Vilnius, capital of the once-vast Duchy of Lithuania and its interwar capital Kaunas, a riverine port and the country’s only Hanseatic Town, both enjoy rich architectural and artistic patrimonies. After Lithuania defeated the Teutonic Knights, these cities garnered riches from trade. Their prosperity is expressed in fine buildings such as Vilnius’ exquisite red brick Gothic St Anne’s Church and the Bernadine Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, and Kaunas’ fine brick medieval merchant houses. Outside these cities, Lithuania’s pristine, picturesque meadows are framed by deep forests and defended by formidable medieval citadels like Trakai Castle, from which the region was ruled before Vilnius’ foundation; it also became home to anti-rabbinical Karaite Jews.
Vilnius Cathedral sits at the city’s heart, founded on ancient pagan ground by Mindaugas, the first Grand Duke to convert to Christianity; the present Neo-Classical monument (18th century) has a wonderful free-standing bell tower. Nearby is the reconstructed Duke’s Palace. Vilnius University (1570), cultural and intellectual heart of the city and an important centre of learning in eastern Europe, has a beautiful church, St John’s. It also has fine courtyards, a grand frescoed Rectors’ Hall and a magnificent Baroque library.
The riverine port of Kaunas, is located on the confluence of the Lithuania’s two largest rivers, the Nemunas and the Neris. It has enjoyed an illustrious history from the 14th to the 20th century. Between 1920 and 1939 it became Lithuania’s capital, the Poles having seized Vilnius. It boasts fine monuments, from lovely brick churches and Gothic merchant houses like the 15th c. Gothic Perkunas House to the grand late Baroque Town Hall tower. Of particular note is the extraordinary modernist Resurrection Church, begun in the 1930s and only recently completed.
Lithuanian national identity is expressed in the Hill of Crosses near Siauliai, a spontaneous and moving religious shrine of folk art believed to have been first mentioned in the 15th century. Tens of thousands of wooden crosses fill the hillside, a testimony to the symbolic power of Lithuanian Catholicism.
Explore the beautifully preserved old towns of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn (all UNESCO World Heritage sites), Tartu and Kaunas. Visit museums, medieval castles, cathedrals and Baroque palaces. Read more