The southernmost of the three former Soviet Baltic republics, Lithuania was the first to declare its renewed independence (in 1990). In common with the other Baltic capitals, Vilnius’ Old Town center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. To the west, the cities of Kaunas and Trakai have dramatic castles, and the latter hosts a national opera, ballet and symphony. Kernavė, the ancient capital, was a medieval town destroyed in the late 14th century. It is now the setting for colorful folklore festivals in the summer. Lithuania’s forests and marshlands are preserved in numerous national parks, many of which also host “ethnographic reserves,” where old villages with unpaved roads and thatched-roof farmsteads are protected alongside the rare birds and old-growth pines. Quieter than Tallinn or Riga, Vilnius is a handsome city, its skyline dominated by church spires and steeples. As well as a charming and historic center, it has numerous delightful parks and gardens. Highlights include Gediminas Castle, an imposing red-brick turret that affords the best views of the city, and St. Anne’s Church, a breathtaking Gothic creation that was a favorite of Napoleon’s.

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