Destination Lithuania

Lithuania in EuropeThis page is divided into two sections. The first section contains general information about Lithuania and the second part contains information about all the cities I have been to.  

General information about Lithuania
Lithuania is a Baltic country in Northern Europe. It has a Baltic Sea coastline in the west and is surrounded by Latvia to the north, Belarus to the east, Poland to the southwest, and Russia's exclave, the Kaliningrad Oblast, to the west.

The country has been an active member of the European Union since May 1st 2004 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since March 29th in that same year.

Lithuania is the only Baltic country with more than eight hundred years of statehood tradition and its name was first mentioned one thousand years ago, in 1009. Wedged at the dividing line of Western and Eastern civilizations, the country battled dramatically for its independence and survival. Once in the Middle Ages Lithuania was the largest state in the entire continent of Europe, where crafts and overseas trade prospered. Lithuania have been a part of Poland, Denmark, Sweden, tzar Russia and the Soviet Union. and this have influenced architecture and the Lithuanian cosine amongst other things. 

The official language of Lithuania is Lithuanian, making up one of only two languages (along with Latvian) on the Baltic branch of the Indo-European family. Despite the kinship of Lithuanian to many other European languages, the archaic nature of its grammar makes it hard for foreigners unfamiliar with the language to form even basic sentences.

English is generally well spoken and preferred foreign language by the younger generations. The older generations might have just the very basic spoken English skills and it be especially difficult for them to understand strong English accents (written English might help). Most people of the older generation know Russian. Polish is somewhat understood in certain areas of Vilnius as well as south-east and southern districts of the country. German is spoken or understood better than elsewhere in Klaipėda, Neringa, Palanga and Šventoji. Keep in mind that all this is just a generalization and should be not applied blindly. The travellers who learn a few basic phrases of the local language are always amply awarded with good will and appreciation for their efforts, however sometimes it may be tricky: if your accent makes those local phrases unrecognizable you probably will be awarded blank face and a shy smile.

In case you managed to master some spoken Lithuanian, it may be extremely beneficial if you have any long-term or deeper interests. Just be prepared, that you will be learning the so called Standard Lithuanian, understood by all. However if local people respond in a local dialect you may understand nothing, especially outside the largest cities. You have then to say: I'm from city, I have only learned the "city Lithuanian" - and the wide smile on local person's face will testify that you are on a right way.

In case you're quite indifferent to national identities, simply remember that you are in Lithuania, not in a Russian colony and no longer in the Soviet Union: Lithuanians won't appreciate your efforts to stress your indifference. Lithuanians are Baltic; however, it's common for tourists to think that they are somehow connected with Russians. They form their own distinct ethnic group and speak their own language (Lithuanian), which is one of the most archaic Indo-European languages, belonging to the Baltic (not the Slavic) branch of Indo-European languages.

Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union from the end of World War II until 1991. You should also try to remember that the Lithuanian capital is Vilnius, not Riga, which is the capital of neighbouring Latvia, a common mistake for travellers and an annoyance to locals.

Because of war time occupations by Tsarist Russia in the 19th century, the Soviet Union in the 20th century and the territorial disputes with Poland in the early 20th century, conversations revolving around disputes with neighbouring countries are not a good idea for those not from the region. Be careful when mentioning Lithuania in the context of the former USSR. Any praising of Soviet practices is very unlikely to be understood or appreciated by the Lithuanians. Talking about World War II or the Holocaust is not something to talk about either. This is because this is a very touchy subject to many Lithuanians.

Lithuanians may appear at times nationalistic; however, it is with good reason that they are a proud nation as they have fought to maintain their cultural identity through dark times, and this has kept them a unique and in general a warm and charming people. Although most Lithuanians officially are Catholics, native (pagan) Lithuanian religion is still alive in traditions, ethnoculture, festivals, music etc.

Lithuanians may appear sad, depressive (suicide rates in Lithuania are among the highest in the world), a little bit rude and suspicious, so talking about your good health, wealth, and happiness could be sometimes taken negatively. Smile at a Lithuanian in the street and most likely they will not respond in kindness. Smiling in Lithuania is traditionally reserved for friends; smile at a stranger and they will either think you're making fun of them and there's something wrong with their clothes or hairdo, or that you must be an idiot. 

Women are traditionally treated with utmost respect. Female travellers should not act surprised or indignant when their Lithuanian male friends pay their bills at restaurants, open every door in front of them, offer their hand to help them climb down that little step or help them carry anything heavier than a handbag - this is not sexual harassment or being condescending to the weaker sex. Male travellers should understand that this is exactly the sort of behaviour that most Lithuanian girls and women will expect from them, too.

Travel to Lithuania
Most airlines arrive at the main Vilnius International Airport and some at the smaller, seaside Palanga Airport, while budget carriers such as Ryanair land in Kaunas International Airport. Kaunas airport also has a direct link with Warsaw by LOT. For destinations in Northern Lithuania, Riga Airport in Latvia is an attractive option. There are no shuttle bus between the airport and city center in Vilnius. You could take bus line #1 to the main buss station and move on from there. The main bus station is situated right next to the main train station. There are several bus companies that takes you to and from Vilnius. Some of these are Busturas, ECOLINES, Eurolines, Kautra, Lux Express and Simple Express, Polski Bus

A taxi from the airport to Vilnius old town costs somewhat less than 30 Euro. 

There are train connections to Minsk, Moscow and Kaliningrad from Vilnius and weekend trains from Kaunas to Białystok that are also connected with trains to Vilnius and Warsaw.

Major "Via Baltica" road links Kaunas to Warsaw and Riga/Tallinn. The Baltic road, which links Vilnius to Tallinn, was just reconstructed. It is a very easy and pleasant route. Overall, the major roads between the cities are of decent quality. Be extremely cautious when getting off the main roads in rural areas, as some of them may contain pot holes and general blemishes which could damage a regular car if you go too fast. While driving between cities there are usually cafes and gas stations with bathrooms and snacks. 

There are several ferries from Klaipeda to Sweden, Germany, Denmark. See the homepage of DFDS Seaways for more information. 

Travelling within Lithuania
Litrail has services to major cities in Lithuania as well as to some small towns and villages which are difficult to reach by other public transport. Fares are low compared to Western Europe: Vilnius-Kaunas costs about €5.20, with Vilnius-Klaipėda at approximately €15.

Many of the long distance trains have compartments which can accommodate six seated passengers or four sleeping passengers. The headrest can be lifted up to form a very comfortable bunk bed, which can be used while people are seated below. The seats themselves form the other pair of beds. As some journeys are quite long (about 5h in the case of Vilnius-Klaipėda), it is common to see people sleeping on the upper bunks during daytime journeys as well.

Generally the railway network is not considered as an alternative to the road network as it does not exactly duplicates the roads. As a result some places are more convenient to reach by train, some other places by bus, even if the railway and the highway are not far apart. Examples of the destinations which are more convenient to reach by train: Ignalina, a main point where the trip to Aukštaitija National Park begins; Kaunas' eastern part around the dam where several recreation areas and tourist objects are situated (one have to get off at Palemonas suburb). This makes the question "which one is better, train or bus?" rather hard to answer because it depends on the specifics.

Hitchhiking in Lithuania is generally good. Get to the outskirts of the city, but before cars speed up to the highway speeds. The middle letter on the older licence plates (with Lithuanian flag) of the three letter code usually corresponds with the city of registration (V for Vilnius, K for Kaunas, L for Klaipeda, etc.). Newer licence plates (with EU flag) are not bound to city of registration in any way.

The buses usually run more slowly than where a Western has got used due to if it is not a question of Ekspresas, the bus stops at every stop exactly. There are two types of bus lines and three types of the bus stops: "red" stops for "Ekspresas" buses (very few, the journey with "Ekspresas" is quick), "yellow" stops for the regular intercity buses, and the "blank" stops for suburban buses (very frequent, the journey is slow). The color is a color of a road sign for the bus stop. For example 40km the trip by suburban bus can last thus an hour. Some buses are old cars that have mainly been brought from the Nordic countries, some are new ones, it is not predictable which one you will get. Practically, when you travel the time is most important factor and the best decision is to take the closest bus which runs in the right direction.

There is usually its own bus company on every town (district centre) and more than one company in the largest towns. Just to name few, TOKS (long distance routes) and mini bus company Transrevis which will drive turns between Kaunas and Vilnius, are based in VilniusKauTra (Kaunas Transport) additionally specializes in bicycle transfer service, though luggage compartments vary in size and not all types of bicycles always can fit in. The company offers the option to transport the bike to the agreed stop by the next bus with capacious compartment, informing you about the delivery by the short message to your cell phone. However, during the high season in summer popularity of this service is enormous, one should have that in mind if planning the trip by bicycle. Šiauliai company Busturas, in addition to the regular routes, offers the tours to and from Riga (Latvia) via Rundale which otherwise is inconvenient to visit from Lithuania. Klaipėda Bus Fleet (Klaipėdos autobusų parkas) is based in Klaipėda and serves mostly the routes in the Western part of the country as well as some international routes. There are also several smaller intercity and suburban bus companies in all the cities mentioned above.

The bulk of Lithuania's bus routes and turns have been listed in an address from which you also can reserve the tickets for certain routes. However, pay attention to the fact that the payment system supports only some of the Lithuanian banks for the present and the credit card at the moment does not suit.

The list above is only for the intercity buses, which generally is sufficient. There are two types of bus lines in Lithuania: intercity (tarpmiestiniai) buses and suburban (priemiestiniai) buses. This is reflected in the structure of the bigger bus stations, for example Vilnius bus station has two sections, a suburban "blue" one (blue color dominates in the timetables, destination plates on buses are written in blue) and a intercity "red" one (red colour dominates in the timetables, destination plates on buses are written in either blue or red). Thus, for example, "Trakai" direction has two platforms, a "red" one where intercity buses leave directly towards Trakai, and a "blue" one where suburban buses leave to Trakai but run different routes, zig-zagging from village to village and finally arrive to Trakai. Similarly, at the Trakai bus station there are two platforms for "Vilnius" direction: blue one and red one. It is important to know that the "red" (intercity) bus always is faster. At the same time, intercity bus does not stop everywhere, for example the bus stop near the Hill of Crosses is for suburban buses only, if you wait there you can see many buses passing by but they won't stop there, you have to wait for a "blue" (suburban) bus. Schedules for suburban buses usually are put up separately from the schedules for intercity buses.

For buses and trolley-buses on routes within towns and cities it is usual to buy the ticket from the driver. Recently the electronic ticketing has been introduced in major cities, but still the ticket can be obtained from the driver, though the types of tickets vary from town to town, for example in Vilnius you have to validate (stamp using one of the punches for paper tickets) the ticket obtained from the driver (thus you can buy several tickets and use them later), in other cities you get a one-ride ticket which already is valid for this particular ride. Inspectors periodically check tickets and will issue a fine if you cannot produce a correctly punched ticket or your electronic ticket is not valid. The bus is exited by the middle door and it is important to head for the door before the bus has stopped - it can be impossible to leave once people have started boarding; and if the driver sees that the bus stop outside is empty and nobody waits to leave the bus, the bus can skip the stop.

In addition to common buses run by municipality, many towns have private minibuses which usually operate express routes.

Taxis run on a meter and can be booked by the phone numbers shown on the door of the taxi. Taxis are relatively cheap compared to western Europe. Some companies may not be as honest as others, common sense will keep you safe in this regard. It is common to ask about the approximate price to your destination in advance before boarding the taxi. If the answer does not satisfy you, you are not obliged to board this vehicle. Therefore, Lithuanians prefer to call the taxi by phone in order to know the price and the time of journey, and at the same time to be sure that the driver who will take them is aware of destination and the agreed price. However not all operators speak fluent English, nor drivers. On the other hand, people typically know more than one or two languages and know how to explain the relevant information without being fluent, this applies to drivers and passengers as only a minority of travellers from abroad are native English speakers.

Lithuanian traffic moves on the right and, as with most of the world, all distances are posted in km. Headlights are mandatory and must be kept on at all times when driving. Wearing the seat-belt is mandatory for both driver and passengers.

The alcohol limit is up to 0.4‰ for the drivers who have at least 2 years of driving experience of category B vehicle; 0.0‰ for others.

Places to sleep 
There are two main clearly distinguished types of accommodation in Lithuania: “urban style” accommodation and “countryside style” accommodation. Roughly the former type is called Viešbutis (Hotel), and the latter is called Sodyba (Homestead). Which one belongs to the actual hotel or hostel, or B&B, or some other standard international category depends on how the owners' marketing policy is aimed at foreign visitors. Domestically it is considered that the actual difference is only in those two types of accommodation and price. For example, the range of “urban” type of accommodation may be called by locals a luxury hotel, budget hotel, a cosy hotel, and a motel – those all versus the “homestead”, which can range from a cosy little farmhouse style hotel to mini-resort. This may be very useful to know if you want to move around without pre-booking accommodation or just in unusual circumstances: you’ll be able to understand locals if they say that “there are no hotels, only one farmstead (homestead) nearby”, and you won’t try to insist that “there must be a B&B, I know that for sure”.

You may use i .e. hotels.combooking.com or hostelworld.com to find somewhere to sleep. If you want to rent a private home Airbnb.com could be something for you.

Money and banking
On Jan 1 of 2015, Euro became the national currency replacing litas at the rate of EUR 1.00 = LTL 3.45280. 

Vaccine and health 
No inoculations are needed to enter or leave Lithuania. In the winter only influenza can cause you a considerable inconvenience. 

Lithuania provides free state-funded healthcare to all citizens and registered long-term residents. If you travel from a country that is member of the European Union remember to bring your European Health Insurance Card in adition to travel insurance in case something happens. Private healthcare is also available in the country. In 2016, Lithuania ranked 27th in Europe in the Euro health consumer index, a ranking of European healthcare systems based on waiting time, results and other indicators.

By 2000 the vast majority of Lithuanian health care institutions were non-profit-making enterprises and a private sector developed, providing mostly outpatient services which are paid for out-of-pocket. The Ministry of Health also runs a few health care facilities and is involved in the running of the two major Lithuanian teaching hospitals. It is responsible for the State Public Health Centre which manages the public health network including ten county public health centres with their local branches. The ten counties run county hospitals and specialised health care facilities.

There is now Compulsory Health Insurance for Lithuanian residents. There are 5 Territorial Health Insurance Funds, covering Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipėda, Šiauliai and Panevėžys. Contributions for people who are economically active are 9% of income.

Emergency medical services are provided free of charge to all residents. Access to hospital treatment is normally by referral by a General Practitioner. Lithuania also has one of the lowest health care prices in Europe.

Visa 
Lithuania is a member of the Schengen Agreement. There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented this treaty - the European Union (except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty, and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union. This means that there may be spot customs checks but no immigration checks (travelling within Schengen but to/from a non-EU country) or you may have to clear immigration but not customs (travelling within the EU but to/from a non-Schengen country).

Crime 
In general you should take basic safety measures. Take care when visiting potentially dangerous neighbourhoods at night. After dark it is safer to walk along main roads, than to take a short cut through a park or apartment complex, as these areas often have very poor lighting. Take a taxi if you are nervous. A thing to watch out for is bicycle theft, and it is advisable not to leave valuable things in your car.

As with eastern Europe in general, openly gay behaviour such as holding hands or kissing may result in a violent confrontation from an onlooker. Suspicion of homosexuality may also cause problems; two male visitors to a straight nightclub should sit a respectable distance apart, even if they are heterosexual. Overall, if you are a man that prefers other men over females you should not be open about it. Usually, the ones that are proud about it get harassed. On the other hand, lesbians are not typically attacked.

Members of ethnic minorities, (particularly those of African descent), may experience some form of racism. This is not tolerated by the authorities and racist attacks are rare. However non-whites may at least have to get used to being stared at by locals, especially in rural areas. More often than not this can be out of pure curiosity rather than malice. The issue of race relations, the history of slavery and civil rights are relatively unknown. That said, the presence of several Afro-American basketball players in the Lithuanian league does help and means that racism is perhaps not as big a problem as in other eastern European countries. The best way to overcome any minor issues is to maintain a dignified air and understanding that for many Lithuanians living in a homogeneous society, they may not have had any previous contact with a person of colour. Therefore, if you are a dark skinned, do not be surprised that they whisper to each other. You might hear them saying something similar to "nigger". They do not say it because they mean to disrespect you. They do not understand why it is a wrong thing to do, since they hear this word in movies and music in a language which is foreign to them.

Driving in Lithuania is considered dangerous according to European standards. Lithuania's rapidly expanding economy has lead to an increase in traffic density, thus accident rates are high. As a pedestrian, take great care when crossing the roads, as pedestrian crossings may be ignored by cheeky drivers. When driving be careful of aggressive, quickly going and irresponsible drivers. It's better to pass them even if they are flouting rules. Keep in mind that traffic police could be corrupt. Mind the forest roads, collisions with wildlife animals can easily occur.

Cuisine and drink
Lithuanian cosine are influenced from both German and Russian cosine. Dinners usually include meat, potato, vegetables and sometimes a curd sauce of some sort. Case in point: the cepelinai, or zeppelins, which are meat filled potato-starch based zeppelin-shaped masses traditionally slathered in a sauce of sour cream, butter, and pork cracklings. Pork is traditionally eaten, beef much less so. Needless to say, vegans will have a hard time eating out, although some large restaurant chains will have vegetarian dishes on the menu.

Some fast food in Lithuania, such as Kibinai, (from the Karaim people) small turnovers usually filled with spiced lamb, and Cheburekai (a Russian snack), large folds of dough with a scant filling of meat, cheese, or even apples, can be found around the city.

Many restaurants have menus in English (usually in the Lithuanian menu) and to a lesser extent, Russian. Though use caution as sometimes menus in other languages may have inflated prices, although this is a rarity, and won't be found in Vilnius, or the better known chains such as Čili Pica (Chili Pizza).

If you are traveling to Lithuanian shore from the eastern part of Lithuania and you are passing through Karmelava you must try Cepelinai. 

Lithuania is a beer drinking country, with the most famous brands being Švyturys, Kalnapilis, Utenos, Horn and Gubernija. A visit to a kiosk will show that there may be more than 50 different brands of beer in this small country. Alcohol percentages are displayed on the label, and usually range from 4 to 9.5 percent. Compared to other European countries, beer is usually affordable, in shops approx. 0.50 to 1 € per half litre, in bars approx. 0.75 to 2 € per half litre (beer is sold by the half or full litre, a full litre being found rarely). The beer tastes excellent, putting global brands to shame and it can be said that Lithuanian lager is of at least equal quality to Czech, Slovak, German, and Polish lager. A request for a Lithuanian beer always generates goodwill, even in a Chinese or other foreign-themed restaurant.

When you visit a bar or restaurant without intending to eat, try one of the bar snacks, which are very popular among Lithuanians. The most popular of these snacks consists of a bowl of pieces of garlic bread covered in cheese.

In addition to beer, rather cheap but high quality vodka (or "degtinė" in Lithuanian) is consumed, but not to the extent usually associated with this part of the world. Also, every region has its own home-made speciality of which "Samane" is most famous/notorious and is best avoided. The larger supermarkets have an incredible variety of vodka from all the main vodka-producing countries.

Lithuanian mead, or midus is a beverage produced exclusively under government control. It is commonly made from all sorts of Lithuanian flora, from leaves and berries to some tree bark. Alcohol percentages range from 10% to 75% (considered medicinal).

For tourists, quality sparkling wines, such as Alita or Mindaugas, and local liqueurs are popular choices to bring back home.

In shops and cafés different tea and coffee qualities are widely available. The selection in coffee ranges from northern European brands to French ones. In coffee houses, you should expect to pay up to 1.50 € for your coffee. Some cafés offer also a variety of special coffees with more or less special prices. Many cafes (kavinės) still make "lazy" coffee, which is simply coffee grounds and boiling water, unfiltered, with grounds at the bottom of the cup, often surprising the drinker - ask before you buy! Tea is usually sold at 50% of the price of coffee. Some of the wonderful drinks such as the Marganito are great for fun filled party drinks and rated one of the top kinds of wine in the country, perfect for weddings.

Unlike restaurants, or pubs aimed at tourists, bars (Baras) may be frequented by heavy drinkers and can therefore be somewhat rowdy. Nevertheless a visit may still be very rewarding, especially if you accept an invitation to participate in karaoke.

A law banning smoking in cafés, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, discotheques and other public establishments was passed in May 2006, and came into effect on 1 Jan 2007. However, many nightclubs have internal smoking rooms, which have a degree of ventilation. A law also prohibits selling alcohol in shops between 10PM and 8AM (bars, cafes, restaurants etc. are exempt from this).

Tap water is suitable for drinking in many parts of Lithuania. In other areas, local people prefer to purchase bottled water or to run tap water through water filters. If you need to buy bottled water, a 5 litre bottle is not much more expensive than a one litre bottle. Where in doubt about the tap water, seek local advice.

Mineral water is also offered in restaurants, cafés and shops, although it's a bit more expensive than tap water. Some popular brands are RasaTichė and Vytautas.

Places I have been to in Lithuania
Vilnius is the capital in Lithuania and is situated in the southeastern part of the country. It is the second largest city in the Baltic states. The name of the city originates from the Vilnia River. The city has also been known by many derivate spellings in various languages throughout its history. Although the original city location was lost due to erosion, the present day Old Town reappeared in the Middle Ages. Vilnius is quite green city, it especially is noticeable in summer as the greenery often obstructs to photograph the buildings.

Everything touristy in Vilnius are within walking distance and everything is flat so you don't get exhausted from walking up and down all the time as you do in i.e Portugal. The city is surpringsingly clean and there are bins all over.

There are 65 churches in Vilnius. Like most medieval towns, Vilnius was developed around its Town HallPilies Street, the main artery, links the Royal Palace with Town Hall. Other streets meander through the palaces of feudal lords and landlords, churches, shops and craftsmen's workrooms. Narrow, curved streets and intimate courtyards developed in the radial layout of mediaeval Vilnius. The Old Town of Vilnius is the historical centre of Vilnius about 3.6 km2 (1.4 sq mi) in size. The most valuable historic and cultural sites are concentrated here. 

The Vilnius Castle Complex, a group of defensive, cultural, and religious buildings that includes Gediminas Tower of the Upper Castle (which is a part of National Museum of Lithuania), Cathedral Square and the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania are places definitely are worth a visit. The Užupis district near the Old Town, which used to be one of the more run down districts of Vilnius during the Soviet era, is home to a movement of bohemian artists, who operate numerous art galleries and workshops.

The cathedral in Vilnius is one of the nicest cathedrals I have been to and it is possible to walk to the top of the bell tower for a fee. Close to Konstantino Sirvydo square is a marked  that you probably should check out as well. 

Vilnius is famous for its amber and wool products. Most shops that sell amber says it is "Baltic amber" and this is because it probably not is from Lithuania. Amber may look nice but some shops could sell plastic that not really is amber but looks like it.