From historical landmarks to striking natural beauty areas, these four UNESCO World Heritage sites are a must-see in Lithuania.
What do Vilnius Historic Centre with its majestic Gothic, Classical and Baroque churches, the Curonian Spit with its white sand beaches and Kernavė’s archaeological site with five impressive hill forts have in common? As a matter of fact, they are all on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Since 2019 is the year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the inscription of the Historic Centre of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, on the UNESCO World Heritage list, let’s explore all the gorgeous places and unique traditions in Lithuania, recognized by UNESCO.
Vilnius: the townscape of great diversity
Vilnius Historic Centre was the first of the four Lithuanian sites added to the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage list. It was granted UNESCO World Heritage status because of its unique architecture, shaped over the centuries by prominent European architects. Vilnius is an exclusive example of the town that evolved organically during the Middle Ages. It is the diverse combination of buildings of different periods that makes Vilnius townscape exceptional in Central Europe.
While numerous invasions, wars, and fires left their marks on the city, Vilnius Historic Centre managed to keep its mostly Baroque look with a fair share of Gothic, Renaissance and Classical buildings. Vilnius has also maintained its medieval street pattern.
In fact, the townscape of great diversity, the density of old buildings, the spatial structure and the harmony of different elements reflect the entire evolution of Vilnius Historic Centre, ranging from the early Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century.
A place where history meets innovations
Well-preserved Vilnius Historic Centre, one of the biggest in Central Europe, covers 352 hectares (870 acres) that include many magnificent monuments. Of particular importance is Gediminas’ Tower that has become the symbol of Vilnius city; the Cathedral that was rebuilt in Classical style in the 19th century; the Gate of Dawn, renowned for its painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary; one of the oldest Pilies street dotted with Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings; and Vilnius university founded in 1579.
However, it’s not only a historical and architectural significance that makes Vilnius top tourist destination in Lithuania. It is also a place for numerous cultural events, festivals and international conferences throughout the year. In fact, the number of international conferences in Vilnius grew by 30% in 2018, as revealed by Go Vilnius, the Development Agency of Vilnius.
For centuries, Vilnius has been a melting pot of different cultures and religions. As the capital of the largest European country in the 15th century – the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, it played an important role on the economical, political, architectural and cultural development of the large part of Central Europe.
Today, Vilnius continues to lead the way. The city is a new rising Europe’s fintech hub and home to various startup incubators. Furthermore, a short-term electric scooter rental, a growing number of places that accept cryptocurrencies and mobile payments, and the fastest public WiFi in the world are among many innovations embraced by Vilnius.
Curonian Spit : a site of harmonious coexistence between human and nature
In addition to Vilnius Historic Centre, more sites of Lithuania have earned their place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The magnificent Curonian Spit, a narrow strip of sand in the Baltic Sea, is one of them. Renowned for its marvellous white sand beaches and majestic sand dunes that tower up to 67 meters (220 feet), the Curonian Spit is a popular holiday destination both among local and foreign tourists.
“I feel like standing at the gate of Paradise”, said Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous French writer and philosopher, during his trip to the Curonian Spit in 1965. To commemorate his visit, a statue to Sartre struggling against the wind and sand was unveiled on the Parnidis dune in Nida, a popular resort of the Curonian Spit, in 2018.
Indeed, Sartre’s words perfectly describe the experience of visiting this unique UNESCO World Heritage site. On top of its golden beaches, Curonian Spit features a number of natural wonders. The most notable examples include spectacular Dead Dunes that buried four fishing villages between the 17th and 19th centuries and one of the biggest cormorant colonies in Europe.
Holidaymakers can also explore the Curonian Spit by cycling along 50-kilometre-long (31-mile-long) biking trails that weave along the sea, through the pine forest and colourful villages.
Kernavė: a place to explore a historical landscape
For those interested in an archaeological heritage and nature, the Archaeological Site of Kernavė is a must-see. The Kernavė Archaeological Site bears witness to the development of settlements in the Baltic region that took place over some 10 millennia, from the Palaeolithic era to this day. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Kernavė was one of the main centres of the pagan Lithuanian state, but research has also revealed the influence of Christianity, which is most reflected in the burial traditions. Five hill forts that were a part of a large defence system in the Middle Ages is a highlight of Kernavė. An inspiring view of the landscape opens up from the top of the hills, allowing visitors to witness the greenery of Lithuania’s nature. While those who seek closer connection with nature can embark on a White Hill trail, stretching through forests, along the river and leading to the top of the hill where a majestic panorama of Neris river turn is guaranteed.
Every summer, the Middle Ages are brought back to life in Kernavė as a popular festival, Days of Living Archaeology takes place on hill forts. Concerts, re-enactment of medieval fights and games fill the festival with a joyful bustle. While craftsmen show ancient skills, such as pottery, jewellery making, glazing, blacksmithing and many more.
Struvė Geodetic Arc: a unique monument to the concord of science and technology
Struvė Geodetic Arc, a chain of survey triangulations, rounds off the list of Lithuania’s sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List. A chain of survey triangulations that extends over nearly 3 000 kilometres, was designed to accurately determine the length of the meridian arc and to calculate the size and shape of the Earth. It was put on the UNESCO World Heritage List back in 2005.
The Struvė Geodetic Arc is the most accurately measured and longest meridian arc, and is one of the largest cross-border UNESCO World Heritage sites. The chain extends from the mouth of the Danube at the Black Sea to northern Norway at the Arctic Ocean, through a total of 10 countries.
From the Song and Dance Celebration to the Baltic Way
Numerous Lithuanian sites and traditions are included on other UNESCO lists. In 2015, Kaunas, the second-largest city of Lithuania, was declared the UNESCO Creative City. Kaunas, which is home to the Architecture and Urbanism Research Centre, was awarded with this title because of its emphasis on design. Numerous cultural events related to design are held in Kaunas, including the Design Week and the Kaunas Biennial. In 2022, Kaunas will become the European Capital of Culture.
What’s more, three Lithuanian traditions have been awarded UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage label: the tradition of the Song and Dance Celebration, Lithuanian multipart songs and cross-crafting.
All of these unique traditions can still be witnessed in Lithuania. Thousands of dancers, singers, and musicians from Lithuania and other countries are brought together by the famous Song and Dance Celebration, which is held every four years. While wooden crosses and statues carved by local craftsmen can be spotted at many crossings, cemeteries and memorial places across Lithuania. However, the Hill of Crosses that holds the impressive collection of this craft, is probably the best place to observe the heritage of Lithuania’s cross-crafting.
The Baltic Way documents, which testify to a unique peaceful political demonstration that took place on 23 August 1989, are enlisted in the UNESCO international Memory of the World Register. 30 years ago, two million of Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians joined their hands to form a human chain stretching over 600 kilometres (373 miles) throughout all the three Baltic States.
By forming the Baltic Way on the day of the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that resulted in the occupation of all the three Baltic states in 1940, the people of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia demonstrated their will to regain independence. As the Baltic Way is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2019, various events in all the three countries will mark this special occasion in August.
Among other Lithuanian treasures included in UNESCO’s lists are Radzwills’ Archives and Niasvizh (Nieśwież) Library Collection, the Act of the Union of Lublin document and Žuvintas Biosphere Reserve.
It comes as no surprise that with all these beautiful sites and unique traditions, Lithuania makes a perfect summer holiday destination for both nature admirers and culture lovers.
by Jurgita Laurinėnaitė-Šimelevičienė
Photo: Andrius Aleksandravičius