One of the three Baltic states, Lithuania is bordered by Latvia to the north, Belarus to the west and south, Poland to the south and Kaliningrad to the south-west. This small country has a population of 3 million with about 600,000 residing in the capital, Vilnius. Lithuania was also the first country from the soviet bloc to gain independence!
Named a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1994, the old town of Vilnius is the main draw of the city. The winding streets can be a little confusing to navigate at times, but the old town is quite nice. Vilnius was named the European Capital of Culture in 2009.
- Above is the main town square, the central meeting point in the city.
- Here is one of the 70 churches located in Vilnius. 80% of them are Roman Catholic but Lithuanians aren’t overly religious today. In fact, a number of Lithuanians repeated the same phrase to me when I asked about religion. “basketball is our religion”
The second largest city in Lithuania is located just an hour-and-a-half bus ride away from Vilnius. The two cities have a friendly rivalry and most Lithuanians from Vilnius will tell you to avoid Kaunas altogether. I’m glad I decided to ignore that advice to spend a day in this charming University city!
Like Vilnius, Kaunas is a green city full of trees lining the streets and parks outside of the main city centre. With a population of around 300,000 Kaunas is noticeably smaller than Vilnius and in my opinion, is easier to navigate. Everything is located within a short walking distance from the main square, which also leads right into the old town.
I managed to luck out for my one night in town because the European men’s basketball semi-final was taking place against Serbia. While the actual game was taking place in France, the citizens of Kaunas decided to pack the local stadium to watch the game.
If you’ve never managed to watch a national basketball game with some Lithuanians, add this to your bucket list! They are a nice mixture of insanely passionate and a little crazy… Thankfully, Lithuania managed to win the match as I’ve heard riots aren’t uncommon after a big loss.
Located in between the two main cities, and only a 25-minute bus from Vilnius, is the small but beautiful town of Trakai. Here you will find the iconic Salos island castle:
- Although the castle is quite busy, if you walk to the other side of the lake, there are some abandoned buildings which provide an excellent view!
- However, they are littered with glass and are quite sketchy…
Trakai is home to about 5,000 inhabitants and it is a very interesting city as it has been built and preserved by a number of different nationalities over the years: Tatars, Lithuanians, Russians, Poles and Jews have all played an important role in the city!
Lithuania switched to the Euro in 2015, changing from the Lita which had been in place since 1993. Prices are slowly increasing but it is still a cheap place to visit as good hostels can be found for $10-12 CDN. Vilnius is roughly a 4-hour bus from Riga, Latvia and it’s a quick 8-hour overnight bus from Warsaw, Poland. So if you’re in the area, why not stop in to this crazy basketball nation?