Kaunas has been selected as European Capital of Culture for 2022
SINCE gaining independence in 1991, Lithuania is often Sgrouped with sister Baltic states Estonia and Latvia.
Now, however, it’s breaking free and becoming a destination in its own right.
Most visitors stick to Vilnius but venture beyond the capital and what you’ll find is an authentic, inexpensive, compact country which has much to offer.
Here are our top picks.
Capital Vilnius sees Stalinist architecture sitting side-by-side with Imperial Russian buildings and its beating heart – Europe’s largest surviving medieval old town – is all steeples, domes and pillars.
Fancy some music? A ticket to the opera house will set you back just £8, while mass in the 13th-century cathedral is free.
Alternatively why not bypass Vilnius for one of Lithuania’s lesserknown gems. A burgeoning art scene earned second largest city Kaunas the honour of being selected European Capital of Culture for 2022.
Its castle, grandiose town square and riverside walks are major draws.
The Hill Of Crosses in Siauliai which recalls uprisings against Russia in 1831 and 1863
Lithuania has a thriving folk art scene with a smörgåsbord of traditional crafts, glassblowing, ceramics and papermaking, taught to locals and tourists in a mission to keep Baltic crafts alive.
Vilnius has the pick of the crop for workshops.
Watch stained-glass sculptures being made at No.6 Stikliu Street (a historic road famed for its glassmakers) or learn how to make ceramic pots at nearby Amatu Gildija.
Are bags more your thing? If so, centrally located is atelier-cum-shop Jurate whose free workshops will find you sitting at a 120-year-old loom, learning to weave in the traditional way.
Amber jewellery for sale at street market in Lithuania
TO THE BEACH
It’s little-known that Lithuania has a stunning Baltic Sea coastline – a 60-mile-long finger of sand called Curonian Spit. Lithuania owns the northern half of this peninsula, Russia the rest and the spit’s giant, drifting sand dunes (the tallest is 200ft) are a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The spit boasts an endless stretch of near-empty Blue Flag, white-sand beaches and its most southern and prettiest resort is Nida, with its signature brown and blue clapboard houses.
It’s a two-mile beach walk from here to the Russian border, or instead stay put to wave-jump and scour the sand for washed-up speckles of amber.
Can’t find any? Don’t worry. Nida’s Amber Museum offers hour-long workshops where you can learn about this stone’s healing properties and make your own amulet. Get lucky and yours might contain a 50 million-yearold insect, like that above.
Sunset over Vilnius
Its Swedish and Finnish neighbours have more famous spa scenes but Lithuanians also love to soak and steam while whipping themselves with dried birch twigs.
Nineteenth-century Druskininkai is the country’s oldest spa town.
To swank it up, however, head to hotel Spa Vilnius in the hilly lake region of Anyksciai. Here’s where you’ll find hip, wealthy Lithuanians indulging in a goat’s-milk-with-forestberries bath. Our recommendation is the 60-minute native buckwheat therapy.
A foot bath (in wheat, naturally) is followed by lying on a buckwheat mattress where your upper back, hands and feet are slowly massaged one by one. You’ll leave relaxed and smelling good enough to eat.
Dramatic posters in the former Russian nuclear missile site, now the Cold War Museum
Few people know that Lithuania is home to the ultimate cycle route – a bike path which follows the Baltic coast along the Curonian Spit.
Whether you pedal its entire 60-mile length or just a portion, be sure to deviate from the main path at least once, park your wheels and climb what look like verdant mountains but are in fact massive, undulating sand dunes.
If hiking and water sports are preferred pursuits, however, head to Zemaitija National Park, a fairytale landscape of lake and forest. Most activities centre round Lake Plateliai where you can hire boats or take a dip.
Trees by lake in Trakai, Lithuania
The country’s national dishes of Cepelinai (stuffed potato dumplings) and Saltibarsciai (cold beetroot soup) can be found on menus just about everywhere.
Not tempted? Fear not. Lithuania’s exploding café and restaurant scene is becoming more international. Top tip for lunch is Vista Puode in Kaunas which serves the best goat’s cheese salad we’ve eaten.
For dinner, try the tasting menu at Vilnius’s new kid on the block: Ertlio Namas. It serves gourmet food (and drink) Lithuanian nobility would have eaten a century ago (think quail, sorrel soup with beaver, raspberry mead) and both Lithuania’s President and Norway’s Crown Prince are fans.
A pair of Amber girls in traditional costume
Lithuania is home to a couple of unique wartime remnants.
One is a Russian nuclear missile base built during the 1960s. Now the Cold War Museum, while the missiles have happily gone, you can still climb into a silo.
The other is the Hill of Crosses outside the town of Siauliai. Probably created after uprisings against their Russian rulers in 1831 and 1863, it became a symbol of Lithuania’s resistance, more especially after the Soviet occupation from 1944 to 1990.
The Soviets kept bulldozing the site (which has thousands of crosses). Locals kept replenishing it.
Thought to have healing properties, Pope John Paul II blessed the hill in 1993 and it now draws pilgrims from across the globe.
Regent Holidays (020 7666 1244/ regent-holidays.co.uk) offers nine nights self-drive in Lithuania from £925 (two sharing), B&B. Price includes return Wizz Air flights from Luton to Vilnius, car hire and accommodation. Lithuania tourism: lithuania.travel