Lithuania has a long and varied history. Originally a powerful empire that dominated most of Eastern Europe in the 14th-16th centuries, it then became part of the Polish-Lithuanian confederation for the next two centuries. It was briefly independent between 1918 to 1940. Aside from that, it was occupied by Russia from 1795, briefly controlled by Germany during World War Two, and was incorporated into the USSR in 1944 as one of the constituent republics. In 1990, Lithuania declared its independence by unanimous vote of its newly elected parliament. It was acknowledged by the new Soviet parliament as independent later the same year.
As a result of its long and varied history, Lithuania is home to a number of stunning historic churches, monuments, and museums. Here’s our selection of 10 sites to visit when visiting.
What are the best Historic Sites in Lithuania?
Gediminas Tower in Vilnius is the only remaining structure of what was once the city’s Upper Castle. The Upper Castle was one of three castles in Vilnius, all of which suffered a series of attacks in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, particularly by the Teutonic Order.
Today, Gediminas Tower is open to the public as part of the Vilnius Castle Museum. Inside it houses models of what the castle once looked like and it has an observation deck from which you can get great views of the city’s UNESCO-listed historic quarter.
The Lithuanian National Museum is made up of a series of museums, all located within the areas where the city’s castles once stood. Two of the main exhibition locations of the Lithuanian National Museum are the city’s Old and New Arsenals, which together house a series of exhibits chronicling the country’s history up to World War Two.
The Old Arsenal mainly focuses on prehistoric Lithuania through a vast archaeological collection and also has a medieval exhibit up to the thirteenth century. Meanwhile, the New Arsenal picks up from the thirteenth century with the establishment of the state of Lithuania and up to the early twentieth century.
Before the Second World War, the scenic forest area around Paneriai was a very popular recreational area for residents of Vilnius and its surroundings. In 1940 and 1941 Red Army soldiers established a military base in Aukštieji Paneriai. Within days of being captured by the Germans this base became a place of execution. The shootings were supervised by the Nazis, but mainly carried out by the Special Squad, which consisted of 60 to 100 Lithuanian nationalist partisans.
Between July 1941 and April 1944 more than 100,000 people were murdered at Paneriai, the majority were Jewish. However, Poles, Roma, communists and Russian prisoners of war were also killed there. The Paneriai Memorial Museum was opened in 1960 at the mass murder site. The exhibition displays photographs of people murdered at Paneriai, orders and other documents issued by the occupying power and found in the area of the massacres, as well as clothing, shoes and prisoners’ work tools. In 2009, for the 50-year anniversary of the museum, parts of its exhibition were renovated.
Vilnius Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of St Stanislaus and St Vladislav, is located in the UNESCO listed historic old town of Vilnius. Over the years, many events of national significance have taken place at Vilnius Cathedral, such as the coronations of several of Lithuania’s Grand Dukes. Many of the country’s most famous and important figures (or parts of them) are also contained within Vilnius Cathedral, including medieval ruler Vytautas the Great and Grand Duke Alexander Jogailaitis.
Vilnius Cathedral also houses works of art, many dating back to the sixteenth century. One of its oldest pieces is a fresco called ‘The Crucifixion’, which is believed to date back to the fourteenth century, making it the country’s oldest wall painting.
The Museum of Genocide Victims, commonly known as the KGB Museum, is dedicated to the history of Lithuania under the Soviet rule between 1940-1941 and 1944-1991. As its name suggests, it is particularly focused on the repressions against the Lithuanian people.
Exhibitions at the Museum of Genocide Victims look at the history of the Soviet occupation and the activities of the Soviet secret service. There are also exhibitions on the armed and unarmed anti-Soviet resistance, and those Lithuanian people who were sent to the Gulags and exiled to the remotest parts of the Soviet Union.
St Peter and St Paul Church in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius was built in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Its founder, Hetman Mykolas Kazimieras Pacas, intended the church to mark the city’s liberation from Russia.
With its thousands of stucco figures and beautiful interior, St Peter and St Paul Church is considered to be a fine example of Baroque architecture.
The Kernave Archaeological Site houses the remains of the medieval town of Kernave in eastern Lithuania as well as remnants of habitation of the site dating back approximately ten millennia.
Many see Kernave as the site where Lithuania began and it is also the subject of legend and historic tales. In 2004, the Kernave Archaeological Site gained UNESCO World Heritage status and is now a popular tourist destination. A good place to visit before going to the archaeological site is the Kernave Archaeological Museum, which gives an insight into the site’s history and displays artefacts found there.
The Church of St Anne in Vilnius is a strikingly beautiful gothic church in the city’s old centre, it being part of this area’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The distinctive red hue of the Church of St Anne can be attributed to the thirty-three types of clay brick used to construct it.
Today, The Church of St Anne is grouped with the neighbouring Saints Francis and Bernardine Church, with tourist routes going through both. Tours are available in English, Lithuanian and Russian.
The Saints Francis and Bernardine Church, translated as Sv. Pranciskaus ir Bernardino, is a late fifteenth century church in the UNESCO-listed historic quarter of Vilnius. It is one of the country’s largest religious gothic structures.
Today, Saints Francis and Bernardine Church is grouped with the neighbouring Church of St Anne for tourist purposes, with both long and short guided tours being offered at both sites.
The Gate of Dawn, translated as Aušros Vartai, was once one of nine city gates that guarded Vilnius as part of its sixteenth century city wall. Today, it is the only surviving city gate, the other eight having been destroyed by the Russians in the eighteenth century.
Like many such gates, the Gate of Dawn houses a chapel, however it is the icon of The Blessed Virgin Mary housed in the chapel of this particular gate which makes it unique. Known by some as the Vilnius Madonna, this painting is revered by members of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic faiths. Some even say that it was the chapel of the Gate of Dawn that spared it from destruction.