Monday, November 12, 2012

The Top 15 Travel Destinations in Lithuania

Lithuania is a small country with a big role in European history; it once had a powerful empire that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and during the heady days of 1990 it took the lead as the first country to defiantly declare its independence from the Soviet Union. The superb architectural, cultural and natural attractions on offer mean that this Baltic state can truly offer visitors everything but mountains (though walkable hills abound). This was the last country in mainland Europe to fully convert to Christianity (only in the late 14th century), and consequently some pagan cultural traditions still survive in the countryside, particularly in rituals held at summer festivals. Vilnius may be the country's urban heart and the first stop for most tourist visitors, but be sure to get beyond the capital to see what daily life in rural Lithuania is all about. Unique sights such as the atmospheric Hill of Crosses near Šiauliai or the sandy seascapes of the Curonian Spit still receive far fewer foreign visitors than they deserve, so beat the crowds and visit now before mainstream tourism fully arrives. The photos included here show, from top to bottom, Vilnius, Trakai Castle and Nida.

1. Vilnius - The Lithuanian capital is chock-full of beautiful churches and cobbled streets just waiting to be strolled, camera in hand. The city's quirky side appears when you stumble across a statue of the musician Frank Zappa, or visit the Bohemian district of Užupis (unofficially an independent republic), an arty enclave to the east of the old town with its own thoroughly tongue-in-cheek President and constitution.

2. The Curonian Spit - A stretch of Baltic coastline shared with Russian Kaliningrad, this shifting stretch of land has long sandy beaches and dunes with enough space to find your own secluded stretch in the sun. Cycling is the best way to get around on the spit, with many guesthouses in Nida offering them for rental.

3. Trakai Castle - An easy day trip from the capital, Trakai is a small town with a picturesque Gothic castle on an island in the middle of a lake. Inside the castle you can see the Trakai Historical Museum with displays on the long history of the town and its two castles.

4. Hill of Crosses - This small hill just north of the city of Šiauliai is completely coated in thousands of crosses of all shapes and sizes. The Soviet authorities continually bulldozed it, but people returned and placed new crosses there as a powerful symbol of resistance and Lithuanian nationalism.

5. Kaunas - Lithuania's second city has many 16th century houses in the laneways surrounding its spacious central square, while the numerous museums are also worth a peek. For those who like oddball attractions there's the quirky Devil museum, with thousands of different devil statues from around the world.

6. Aukštaitija National Park and Paluše village - This national park in the north-east of the country has many small villages with well-preserved folk culture traditions. The oldest and most beautiful wooden church in Lithuania is in Paluše, overlooking Lake Lušiai.

7. Gruto Parkas Soviet Sculpture Park - This outdoor museum near Druskininkai boasts a collection of Soviet-era statues and monuments of Lenin, Stalin and other Communist leaders which once stood in public squares throughout the country.

8. Nida - This small relaxed town at the southern end of the Lithuanian portion of the Curonian Spit has many half-timbered wooden cottages with gingerbread decorations. The town is the main tourist hub for the spit, as well as being the starting point for the walk up to Parnidis sand dune, one of the most dramatic points to get a panoramic view of the spit.

9. Klaipeda - The main gateway for transport to the Curonian Spit and the largest port city in the country, Klaipeda has a long history which is visible in the architectural remnants of its old town quarter.

10. Rumšiškes Outdoor Museum - This open-air ethnographic museum near Kaunas displays an extensive collection of historic cottages, farm buildings, churches and windmills gathered from across Lithuania.

11. Kernave - This UNESCO-listed archeological site near Vilnius includes historic castle mounds and the remains of a medieval town from the time when Kernave was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The extensive historical museum displays many of the artifacts uncovered so far.

12. Palanga - This lively summer beach resort north of Klaipeda is a great place to kick back and enjoy the seaside. The town's Amber Museum in a lavish 19th-century palace has thousands of pieces on display, with many containing prehistoric plants and insects.

13. Žemaitija National Park and Plokštine Soviet missile base museum - This national park features many lakes and forests suitable for activities like canoeing and hiking. The former Plokštine Soviet missile base located within the park is now a Cold War museum.

14. Paneriai Memorial - This site in an outer suburb of Vilnius was the location of the Ponary massacre, where up to 100,000 people, mostly Jews, were killed by the Nazis in World War II. There are monuments to the Jewish and Polish victims, as well as a museum.

15. Dzukija National Park and Zervynos ethnographic village - This national park in the south of the country is a region of pine forests and marshes, with several villages which maintain traditional cultural traditions. Zervynos is a protected ethnographic village which is essentially unaltered from its 18th-century appearance and is one of the best places in the country to experience traditional rural ways of life.

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