lithuania is one of the three Baltic states (also includes Latvia and Estonia) and in its culture and language mostly similar to Latvia.

Lithuanian is the oldest of the Indoeuropean languages still being spoken and it is the most similar to Latin – making it very difficult for foreigners to learn (also, there is not much practicality learning it unless you move there / live with a Lithuanian partner… Rhys :). Lithuania is also the last country in Europe to switch from paganism to Christianity and therefore nowadays you can still find a lot of pagan rituals in the way Lithuanians celebrate a lot of Christian holidays. One of the more popular celebrations is St Johns Eve (Joninės) on the 23rd of June whereby people dance until the sun sets, tell stories, look for the mystical fern blossom at midnight and jump over bonfires which are set up at most towns and cities as the focal point of the celebrations.

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We ended up spending the later part of the summer in Lithuania which happened to be warmer than usual with most of August days reaching up to 26 degrees Celsius – perfect for cycling, canoeing, swimming in lakes and the Baltic Sea, and of course – the ideal harvest times for most berries, apples, pears, plums, tomatoes and other vegetables. You don’t know the real taste of a tomato until you try one from my mum’s greenhouse!

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It’s really easy to get to Lithuania nowadays and there’s a number of Ryanair and Wizzair flights going from most of the bigger European airports to Vilnius or Kaunas (and sometimes the seaside town Palanga) which you can book really cheaply if you book enough in advance / find deals (usually prices vary from 10 to 100 euros per flight).

Whilst there are loads of activities to choose from in Lithuania in the summer time, I’ll talk about a few key locations / things to do that I tend to do myself.

VILNIUS

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With over half a million residents, Vilnius is naturally the biggest city of Lithuania and one of the most modern / advanced spots in Lithuania with lots of young people and most foreign immigrants living and working there. It has a long and interesting history going back to the beginning of the Medieval Ages however my favourite is the story of how it was first created. According to legend, the duke of the time Gediminas dreamt of an iron wolf howling on a hilltop and consulted a pagan priest for its interpretation. He was told: “What is destined for the ruler and the State of Lithuania, is thus: the Iron Wolf represents a castle and a city which will be established by you on this site. This city will be the capital of the Lithuanian lands and the dwelling of their rulers, and the glory of their deeds shall echo throughout the world”. (Source: Wikipedia) Thus one of the main attractions in Vilnius is the Gediminas castle on the hill in the very centre of the Old Town and the Cathedral square right next to it with a statue of an iron wolf howling. The cathedral gained lots of attention and visits this year coming up to the Pope visiting Lithuania in September.

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With the castle and cathedral located at the heart of the city, the Old Town lays right next to them with lots of small cobbled streets and beautiful buildings of different historical eras. Some of the highlights include the Aušra gate which formed the previous wall of the Old Town with a chapel within it; Gediminas prospect that has lots of beautiful shops, restaurants and cafes (it’s the dark blue street in the Lithuanian monopoly) and Užupis, the Vilnius equivalent of the Paris’ Montmartre.

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The Užupis area is a very arty and relaxed part of the Old Town with lovely galleries and cafes where a lot of artists would choose to live. Right next to it, Bernardinai gardens are worth a visit with the Three Crosses hill right next to it.

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If you are interested in the nightlife of Vilnius, a good starting point would be Pilis street with lots of bars and restaurants but of course there’s lots of options in the whole of the Old Town.

Just outside of Vilnius, about half an hour’s train ride away, there’s a small town Trakai famous for its castle on an island in the middle of a lake which can be reached by crossing a very scenic wooden pedestrian bridge.

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The castle and its museum can be explored by foot, but also admired from water if you rent a water bike (10-20 euros per a couple of hours) or a yacht as a more luxurious option.

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Trakai is also famous for its dumplings ( called kibinai) which come with a variety of fillings (including a sweet option with Nutella in it!) and remind me of Cornish pasties in the UK.

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Overall, both Vilnius and Trakai are not cheap relative to the income levels in Lithuania. For tourists, food and drink prices will be similar to most European cities with a cocktail ranging from 5 to 10 euros and a meal from 7 to 15 euros on average. On the other hand, the transport is much cheaper – a bus ride is one euro and a train from Vilnius to Trakai is around 5 euros.

LAKES / RIVERS

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Lithuania is a very green country and there’s lots of lakes and rivers that people like to spend warm summer days chilling by. The recreational tourism offering has really boomed over the last few years and you can find a range of activities available including kite surfing, wake boarding (Kaunas Water Park, Wakepark Palanga), SUP (Trakai), canoeing (almost every larger river / lake network) etc.

We went on a two-day canoeing trip this year with some friends in the Aukštaitija National Park (the biggest out of the 5 national parks in Lithuania). The setting was amazing – a private cottage with a large outside area (fire place, covered seating, volleyball court) right next to a lake which can be reached by the stairs at the back of it. You can book this on www.sakarva.lt.

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We chose a 16 km canoeing route for the first day through a small river which crossed a couple of lakes along the way. Don’t be tricked by the distance – what initially looked like an easy paddle ended up as a 6-hour trip throughout the hottest part of the day! Our shoulders were in pain from paddling and red from the hot August sun.

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The beauty about the route that includes rivers and lakes is the change of scenery – from shady narrow passings and going under small bridges on a river to open blue vasts of a lake.

Besides transport that you may have to organise yourself (public transport to more rural areas may be more complicated, however having said that, a variety direct and linked bus routes are available on www.autobusubilietai.lt as well as train tickets (the main routes are between the biggest cities however stop at smaller towns also) on www.litrail.lt OR car hire which would be most flexible), the main costs were 13 euros per night for the cottage per person and 15 euros per canoe per person per day (this also includes transportation from the cottage to your starting point and collection from the finishing point). The food and drink should purchased in advance and brought with you as the closest shop is often small or still quite far (ours was in the next village 5km away!).

An interesting observation I made over the last year is that Lithuanians built a load of viewing towers all over the country in the last few years. We visited one of them on the way back from Aukštaitija National Park and got treated to a scenic view of three lakes in between the forests. The Mindūnai viewing tower is the tallest one I am aware of and reaches 36 metre height.

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On a different occasion, Rhys and I also visited a smaller one next to Dusia lake in Meteliai Regional Park but there’s plenty of great ones to choose from all over the place: Rubikiai observation tower (a very impressive structure at 35 metre height!), Sartai lake tower (33 metres), Šiliniškiai viewing tower (30 metres),  Puvočiai tower (30 metres)…

When by the Dusia lake, we brought bikes and took the route around the lake which is about 24 kilometres – most of the route was on quiet roads however about a third of it was off road and most scenic then. Again, cycling is very popular in Lithuania and people tend to bring / rent bikes in various countryside locations and make a day out of it. I will mention some routes by the seaside but most of the national and regional parks will also have plenty to offer so worth looking into if that’s something you’re interested in!

SEASIDE

Yes, you read it right – Lithuania, a small Eastern / Northern European country known for its cold winters with temperatures as low as -25 degrees Celsius and the woodland that once upon the time inhabited bears and is still a home to wolves, has also got a scenic coast line that stretches for 108 km from Kaliningrad in the south to Latvia in the North. In the summer time, it is busy with holidayers enjoying the hot sun and the cold sea (the Baltic Sea does not get much warmer than 22 degrees Celsius at the best of times).

I will run through a couple of best locations to visit on the Lithuanian coast:

  • Klaipėda

As the third biggest city of Lithuania (after Vilnius and Kaunas), Klaipėda has a lot of entertainment to offer to tourists, including its beautiful (even though small) Old Town with many bars and restaurants lining the marina and spreading into the small cobbled streets away from the river too.

For people that enjoy a bit of city time when on a beach holiday, you can find a couple of larger shopping centres as well as attend gigs and festivals (the City Festival is one of the bigger ones to choose from and usually has some famous artists performing) or grab dinner somewhere on the banks of Danė.

The main beach in Klaipėda is located about a 15 minute drive from the city centre (about 20-30 minutes by bus). All of the beaches in Lithuania are sand beaches and this one too offers a generous space for the tourists to enjoy (note however, that it gets pretty busy at peak times – mid July to mid August). Alternatively, my favourite beach is Smiltynė which can be reached by ferry from the city centre which takes not more than 15 minutes and costs a couple of euros. The beach is much quieter and it also has a nudist area for those interested!

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Finally, if the weather is not the warmest or you fancy a more active way to spend a day, you can rent a bike and take one of the many available cycling routes available. One main way takes you to Palanga (more on it in a moment!) and Šventoji.

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We did the route to Palanga this year (distance forth and back is around 50km but don’t be alarmed – the cycling paths are smooth and mostly flat making the journey much easier than it sounds) which took us about 8 hours in total with a few resting breaks and a generous lunch break in Palanga. You can also visit Olando Kepurė on your way which offers a lovely view of the sea from a platform up a small cliff from the beach.

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  • Palanga

Palanga is a much smaller town than Klaipėda about a half an hour’s drive away and it’s a more lively option to those that like to go out every night and don’t mind spending time amongst many other tourists – peak times get pretty busy! The main strip leading to the Palanga bridge is called Basanavičius street and most activity centres around it. The bridge offers an awesome view of a sunset in the sea and just a generally lovely (and sometimes windy) walk.

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Except for the lunch during our bike ride from Klaipėda, we didn’t spend any time in Palanga this year however had gone there a few times before. Even if you’re not into busy touristy locations, there are alternative ways to pass the time including visiting the city botanical gardens, the Amber Museum, wakeboarding or just choosing a hangout spot / beach further from the centre.

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  • Nida

Nida is a small town located on the peninsula of Lithuania called Neringa. The peninsula does not attach to Lithuania by coast but does so further south in Kaliningrad which is a part of Russia. The only way to get to Neringa is by taking a ferry from Klaipėda across (you’ll remember one of the beaches Smiltynė in Klaipėda is actually located on the peninsula) – from there on, you can take a bus / drive (less than an hour driving distance) to Nida or stop at one of the smaller towns on the way. I am pretty sure nowadays there is a ferry available from Klaipėda directly to Nida however I’ve never taken it and so am unsure how long it takes. I would really recommend the drive however as it also offers incredible views along the way!

Located on the Curonian Spit between the Curonian Lagoon and the Baltic Sea, Nida is the westernmost point of Lithuania and the Baltic states. Because of its location and small size, it is also the most expensive part of the Lithuanian seaside so if you wish to visit, it’s worth looking for accommodation quite far in advance or share a flat / house with more people. I’ve never done it before but you can also camp there too which would minimise the accommodation costs however this is no Mediterranean and so sunshine and blue skies unfortunately can not be guaranteed.

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Even though the whole of the peninsula has amazing white dunes on its coast, Parnidis Dune is the most famous and it also offers a lovely walk, as well as it can be reached by foot / cycle from Nida. It is a reason on its own to visit the seaside in Lithuania and the views are simply incredible.

 

PLANNING A ROUTE

I understand that Lithuania is a bit out of the way for most Central / Western Europeans (I blame Poland for being so large) and of course travellers from other continents so it could always be a good idea to see more of the Eastern Europe if you decide to visit Lithuania. I’ve got a couple of suggestions of routes and different means of transport to keep in mind. Besides the usual flight option I already discussed above, you can also come to Lithuania by road from Central / Southern Europe. This way you can explore more countries along the way and really observe the way people live day to day.

  • Lithuania to Estonia (or the other way around) would cover the Baltic states and falls on the shorter end of the scale when thinking for about the time it takes. Options include stopping at all capital cities (Riga in Latvia and Tallinn in Estonia) and perhaps exploring more of each country if you have more time.
  • Lithuania to Bulgaria is a longer route that allows to explore more of the Eastern going Southern Europe. When I did this with my parents, we drove through Poland without stopping to save time and spent more time in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Of course, you can continue further South or towards Central Europe.
  • Lithuania to Scandinavia is a great route which can be explored via the Baltic states and then taking a ferry from Tallinn (Estonia) to Finland if you have more time, or taking a ferry from Lithuania (Klaipėda) directly to Helsinki or Stockholm and drive from there. We previously took a ferry to Stockholm, spent a few days in Sweden and most of our time in Norway exploring Oslo, Bergen and some of the more southern / central fjords.
  • Lithuania to Croatia covers more of the Central Europe, including Poland, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria. Again, depending on the amount of time available, you can choose to spend as much time as possible in each of the countries.
  • Shorter trips include visiting neighbouring countries – Latvia (3 hour drive to Riga from central Lithuania), Belorussia (2-3 hour drive to the border from central Lithuania), Poland (8 hour drive to Warsaw from central Lithuania), Kaliningrad (2-3 hour drive to border from central Lithuania).

If you would like to know more about any topic discussed above, you’re welcome to drop me an email at gabriele.naujalyte@gmail.com or leave a comment here. Feedback is also welcome!

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