Facts about Lithuania tell us much about this country’s position in the north of Europe on the Baltic Sea. Though many people may not be able to find this country on a map or tell you anything about it, despite it being often overlooked, it’s a fascinating and rich place to learn about, travel to, or even live in.
From history and culture to food and holidays, let’s dive into this list of facts about Lithuania.
1. Medieval Lithuania Spanned from the Baltic to the Black Sea
Lithuania, today, is often described as a small country. But as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, it was a medieval power for centuries, with a strong army and skilled leaders.
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania began to expand once it had defeated the Teutonic Knights, who had been an encroaching enemy—one that still held parts of the Baltics even as Lithuania’s territory grew.
In the 16th century, Under Vytautas the Great, the Grand Duchy was the largest it had ever been, encompassing much of what is today’s Ukraine and Belarus as well as parts of Russia and Poland. On guided tours of the country, you’ll often be presented with this information because it’s one of the most popular facts about Lithuania.
Not bad for a “small” country!
2. Lithuanian Is Considered the Indo-European Language
Lithuanian is a special language. Because of its slow evolution, it bears the closest resemblance to Proto-Indo-European, the language that predates the Indo-European languages that evolved later and are spoken today.
Lithuania Fact: The Language Maintains Similarities to Sanskrit
That’s why sometimes its relationship to Sanskrit—an ancient language used in India—is highlighted when we talk about language facts about Lithuania. As people migrated across land, they brought language with them. But the people who ended up in Lithuania spoke a language that maintains—and continues to maintain—some features of that early language.
The slow evolution of Lithuanian language has given it the moniker of the “oldest language in Europe” and has long fascinated language experts. You’ll often learn this fact about Lithuania when you take a local language class.
Lithuania is proud of its language heritage. If you visit Marijampole, you can see the monument to Lithuanian language on its main square.
Lithuanian Is a Baltic Language
Lithuanian is a part of the Baltic languages—and is one of the many languages spoken in the Baltic countries. Latvian, another Baltic language, shares some similarities to Lithuanian, though Lithuanian and Latvian are not mutually intelligible.
3. Lithuania Had Only One King
Though medieval Lithuania was large and powerful, it had only one king. Why? Though the long answer may be more complicated, the short answer may be summarized in “religion.”
Popes Crowned Kings – But Lithuania Had Grand Dukes
Kings could only be crowned if they took the Christian faith and were given that right by the pope. Lithuania, for a long time, was a staunchly pagan country. King Mindaugas converted to Christianity in name, but it is suspected that he maintained his pagan ways.
The other leaders of Lithuania were called grand dukes—a title that may seem less prestigious but actually did not signify that the bearer held less power than a king. The grand dukes ruled as kings would rule and didn’t need the pope’s permission to do so.
4. Lithuania Was the First Country to Declare Independence from the Soviet Union
Lithuania is small but mighty—it was the first country to declare independence from the USSR and did so on March 11, 1990.
Much has been written about the fall of the Soviet Union as well as the relationship between the Baltics and Russia, and many factors played a part. But it might be said that Lithuania set the dominos in motion as one country after another pulled away from the USSR.
Latvia and Estonia followed some months later.
5. Lithuania and Poland Were Once One Country
Lithuania and Poland are neighbors and, despite linguistic differences, share cultural and historical ties that can be traced back centuries. This is one of those historic facts about Lithuania that can be seen reflected today.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was officially formed in the 16th century, formalizing long-established ties originating in the union of royal families from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland. It lasted until the end of the 18th century, when Poland was partitioned by the Russian Empire.
Lithuania Fact: Lithuanian Names Often Have a Polish Version and Vice Versa
When researching history about the two countries, it’s common to encounter both or either Polish or Lithuanian spellings of proper names. For example, Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila is referred to as Jagiełło when referenced from a Polish perspective.
We also can’t forget that a strong Polish minority still exists in Lithuania.
6. One of Lithuania’s Favorite Foods Is Pink Soup
If you’re visiting Lithuania during the summer, you won’t be able to escape seeing people eat saltibarsciai, or cold beetroot soup. Beets, mixed with a refreshing list of ingredients such as kefir, cucumbers, and dill, give the soup its characteristic color.
Other dishes visitors are encouraged to try are cepeliniai, or potato dumplings with a meat or cheese filling, and sakotis, a spikey cake produced when batter is turned on a spit.
Of course, Lithuania produces high-quality dairy, so tasting Lithuanian cheese is a must. But if you don’t do dairy, consider sampling Lithuanian apple cheese!
7. Lithuania Has Two Independence Days
Did you know that Lithuania has two independence days? That’s right—Lithuania first declared independence from the Russian Empire on February 16, 1918. After it was annexed by the Soviet Union, Lithuania had to fight for its freedom again—it succeeded in 1990.
On March 11 of every year, Lithuanians celebrate their restoration of independence from the USSR.
8. Lithuanians Are Often Called “the Last Pagans in Europe”
Lithuanians are often referred to as the “last pagans in Europe.” This moniker results from Lithuanians being the longest holdouts from conversion to Christianity.
While King Mindagaus, mentioned above, was only nominally Christian in order to gain the title of “king” from the pope, he and those who followed him in the leadership of Lithuania were able to stave off the Teutonic Knights, a major Christianizing force in the region, from their territory.
The population also maintained its closeness to nature and does so to this day. It’s one of those taken-for-granted facts about Lithuania that Baltic paganism runs throughout Lithuanian culture in Lithuanian folk art, songs, and holidays such as Uzgavenes.
9. Lithuania Has Had Four Different Capital Cities
Lithuania’s current capital city is Vilnius, with Old Town Vilnius maintaining the look and feel of a medieval city with some Baroque and Neoclassical elements thrown in. However, Vilnius was not always the capital of Lithuania.
Kernave is recognized as Lithuania’s first historic capital city. Now a series of idyllic, grass-covered mounds that have enticed archeologists for decades, when you visit, it’s possible to imagine the hillforts that once stood there.
Trakai is also known as Lithuania’s medieval capital. Located near Vilnius, its colorful town and romantic Island Castle woo locals and visitors alike whatever the season.
Finally, Kaunas was Lithuania’s interwar capital and is considered Lithuania’s “second city.” It maintains strong connections to Lithuania’s history, culture, and development. It’s a great destination for those who want a better understanding of this Baltic country even though it’s no longer one of the Baltic capitals.
10. Lithuania’s Christmas Trees Are Often Ranked the Most Beautiful in Europe
Lithuania, in addition to often being a winter wonderland during the Christmas season, makes its mark on the holidays with its thoughtful, creative Christmas trees.
Lithuania Fact: Vilnius Goes All Out for Christmas
The Vilnius Cathedral Square tree is often on Europe’s “most beautiful” list. In the past, it’s represented a clock, chess, or a birdhouse—or it’s gone completely abstract as a shifting lights display. Of course, Christmas in Vilnius means trees throughout the town, including on Town Hall square and in shopping centers.
However, other cities get in on the Lithuanian Christmas spirit, competing with each other for the best tree. So when you visit this Baltic country in December, you’ll be treated to lovely and imaginative decorations no matter what Lithuanian city you land in.
11. Lithuania Loves Its Local Mineral Water
Lithuania has been seen as a regional resort destination for centuries, with spa towns such as Druskininkai attracting health-seekers from the Russian Empire and elsewhere. Even in the 19th century, going to the spa was one of the top things to do in Lithuania.
But it’s a fact about Lithuania that its mineral springs are not only good for wellness treatments—the water siphoned from them is also good to drink.
For example, Birstonas—another spa town—is the source for both Vytautas and Birute mineral waters. These mineral waters can be purchased at supermarkets and kiosks and ordered at restaurants.
Try Local Mineral Water – But Be Warned
Be warned, though. While Vytautas mineral water is touted as a hangover cure and is considered refreshing by many people, those who don’t know what to expect are in for a surprise. The salty flavor of the water comes from its high mineral content and may not be to everyone’s taste. In fact, the company that bottles it is known for its wild promotion of this product, even going so far as advertising it as tasting like sweat!
If you’re uncertain, try Birute mineral water to quench your thirst. It has a softer flavor that won’t come as a shock.