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The Republic of Lithuania, on the east coast of the Baltic Sea, boldly became the first of the Soviet republics to declare its independence in 1990. With a restructured economy, it joined the EU in the spring of 2004, and the gates of this fascinating country are now wide open for tourists and pleasure-seekers.
Relatively small, with only 62 miles (100km) of Baltic coastline, and hemmed in by Latvia, Belarus, Poland, and part of the Russian Federation, Lithuania has a wide variety of offerings for visitors, including around 2,500 lakes, 18 sizeable meandering rivers, and forests covering a third of its territory.
The country also boasts of being smack in the centre of Europe: travellers can stand in the official centre of the continent at a now popular tourist attraction 15 miles (24km) northwest of the capital, Vilnius.
Vilnius itself is an ancient and atmospheric city, founded in 1323, with a beautiful old quarter declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just a few miles from Vilnius lies Trakai, capital of Lithuania in the Middle Ages, on the shore of the scenic Lake Galve.
A little farther west, visitors can revel in the peaceful Birstonas mineral water spa resort. Lithuania's second largest city, Kaunas, is a cultural centre boasting numerous museums and a number of renowned theatres among its attractions.
On its Baltic coastline, Lithuania lures travellers with pretty seaside resorts such as Palanga, with unspoilt white sandy beaches backed by pine forests. Easily accessible by air and road from the main centres of Europe, an ever-increasing number of travellers continue to savour the delights of this Baltic State.
Standing guard over the city of Vilnius since the 13th century, the landmark Gediminas Castle was built by the founder of the city and has served as defence bastion, prison, and now major tourist attraction.
Originally, the castle was made of wood, later clad in 10-foot (3m) thick stone walls, and then all but destroyed by Russian troops in the 17th century. Now completely and carefully restored to its former glory, the top of the majestic octagonal tower provides a breath-taking view of the old city.
It is the highest point in the Vilnius Old Town, which itself is a UNESCO-listed site. The castle also contains a museum depicting the history of Lithuania and Vilnius, with exhibits including models of the city at various points in history as well as archaeological finds from the region.
The castle is also an emotional landmark for those who remember the Baltic Chain, or Chain of Freedom, a peaceful political movement which united the three Balkan states in their fight for independence back in 1989 when Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia were republics of the Soviet Union.
The Baltic Chain was a demonstration in which more than two million people joined hands in August 1989 to create a human chain spanning the three Baltic countries to demonstrate their solidarity and their desire for freedom. The chain, a memorable and impactful moment in European history, ended at Gediminas Castle in Lithuania.
The resplendent Vilnius Cathedral, which stands proudly on the central square of the Old City, has a chequered history that left it decaying and abandoned through the Soviet era. The Cathedral now resembles a classical Greek temple more than it does a Christian church.
It's now once again the pride of the city, filled with incredible artworks, traditional icons and history. The cathedral, originally built in the 13th-century, stands on the site of an ancient pagan temple. Rebuilt several times in the succeeding centuries after fires and storm damage, Vilnius Cathedral is an unusual and architecturally impactful cathedral, containing more than 40 paintings and frescoes.
There are a number of chapels which are interesting in their own right, located around the premises. Most noteworthy is the Casimir Chapel, first constructed in 1623, containing eight silver-plated statues and décor wrought by artist Constantino Tencallo. No matter what their religion, visitors tend to find the cathedral impressive and the grounds peaceful and attractive.
Vilnius has some amazing churches and other special attractions in the city include the St Peter and St Paul Church, which houses numerous sculptures, and St Anne's Church, a beautiful Gothic building.
A few miles north of Vilnius town centre, Lithuanian sculptor Gintaras Karosas founded the Europos Parkas (European Park) on a 55-hectare site that encompasses the geographic centre of Europe, as determined by the French National Geographic Institute in 1989.
The Park attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, who come to stand in the centre of the continent and admire a permanent outdoor sculpture exhibition, set amid rolling hills, woods and fields dotted with natural springs.
About 100 works by artists from dozens of different countries are on display. Guided tours are available, and the site includes a small restaurant, shop and post office. European Park is also a really lovely place to enjoy a walk in the natural surroundings and have a picnic.
Autumn is particularly beautiful because of the striking colour of the trees and vegetation but it still remains gorgeous through spring and summer too. In winter, it's perhaps a bit cold but an invigorating stroll through the snowy landscape can be fun, as gates are open all year round.
If you are travelling in Lithuania with children, then Europos Parkas is the ideal family excursion from Vilnius. It's a good opportunity to enjoy some fresh air and let the kids get rid of some energy. Lovers of contemporary art will also enjoy the park, where the sculptures are well integrated into the natural scenery.
In the early 20th century, about half of the population of Vilnius were Yiddish-speaking Jews and the city was dubbed the 'Jerusalem of the North'. The Nazis in World War II effectively obliterated this community, encircling the Jewish quarter in barbed wire.
They marched the 60,000 or so residents into the Paneriai Forest and executed them. Sadly, some sources estimate that the number of Jews killed in Vilnius was far higher. Today, the Genocide Museum has been established at the killing field in memory of the victims of this horror.
There is also a Jewish Museum depicting pre-war Jewish life and visitors are welcome at the only remaining Vilnius Synagogue. The Jews were once numerous in Lithuania, with efforts now underway to rebuild and restore many aspects of the former Jewish Quarter.
Incredibly, some say that Vilnius once housed more than a hundred synagogues, not to mention schools, libraries and other cultural institutions. Tours of Jewish Vilnius incorporate these sombre but extremely worthwhile historical and cultural attractions.
Several private operators offer these tours which should captivate any visitors with an interest in Jewish culture or European history. However, young children may not be prepared for the realities of these tragic sites.
The dark days of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania are preserved in this disturbing collection, which is contained in the former KGB headquarters building; a building which is a symbol of hardship for the Lithuanian population old enough to remember the realities of the occupation.
Those who drew the antagonism of the authorities were detained, tortured and often executed in this building. The Museum of Genocide (Genocido Auku Muziejus) is also often called the KGB Museum and the building remains almost exactly the same as it was during Soviet occupation.
Some of the museum's exhibitions include the 'Eavesdropping Room', highlighting the use of secret surveillance by the KGB, and 'Life Goes On', a look at the day to day living of Lithuanian deportees and prisoners.
There is also the haunting experience of the prison in the basement. Audio guides are available for a small cost and they bring the place vividly to life. Guided tours of the museum are also available in English.
The Genocide Museum is one of the top-rated tourist attractions in Vilnius and the collection is informative, well-organised and haunting. Visitors should note that some of the material is rather macabre and may not be suitable for young children.
Vilnius has a humid continental climate. Summers (June to August) are warm, with daytime temperatures often topping 72°F (22°C), although average temperatures are closer to 62°F (17°C). June is the rainiest month of the year. Winter (December to February) is very cold, with temperatures rarely climbing above 32°F (0°C) and often dropping below 16°F (-9°C). Lakes and rivers freeze over at this time of year.
Lithuania has a climate mid-way between maritime and continental. The weather is changeable, with mild, wet summers and cold winters. Rainfall is spread throughout the year, but more tends to occur on the coast than inland.
Summer and spring are the wettest seasons and cloudy skies and afternoon thunderstorms are common during these months. January is the coldest month, with daytime temperatures averaging around 23°F (-5°C).
Winter months can see temperatures going below -4°F (-20°C), with freezing northeasterly winds. Heavy snows are fairly common in Lithuania. Summer temperatures sit comfortably between 68°F (20°C) and 77°F (25°C), but can reach higher than 86°F (30°C). July is the warmest month.
May to September, in the months of late spring, summer and early autumn, is the most pleasant time to visit Lithuania as winters can be brutally cold. Between May and September, tourists should anticipate some rain. But generally, the weather is lovely.
The summer months of June through August are the most popular times to visit, with many of the country's festivals held during this time, giving some extra incentive to visitors.
The unit of currency is the Euro (EUR), divided into 100 cents. ATMs are found in Vilnius on the Cirrus and Visa networks, but are rare in smaller towns. Most retailers, hotels, restaurants and the like accept credit cards.
Lithuanian is the official language, but Russian and English are widely spoken.
European-style, two-pin plug sockets are standard, with an electrical current of 220 volts, 50Hz.
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Lithuania. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
UK nationals: British passports endorsed 'British Citizen', 'British Subject' (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode issued by the United Kingdom), and 'British Overseas Territories Citizen' issued by Gibraltar, only need to be valid for period of intended stay in Lithuania. All other endorsements require at least three months validity beyond the period of intended stay in Lithuania.
UK nationals: A visa is not required for passports endorsed 'British Citizen', 'British Subject' (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode issued by the United Kingdom), and 'British Overseas Territories Citizen' issued by Gibraltar. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days in a 180 day period for holders of passports with any other endorsement.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Lithuania. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Lithuania. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Lithuania. A visa is required.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid on arrival in Lithuania. No visa is required.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Lithuania. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
The borderless region known as the Schengen Area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option, and which allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all the aforementioned countries.
Non-EEA foreign passengers to Lithuania must hold (i) return/onward tickets, (ii) the necessary travel documentation for their next destination, (iii) sufficient funds to cover their expenses while in the country, and (iv) valid health and travel insurance, to cover any medical expenses incurred while in Lithuania.
NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Travellers intending to visit forest areas for lengthy periods should take the necessary precautions against tick-borne encephalitis. Doctors may also advise vaccinations against hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
EU citizens are entitled to emergency medical treatment if they have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) from their country of origin. Medical facilities are fair and there are plenty of doctors, but equipment and resources are lacking in some areas.
There are a few private clinics of high standard. Doctors and hospitals usually expect immediate cash payment for services. Travel medical insurance is highly recommended.
Safety in Lithuania is not a major issue for travellers as the country is largely devoid of civil unrest and the terrorism threat is low. Car theft is rife, and there is the usual risk of mugging, pick-pocketing and bag snatching, especially on public transport.
The majority of crime is petty rather than life-threatening. Visitors should exercise due care and avoid carrying valuables or flashing conspicuous wealth. It's advisable to carry a copy of your passport for identification purposes. Traffic accidents are common, so extra vigilance is required for driving, especially at night.
The Catholic Church is influential in Lithuania and travellers should be respectful of religious customs. A handshake is the most common greeting among strangers in Lithuania.
Business in Lithuania is rather formal, though the younger generation is less conservative. Face-to-face meetings are key, with good eye contact and a firm handshake upon greeting. Businesspeople usually exchange cards and it is important to be punctual.
Suits and ties are the norm, with titles and surnames used unless otherwise indicated. Lithuanians are hospitable and friendly and any social invitation should be accepted, as this is a good opportunity to forge better business relations and build trust.
Meetings tend to start with some small talk and can sometimes end with a summary of the discussions, though decision making and results can be slow. Business hours are usually from 9am to 1pm and 2pm to 6pm, Monday to Friday.
The international dialling code for Lithuania is +370. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the UK) and the country has three-digit area codes. Local calls can be dialled without the area codes.
There are at least three major mobile GSM network service providers and connections are excellent. There are also 2G and 3G networks, with 4G/LTE networks starting out in the bigger cities. The internet is well-established in Lithuania. Small towns and villages have public internet access points in libraries, post offices and tourist information centres.
Duty free allowances for non-EU travellers to Lithuania include 200 cigarettes or 250g of tobacco or 50 cigars; 1 litre spirits, 4 litres wine or 16 litres beer; perfume for personal use. There is technically no limitation on alcohol and tobacco products for those travelling from other EU countries.
Lithuanian Official Tourism Website: www.tourism.lt
Embassy of Lithuania, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 234 5860.
Embassy of Lithuania, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7592 2840.
Embassy of Lithuania, Ottawa, Canada: +1 (613) 567 5458.
Consulate General of Lithuania, New South Wales, Australia: +61 2 9969 6232.
Honorary Consul of Lithuania, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 328 3550.
Embassy of Lithuania, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 203 5757.
United States Embassy, Vilnius: +370 (5)26 65500.
British Embassy, Vilnius: +370 (5)24 62900.
Canadian Embassy, Vilnius: +370 (5)24 90950.
Australian Honourary Consul, Vilnius: +370 (5)212 3369.
Irish Embassy, Vilnius: +370 (5)262 9460.
The central old quarter of Vilnius is compact and most of the sights visited on foot. Those who would prefer to take in the sights in a more leisurely manner can make use of the city's efficient network of buses and trolleybuses; fares can be paid on boarding or tickets bought at a discount from newspaper kiosks.
Most visitors prefer to make use of taxis, which are relatively cheap, although it is wise to ensure the driver has switched on the meter before leaving on the journey, or to negotiate a fare before setting off.
Taxis can be hailed on the street, ordered by telephone or found at ranks at strategic spots in the old town. Self-driving in the city isn't recommended because of heavy, undisciplined traffic. All the large international car hire companies have offices in the city and at the airport.
Visitors to Vilnius should be aware that, although the city is generally very safe, petty theft and pick-pocketing can unfortunately be a problem on public transport. People are also sometimes targeted while walking around. So although it is a great destination to traverse on foot, try not to walk alone at night, or display conspicuous wealth while getting around in the city.
Slap bang in the middle of Europe, the capital of Lithuania is a delightful medieval city of magnificent churches, art and nightclubs. It's a combination which gives it a unique ambience and explains why more people are enjoying holidaying in Vilnius.
It is an historic old city, with a wealth of cultural attractions and very picturesque surroundings. The UNESCO-listed old quarter is particularly enthralling. Many of the most popular attractions in Vilnius are memorials, it's a city that has seen much tragedy in its long history.
Worthwhile sites include the Museum of Genocide Victims, several memorials to the Jewish population wiped out during World War II, and the Hill of Three Crosses, which legend decrees was originally the site of the martyring of several monks.
Although some of the subject matter in the city's museums and memorials is sombre or macabre, Vilnius is a proud city and there is an aura of triumph as well. The numerous lovely churches, pretty surroundings, sidewalk café culture and charming cobbled streets offer many happy diversions for tourists.
The best time to travel to Vilnius is during its sunny, warm summers when temperatures can soar to 86°F (30°C) and it remains light long into the evening, making it possible for those enjoying a Vilnius holiday to make the most of the outdoor restaurants and bars. Winter, by contrast, is not a good time to travel to Vilnius as temperatures plummet below freezing.
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