The New Lithuania
As one travels through Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, there is no mistaking the leftover Soviet influencesâ€”from the massive stone statues of workers and soldiers to the sad-gray apartment buildings that line the city’s outer areas. But these images are fading fast. In their place is a fast-growing market economy led by a people proud to share a culture that stretches back almost a thousand years.
Lithuania Quick Facts
Three and a half million people live in Lithuania, which is roughly twice the size of Belgium. 576,000 people live in Vilnius, the capital. Lithuanian is the official state language, with Polish, Russian and English also spoken. Lithuania was the first Baltic country to claim its independence from the Soviet Union in 1992. The national currency of Lithuania is the litas, while the Euro is accepted everywhere. In 2004, Lithuania became a member of the European Union.
Vilnius the Capital
The Vilnius Old Town is one of the largest old towns in Europe and the epicenter of incredible changes being felt all through Lithuania. Art, fashion, music, food, and stunning architecture are everywhere. The Old Town, made up of approximately 1,500 buildings, is rich in history with dozens of churches, some built as early as the 12th century. Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings line cobblestone streets filled with hip shops, chic cafes, jazz clubs, casinos, and hi-end boutique hotels. There is much to see in Vilnius including world-class museums, like the National Museum, which chronicles the history of the Lithuania people, and the Trakai Castle, a true architectural marvel right outside of Vilnius. A visit to the Soviet-built opera house is a great way to take in both the classics of the past and the latest operas and ballet that Europe has to offer. Finish your day at the Sky Bar on the 22nd floor of the Revel Lietuva Hotel, which offers a sublime view of the city. One could easily spend a week exploring Vilnius and still not see everything. In 1994 the Vilnius Old Town was included in the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Register.
Where to Stay
The number of hotel rooms in Vilnius has doubled over the past two years. The Crowne Plaza, which opened in 2003, has 108 rooms, eight conference and banquet halls, a fitness center, and a great view of the city from the Horizon Room on the 16th floor. Rates begin at 75 euros. The Radisson SAS, a 100-year-old gem of a hotel located in the center of Old Town, offers superior service, a new health and fitness center, 120 rooms, and a business/conference center. Rates begin at 85 euros a night. And the Shakespeare Hotel, also located in the heart of Old Town, is a luxury boutique theme hotel. Rooms are named and decorated after famous writers. A fun hotel with an excellent restaurant, a thousand-book library, and an intimate bar. Rates start at 105 euros.
Tourists and business people alike find Vilnius exciting, affordable and very safe. Americans are beginning to discover Lithuania as part of a larger trip to the Baltic region, and more and more Lithuanian-Americans are traveling back to Lithuania to discover their roots.
In the Country
Summertime is when most people visit Lithuania. The weather is warm and pleasant and there are numerous national parks to explore, miles and miles of stunning pine forests, and beautiful towns on the Baltic Sea packed with bathers. The French National Institute of Geography established the geographical center of Europe to be just 24 km from Vilnius. To celebrate this fact, an open air park was created in 1991. Today, the European Park is one of the most popular places in Lithuania with more than 55,000 visitors annually. Works of sculptors from more than 70 countries dot the landscape. There are also towns built around spas. Druskinkai is one of the most famous.
Surrounded by pine forests and picturesque valleys, Druskinkai was declared a curing center in 1794, and has been treating ailments with its mineral springs, mud baths, and modern medical facilities ever since. It’s located about 100 miles outside of Vilnius. Outside of Druskinkai is Grutas Park, the museum of Soviet sculptures. Over 60 enormous sculptures of Lenin, Stalin, and other Soviet bosses are part of the museum that chronicles the bleak 50-year-occupation of the Soviets in Lithuania.
Lithuania’s Director General of State Tourism, Alvitis Lukosevicius, expects a healthy boost in tourism in 2006. “I see tourism growing by 10 to 15 percent. There are many new hotel chains moving in, and we are really starting to get the European market but would like to have more Americans visit Lithuania. In 2006, we will be working with the governments of Poland, Estonia, and Latvia to create package tours where Americans can visit all of these countries. And we hope to create cheaper flights from the States in order to get more Americans over here.”
SASâ€”Scandinavian Airlines flies daily out of JFK to Copenhagen with connecting flights to Vilnius.
Vytis Tours is America’s largest tour operator to the Baltic States. Call 1-800-77VYTIS for great package deals.
For more information contact Lithuania Tourism.