- When: 26 July – 9 August, 2016
- Where: Mom’s house (childhood home) in Kaunas, family friend’s place in Palanga
- Transportation: from Boston, MA (BOS) to Vilnius (VNO)- Lufthansa airlines
- Transportation within country: mom’s car
- Must see/do: Vilnius (capital)- Old Town, Gediminas Castle, Cathedral (Arkikatedra Bazilika), St. Peter’s and Paul’s Church, Gate of Dawn (Ausros vartai), Vilnius TV tower , Trakai- Castle on the lake, Kaunas (second largest city)- Old Town, Liberty Boulevard (Laisves aleja), Kaunas castle, Kaunas Town Hall, Pazaislis Monastery, Siauliai- Hill of Crosses , Seaside – Palanga– Amber Museum, Palanga Pier, Nida.
- Food/drinks: Cepelinai -national meat and potato dumplings, Saltibarsciai – cold beet soup, Kibinai- baked dumplings, Balandeliai- meat/rice wrapped in cabbage leaves, Honey cake, Sakotis– Lithuanian Tree cake, Lithuanian bread. Svyturys– Lithuanian beer.
Before I go on with this post, I have to preface – this will not be a typical day by day travel itinerary. This is also not the type of trip that I did much research on or had set plans. Lithuania is my home – yes, I live in the USA for the past 12 years, but it still is my home sweet home. That’s where I was born, raised, went to school, then university. That’s where my mom and a lot of my family and friends live. It is a place where I know I can always return and feel loved.
What I will try to do with this post is to give you a broad overview of my country, the main tourist destinations and Lithuanian cuisine. There is so much more I could write about, but I don’t want it to become too detailed and personal. I will try to distance myself from the fact that this is my home and give you hopefully useful info for your future visit. It was first Sean’s experience in Lithuania and I will use this as a guideline. After all, besides meeting my family and childhood friends, I wanted my fiance to see the best of my country, try the most authentic dishes and feel where I came from.
We spent almost two weeks in Lithuania and only covered a fraction of it. I will touch on the tourist destinations I took Sean to, and hopefully give you a taste of this small but beautiful country. Hopefully it inspires you to go see it with your own eyes. It is worth the trip.
Unfortunately, I cannot recommend the hotels to stay in or the rental car places- I’ve never had to do this while coming back home for a visit, so I don’t want to suggest something I have no experience in. You should be able to find this info online and call/email for reservations. At least all of the younger generation speaks English, so it should not be too complicated.
HISTORY, LANGUAGE AND MORE
Human habitation in the land where Lithuania is now dates as far as 9000 BC. Lithuanians belong to Indo-European people, Baltic group. The first written record of the name of the country is 1009 AD. In the mid 13th century the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was formed and we even had one king- Mindaugas. Kingdom of Lithuania was short lived- the king was soon after assassinated. In 14th century, Lithuanian borders extended all the way to the Black Sea and my country was one of the biggest powers in Europe. This was not the case for the rest of the Lithuania’s history. It formed a union with Poland, was taken over by the Russian Empire, survived World War I and World War II with German and later on Soviet occupation which lasted over fifty years. Lithuania was the first of the Soviet block to break free and announced its independence in 1990. I was young, but I remember those days very clearly. And I am very proud to be Lithuanian.
Lithuanian language is one of the oldest languages in the world. It relates to Sanskrit (a classical Indian language), Ancient Greek and Latin. It is NOT Slavic and is nothing like Russian as a lot of people assume. Many Lithuanians understand Russian due to the fact that Lithuania was under the Soviet Union rule for a long time and Russian was mandatory language to learn at school. Russia is a neighboring country and knowing the language helps. But that’s where the connection ends. Only one surviving language that is similar to Lithuanian is Latvian, also Baltic language. But understanding each other for Latvians and Lithuanians would be very difficult. The language is not easy to learn for foreigners as it has no articles, but instead, connections between words are expressed by declining the endings. There are 5 noun declensions, with 7 singular and plural cases in each declension. Other parts of the language is declined as well. So yes, the same word can be said in at least 7 different ways 🙂 .
The language is very special not just because it’s so old. It’s the fact that just like the small country, it survived it all. When Grand Duchy of Lithuania joined in a union with Poland in sixteenth-seventeenth century – Polish was adopted as a main language. During the Russian Empire- Lithuanian schools were closed, Latin characters forbidden and Cyrillic characters had to be used. Lithuanian language lived in the homes of serfs and simple villagers. Russification was very strong when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union as well. It’s pretty incredible that the language made it and now is the only official state language of the Republic of Lithuania. Try it, learn a few words while you are there- Lithuanians will certainly appreciate the effort!
Lithuania is part of the European Union since 2004 and the currency since 2015 is Euro. I miss Litas, the currency I grew up with, but with Euro is much easier to travel from one European country to the next. Now you don’t not have to worry about the exchange rate or pay taxes and fees.
For someone going to Lithuania for the first time, I recommend seeing the capital- Vilnius and on the way over to the second largest city (that’s where I’m from)- Kaunas, go to Trakai- the castle on the lake. To relax and have fun- visit one or both of the seaside towns- Palanga and Nida. Palanga is a hopping, lively town with lots of nightlife, while Nida is total nature sanctuary with one of the biggest sand dunes in Europe. Baltic Sea is not very warm, but the sand is soft and white. On the way back (most likely you will be flying in and out of Vilnius), stop by the very special and unique place- Hill of Crosses near Siauliai town.
There are a lot of other places to visit, camp, kayak- but that might be for another post. Let’s talk about the sights I mentioned above first.
The capital of Lithuania and the biggest city is not that big in comparison. Population under 600 000 people, the city is vibrant, modern and easily accessible by flight, bus or train. From USA there is usually a layover somewhere else in Europe- Frankfurt, Helsinki, London, Amsterdam or other major European city.
Even though there are a lot of indoor activities, my recommendation is to travel to Lithuania in summer. July-August are the warmest and driest months and you will also enjoy the long summer days! Lithuania is quite far up north and the longest day of the year (big celebrations happen on June 24th) is 17 hours long! That is something I really enjoy every time I go back home to visit.
As you will fly into Vilnius, I would say spend at least 2-3 days there. Get used to the time change and get rid of the jet lag. In my opinion, suffering through the first day helps the most. Flights from US usually arrive in the morning/early afternoon Lithuania’s time. So stay up as late as you can (daylight till 11pm certainly helps!) and when you wake up the next day (providing you don’t sleep till noon) it should be easier to get into the local rhythm.
One of the main Vilnius attractions is Old Town. It’s a pretty big area with cobble stone streets, outdoor cafes, beautiful architecture and little alleys to get lost in. Well, you most likely will not get lost for long 🙂 .
And if you do- don’t worry. Find a cafe, have a glass of strong and refreshing Lithuanian beer “Svyturys” and continue exploring!
A must see (and hard to not see, since it’s on the hill) is Gediminas Castle. Of course it’s only what’s left of the Grand Duke’s castle, only the tower remains, but you want to climb to the top and see the views from above.
From there, make your way to another important symbol of Vilnius- Gate of Dawn.
It is one of the most visited sacred places in Vilnius, especially by those that are religious and worship Virgin Mary. It is the only surviving gate of the original five gates of the city wall that was built in the fifteen hundreds.
Predominant religion in Lithuania is Christianity with the majority of the population being Roman Catholics. So you will find A LOT of churches in this country. Beautiful, majestic churches. Cathedral Basilica being one of them. It’s neoclassical masterpiece and a resting place for the famous nobles, bishops, dukes and duchesses of Lithuania.
The plaza around the Cathedral is favorite and easy recognizable meet up spot. And right near the Bell Tower, there is a magic tile. You will see the mosaic with the word “Stebuklas” (“Miracle”) on it. It’s said that if you step on it, make a wish and turn three times clockwise- your wish will come true. Maybe the only thing separating you from your dreams is that trip to Lithuania and the step on a “miracle” tile 🙂 !
One more church definitely worth visiting is the Church of St.Peter and St Paul. It’s a baroque architecture with details that take your breath away.
So you saw the Old Town, a few famous churches- maybe you would like to see this city from a bird’s eye view? And what if the view comes with the rotating restaurant? Take a taxi/rental car/local bus to the tallest structure in Lithuania (326.5 m) with a “Pauksciu takas” (Milky Way) restaurant at a height of 165m.
On a good sunny day you will be able to see way past the city of Vilnius.
This is how much of the capital we saw in one day. It’s not nearly everything. There are a lot of museums, shops, restaurants, parks etc. That’s why I would say spend a minimum 2-3 days there.
Just about 28 km (17 miles) west of Vilnius is another charming tourist destination- Trakai. The town is small, just about 5000 people, but it’s famous for it’s Trakai Island Castle in the middle of the Lake Galve. It is the only castle on the lake in the whole Eastern Europe. In the 14th-15th century, Trakai was the summer residence for the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. The town is also famous for the popular Lithuanian dish- Kibinai.
It’s a savory pastry, filled with mutton, chicken or pork and often served with the warm broth, but goes very well with cold beer as well! The dish is popular with Karaite (also known as Karaim or Crimean Karaites) ethnic minority that lived and still live around Trakai town.
If you want to see more of the town and explore the castle that is now museum, make it a day trip. We stopped there on the way from Vilnius to Kaunas (my home town). We did not have a lot of time, as we could not wait to see my family and friends.
My home town! My childhood home where my mom still lives and where my room is still the same as I left it after graduating from university. Obviously coming home, meant we will not sight-see as much as we will eat. There will be a separate section of this post about Lithuanian food. But I can’t not mention the food when I talk about home. Because my mom’s cooking is the BEST!
As my mom’s house is close to the Kaunas Castle, the tour of this city started there.
Kaunas Castle is the oldest stone castle in Lithuania, built in 14th century. Right near the castle is a lovely park for walking/running/biking or rollerblading. Two biggest rivers of Lithuania -Nemunas and Neris also join their waters in the same area as well.
Continue from the Kaunas Castle towards the Old Town and you will reach Kaunas Town Hall – also called the “White Swan”.
The square around the Town Hall has many cute souvenir shops and outdoor cafes.
On the left hand side just outside of the Town Hall square, there is biggest church in Kaunas- Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul. Admission is free and baroque style interior is magnificent.
If you get lucky and the organ is playing – sit down and listen. It’s a wonderful treat.
Just as Vilnius and many other European cities, Kaunas also has an Old Town.
Not as big as in the capital, but still very charming and worth visiting. There is one main old town street called “Vilniaus gatve”, which goes across the Old Town with many little side streets to explore. It begins right near the Town Hall square/Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul.
Follow this street, venture into little cafes, get some ice cream and continue down towards the “Liberty Boulevard” (Laisves aleja)- wide, pedestrians only street with shops and restaurants on each side of it. Yes, there are a lot of shopping opportunities in Lithuania 🙂 .
Just about half way down Laisves Aleja, you will come to the old and well known Kaunas fountain.
It’s an easy date/meeting spot in town.
Laisves Aleja ends with yet another church- St. Michaels the Archangel’s Church or as Lithuanians often call it- Soboras. It is Neo-Byzantine building, though currently Catholic church, but has all the features of the Orthodox one. It was designed by the Russian architects and intended for the Kaunas Garrison. There, you had a nice walk in my city by now! If you have not had food yet, want to do more shopping or see a movie- go to a near by mall- Akropolis. It has things for the whole family- movie theaters, restaurants, indoor ice skating and did I mention more shops 🙂 ??
That’s just about as much of Kaunas that you can see by foot. The rest of the districts are a bit spread out and will require car/taxi/bus or a trolleybus.
If the day is sunny and you feel like relaxing near the water/doing some water activities- head to Kauno Marios (Reservoir) – the biggest artificial lake in Lithuania, made by damming the river Nemunas back in 1959.
Cooled off and want to see more incredible architecture- visit Pazaislis Church and Monastery.
And if that was not enough and you want to see Kaunas from high up- head to Resurrection Church on top of the hill. Check online when they are open and allowing people to go up top- you will see a nice panorama of Kaunas.
And one last thing you just have to do while in my city- take a ride on Zaliakalnis Funicular. It’s right near the Resurrection Church and will take you down to the Freedom Boulevard/city center. It only costs 50 cents each way and is short and fun ride up or down the big hill.
Kaunas is second largest city in Lithuania, but it’s really not that big. Well, the whole country is only 3.5 million people or so. I would say 2-3 days in Kaunas is enough to see most of it. Of course you can spend more time, explore museums, art galleries, shows and concerts. It’s a lively young city with lots of colleges and universities. You can always find something to do here!
SEASIDE – NIDA AND PALANGA
If you came to Lithuania in the summer months (highly recommended)- you have to go to the seaside. Lithuanians are proud of their Baltic Sea beaches and despite the usually cold water my happiest childhood vacation memories are going to the beach!
If you started the trip in Vilnius, made your way to Kaunas (located right in the center of Lithuania), the drive to the seaside will take you about 2.5 hours. The road is good, newly renovated and the drive is easy. There are several beach towns by the Baltic Sea. If you have time- stop by Klaipeda. It’s a nice port town with a fun Sea Museum to visit. During this trip we didn’t go there. Instead, I wanted to show Sean Nida- the most western point of Lithuania, located on the Curonian Spit between Curonian Lagoon and the Baltic Sea.
Curonian Spit is UNESCO World heritage site and the sand dunes in Nida are one of the biggest in Europe.
Nida is a quaint little town, with a strong artist community and very popular by tourists in summer. You will hear a lot of German/Russian/English while walking around.
To get to Nida you need to take a ferry (with your car of course) and then drive a bit more till you reach the town. It’s a full day if you are coming from Kaunas. We did not stay overnight, but instead drove to Palanga. But first, we went to visit some witches!
Hill of Witches (Raganu Kalnas) in Juodkrante town is an outdoor sculpture art featuring about 80 different carvings.
It’s free of charge and a fun stroll through the forest. No, do not go there at night 🙂
Seaside tour continues and we arrive to Palanga. We’ll spend a few days here to relax and hopefully get some sun. Weather in Lithuania is unpredictable. Summers can be pretty chilly, so unless there is an unusual heat wave- bring a sweater, a wind breaker and some long pants. Even mid summer you might need them for the evening.
Palanga is not a quiet city in summer months.
There are calm parts of this town, but the center is loud and full of bars/restaurants/nightclubs and lots of fun activities for both adults and kids.
But what did we come here for? Beach of course!
As mentioned previously, Baltic Sea is usually pretty cold and the red flag on the beach means that the waves are dangerous. We don’t always listen to the warnings and had to go in. Not too deep, just enough to cool off 🙂 .
If the skies are clear, come to the Palanga Pier for the sunset.
There might be some crowds coming to say ‘good-bye’ to the sun, but if you are lucky, you might witness a beautiful sunset. During the cloudless evenings, sun sets right into the Sea…
Palanga is not ALL hustle and bustle. Take some time to stroll around and away from the busy center/beach area. Beautiful place for that is Palanga Amber Museum. It’s not just the museum itself that is interesting. It is housed in the 19th century Tiskeviciai Palace with beautiful gardens all around it. Baltic region is known for the largest deposit of amber called Baltic amber or succinite. Essentially it is sap from the woods that were there 44 million or so years ago and now comes out as beautiful see through rocks, varying from white to yellow to dark colors, some even have insect frozen inside. After the storms, Baltic Sea washes out amber and local artists make beautiful souvenirs and jewelry out of it. It is said to have healing/good energy powers and a lot of kids wear amber necklaces/bracelets that touch their skin.
HILL OF CROSSES
On the way back to Vilnius or Kaunas (if your trip is nearly over), there is one more stop worth making. That is Hill of Crosses (Kryziu Kalnas) near the town called Siauliai.
There is nothing like it in the world. It is a sacred place that people from all over come to visit, pray, meditate and leave their cross…
The crosses on the Hill were first mentioned in the written chronicles in 1850 and it is believed that the first of crosses were put by the relatives of the victims of the rebellion in 1831 as the tsarist government did not allow the families to honor their dead properly.
During Soviet times, Hill of Crosses became an anonymous and surprising persistence to the regime. Soviet government tried to destroy the Hill several times- crosses were burned, broken, buried or used as scrap metal. Despite the government efforts, crosses reappeared every night.
Right now the Hill has over 50 000 crosses, various sizes and materials. It is a place of peace, love, sacrifice and hope.
Time for my favorite topic of this post 🙂 . As mentioned previously, I feel like my mom’s food is the best. But, unless you visit her, you will need to find the second best. Or at least taste the national dishes while you are in my home country.
Cepelinai- that is one dish you cannot leave without trying.
This dumpling looking dish is made from grated and riced potatoes and stuffed either with meat (most common), cottage cheese or mushrooms and then boiled. It is usually served with a generous dollop of sour cream and some bacon bits on top. They come in different sizes, depending on who makes them. Cepelinai will most likely be on the menu at pretty much any restaurant that serves Lithuanian food. Berneliu Uzeiga restaurant in Kaunas has pretty good selection of traditional Lithuanian dishes, cepelinai included.
The same place also serves Kugelis, also called Bulviu Plokstainis.
That is another potato dish, but is made completely different. Potatoes and meat- that’s probably 80% of the traditional Lithuanian cuisine. But the way they are prepared and the difference in taste makes it a totally different meal. Kugelis is made from grated raw potatoes, hot milk, onion, sometimes bacon and baked in a heat proof dish. Try several places that makes it- pretty much guaranteed it will not taste the same twice.
But before you start the entrees like Cepelinai or Kugelis- please order yourself a cold Svyturys beer and a delicious appetizer of fried bread with garlic and cheese. That’s my first meal that I order as soon as I go back home. You would think it would be easy to make it here in Boston- after all, it’s only bread, pan fried with some oil, dusted with salt and garlic. And then sprinkled with cheese and sometimes cheese mixed with mayo. I tried…Lithuanian bread is different than American bread. Even rye bread is not the same. Lithuanian bread is more dense, so it does not absorb the oil as much as the bread in the US. The taste is just not the same. Cheese and mayo are different too. Regardless- try it while you are there. You won’t regret it.
Another good dish as an appetizer or just a light meal on a hot summer day- cold beet soup. I know, sounds strange and the color is bright pink, but it’s oh so good! It’s usually made from boiled and grated beets, buttermilk, some dill, fresh cucumber and hard boiled egg chopped and mixed in. Served with hot boiled or baked potatoes (yes, potatoes again 🙂 ).
There is also hot beet soup, but that one is more common during cold season. It warms you from within!
If you like soups, also try Kopustu Sriuba or Cabbage soup. It’s light and savory. Often served in a bread bowl like this.
While talking about Lithuanian dishes, it would be a crime not to mention the mushroom dishes! Wild mushrooms grow in Lithuanian forests and the main picking season is summer/fall. You have to know your mushrooms and don’t pick poisonous ones, but the most common- baravykai and voveraites are the ones everyone knows and they are the best tasting at least for me as well. Mushrooms are served several different ways, I love my mom’s- in a milk/cream sauce with mashed potatoes on the side.
Remember the castle on the lake in Trakai? And the local dish Kibinai I was talking about? Well, my aunt makes these at home and it’s A LOT of work. But if you want to try it- give it a shot.
Here is a visual of the process, which is much longer in reality and as much as I love Kibinai, I am OK buying them. Or having my aunt coming over and making them 🙂 .
Some of the other dishes to try- Zemaiciu blynai (soft potato pancakes with meat inside) or Balandeliai – rice and meat mixture wrapped in the cabbage leaves and boiled in a creamy sauce. There are just so many!
There are a lot of restaurants in Lithuania and I haven’t gone to so many, since I prefer my mom’s food. But I should mention some that I liked. Vista Puode (Chicken in the Pot) is one of those in Kaunas.
Food is fresh, service is friendly (though sometimes a bit slow, everything is at a much slower pace in Lithuania 🙂 ) They have great traditional dishes with their own spin and nice desserts. Blueberries with milk and bread were not from the restaurant. They were bought at the local farmer’s market where people bring in wild blueberries that they picked in the forests most likely same day or the day before. We eat blueberries with milk, sugar and white bread. Delicious!!
Talking about milk products. Sean considered himself lactose intolerant all his life in America. Milk, cream, ice cream- with exception of some cheeses, it makes his stomach very sick. Well, in Lithuania, I practically made him try it all. Because it tastes different and so much better, I did not want him to miss out. We picked a day when we had no big plans, just in case he was not feeling well and he ate. And he loved it! Best part-he did not get sick at all. So for the rest of the trip, we had all kinds of milk products, enjoyed the ice cream, little cheesecake snacks (Sureliai) and Sean was sad to get back to reality and still remembers those happy days 🙂 .
Besides the great food and service, the place is very cool to walk around and even more fun if you have kids. It’s a mini village with a tiny zoo and the miniature buildings – little school house with real benches inside, mini church, windmill etc. It was fun for us adults to be giants there, but for kids it’s even more exciting since that’s their sized world!
Talking about food, I have to end with dessert! There is always room for one 🙂 . Make sure to try Lithuanian Tree cake- Sakotis.
It is not something you can replicate at home, it requires a special oven and special skills.
Another pretty complicated one is Skuzdelynas (Ant House cake). It’s layers and layers of fried flaky dough with honey and poppy seeds in between.
And there is of course Honey cake! That one I learned how to make- it “only” takes about 3 hours. You have to roll out and bake each of the seven layers separately, then layer them with sweetened sour cream and cover with the same cake crumbs. It may not sound that exciting while you are reading this, but you just have to try it for yourself!
Incredible food, rich history, unique sights or the soft sand beaches- this little country has is all. Put it on your bucket list. Make your way over and experience it first hand! I am here to help if you have more questions about it. It is my home sweet home afterall.