Day Trips from Vilnius

September 12, 2013 by

Day Trips, Europe, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

In a country the size of Lithuania, almost any place could make a good day trip from the capital, Vilnius. While Vilnius sits near Lithuania’s western border with Belarus, you can get to Klaipeda on the shores of the Baltic Sea in around 3 hours by car or 4 hours by train or bus. There are plenty of things to do in Vilnius itself, but if you have the time to get outside the city and explore more of Lithuania, it is a great way to get more of a feel for Lithuania as a whole. Kaunas, Trakai, the Hill of Crosses and Druskininkai all make excellent day trips from Vilnius.

Kaunas

Kaunas

Kaunas. Photo credit: Christine und Hagen Graf via Flickr.

Just an hour by train from Vilnius, Kaunas is the second largest city in Lithuania and its one-time capital. Located at the confluence of the two largest rivers in the country, there is evidence that settlers lived in the Kaunas area as early as the first and second millennia B.C. Legend has it that the city itself was founded by the Romans in ancient times. Prior to World War II, Kaunas was a center for Jewish learning and boasted a rich Jewish culture, but by the end of the war, the Jewish population had shrunk considerably. Today, the city’s population is 94% Lithuanian, making it one of the most Lithuanian cities in the country.

Kaunas is a pleasant town to simply wander around, with a charming Old Town that sprung to life between the 1th and 17th centuries in a variety of architectural styles, including Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance. The heart of the Old Town is City Hall Square, which is surrounded by restaurants, bars, museums and galleries, as well as the City Hall, which today houses a ceramics museum. Vilniaus Street is the main drag of the Old Town, a pedestrian mall lined with buildings dating back to the 16th century. On Vilniaus is where you will find the Kaunas Basilica Cathedral, the largest Gothic church in Lithuania which was first mentioned as early as 1413. Connecting the Old Town with the New Town is Laisves Avenue, an attractive pedestrian mall built in the 19th century.

Near the Old Town, you will find the remains of the 14th century Kaunas Castle, the first stone castle in the country. Built in a Gothic style with two rows of protective walls, the preserved remains of the castle reveal its original structure and shape and provide insight into Lithuanian architecture at the time.

Kaunas is home to a plethora of museums – more than you could possibly hope to visit in a day trip.  The War Museum of Vytautas the Great, named after the former Grand Duke of Lithuania, displays historical artifacts from prehistoric times to the present, including a large collection of weapons and ammunition and the airplane Lituanica which was low across the Atlantic Ocean in 1933. Located on Vienybes Square, the museum shares a building with the M.K. Ciurlionis National Art Museum. The Art Museum features the work of 20th century avant garde artist M. K. Ciurlionis, who was determined to combine painting and music in his work.  Other museums worth a stop include the Lithuanian Aviation Museum, the Communications History Museum, the Museum of Deportation and Resistance and the Devils’ Museum, which displays more than 2,000 sculptures and carvings of devils from around the world, including Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin devils

Just outside of the city center is the Ninth Fort, a somber but worthwhile stop on a visit to Kaunas. Part of the Kaunas Fortress, the Ninth Fort was used as a way-station for prisoners going to labor camps during Soviet times and as a place of execution for Jews and other captured Soviets during Nazi occupation.

Visit Kaunas on a day trip from Vilnius

Trakai

Trakai Castle

Trakai Castle

A small city home to just over 5,000 people, Trakai is probably the easiest day trip from Vilnius. Just 30-45 minutes away by train, it sits within the Trakai Historical National Park – the only historical national park in Europe. Trakai is best known for its fairy tale like castle known simply as the Trakai Island Castle. Originally built in the early 15th century, replacing an earlier wooden structure, the castle was refurbished in 1548 but then fell into disrepair.  A war in the mid-17th century destroyed the castle and much of the town and it wasn’t until the 1960s that reconstruction work began on the upper castle and high tower.  The reconstruction was done in a 15th century Gothic style and wasn’t completed until the early 1990s. Today, the castle houses the impressive Trakai History Museum, which traces the history of both the castle and surrounding area.

There is more to see in Trakai than just the Island Castle.  Not far from the castle, you can see the ruins of the Peninsular Castle, which dates to the 14th century, and in a small Dominican chapel nearby, you will find the Sacral Art Exposition featuring Lithuanian religious objects dating back centuries. The Karaim Ethnographic Exposition provides an interesting look at the history, traditions, home and customs of the Karaim people, who came to Lithuania from the Crimea nearly 600 years ago. To get a feel for Lithuania in the 19th and early 20th centuries, pay a visit to the Uzutrakis Manor House and Park.

Finally, with so many lakes, Trakai is a great destination for those who enjoy the outdoors. Walk or bike along the lake shores or rent a boat, canoe or pontoon to enjoy the Trakai from the water. Just outside of Trakai, horseback riding is also available.

Reserve a Trakai Castle and Museum Tour

Hill of Crosses

Hill of Crosses

Hill of Crosses. Photo credit: Guillaume Speurt via Flickr.

Visiting the Hill of Crosses is probably best done as a day trip from Riga, Latvia or as an overnight stop on your way from Vilnius to Riga or vice versa. But, if you are only visiting Vilnius, it can make a worthwhile, albeit long, day trip from Vilnius as well. Located just outside the town of Siauliai in northern Lithuania, the Hill of Crosses is one of the most unique sites in all of Europe. Its exact origin is unclear, but some people trace it back to Lithuanian uprisings against Russian rule in the mid-19th century. Over time, the Hill has become a peaceful place for Lithuanians to pray and to memorialize loved ones who have passed away. During Soviet times, despite Soviet attempts to destroy the hill on several occasions, it endured and served as a sign of peaceful resistance to Soviet rule.

About a mile off the main road from Siauliai, the Hill may surprise you as you first approach it; it isn’t as tall or grand in scale as you may have imagined. Nonetheless, it is home to more than 100,000 crosses from all over the world that stand on and around the Hill. The crosses may be made of wood, metal or plastic and come in all shapes and sizes. Some are engraved, while others have names and dates written on in dark marker. You will see the names of individuals and their hometowns, from Lithuania to Poland to Brazil to Korea. And for those who would like to leave crosses themselves, they are available from a kiosk across the road from the Hill.

Book a private tour to the Hill of Crosses near Siauliai

Druskininkai

Druskininkai

Druskininkai. Photo credit: Hans Põldoja via Flickr.

Druskininkai is Lithuania’s oldest spa town and attracts Lithuanian and foreign tourists alike. In addition to the numerous spas, it is the hometown of M.K. Ciurlionis, the country’s most popular painter-musician and the M.K. Ciurlionis Memorial Museum is one of several attractions in town.  In the center of the city, you will find Laisves square, once one of the largest squares in the Soviet Union. Overlooking the square is the Nemunas Sanatorium and a 19th century Russian Orthodox church. The top floor of the city’s Cultural Center houses the Museum of Armed Resistance, which details the resistance to Soviet rule.

Just two hours from Vilnius by bus near the borders with Belarus and Poland, Druskininkai is also the main jumping off point to visit Grutas Park, a controversial sculpture park just a few miles outside of town. Also known as Stalin World, the park was built to resemble a Siberian labor camp and features a variety of Soviet paraphernalia, souvenirs and sculptures, including more than a dozen Lenins and two Stalins. Buses run from the Druskininkai bus station to Grutas Park regularly or you can rent a bike and follow the Zilnas Path for about 5 miles to get there. Or, take a private tour of Grutas Park departing from Vilnius.

 - Katie Aune

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One Response to “Day Trips from Vilnius”

  1. Oskars from Riga Says:

    Have been traveling around Lithuania and liked it a lot. I would definitely recommend Lithuania as one of the “Must visit” places in Northern Europe. Thanks

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